The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Paris Review, No. 38 – Part I

Posted on: May 24, 2007

Predictably, as a part of my mind descends on one thing, another reaches wilfully for something else. So you’re getting a bit of Paris Review goodness today. The 38th issue was published in 1966; reading it was like entering a time capsule. The ads in this issue are larger than life, big, bold, loud texts advertising cars for that continental drive through Europe, for a CBS vinyl and book set that covers the poetry, oratory, music and pictures of the “Irish Uprising”. The CBS ad takes up two pages, one with the picture of a growling policeman standing a foot away from a dead body, and at the bottom is a picture of the photography books and vinyl records; the second page has a veritable essay on the wonders the product provides, along with a mail-in order form at the bottom. Also noteworthy is the ads for books, showings or readings of the writers covered or interviewed in the journal. The most striking thing of all is the inelegance and crudity of the ad graphics. This is not the current genteel Paris Review of today, all subtle grandeur and refinement, but the frank, bustling existence of a growing journal. For some reason I find the latter hilarious and more inviting.

The opening piece is a short, alcohol saturated, creative, atmospheric window into Malcolm Lowry’s life, seen through the eyes of his friend and acquaintances, including the writer of the piece, Conrad Knickerbocker. Lowry, the author of Ultramarine and Under the Volcano, had died in 1957 and the chronicle, “Swinging The Paradise Street Blues: Malcolm Lowry in England”, was written in 1964. The death of Lowry that overshadows the work is introduced by a notice at the beginning informing one of the death of Knickerbocker by a “self-inflicted wound from a .22 rifle”. He was a reputable book reviewer who had recently moved to New York to become “front-rank book critic for the New York Times“. Holy shit, man. Lowry himself died from an overdose of sleeping pills. To someone who has no idea who either of these people are, coming in to the thing, it’s a bit overwhelming.

For the first two or three pages I had only a vague idea of what was going on, lacking all reference and stubbornly avoiding Google. Knickerbockers, stylistic writing style — a conversational, fragmentary prose — was used in order to convey a certain mood, a boozy atmosphere, as much as to communicate, to create a picture of Lowry. Almost everyone interviewed at some point had a drink in hand, or was noted as having bottles nearby, including Knickerbocker who threw back how many drinks in his short trip to England.

The picture of Lowry is inevitably incomplete but earnestly sympathetic: an “average defiant, tormented English boy”, whose stark home life helped to form a wildly mischievous, earnest, talented man who was an alcoholic. Colum McCann said to Birnbaum that “I don’t have to go out and do Dylan Thomas and 18 whiskeys…no, in general you can balance these things out and you don’t have all these grand narratives about writers destroying themselves as much as you had 30 or 40 years ago.” This is certainly one of those narratives, complete with a Dylan-Thomas-in-a-bar appearance.

It’s followed by a poem or three — I’ll get back to one in another post — then on to the first bit of short fiction, Rosalyn Drexler’s “Dear”.  Here was another writer I’d never heard of whose story included icons, Perry Como and Charley McCarthy, of whom I’d never heard of or knew little about. To compound my ignorance, the 50 year old protagonist of her fiction was senile, at the very least. Another crazy tale.

Drexler is an interesting figure in her own right, a writer, playwright and artist who apparently excelled at all three, so some say. One theme in her art is television and the media, so it is no surprise that her short story’s protagonist, Jessie Lee Culp, is a divorcee, mother of three children who becomes dangerously obsessed with Perry Como, an American crooner who hosted television shows that were broadcast worldwide and sold so many records (for the time) that he had to ask officials to stop counting (according to Wikipedia).

Not knowing who Como was at first I thought this was going to be a tragic story about the thwarted love between an older woman and a younger man (which gave me a special thrill because I like such pairings). The form of the story would make it interesting as letters from Jessie addressed to Perry were interspersed throughout the narrative, as would the diction as the first letter revealed Jessie’s wobbly grasp of English, the incomplete sentences and spelling errors that read a bit awkwardly. That was the first sign that something was wrong. I did not suspect anything odd about her romantic relationship until she went on a cruise to Hawaii and mentioned seeing “his records everywhere”. (I glanced over her assertion in the first letter that ‘Connie loves you for I heard her sing “If I Could Only Make Him Love Me”‘. Connie Francis? I thought. Uhh, can’t be, it’ll be explained later….)

Her hold on reality becomes looser as things progress, she imagines that she and Como somehow had a love child, a Charley McCathy doll, that she feeds under the table in public (so she says) or in her room as a child would do, bringing the food to its mouth before eating it herself. As she slips her greetings to Como in the first lines of her letters become more impersonal, no longer “Dear Perry” or “Mr. Como Dear Sir” if she’s angry, but simply “Dear”, “Darling” or at one point “Beloved”. In contrast her sign-offs become increasingly ridiculous, from her full name or initials to “Jesty Chesty (not pesty) Culp” or “Jess (Jes a wearyin’ for you). One sign-off is never the same as the other.

Nothing is tied up in the end, not really, as her supposedly last letter to Perry turns out to be the first letter that opens the story. In it she seems to be, finally, accepting Como’s advice to part ways but her plaintive question as to why he’s never written back (she’s written 14 letters) and belief that she can tell Connie Francis loves him from some random song is not reassuring. It’s a splendid little story to enjoy and pick apart (which I did in the course of typing this).

Arthur Miller’s interview was fantastic. I’ll write about that in another post.

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4 Responses to "The Paris Review, No. 38 – Part I"

[…] in 20+ years. I read a novel excerpt of Nog (to be reissued in 2009 according to the review) in The Paris Review No. 38 and my interest in eventually reading his fiction never faded. Another Paris Review […]

Thanks…Happy that you enjoyed my Paris Review story. Try reading my novels BAD GUY…ART DOES (NOT) EXIST…VULGAR LIVES…TO SMITHEREENS…more
See art catalog at Pace/Wildenstein…my show last year.

Wow, what a surprise to see you here! Thanks for commenting and yes I have two of your novels, actually, which I had to hunt for — Bad Guy and Art Does Not Exist. I just haven’t gotten around to them yet — the eternal torment and pleasure of the bookish. So many books still waiting…!

My dear goodness! an amazing article dude. Thank you for sharing it.

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