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Critical Condition

Richard Meltzer's new book is a compellingly claustrophobic ride into the depths of manhood.

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For six years, the floor of Richard Meltzer's Los Angeles living room--its walls festooned with books and boxing posters--was covered with neat piles of paper and folders containing old clippings, manuscripts, documents, and other writerly paraphernalia. When it got hot, use of a fan was prohibited, for fear the papers would fly away; lack of vacuuming made breathing difficult. A sign above the door announced "These digs were made for working"--sometimes a 14-hour writing day would yield but a paltry paragraph--and before he was through he scrawled another sign: "I have to think there's a better hell than this." Little wonder the finished product, The Night (Alone)--a compellingly claustrophobic, improbably expansive ride into the depths of manhood--is dedicated "TO ME (and I don't mean you)" and has the foreword, "Nothing in this book is true (or good) (or beautiful)." That will be a subject of debate; to love it or loathe it, that is the question.

With the 1970 publication of The Aesthetics of Rock--which could mention Kierkegaard and the Dave Clark Five in the same breath and was seen as a parody of academic style even as it was held up as a deep, dense investigation--Meltzer established himself as arguably the most idiosyncratic observer of American pop culture and certainly the most original stylist. The narrator of The Night (Alone) boasts: "I'm the guy who introduced 'ain't,' 'gonna,' 'wanna,' deliberate misspellings, run-on, mixed metaphor, and most of that shit to rock crit, pop crit, and beyond Plus regular use of all the cusswords It was my doing (true) (Give me a medal) Not to mention, dot dot dot." He doggedly developed that style--let's not forget hyphens, parentheses, wild punctuation, made-up words, two-three-words-in-one, word abbreviations--in 1972's Gulcher (Post-Rock Cultural Pluralism in America (1649-1984), 1988's L.A. Is the Capital of Kansas, a totally rewritten collection of grimly funny pieces on that burg's death culture, the eye-opening monograph Richard Meltzer's Guide to the Ugliest Buildings in Los Angeles, and a poetry volume, 17 Insects Can Die in Your Heart. (Caned-Out, his authorized autobiography, was canned in the galley stage for fear his parents might sue.) He's written over 3,000 articles for dozens of publications, high and low, including long, intense meditations on wrestling, the LA riots, and the beat writers.

The piles of paper--from all career periods--were the basis of the 95 chapters of this nonlinear "novel" ("nonconsecutive modules that collide into each other," he says). He'd been told that much of his journalism resembled fiction, so why not change names and recycle "old girlfriend" stories and other events? When this proved more difficult than writing something new, he made stuff up. The process was tortuous, and that became a theme. "Writing about the complete phenomenology of a sex act at the age of 22," he told me, "I had to reconcile my old body with trying to write from a young body. The torque of being twisted by that was physically debilitating....Writing had better be directly from where you live, in vivo. But when it gets to where you're writing so much of each day that there's no living except the writing, that's a grave situation. You're born alone, you die alone, and of all the things that's possible to do alone, writing comes closest to being locked in a dungeon." In the book he says he'd rather be a plumber.

So how to approach The Night (Alone)? The chapters are written in different voices and forms--oh-so-detailed recollections, non sequitur descriptions, letters, interviews, poems, conceptual conjurings, lists, theorems, hallucinations, flights of whimsy--even anagrams. By turns it's a mantra, wail, confession, fond reminiscence, brooding rumination, auto-critique. He connects facts with flights of fancy. The cadence of the prose is musical: there's plenty rock 'n' roll and jazz here. "Dig it as a sex book: 'Ulysses Meets Peyton Place,'" he says. There's no plot to speak of, but his investigations of thought-heart processes build in intensity, almost like a whodunit. (What will he reveal next?) All proving that life is more than a box of choc'lates, that he's ("Mr. Black Hole of Self") more of a bleedin' heart than a cheatin' one. His recounts of vagina vicissitudes may not catch on with some flaming feminists. But while Meltzer would recommend sending The Night (Alone) to men's groups ("the agony and ecstasy of being a male"), he'd gladly give it up to women's groups, too: "Watch the pig writhe. He can't figure it out either. Ha-ha, let's laugh at him. Y'know, male sexuality falls on its face."

It takes but a little while to know Rolf Metzgler, Rico Mezzner, Raoul Muzzler, Ridge Muleser, Ric Smeltzer, et al. One chapter itemizes his every piece of clothing. ("Fashion not permitted on the premises--must be checked at the door. Folks who insist on 'dressing up' should consider dressing down. If they wish to be invited--for sandwiches, Parcheesi, 'bull' sessions, or tea.") Another ("Days of Beer and Daisies") riotously recounts boozy misadventures. In "All the Godamn Summer Sadness" he sends his likeness to the pen pal column of Super Wrestling Monthly, soliciting "tank cars of letters I had no intention of answering. (How else to research human misery?)" "Housepets I've in All Likelihood Killed or Maimed" is a surprisingly moving communion with all manner of nonhuman life/death. "Eight Repugnant Rashes" deals with dealing with same. "Cole Slaw 1900" is an excruciating dialogue with his parents. "Old Tricks" describes covering up tell-tale signs of sexual extracurriculars. ("For stains I'd pretend coffee got spilt....Smells I always hated covering--would really rather have lazed around, basked around nostriling the galscent--but cowardice is cowardice and I'd light up a cigar.") "Lover Ma'am" recounts a tryst in the form of TV listings and reviews (he wrote a TV column for two years). "The Kettle Black" describes 13 black artifacts from sexual encounters. "Anterior Metaphysics" sees the author becoming "one grimly sober RECLUSE-AND-A-HALF," giving friends a new phone number due to death threats (that occurred after Meltzer penned a piece pillorying the religious right) and warning them not to tell anyone else. If his mother were to ask for it, though "beat and bludgeoned by clubwielding scumbags, begging with her dying breath for her sonny-person's numero d'Ameche," he advises friends telling her deadpan: "Funny you should ask. I was about to ask you. The little prick never gave it to me."

Things get darker as the "novel" progresses. "Smashing into sex walls at 400 miles per hour may smart," he told me, "but afterward there's always masturbation. With writing there is no conceivable release in kind, momentary or otherwise, from the gravity of crack-up. The notion of writing as masturbation is farcical." "The Story So Far" begins: "The twin Life impulses, cunnilingus and urination, versus the twin Death impulses, vaginal intercourse and writing--a neverending battle--which will win?" From "A Closer Walk With Me": "Benighted night (alone). As alone as at the typewrite. Alone and not a comfort (as alone can often be). Of the forty-eight things alone is good for, only one feels in play: freedom from the petty shame of observed behavior." In "The Author at 40 (A Preview)" he feels "lucky" about what he's writing, feels good enough to "almost spit it out in words, accurately, and rhythms, that actually don't make me sick," but realizes that "the wear and tear of all this is so immense I'd never wanna to do it again." Yet he still daydreams of writing for Argosy, Antaeus, The Ring, and Family Circle.

By the last 50 pages, the book is steamrolling by the sheer rhythmic force of the unsettling soul of its previous 250. Funny stuff, grim stuff. The deliciously scatological high point is "Criswell Had This Dream Before He Died": "Dear Mrs. Onassis: We the gourmets of America would like to make USE of your pudding and fundament..." I won't go any further (family publication, etc.), but it's about replacing anatomical parts with cheese, and aging it. Life-sex-death as cheese? More and less. Meltzer swore he'd write the goddamn novel and get the hell out of LA by age 50. Took six years, but it's done (he moved to Portland, Oregon, in May). The Night (Alone) represents mammalhood, and heroism, at their best/worst (no diff). Think of it as an alternative self-help manual. Like his other works, it bears repeated readings.

The Night (Alone) by Richard Meltzer, Little, Brown and Company, $22.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.

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