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A Personal History of Moral Decay

personalhistoryofmoraldecay4,540 words

Bradley R. Smith
A Personal History of Moral Decay
Charleston, W.V.: Nine-Banded Books, 2014

“I’m setting out to see the world and make my fortune, just like they did in the old days. I know I’m past the age when these things are normally taken care of, but I’m a slow starter.”

In both title and even cover design, A History of Personal Decay, the latest from Chip Smith‘s Nine-Banded Books,[1] seems to beg comparison to Emil Cioran’s debut, Précis de décomposition (translated as A Short History of Decay),[2] suggesting perhaps the assertion of a link or genealogical connection, spiritual at least, between the distinguished voice of pessimism and Nine-Banded’s roster of the best in dark thought today (such as Andy Nowicki, Ann Sterzinger, and Paul Bingham).

On reading, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of similarity between Europe’s Prince of Darkness and Bradley Smith’s work, since the latter comes out of that peculiarly American school, from Miller through Bukowski, in which the subject is the writer himself who, no matter how big a crumb bum he may be, and no matter how loathsome his circumstances sink, keeps breezing along with smile, perhaps missing some teeth, on his unshaven face.[3]

What brings Smith and Cioran together is not their subject — other than, as we will see, Smith’s ultimate subject, for which he is better known than as a writer — but rather their struggle to define themselves as writers. Cioran spent nearly a decade hanging out in cafes next to Sartre before he re-invented himself as a French moraliste,[4] while the writings collected here[5] document Smith’s multiple-decade struggle to define his subject.

But how did such a burden come on him? One of his dirt bag pals muses at one point:

“That’s where I lost my way,” Katz says, “in the South Pacific. I read too many books, and that isn’t good for you. When you’re young like that, inexperienced, too many books can ruin your life. You start thinking it’s good to be alive, that there’s something to it. You see everything through rose colored glasses. You get so you believe in God, all that crap. When I think back on it I want to cut the balls off the man who brought all those books aboard ship. It was the captain. He thought he was a gentleman. What he really was, he was the devil.”

But actually, Smith’s problem arose from reading just one book, just one story, in fact; not by Cioran, but by Saroyan. Smith starts to identify with the struggling author of the tale, and then,

Then the young writer died. I was stunned. He had starved himself to death on principle! He had died for his art! It had never occurred to me it was possible to do that. No one had told me that writing could be that important. Were you supposed to find that out on your own? Everything seemed to be up to the writer himself. You had to decide for yourself. You could take the writing however far you wanted. I knew at that moment that that was what I wanted. I had never thought about it before that moment but I recognized it the moment I saw it. I wanted to risk death for the writing. I wanted to take it all the way.

This is just the thing Smith has been waiting for; or, put from another point of view, the last thing he needs to be reading:

When I was a child my ambition had been to go to war and be killed in battle. My greatest hero was Roland. I’d read the Saga of Roland at nine or ten and I wasn’t able to get over it. I never wanted to be a fireman or a scientist or president. I wanted to be a great hero like Roland and fight the foreigners to a standstill and be killed at the moment of my greatest feat. I daydreamed about it for years. The important point, the way I looked at it when I was a child, was to remember that if they don’t kill you when you are trying, you aren’t trying hard enough, or what you are trying isn’t important.

And later:

I got a whiff for the first time of a role that was open for me to play, one that I could in fact play. I found a technique for appearing significant. The other role I had dreamt of playing was savior of my nation, my people. That role called for too much sacrifice, too much effort, too much blood. I hadn’t been able to conceive even how to go about it. But being a writer, being a critic, there was an activity anyone could get into. After all, what was involved in writing a story, or criticizing a story? What was at stake?

Well, he’ll soon find out what could be at stake. But first, what to write about? And how? Smith starts trying on various personae, and writing styles to go along with them. He becomes the first, and only, blond bullfighter in Mexico (how this happens is not made clear, and I would have liked to have found out more about how Smith hit on this occupation). Then, a soldier in Korea; years later, after the aforementioned period of scumbaggery, a free-lance war correspondent in Viet Nam. Finally, he found — well, you probably know what I’m going to say — that subject, but let’s hold off on that for a bit. Before we get to that, let’s go back and look at those writing styles he tries out, seemingly based on role models appropriate for each.

Viet Nam, for example, seems to call for a touch of Hemingway:

I watched one Ranger shot in the stomach very carefully crawling across the pavement toward us whimpering and crying until two of his buddies ran out into the bullet storm and dragged him back over the curbing and how the last Ranger who was quite tall for a Vietnamese made it almost all the way across before he was jerked to a stop in mid-pace with a handful of bullets in his chest and how he staggered, caught himself, took two more steps forward and fell into the arms of his comrades.

Of course there were many things I missed seeing. Then the shooting stopped, and it was dark. Buildings were smoking and burning everywhere, for the fighting had taken place on many streets and intersections, not just where we were. Flames illuminated the tops of buildings in eerie, gorgeous ways. One Ranger had been shot in both arms and wouldn’t allow anyone to lift him off the pavement. He moaned in a peculiar way and in the tortured light from the flaming buildings I could see his face turning to stone.

And of course, so does bullfighting:

And then I was standing alone in utter silence before the swaying animal, my right arm half-raised, aware of the fullness that was somehow in the sudden quiet, aware of the late afternoon sunlight flooding the corral, how the trash littering the ground at that moment was somehow not merely trash, aware of the different textures of the ground through the soles of my slippers. I think I was aware in that moment for the first time of the wonderful purity of silence and light when they are inside you too and not just outside.

Hemingway-esque as well is a recurrent lapse into a sort of depersonalized state when a truth greater than mere subjectivity awakens:

Thought was saying it was all right to laugh at the dead. Then as I started listening to it and thought said it was all right about the bulls too, that it was all right about a lot of things that appear questionable to decent people but that nevertheless are perfectly all right in the real scheme of things, which isn’t very much like very many decent people imagine it to be. It was exciting listening to thought go on like that and I understood why I was still smiling.

Or:

I felt light, free, winged. The blood was coursing through my heart, foaming. The body was full of energy and happiness. I had seen it through one more time and here I was. One time more. I had accomplished it.

This is good stuff, though not appropriate for the periods of scumbaggery. There, the muse becomes Burroughs, in his mode of laconic observation of delusional wastrels, such as Marlow (an allusion to Conrad, also a model for Burroughs?), a “blond Dago” or, as he prefers to be described, “a Roman god” with, he insists, nothing in common with today‘s wops:

Marlow came in. He took off all his clothes, except for the tennis shoes, and turned on the sun lamp. He appeared to be preoccupied with some important matter. He found the sun lamp the other day in somebody’s trash. It doesn’t have a stand so he’s tied it to a nail in the wall with a shoelace. I watched him lay down naked on the springs under the lamp and begin reading an old copy of Yachting Magazine.

“Marlow,” I said, “why do you sleep naked but leave your sneakers on?”

He looked up from the magazine and studied my face for a moment. “I’m not sleeping, Mr. Smith. I’m reading Yachting Magazine.”

“I see.”

“You don’t just go out and buy a yacht, Mr. Smith.”

This is also good stuff, though very different in tone from the Hemingway material. Sometimes he seems able to channel Burroughs directly; this — the top coat, the carrying of an item of sentimental value to proffer as a sign of good faith — could have come straight from some lost part of Junky:

Passing a movie we run into Larry Lobel who owes me fifteen dollars. He’s owed it to me for four years. He says he’s the nephew of Bela Lugosi. I started to touch Larry up for the fifteen dollars but before I could open my mouth he’d taken out his childhood stamp collection from inside his natty top coat and was pitching it to me. Tears came to his eyes. “It’s cheap,” he said. “Believe me. One hundred twenty-five dollars. What do you say?” I suppose guys like Lobel will always be one step ahead of guys like me.

Or this:

He’d lie on the bedspring naked except for his tennis shoes and daydream of how it’d be after he was discovered by a rich fag who’d get him into the movies. He didn’t expect his first fag to be a producer, but as he put it, “one fag leads to another.”

“To tell the truth,” he’d say, “I don’t understand why it’s taking so long. I know guys who came to Hollywood and got themselves a fag the first week. I’ve been here a year now and I haven’t had one yet. I just don’t understand it. Not with this body, this profile. I mean, with my looks, I think I deserve a fag. Don’t you agree?”

“Marlow,” I’d say, “Listen to yourself.”

Marlow is a great creation, or a great find, if real, and I wanted to read more about his adventures, which are sort of a cross between Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces and Jonathan Ames’ The Extra Man:

“I don’t need a place to sleep,” Katz says. “You’re the one who needs help. I have my own room that I pay for with my own money. I have a job, Marlow.”

“I’m beginning to hate that night manager,” Marlow says. “I wish he would either accuse me of something or stop watching me. The tension’s getting to be too much. It’s making me itch. How does he know I’m not walking out with something every time I go in there? I think he’s being irresponsible. Maybe I ought to report him to the stockholders.”

But it’s really Henry Miller who provides the overall atmosphere of Smith’s world. As he tells us,

I took a room in a cheap hotel on Ninth Avenue. I went straight up and undressed and got into bed. I would stay there a week, maybe two weeks. Right there in bed. I got out the old Obelisk editions of Henry Miller’s Tropics I’d been carrying around. Sam Loveman[6] had given them to me when I’d shipped books for him out of The Bodley Gallery on East 60th Street. I opened Cancer. It had a red cover, while Capricorn was a dark green. What a surprise I got. If you want to know what Henry Miller is all about but don’t know where to start, read the first seventeen pages of Tropic of Cancer. I stayed in bed four days and nights reading the Tropics, sleeping, and drinking water. I became so intensely happy I felt I was capable of anything. I felt elevated. And all the while, inside, the heart sizzled, sizzled.

One might have deduced such an influence from passages like this:

“I’m too old to live like this,” he said. “I’m almost sixty, for Christ sake. I deserve a steady income and a regular lay. Any man my age deserves that much at least, and any decent society would see that he got it. What the hell are those people in Washington thinking about? It’s not like the old days when a man could go out and find a whore when he needed one. Girls don’t whore anymore. They can’t be bothered with that. Nowadays they just screw. That’s fine for young bucks who still have all their hair, but where does it leave an old middle-aged guy like me? Out in the cold, that’s where.”

And later, the more advice from the same source:

He was sitting on some of his scripts, which kind of bothered me.

“Don’t be an asshole,” Maurice said. “Take some advice from an older man, from someone who’s a lot smarter than you are. From a Jew. You’ve had your life in Mexico. You lived there three years. What more do you expect from it? My advice is this. Are you listening? Find some broad to live with and get on with your writing. Be professional about it. Any asshole can go to Mexico. Are you trying to tell me you can write better in Mexico than you can here? Are you trying to kid me? Don’t try to kid somebody who knows you as well as I do.”

“Why are you sitting on your scripts?”

“This is what successful TV writers do. They wipe their asses with their work. If you ever decide to be a successful writer, and from the way you’re talking I don’t have much expectation that you will, you’ll be able to wipe your ass with your work like the professionals do.”

Sometimes, though, the hardness of post-Miller America seeps in, and the prose strikes a sour note of Bukowski:

“I hate the old bitch I work for,” Fran said. “I hated her from the first day. She can’t stop talking, and she’s a vicious gossip . . . I mean, you know what I think about all morning when I’m working over there? How to kill her. I was going to push her off the stone steps that go down the embankment to the street but the other night she told me she’d fallen from the top to the bottom just last month and hadn’t hurt herself. What can you do with an old whore like that? It just takes the heart out of you.”

It’s odd, though, that Smith never talks about his most direct connection with Miller. According to the publisher’s “About the author” page at the very end, “As a bookstore proprietor in Hollywood in the early 1960s, Smith was prosecuted – and convicted – for selling Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.” Odd, because it’s only the most dramatic example of what appears to be a lifelong concern with telling the truth, or at least honest discussion about it, which would prepare us for Smith’s finding of his ultimate subject.[7]

The psychedelic drugs? Those things are for the triflers, for the faint at heart. A man has got to stand on his own two feet and open his mind like a can of sardines. We don’t need anything more once we have found out what our desires really are.

Even the bulls trouble him:

Nevertheless it troubled me that I couldn’t defend the bulls intellectually. It troubled me that even those who had no experience with bulls could talk against them so successfully. I tried one argument then another to defend what I was doing but finally I always understood I was losing the argument on moral grounds. It was very frustrating and troubling. It surprised me sometimes how angry it made me feel.

Liberal hypocrisy angers him too:

I think about how people from New York like to go down South to work for civil rights but can’t find their way into Harlem. Thinking about it makes me angry.

As for the “avant-garde”:

Joan began telling me about a new literary magazine being published in Greenwich Village that’s called Up your Ass, or Let’s Fuck or some shitty New York title like that. I must not have looked very impressed because she went on to explain that this new magazine is publishing all the newest people, the avant-garde of New York City, nothing less. She said I ought to try it.

“Clearly,” I said, steadying myself as well as I could, “what we have here is one more New York literary mag setting out to right the wrongs of the people, of life itself. What do I care for those people? They think the final cure for every ill is to be fucked in the ass by some guy with a dark complexion and no inheritance. They’re constructing their literature out of cowardice and perverted sexuality. American letters is being stunk up badly by these literary shit-lovers, these creepy purveyors of black romanticism who sprout like slimy weeds from the gutters and garbage of decaying cities. Even when these guys flower their blooms are black and shiny. Under afternoon suns they exude the malodorous scents, the heavy fumes of steaming assholes.”[8]

All his life Bradley Smith had wanted a mission.

For three years now, in a certain way, I have been helpless, waiting for something to happen to me. I can’t act on my own. I am going to have to be thrown back into life by circumstance and events. I haven’t got the will to take the first step myself.

“I have this feeling that there’s one thing I should do before I do anything else, but I don’t know what it is. I can’t find out.”

And as Capt. Willard could have told him in back in Nam:

Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.[9]

Yet another little scumbag, conspiracy theorist grade, shoves a few pamphlets in his hand and all hell breaks loose:

The mind is racing and shooting around like crazy. [There’s that dissociation again; we know what that means!] I walk through the library from one department to another, upstairs and down. Something is wrong with the gas chamber stories. Something is wrong with the story of the six million and what is wrong is being covered up. Something is wrong with the silence that has buried Butz’s book. Something is wrong in the academic community, and not only among the historians. Something tremendous is going on, or not going on as it were, and the ramifications could prove to be endless. There is an immense amount of work to do. The air in the library is thick with complication. I feel as if I’m swimming in a sea of suppression, censorship, and evasion.

Here’s where Smith rejoins Cioran. As always, the crime is not outright denial, but failure to sufficiently acknowledge the strictures that have placed Certain Topics about Certain People off limits; at least, if you want to stay in respectable company.[10] But Smith, who in Viet Nam couldn’t decide what side was right, knows what side he’s always been on: truth, or at least, the free discussion of issues, especially those life and death.

“I feel an obligation to publish it. There’s a lot of lying going on about the gas chamber stories. Straight out lying. I stumbled onto it. A lot of stuff is being covered up that shouldn’t be covered up. People are being accused of crimes they didn’t commit. I don’t like it. I’m going to write about it and I’m going to go on publishing what I write. I don’t know how far the lying goes but I think it goes right to the top. I don’t know how important any of it is but I’m going to go straight ahead with it. I’m doing the right thing, within the context of my life.”

I feel a gathering process going on inside me. I feel threads of my experience being pulled in from every quarter and wound on secret spindles. Inside me in places that are still dark I sense that forces are building, that expeditions are being provisioned. Before me as far as I can see the life appears clear of obstacles, empty, silent, ready at a moment’s notice to receive into itself anything—anything at all.

Everyday I sit in this shack stewing and sputtering, daydreaming about going to Vietnam or Vienna, to Africa, Guatemala, Peru or any place at all so long as it’s on the other side of the earth but in the meantime of course not going anywhere, not doing anything, telling myself that if only I can get across an ocean I can become a journalist, that if I can get south of the border there will be plenty to write about there, if I can get to the Congo, Tierra del Fuego that fame and fortune will be waiting for me and all the while I sit indolently in South Los Angeles amid the ruins of the most striking and really wonderful riot this nation has experienced in modern times. So what am I doing just sitting here, I thought? I can start my real work right here, right where I am and with what I’ve already got.

Rightly, the whole Holocaust hoo-hay is given only a quick run-through at the end, since Smith’s apostasy been a media standard for years, and has been detailed in his earlier memoir Confessions of a Holocaust Revisionist.[11]

In the end, despite — or rather, because of — all the hoo-hay, Smith has the satisfaction of being able to look back on a life well lived:

In spite of the circumstances of my birth, I thought, in spite of the bad luck, the shortcomings of my family, my own failings of character, the opportunities I have missed because I haven’t been brave enough and because I haven’t tried hard enough, I wouldn’t trade my life for that of any other man. To have been underprivileged is nothing when you know in your heart that you’re fortunate and that you’ve got the one life that’s suited to you. My life, for what it’s worth, is in my own two hands. There are times when I understand that even the air I breathe is sweeter than what my neighbor breathes. I feel compassion at moments like these for every man who isn’t me simply because he isn’t, and I wouldn’t trade my future for that of any other man alive.

Like Camus’ Mersault, confronting a howling mob, or Beckett’s Malone, dying alone, Bradley Smith is at last content with his life. This collection of his writing give the reader the opportunity to learn how a man at the center of so much controversy and outright hatred can find the air so much sweeter just exactly right there.

Notes

1. See Greg Johnson’s “Interview with Chip Smith of Nine-Banded Books” here.

2. I’m thinking of the Arcade paperback series, such as this.

3. The Beats took a different tack; Kerouac’s subject was his own search for redemption, but he projected the traits of the beatific scumbag onto various avatars of Neal Cassady, while Burroughs, when he came to write up his early adventures among the lowlifes, produced the anomalously hardboiled Millerish prose of Junky, then embarking on two decades of unreadable experimentation before settling back into the boys book magic realism of the Wild Boys and Dead Roads period. Hunter Thompson, in his “Gonzo” period took as his subject the end and decay of that American optimism, circa 1972; he blamed Nixon, which was probably right, though not for being such a stone drag as for ending the gold standard, leading to 40 years of economic stagnation that knocked the props out from under the “no consequences” antics of the Beats, hippies, Wild Boys, etc.

4. See An Infamous Past: E. M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania by Marta Petreu (Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2005).

5. It’s hard to tell, internally or externally, if this is writing contemporary to the events, making this a career spanning anthology, or more recent work, or re-working, looking back on those times. The first chapter is clearly a version of the play in which he gradually reveals how he came to realize, some thirty years after the fact, that he actually — accidentally, but actually — caused the death of his two brothers; or as he prefers to say, he killed them. There are other writerly touches — Chapter 1 ends with the emergence of a half-rotten corpse, Chapter 2 begins with a dead “Chink” soldier missing the lower half of his body; it ends with at a café, and Chapter 3 begins in another café, but these apparent linkages are soon dropped.

6. Presumably Samuel Loveman, Lovecraft’s old New York pal, who owned a bookstore on 14th Street and who gave him, during his own period of enforced dirtbaggery, the only paying job he ever had: addressing envelopes for Loveman’s store catalog. This would make Smith yet another impecunious author assisted by the good Mr. Loveman.

7. “I could do a travel book on America like Steinbeck did except that my book would be a sort of frog’s eye view of the country because I wouldn’t have a car or any money or a reputation or fixed ideas or a nice dog.” – ironically, Steinbeck has been debunked. “Even Steinbeck’s son John said he was convinced that his father never talked to many of the people he wrote about, and added, “He just sat in his camper and wrote all that [expletive].”” — Charles McGrath, “A Reality Check for Steinbeck and Charley” New York Times, April 3, 2011, here; and Bill Steigerwald Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth about ‘Travels With Charley’ (Kindle, 2014).

8. Black and shiny flowers, fumes, assholes — Burroughs again.

9. Apocalypse Now (1979)

10. In Cioran’s case, even essays on the remarkable Jewish people (see “A People of Solitaries”) with the endorsement of Susan Sontag couldn’t save him from the posthumous cries of “Fascist! Anti-Semite!”

11. Third edition, 2013, Amazon Kindle Services

 

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4 Comments

  1. Posted August 6, 2014 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    I am delighted by this review, for so many reasons. The play on Cioran/Saroyan is a touch of honey; I’m sure it will ease me to sleep.

    I will only note that the “Tropics” trial does come up peripherally, though it’s never made explicit. The reference is nested in “Last of the Romans” — the bit where Smith visits his lawyer’s office to read the trial transcript:

    This morning I bought some cheese and bread and walked to my lawyer’s office where I read part of the transcript of the trial. The transcript is twelve hundred pages and that’s the condensed version. I had no idea there was so much of it. Fleishman’s office is well appointed. It was pleasant sitting at the oak table. It was pleasant seeing the bookshelves from floor to ceiling packed with clean heavy law books. I read some of my testimony. I read some by the other witnesses. The others read better, more sincere, even those for the prosecution. It was like they knew what was expected of them.

    Thought said: “You have to disown yourself.” I didn’t know what it meant.

    Then I understood it was a reference to my shame, as if that were my self.

    The reference to “shame” is worth a pause. It comes up again when Smith encounters his “Evil Muse.”

  2. Sandy
    Posted August 6, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    And then I was standing alone in utter silence before the swaying animal

    Of course the animal was silent and swaying. The five men on horseback had crippled it with their spears and at the same time cut the animals vocal cords. Why that would impress Hemmingway is a mystery to me but then so is the adulation of “men” killing a crippled bull.
    Otherwise, another great article from James.

    • Joseph Bishop
      Posted August 6, 2014 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      I believe you are right re this cruel sport. Still, Hemingway’s ‘Death in the Afternoon’ is, I believe, one of his best books. Not a novel, but a documenting of this ‘sport’, its history, its participants, the differences between bullfighting in Spain as opposed to Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, all aspects explored. Bradley Smith’s experimenting with it took place in Mexico and to me his account closely resembled Hemingway’s technique.

      ‘Moral Decay’ is great book but has a lot of gaps. I mentioned them when reviewing the book on Amazon.

      • Sandy
        Posted August 7, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for that Joseph and I’ll get a copy of Death in the Afternoon – a safe book to read at work – as I haven’t read all of his offerings.

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