Lost Violent Souls
San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2013
Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death.
—Catholic Rosary prayer
“Let no one who has escaped the pit of perpetual rejection, the rut of continual obscurity and the grind of endless anonymity—let no such a one give ‘chin up’ lectures to us proud nobodies. You don’t know how we feel; you will never know how we feel; it’s a loser thing—you wouldn’t understand.”
—Andy Nowicki, “The Wooden Buddha”
Lost Violent Souls is Andy Nowicki’s sixth book. Four novels — Considering Suicide (Nine-Banded Books), The Columbine Pilgrim (Counter-Currents), Under the Nihil (Counter-Currents), and Heart Killer (ER Books) — and a book-length collection of short stories — The Doctor and the Heretic and Other Stories (Black Oak Media) — come before it. Each of these is a good book, an alt-right-underground staple, perhaps even a potential cult classic. Should contemporary readership shift away from the pap found at places like Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, and Costco, Nowicki’s past oeuvre might become accepted as valid literary reflections of a society on the brink of desolation.
Lost Violent Souls is better than these. With this latest book, Andy Nowicki has produced a book of great profound depth, soul and skill. I imagine it is difficult to bring forth a book like this at any time in a novelist’s/story writer’s career, but at this point—this sixth book into it point—it is a rare gift to own (and by this I mean both Nowicki’s talent and the reader’s fortune).
Opening with “Morning in America” Nowicki takes careful — and a deadly ambitious–aim. This particular story is not like other stories people write. It’s not even that much like a story that Nowicki writes. Yes, it’s 100% Nowicki in heart and soul, but it’s . . . different. It is a story of a story of a play-unfolding-as-we-hear-it-being-told. Who’s speaking? I can’t tell. It’s Nowicki, surely, but it is not Nowicki, just as surely. It’s a character we don’t get to meet, talking about a play we experience as a veil of words imparted from an unknowable vantage point concerning an unimaginable morning.
All the world is a stage. This was a profound metaphor once, now it is an eye-rollingly tedious cliché. Even so, please think of the following scene as taking place upon a stage, of sorts. The characters are reading their lines, even if they think that everything has been improvised. So it goes with us all.
Loosely based on an April morning back in 1999, when Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed a baker’s dozen of people, wounded two dozen more, and then killed themselves, “Morning in America” traces the speculative path of two young male killers in the early hours before their last school day begins. It is chilling in its almost non-profundity of action . . . the boys are 18-year-old boys, they wear T-shirts, they are loud, they semi-annoy the waitress, they swig coffee, they leave a big tip. “Thus ends our scene. Dawn breaks. Money changes hands. Events unfold. It is morning in America.” But action is not the point of this story, no matter what it looks like. “. . . ‘look’ is the operative word here. Looks are ever deceiving. . . . (If this seems clichéd and unoriginal, don’t blame me—blame the playwright! He often works in cliché in case you hadn’t noticed.)”
The point of this story is far more intricate than any that mere action could illustrate. The point of this story is (and, of course, it isn’t) about:
“Sex.” Doug speaks the word meditatively. “Sex,’ he repeats. “Sex is what brought us here in the first place. It’s the original sin, the original reason for the misfortune of our existence. And deep down, we all know the score, don’t we? After all, what do we say when we’re in really bad trouble?”
Doug waits patiently for a moment, then flashes another coy, mischievous, dimply grin.
“We say, ‘we’re FUCKED,’” he half-sings, triumphantly, “FUCKED,” meaning “in bad shape.” Meaning, “Might as well be dead.” Don’t tell me THAT’s just coincidence. The same word for “sex” is the word for “shit outta luck.” THAT says something.
“Yeah,” says Kip, nodding, making a mental note.
Both boys sit in silence for a moment, their empty cups in front of them. The atmosphere in the diner has come to feel heavy and oppressive, as if the earth’s diameter had expanded, increasing the force of gravity. Both Kip and Doug are somber-faced now. They feel very tired. All the caffeine they have ingested seems incapable of rousing them. Doug rubs his nose; Kip slumps in his seat, putting his legs up. His coat opens, and now we can glimpse the lettering on this T-shirt RAGE in all capital letters. As if on cue, Doug unzips his coat, which permits up to see that he wears an identical white T-shirt, except that on his chest is emblazoned the word DESPAIR.
At this moment, were anyone there to notice—that is to say, were anyone sitting in the “audience,” watching this “play”—he wouldn’t be able to escape recognizing just how little and young this boys appear.
In “Oswald Takes Aim,” Nowicki — having already taken aim in his opening story — gets ready to show the world what happens at “the point of inexplicable divergence between what had been and what should have been.” What should have been, of course, is the truth: Oswald assassinates Kennedy, but in Nowickian literature, the truth is, shall we say, flexible. In “Oswald Takes Aim” the killing of JFK is placed in the realm of “should have been” . . . a place where Oswald never shoots a thing from the Texas School Book Depository, and his inaction on November 1963 becomes “what had been.” Filling the space between that date and a decade later, Nowicki brings to us a world that includes a new history, with Goldwater as president, and a horrifically drawn-out third world war fought “at countless far-ranging locations, yet no battle ever seemed to end with a clear victor, just the shedding of rivers, if not oceans, of blood.” It is not a better world, or even a worse world (for all its warring)—it is merely a different one than the one we know as real. Oswald, as the man who did not change history, replays the moment of his non-shot “over and over in his head, as if obsessively rewinding a Super-8 movie. How much would this one bullet have changed history? Maybe things wouldn’t be so different after all, but how did one really know? . . . Oswald swooned, lost in this possible past that, for reasons unknown, had never been allowed to materialize into actuality. Yet he found that he believed in this fictional world much more than he believed in his own ‘real’ one.”
“The Poet’s Wager” takes a slight turn from the preceding duo—not that it is unlike other material Nowicki has written, as matter of fact, I found it pleasantly comparable to work from The Doctor and the Heretic and Other Stories — but, still, this third story turns the reader’s mind away from gun shots and mass murder to a place where “killing held no appeal. But dying was a different matter.”
Opening with “On Thursday, July 1, 2010, Simon Pulaski decided, he would end his life,” Nowicki presents to the reader a man gripped in gentle failure: a man who has lost his job, and with it his health insurance (it ends on June 30, assumedly the deciding factor in the choice of Pulaski’s death day), his “looks were above average, his intelligence well over the norm, but he lacked confidence.” He had been an English professor at a community college but “had been eliminated as a result of state wide budget cuts.” “Being nearly 40, he was too old to start over. No wife, no family, no career, no future. Nowhere to go but down. Six feet down, to be exact.” Still, though, he was a poet, even though “Pulaski’s vast trove of poems has remained unknown during his lifetime.”
All in all, he is an average above-average intelligence man caught in a world where being an average above-averagely-intelligent man doesn’t confer advantage. To Pulaski teaching becomes an act of pointless pursuit: “on his bad days, Pulaski resented being forced to spend time with such unengaged, incurious, barely-conscious borderline retards,” and writing words that remain unpublished “was a chore, yet something he still felt obliged to do, somehow”; “Pulaski was not a man of faith, much as he wanted to be,” and women “dismissed his dreams with a haughty wave of the hand and brutally brusque “that is not what I meant at all!”” To this man, caught in a torpor called modern life, the fact that there was an end in sight made him feel “as if he’d been given a shot from the most exquisite drug ever created: pure, concentrated Paradise. Heaven now lived inside him, and soon he would live in Heaven.”
“Death was glorious. Death was life.”
Enter the plot twist. Or, rather, the plot point, for a story about a man who is happy that he has decided to leave his not-fully-realized life on a certain date is not much of story, plot-wise. I shall not divulge the nature of the twist, thus I shall not ruin the ending. Just know that each of us has a choice, and in the end, Pulaski “made up his mind.”
Following the turn taken by “The Poet’s Wager,” “The Wooden Buddha” opens with a letter being written (by an English teacher, who is Catholic, to his therapist, who is a woman—ah! again those familiar literary leitmotives that some of the most Nowickian of Nowicki’s stories contain) to a Dr. H. as a form of confession. The letter/confession becomes the entire story — yet not once does it fall from those gripping edges of story-telling that Nowicki can balance on. Considering that “The Wooden Buddha” is the longest story in the book, coming in at 43 pages, it’s an amazing piece.
There is a chance that the confession writer, the narrator of the story, is writing exactly the truth, as far as any narrator’s truth can be called truth in a piece of fiction. In that case, this is a bleak, sad, forlorn story, punctuated by the angered insights of a failed man: “No, I’m not much of a man, and not terribly attractive, either. Skinny, prematurely bald, stammering, neurotic, pushing forty, pervaded overall with the stench of failure. I’m not pitying myself, or fishing for compliments (God knows I left that phase a long time ago!)” the story of a man who is married to a woman who has become fat and drunk and unloving. The story of a man who is lonely enough to seek therapy.
I’m going to admit that I chose a woman shrink consciously. It wasn’t just sexual frustration though, it was a desire to have a woman hear me, sympathize with me, not immediately assume the worst of me, not view my attempts at communication with suspicion, contempt or (still worse) indifference. If I had just wanted to get laid, I would have bought a hooker and a hotel room. . . . Just a little respite from my tortured married life, a little feminine company to balance out the horrors of my loveless, childless home.
The story of a man (who is never named) who has had a short but intense affair with a fellow teacher: “Eva couldn’t bear to be with her husband anymore — the father of the unborn child she’d killed at his insistence — so she reached her ‘little deaths’ with me for a short time. We connected over our lost children, Dr. H., I don’t expect you, proud mother of two that you are, to fathom the sadness and potency of such a connection. Yet it was only a transitory union . . .” This affair leads this woman’s undoing. And so the confession winds down, and the man asks merely that Dr. H. asks her “wooden Buddha to pray” for him.
I almost wanted to buy this fictitious fellow a copy of Jack Donovan’s The Way of Men . . . but . . . then I remembered that this is Nowicki’s world, and in that world, nothing is a given.
Sometimes a cigar is not a cigar at all but something else altogether . . . and a narrator who writes a confession must not be assumed to be a truth-sayer merely because he calls himself a confessor. Perhaps, the whole story is based on an unreliable source? (“Self-deception is easier than most people know.”) Perhaps Eva does not undo herself? (“Hell, they may even try to say I put her up to it! Of course I did . . .”) Perhaps it is not so much a confession story written by an innocent man as a lie written to cover up a not so innocent man (“Come to think of it, Dr. H., I probably won’t even send you this note. What would be the point? But I don’t think I’ll tear it up, either. I am too timid, even at this late hour, to anything so bold or dramatic. Instead I’ll fold it up and put it somewhere safe. I needn’t fear my wife; she is too comatose in her resignation to death-in-life to go poking around, looking for documentation of my infidelity. I’ll hold on to my written confession, just in case it comes in handy later. You never know.”) When it comes to Nowicki and fiction . . . the reader never does know. Not quite. Which is probably all for the good really, for the world of these characters is murky. In the best literary way, of course.
With “Motel Man,” the last piece in this collection, Nowicki closes his book with a gem — a masterful gem — of a story. It is like, and completely unlike, all the rest of his works.
“Motel Man” is a tale of a nameless man, called Brother Anti, then Brigham Smith, who forsakes all that life today offers — especially home — and takes on a mission he hopes will change the world. This final tale, this coup de grâce, takes the book away from exploring a world of desperation, rage, and empty spiritual senselessness . . . and brings into view to a world of strong determination, steely will, and a solid spiritual quest . . . leading to . . . what? Insight? Glory? Madness? I suspect it is all the same in this world of lost violent souls.
“There is, of course,” he said, “more than one way to check out. Always remember that, my friends.”
And then he leaped, most athletically, as recalled many in the audience later, out of the window, not in the style of a haphazard, despairing jumper, but rather like a skilled confident diver. Those on the street below who were looking in the right place at the right time saw him turn two somersaults in the air before meeting the pavement head-first with outstretched arms.
Had he been diving into water, the splash would have been very small. The judges would have given him high marks. But pavement is not water so the splash was great and loud, and none of the witnesses could recall the beauty of the dive itself because of the unpleasantness which resulted from the contact of a fully human body with concrete. Sad to say, much beauty is thus forgotten.
. . .
The nameless man was a hero, though his had been a thankless task. In dying, he had shown the way to the Life, the way to the Way.
And so it ends, this 105-page book of five short stories. Stories full of warped goodness, wavering hope, slim desperation, torn belief, self-hate, outraged violence, death, life, agony, lust, youth, joy, and a black holy wonder about having to be alive, having to experience the here and now. Life for the characters — and by extension for all of us — is not a clean-cut, easy affair, but with a masters’ deft touch, Andy Nowicki manages to make it all end at just the right note, with just the right words.