Recent Work By J.P. Smith

I’d been going to summer camps for eight weeks every year since I was the delicate age of seven, when most kids my age were either still being weaned or working at a blacking factory . That’s eight weeks without phone calls, emails, access to the not-yet-invented Internet—nothing but rusticity, pitchers full of what was called bug juice (Kool-Aid attracts insects, you see), and, for some, two months of homesickness. I wanted to be neither at home nor at camp. I was already looking ahead to growing up, when I could plan my own hours and days and not have to wake at some ungodly hour to the dismally upbeat Reveille.

The Secret of Evil coverThere’s always something left, isn’t there. Discarded short stories, novels begun and abandoned, shorthanded ideas on dried-up Post-it notes or scribbled in the middle of the night on a Kleenex. For a lot of writers most of this is discovered, in the brittle light of dawn, to be crap, though at the time of writing it always seems like deathless prose of staggering originality. But we hang onto it; or at least some do.

One thing I’ve observed from reading certain contemporary French writers is their penchant for bringing genre elements into what, for lack of a better term, one might call “literary fiction.” In the English-speaking publishing world (where I’m sure more than a few dog-loving editors buy hybrids known as “labradoodles” without complaining that the beast is neither one nor the other) it’s done with some trepidation, and published even less, as though writers and the people who advance them cold hard cash are frightened of having reviewers dither over how to classify the thing and end up ignoring it altogether. Which is generally how it turns out, anyhow.

Journalist, documentary filmmaker and chief editor of Le Temps modernes, the journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Claude Lanzmann is perhaps best known for the nine-and-a-half-hour Shoah, a milestone not only in documentary cinema but in Holocaust studies. And now we have his memoir, The Patagonian Hare, translated by Frank Wynne and handsomely published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

You saw them everywhere—Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders and Ken Weaver—on the street, in the shops, in the park. This was definitely not your typical rock group; no one in it could be mistaken for, say, Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson, and none of their songs resembled “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Surfin’ Safari.” Instead they played “Group Grope,” “Dirty Old Man,” “Kill for Peace” and “Slum Goddess.” It was fun, rough, streetwise stuff, the lyrics of which prevented it from being played on most radio stations. (I was once docked for a week from my radio show at a Midwestern college for having wandered off from the studio while one of their songs spun its raunchy way into the ear of the portly science professor in charge of the station—the only person listening at the time). There was nothing pretty about these guys: they looked like most of the people you’d see in the East Village that summer of 1969—a bit wasted and borderline demented.

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?’


“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—“


(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.