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Recent Work By J.P. Smith

Reading the works of Roberto Bolaño is a bit like hitchhiking in some godforsaken frontier territory. You stick out your thumb and wait. A semi zooms by, air-horn blasting, abandoning you to the dusty whirlwind of its wake and a brief glimpse of its NRA sticker and the inevitable Semper Fi crookedly plastered to the bumper. One minivan, two SUVs, an RV, a camper—they all pass you by. It’s rough country out here; you could be anyone. You could be Dick and Perry, looking for some middle-aged traveling salesman with a wallet full of fives and a tank full of gas and feeling in need of a little friendly chitchat in the middle of Kansas. Someone gives you the finger as you’re left behind to face darkness and uncertainty. The sky’s grown dark; the owls have come out to haunt. Headlights round the distant bend. Then an old pickup, unworthy of safety inspection, creaks to a halt. A model you haven’t seen in years. The driver turns his gaptoothed grin on you, a smile reeking of cheap brandy, his skin bleeding meth. He lights a Camel and starts to talk, or rather continues to talk, because he’d been talking when you opened the door, and even when you expressed your gratitude for his stopping, as if he were telling a story he’d begun days or weeks or even months earlier, but you’re in the midst of it, he’s telling about this guy he’d met at a bar, and this woman he knew, and some weird things were happening, man, there was a knife and an armadillo, and you don’t know if you’ll ever reach your destination or be murdered by this man who won’t shut up, who is telling four stories at once, and nothing’s making much sense.

Would it ever end with Marie?

So begins Belgian novelist, filmmaker and photographer Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s ninth book, and second dealing with Marie, Running Away. Though his novels as a whole belong to a very specific emotional and psychological universe, we are never quite sure in what country or in which circumstances his protagonists will find themselves. The first pages of Running Away (ably and faithfully translated by Matthew B. Smith; more attentive copyediting, though, would have caught more than one appearance of “miniscule”) plunge us into what may well turn out to be something of a mystery.

There was the matter of the bullet hole, just above the stairs leading to the ground floor. “My mother-in-law tried to murder me,” she said matter-of-factly. It was a narrow house on a residential street in Camden Town, in north London, the only one slathered in ivy, and probably the only one as cluttered as Beryl’s was.  I’d been invited there in September of 1977, as Beryl and I had corresponded for a year before I moved to London to begin my career as a writer. Having left New York—and a teaching position—when, at the time, one couldn’t get an editor to read without an agent, and one couldn’t get an agent without having been published, and I was damned well determined to become a writer, I’d decided to see if I could shop a full-length interview with her to the New York Times Book Review, killing two birds with the proverbial single stone. The New York Review of Books had covered her, but she was still under the radar among general readers in America. And, of course, apart from wanting her to gain a larger audience, I was hoping I might be signed on as a regular reviewer at the NYTBR. Which might well, ahem, get the attention of mainstream publishers. The people at the Times said, sure, go ahead, we’d love to see it (which, as I’d unfortunately soon learn, is markedly different from, sure, go ahead, we’d love to buy it, or sure, go ahead, and if we don’t want it we’ll pay you a kill fee.)

It was a job, after all, and back then jobs were hard to come by, especially if you’d just been awarded a Master of Arts in English literature, which was more or less a passport to oblivion. Once upon a time, of course, a higher degree in English could get you places, say on an editorial board of a literary magazine or in a halfway-decent publishing house as a gofer on the fast track to becoming an associate editor. Back in the day it was like having a higher degree in philosophy; it meant you knew stuff. At some point I came to this crossroads, and instead of falling down on my knees like Robert Johnson and selling my soul to the Devil, decided not to become a rock star or a lawyer and opted to become an English major. Had I chosen the first I’d now be playing bass in a reunion band in oceanside casinos and amusement parks up and down the East Coast. Middle-aged people would sit and fan themselves while they vaguely remembered seeing us back in their murky pasts, when they were hip and cool and, of course, considerably less middle-aged and had better hair.

On April 29th, 1977, Jean-Patrick Manchette wrote in his diary that his editors at Gallimard’s famed Série Noire didn’t like Fatale (which was then titled La Belle Dame Sans Merci, after Keats’s poem of the same name), which prompted Manchette to request that it be published outside this legendary series of crime novels. He writes: “This negative response clearly shows what I should never forget: I alone (with Melissa [his wife, to whom Fatale is dedicated]) understand what I do.” The day after that he records a kind of statement of intention as an artist, reminding us just how much Manchette was a man of the Left, though his works could never truly be considered polemical. “I would prefer,” he writes, “to be contributing to the communist revolution. As of now I haven’t come up with a single thing to do for it. Thus my intention is solely to entertain, to distract.” Which doesn’t mean that politics doesn’t play a role in his novels.

The guy breezed into the room—a bit overweight, unshaved, in a belted trench coat (an important detail, and you’ll see why), and absolutely out of breath. He was, I recall, either from Queens or Brooklyn or maybe Long Island, was not noted for any athletic or criminal prowess whatsoever, and was in the process of explaining how he’d buried the body in the park in town.

“What body?” It was the only reasonable question to ask.

“The spy,” he said. “He’d been following me for months.” He patted his pocket. “I shot him dead and buried him.”

“You buried him.”

“I had to work fast.”

My asking where the shovel was only complicated matters. He had answers for everything, as insane people tend to have. He’d buried the gun in a separate place; the shovel was wiped of all fingerprints and thrown in the brook. The spy had been a dangerous man who wanted access to the secrets this fellow student apparently had locked away in his brain. Secrets he’d managed to get from the Russians when he was a double agent. Drugs would have been a handy excuse, but this guy was about as clean as Santa Claus. When the whole universe is located inside your head, there are no mysteries. All is echo, and everything makes impeccable sense.

I’m not sure if it was strictly homegrown or somehow contagious, this madness, or that simply living so far from the major cultural centers of the world gave rise to delusion, but I think many of us succumbed to it and found our own private remedy. All that mattered was how you played it. Me, I took drugs, saw things, heard things, occasionally babbled, but I may also have reached a certain level of sanity and balance, as an alcoholic will drink until his hand is steadied, his mind alert. I bring up this—no names, please—self-appointed spy, because I want to write about my sadly aborted music career. The Spy had absolutely nothing to do with it (though he also fancied himself a lounge singer of sorts, which, if placed on a scale of, say, one to hundred, a hundred being Mel Tormé, would have come in around Jimmy Durante), but he was part of the scenery—a walk-on, if you will, a supporting player, someone to goof on when you’ve smoked a few joints. A little Googling, incidentally, revealed what happened to him in the years afterwards, but I refrain from mentioning it here as he may still be under investigation for a number of other, ahem, “misunderstandings.” In short, once the whole spy business came out he became just a little too spooky even for goofing.

I had gone to college in southern Indiana by mistake. For reasons best known to me I wanted to get as far away from home as possible, and though California would have probably been a better destination (as would have been, say, Argentina or Pakistan), I opted for getting lost in a small town in the Baptist stronghold of southern Indiana. And that was before I smoked a single joint or dropped my first tab of acid. Okay, not necessarily a mistake as much as a misjudgment. In the days before the Internet it was difficult to investigate in advance the places where one was destined to end up. No Google image searches (which would have solved my problem immediately, especially for a town in which the high spots were the Waffle House and Mother Hubbard’s Pizza), no message boards with words of warning (“If you are from the New York metropolitan area please DO NOT COME HERE IT IS NOT LIKE MANHATTAN, THELONIOUS MONK WILL NOT BE PLAYING IN A NIGHTCLUB THREE BLOCKS AWAY FROM YOU!!!”), only a college catalogue with photos of a forbidding gothic building (which, attention wannabe directors, would make a natural location for a movie about monsters, ghosts or, uh-huh, the insane) and happy Midwestern boys and girls, none of whom resembled anyone I’d ever seen before, save on “Father Knows Best” or “Ozzie and Harriet.” Some of them even thought I was weird.

As I’d pointed out in my previous fragment of memoir, this was where I was introduced to drugs, both hard and psychedelic, and so, in retrospect, I consider this a formative and not unliberating time for me. But it was also where I learned a hell of a lot about music, mostly the making of.

In terms of career hopes, I’d just graduated from a private school located on a rather beautiful estate on the Hudson River, overlooking Sing Sing Prison and founded by a banking wizard and his wife, both of whom were patrons of the arts and, when they weren’t having Paderewski around to play piano or Isadora Duncan to dance on their lawn or Sarah Bernhardt to recite, were socializing with John D. Rockefeller and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In my last year there our very cool history teacher decided to scrap his usual course and offer us a year in law. First semester: tort law; second semester: criminal law, the final exam being a mock trial and all the preparation it involved, maybe three months of interviews, evidence-gathering, and, in the case of my three-man prosecutorial group, jury tampering (it lost us a grade point, but, hell, it only cost us five bucks to guarantee a hung jury). That’s when I decided I’d become a lawyer. At around the same time, I’d been chatting with a family friend who’d clerked for Justice Black of the U.S. Supreme Court. He told me to major in English. “The law is really all about language. Learn to use the language well and fluidly and you’re halfway there.” The unstated point being that if you were good with words you could bamboozle anyone.

Of course, once I got to college I came to the decision to become a rock star, which back then was perfectly reasonable career choice, somewhere way up there with “Investment Manager” or “Biochemist.” Note that I put it as “rock star,” not “great musician”, or even a good and respected musician, but a rock star, which often required more attitude than aptitude. There were perks: 1) you look cool, even when not trying to look cool, because, as a Rock Star, as with a Movie Star, no one gives a toss what you really look like because there’s nothing like stardom to lend you a certain stature; in other words, my being short wouldn’t be a problem. I call to the stand Mick Jagger and Keith Moon. It also works for actors. You know who you are. 2) Drugs. Lots of them. At the time this was fine by me, because it meant I didn’t have to drop a line to my connection whenever I needed a hit; these would be handed to me by that other perk, Assistants, these days known as My Posse. 3) women. Duh. 4) ten thousand people shouting “YES!” as you step onto the stage—I’ll take that any day, and I speak as one who has done readings for three old-timers resting their weary Reeboks in a mall Borders, none of whom were even considering laying out the twenty bucks for a signed copy of my kinky, dark and disturbing novel.

Until then I’d played piano. And then only many years earlier. I’d had lessons beginning when I was four with a woman of Greek heritage who would eat chocolates out of my mother’s offered box of sweets and read Time magazine while I struggled through “Papa Haydn.” My lessons went on for several years, interrupted only when I decided I wanted to play the clarinet. There was no earthly reason why I chose it. It’s not a sexy instrument, per se, nor one to which I was unduly attached, and my lessons lasted exactly three weeks. I just didn’t have the breath for it. Nor the chops, as they say in the business.

When I finally got to college I met a guy who’d lived all over the world—his father was in the State Department and he enjoyed the fruits of reassignment. He was very cool, he looked good, he played bass guitar, girls liked him, and years earlier he’d formed a band with his brother—they’d even cut a record in Paris. He suggested he teach me the bass while he moved from bass to lead guitar. We would form a band. There would be drugs. Women. Ten thousand fans!

So we went into Indianapolis (one visit and I understood why it was referred to by some as “Naptown”) and dropped in on a music store (where impoverished musicians sold their instruments for drug and/or booze money) and walked out with a hollow-body Framus bass which looked a lot like Paul McCartney’s Hofner. The only problem being that I didn’t look like Paul nor was I about to play like Paul or be invited to join a band that would become as big as the Beatles.

Which leads me to the whole Beatles versus Stones issue, briefly touched upon in my review published here at The Nervous Breakdown of Keith Richards’s recently-published memoirs, Life. It’s hard to understand these days how very difficult it was back then to embrace both bands, as though one were being asked to support both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. This occupied a great deal of our time, especially if one was very, very stoned and had nothing else to do at half-past three in the morning. Some immensely democratic people could wholeheartedly embrace both bands at once, but it wasn’t easy, and they were instantly branded as relativists and phonies. I think we were pretty canny in knowing that the Beatles were clearly drug-fiends hiding behind a wholesome persona, while the Stones were a dangerous street gang hiding behind no persona at all. The Stones were a blues band, plain and simple, and when they weren’t singing they looked as though they might corner you in an alley and tear you to shreds (or at least once cherubic Brian Jones was out of the picture); the Beatles wrote great songs and delivered them, via a brilliant producer and set of engineers, brilliantly on vinyl. Both had the same effect on their audiences. As it was said by the janitor cleaning up after a Stones concert in the north of England: “Very good show. Not a dry seat in the house.”

I was a Who freak back then. This was perhaps the ugliest band in the known universe (by their own admission), which proved at least one of my points about being a rock star. They were aggressive, they got in your face, and when they were finished singing “My Generation” they destroyed their equipment, half the scaffolding around the stage and almost certainly the hearing of anyone within a half-mile radius. I had begun to catch them live, mostly in small clubs, and for three days after each performance I’d hear ringing in my ears. They were very, very loud, and, yes, I liked it. Oh, and Keith Moon once waved to me from behind his battery of drums, perhaps recognizing another small man with high hopes and big dreams.

I was taught the basics by my well-traveled friend, who wisely advised that I learn how to play bass lines for the blues, because then I could play more or less anything. I practiced over and over to Paul Butterfield’s first album (Play it Loud was the admonition on the back of the jacket, and I did), and we played once or twice in the sad little student union that, every week after my ten-to-midnight radio show on Wednesday nights, we robbed blind of half its food, flipping burgers and frenching fries while campus security, a Korean War vet with an arthritic German Shepherd and a two-by-four, sat in his car smoking Old Golds) to a dozen or so people who either stared at us or shuffled in place or gazed at our hair and wondered how they could kill us.

When I was asked to leave this college after two years (“you have been deemed socially incompatible with the ideals and practices of our Baptist college,” a comment which hardly surprised me) I transferred to a college in New England where everyone else was like me—they were either from New York or New Jersey, Jewish or Catholic. They talked with their hands, they liked to eat, and argument and debate was second-nature. A lot of them also drove Firebirds, and many of the girls were named Donna.

It was rumored (and evidence was everywhere) that the place was run by one of the Five Families out of New York. The reason why the Mob would want anything to do with a four-year college became obvious once “The Godfather” was released: just as Vito Corleone wished that young Michael would become a senator or, better, a judge, college bore an air of respectability, and, besides, it was a handy way to launder dirty money. Why New Hampshire? Drive past an open-air cathedral three miles away at two in the morning, and it would have been patently clear that something fishy was going on. When men are unloading a semi and shifting boxes and bags to a number of cars in the dead of night, it’s pretty obvious these aren’t people picking up the groceries for charitable distribution.

Though by then I’d had my Clear White Light experience and was absolutely clean of any drugs whatsoever, my practiced—nay, jaundiced—eyes told me that this was a drop point for the East Coast narcotics trade. It probably linked to Canada in some significant way, and this out-of-the-way place was an ideal location for the transferring of dope. Especially if the local and state cops had been paid off. And with the Mob within shouting distance, well, you get the picture. Or so I conjecture.

The school had a ton of money to throw around. While some small colleges were getting the usual retro acts, washed-up Fifties bands going through the motions and half the titles in their old songbooks, we were able to put cash on the table for pretty much anyone we wanted. We had Santana (before Carlos went solo; when he came into the fieldhouse just off the tour bus he asked me where he could smoke, “man, you know what I’m talkin’ about?”); we had Ten Years After (for whom I and a few friends did the equipment set up and also got to watch Alvin Lee smoke a joint while attending to his toilet needs (“You won’t tell anyone, right, mate?” Yeah, sure, Alvin); we had a gracious and delightful Janis Joplin and various members of The Band and Paul Butterfield, and other bands whom I’ve since forgotten. The Family did us proud, they did.

By this time I’d decided to take up lead guitar. I sold my bass for an alto sax bought second-hand at Sam Ash Music on 48th Street, for a shortlived career as a jazz musician. I discovered that not only is it very hard to play a wind instrument (my clarinet lessons had clearly taught me nothing), but practicing in a dorm brings on furious people with fists banging on doors and walls. I then put in an order with my old drug connection from Brooklyn to locate a guitar for me. He could get you anything, as he liked to put it, wholesale. Speed, acid, smack, grass, as well as household appliances and automobiles.

We met on an elevated subway platform in Bay Ridge. He was sitting there with a very nice hardbodied guitar case. I handed him $125. “Listen,” he said when his train pulled in, “if you’re gonna try to sell it, just make sure you get rid of the serial number, okay?” The guitar was brand-new. It had fallen off a truck. His exact words.

My career as a lead guitarist was doomed from the start. I was a bass player, and nothing I could do would change that. What were meant to be soul-shattering solos that would sizzle the eyeballs of Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page turned into just another mash-up of bass lines. In other words, it sounded like shit. I traded in the guitar for a second-hand Gibson Thunderbass, which at least I knew how to play. It looked cool, which is half the game right there, and it played like a dream. And the music-store owner who took my guitar in trade is probably still puzzling over the fact of a missing serial number.

The band I was invited to join had no name other than that given at birth to the rhythm guitar player and lead singer. It was just something thrown together by a friend of a friend at Harvard Law School. We were hired, sight unseen (or sound unheard) to play at Friday night smokers, as they were called. We’d be paid in cash, amounting to something like $50 per person. We had a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist cum vocalist (also a law student there, hence his star billing), and our drummer, an old friend from my days in Indiana. According to calculations, $50 back then had the spending power of around $300 now. It could buy one a pair of Landlubber bellbottoms (eight bucks retail at the time from a shop on Charles Street), books, records, a late dinner at the Deli Haus on Commonwealth Avenue, the rental of an amp and speaker box, and leave you with ten dollars or so to burn through your pocket for the following week.

The venue was a dining-hall in one of Harvard’s law buildings. Our competition was a group of high schoolers, in a similar space on the floor below us, who were a Moody Blues cover band, guaranteed to clear the dancefloor. You cannot move in any meaningful way to “Nights in White Satin,” especially as played by these young wannabes. You couldn’t really dance to what we had to offer, either (it’s tough to dance to the blues, after all), and, should someone ask us to play something we’d just have to fake it. (“Hey, man,” a guy once asked from the floor, “can you play ‘Purple Haze’?” and as we hadn’t run through it, we offered him the Stones’s “Satisfaction” with Jimi’s words.)

The audience for this was what you might expect at America’s top law school, as it was back then. Guys in ties and jackets, many of them carrying their constitutional law textbooks, and their uneasy dates, who expected something perhaps a bit more romantic, or sexy, or at least some great music to enjoy, ambled in, barely paying us the time of day. Getting these people onto their feet wasn’t easy either. As bass player, it was up to me to get their guts vibrating, and when I went to turn up the volume to, say, eight, the rhythm player would shoot his up to nine, and thus we competed throughout the evening, until we reached the very limits of our amps which was not, as it was for Spinal Tap, eleven. At which point our law students were on their way back to their dorm rooms.

The band clearly didn’t have a future beyond the confines of Harvard Law. By the time I got to graduate school, where I was working my way towards a master’s in English, I’d decided I’d devote myself to jazz fulltime. I bought an upright bass with a huge crack in the side, probably caused by some other frustrated musician who’d decide to put the metaphorical and literal boot in, and began to practice, again without much luck. I needed a teacher, and though the university had some spectacular jazz musicians on their staff, among them drummer Max Roach and tenor player Archie Shepp, I was out of luck. Even when, years later, when I began teaching at the same school on the Hudson from which I’d graduated, where I discovered that bass-player Art Davis—who’d played with pretty much everyone in the business, from John Coltrane to Ornette Coleman—was on the faculty, by that time my becoming a musician was a likely as my being elected to the papacy.

As the days of graduate school dwindled I realized that what I really wanted to do was to become a writer, something I’d wanted when I was kid and would leaf through the Saturday Review and the New York Times Book Review and saw all these hip-looking novelists looking cool with their cigarettes and steely three-martini gazes. There were no perks, no groupies, drugs or a multitude of fans in an orgiastic frenzy. No, this was real risk: just one person sitting before a typewriter, clacking out one word after another.

Piece of cake, I thought, as all those years ago I typed out the opening sentence of my first novel.

A lot of people back then had nicknames. This was done for legal reasons as much as for vanity. Although at the time I was maybe the third most paranoid person in the city (I even worked at an East Village store called Paranoia, where I was unofficial poster-boy for the cause), I did not have a front name, as some called it, though in high school I’d been dubbed “The Doctor” by my obnoxious English teacher: thus named because five minutes before class was dismissed I’d pack my briefcase (we carried attaché cases, like something Don Draper might possess to go along with his narrow tie, great hair and seductive inscrutability), as though I were on my way to my next surgical procedure.

The death of Augustus Owsley Stanley III last week immediately made me see, resting in the palm of my hot little hand, that iconic purple tablet engraved with a tiny image of Batman on its convex surface. In a novel I recently completed, Airtight, the prologue, set thirty years before the story actually begins—it’s the tale of two desperate middle-aged men, now out of work and in debt, who return to their old college to dig up drugs they’d buried three decades earlier in hopes of selling it and getting back on their feet—details an acid trip, in fact my last, taken when I was at my first college. The same college that decided, after two years of me, that I was “socially unacceptable.” Which I think was more true than they suspected at the time.

For reasons best known to my youthful mind, I ended up in a college in southern Indiana, some twenty miles south of Indianapolis (known then as “Naptown,” which I fervently believed had something to do with the fact that, unlike my native New York, there was nothing to do there but sleep). This was an accident, I must confess, an aberration of sorts, and in the end a kind of hilarious mistake. I should have gone to college in New England (which I eventually did) or California, but I ended up in what was most certainly part of the American South.

On my first night there I, and various others from my dorm, were walking to some sort of social event thrown for incoming freshmen. One of these guys stopped me and said, as though reciting lines from a very bad anti-drug movie, “Now that you’re no longer living at home, you might want to consider trying something a little mind-bending.” He handed me a lit joint. As I puffed away he went on, “Of course it probably won’t hit you the first time, and you may have to try it again—“ But by that time I was half out of my mind with glee. I said, “Where can I get more of this stuff?”

By the end of the school year I was addicted to crystal meth and was smoking anything anyone offered me. I spent that summer—what has become known as “The Summer of Love” (though I would call it the Summer of Very Good Dope)—living in the West Village and working on weekends at a store on East 10th Street that sold consignment articles, provided free macrobiotic stew (which I sometimes was asked to cook up, a tasteless, thin, nauseating thing that we served to runaways from Scarsdale, while we, who worked there, ate pastrami sandwiches from the 2nd Avenue Deli), and offered the comforts of a day-glo trip room as well as a “meditation room,” fully outfitted with Indian music, incense and, to the pleasure of some, mattresses. We also sold underground newspapers from all over the country as well as the usual paraphernalia of the drug culture—pipes and screens and such. Once, before coming to work on a busy Saturday night, I shared a joint with the same guy who offered me one that first night of college—his cousin owned the shop and he lived a few blocks away—grass so potent that not long after I stationed myself on the store’s window seat as the crowds of tourists and hippies started to pour in, I rolled onto the floor in a four-hour stupor. Amazingly, there was very little shoplifting, and the register remained closed. Nor did anyone call the police or summon an ambulance. I was just another body sprawled out on the floor. Something we all saw fairly frequently back then. I wasn’t even fired for my indiscretion. Which was fine by me, as I was paid not in cash but in chunks of high-grade Moroccan opium, which, combined with speed, provided one with something pretty close to being asleep and dreaming while you were completely and vividly awake, like some hideous criminal from the pages of Conan Doyle.

A week or so later a friend and I decided to go see Eric Burdon and the Animals, not so much because we were huge fans of their music (“The House of the Rising Sun” and “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” were their big hits; heard once they were fine; heard twice they quickly grew dull), as much as we had two bucks burning holes in our pockets, and it was, well, just something to do. We arrived and got on line, only to be told that Eric was sick and his bass player, Chas Chandler, wanted to put on instead a guy he managed who’d just made a big splash at Monterey. The guy’s name was Jimi Hendrix. I had no idea who this was and suggested we split and find something else to do, such as take more opium and speed and maybe go see “Blow-Up” for the fourth time at the cinema on 8th Street (we’d seen it three times in a row a few weeks earlier). But my friend said that he’d read that this Hendrix played guitar with his teeth. So we paid our two bucks and went in. The club held maybe 150 people, tops. The opening acts were the ubiquitous Richie Havens and a band led by Jeremy Steig, a flute-player and son of the great William Steig. We sensed that something big was happening when a waitress shooed some customers away from a table near the bandstand. “That’s Bobby Dylan’s reserved table.” Dylan didn’t show up—he would’ve stolen the show—but Jimi Hendrix came on and was, well, amazing.

A week later my friend suggested I drop acid. Until then I’d been cautious about doing acid, and the people who owned the store where I worked were adamant that taking any hallucinogenics was a serious matter. Acid was a way inwards, fraught with all matter of dangers, and one could only do it with a guide. And, they insisted, if I was really intent on taking LSD I should only take one of Owsley’s products, as they were very clean and very reliable. In fact, I’d been fully aware of how they managed to get their supply of acid. I quote from Airtight:

The Owsleys came via Railway Express in duffle bags all the way from San Francisco. Trading on the street for twenty bucks a pop, these were bought wholesale and by the gross for a nickel apiece from a dealer known only as Superspade, who lived somewhere in the Bay Area. People took turns going to Grand Central to claim the thing, handing in their ticket and hefting the bag onto their shoulder for the long tense walk past the cops that always seemed to be hanging inside the Vanderbilt Avenue entrance where, especially in the winter, the heating vents were most active. Deliveries ended when Superspade was found stabbed, shot and left dangling in a sleeping-bag from the top of an oceanside cliff in Marin; though there was also a rumor back East that his torso was found floating in San Francisco Bay, and that every few weeks another essential element of Superspade—a Superhand, a Superleg—would bob up to be retrieved.

My guide was my friend with whom I’d gone to see Hendrix. An acid trip is made up more or less of three parts, the middle being the riskiest, and it’s why a guide is important. It’s when you can lose your identity, and when, if you’re not guided, you can lose your mind. For good. I managed to retain a good portion of mine, and once I got through it my friend put on a record that had just been released—Jimi Hendrix’s first album. I was hooked. It was then I began taking weekly trips, almost always with one of Owsley’s products. Once I was back in Indiana I would drop a tab every Friday afternoon before my Romantic Poetry class, and by the time class was dismissed I was a happy guy, floating back to my dorm room for my eight hours of bliss. By then I no longer needed a guide, though I’d taught my roommate, a responsible, serious psychology major, how to help me out if I needed help. I also began to build up a tolerance to acid, so I’d drop a tablet, then five hours later take another. Sometimes I took two at once. That was when I decided I needed something a little stronger. A friend in Brooklyn, who’d been asked to leave the college the previous year, was my connection. He’d always been able to provide me with anything I wanted, from drugs to electric guitars (“Where’d you find this?” “It fell off the back of a truck on Bay Parkway.”) This time he outdid himself. Enclosed, as always, between the covers of birthday cards designed for four-year-olds, the white powder was flattened between sheets of foil. I had no idea how much was there or what a single dose would look like, so I took most of it, that February afternoon, and headed for class. What I write in Airtight happened exactly as I relate it. The main character, whom I call Nick, stands in for me, just as the fictional town and college of Allenville, Pennsylvania, stands in for where I really was at the time. I set it a few years later than it actually happened:

He drifted back to his cinderblock dorm room, with its Tensor lamp, KLH stereo and poster of Allen Ginsberg in an Uncle Sam hat, put Jimi Hendrix’s first LP on the turntable, and lay down on his bed to settle in for the remainder of his trip. He held a hand out in front of his face, and though it was numb, though when he touched it with his other hand it was like something made of rubber, it shimmered like a bulb about to burn out, then—zzzzip—disappeared. He made a fist and it reappeared. Groovy, man, he would have commented under other circumstances, but something was different. He sat up and looked at the record spinning around and it was no longer black, it was flesh-colored and soft and the needle seemed to be carving canyons into it. He reached over and pulled the plug and Jimi sang “Manic de…press…ion…is…”

“Okay,” he said to himself as he sat up. “Be calm. Be cool. Relax.” He put his hands on his thighs and they seemed to sink into them.

Deep breaths. Nice thoughts: pretty girls, good music. Happy, happy.

Nick stood in front of the mirror mounted over his desk. His first twenty trips or so had been guided by one friend or another who knew what they were doing. But Nick was a pro by now, and this time, when things were starting to tilt into the Very Weird and Abnormal he had no one to count on; at least no one any closer than a specialist in freak-outs known as Magic Mike, who lived on 13th Street and Avenue A, which required a toll call and a bus ticket. He lit a Camel and when he went to take a drag his hand blended in with his face and his cigarette fell to the floor.

He bent down to pick it up and when he stood he was gone. He had no reflection. He had disappeared. It was a completely finished hallucination, something brilliant and ingenious that he would have admired had he not been the object of it: all three dimensions were covered. In his eyes he had become nothing, not even a faint outline. In the mirror he could even see through himself to the furnishings behind him: the Jimi Hendrix record as it melted into the turntable; his bed, last made, oh, some three weeks ago: he was the haunter and the haunted, all at the same time. And then it came to him: he’d opened a metaphysical door and was standing on the threshold of his own death. He was both in a dorm room in Allenville, Pennsylvania and in a place that was beyond time. One step and he would be gone forever.

This was the big one, he thought, the thing bands from San Francisco to London had sung about, that sacred texts had so reverently spoken of as something attainable only after a life—or many lives—of contemplation and abstinence; the state of grace that would change his life forever: the Clear White Light itself. At least one of the Beatles had been there (he could never see Ringo or Paul communing with the Great Divine, and as for the edgy John, well that was anybody’s guess); David Crosby had a permanent round-trip ticket to it, as though he had access to a shuttle between Times Square and Grand Central Nirvana; and the Velvet Underground, who wrote a song with nearly the same name, had achieved it through different means. But now he had joined the pantheon of the Enlightened, he had been ambushed by the One Magnificent Truth. It was staring him in the face and his fate was sealed. He knew the meaning of life. He understood what people tried to say when they spoke of God. Kubrick’s 2001 now made perfect, impeccable sense to him. All that was left was for him to step up to the window, crack it open and let himself drop. He wouldn’t die; only his body would be crushed and mutilated, but he sensed—no, he knew—he would live on somehow, and in that state, whatever it may be, he would be a force in the universe: a shadow in an afternoon world; a breeze that breaks the stillness of evening. He pressed his forehead against the cool glass and peered down to see not a monolith standing in a lunar crater, but a red Firebird, a black VW Beetle, and the housemother’s shit-colored Buick. One of them might be in for a big surprise.

But there was a choice. There was a choice, there was a choice, there is a choice, and the words kept running through his head as he paced the room and caught glimpses in the mirror of his not being there out of the corner of his eye. He could live through this. He’d be damaged in some obscure way, he knew that much, he might end up in a vegetative state in an institution outside Buffalo for the rest of his days, dutifully visited by his aging parents each week until they ran out of money, time and patience for the eight-hour bus ride from Jersey; or he might turn out to be a valuable member of society; brilliant and blazing beyond anyone’s expectations, a kind of savior or prophet, a man whose eyes glowed with intelligence and insight. Women would flock to him, chauffeurs would open doors for him, he would walk on water and when he wasn’t walking on water he’d be counting his millions. The choice was his to make. And with that, death was off the table.

There was nowhere else to go but back to the beginning. Carrying the knowledge of the nature of existence, he had to start all over again, this time from scratch. He was a baby in a bubble, rising up over Jupiter, far, far away from home. Cue the music. Bring on the awe.

But first he had to bang like hell on the wall and get some help.

And that ended my drug career. No more grass, no more acid, certainly no more meth. That last acid trip came to revisit me, though, sporadically over the years, coming upon me at odd times: once when walking into Grand Central I went into full trip-mode and somehow made it on to the subway without hurling myself onto the tracks; another time, in my next college, where I passed for a Very Serious Student, in a Victorian Novel class, when I began hallucinating and had to restrain myself from standing up and doing something very dangerous either to myself or the person sitting in front of me. For years after that I could summon up what’s known as a flashback, and I could probably do it now, all these many years later. But I’m content in having gone to the very edge, to seeing what it was all about, and to appreciate the lessons of the Clear White Light. Thanks, Owsley, for paving the way for me.

She identified herself as Captain Brown (not her actual name), at the New York State Police barracks somewhere in Dutchess County, about an hour outside New York City. When I asked her what the problem was (the line one always uses when, say, a cop pulls you over for speeding, when you know perfectly well what the problem is), she said, “Someone has accused you of murdering them.” And then she waited. And waited.

I knew I was innocent. Unless, of course, I’d had a mild lapse of memory, during which I’d carefully plotted a homicide and, until now, successfully carried it out. I’d forgotten my Hitchcock: an innocent person on the run from false accusations makes for a fascinating movie. It can also land you on Death Row. In Texas. With a lot of very big guys with tattoos. Think of “Frenzy” or, more pointedly, “The Wrong Man,” the one with Henry Fonda. See what happens when you get cocky?

“By name?” I said, which I instantly realized was a mistake, as hidden in those two simple words was an admission that I’d actually done the deed.

“No,” she said. “But the victim described you. Oh, and your car. You do own a green Jeep Grand Cherokee, is that correct?”

“I do.”

“With New Hampshire plates?”

“Afraid not.”

“Have you ever done business in New Hampshire?”

I tried not to do anything in New Hampshire. Many years earlier I’d gone to college in that state, but by that time my involvement with illegal activities had come to an end. Oh wait—

“I once had an accountant there.”

“And a lawyer?”

“I don’t think so, no,” though my wife reminded me later that for a time we actually did have a lawyer there. Before I could ask Captain Brown to fill me in on some of the details, such as whom exactly I was supposed to have killed, where it happened, and, as a writer, to pose a list of research questions to ask her (the first being, “Have you ever killed anyone, captain, and how did it feel?”—something I once asked another captain, in fact, who’d commanded a group of men in Vietnam), she threw the next question at me:

“Do you ever drive to New York?”

“All the time.”

There was a long pause.

“Do you ever drive on Interstate 684?”

“All the time.”

Had she then asked if I’d ever killed anyone, undoubtedly “All the time,” would have come out of my mouth.

I was talking myself back into a murder case. I saw myself, shackled and cuffed, being led into the courtroom. I saw a distraught widow/widower/son/daughter/mother/father—take your pick—pointing their finger at me and screaming, “Murderer!” or, if they were Italian, “Vendetta! Vendetta!”

“Mr. Smith, do you own a firearm?’

“No.”

“Have you ever owned one?”

“Oh no.”

“Have you ever handled one?”

I saw myself all those many years earlier, at the age of ten, lying on a bare mattress in Western Massachusetts, holding a .22 rifle and shooting at a target along with the other boys from my bunk at summer camp. All Jewish city kids playing with guns. Imagine it’s a Nazi, we were all thinking as we took aim at the concentric circles. I explained that I was very young at the time, under adult supervision, that I was a crack shot and that, no, I didn’t get to take the weapon home at season’s end. That was my second mistake.

A crack shot takes a man down in one. A crack shot doesn’t take shit from the cowering victim. A crack shot is Capone or Pacino with his Little Friend. A crack shot is me, pointing my rifle at Joseph Goebbels. And that’s how my victim met the pavement on interstate 684: one shot deprived this innocent man of his life which trickled out of him somewhere between Croton Falls and Katonah.

“Do you wear glasses?”

“Reading glasses. Oh, and sunglasses.” I didn’t mention that they were (and are) cool Wong Kar-Wai sunglasses, because it didn’t seem relevant, and I thought she might now connect me to some Chinese gang conspiracy. I had a feeling she wasn’t a foreign film buff.

“Do you have facial hair?”

Yes, and the sweat was starting to run into it. “I have a beard and mustache.”

“Can you account for your whereabouts on December 6th, 1995?”

“That was some months ago.”

“Nevertheless,  I need to be able to check out your alibi.”

“Can you give me a moment?”

I got my Filofax out. There were two notes for that day. That my daughter was playing in a volleyball match at a private school in Maine was numero uno. Before thinking about it I blurted this out.

“Did you drive her there?”

I now remembered that I hadn’t even gone to it. But thinking fast I realized that remaining silent was the best way to proceed. However, she pressed on.

“So you had to drive through New Hampshire to get there afterwards.”

“Except I didn’t go.”

“You just said she had a volleyball game in Maine.”

“I wasn’t there.”

“Then where were you?”

The second note indicated I was seeing my shrink, who had a golden reputation for writing appointments on the palm of her hand, not in any sort of database, paper or otherwise. I explained that I had seen my therapist that day. What we discussed had clearly not included dealing with a murder accusation.

“Could he or she prove this?”

My shrink also quite often got dates wrong. “Maybe.”

“Can you fax me the page of your desk diary when I’m finished questioning you?”

I wanted to ask if I could take a moment and pour myself a large drink of something eighty proof, but I figured this would not go over well.

“May I ask,” I asked, “why you’re calling me at all? I have no idea about this crime you’re investigating. I’m in the dark here.”

“It’s a matter of road rage. A man in a silver Volvo station wagon was heading south on 684 on December 6th. A man in a green Jeep Grand Cherokee managed to force this man off the road. Both cars pulled into the breakdown lane. When the man in the Volvo got out to ask what the problem was, the man in the Jeep took out a pistol and shot him.”

“And you say I’m being accused of this.”

“He lived long enough to give us a full description of the assailant and the Jeep. And I’m afraid the description of the vehicle and you are close enough to make you a person of interest.”

A person of interest. The kind of innocent bystander who wanders into one of my screenplays, and who ends up with blood all over him, a body at his feet, and a gun in his hand. That isn’t even his.

“How tall am I?” This was the kicker question, as, when it comes to height, count me out.

There was a pause. The captain said, “Why do you ask?”

“Because when I allegedly got out of the Jeep surely he would notice my height.” Or lack of same.

“You’ve just gone a long way to clear yourself, Mr. Smith. The shooter never left his vehicle. An innocent man wouldn’t have known that.”

Okay, so now I was a free man, though I still needed to fax my diary page, hoping that they wouldn’t call my shrink who would say, “December 6th? Hey, how am I supposed to remember, right?”

I said, “Are you willing to stay on the line for a few more minutes? Because I’d like to do a little research. You never know when it’ll come in handy.”

“I’d be happy to, Mr. Smith.”

“To start with, how did you get my name and number?”

“Someone phoned it in.”

Okay, now I needed to sit down, take a deep breath and think long and hard about how this was beginning to turn. Because I’d read a lot, by way of research for a novel, about the German Occupation of France, and I knew all about both informers and the idle gossip of busybodies which often landed people such as me in concentration camps.

“Someone called the New York State Police with my name?”

“With your car’s license number.”

“As we’ve already concluded, it’s not registered in New Hampshire.”

“It doesn’t matter. Someone saw this incident on ‘America’s Most Wanted,’ and phoned in your information.”

Great. Now I was on television, on a show I didn’t even watch. “I’m on ‘America’s Most Wanted’?” Which led me to the unvoiced thought: now can I get CAA to sign me?

“But it’s not you, is it,” said the captain. Her tone had grown testy. The interrogation was really just starting to warm up.

“No, it’s not, and I thought we’d cleared that up. But you say someone called the show—“

“Anonymously—“

(Yes, this is how it was done in Occupied France. Anonymously.)

“Probably by one of your own neighbors,” she added.

Which of course immediately made me suspicious of every human being within a half-mile radius of my house. Our call came to an end, I faxed her the diary page, and then I went to my computer to see what I, the murderer, the road-rage killer, looked like. It wasn’t hard to find. “America’s Most Wanted” had the case prominently featured, along with a drawing of “me” based on the description given by the poor guy as he lay dying on the interstate.

It looked nothing like me. In fact, I was downright insulted that someone could think I looked like this weasly little coldblooded murderer. But a neighbor had seen the TV show and had reported me to the cops. I’d been fingered as the trigger man in a tragedy that would probably be turned into a movie-of-the-week called “The Interstate Killer.” I opened my front door and cased out the street. I watched them as they carried their groceries from their Volvos to their houses, as they innocently played with their children, as they walked their dogs and minded their own business.

There was only one thing for me to do.

Paris is murder in August. It’s the month when everyone leaves town and abandons the city to the tourists. Hotels fill with an assortment of American accents (the Germans have all gone to England); waiters, at least at the restaurants that remain open, spend far too long explaining the difference between service compris and service non compris. It’s a hot month, a dead month, the Seine gets punky, and every man and woman who’s leaving on this first day of August—meaning pretty much everyone—in fact on this first page of Coda—is right now sitting in traffic, anticipating their arrival at their vacation home in the Midi or some prefab bungalow bought for a small fortune in the Auvergne, next to the neighbors with the goats and loud children. To come to Paris in August is to come to a city nakedly out of sorts. But in the latest novel by René Belletto to be translated into English, it’s where we’ve just arrived.

Keef

By J.P. Smith

A&C Reviews

Musical autobiographies—apart from those by, say, Berlioz and Stravinsky, Art Pepper and Anita O’Day, which are genuinely enlightening—have always struck me as being about as helpful as interviews given by athletes after a game. Very little is said in a coherent fashion about an activity that has little to do with language. Being a rock star, however, is much more than the music: it’s the look, the attitude, the degree of untouchability one assumes. So I came to Keith Richards’s book (for which Little, Brown reportedly paid over seven million dollars) with heightened interest—this is Keith Richards, after all, not just a rock icon but the walking embodiment of a slow shrug and an extended middle finger—and, thanks to his choice of editor, with some very high hopes. James Fox is an old Etonian (i.e. nothing like Keith) who wrote White Mischief, a much-praised work of nonfiction dealing with the 1941 murder of the Earl of Erroll in the debauched British colony in Kenya known as the Happy Valley. At first it seemed an odd match (though the two men have known each other for years), but for the fact that the Rolling Stones are yet another colony of people who have been thrown into close proximity for so long that something had to give. If there’s been a murder, we haven’t heard about it yet. Oh wait: Brian Jones.

As Ian Frazier, author of On the Rez and Great Plains, suggests early in his compellingly enjoyable new book illustrated by the author’s exquisite line drawings, Travels in Siberia (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) there are two kinds of narratives about Siberia: the picaresque and the slave. One may travel to Siberia as an explorer, tramping—or, as in Ian Frazier’s case, driving—from one town or outpost to another, or one may be sent there for hard labor and sometimes to die. Both Stalin (on numerous occasions) and Lenin had been exiled to Siberia, but they’d had it a lot easier than when Stalin sent his prisoners there. These two men were sent there to be kept away from their followers or potential acolytes; years later Stalin sent people there to die under the weight of hard labor.

Apart from being cold and vast and somewhere way out there, beyond the wave of a hand, Siberia was historically also a place of oblivion. One might travel there to forget and be forgotten and eventually vanish, if not from memory, at least from the public records, just as some Americans must have wandered West, past the prairies and into the high mountain passes of the Sierra Nevada, to wrestle with their demons and sometimes abandon their own identities to the vagaries of legend. A place as vast as Siberia can never be the backdrop to an individual life; it swallows you whole and forgets to spit you out.

As Frazier seems to suggest, there’s something about Siberia that makes it almost too big to write about, a kind of alien, otherworldly quality that radically distinguishes it from the more European Western Russia, as though moving from one to the other were like walking off the edge of the world.

Defining Siberia becomes for the author an almost metaphysical task. Though we in the West take it for granted that Siberia is a geographical region, Frazier explains that “no political or territorial entity has Siberia in its name.” Which is like expecting Wonderland or Heaven to be signposted and mapped. Not just one but five separate trips are chronicled in this volume, as though the author had been repeatedly drawn back there by some need to understand the nature of the place. This leads me, and I expect to some degree Ian Frazier, to believe that ultimately Siberia is something closer to a state of mind, a vastness of the imagination and, more often, a hellhole of nightmare. He puts it in perspective for us: encompassing eight of Russia’s nine time zones, home to some thirty-nine million citizens (slightly more than the population of California) it also occupies one-twelfth of the earth’s land mass. The name itself conjures up images and sensations of intense cold, great bleak stretches broken only by birch trees and, as Frazier tells us, heaps of garbage left along the roadside, not to mention signs of imprisonment, such as rusted barbed wire and the shabby emptiness of haunted dormitories that once housed the prisoners of one regime or another.

Siberia is also a place of silence and separation; in Manhattan it’s where less-famous diners are sat in posh restaurants, near, as Frazier points out, the condiment room. It can be an extreme version of the British concept of being sent to Coventry, which is an adult form of enduring the proverbial cold shoulder, though Siberia has a more permanent and icier connotation than that cathedral city in the English Midlands. But it’s not all snow and saltmines. My grandfather, who until 1911 or so lived in Pinsk, a city in what was then known as the Pale of Settlement, variously “White Russia” and now Belarus, was approached one day by a relative who was despairing of ever finding a wife. “Go to Siberia,” my grandfather told him. “There are plenty of nice women there.” I don’t know if the man listened to my grandfather, but according to Frazier Siberian women are supermodel-gorgeous, which is probably why most of them leave as soon as they can to become supermodels.

Ian Frazier’s generosity of spirit and style of writing reminds me of the English writer Eric Newby’s travel narratives, whether he was rowing down the Ganges or walking the Hindu Kush. We can read Newby and always feel that we’re in the presence of someone as fallible as we are. Like Frazier he never attempts to master his environment or to look down at the people of whatever land he’s exploring. There’s an amiability to the teller (as opposed to, say, the cranky impatience of a Paul Theroux, excellent travel writer that he is) that makes us appreciate his company, and yet Frazier almost tells us too much about his Siberian journeys, from the purchasing of an airline ticket to a lengthy and somewhat overlong digression on the American explorer George Kennan, as though he were attempting to incorporate not just his own experiences in Siberia, but as many diverse facts as possible about this vast eastward stretch of Russia. But who can blame him? Siberia, like most forbidding and forbidden places in the universe, is a kind of magnet, and for Frazier a powerful one. And so his discoveries during his trips there are as surprising to us as they are to him; such as the beauty of the Siberian women, or that the village known as Neudachino—east of Ekaterinburg (where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918) and north of Kazakhstan—is literally translated as “Unhappyville.”

The major difference between the writers is that Newby always had a geographical goal in mind, and thus hanging over his journeys was the question Will he make it? I felt at first that there was something directionless in Travels in Siberia, that five trips may have been four too many, at least to write about in detail, and especially because little in Siberia seems to change from one journey to another. But in retrospect I think Frazier does have a goal in mind: he’s seeking not so much a geographical place but something more like the soul of a country. Five trips; five separate and very different glimpses of it. But in the end, one senses, he just about found it.

The parts of this book that truly stand out for me are when Frazier deals with the exiles and the camps of Siberia—which are what most of us associate with the region. Does not the name itself make us see these men, women and even children—most of them innocent of any crime worth mentioning—being transported there, to the salt mines and gold mines and the general misery that goes along with exile, of being separated from one’s family and friends, those you sat with late on summer nights, drinking vodka, eating black bread, walking the streets debating literature in the white half-dawn of three in the morning? In the seventeenth century, Frazier informs us, one could be exiled for “fortune-telling, prizefighting, vagrancy, taking snuff, and driving a horse with reins instead of sitting on its back or running alongside. Usury, debt, drunkenness, trespassing, salt gathering, wife beating, and begging when not in distress” also got you sent into this nowhere land.

In the last century, apart from political exile, one could be dispatched there for such high crimes as stealing a spool of thread or what Frazier refers to as “facial crimes,” such as smiling during a serious party lecture, or studying Esperanto or dancing the decadent Western dance known as the foxtrot. The Kafka in me especially appreciated the tale of a druggist who “threw a rock with a petition wrapped around it through the window of a government minister, for which he was sent to live in a Siberian village that the authorities did not know no longer existed, so the druggist had to keep looking for it for thousands of miles.”

Perhaps the most historically famous of the exiles were the Decembrists, to whom Frazier devotes several pages, and for good reason: Russian Army officers, many of them noblemen with sizeable fortunes who wanted most of all to free the serfs and rid the country of its tyrannical leadership, paid the price for their rebellion of 1825 with either execution or exile. Frazier writes of how, in Siberia, these men “started schools, experimented with new crops, studied the native peoples…. In general, the Decembrist exiles greatly raised the tone of Siberia. Travelers through the region sought them out; though under police supervision…they became Siberia’s unofficial first citizens.” What remained of their disappearance into the eastern wilderness of the empire was reputation. Because of their completely noble intentions in rebellion their ideas saturated the air, and even when Russian streets were named after their major figures, when names of not only streets but of cities might lose their identity according to dictatorial whims of the day, the names have never been changed. Frazier’s pages on the Decembrists are his most heartfelt.

Every country has its smell. For me, Russia (to which I’ve never traveled) is the long-ago smell of the lobby of my grandmother’s apartment house in Washington Heights, where the milky green sorrel soup known as schav seemed forever to be simmering on emigrant stoves, or cabbage was being cooked, to be served with boiled beef and horseradish after a bowl of borscht and a boiled potato, accompanied by the sound of spoons in glasses of tea and the raised voice of endless disagreement, mostly in Yiddish and often directed at me. Frazier renders the aroma of Russia as a mixture of diesel fuel, cucumber peels, old tea bags and sour milk, as well as jam and wet cement and mud. It’s this kind of sensory experience, whether of taste, smell or something heard, we believe, only by us—immediately taken as a private moment of privilege—that makes us fall in love with a country, especially one that has not yet succumbed to the scent of the American shopping mall, a combination of scented candles, tired food courts, and a large dose of what a place such as that aspires to, Nothing Very Much At All.

But Russia, for all its new money, for its shiny new cars and nightclubs, is still mired in its past. History for the Russians is a kind of weight that we in America shrug off so easily that fringe groups can simply assume its mantle and change all the facts to suit their political vision. Some of this must be due to the sentimentality of the Russian soul. As Frazier puts it when he reaches the point where Perm meets Tobolsk and Russia gives way to Siberia, “at this pillar…exiles were allowed to stop and make a last goodbye, to press their faces to the ground and pick up a little of the earth of western Russia to bring with them. Beyond this spot they were, in a sense, jumping into the void.” Well into her eighties and far from her place of birth, my aunt would suddenly have the eyes of a young girl when she described her years in Russia. And the ice-cream. Always the ice-cream. Mother Russia has very long apron strings.

Travels in Siberia is at times a rollicking tale, well-told and sometimes very funny, especially when the author is on the road with his companions Sergei and Voldya. Driving the nine thousand miles from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean in a van of dubious reliability with two Russians of unsurprisingly capricious dispositions, it’s in his sections on the Decembrists and especially on the camp that he visited that his writing truly stands out. How convenient, as Stalin surely knew from experience, snow and cold can be: one keeps us inside, shutters closed, fire blazing, blind to what horrors lie under the wintry moon; while the other buries the machinery of human misery beneath a downy, pleasing aspect. All that remains is memory that, like the snow, will melt away as time grows weary with age and the cold, dark heart of human arrogance will survive only in lines of poetry, in pages of memoir, in stories passed down from one generation to the next.

The camp Frazier visits, some twenty-five kilometers from Topolinoe in eastern Siberia, had not become a tourist spot that could accommodate groups or provide parking for motor coaches, but an abandoned place of desolation and memory, beautifully evoked in some of his most moving pages. There’s a sense that this fourth trip, with all its detours and breakdowns and pratfalls, delays and dangers, was meant to lead us to this spot in the middle of nowhere. Because intense cold preserves things, he walked into a place virtually unchanged since the 1950s. He quotes Eugenia Ginsburg, who spent fifteen years in the Kolyma camps: “…when a camp of children prisoners in Magadan was given two guard-dog puppies to raise for a while, the children at first could not think of anything to name them. The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.”

Remainder, Tom McCarthy’s first published novel, arrived in 2005 as the ideal kind of literary fiction, showing us a new reality and refusing to give up its secrets all at once.

It’s a work of a certain uncompromising inscrutability, and like all works of art that don’t exist to strike the eye, ear or mind with an instant and gratifying rush of artifice and pleasure, it pulls us back to it time and again to check what we’d missed seeing in its mirrored surface when we first opened it. British publishers would have preferred it to be otherwise, since they all passed on it, leaving it up to a small press in Paris to release it in a limited edition, before it was brought out in the US by Random House to laudatory reviews by such writers as Joyce Carol Oates and Zadie Smith.

I read yesterday morning of the death of one of the most original voices in British literature, Dame Beryl Bainbridge. I’d first discovered Beryl’s works in the mid-70s after reading Graham Greene’s praise of her novel The Bottle Factory Outing. It was on a trip to London in the early 70s that I managed to find the title (unavailable then in the US), along with everything else I could find by her. Once I read it I knew that Beryl’s was a unique voice and one that would influence me in some way that I couldn’t yet foresee. She’d also influenced a generation of other writers, and her powers of observation, her mordant wit, and her ability to mix in a completely convincing way the tragic and the comic, can be seen in the works of many authors, including this one.

Some years ago I tentatively began work on a novel about a boy growing up in Paraguay with a father who had once been a high-ranking Nazi and was now in hiding. It was to be called Eldorado, and I recently discovered the mere 37 pages I had written of it tucked away in a folder on my laptop’s hard disk. It’s not bad, and maybe one day I’ll do something with it. But back then I had great plans for this book. I imagined scenes in which the boy celebrated his father’s birthday with the man’s friends, all of them also ex-Nazis who still held allegiance to the Führer in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Looking back from adulthood, the narrator would remember being jogged up and down on the knee of kindly Dr. Mengele, and when his father’s cake was brought in, the candles, embedded in a layer of vanilla frosting, formed a blazing swastika. Klaus Barbie, “The Butcher of Lyon,” was definitely going to play a role in this tale of a boy outgrowing his family’s past.

Here’s a paragraph lifted from that unfinished novel:

That night there were the usual guests, those I had watched arrive in the waning hours of the afternoon: the Doctor with his soft angelic eyes; Uncle Klaus, the man known throughout the continent as the Consultant, emerging from his rented white Mercedes with a smile of goodwill and a gentle pinch on the cheek for me, merry Klaus Altmann with a spring in his step and a song on his lips, the smell of La Paz or Lima still lingering about him. Anyone else passing through on the network, traveling on business, or simply feeling nostalgic, was also welcome. They had not yet begun to grow old and careless: most wore new names, the novelty of mustache, the superfluous eyeglasses that made them appear to be pharmacists and elementary school teachers in search of herbal remedies or truant children. Once the Doctor came dressed as a priest, his soutane blowing in the evening breezes, and when he saw me amidst the merry guests he anointed me with his thumb and a smear of Veuve Cliquot. “He has good bone structure,” he told my father as he squinted at me through a cloud of cigarette smoke, showing the gap between his front teeth. “Breeding is everything, you know.”

The “Doctor,” of course, is Mengele. And Klaus Barbie—he used the name Altmann while residing in some comfort in Bolivia (and working for Bolivian intelligence, to boot)—lived more or less openly wherever he was on the continent, often under the protection of the government in power. His escape from Europe via a ratline had been aided by both a number of Catholic priests as well as, it was suggested, officers of what would soon become the CIA; the logic being that he may have been a Nazi but, hey, he was an ardent anti-communist.

I twice watched Marcel Ophüls’s harrowing “Hôtel Terminus,” a three-hour-plus documentary on Barbie and his long happy life prior to his arrest and trial. I remember vividly the scene in which Barbie rises up, wraithlike, into the dock of the courtroom in France and turns his skull-like gaze at the spectators and the camera: a look of such simmering darkness and malevolence that one had to turn away from it for fear of one’s soul being caught by the dull blueness of his dead eyes. He was a man of immense cruelty and love of power, and his choice of victim revealed a streak of cowardice that had grown sharp with use. While in charge of the Gestapo in Lyon he had ordered the deportation of forty-four Jewish children living in an orphanage in Izieu, ranging in age from four to seventeen, to a certain death in Auschwitz. All but two were gassed; the remaining children, the oldest, were killed by firing squad. Their class photo hung above my desk while I wrote: ranks of smiling faces in the sun, terribly alive, on that still bright afternoon before Klaus Barbie signed their deportation order.

While questioning for eight solid days Simone Lagrange, a 13-year-old Jewish girl arrested along with her parents, he gently stroked a kitten before finally, and brutally, beating the child, smashing her head against the desk in his Hôtel Terminus office. It was his hand stroking the cat that this woman who’d survived the camps and testified at his trial always remembered: how could such an apparently gentle man be capable of such violence? When she first saw him (and I translate from her testimony given at Barbie’s trial), “[He] caressed my cheek, he said I was cute.” And when he struck her, she said, “it was the first time in my life I had been slapped by anyone.” In the film the neighbors who had not lifted a hand to save her and who still lived there now claimed not to remember her. Perhaps they were ashamed of their behavior. Or maybe it’s just that the past really is another country. But not for Simone Lagrange.

It was that which gave rise to my idea for the novel. I thought: how does a child escape the malign influence of a man who had instilled such fear and brought so much suffering to so many people? And what complex collision of feeling and memory did this man have to negotiate day after day as he lived his life out in his South American backwater? Okay, so far so good. The tone was mordant, sometimes blackly comic, and I had a very good idea where the story was going.

So I began to do some research. Never having traveled to South America, knowing very few words of Spanish, I did a fair amount of reading, and eventually met at my daughter’s school a South American whose child was also there. For legal reasons I‘ll call him Ramon. He was around my age, perhaps a few years older, a man of many talents: a storyteller who could hold the attention of a class of eight-year-olds; the illustrator, he said, of at least one children’s book; a guitarist with more than passing ability. He also told me he’d been in advertising in New York for several years, working at the legendary agency known as BBDO, often alluded to by Don Draper and his cohorts at Sterling Cooper, and known to every New Yorker who has walked past their building on Madison and 47th. He told me (and others) of some of the advertisements he’d been responsible for, big, clever campaigns we all had seen. He was indeed an impressive man.

I happened to mention to him my plans for the novel, and wondered if he might help me get my bearings on Paraguay, where I intended to set my book. Certainly, he said, he’d be happy to help. “Come to my house for a few hours and I’ll tell you everything I know about Klaus Barbie.”

You knew him?

“Let’s just say that I was one degree of separation from him.”

Research usually doesn’t get that good. I figured I’d question him on life among the exiles (and war criminals) in that country, and get a sense of the rhythm of things in Paraguay. So I came to his house, and while he told me a slightly ribald story of having a drink with a certain Latin-American singer at a café in the West Village and suddenly finding a well-known actress perched on his lap, he prepared what he called a merienda, a traditional midday snack. My idea of a snack is maybe a cup of yogurt or a few crackers. This was the better part of a cow cooked in stages on a grill, and a bottle of very rich, very potent South American wine. It was eleven in the morning, and I was clearly not going to be myself for the remainder of the day.

When it was time to work, he got out a map and pointed out the terrain in various parts of the country, explaining the climate, the state of the roads, the kinds of cars people owned who lived far from the cities; good places for people to hide (though Barbie often lived in the cities, under the protection of the local constabulary and army). I took copious notes; this was going to be a killer novel.

He opened a box of photographs that had belonged to his family. Some, decades old, were of a mansion of European design, perched on the edge of what could only have been a jungle. His grandmother, he said, had worked as a housekeeper at this palace. “See? Here she is standing on the step.” And then he looked at me: “They used to call Barbie ‘The Consultant’.”

I looked at him. “This was his house?”

“No, no. He was a well-known figure. Everyone knew him. He traveled here and there, went to one house for dinner, to another for a meeting…”

“And your grandmother-?”

“Of course she saw him often. She didn’t know who he was exactly. To her he was just another German. But she said he was charming, a very nice man.”

So we went through the photos and some more maps, and we drank some more wine and ate more beef, and when I left—I should say staggered off—I felt I was now able to write this novel. I had a sense of the local color, and a grasp of the respect a Klaus Barbie could command in the country of his exile. But something troubled me about the whole thing (above and beyond the whole “charming Nazi” paradigm, eternally distasteful). I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was as if I’d been told a story that lacked a center; a kind of doughnut tale that remained vaguely unsatisfying.

Two weeks later I ran into Ramon at the school. He had bad news; in fact he looked so awful that I was prepared for the worst. Ramon had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was in the exact center of his brain, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Until now no doctor had even been aware of it. A sentence of death had been handed to him. The specialists had all given up.

And then he dropped out of sight. His child continued to be a student at the school, and I’d see his (American) wife now and again on the carpool line. And then I received a call one evening from a friend who said that Ramon had been seen walking along the side of a road carrying a rifle. Carrying a rifle? What the hell was this all about? He seemed troubled, my friend said, and it was obvious he was intent on killing himself. The story had some coherence to it: an inoperable brain tumor leads to suicide. Okay, I’ll buy it.

Things started to escalate, or rather veer off in all the wrong directions. His wife got wind of the story of the brain tumor and apparently had never been told anything about it. One prominent advertising campaign he’d said he’d devised (“on the back of a napkin over lunch”) was demonstrably not by him. And a week later, while catching the six o’clock news, I watched as a disheveled Ramon was marched off to a police car in handcuffs. He’d been robbing banks all over the area and, his disguise proving so unremarkable, was spotted after turning over yet another bank before he was promptly arrested. At another woman’s house.

The entire structure of this man’s life—his supposed career, his brilliant advertising campaigns, his tales of South America among the Nazi war criminals—nothing could be trusted now. There was no brain tumor, there was simply…nothing there. The man had been lying and, worst of all, lying to his own wife. Possibly—probably—even to himself. He was a fiction, and when he was about to be caught out something imploded within him. Life could no longer make room for this sad man, though life may very well have accepted the sheer ordinariness of a life lived less spectacularly, stripped of its ornamentation and bravado, had he allowed himself the chance to give it a try. He was like a man who, late at night, alone in his apartment, cheats at solitaire, caught in an endless round of self-delusion, a life full of jacks and queens and kings and, of course, the joker at the bottom of the pack.