This Monkey, My Back

    For a long while there, I was a young writer, and then, for nearly as long, I was a younger writer (younger than whom, I used to wonder—Robert Frost?). Now I'm just a writer. Certainly not an old writer, no éminence grise, no member of the Academy with yellowed hairs growing out of my ears and nostrils, but a writer, I like to think, of wisdom and maturity, with a few good years left ahead of me. Still, I had a shock a couple of months ago, when an old friend stopped by on his way back from Mexico and revealed something to me about the age we'd attained—or were rapidly approaching. We were sitting at the kitchen table, and he'd just fanned out a group of photographs and narrated the story of each one: I saw the Zócalo, the soap-powder beaches of Puerto Escondido, the catacombs beneath some ancient church. There was a pause, and then he said, “You know, in a couple of years I'm thinking of retiring.” I was stunned. This was a vigorous man of forty-nine, a snappy dresser who'd made good money in his own business. “Retire?” I gasped, summoning up ghosts in carpet slippers hunkered down before the TV at eleven A.M. and slurping up lime Jell-O and bourbon. All I could think to do was fish through the glossy photos before me till I found the one of the catacombs, shrunken tanned hides and lipless teeth, the claws that used to be fingers, people laid out on slabs like fallen trees. I held it up. “This is my retirement,” I told him. 

    James Baldwin said that we write to give order and structure to a chaotic world, and this is surely part of it, maybe the biggest part, but there's more to it than that. Writing is a habit, an addiction, as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in your arm. Call it the impulse to make something out of nothing, call it an obsessive-compulsive disorder, call it logorrhea. Have you been in a bookstore lately? Have you seen what these authors are doing, the mountainous piles of the flakes of themselves they're leaving behind, like the neatly labeled jars of shit, piss, and toenail clippings one of John Barth's characters bequeathed to his wife, the ultimate expression of his deepest self? Retire? Retire from that? Sure, we'll all retire, all of us, once they drain our blood and pump the embalming fluid in. 

    Unlike most of my compatriots at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the Seventies, and the major part of my own students now, I didn't develop my addiction in the womb or drink it up with my mother's milk. I wasn't touched by an angel, I didn't wear bottle lenses and braces and hide out in dark corners, my only friend the book, nor was I a Borgesian mole burrowing through my father's library (for the record, my father didn't have a library and never read a book in his life, aside from what might have been forced down his throat at St. Joseph's Home, the Catholic orphanage where he was raised and educated as far as the eighth grade). No, I was a kid like any other kid. I played ball; wandered the vestigial woods of suburban Westchester, killing things; held my own in school, though it was like penal servitude. I was a good kid, I tried to please—as the children of alcoholics so often do—and yet somehow, at fifteen or sixteen, I metamorphosed into a wise guy. A punk. A cynic. A know-it-all. Partly, books were to blame—but not fully, not quite yet. The people I ran with—kids, that is—were the children of educated parents, middle-class and even wealthy parents, and they were sly, smart, and disaffected. Later there would be drugs, but at first there was only desperate-to-get-laid maniacal driving, the usual acts of vandalism, liberated booze—and somehow, miraculously, books. We were proto-hippies, but we didn't know it. We just knew we were caught somewhere between the hoods and the honor students, and that we had a taste for Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, J.D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac. Writing? Never heard of it. 

    At seventeen, I found myself in Potsdam, New York, at SUNY Potsdam, formerly a normal school, now still heavily teacher-oriented but leaning toward the liberal arts. And music. I went there because I played saxophone and wanted to be a musician and because my academic record to this point slid down the scale from mediocre to hopelessly mediocre and nobody else would take me, even if I'd applied, which I didn't. So there I was, in the frozen skullcap of the world, with my saxophone and my sheet music and little talent and no discipline. I flunked my audition and became a history major. Why history? I didn't know at the time, or I couldn't have defined it, but it had to do with writing. I didn't yet realize it, but I could write, and in history—unlike, say, biology or math—what you did was write essays. I found my first mentor there, in the history department—Dr. Vincent Knapp, who himself had made his way up, hand over hand, from the depths of the working class. He saw something in me—in my writing and intelligence—and he tried to promote and encourage it. He was the second of my fathers, and I hurt him in the way of Allan Sillitoe's long-distance runner and his father/mentor. I didn't attend classes. I hung out with the losers.

      But I read. I was introduced to Flannery O'Connor in a sophomore literature class and felt a blast of recognition, and outside class, in the bars and in the company of a small cadre of people like me, I began to read Updike and Bellow and Camus, then Barth, Beckett, Genet, and Gide, as well as Isben, O'Neill, Sarte, and Waugh. The library was new, and it smelled of the formaldehyde in the carpets, and the books were new, the ones I was reading, anyway, and they smelled the way books still smell today, of glue and type and paper mills, a smell I grew to associate with pleasure—and with knowledge. After all, as a budding or even an enduring wise guy, I could be even wiser, more cynical, more sardonic and knowing, if I actually knew something.

    There was rock and roll, of course, which obliterated my early jazz leanings and made me a student of electrified rage (and which later led to the drums, more saxophone, and finally a kind of unmodulated howling into the microphone to the coordinated thrash of everything else), and then I began taking literature courses and discovered my next mentor, Kelsey B. Harder. Kelsey was chairman of the English Department, and he recognized in me the same talent for writing that had attracted Dr. Knapp over in History. I wounded him, too, with the weapons of indifference and alienation, but I wrote some essays for him and began to feel that there was at least something I could do and do well. I was a junior when I took my first course in creative writing, under the last of my undergraduate tutors, Krishna Vaid. 

    Krishna is a Harvard-educated Hindu novelist, much enamored of James Joyce, and he had a cultivated, continental air about him. The class mystified me. There were eleven people in it, all of whom were poets, and they were writing poetry that to me, at least, was incomprehensible. (Poetry and I collided disastrously in high school, when a pompous prig of a teacher read aloud the great poems of English and American literature in a voice so saturated with piety I wanted to set his hair afire, exhume the dead poets, and put them and their books on a slow barge for Patagonia.) Workshops in those days were still evolving and the conduct of Krishna's class was fairly elementary. He would ask a few students to write something for the following week, at which time they would read the result aloud while the rest of us sat in mortified and uncomprehending silence, preparatory to saying absolutely nothing about it. This went on for several weeks before Krishna turned to me and said, “Tom, why don't you put up something next?”

      All right, why not? This was a writing class, after all, and if I'd been selected for it, I must have been a writer of some sort. Problem was, I'd never actually written anything—other than classroom essays, that is, and now I was confronted with the problem of coming up with something creative, be it a short story, a poem, or (wait a minute) a play. We'd been reading the absurdist playwrights in another class, one I attended sporadically and failed miserably, but which featured amazing material in the required texts: “The Bald Soprano”; “Waiting for Godot”; “Rhinoceros”; “The Balcony.” I was attracted to these works in particular because it was readily apparent that their authors were wise guys just like me—albeit very sophisticated, very nasty, and very funny wise guys. I wrote a one-act play. Ten or twelve pages. It was called “The Foot,” and it dealt with a couple grieving over the loss of their child to the jaws of an alligator; all that remained of him was his left foot, dressed in a tennis shoe, and set in the middle of the coffee table like a holiday centerpiece. 

    I should say that Krishna—Dr. Vaid—had a face of stone. He never showed the slightest glimmer of joy, transport, hate, hope, disgust, boredom, or mental affliction while my fellow students read out their convoluted and baffling poems. And so, when he nodded to me and I began to read my play aloud, I knew—or thought I knew—what to expect. What ensued was one of the sweet surprises of my life. Krishna began to smile and then to grin and chuckle and finally to laugh without constraint. Grudgingly, my fellow students (who, like me, were the lame and halt of the campus, bearing all sorts of scars both visible and invisible and who were unanimous in their contempt for one another and by extension one another's work) began to drop a sotto voce chuckle here and there. When I finished, flushed with the sort of exhilaration that only comes from driving the ball over the net and directly into your opponent's face, Krishna began to applaud, and so too, though it killed them, did my fellow students. That was it. That was all it took. I was hooked.

      Examine the elements involved in this essential scene I've just described to you—visible triumph and public adulation, the trumping of one's competitors, the humble acceptance of the laurel wreath, and the promise of dizzying triumphs to come. It was heady, heady indeed, and it would be usual to say that I never looked back, that I educated myself, worked diligently to develop my talent, and flew like a great stinking harpy eagle to the very heights of Parnassus, but that wouldn't be accurate. I became hooked, it's true, but the drug I craved required dedication, required work, and I soon found other drugs that required nothing more than an open mouth or a trembling blue vein to receive them. Oh, I wrote some short stories in the way I might have taken the clothes to the cleaner's or mowed the lawn for my father (who sat in his Barcalounger cradling his drink as if it were about to explode), but I didn't feel any urgency, any purpose. 

    I was twenty-one and I was unreflective and dope-addled, washed along in the hippie current like the spawn of a barnacle. I didn't know anything. I didn't care about anything. I fell in with some people—and their names are on my lips like the taste of sugar, but I won't name them—and these people showed me how to cook heroin and shoot it in my veins, a skinny man like me with no fat to hide those swollen blue conduits to my heart. That lasted two years, weekends mostly, and then a friend OD'd and it scared the holy sweet literature out of me. I was no junkie moron, I was a writer, though I didn't actually write anything, but I wasn't hooked on that scene and those people and what we bought for three and five dollars a bag on South Street in Peekskill, where whole blocks were burned out and boarded up in the wake of the Martin Luther King riots. It took me two years more—and the term Quaalude speaks to me here—to get out of there, but get out I did. I wrote a story about those times—“The OD and Hepatitis Railroad or Bust”—and Robley Wilson Jr. published it in The North American Review. On the strength of that I applied to Iowa and Iowa accepted me. I'd never been west of New Jersey, and I didn't know Iowa from Ohio—or Idaho, for that matter. But it wasn't all that complicated, really: my girlfriend and my dog climbed into the car, we marked out the route on the map, and headed out on I-80.

    It was late summer in Iowa, hills and square-faced buildings and leaves as green as a feat of the imagination. There was a party for new students on a muggy September day in one of those big old houses downtown somewhere, and I remember Fred Exley swaggering in with two shining and beautiful students in tow, one male and one female, and a quart bottle of vodka, from which he was swigging as if it were a big cold translucent beer. It would be many years later, when Pages From a Cold Island came out, before I understood where he'd been and what his frame of mind might have been like that day, but at any rate I was impressed: here was a writer. In fact, that first semester I had my choice of studying with one of five writers: Vance Bourjaily, Exley, Gail Godwin, John Irving, or Jack Leggett. I chose Vance, and I chose right. He became my next father/mentor, and the first one I didn't let down. Because I was different now, I was hooked truly and absolutely, and I wasn't going to let anything interfere with getting the words out—or at least wholly giving myself over to the trial for the for the first time in my life.

      Something had happened to me, something inexplicable even to this day: I felt a power in me. I don't mean to get mystical here, because science has killed mysticism for me, to my everlasting regret, but suddenly, though I'd done nothing to earn it, I felt strong, superior, invincible. People said I had a chip on my shoulder—they still do—and I suppose that's right, but what is cockiness, arrogance, whatever you want to call it, but a kind of preemptive strike against your own weaknesses? And without such a strike, what chance is there of succeeding? I felt a power. I wrote. I read everything. I enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the same time I started my M.F.A., and here I met the last of my academic mentors, Frederick P.W. McDowell, who taught me professionalism and a love of nineteenth-century British literature. (I once made an obscure point about an obscure poet while we were waiting to get into the classroom for his lecture, and he went silent a moment, gave me a wood-stripping look, and said, “Mr. Boyle, I have no doubt that you will ultimately have the discipline to complete the requirements for your doctoral degree, and let me tell you, not all of them do.”)

      But Vance. Vance was a wonder. He was a rock, calm and collected, and his presence at the other end of the room as he paused to roll a cigarette or make a laconic point was deeply comforting. His was the first class I walked into at the Workshop, and it was all-male. I guess there were maybe fifteen or sixteen students gathered there, most older than I, and all but three (myself included) were writing about their experiences in Vietnam. My story went up the first week. It wasn't about Vietnam. It was about being a hippie in a certain hippie milieu, one who shot dope, and it used a few repeated images to achieve its effect. Vance liked it. My fellow students liked it, with some reservations. It wasn't exactly the kind of experience I'd had in Krishna's class, but I was in a much bigger arena now, and the experience uplifted me (as did Vance's advocacy, later in the semester, of my allegory, “Bloodfall”). In fact, the three writers I was fortunate enough to study with at Iowa—Vance, John Cheever, and Vance's former student, John Irving—were all exceptionally generous and supportive. And that's what a young writer needs to feed his addiction—that kind of praise and gentle criticism that leads to a wider ratification. Yes, you begin to think, I am a writer, after all. Not just in the little world I came from, but in the big world, too. 

    John Cheever was like a wind blowing out of some remote place. He dressed formally, in suits and bow ties, and he spoke with the accent of a time and place none of us had ever been to or even imagined. We must have been equally mystifying to him, with our raggedy hair and beards and clothes the Goodwill would have rejected, but he was game. He didn't have much of an idea of what to do as a teacher, and this was complicated by the fact that he was drunk much of the time, and yet he read our stories carefully and praised them if they were worthy of praise. I kept making noises about “experimental writing” and hailing people like Coover, Pynchon, Barthelme, and John Barth, but Cheever would have none of it. He couldn't make any sense out of The Sot Weed Factor and didn't see that it was worth the effort of trying. Further, he insisted that his writing was experimental, too, but I didn't really get what he meant till he published his collected stories five years later and I reread things like “The Death of Justina,” as dark and haunting a dream of a story and anything I've read by anyone. All good fiction is experimental, he was telling me, and don't get caught up in fads.

      For the next three years most of the writing I did was for my Ph.D., fifty-page analyses of Tennyson, Keats, and Matthew Arnold and the like, but I'd begun to feel a need for the rush of accomplishment that only fiction could give me and I wrote stories whenever I could. “Descent of Man,” “Heart of a Champion,” “We Are Norsemen,” “The Champ,” and “A Women's Restaurant” date from that period, and these stories—mad, absurd, hyperbolic, but mine, all mine—began to appear not only in the smaller magazines, but in Esquire, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic Monthly. I was a writer. Sure, I was—and there was the proof of it. But when I finished up at Iowa in 1977, I began to realize that there was one more step to take. 

    Ray Carver had been living in town a few years earlier, in the Cheever days (they drank together at the Mill, and I'll never know why the local historical society hasn't affixed little brass markers to the stools they perched themselves on during those long hard hours of draining glasses and lighting cigarettes), and now he was back to teach in the Workshop. Will You Please Be Quiet Please? had come out that year and confirmed what we students had known all along: that Ray was the best short story writer of his time. He amazed and inspired me. We talked about selling stories to little magazines—selling them, that is, once they'd been brought up out of nothing and given shape—but we didn't talk much about craft. In fact, I can't remember discussing craft with anybody then—it was just a given, a path you took because you were a writer able to assimilate all the stories there were and make something wholly different out of them and the discomforts and fleeting joys of your own circumscribed life. Anyway, Ray was the apotheosis of what I wanted to become, and I said as much to John Irving once—that is, “I don't want to write novels, only stories, like Ray”—and John opined that I might change my mind someday. 

    He was right. I did change my mind. With a vengeance. I began Water Music on finishing my exams, and spent the next three years on it, all one hundred-and-four-chapters. I began writing in the mornings, seven days a week, the addiction full-blown finally and surely terminal now, and I've been working on that schedule ever since. I had no more idea of how to write a novel when I started Water Music than how to write a play when Krishna Vaid asked me to put something up for his workshop ten years earlier. I learned how, though, minute by minute, day by day, and I persisted single-mindedly despite the qualms of both my agent and editor, who couldn't see how the stories of Mungo Park, African explorer, and Ned Rise, pícaro, would ever come together in any kind of even minimally satisfying way. Have faith, I told them, and plowed on, though my editor warned me to bring it in under five hundred pages (I did, at four hundred-ninety-six, but I cheated by typing all the way out to the dead white margin of every page).

    Then the other books began to accrue and I started to get attention and to sit for interviews and try to articulate what I was attempting to do in my fiction—or rather, what I'd done. I can see how my books and stories are tied inextricably, how the themes and obsessions—the search for the father, racism, class and community, predetermination versus free will, cultural imperialism, sexual war and sexual truce—keep repeating. I can see this, but only in retrospect. That's the beauty of this addiction—you have to move on, no retirement here, look out ahead, though you can't see where you're going. First you have nothing, and then, astonishingly, after ripping out your brain and your heart and betraying your friends and ex-lovers and dreaming like a zombie over the page till you can't see or hear or smell or taste, you have something. Something new. Something of value. Something to hold up and admire. And then? Well, you've got a jones, haven't you? And you start all over again, with nothing.


From The Eleventh Draft, ed. Frank Conroy. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.