Tao Lin’s loyal cult following has grown beyond the fringes of the underground. When he pisses in a back alley at night his adoring fans cry, “Look! He’s streaming golden light into the darkness!” He may not be pushing art forward, but he’s giving it a good shake, and for this he deserves credit. However, much of his output resembles mad dross, yet critics (see here) call him existential and compare him to Hemingway and Camus. I’m not saying such pundits are stumpdumb, but Tao’s no existentialist, and he ain’t Camus. Perhaps these reviewers are confused because Tao cleverly peppers prose with “faux existential” messages. Example (from Shoplifting from American Apparel): “Sam questioned Hester existentially while lying nearly face down covered completely by the blanket.”

Deep, man.

The only thing Tao has in common with existentialists is a preponderance of uncertainty. Therefore, last year I pitted him against Camus: Tao Lin vs. Albert Camus. Camus’s victory was decisive, yet Tao’s not done, not by a “long shit.” This time, seeking a fair opponent, I’ve matched Richard Yates with the anonymous genius of the 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual. Let’s see from where lyric mastery comes!

Tao Lin’s Richard Yates vs. 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual

ROUND I:

Richard Yates: He walked to the post office. He mailed packages. He walked over the steel bridge. He stood on the train tracks looking in both directions. He walked on a street parallel to the train tracks. He walked behind a grocery store to the train tracks. He stood on the train tracks. He walked on the street. He walked on the train tracks.

2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual: To the left of the instrument panel cup holder are two 12 volt power outlets. The upper outlet is controlled by the ignition switch and the lower outlet is connected directly to the battery. The upper outlet will also operate a conventional cigar lighter unit (if equipped with an optional Smoker’s Package).

RESULT: Tao Lin’s six repetitions of “he walked”  indicates competence in S-V, but could not overcome the lingering poetic resonance of “instrument panel cup owner.” Winner – 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual.

ROUND II:

Richard Yates: He thought about Dakota Fanning and other people. He orgasmed into toilet paper. He carried the toilet paper to the bathroom and put it in the toilet. He peed into the toilet. He flushed the toilet. He washed his hands. He washed his face. He went to his room and read a few sentences from different books. He ate dark chocolate.

2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual: Air comes from the floor, defrost and side window de-mist outlets. This mode works best in cold or snowy conditions. It allows you to stay comfortable while keeping the windshield clear.

RESULT: Tao Lin’s masturbatory scene no match for a relatively tame epiphany about de-mist outlets. Winner – Richard Yates.

ROUND III:

Richard Yates: Around 5:30 a.m. they were in a booth again. Dakota Fanning was asleep with her head on the table. Haley Joel Osment held her and looked at things. He went to the opposite seat and lay and slept. He woke and saw Dakota Fanning’s head under the table with a shy facial expression asking if he was okay. It was around 6:45 a.m. They left Price Chopper. They walked over the field onto the parking lot of school buses.

2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual: Under certain conditions, the cellular phone being On in your vehicle can cause erratic or noisy performance from your radio. This condition may be lessened or eliminated by relocating the cellular phone antenna. This condition is not harmful to the radio. If your radio performance does not satisfactorily “clear” by the repositioning of the antenna, it is recommended that the radio volume be turned down or off during cellular phone operation.

 

RESULT: In a closely fought round, Tao Lin writes a genuine scene, tender, yet lacking in appropriate weight, as, with a stunning glimpse into the emotional ramifications of cellular technology, the Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual squeaks out victory. Winner – 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual.

Final Words: The 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual defeats Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, much to the delight of the tens of thousands ofsatisfied Dodge owners. Yet Tao’s future shows more promise than that of any car manufacturer. Tao’s star, as cliché-lovers say, shines brighter every day.

 

 

I met Jen in rehab in 1995. She was trying to kick a methadone habit and I was in an ugly battle with the bottle. She’d been in treatment a few weeks before I arrived. And when I did arrive I was running on a two-week binge that had me buckled over and racked with blurred vision. I could hardly move except for my hands that wouldn’t stop rattling. I showed up at their door with a duffle bag full of clothes and a couple of books. One of them being Camus’ Exile and the Kingdom.

They immediately put me in detox. In the bed next to me was this young dude who was hooked on speed. On the other side of me was a middle-aged man whose drug of choice (DOC) was morphine.

“I got addicted after a car accident,” he told me, his eyes pale and gone. He lost two fingers in the accident. “That was the first time I tried morphine. In a hospital of all places.”

When I was in the clear they put me through an assessment and found that I was highly depressed, was loaded with anxiety, suffered from sleeping disorders, and had a problem with alcohol.

I was a walking time bomb.

I was lethal.

I already knew this.

One of the first things they tell you when you enter rehab is that it’s not a place to find romance. Don’t look for a boyfriend or a girlfriend in rehab. That’s not what you’re there for. You’re there to rewire your brain. You’re there to get clean. You’re there to fix yourself. You’re not there to get fucked. You’re already fucked. That’s why you’re in rehab.

But when I met Jen there was an instant attraction between us. She was pretty, had beautiful green eyes, fair skin, and short brown hair. Over the next week I’d see her around the facility. We’d stop and chat, talk about our treatment and whatnot. Small talk. But there was something else going on. One night after a group session I was walking out to my car and she stopped me.

“So, what are you doing tonight, Reno?”

“Try not to walk into a bar and get shellacked,” I said, laughing.

“Sounds like a good plan. How about some coffee? Want to join me?”

That night over coffee and her burning cigarettes we told each other’s story. She came from a wealthy family, was born and raised in Miami. Two brothers, one sister. Mom was a materialistic pill-popping bitch and dad was a functioning drunk who owned a Budweiser distribution center that allowed him to fill up his houses with kitschy shit and wrap his neck and fingers in diamonds and gold. Her brothers were alcoholics and her sister, who owned a successful talent agency, was addicted to everything. Coke, booze, opiates. She was a professional addict who never missed a day of work, never lost control, never went to rehab.

“She has her addictions under control,” Jen said. “If there’s even such a thing.”

Jen worked as a graphic designer and was heavy in the Miami art scene. That’s where she was introduced to methadone. Like many addicts, she experimented with all kinds of drugs including alcohol. But it was methadone that did her in. Her story was the typical drug tale: at first her using was recreational, a weekend thing. And then quietly and suddenly she was in the throes of full-blown addiction: methadone was running her life, waking her up, putting her to bed, and calling all the shots in between.

She avoided friends and family. Her work started to suffer and then disappeared all together. She lost self-respect, her dignity. And then she didn’t care. Didn’t care what happened to her. She packed up and drove across the states to Vegas not remembering much of the drive. I knew the story all too well. I lost my fiancé over alcohol. I disconnected from friends, family, and eventually myself. I told her that when my addiction was at its worse I knew damn well I was killing myself but didn’t care. The pleading voices over the phone didn’t mean a fucking thing. The concerned faces of those who loved me were featureless, blank, nothing.

The bottle won and was eating me alive.

We started to see each other a lot. We’d go to the movies, have dinner. We’d jog the Vegas Strip, hike Mount Charleston. We flew to California and sipped lemonade on the Santa Monica Pier. We watched the sunset and held each other. We couldn’t change the past. What the future held in store for us was a mystery. There were no guarantees—our promises just fragile utterances that could be snapped by the deceitful, cunning, and destructive voice of the addictive mind. But we were sober today. That was our mantra.

Today.

Today.

Today.

On the night that it happened we were walking in Sunset Park and I reached for her hand. We walked for quite a while without saying a word. But there really wasn’t much to say. Our hands weaved together said all there was to say.

“Want to go to my place?” she asked.

We sat at her kitchen table listening to Derek and the Dominos and talked long into the night. We wondered and worried if we were ever going to kick our habits. We knew we were in trouble, that our addictions had a stranglehold on us. We knew that if we continued to use then the end result would be the grave. There was no doubt about it. Two months before I lost a dear friend to heroin. A year before that another friend lost his fight with alcohol. One dead at forty-one, the other at twenty-seven. Good men. Funny, intelligent, gentle. But sick and damaged beyond repair. I was right behind them. So was Jen.

We knew we were in control of this.

We knew we were out of control.

“Reno, I know you don’t love me,” Jen said, looking through me. “But will you make love to me?”

My ex-girlfriend’s face flashed in front of me. Her telling me to wait, to not sleep with anyone, love anyone, that it will only complicate matters, not yet, get clean, please, I’ll wait. I shut off my picture-making machine, pushed away her words, and followed Jen to her bedroom as the opening lead to “Layla” slurred behind us.

Let’s make the best of the situation/Before I finally go insane/Please don’t say we’ll never find a way/And tell me all my love’s in vain

I woke up to Jen sitting on the bed Indian-style reading a book of poems I bought her. She looked beautiful, peaceful, her green eyes bright and clear.

“Hey,” she said, in a soft voice.

“Good morning.”

We stared at each other, examining each other’s face looking for something. I finally sat up, held her face in my hands, and kissed her. Tears rushed down her face. And then I started crying. We crossed over. We broke the rules of rehab. We cared for each other now. We wanted each other to get well, to be happy. We wanted the best for one another. We wanted each other to be clean and sober. We held each other thinking the same thing: please don’t use, don’t drink.

* * *

After three months we completed the program. Jen finished before me, but continued her treatment at another facility. We continued to see each other, but as time passed we saw less and less of each other. We were in love, but knew that because of our addictions a serious long-term relationship would be a precarious situation. We were dangerous for each other and didn’t want to bring the other down if our addictions surfaced again. The statistics said there was a high probability they would. This terrified us and eventually broke us up. We cared for each other too much to take the chance.

I remember our last phone call which would be the last time I’d hear her voice. We thanked each other, wished each other good luck, said that we’ll always love one another, but that it just couldn’t be. It was devastating. I hung up the phone empty, crying, lost, but sober. To this day I can still hear her voice coming over the wire.

“We’ll be all right, Reno. We’ll be O.K.”