Sometimes a book is so rich and alive that through a kind of synesthesia it makes you rethink your crotchety opinions about other art forms. Bradley Smith’s new book, for example, A Personal History of Moral Decay, weaves the texture of life so clearly that it almost made me like postmodern art.
It’s a series of autobiographical stories that detail a young writer-type’s grueling thirty-year search for his muse. I was walking down a hot Chicago sidewalk a couple of weeks ago, thinking about the manuscript; it wasn’t due to publish till this Sunday, but I’d been helping Chip Smith of Nine-Banded Books (which also published my novel NVSQVAM) with a proofread of the final edit (I think that’s all of the disclosures out in one sentence), and the close work with Bradley Smith’s gently accomplished prose had me in a fair-minded mood.
Millions of threads make up the tissue of a scene as simple as fighting with your roommates, as captured in the funniest story in the collection, “The Last of the Romans”:
“This is the last time I pull this caper with you, Marlow. Do you know we could get arrested for this? Do you want to go to jail for stealing a cow’s brain? Now that you stole it, you eat the goddamn thing. It takes a dumb goddamn wop to steal an item like that.”
“Don’t call me a wop,” Marlow says. “I’m the last of the Romans. I don’t have any connection with the wops.”
With such music rattling in my brain, and the texture of the street rolling in my senses, I passed an art gallery whose window was devoted to one of those sleazy MFA visual artists who devote their careers to the study of texture as a concept—slopping paint around at random, sticking twigs to it, then spending the bulk of their time writing “artist’s statements” to justify it. Normally I have no patience for an “artist” who’s never learned to draw, but hey, maybe there’s something legit in this other study of texture, too …
Nah. Not the way they try to fake it. Bradley Smith has wrangled words for fifty years to get the real thing. The MFAs have only stumbled on a theory that happens to be correct despite their laziness. Texture is the great thing to capture in art, but not in the leisurely abstract. Since painters quit learning technique, literature is the last art form standing that can simulate such complexity.
This is because writing is harder to cheat at—though now most writers are foolishly trying to do an end run around skill in that field as well; Chip Smith (no relation outside of publisher-author) describes A Personal History as “a good read that reminds us of how a man wrote and lived before writing workshop culture became entrenched.”
Bradley Smith went through the mill to get his chops the old-fashioned way, and the quest to find his subject was even more brutal. The stories from the early years in A Personal History paint the young author as a stubborn loser. None of his friends, relatives, or women had anything but disparagement for his writing, and not without reason: it was about his own navel. He lived with his parents when he wasn’t shacked up or on an adventure, filling mountains of notebooks and filing cabinets with what never amounted to more than writing practice, an insane persistence that bore no fruit till after his fiftieth year.
Most people—those who wouldn’t have given up in self-despair—would have seized upon the first couple of possible motifs he came across: he accidentally killed his baby brothers, for starters. He fought in Korea, he spent years training and fighting as the lone blond bullfighter in Mexico; he tried to be a war reporter in Vietnam, and he was prosecuted for obscenity.
He wrote about all these things, but all just for practice, waiting for the muse.
And oh, it would arrive. But the grand revelation brought only the fear of further loneliness: most of Bradley Smith’s friends and lovers were Jewish. And his muse happened to come in the form of a weaselly-looking little man at a libertarian convention who was passing out brochures about Holocaust revisionism.
And that is where the needle scratches the wax. Where the decent people run away.
Against his will, terrified, Smith was haunted by the possibility that there was no evidence for things like deaths by gassing in World War II. He began to look into the matter, and found that some respected researchers had admitted that the famous gas chamber they show to tourists at Auschwitz was actually used in WWII for what it looked like: a shower and bomb shelter. The locks on the “gas chamber” opened from the inside. The longer Smith looked, the more he was pressed to admit that here, in this crazy place, he had his muse.
He also had death threats in his future. Worse, he would face his loved ones’ grave disappointment in him, in his failure to accept what every good person believes. His muse was a demon.
But he also began to have an audience. He didn’t only get attention from the conventional historians who hated him; there were the revisionists, too … some of whom were adding to the store of human knowledge, and others who, unfortunately, lived the stereotype.
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