I think I was probably older than most writers are when they first realize that literature is not just books–that it is a system of ideas and ideals, a paradigm, a way of being.
I was 18 or 19. It was the middle of July in a steaming, sucking, temperate summer, and I was in northern Minnesota at a cabin my family has rented every summer for as long as I have been alive. Back then, the cabin got three channels, broadcast, via antennae. After trying, unsuccessfully, to get drunk in local bars, I was suffering a dearth of shit to do.
Desperate, I tagged along with my considerably more bookish sister to the bookstore in town.
An hour passed. I sat in the quiet of my office and ordered a bus ticket.
Within two hours I was dragging my suitcase down a street that paralleled Interstate 15. I walked past Palace Station where OJ was caught and thrown in the slammer. I turned east on Sahara Avenue and made my way through the hundred-degree heat over the freeway. The Sahara Hotel loomed in front of me. I’d stayed there for several days when I moved back to Las Vegas. Then I was at John’s house, living in his spare room. Now here I was walking back to the Sahara, pulling my suitcase along a dirty street and looking down at piles of broken glass on industrial rooftops.
That night I sat on the edge of my bed and stared toward the window as darkness flickered with casino lights and hummed with the monorail’s monotone singing.
In the morning I packed my suitcase for the last time. I walked out of my room. No hint of remorse for having quit my job. I simply began my journey as some journeys begin—an invisible string tugged my ass along.
The elevator had a musty odor. The doors opened and I passed the Sports Book and the lobby. The casino was nearly empty. In a few corners sat sleepy drunks. They streamed money into machines. Just a little slower than usual. Rusted automatons.
Outside, an endless sidewalk stretched along a horizon of heat. I started walking and stopped at the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas boulevards. The air was hot. I wore a black backpack that I’d stuffed with my laptop and clothes and dragged a black suitcase that looked like an old pregnant Labrador about to spew a giant litter of cloth puppies. It sagged, but I had a good hold of its flimsy plastic handle.
About that time the transient came.
God said his angels are all around us. They look like people. For all I know street performers are a breed of angels meant to watch us when pretending they’re desperate to be seen. They stuff their big feathery wings into jeans pockets. They tuck ripples of pink-skinned wing muscle, all feathery and silky into raincoats and cloaks, and, though they may be a little below us, carry invisible swords and magical timepieces that compress our paths into mere moments.
Those are the holy jugglers and poet rappers of the Word. The men of sleight of hand flashing jokers, and ministering minstrels with guitar cases open like bloody mouths eating dollars. They are the homeless locust eaters watching us come and go and breathing on us their angels’ breath and God light.
Before the light could change there came the transient talking up a storm. Talking fast. “You’re going somewhere special,” he said. “You’re going somewhere special with bags like those! Hot enough for you? I’m going to see destiny. She’s this way,” he said.
He stepped into the street before the light could change. He looked sun-worn and carried a bag of plastic bottles. His eyes were wild with uncertainty and the cosmic insanity that fills the universe at such moments in the desert. His clothes were urban, old; they fit him like a sloppy dishrag sliced to fit with a dirty butcher’s knife.
My destination was the bus station downtown on Main Street next to the Plaza Hotel. It was the dirtiest place I’d seen in Vegas, with its broken down restroom and shit-coated urinals corralled by strands of yellow tape.
My shoulder was already sore just dragging my life to the corner. Already forgetting about the transient, I stepped into the crosswalk just as the light changed. I crossed Sahara and gazed through car windows at empty morning faces. I looked up at a boarded casino dressed in black awnings. Just past that I saw the Stratosphere Tower. There flew a helicopter, while down on the street a motorcycle with a big moustache riding it roared past. I saw security guards wandering to work. I saw druggies hard up for the question of life to smack them in a fix of morning clarity.
Across the Sahara I made my way down the long snake of Las Vegas Boulevard. I yanked my bag along, which flipped over more than once as I dragged it. I barely missed the toes of bus riders waiting on shaded benches. Hard faces stared into the heat, past me and my bags. Some looked up at the Stratosphere Tower, at its moving amusement park machinery more than a thousand feet above them.
Further along I stopped to rest at an abandoned swimming pool. I snapped a photo and went on my way. My hand and shoulder ached as I walked up and down parking lot driveways and street curbs. Near one casino, the same transient sat on a small cement ledge. If he had angel wings I couldn’t even see a ridge of feathers beneath his shirt. He grinned at me and watched me pass into the heat. I finally took a longer rest by a wedding chapel, only to be passed again by the giggling transient. He rattled his bag of bottles and laughed as if spooking some ghost he saw inside of me.
I didn’t have any water and didn’t want to sit in the bright light. So I continued on the sun-baked sidewalk. I reached Charleston Boulevard and crossed it, heading into the old Huntridge District. I cut along streets, and passed through a transient park where bodies littered benches in multi-colored rags, and carts made their slow way, pushed by dirty hands. One group of transients sat against a wall by a fountain. Even in the heat they wore heaps of clothes. Their innermost layers, I imagined, were fused to cracked and caked lesion-covered wings, and to scabs where needles had burnt pools of coagulated blood onto drug-hot arms.
I dragged my bags slowly through, looking to see if the transient from outside the Sahara had made his way here. I looked to see if he was dancing a jig, or had miraculously transformed old plastic bottles into a puppet show of tales of the Vegas underworld: dancing demon can-can 7-Up mermaids, Coca-Cola devils of casino executives, big boss radio Fanta clowns with explosive-painted faces and forked tongues riding a carousel of Papa Johns pizza boxes and McDonalds fast-food toys—all lit on fire from the burning desert slot machine handles pulling reels of endless flames.
Several streets further, outside a Bank of America, my mouth was parched. I had nothing to drink so I just licked my lips and headed up some steps to where I pulled some of my last cash from an ATM. Heading back toward the street, I saw one of the most lonely of women and so smiled at her, the Queen of the Sin City Transients. I’d seen her many times before as she sat on a bench like it was her throne. Surrounding her were bags of food from trashcans, generous well wishers and back alley refuse piles. She was plump, rosy-cheeked and had the brittle hair of a sunburnt aged maiden of fire. She held a carton of soup and drank deeply as pigeons wandered past her feet. Piles of blankets and a cart sat nearby. I was a sweaty mess as I passed. I looked over but she ignored me, except through the farthest corners of her eyes, as little girls do.
I looked back, half expecting my transient friend to be there bowing at her feet and rattling his bag of bottles. I imagined a cloud of fire springing up at her feet, orange reflecting in her once shadowy black eyes, and her waving a wand, casting demons into the desert and demands to be carried out at midnight by fallen angels.
The bus station was close. I scooted on a sidestreet to Fitzgerald’s Casino, where years before I watched green-haired old ladies laugh and spin penny slots. Now the penny machines were even more gimmick-plagued. Their seats were filled with anxiety-ridden souls. It was a New World casino order, where penny slots tricked old ladies out of hundreds of dollars rather than the mere ten bucks they were used to losing. Those days of free martinis and enough cash left over to get a new green wig had gone.
Now I walked among a new generation of forlorn faces. With them I finally sat dehydrated and thankful. I ate at a McDonalds with a blank stare before eventually making my way to find brief refuge in the Plaza Hotel. There, I sat on a bench and changed my shoes and socks and prepared myself for the bus ride to California.
*This piece was written entirely on an iPhone
July 20, 2009
I don’t remember if I caught wind of it through Facebook or Twitter, in an email or if I just stumbled across a headline on the web, but when I heard that author Stephen Elliott was sending around a limited amount of advance copies of his new book, The Adderall Diaries, for free, I kept the information to myself and emailed him immediately.
He calls it the Lending Library.
Asks that people read his book in a week and then send it along. Just pay for the first-class postage and don’t mistreat the book for the next person.
I got my free copy on a Saturday, finished it the following Saturday, and am sending it on its way to the next cheapskate, er, reader on Monday.
The Adderall Diaries is the story of how Elliott battles writer’s block and an Adderall addiction in San Francisco until hearing that an old acquaintance from his S&M community has confessed to killing eight or nine people and won’t say who they are. The acquaintance is also the best friend of a man who is about to stand trial in a high-profile case, a guy accused of killing the mother of his two children, a Russian woman he met through a bride service. It’s framed by the complicated relationship between Elliott and his father who killed a man right before Elliott was born, or didn’t. But probably.
It’s a fast and brilliant read; it’s New Journalism-y where the writer sets out to report on an event but writes just as much, or more, on himself and his role in the event. It’s a true-crime memoir. It’s written on drugs, like On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The speed that Elliott is swallowing and snorting gives the book a jumpy feel, but the chronology doesn’t suffer. Unlike the author at times.
The book is brutally honest.
The book is immediately current, it’s eye-opening into the world of sado-masochism sex play (unless you’ve already read some of Elliott’s best work), and it invites you to investigate the lives of your parents before they were your parents.
And the book is, if you sign up before it’s too late, totally free (save for the postage).
Stephen and I emailed back and forth:
The Nervous Breakdown: The idea behind the Lending Library reminds me of a site I used to participate in, PaperBackSwap.com, where you list some used books on your shelf that you were totally done with, and if someone wanted it, the owner paid the shipping. Which was cool because I had too many copies of The Great Gatsby and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and I wanted to collect all the books in the Fletch series. But here you are sending out your book that hasn’t been on anyone’s shelf yet. For free. Could you tell me how this came about, if this was your idea or something Graywolf Press was looking to do with the right writer? And how did the second party react to the first party’s proposal?
Stephen Elliott: The idea was mine. I was having a “marketing” conversation with Graywolf and they were talking about getting galleys into the hands of bloggers. They had sent me a bunch of galleys to give to reviewers and people in the literary world. And that’s when I had this idea of just sending the book to anyone who requests it, but requiring they forward the book within a week.
The impression I got was that Graywolf had mixed feelings about the idea, but they didn’t say no, and they had already sent me the galleys. And I think they’re glad I’ve been doing it. I mean, I’ve always believed that you don’t make money selling books to your friends, you make money selling books to your friends’ friends. (not that I’ve ever made any money) This is an extension of that idea.
But also, you know, I just want people to read my book. I don’t frankly care if they buy it.
TNB: I can definitely see how this could pay off, especially if you already had all the galley copies: People read The Adderall Diaries for free, dig it, and spread the good news via word-of-mouth or through social media sites (if they’re able to take a break from updating everyone about their latest pedicure or what they just ate). Do you find that you’re getting more press this time around because of the Lending Library idea, more than when Happy Baby (Picador, 2004) was about to be released?
SE: I’m getting tons more press than when Happy Baby was released. I think that’s partly because of the Lending Library. But you have to understand, Happy Baby didn’t get any press. It was edited and designed by McSweeney’s and published/distributed by MacAdam/Cage, and in the middle there was this disconnect. Because McSweeney’s had designed and edited the book, there was no-one at MacAdam/Cage who had any ownership of the book, and so it fell between the cracks. Initially there were only maybe four reviews of the book. You couldn’t even order it at Borders. Happy Baby ended up doing really well and made a lot of best of the year lists, which gave me a lot of faith in the system, that if you wrote a really good book it would find its audience. But there was no attention paid to that book when it came out.
By that way, I’m not blaming anyone. I’m perfectly happy with what happened with Happy Baby. If Dave Eggers hadn’t of edited that book it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.
This time everything’s different. This is really my first major book in five years. My Girlfriend Comes To The City and Beats Me Up was just a collection of short, erotic vignettes, a minor book, I think. So now I have this book coming out, and since Happy Baby I’ve done all this political organizing around literary events, along with politically inspired anthologies. The truth is, I know tons of people in the literary world now, and in 2004 I didn’t. Plus, I’ve maybe built up a little fan base from my previous work.
But you know, in the end, you live and die by the work. If a literary book isn’t really good, (and this is still a literary book, even if it’s non-fiction) then nothing you can do is going to make the book succeed. You might sell a bunch of copies initially, but if a book is going to stick around it’s going to be because of the writing. I think people think too much about marketing, and not enough about writing good books.
TNB: Speaking of marketing, it’s funny that one of the things I got the most fired up about in your book was learning that your father would actively try to sabotage your writing career, calling reporters who interviewed you to say you were lying about your hard childhood, writing harsh Amazon reviews for your books. How did you first react to these things, particularly when he wrote those anonymous shitty reviews? Did you contact him? And did you begin to wonder if your memories were correct, although it’s obvious that they were pretty sharp in your mind?
SE: Well yeah. That’s what a lot of the book is about. I definitely questioned my memories, which is a pretty healthy thing to do. We all remember things differently. It’s possible for my memories and interpretations, and my father’s, to co-exist, even though they contradict each other.
The bad reviews my father left of my books (which he’s still doing) are never anonymous. I mean, he always says something so that I know it’s him. I’ve contacted him about it in the past, but I don’t contact him about it anymore. He should say whatever he wants, whatever makes him feel better.
TNB: Your father was a writer and author of a couple books. Have you ever critiqued his work? Is there anything of his you would suggest reading?
SE: I don’t know if it would be appropriate for me to critique my father’s work, but my favorite book by him is My Years With Capone.
TNB: You’ve been published in Esquire, the New York Times, GQ, Salon.com, The Believer (which is where I first read your work), and in some great collections including Best American Non-Required Reading and Best Sex Writing. You also started your own culture site, The Rumpus. What drove your to start your own publication and was it easier or harder than you thought it was going to be?
SE: I don’t remember what I thought The Rumpus was going to be. I look at creating The Rumpus like writing a novel. You just start, you don’t know what it’s going to become. The trick is focusing on creating something good. Don’t worry about what other people want to read, write the book that you want to read. Same with an online publication. I created the website I wanted to spend time on.
I was driven to do it after I finished The Adderall Diaries. It’s my seventh book, and I wasn’t ready to start another book right away. So this was a creative project I could get under while I figure out what to do with the rest of my life.
TNB: Well, hopefully when you start your next book you continue on with The Rumpus. I just discovered it a few months ago. You going to continue to head the site up from San Francisco or will you ever make your way back to Chicago?
SE: I don’t think I’ll make my way back to Chicago. I love Chicago, but San Francisco is my home now. It was an accident. I was driving around with no plan in mind. I was a ski bum, then I coasted into Moab. I ran out of money and gas in San Francisco eleven years ago. I kept meaning to leave, but I never did.
You can buy The Adderall Diaries in September 2009 from Graywolf Press, or you can borrow it now.
Keep up with Stephen Elliott until then on The Rumpus.