The Right to be Forgotten: Some Musings on Immortality, that stupid Invention of the Living
When I was a young man I wanted to be a writer. I tried for a few years while working crap jobs on the side and living at home with my mother, but I had very little success. I had some very rare acceptances here and there, but even those were for little or no money and eventually it became painfully obvious to me that I would have to give up on my dream, or at least defer it for a while. I made a quite unoriginal decision at that juncture: I would join the Army (during wartime no less) and if I didn’t die or go crazy, I would try this writing thing one more time after I got back, with four years of life experience under my belt and the GI Bill to sustain me while attending college. The plan didn’t quite work. I mean, I started selling stories for token payment, but I did it while still in the Army rather than when I got out. I had told myself to go and live for four years as a soldier and then to return to the cave and to write of my experiences. But after two years the words were flowing through me and I had to write again. I had a simple technique for honing my craft. Every Friday in garrison after falling out from final formation I would pack a bag in the barracks, call a cab, and head to an off-post hotel for the weekend. I would spend Friday writing the story, Saturday editing the story, and Sunday morning I would submit the work before heading back to the barracks in a cab. By the time I got out of the service I already had several short story credits under my belt, my Montgomery GI Bill money that would allow me four years to waste, as well as twenty-thousand dollars or so in my bank account (it is hard to spend a lot of money in a remote outpost in Iraq when your mail comes only sporadically, and then via helicopter or uparmored Humvee). The only things I lacked upon exiting the service were my mind, my body, and my soul. I had a host of injuries to every part of my person ranging from the hip to the shoulder and the testicle; I had PSTD to the point where I could not perform sexually. I was also certain that I was going to hell when I died, or possibly sooner. Other than that, I was doing alright. Eventually, after multiple surgeries and countless stays in VA bughouses I started writing again, only this time instead of short stories I was writing novellas. Some of the novellas sold. Then it was on to novels. Those somehow got published; sure they were of varying quality and the operations that put them out were either micro-presses or fly-by-night outfits, but they weren’t vanity presses. I was living my dream, however ragged its contours may have been in comparison to the seamless vision I’d conjured up in my mind all those days and nights ago lying around as a young man after working a shift at Pizza Hut and living in a small house with my mother, or some years later as a slightly older young man sitting in my barracks’ room waiting for my chance to be free, to have what was left of my body and mind and soul belong to me again instead of to the state or to some petty boss whose life consisted of slaving in some grease pit to make a man he would never meet even richer than he already was. As my career (if you can call it that) progressed, publishers demanded I promote my work, and I was required to do things like track down blurbs from fellow authors and to give readings. I am very much of the school that believes you do not pester people you admire, but since my publishers were adamant, I decided to at least give it the “ole GED try” as my First Sergeant liked to say. And I figured that if I was going to bug someone for blurbs, it should at least be someone I admired. During my time in the Army I really got into crime novels, noir, hardboiled, whatever the hell you want to call it. At some point while in the service and just getting my chops as a writer, I came across a blog hosted by a man named Don Herron, a noir and fantasy aficionado (he wrote a quality book about Conan creator Robert E. Howard). Herron also led the Dashiell Hammett Tour in San Francisco, taking readers through the stomping grounds of Sam Spade, presumably shuttling tourists from one haunt to another via cable car over the rollicking and befogged hills of San Fran. On his blog Don sang the praises of a noir writer named Tom Kakonis, claiming he was heir to the mantle of the late and singular crime writer Charles Willeford, whose work I very much admired. I added the name “Kakonis” to my mental rolodex and didn’t think much more about him for a while after that. Sometime later (while stationed in Germany and still trying to sell stories) I took a supercheap Ryan Air jaunt to Dublin, Ireland, and spent a weekend wandering around the rain-soaked cobbles of the old city. I didn’t do any Stoker or Joyce tours, though I did slip into a small boutique bookshop called Murder Ink. It had everything I could want as a noir fan. There was Chester Himes, William Lindsay Gresham, Howard Browne, Walter Mosley, all the greats, both the prolific and those so given over to melancholy or the bottle that they ended up choosing self-destruction over continued creation as authors. I found a Tom Kakonis book in Murder Ink called Criss Cross, about a once-athletic, now gone-to-seed middle-aged man working security at a big box store during the holidays. The man doesn’t know it, but an attractive girl who works in the shop is about to pull him into a bloody strongarm caper involving her ex-con ex-beau, his dimwitted drug-addled sidekick Ducky, and a whole rococo cast of grotesqueries, including a computer programmer whose only source of sexual satisfaction is having a woman place her hand in a rubber glove, submerse said-hand in Crisco, and then to relentlessly fist him while his flaccid, curtain-like shanks of stretchmark-scarred fat tremble and he writhes in ecstasy. It’s a wild book, some kind of masterpiece, but it didn’t seem to get the love it deserved when it came out. Most of the reviews I read of Kakonis either criticized him as wordy (minimalism is especially prized by most fans of crime fiction) or, strangely enough, because his cast of characters were usually too loathsome to follow across the span of several hundred pages. But I loved his stuff, and when I was hunting blurbs on behalf of one of my books, I finally had a chance (or excuse) to look him up online and call him, tell him how great I thought he was, and to tell him that I was trying to make it myself as a writer. His wife Judy picked up the phone when I called him, and while she obviously functioned as his screener, eventually she became convinced of my good intentions and let her guard down and passed the phone off to the man himself. He was friendly, relaxed, and generous, more bemused than embittered with his fate as a casualty of what he called “the midlist crunch.” He also not only agreed to read and blurb my book, but became a sort of mentor for me throughout my career. Eventually he did what we are all going to do or have already done, which is to say that he died. I only found out about his death one day as I was googling his name and I got an auto-complete assist of “obituary.” After I found out he died, I called his number again. I wanted to not just express my condolences to his wife, but my gratitude. But I got the answering machine. I’m no good at speaking, especially when I know my voice is going to be recorded, but my conscience would not let me just abruptly hang up without saying something. In my disjointed way I said most of what I wanted to, the words spilling out of me, and just as I was about to hang up his wife Judy came on the line. She told me that he had appreciated my friendship, was flattered by my admiration, but that he didn’t want anyone making a big to-do after he was dead. He didn’t even want a funeral, I think. She said, in essence, that he wanted to be forgotten. At the time I remember thinking that for him to be forgotten would be a sort of injustice. Now, and especially in the wee hours of the morning, sitting here in front of this computer monitor, I’m frankly not quite so sure anymore. “Immortality is the stupid invention of the living,” as the cantankerous bard of Skid Row Charles Bukowski once said. I’m starting to think he’s right. I’m starting to think that part of the dignity of death is in the being forgotten, commended back to the soil and returned to whatever great cosmic Ur-trough we’re all born from. If all is vanity, and all is transient, than the shedding of the body and the sloughing off of ego are not only necessary but something to be celebrated rather than bemoaned. And if there is an afterlife, and any dead writer is there haunting that realm, I would hope to God that they have more important things to worry about than the books they wrote to cope with the torment of being trapped in a mortal coil all those years ago. You cannot transcend this realm and maintain a painstaking bibliography of your works at the same time. At some point, I think you not only have to let go of the idea of being important, but of the search meaning itself. When I am finally free of life, I also want to be free of words, too, for while they are my consolation and friend in the late and lonely hours like these, they are also shackles, a reminder of my limitations as a man, an artist, a human being. I’m not quite ready to go as far as William Burroughs and say that words are a virus that needs exterminating (though sometimes I sure feel that way), and I’m not even sure that language is a medium that more readily lends itself to abuse than any other (I think images are much better at that, considering the way they sort of bypass not only the intellect but the conscious mind). It’s hard to say how much solace words provide, versus how much torment they cause, since writing is a form of thinking and we tend to torture ourselves with our endless thoughts, the locutions of the patterns of painful memories and fears playing across the canvas of the mind, or the pixels of this screen. I ask myself if would it be balm to the soul of someone like the departed Edgar Allen Poe to know that some girl has a poster of him on the wall in her bedroom above a bookcase made from wooden planks and red bricks, or if he would get a kick to discover there are reprints of some aquatint of him looking forlorn and immiserated on mezzanine walls above bistros in big box bookstore chains spread across the country. Either he’s been reunited with his Lenore on the other side and all the attention we lavish on him is moot, or the crowing raven wins and it turns out that all that we do, including all that we write, is for naught. Maybe I should think less of Poe and think more of Whitman, whose metaphysical cast of mind was less burdened by romanticism’s morbid obsession with death. I will borrow a couple bars from his Song of Himself, and look for a bit of Tom Kakonis beneath the sole of my shoe tonight. And I guess I’ll continue to sing this song of myself for the time being, at least until I get hit by a bus or develop crippling carpal tunnel syndrome or something.