[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Outlaw Bible of American Literature': The Rebel Establishment

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'The Outlaw Bible of American Literature': The Rebel Establishment 
New York Times Book Review, 5.4.17


Edited by Alan Kaufman, Neil Ortenberg and Barney Rosset.
Illustrated. 662 pp. Thunder's Mouth Press. Paper, $24.95.

    Back in the late 1930's, when Philip Rahv made that famous
    distinction between American literature's ''redskins'' (yawping Walt
    Whitman) and ''palefaces'' (finicking Henry James), he was talking
    about contrasting sensibilities, not armed camps. But in the 50's, all
    hell broke loose. With the publication of [1]''On the Road,'' ''Howl''
    and [2]''Naked Lunch,'' the Beat writers and the establishment (which
    might have been smug enough not to have realized it was any such
    thing) declared war on each other, and the Beats were cast -- and
    certainly cast themselves -- as the rebel-angels of a perpetual
    insurrection, recruiting from beyond the grave (Blake, Rimbaud),
    trying to enlist neglected, potentially sympathetic elders (Pound,
    Williams) and potential fellow travelers (the Black Mountain school),
    proselytizing the young. Earlier American misfits, from Melville
    through Robinson Jeffers, had probably figured neglect was just their
    personal tough luck. Now misfits had a movement, even if they were too
    cantankerous to sign up: a literary counterculture with an alternative
    -- at heart, a Miltonic -- reading of literary history. The entrance
    exam was largely a background check, and nobody graded the written

    That's a short version of the history behind ''The Outlaw Bible of
    American Literature,'' a new anthology put together by the writer Alan
    Kaufman, the editor Neil Ortenberg and the seminal publisher Barney
    Rosset, whose Grove Press and Evergreen Review gave a brand -- and
    more important, a home -- to writers once deemed, for whatever reason,
    too dangerous to handle. Some of the foreigners Rosset supported
    (Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco) have long since become respectable, if no
    less formidable. But most of the Americans he published (William S.
    Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Terry Southern) remain outsiders. In part
    this is because of the work itself: sometimes semipornographic --
    though seldom gamier than passages in John Updike and Philip Roth --
    sometimes antiestablishmentarian, sometimes hard to read, sometimes
    all of the above. But in part it's because the idea of literary
    outlawry -- any kind of outlawry -- is irresistible to the American
    imagination, which may never outgrow its Puritan-Manichaean origins.
    In fact, for two cents, I'd say ''The Outlaw Bible'' is a
    quintessential document of the Bush Era, but that would hurt
    everybody's feelings.

    At any rate, although the Rosset-sponsored rebels of the 50's and 60's
    center this collection, the editors have opened the countercanon wide
    to take in a full range of American Unclubbables. Mickey Spillane,
    Sapphire, Waylon Jennings, John Waters, Greil Marcus, Margaret Sanger,
    Dave Eggers, DMX: you won't find all of these people together in any
    other book, ever. (The only folks not invited to the party seem to be
    the far-right cranks: the militiapersons in ''The Turner Diaries'' may
    be extralegal, but they're not outlaws.) It's just what an anthology
    of alternative/outsider literature ought to be: all over the place.
    You can read Woody Guthrie on hopping freights, Valerie Solanas on
    cutting up men and Emma Goldman on doing prison time. As long as
    you're not expecting that all these writers can write, there's no
    reason you shouldn't have a good time.

    But ''The Outlaw Bible'' is supposed to be good for you, and that's
    what changes it from an entertaining miscellany to something worth
    thinking about. Depending on where you sit, it's either a document
    recodifying a revolution or a relic recyling an obsolescent
    controversy. The editors' introduction, of course, argues for its
    contemporary relevance: ''a revolt against a landscape dominated by a
    literary dictatorship of tepid taste, political correctness and sheer
    numbing banality.'' Your reflexive reaction is to leap to your feet,
    whet your knife and take the tarp off the old tumbrel -- the problem
    with numbing banality is, it doesn't numb you enough -- but then you
    remember what year it is. True, goon squads of editors and critics
    still keep the frightened masses buying superficially quiet fiction
    about superficially quiet people by Alice Munro and Marilynne
    Robinson. But some of the writers the regime is now grooming to take
    power look a lot like insurgents themselves: indecorous, sometimes
    indecent, not snobby about pop culture. Whatever you think of David
    Foster Wallace or Michael Chabon, Gary Shteyngart or Jonathan Safran
    Foer, they're more mermaid than Prufrock. For every current big-name
    writer who's flatlining, I can name you one who's redlining. (But not
    here. We'll talk after the show.)

    Kaufman and his fellow editors seem to be fighting battles that were
    over with half a century ago -- in romantic-sentimental language that
    should have been over with half a century ago. ''Some of our best, our
    fiercest, our most volcanic prose,'' they write, ''is not a
    tongue-twisted Henry Jamesian labyrinth of 'creative writing' but an
    outraged American songline of tear-stained revelation.'' I can't sit
    still for James either -- who the hell can? -- but the editors ought
    to visit some creative writing classes: these days, both Jamesian
    maundering and Vesuvian spewing get the red pencil. And the attempt to
    transplant bebop-era grievances to a hip-hop world -- ''in the grip of
    Google and Wal-Mart'' -- only makes them sound clueless. This
    alternative canon, they write, springs ''not from reality shows, Botox
    or I.P.O.'s, but the streets, prisons, highways, trailer parks and
    back alleys of the American dream.'' Jeez, why pick on Google, the
    most useful tool since the stone ax? (That's how I found out it was
    Rahv and not Lionel Trilling or somebody who'd thought up the
    paleface/redskin thing. Took me 30 seconds.) And if you're all about
    the trailer park and the prison, why dis Wal-Mart, which melds the two
    so perfectly that writers should stop wishing it away and start
    hanging out there and taking notes?

    ''The Outlaw Bible'' may be an uneven reading experience -- after
    reprinting that bit of Bob Dylan's ''Tarantula,'' the editors have
    their nerve to complain about tongue-twisted labyrinths -- but it
    makes an absorbing exercise in taxonomy. Who exactly qualifies as an
    outlaw and why? Let's try a little quiz. Without looking at the table
    of contents, which two made the grade?

    A) Bret Easton Ellis

    B) Norman Mailer

    C) Grace Paley

    D) Raymond Carver

    Time's up: B and C. Mailer qualifies because he's ''walked a tightrope
    over public opinion, often with a dagger in his teeth'' -- possibly an
    allusion to his stabbing his wife all those years ago? -- for his
    ''hipster manifesto 'The White Negro' '' and his ''literary
    sponsorship of the criminal Jack Henry Abbott'' (who's also in the
    anthology). Paley has published ''highly acclaimed collections of
    short fiction,'' but heck, so has Munro. Selling point: her antiwar,
    antinuke and feminist activism. So what's wrong with Ellis and Carver?
    If you read carefully the stuff I quoted above -- I can't blame you if
    you skimmed -- you'll see why they don't belong in the club of those
    who don't belong in the Club. Patrick Bateman in Ellis's ''American
    Psycho'' is far more crazed and violent than Stephen Rojack in
    Mailer's ''American Dream,'' but he's an I.P.O. kind of guy: out.
    Carver passes the trailer-park test, but his flintlike precisionism
    doesn't fit the lava-flow aesthetic. Outlaws are not anal.

    Now that you understand the rules, here's Round 2. None of these
    writers made it into ''The Outlaw Bible,'' but two of them might have.
    Again, pick the outlaws:

    A) Charles Bukowski

    B) Susan Sontag

    C) Jim Bouton

    D) Ernest Hemingway

    You're catching on: A and C. Sontag's politics are O.K., but she had
    that mandarin thing happening: forget it. An outlaw can't be a fancy
    pants. Hemingway gets points for his suicide and his slumming -- check
    out that story ''A Pursuit Race''; it's got a guy shooting dope -- but
    precisionism and the Nobel Prize are deal-breakers. Bukowski?
    Absolutely: working-class boozer, volcanically prolific, neglected
    except for a cult following. Bouton? A borderline case: I threw him in
    to make it interesting. In ''Ball Four,'' he admits he was ''too
    chicken'' to take the acid hippies offered him in Haight-Ashbury. But
    any writer subversive enough to have the baseball commissioner tell
    him he'd ''done the game a grave disservice'' -- and then to use the
    quotation on his book jacket -- ought to get the benefit of the doubt.
    Mailer himself once did the pans-as-blurbs thing in an ad for [3]''The
    Deer Park.''

    If you believe the editors' introduction, what makes an outlaw writer
    isn't the writing but the life. ''The authors in this collection are
    not greeted with book club invitations'' -- take that, Jonathan
    Franzen -- ''and White House invitations.'' (In fact, by my count,
    four of the contributors were invited to the White House at one time
    or another, and they went like lambs; the excerpt from Dick Gregory's
    autobiography even tells about it.) Rather, these writers ''often lead
    lives of state pen incarceration'' -- rhymes with quiet desperation --
    ''street hustling, exile, martyrdom, and even murder at the hands of
    strangers. . . . William S. Burroughs . . . traveled to the edge of
    heroin addiction and preserved in deathless prose what he found there.
    . . . Iceberg Slim . . . ran whores before turning his hand to books.
    . . . Ken Kesey . . . captured the American heart in great epic novels
    before transforming its society through Merry Prankster revolution.''
    Understand, I have nothing against heroin addiction, running whores or
    transforming society -- it's all good -- but I wonder about the tacit
    assumption that such experiences make your tear-stained prose sing.
    Wouldn't revision be less time-consuming and involve less wear and
    tear? And the four writers who get special mention -- Richard
    Brautigan, Breece D'J Pancake, Donald Goines and F. X. Toole -- are
    specifically singled out for having died: the first two by suicide,
    Goines by murder, Toole a year after his only book appeared. This may
    be too Zen to get your head around, but I'm tempted to think that not
    living long enough to write anything at all might be a literary
    outlaw's savviest career move.

    I'm also tempted to make a really snarky transition here. But let's
    just say that some of the old obligatories in this anthology -- the
    canonical noncanonicals -- are starting to show their age. The scene
    in Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg's ''Candy'' in which the
    heroine is seduced by a hunchback -- ''With a wild, impulsive cry, she
    shrieked: 'Give me your hump!' '' -- must have been campy titillation
    four decades ago. Now it's a museum piece: soft-porn whimsy half a cut
    above Playboy's ''Little Annie Fanny.'' Better to concede that it used
    to be a big deal and skip the actual experience. The seven-page
    excerpt from Henry Miller's ''Tropic of Cancer'' -- in a Paris
    bordello, a Hindu friend of Miller's naïvely defecates in the bidet --
    proves to be an endurance test whose only reward is a grade-B
    aphorism: ''For some reason or other man looks for the miracle, and to
    accomplish it he will wade through blood.'' On the other hand, the two
    pages of Iceberg Slim's ''Pimp'' still have a blunt force; even the
    musty slang -- ''swipe'' is not a verb; ''cat'' is not an animal --
    doesn't soften the claustrophobic, heartless menace. And familiar
    passages from Burroughs's [4]''Junky'' (''Bill Lee'' tries to kick
    morphine but kindly Old Ike helps him backslide) and Kerouac's ''On
    the Road'' (naïve Sal Paradise first meets holy motormouth Dean
    Moriarty) seem as fresh, direct, involving and un-arty as the first
    time you read them: at their best, these two are redskins fit to go up
    against the best the palefaces had to show.

    The more recent outsiders could also give the respectables a run for
    their money. This may ruin Michelle Tea's Sunday, but how could you
    improve on this passage from ''The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate
    Corruption of One Girl in America,'' with its mix of strangeness and
    photographic specificity? ''I was up with the sun in the toxic gold of
    my bedroom. It took 12 cans of spray paint to make the walls glow like
    that, my trigger finger cramped and sticky and I blew my nose gold for
    a week.'' And the late Kathy Acker won my heart years ago with the
    beginning of her 1982 novel ''Great Expectations.'' (''My father's
    name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue
    could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than
    Peter.'') This isn't to say I can read her books all the way through
    -- she once said she never expected it -- but in short takes she can
    be brilliant. Here's part of the excerpt in ''The Outlaw Bible'' from
    her novel ''Don Quixote'':

    ''I think Prince should be president of the United States because all
    our presidents since World War II have been stupid anyway and are
    becoming stupider up to the point of lobotomy and anyway are the
    puppets of those nameless beings -- maybe they're human -- demigods,
    who inhabit their own nations known heretofore as 'multinationals.' On
    the other hand: Prince, unlike all our other images or fakes or
    presidents, stands for values. I mean: he believes. He wears a cross.
    . . . Prince believes in feelings . . . and fame. Fame is making it
    and common sense.''

    Dreadful writing? Acker is well aware of that -- she's careful to let
    us know she's done her tour of the literary canon -- and she revels in
    her transgression against competence and in the Gertrude Stein effects
    she gets when she's just blurting (''Fame is making it and common
    sense''). And anyway, this is a persona: a voice brutalized and
    rendered inarticulate by the same political and cultural mediocrity
    and mendacity it's railing against. Over the top? Discrediting her own
    case? Brilliant of you to notice. But it's part of her strategy to
    affront responsible people. You may not like it -- she doesn't want
    people like you to like it -- but you can't say it's not

    Some of the best moments, though, come from the contributors with no
    literary pretensions at all, just telling yarns, doubtless channeled
    by ghostwriters. In ''The Godfather of Soul,'' James Brown writes
    about hearing a knock on the door of his hotel room and finding a
    grenade with his name painted on it. ''I'd seen enough grenades in
    prison and in Vietnam to know it wasn't live, but it was the thought
    that counted.'' And the selection from Waylon Jennings's autobiography
    has the Platonic country-music anecdote, about Hank Williams:

    ''Faron Young brought Billie Jean, Hank's last wife, to town for the
    first time. She was young and beautiful, and Hank liked her
    immediately. He took a loaded gun and pointed it to Faron's temple,
    cocked it, and said, 'Boy, I love that woman. Now you can either give
    her to me or I'm going to kill you.'

    ''Faron sat there and thought it over for a minute. 'Wouldn't that be
    great? To be killed by Hank Williams!' ''

    I'm with the levelers on this one. That's not literature? All right
    then, I'll go to hell.

    Maybe in a hundred years, assuming there's anybody left around, people
    will be amused at their great-grandparents' failure to grasp the
    self-evident idea that what was called literature was a niche-marketed
    intellectual property, and that the war between the outlaws and the
    canonicals was another dispute between Big-Endians and Small-Endians.
    (Half a dozen people with a taste for the recherché will even get the
    allusion.) You can already see the borders getting porous. Final quiz:
    where do you put A) Mary Gaitskill, B) Nicholson Baker, C) Neal
    Stephenson, D) Jonathan Lethem? Canonicals or alt.canonicals? Or
    should we call them, along with Foer, Wallace and so on,
    postcanonicals? (Just plain ''writers'' would put the taxonomists out
    of business.) ''Don't join too many gangs,'' Robert Frost advised us
    back in 1936, but for the past 50 years or so, writers haven't had
    much choice: who you hang out with, and who watches your back, defines
    what you are. ''The Outlaw Bible'' still posits a literary East L.A.,
    with palefaces and redskins tagging and throwing up signs. With a
    little luck, we won't have to live here much longer.

    David Gates is a senior editor at Newsweek. His most recent book is
    ''The Wonders of the Invisible World,'' a collection of stories.

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