Post Road Magazine #18

Rudolph Wurlitzer's Infinite West by Michael Miller

For forty years now, novelist and screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer has been dipping into a grab bag of influences—John Ford Westerns, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the French nouveau roman, the brutal history of American expansion—and fashioning them into exquisite works of originality. All along, he has inspired a mix of cultish devotion and extreme bafflement. The devotion is easy enough to chronicle. When his first novel, Nog, was published by Random House in 1968, Thomas Pynchon declared, "It's more than a beautiful and heavy trip, it's also very important in an evolutionary way, showing us directions we could be moving in." (The Gravity's Rainbow author also wrote, perhaps less presciently, that it was hopefully a sign that "the Novel of Bullshit is dead.") Nog, which fused Samuel Beckett syntax and hippie-era freakouts to cast a deranged eye on the road-trip genre popularized by Jack Kerouac, also caught the attention of director Monte Hellman, who hired Wurlitzer to write the screenplay for his movie Two Lane Blacktop. Just before the film opened in 1971, Esquire ran the entire script in its April issue.

From the vantage point of 2009, that seems like a welcoming literary introduction, and Wurlitzer's career has been marked by other notable moments. He wrote screenplays for, among others, Sam Peckinpah (Pat Garrett and Billie the Kid, a movie that met with resistance from headstrong studio head Samuel Goldwyn, but is now considered one of the director's best) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Little Buddha). The Voice Literary Supplement, back when it was a respectable publication, named Wurlitzer's 1994 memoir, Hard Travel to Sacred Places, a best book of the year. But even as Wurlitzer blazed a trail for novels including Joy Williams's Breaking and Entering and Denis Johnson's Already Dead, he refused, probably intentionally, to flow into the mainstream. Though his books are stylistically distinct, they all radiate with art-damaged, intense, and sometimes dizzying meditations on the myths of the American frontier. And perhaps more than any other great living writer, Wurlitzer has inhabited something of a frontier himself. His early work in particular, with its koan-like tension between drop-jaw concision and befuddling iconoclasm, has rendered him difficult to package.

But Wurlitzer is back among us with a vengeance. In 2008, he published Drop Edge of Yonder, a chaotically entertaining and spiritually tinged Western about a "mountain lunatic" named Zebulon Shook, on the run from the law and from his own death, which may or may not have already occurred. The book's surreal tour through Colorado fur-trading settlements, California's gold rush, and South America has garnered fans as far-flung as John Ashbery and Patti Smith. When Gary Indiana read with Wurlitzer in New York City last May, he was so moved to be appearing with the Nog author that he teared up in front of the audience. (Full disclosure: as the Books editor at Time Out New York, I included Drop Edge on my 2008 top-10 list.)

Following Drop Edge's critical success, Wurlitzer's publisher, the independent press Two Dollar Radio, is honorably reprinting the author's first three novels, Nog, Flats (1970), and Quake (1972), complete with a nimble introduction by Hurry Down Sunshine author Michael Greenberg. These are challenging books, burning, at times, with a hallucinogenic logic. All three are bracing and obsessive stories about travel, the American dream of self-reinvention, and the epistemological problems posed by both. Their content is outwardly and inwardly exploratory. There are no givens here, and even identity is up for grabs: though all three have narrators, of a sort, none of them offer up any traditional or even stable markers of "character." The narrator of Nog may or may not be Nog, a man who has abandoned his traveling carny profession of charging people to look at the fake octopus suspended in a tank (a "bathosphere") on his truck bed. We meet him on a beach somewhere on the West Coast, but he offers few details to hang on to. What little past he reveals is quickly subsumed in a relentless shiftiness.

I must keep on forgetting. I must not remember the story I set out to tell. I must not betray myself. It is the only way. This doesn't help, setting it all down, discussing it, unraveling it and rolling it up like a dead tongue.

Shorn of a past and unclear in motive, this speaker evokes a persistent state of flux. Bringing to mind the roving-camera narrations of Allain Robbe-Grillet's The Voyeur and the shape-shifting characters of Robert Pinget's Mahu, the book pulls you in even as it defiantly steps off the grid. I first read it with a mix of euphoria and dread, ecstatic at this character's potential for movement and misbehavior, and also haunted by the book's entropic visions of freedom when it is taken to its psychological extremes. Reading it is like being stuck in a dream, totally captivated and yet more or less powerless to control what will happen next. It is not a novel in which the narrative establishes a contract with the reader to tell or analyze a story. Wurlitzer's gift is simply drop you into a story or a situation, in the grasp of his stun-gun prose and his inherently trickster narrator.

After the beach scene, we find him shoplifting in a grocery store, where he meets a woman who brings him to a San Francisco commune filled with characters that make the subjects of Joan Didion's "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" look well-adjusted. In the house, Nog (or not-Nog) positions himself on a mattress in a hallway, altering his back story and his consciousness as he gropes with passersby. Suddenly, members of the commune decide to lock him up, for days, in what seems to be a food pantry, feeding him drugs through a slot in the door. (Wurlitzer, fascinated by people on the move, is also a poet of entrapment.) Later, he leaves with a man and a woman, embarking on a road trip that takes him to a hospital, where drugs are stolen, and then to a ghost town in the Southwest, where another commune establishes itself and implodes in a scene of violence. When the leader is murdered, Nog assumes his place and commences another adventure full of confused agendas and backtracking language. "I'm cold," he muses, offering up a thought that gets constantly reworked at the book's stunning finale. "Or I was cold. I might be approaching a warmth."

There is a threat throughout Nog that language itself will give out, that the narrative will reinvent itself into oblivion. What makes the book so powerful, in its skewed way, is how well Wurlitzer describes nihilism while exerting a stunning linguistic control. The book has no doubt maintained its cult status with its portrait of late-'60s creepy-crawly malfeasance and things-fall-apart ethos, but its true literary feat is in how concisely it pushes past the boundaries of logical thought and stable consciousness, leaving you hovering at the edge of meaning without quite falling off.

Nog confuses, but it moves, winding through the American desert, even (on a boat) to the locks of the Panama Canal, and ending, abruptly, in New York. Flats, even more byzantine, is an obsessive exploration of paralysis. It opens with two literary allusions, a riff on the beginnings of Faulkner's Light in August ("I walked a far piece") and Melville's Moby Dick ("Call me Memphis"). Despite the ground (and water) covered in those two antecedents, Wurlitzer's narrative drops you in a dusty landscape where movement is a constant topic and a seeming impossibility ("The whole scene is strangled, uptight," says one character). As if passing a microphone, each narrator, bearing the name of a city, asserts plans, contradicts other speakers, and doubles back, essentially creating a logical vortex. One speaker reflects:

Witchita can't go on. I have to go on. Wichita is possessed. He needs the weight of Tacoma to give him focus, to remember that he has chosen to go backā€¦.I can't talk to Tacoma, that's the pain. I can't offer explanations. My own information reaches me too slowly. But my fear of intimacy binds me to him. I can never leave him. I don't listen to him. I reply to someone else, some other voice. I don't know where I am. But Wichita will drag us both through.

Can't go on, must go on: It's Waiting for Godot set in an American wasteland. Though there are minimal props—rubble, tree trunks, a Dixie cup—the book is almost pure language. The sentences here are even more brittle and self-defeating, as each speaker offers up monologues that undermine the novel as a whole. But once again, Wurlitzer's novel crystallizes into something more than snapshots of near-psychosis. It is a meditation on false starts and the foundations of storytelling itself. Flats is an appropriate title; here, the story strains to exist on some sort of level, even as the bottom constantly drops out.

Quake—which, out of the three, is the easiest to follow—goes back on the road, or what's left of it. The book begins with a massive earthquake, 7.5 on the Richter scale, that throws the narrator out of his bed at the Tropicana Hotel in Los Angeles, a crash pad for rock bands, groupies, and other people in need of a temporary home. From there, we follow this mysterious narrator, and a revolving supporting cast, as they try to escape the ensuing chaos. Despite the adventure, Wurlitzer still gives us no past—we learn nothing of the narrator's history, not even his name. What we encounter is the pure present of disaster—a man's maneuvers through a landscape in which the reassurances of culture have been rudely destroyed, a world where "there were no recognitions, no news, no information." As rogue groups rise and fight for control, violence becomes the norm. The narrator winds through the wreckage and describes—in language that's simultaneously brutal and dampened by a state of shock—the carnage wrought by the quake and by the fascistic militias jockeying for control of the city. He is captured, wounded. He escapes, but by the end, after a series of encounters with survivors, he is practically nonverbal.

Significantly, near the end of Quake, the narrator stands outside of a circular compound, where survivors are stacking up debris in a questionable attempt to save themselves. The circle, as a structure, returns us to Beckett—a space of utter confinement. But the narrator's exclusion from that space, which seems only superficially safe, brings to mind something more visceral: Wurlitzer's career-long individualism. This is an author who has focused so obsessively on how he affects the individual reader that he has denied himself the glories of consensus popularity. As one character in Quake comments, "This is no time for manners, right?"

The walk away from the circle also suggests a drifting away from the stasis that Flats imposed so persistently. Wurlitzer's subsequent writing becomes more readable, easier to place, and proves, if you were suspicious, that the free-fall evoked in the first three books was a choice, one made by a writer in full possession of traditional storytelling gifts. The later books have story lines that you can map. Their characters have histories. Slow Fade, published by Knopf in 1984, is a Didion-esque novel about a cantankerous, famous director of Westerns, who hires his son and a hustling drifter to write a screenplay about his daughter, who died on a spiritual mission to India. Hard Travel to Sacred Places is a travelogue about Buddhist temples, the effects of globalization on Asia, and the death of a stepson. Drop Edge finds Wurlitzer at his funniest, but also offers up impressively broad meditations on America's brutal origins and a compelling account of the nation's multicultural frontier, where Zebulon encounters Chinese workers, Mexican aristocrats, an Irish Shoshoni woman, Africans, and a New York journalist. Delilah, Zebulon's love interest and the book's guiding force, is French, Abyssinian, Babylonian, and Egyptian. Here, Wurlitzer captures the bustle of a larger scene, rather than the restricted chaos of one man's head space.

This isn't to say that he dropped his earlier project. All of his later work exists on the shaky fault lines between culture and its unspoken fragilities. He remains doggedly unromantic about the cult of personality, writing, in one of Hard Travel's more poignant passages, that grief, in its pure form, "shatters self-absorption and vanity with such a force that, for a moment, it seems to set one free." (Always mindful of complexity, he follows that sentence with: "Until, that is, the tonic of self-congratulation sets in and one is reduced once again to the old encrusted and habitual patterns of personality.") He has remained an unobtrusive observer of human behavior: In Drop Edge, madness, not character, becomes the shape-shifting category. Zebulon Shook is a self-described lunatic, but the world he navigates is full of other madmen who use the law, "civilization," and the callous mandates of manifest destiny to justify their behavior. Though still dark and disastrous, the three later books possess more welcoming charms. Their existential visions are less claustrophobic, and they offer more room for the reader to interpret the events they depict. I like the way Wurlitzer's more recent work strives for some form of salvation, even as it places redemption decidedly out of reach. But even though Nog, Flats, and Quake remain harder to track, they are integral to this author's unique and oddly rewarding body of work. They may not be humanistic, but they are disturbingly human, occupying a space that most writers would rather ignore, or simply don't have the talent to capture. All three books seem to say, with eerie and uncompromising precision, that apocalypse isn't some sci-fi scenario to imagine. It's already right in front of you, or inside of you, waiting to be navigated. You just have to look.

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