One of the biggest problems with selling people on the idea of a rock novel is the term “rock novel.” There’s something about the two words that don’t want to go together. In 2014, “rock” suggests teenage boys—or men acting like teenage boys—watching one of their favorite bands on TV and getting excited. “These guys rock,” might be said. The word “rock” as a verb also has become shorthand for anything anyone does well. For example, “Thanks, Bob and Jackie, for inputting those contacts into the spreadsheet. You guys rock.” It seems “rock” can be used across the board for the least rocking things imaginable. As a rock novelist three times over, I can’t say this rocks.
The idea, I thought, was a simple one: rent for a night the West Hollywood motel room where Jim Morrison lived on and off for three years, hold a séance with a few friends, and afterward throw a party. It seemed a fitting homage to Morrison, a party-hardy mystic who believed himself possessed by the spirit of a Pueblo Indian he had seen as a boy while traveling through New Mexico and happening upon the aftermath of a deadly accident. Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding, he famously wrote of the incident in “Newborn Awakening,” his poem set to music by his band, the Doors, seven years after he died. Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.
My father’s farm in Virginia is called Oak Hill. When he bought it, not long after he divorced my mother, there was in fact a cluster of enormous oak trees that shaded a white clapboard, nineteenth-century house that stood on the hill in the center of the farm, but the house burned down before my father could move into it. Some of the oaks survived the fire, which occurred on a Halloween night, but despite whispers that the previous owner had torched the house, no charges were ever filed. I remember surveying the charred remains and spotting, not charred even slightly, an old board game called Why, the Alfred Hitchock Mystery Game, which, according to the blurb on the box, involved “real thinking, planning, and memory.” I took the game home with me—I lived a twenty-minute drive from the farm with my mother, brother, and sister—but I never played it, and don’t know what became of it. Maybe my memory wouldn’t be so faulty if I had better developed it by playing Why.
It was around 9:30 P.M., and I was waiting for the bus in Hollywood after being momentarily paroled from my job as a so-called telefundraiser. When I applied for the job, I didn’t think I stood a chance of being hired at that company or any other, having been out of the mainstream work force for the majority of my adult life, which I’ve spent eking out a living as an actor and screenwriter. The entertainment business used to be said to be recession-proof, but if that was ever true in the past, it’s true no longer; the minute the economy went to hell four years ago, I received fewer and fewer offers of acting and screenwriting jobs, until finally I received none at all. Even production-assistant jobs were, in my case anyway, scarce, though I did manage to PA for a couple of days on a teenage space musical financed by NASA, as well as on a Disney Channel spot in which Miley Cyrus was interviewed alongside her achy-breaky father to mark the end of Hannah Montana.
I never thought I looked like James Dean, as people used to say I did, especially after I moved to New York to study acting. We shared the same coloring, but I was tall and lanky, while he was short and muscular. My face was round, and his was rectangular. Moreover, I strove as an actor to be as natural as possible, and Dean’s acting struck me as excessive, which is now what I most enjoy about it. His excess wasn’t of the soap-opera sort; it was quirkily personal, as when he rolls a cold bottle of milk over his brow to calm himself in Rebel Without a Cause. His character in Rebel is lacking the love—that is, milk—of his shrewish mother, and the symbolic way it’s expressed is one of many Kabuki-like gestures in Dean’s performances, particularly in scenes involving parents. His biography speaks to the reason. His mother died when he was nine, and afterward his father sent him to live on a relative’s farm in far-away Indiana.
June 10, 2012
1. Both Charlie’s Angels and the Manson girls were guided by mysterious older men named—you know.
2. Charles Townsend, a.k.a. Charlie of Charlie’s Angels, was a de-facto pimp with an apparent harem of young women other than his trio of gun-wielding detectives; Charlie Manson, a.k.a. Jesus Christ, was a convicted pimp with a documented harem of young women other than his trio of knife-wielding assassins.
3. Charlie’s Angels were observed communicating with Charles Townsend via the telephone; Charlie Manson was said to communicate with his girls via telepathy.
4. In the field, as it were, Charlie’s Angels worked alongside Charles Townsend’s male proxy, an ostensible eunuch named Bosley; the Manson girls, in the field, worked alongside Manson’s male proxy, Tex Watson, who, though not a eunuch, strikingly favored the eunuchlike Mr. Spock.
It was 4:30 p.m. by the time we got on the road. Me, Melinda, and Jane. The sky over the southern San Joaquin Valley was heavy with rain clouds. I drove. The road was slick. The San Emigdio Mountains were topped with snow. “You sure are quiet,” I said to Jane. Normally she was ruling the conversation. She called it a “Janeopoly.” I figured she was plotting out her novel, Puro Amor. Not long ago she told me she could write entire paragraphs in her head and remember them for transcribing later.
An hour or so later we zoomed down the Hollywood Freeway, took the Highland Avenue exit and headed west onto Hollywood Boulevard, on our way to Book Soup. We were nearly late for the reading.
The bookstore was small, cramped, packed floor-to-ceiling with shelves. The reading area was an aisle essentially, a few folding chairs leading to a podium. Bunched in the crowd were some writers from TNB, several of whom I’d never met. Kimberly M. Wetherell, filmmaker and writer, wore black glasses, her red hair a fire of loveliness. She mentioned that I was no longer two dimensional—no longer just words on a screen. I said something about being a figment of her imagination.
Duke Haney, author of Banned For Life and Subversia, stood in a corner wearing a black newsboy cap and a leather jacket. He was talking to Rachel Pollon, another TNBer. She stood about half his size and got shy when I asked her to talk on camera. “Meet Hank,” Duke said, pointing to another tall guy. Hank stepped forward and handed me a photo of a face with the word “awesome” on it.
Lenore Zion had long, curly hair—different than when I last saw her. She looked younger. She asked what I had been up to. I mumbled something about 2010 being a year to write off and later bought her book, My Dead Pets Are Interesting.
Greg Boose came up and offered me a friendly hello. He was taller than I expected, and handsome. His wife, Claire Bidwell Smith, was taller than expected, too. Both have striking eyes the color of the sea. Greg asked me how long I was staying in town. I wanted to say a week. I wanted to say I had a suitcase and was looking for a nice padded bus bench. “Probably headed back tonight,” I told him. “Though maybe I’ll just stay and find my way back in the morning.”
Joe Daly, TNB’s music editor, came over and introduced himself. His hair was shaggy, he was unshaven, he looked like rock and roll. For some reason I had expected his hair to be short.
I met Ben Loory, too. He has a gentle soul and a contemplative smile. Later, when he read a story of his called “The Well” and said he might cry, I almost started crying myself.
I didn’t get to meet Victoria Patterson. She read an essay about farts in literature, and her hands were shaking as she read. It was hilarious. Everyone laughed and held their gas.
Then there was the master of ceremonies, Greg Olear, author of the new novel Fathermucker. A dark sweater covered his “Brave New World” T-shirt. He gave me a guy hug and we made small talk. I met his wife, Stephanie, too—not a writer, but a ferocious singer. Steph was all hugs. She talked to a college friend from Syracuse, and they laughed about old times.
After the event, many of us headed over to Mirabelle, a nearby bar and restaurant. Brad Listi carried a sack of books and asked what I was up to and where I’d been. I didn’t want to dish out my sob story right then, so I just talked opportunities, my new book of poetry, the interest of an agent in my novel Anhinga, and so on.
Inside the bar, Jane came suddenly to life. She talked and talked and I grew quiet as she and a new friend walked to where Ben, Duke and the others were hanging out. Greg was at the bar drinking a beer. He ordered me some water. I listened to Stephanie and her friend talking about their college days. I was content.
Melinda was quiet. She used to write (Lenore recognized her from her defunct blog), and she does have a voice. But now, for the most part, she just comes to my Random Writers Workshop, where I prod people like her to write novels and dream big. Jesse from the workshop was there, too. He downed a few drinks and talked shop with Ben Loory.
We were there for about an hour before heading home. Jane fell asleep in the back of the car and began snoring. Rain poured over Interstate 5, turning into slush as we hit the Tejon Pass, the hump over the San Andreas Fault that marks the downward slide into the Central Valley.
“You okay?” Melinda asked. She could tell I couldn’t see the lines on the road.
“I’m fine,” I told her. “Just gotta see the lanes. I don’t mind driving in storms.” I was smiling a little, eyes straight ahead. I felt strangely at ease, like I was passing through a kind of personal storm, releasing it, washing it away on the rain-slicked desert road.
As we rolled back into Bakersfield, Jane woke up. By now it was one o’clock, and still raining. I pulled into Melinda’s driveway. We got out. Jane said a quick goodbye, ran to her car, and drove away. A pile of leaves in the neighbor’s gutter had caused a flood in front of Melinda’s house. I grabbed a hoe from the garage and started moving the pile. Melinda watched me briefly, then went inside, to bed. I stayed outside and pushed and pulled and hacked at the pile of leaves and branches until a stream was created. I stood alone in the rain and watched the water flow down the street. Rain came down against the lawns and streets of Bakersfield in the night. It was quiet otherwise, no signs of life, and I stood alone in the rain, content to know that the flood was gone.
November 30, 2010
It has come to my attention, and perhaps yours as well, that virtually everyone in the digital age considers him- or herself an artist. A glance at Facebook is like a trek through the Casbah, with so many people hawking their photos, their music, their writings, and so on.
How can a seasoned artist make a buck in such a climate? It was never easy, and it’s getting harder all the time, as the competition expands. Soon aspiring creative types will outnumber regular folk, who can only spend but so much money on things that—let’s face it—are almost always headed for permanent obscurity. Then, too, a lot of “artists” give their stuff away for free, leading audiences to think all creative output should be free, unless, for instance, it’s written by Jonathan Franzen, whose wealth must approach Illuminati levels if he charges by the metaphor.
A despairing friend called late one night to say that he was looking at a photo of himself as a toddler holding his father’s rifle.
“I have an appointment with that rifle,” he told me. “I’ve always known I was going to end my life with it.”
He’s fine now, thank God, but his remark brought to mind a journal entry I made as a teenager, in which I said that I was sure I was going to kill myself one day; it was only a matter of how and when.
Last spring, shortly after my novel, Banned for Life, was published, my actor friend Jeremy Lowe sent me this photo via Facebook.
March 26, 2010
Originally published by Press Media Group and appeared in the 24 February 2010 issue of The Lynchburg Ledger newspaper and subsequent issues. Photo by Amber S. Clark.
Read the reviewPretend this is either an episode of Charlie Rose or a New Yorker podcast and I am a bewhiskered Deborah Treisman with an exorbitant amount of testosterone. For those of you just joining us, I am talking with New York based novelist, Greg Olear, author of the murder mystery/social satire Totally Killer (Harper, 2009). And by talking, I mean I e-mailed Mr. Olear and he didn’t report me to the FBI for stalking.
It all began with a fuck. What doesn’t? I fucked the wrong person; I fucked up the right one; somebody played me a song. It changed my whole life, that song. That’s why I later went to so much trouble to find the guy who wrote and sang it. His name was Jim Cassady, or at least that’s what he called himself. His real name was Eddie Brown, but he’d changed it in tribute to Jim Morrison and Neal Cassady. I’d never heard of either one before I discovered punk rock. I grew up in a small city in North Carolina where I’d never known a single soul who listened to the Doors or read Jack Kerouac. I was a jock—a varsity pitcher and All-District linebacker who dressed like a preppie and hung out at frat parties. Even in high school I was hanging out at frat parties. My girlfriend was a cheerleader. My parents were diehard Republicans. Life was good. I hated my life. Nothing ever happened in North Carolina in those days, the early eighties. I used to pray for something to happen, and I’d stopped believing in God at fourteen.
Let’s start with a softball question. What’s your happiest memory?
I don’t think I can point to a single moment as happiest, but there are periods I would cite, like the year I lived in Serbia.
You were famous there.
I was, yeah. I’d acted in a movie entitled Rat uživo—War Live in English—and there was a lot of publicity for it. I flew back for the premiere, and my first day in Belgrade, I noticed that people on the street were staring at me. I didn’t know how much publicity there’d been, so it took me a while to realize why people were staring. I thought, Did my nose fall off, or did I somehow become incredibly attractive overnight? Then it dawned on me that I was being recognized.
I have stolen the keys to the TNB blog and am now going to take it for a spin. I may get booted off TNB for doing so, but before I’m found out, I thought I’d show some pictures of me hanging out with various TNB contributors, just to brag about the fact that I personally know them and stuff.