A Poet of Pain And Noise

A walloping storm from the southwest this Sunday.  Actually wind seemed to come from every direction at once but the waves rolled from the southwest. Strange blasts of warm air were followed by cool air and leaves swirled in cyclonic funnels across the road.  In the grocery store alder leaves scattered across the floor by the big front doors even though there are no alders within about a hundred yards.  Twenty foot seas off-shore building up maybe bigger and Jan is planning a trip to Prince William Sound to find Humpback Whales and the little fish they are feeding on.  Luckily she tells me she is on a big boat that will seek out the calmer seas. 

Fall time coming and lots of guys are getting their jail time done.  Lots of sad stories this time of year.  I’ve heard some of them before and some of them make me feel hard hearted.  Some men use their imagination and their ability to tell stories to slide along in life.  They play on peoples sympathy.  We’ve all run into the type.  But then there are some people that have such genuinely hard stories in life, such genuine pain that it is almost impossible not to wince when listening.  I spoke with a man  whose family “gave him away” when he was ten years old when his eleven year old brother died.  He bounced from foster home to foster home until he was thirteen then he took to the road. When he was 19 he took a gun and put it to his chest and pulled the trigger and somehow he survived.  I was able to confirm most of this through records and the rest from the scar when he lifted his shirt. He is not a bad man, not in the way that you would imagine,  not Cormac McCarthy material.  He’s lost in this world.  He tells me that he doesn't want extraordinary things: he wants a steady job, the love of a woman, freedom to smell the turn of the seasons, and to be outside when he wants.  But those things elude him, because he drinks and fights, and can’t save the little money he makes.  He is not smart about things, in the way of civilized men.  As an old boat skipper I know would say, “He’s a neck down unit,”  Born to a world of pain, until he finds someone to lead him in a new direction.


Meeting him made me think of an amazing book I read recently by John Darnielle, called Wolf in a White Van .  I’ve written a regular review of the book and I’ve tried to place it in several papers without any luck.  Maybe I set my sights to high.  Maybe they didn't publish my review because he is a rock star and I’m a fan of his band.  Or maybe they didn't publish my review because he blurbed my novel Cold Storage, Alaska  and they thought it was too much of a prid pro quo deal.  But I don’t think that’s it either.  As far as the prid pro quo… It’s not like we are friends or anything.  I’ve never even met the guy.  I kind of stalked him on line and I used my secrete powers to find his address and I sent the manuscript cold and he read it and blurbed it out of the goodness of his heart.  He got nothing out of it.  Hell,  Wolf In A White Van  has already been shortlisted for a National Book award so there is nothing I can do for HIM.   And as far as being a fan of his band…. It was made clear to me when Jan and I went to his San Francisco gig that we really didn't cut the mustard with the real Mountain Goats fans  (that’s his band, did I mention that?)  when one of his thirty-something fans who had followed him down the entire west coast asked me what songs we were hoping to hear that night, and when Jan and I mentioned only recent songs that had been released in the last five years and not his older catalog that had been released and passed hand to hand on cassette tape by the faithful.. it was made clear to us by body language and actually moving away from us in the seats,  that we were not truly worthy of the Mountain Goat Tee shirt and bag I had so recently purchased.   (In Grateful Dead parlance Jan and I would have been called out as “Touchheads” for being new to the band after “Touch of Gray” came out… very uncool to a true Deadhead)

Truth is the papers  probably didn't publish my review because it wasn't particularly coherent and it it was too enthusiastically positive. 

 But I greatly digress...  it turns out John Darnielle is not only a great songwriter.  But as it turns out an amazing novelist.  This guy can do almost anything and it wouldn’t surprise me if he isn’t living in a remote volcano that is shaped like a scull and flys an invisible jet.

The Wolf in The White Van is a strange and fascinating book about a young man who has been horribly disfigured in an accident.  Living in isolation the boy develops a role playing game in which people play their roles created for them and given through the mail. It’s a wonderfully complex novel, in that it is about pain and escape from pain, where Darnielle wisely doesn’t choose sides between the two but lets the physical reality at the end have its powerful say.

Darnielle understands the suffering of others without pity or melodrama..  He also does so many other things in this book that at times reading this novel feels like you are playing the game he is describing.  You are experiencing lives within lives.   He understands disenfranchised youth of today better, I think than J.D. Salinger understood the youth of his time.  Like Salinger,  Darnielle understands the suffering and frustrations of the young, and he understands that it is how we survive these early traumas which will dictate how our souls are  bent. But unlike Salinger’s post war children, whose lives were tempered in the cool water of Zen and Bee bop,  Darnielle’s  youth  gather in the fire  where the Book of Revelation meets,  H.G. Lovecraft,  and the anvil strike of Norse heavy metal.  Darnielle has a genius for evoking the mood of pop culture without any obvious allusions.   He feels as the outsider kids feels,  without the obvious whine  because he knows what the outsider is feeling is real and justifiable.   Just reading some of these pages you feel the mood of heavy metal, and the frantic thrum of young buskers around the corners from the rehab centers and the missions and I haven’t felt that in much of today's serious literature and, like it or not it’s vibrant with real emotion, of people who should not be ignored. Their voices reach out to you and your life,  they want to blend into mine, and sometimes they do.  

I love this book.  I think if the guys in the jail would give it a chance they would love it too.   


The ripping of tarps

and the pounding of breakers

rattling in the dark.