Here’s a sign that the feces-slinging partisan playpen that is the Internet is getting to you: I caught myself feeling decidedly strange as I made plans to write this tandem review of an essay collection by Andy Nowicki—a devout Catholic—and Valencia, an autobiographical novel by James Nulick, whose protagonist catches AIDS during a gay-sex-and-crack binge.
“Who’s going to want to read about both of them?” said my stupid brain. Apparently said brain has decided that nobody but me remembers Oscar Wilde’s deathbed conversion.
But Andy Nowicki and James Nulick are both grown-ups, and I think they might be flattered to be mentioned in the same breath. Their most recent books speak volumes to each other, through connections both incidental and profound.
Most obviously they’ve both done work with publisher Chip Smith at Nine-Banded Books; Valencia is new on the imprint just this month. The new Nowicki book in question here, Notes Before Death, is self-published, but years ago Nine-Banded published his novel-slash-philosophical treatise Considering Suicide.
Nine-Banded Books was the reason Andy and I met and—disclosure!—became friends, because—disclosure to the max!—9BB is my publisher as well. Stand down; these are sadly unprofitable associations of mutual admiration among overeducated serfs; still, to think of a parallel universe where we met in prep school and set about on a career of shameless and successful cronyism is very, very good for a laugh.
Anyway, there are more important common threads. Both books gave me the same unusual type of heavily private, melancholy, and almost numinous reading pleasure—probably because both books, in a calm and lilting voice, go about some heavy lifting in the realm of Hades. Sometimes you need the sound of a voice outside of your own head to babble about about death; I became middle-aged this January 7th—the same week my best friend was found dead, and the same day the Middle Ages tried to do in free speech.
Other “meetings with death”—as Nulick puts it—followed relentlessly, and neither verse poetry nor mindless entertainment has been effective against them; nor has dwelling on the bald horror of professional pessimists like Ligotti. When the void insists on hanging around like a piece of rotting fish under the radiator, certain quietly poetic prose styles can lend it a touch of dignity, even if “meaning” evaporated with the Victorian smog.
Both books are more or less autobiographical, though Nulick’s novel is more slippery than Nowicki’s essays (I’ll concentrate on the titular essay, as it hits closest to the bone—and Nowicki and I have already discussed the other essays in this interview). The events that occur in Nulick’s book are, as you might guess, different from those in Nowicki’s; they both seem to have been nagged throughout life by a duty to honor their vocation with every real-life action, but their conception of that duty took them in different directions.
Nulick patterned himself after 20th-century writers, and thus grimly endured no small amount of what he paints as joyless rutting; Nowicki, as a disciple of earlier moderns like Kierkegaard, uncomfortably straddles the gap between the old world and the brave new one—and yes, sometimes his feet slip and he takes a pratfall in the balls.
Nulick’s sense of isolation seems to come from his complicated, fractured, and depressing family life; his youth was shaped by a bewildering cast of real and “paper” siblings, step- and adoptive parents, and one or two drunken Johns and role models. His biological parents were of two different races, and his mother drops fractured hints that he had a twin brother whom he murdered in the womb.
Though Nowicki’s parents are divorced as well, he doesn’t blame or even really include them in his self-examination; rather, he seems to feel there’s something fundamentally wrong within him, particularly as a social animal, something that makes all the other kids uncomfortable the minute he enters a room. Or as he more bluntly puts it:
I have long harbored a conspicuous suspicion that I ought never to have come into existence in the first place. Not that I ever had any say over the matter . . .
Oddly, this could have come out of an antinatalist tract. Though such a philosophy would seem to be at odds with Nowicki’s belief in a benevolent God, there’s a difference between what people think voluntarily and what creeps around the bed in the dark of night. He adds:
[A]ccording to some traditions, we all exist somewhere in a preborn state, and individual incarnation is a matter of willful volition . . . What I suspect, however, is that I didn’t choose to come here, but rather was summoned forth, for some inscrutable purpose known to none but my Creator himself, and, that for equally undecipherable reasons, He chose to keep this discovery, as well as Himself, hidden from me.
What creeps around Nulick’s bed at night—at least, when he’s coming down from meth—is a malevolent, snickering presence, which he eventually identifies as his dead twin. Nulick is narcissistic where the young Nowicki is self-loathing; Nulick’s protagonist is physically attractive, or at least he considers himself so, but he is utterly unable to fit in—particularly not with the people he likes that way, to say it in our arrested-adolescent fashion (this is my generation, god bless ’em).
But despite the wildly different masks the two writers wore during the parade of personalities that is youth, the Observer—my own adolescent word for that disturbing creature nested within me—in each of them was afflicted by the same unhappy but important intuition about “coming of age”: the suspicion that our sexual awakening is not a glorious beginning, but the death of something good.
The magic of childhood—when we are imaginative, loyal, full of camaraderie and growth—was, for both young writers, forcibly traded for a puny and bewildering spasm, a second of pleasure for which we will betray friends and self.
Nowicki first detailed this revelation in a previous work, Confessions of a Would-Be Wanker; here he echoes the revelation in shorthand, then embroiders it.
As has been extensively recorded elsewhere, things turned sour for me at roughly the time of my initiation into puberty. . . . change was plainly bad in this case. I suspected such at the time, but was implored to believe otherwise by authoritative forces; thus, out of seemingly called-for deference to authority, I refrained from mourning what should properly have been mourned, and instead trusted in my elders, only finding out later what I had truly known all along: that my elders were either deluded by or compliant in the corruption I rightly espied lurking behind their smarmy smirks. . . . It was around this same period of time that I began to notice how my presence seemed to be a burden to others.
This account of the fall from grace is more poignant than Andy’s previous swipes at the theme, and I’m pretty sure that’s because he’s never juxtaposed it quite so insistently with death. Whether your morality is conceived after the Catholic fashion or not even close, few writers can avoid noticing something deathlike in sex, or something sexy about death. These are the twin gongs that announce and end the tawdry show; strike one, and across the stage, the other vibrates in sympathy.
Nulick’s sentiment is eerily (or comfortingly?) similar, though I don’t suspect plagiarism. I think much of Generation X feels this doubt like a pebble in our Doc Martens, no matter how dutiful our attempts to party; the older I get, the more “free love” sounds like an oxymoron. Says Nulick:
My body rebelled and created something that existed outside of me. . . . I stopped believing in Santa Claus. My easygoing days of being the class clown came to an end. My focus became flesh-based. I too would die.
Not that sensing this tragedy stopped Nulick in his dutiful libertinism; something more compelling than sadness was hounding him. In the 20th century, a real artist was supposed to face the void with a bottle in one hand and his cock in the other.
Conventional wisdom would consider Nulick’s to be the more psychologically hygienic reaction to the problem of sex—cue Poly Styrene singing “Plastic Bag”—but considering the relative intensity of their outward crises, Nowicki’s habit of tamping down the beast within would seem to be the better of two terrible choices. (There’s always the Golden Mean; but unfortunately it seems we’re too advanced for that.)
Nowicki’s strategy as an artist, in fact, depends on avoiding overindulgence of any type, a tactic that appealed to him even before the corruption of sex. This is what the prepubescent Nowicki thought of candy binges:
I also instinctively knew . . . that experiencing “fun” required keeping alive a sense of adventure, and that creativity was required in order to retain an aura of proper adventuresomeness always pulsing in one’s brain, and that creativity could only be maintained as long as one possessed a nimble, active, flexible mind, and that retaining an active mind necessarily militated against the intellectual lethargy that is the inevitable result of overindulgence.
Where Nowicki’s duty as a writer proscribes sensual indulgence, Nulick’s conception of the same duty moves him to rub his own nose in the erstwhile pleasures of the flesh. Nulick swallowed—hook, line, and sinker—the advice of famous writers of previous generations who urged young literary aspirants to go out and get “material” by “living”—which Nulick has not been alone in interpreting as “drinking, doing drugs, and being a man-whore.”
He spends a good deal of Valencia enduring sex acts whose dutiful nature infects him with a curious distance. Or perhaps they only aggravate his congenital writer’s disease: the feeling that one is a mere Observer, not fully human, a crippled near-alien being with his face pressed against the glass of reality. Nulick’s prose, though evocative, is also strangely matter-of-fact, as though his own pleasure and pain don’t mean very much to him . . . as though his own person were a vehicle that he is merely driving through this bewildering world.
I’m beginning to think that established writers who sell the young on hard drink and the rites of sex are trying to kill off the competition; Bukowski and Burroughs were pine trees, their needles poisoning all the brush that tried to grow up in their shadow. Well, in Nulick’s case (or his protagonist’s case, anyway; I gave up on sorting fact from fiction here) the old fucks found an ally in HIV.
There’s a dark humor in Nulick’s use of flashbacks: he tells us how he got HIV very early in the book, then backtracks to his youth, and each subsequent chapter systematically causes the reader to feel less and less sorry for him.
Because where Nowick can come off as a dweeb, Nulick often sounds like a grade-A little prick. His sensation of self-as-vehicle often numbs his moral sense. His desire to observe rarely extends to his own faults, and his numbness renders him more smart-assed than even I can bear. And for all his complaints about his family, one gets the feeling that he was a kid who got away with far too much, till it was too late. Drunkenly throwing a borrowed typewriter out of a window, for instance, is an unfriending offense in my world.
Nulick describes the typewriter incident with a poetic numbness that doesn’t quite make you want to forgive him, but it does make you want to go on watching. He/his narrator were offered educational and mentoring opportunities of which most young writers can only dream. And yet he managed to act like a little bitch because the other kids at his school had richer parents . . . but hey! At least he got AIDS. (This is the kind of monstrous thought that the book leads one to think with a wry chortle, and little emotion other than a pleasant itch to write one’s own autobiography.)
But in the grand scheme of things, I think wide swathes of Nulick’s real-life douchitude are cancelled out by his honesty on the page; he may even stand a slim chance of being remembered for it. This could always turn out to be a clever simulacrum of honesty; but at least he never wasted my time justifying his actions—a pitfall of most autobiographical work. God knows it wasn’t easy for him to fit in, but there are many misfits and assholes out there, and we all have “society” breathing down our necks. Death is the more essential subject, and it is to death he turns our eyes, over and over, till some of the fear wears itself down like a screaming toddler and we can bask in the afterglow.
He never grasps at the easy marketing tactic of trying to sell himself to the “gay community” or the “biracial identity”; he doesn’t wrap his actions in a rainbow flag and whine for pity. He’s a lone brain in a jar in a sandstorm and, like any human consciousness worth its salt, he has the sense that he’s been forced to spend decades riding around inside of a goddamn idiot. And he’s paid for it.