i arrogantly recommend… by Tom Bowden

Chartwell Manor: A Memoir
Glenn Head
Fantagraphics

The summer before my sophomore year in high school, I guess this would’ve been 1975, the father of a friend of mine told that he was sending his son—my friend—to a military academy on the east coast. My friend was sitting with me in the car as his father made this announcement, along with his older brother, who, the father said, was “too late to do anything about.” Scott, my friend being sent to military school, said nothing. We piled out of the car and went in the movie theater, where Scott’s dad dropped us off.

Until a year or so before, we had been best friends, getting together for a couple of hours after school about three times a week. I had a piano and some plastic-lidded 5-lb Maxwell House cans that doubled as drums, played with by wooden sticks taken from a circus set I’d had since age six. Scott had a kazoo. Together, we would write and tape record songs. We named ourselves “Vomit,” and we recorded for “Toilet Records.” Thematically, our songs were about bodily eruptions (such as vomiting), zits, and death. Typical 8th-grader boy stuff. The closest we ever came to writing a love song was a ditty titled “I Need You (You Kneed Me).” Although we never expanded lyrically, we added more instruments to our arsenal: an Emenee toy organ, an occasional borrow of child-size violin from Scott’s younger sister, a Jew’s harp, and nylon-stringed, $100 classical guitar.

Apart from the bursting pustules in our lyrics, we were squeaky-clean nerds. We came from different neighborhoods, however, and Scott’s there was tremendous pressure to take drugs, including pressure from his older brother. Scott succumbed, his A-average plummeted, and his parents decided military school was the answer to their troubled son’s problems.

All I know of him afterward was via retrospective hearsay, none of which I had any reason to doubt but nor could I confirm it: The summer after his junior year in high school, his parents decided to send him back for his senior year. Scott protested to extent of going on a hunger strike for two weeks, at which time his parents relented and allowed him to decide where he would spend his senior year: at the military academy or at the local high school.

To their surprise, Scott asked to return to the military academy. Apparently, he tried to contact me during the senior year Christmas break. I was away on vacation with my parents, so I only later found out from other friends he had met with that he was trying to find me.

Anyhow, shortly after returning to the military school after the new year, he ran away, only to be found in Florida two weeks later by a hired detective. Rather than have Scott brought back home to talk things over, his parents returned him straight to the academy. Once back, he filched some cyanide from the science lab and took it. Rumor says that he was part of a suicide pact made with three other students, and that Scott was the only one to go through with it.

His was the first funeral I attended, and it was the first for which I served as pallbearer. Because he had attended a military school, his parents had his coffin draped with a U.S. flag.

When Glenn Head was 13, his parents decided to send him to a small, private school to repeat the 7th grade. Over the years, Head had become increasingly distracted from school tasks and he was just eking by scholastically. Discipline was needed, and his parents chose to send Glenn to a boarding school for “troubled boys” (mostly), ages 5 to 15—usually boys from wealthy families, since tuition was $10K—a hefty sum in the early 1970s.

Every boy’s nightmare comes true in this book: The headmaster (who demands to be addressed as “Sir”) spanks, paddles, canes, beats, molests, and fellates the boys. (Who gets what is, as is usually the case in these situations, purely arbitrary.) The boys are trapped in a molester’s dream scenario: youth—troubled, confused, rejected at home—given unstinting attention and emotional manipulation that combines the shock of violence with the comfort of hugs and loving coos. This, at age 13.

That’s the first part of the book. The second part deals with the after-effects of those years. The after-effects, until age 30, include seemingly non-stop drinking binges, porn/sexshop/strip club binges, and—surprise!—difficulty maintaining relationships. Bonus points: Semi-estrangement from his parents, who turn a deaf ear to their responsibility for submitting their son to the abuses of the school. (The parents already seem to know or intuit that “Sir,” a tawny ex-Brit in his 40s, is abusive, and it’s nothing they care to give much thought to.) Head and I are, I would guess, within a year of each other’s age. Our parents are of a generation that says, “Deal with it. It happened; you can’t change anything. Move on,” while remaining blinkered to what that mindset has done to themselves, let alone to their children and grandchildren, while the effects of their decisions ripple on throughout the generations.

The indifference and willful obliviousness to molestation and other forms of abuse of one’s own child and of one’s own friend only worsen the emotional realm of the abused: To hear laughter as response to physical violation is a second violation of a child’s fundamental trust in the world. Head, in later years, meets up with some of his old school pals from Chatwell Manor, after Lynch, the headmaster, has been thrown in jail for pedophilia. Head gives up drinking at age 30, joining AA, but certain unhealthy sexual obsessions remain. Knowing how fucked-up he is as a direct result of that one year, he’s curious to see what’s happened to them.

None of the other three seemed to have made much of their lives: drunk, in jail, unemployed, etc. One is an especial car-wreck: drunk, missing a front tooth, part-time carpenter. That’s the first part. Part two: admits to enjoying Sir’s spankings and blow jobs. Part three: Hints that he’s seriously looked into the cost of having Sir killed by professionals. This is the notion of “resilience” of our parents’ generation.

Throughout Head’s memoir, at different years in his adult life, we see an image of Lynch on his drawing board, representing Head’s different attempts over the decades to confront his fears and their source. Each time results in emotional tailspin, almost always self-destructive. In Chartwell Manor, Head seems to have finally purged himself of the evil spirit that plagued him for 50 years.

I don’t know if my friend Scott endured sexual abuse at the so-called academy he attended. I do know that he felt isolated from anybody who cared and was willing to do anything positive to help him. He’s dead, and I’m his parents’ collateral damage.

Highly recommended.


I Can’t Stand to See You Cry
Rahim Fortune
Loose Joints

I Can’t Stand to See You Cry depicts a network of friends, family, and places (mostly Texan) over a series of single photographs. The visceral impact of the photographs is cumulative thanks to the grouping and sequencing of Fortune’s scenes and portraits, which he took while tending with his sister to their father during his last year of life—a time also of pandemic and nationwide racial unrest. Fortune masterfully and seamlessly blends these elements of personal, local, and national hardship and trauma, relying on sequence and juxtaposition to suggest narrative possibilities. Struggle, hardship and heartbreak are here along with love, grace, and hope.

Visit Rahum Fortune’s photography on his website.


Nothing but the Music: Documentaries from Nightclubs, Lofts, Dance Halls a Tailor’s Shop in Dakar
Thulani Davis
Blank Forms Editions

Scholar, poet, and journalist involved with music, cultural reporting, art and performance, Thulani Davis’s works are engagements with time, place, self, and community. The poems of Nothing but the Music have been adapted to music by Cecil Taylor, Derek Jarman (her husband), Henry Threadgill, and other significant Black composers of 20th-century American music, but the poems stand by themselves as completed works.

Some lines from “It’s Time for the Rhythm Review” that I particularly like:

I know there’s only minutes left
have to tune in
find out if it’s a riot in LA
or if we can still dance
to Teddy Pendergrass
& songs we hummed before
they made love stories
called “Damage”
Al Green is crying,
Aw baby, did you mean that? . . .

I learned my name is Rodney King
long ago and I’m waiting
waiting for a verdict. . .

a kid from Brownsville asked me
had I ever seen any violence
that’s why I clean my house
listening to songs from the past
times when no one asked anyone
if they’d seen a town burn
cause baby everybody had.

There are lots of other good verses here, too: “T-Monious” (for Thelonious Monk), “Lawn Chair on the Side Walk,” a handful of poems for Cecil Taylor, and more—poetry of celebration, struggle, and life.


An Apprenticeship; or, The Book of Pleasures
Clarice Lispector (Stephen Tobler, trans.)
New Directions

Lispector was a writer whose works suggest a person who had difficulty getting out of her own head. The interiority of her prose having little apparent regard for accessibility to readers significantly contributes to Lispector’s unique authorial voice. The writing isn’t so hermetically sealed as to require a secret-decoder ring but it does require of readers patience to work out, sifting metaphor from concrete image or knowing when the two are at play simultaneously.

An Apprenticeship may be one of Lispector’s most accessible novels—a love story—yet it’s the one I feel most ambivalent toward. The protagonist, from whose point of view the story is entirely told, is a young woman (20s, 30s?) named Lóri (short for Loreley [AKA Lorelei]) who strikes up a relationship with a man named Ulisses, a professor of philosophy at a local university.

The conceit of the story is of a man and woman, each seen as physically attractive by others, who—rather than fuck immediately and let the relationship meander willy-nilly from there—torment each other by waiting to see if they can develop a deeper friendship first, then go to the sex. This is where my ambiguity toward the novel comes into play, for the novel often seems to be yet another story in which a dominating man takes it upon himself to “instruct” a woman in how to be intelligent and focused so that she can “discover” and cultivate her talents without becoming an irritating shrew (because, you know, intelligent women).

What seems most genuine in the novel are those passages that resemble the less-accessible prose by Lispector: trapped in her own head, alienated by the upper-class expectations of her society, unable to discover or recognize some other kindred spirit, and frustrated sexually and emotionally by her isolation. To see those struggles presented as challenges to overcome to be worthy of Ulisses’s love—well, in that regard An Apprenticeship is perhaps the novel by her most steeped in fantasy.

Despite my ambiguity, and in part because An Apprenticeship has passages that attempt to plum emotional depths in language similar to her other works, I am grateful for a writer who is somebody you can argue with.


Action COVID
Samplerman
Desert Island

Samplerman is the nom de cartoon of Yvan Guillo, a Frenchman who counts among his influences art brut in general and Henry Darger in particular, along with Winsor McKay’s dream sequences [1]. Like Sean Tejaratchi’s Crap Hound series, Guillo’s art depends heavily upon scanned cartoons from across continents and decades, which are re-sized and rearranged. Unlike Tejaratchi’s collages, Guillo’s are in color and are based on multiples of image fragments to create frames and structures, swirling patterns, and hallucinogenic visions comprised of familiar-looking elements. And that’s part of the charm: disorienting the viewer with fractal views of familiar fragments.

[1] Max-o-matic. January 13, 2020. “Yvan Guillo, Samplerman. The Mesmerizing Surrealism of Deconstructing Comics.” The Weird Show website

An interview with Yvan Guillo “Samplerman” in The Comics Journal.


Munchausen and Clarissa
Paul Scheerbart [Christian Svendson, trans.]
Wakefield Press

Although 180 years old when the book opens, Baron von Munchausen is still alive and telling tales. His current incarnation seems to have been brought upon by the Countess Clarissa von Rabenstein’s wish for her 18th birthday. The purported subject of his latest round of yarns is the Melbourne World Fair of 1905, which requires a week of his time to fully relate.

The Baron being who he is, the tales are all nonsense delivered with all the bluster of Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz describing a world more magical—at least more technically advanced—than Oz itself, with flying hotel rooms tethered to air balloons soaring above mountain topics, colors and shapes constantly changing, and so forth.

Clarissa so smitten by Munchausen in person (she calls him “Munch”) that she proposes to him that they run off together, without marrying, to scandalize high society for refusing to attend the Baron’s Melb-iad. (He ends up regaling local artists and writers instead.) The Baron accepts Clarissa’s proposal.

Will her parents try to end the affair? Will society be scandalized?

File under “Nits”: In this otherwise quickly paced story I encountered only a single speed bump in the translation of a word: “it puts our Earth’s quark matter in new perspective.” The novel’s action takes place in 1905 and it was published in 1906. But quarks, as subatomic matter, weren’t discovered and named until 1964. Although Murray Gell-Mann, who discovered the subatomic matter, named the particles after a word he had read in Finnegans Wake (“Three quarks for Muster Mark”), which he assumed was nonsense, Finnegans Wake wasn’t published until 1939. Joyce, however, who had worked on the novel since 1922, uses a real word he found in the Oxford English Dictionary. “Quark” is defined as the sound seagulls make—not a cheep, peep, squawk, or honk, but a quark. And “Three quarks for Muster Mark” is what one gull says to the other gulls upon seeing Mr Mark’s familiar face. So, what did Scheerbart write and how did it become quark?


The Museum of Rain
Dave Eggers
McSweeney’s

A short story about burning wonder and hope at either ends of life in which an elderly man named Oisín takes a group of children during a weekend family reunion on a hike to a place he created 50 years ago: The Museum of Rain. Based upon a whim he had while serving in the military, he began collecting jars of rain from each city he visited, then hung them from a manzanita tree sequestered among some rocks, each jar labeled with the city and date the rain came from.

The trek is just a ruse to keep the kids busy while the adults recover from their hangovers from the night before, and Oisín has no expectations that anything will be left after so many years, but the ruse lets the kids encounter the beauty and dangers of nature along the walk. While on the walk, Oisín converses with his grand-niece, Rebecca, who seems to have been told a few things about her ostensibly eccentric granduncle, including a rumor that he began the museum as a result of a broken heart.

He denies that there is any truth to the story: “Sometimes people simply do things. They get an idea and they do it, and it’s not up to any love or childhood trauma. If we believe there’s a dramatic origin for every human endeavor, we deprive our species the ability to simply conure an idea. To just make stuff and do things.”

What can result from the impetus “to just make stuff and do things” would be telling, but one hint can be found in Vidal, California.


Hang Him When He Is Not There
Nicholas John Turner
Zerogram Press

The primary plot of Hang Him When He Is Not There is one for readers to puzzle out: What connects a reclusive writer, a shadowy editor, and an elderly man from a nursing home who dies during a fireworks display?

The novel’s structure reminded me of Stephen Wright’s Going Native (1994), in which the relationship of the chapters to each other didn’t become clear (to me, anyhow) until the last sentence. I recall thinking that putting off the punchline, as it were, until the very last paragraph of a 300-page novel was a bold task to set before oneself as a storyteller—but whether the pay-off was worth the tight-wire act, Wright’s novel left me ambivalent about.

In Hang Him When He Is Not There, however, Nicholas John Turner starts a few pages earlier than the end to help the reader piece things together. And although the novel doesn’t snap together on the last page, Turner leaves plenty of clues along the way regarding how the novel’s characters are related, and who did what and when. Descriptive phrases, events, times, items, places, and characters (although not by name) recur sporadically throughout the novel, serving as the connective thread. No doubt that the resonances of the first reading would resolve into a clearer picture in the second.


Common Tones: Selected interviews with artists and musicians, 1995-2020
Alan Licht
Blank Forms Editions

A thoroughly fun and informative collection of interviews with people active in the avant-garde art and music scene since (at least) the 1970s. Because Alan Licht is himself also a composer, performer, and writer his rapport with those interviewed is built upon shared professional and artistic experiences. Many of those know each other and know Licht already, too, so the interviews reflect a camaraderie that had already been established.

And what a list of people he talks with: Lou Reed, Matthew Barney, Glenn Branca, Tony Conrad, Henry Flynt, Milford Graves, Phill Niblock, Tom Verlaine, Rudy Wurlitzer, Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan, and many others—600 pages of oral history from primarily the New York-area arts scene. Strange and wonderful times. An exchange from an interview with Michael Snow exemplifies how wide-ranging—to a surrealistic degree—the topics can sometimes be. In this excerpt, Snow is winding up a digression on . . . avant-garde whistling:

MS: How did we get to whistling?
AL: I guess we were talking about loops.
MS: Well, that reminds me of Dripping Water. . .

Highly recommended.

Visit Alan Licht’s bandcamp page.

,
2 comments on “i arrogantly recommend… by Tom Bowden
  1. It is more for the translator to address than me, but Scheerbart in fact uses the word “Quark” in the German: “Quarksphäre” (rendered as “Earth’s quark matter”). Worth noting that quark is also a traditional creamy cheese originating in German-speaking countries. If that sounds too outlandish, in the same paragraph Scheerbart also references a “water star” and the more familiar “Milky Way” galaxy…

    • Aha! If Murray Gell-Mann only knew that cream cheese had already been discovered and a practical use made of it! Thank you for clarifying my linguistic confusion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *