The Unknown: The Red Line.


And so we had read at Prairie Lights, where I had bought my first copy of Writer’s Market when I was 19 years old. And so it had gone well, more or less. There had been some gnashing of teeth. William had been accosted by a crowd of young M.F.A.-getting poets who said that language poetry was not allowed, and in response he had read Table of Forms, or anyway part of it. Coover had appeared to be amused, at least enough that he refused to sign any autographs while we were reading. There was some tension in the room, sure, but as long as Coover was happy, we were happy.

Frank Conroy was already drunk. Dirk had already vomited, as usual, and then read haiku. I think it was peyote, this time. I apologized to Conroy about a piece Krass-Mueller had written about him, which had seemed to me to be mean. Krass-Mueller’s piece was about how Conroy wrote a travel piece for some cruise line. This was in Krass-Mueller’s piece, which was ripping on cruise lines, for Harper’s, who sent him on the cruise, which he did not enjoy. It was a funny piece, but I thought it was kind of cruel to rip on Conroy when Conroy was just doing the kind of thing that we (I mean writers, you know?) all do when we’re hard up for cash. I mean we (The Unknown) had already done shit that was far worse than that. For cold hard cash. For the Almighty Dollar. We were prostituting ourselves for the sake of American literature, and I told him that our friend Frank had even written copy for Procter & Gamble. Writers gotta eat, I said to him, and fuck, if you can get on a cruise for free, you get to eat, which is part of the job, right? Or at least it comes with the territory. I told him about some fucking intern at Harper’s who’d pissed me off once when I sent them a story. But he didn’t piss me off so much that we’d turn down the opportunity to publish excerpts of our travel memoirs in said magazine. I mean I don’t hold a grudge, you know? Of course later, we’d blow that opportunity too, when we missed our dinner with Lapham. But this was all before that ugly night in Boston. This night was special. I wasn’t even on heroin at the time.

And so we had read at Prairie Lights. I read some shit I wrote when I was 19, and thought that the best way to get published was to send stuff out to some of the addresses in Writer’s Market. And don’t get me wrong, there’s some great people at F&W, and that whole sending stuff out routine works for some people, I’ve got a lot of friends who’ve built whole careers like that. And others who’ve built careers around fucking editors. There I mean fucking in the physical sense. Poets. Whatever works, I guess. But the mail—it’s not for me. I mean, I tried that once, back when I was 19, back when I still had a pretty good relationship with the U.S. Postal Service. But they had fucked me since then, countless times postal workers had fucked me over. Fuck in the metaphoric sense, I mean, there. Graduate school applications had been lost, magazines had been stolen, books had never been delivered. And so I was supposed to send my shit out into the hands of those fucks? Trust them with my blood, sweat, and tears? I don’t think so. So that created some problems. Most publications still don’t take email submissions. And even if it got there, I was supposed to trust my work to some pimply-faced fucking intern at Harper’s? I told Conroy all this, I was kind of babbling, and I told him that that book of his Stoptime is a real classic, in my book.

Anyway, the reading was pretty decent, the people in Iowa City just love a decent reading, and we’re decent readers. Then we (that is me, Wm., Dirk, Aukema and Coover—Conroy, as I’ve said, was pretty much wasted by the time the reading started and retired to his rooms shortly thereafter) went back to Chuck’s house and we sat in his kitchen and rolled a couple doobies of the Brown University chronic. Coover didn’t actually smoke any of it, at least not in front of us. The air was pungent and wholesome. Coover is, hey let’s face it, one of my heroes. So even if he did smoke any, I wouldn’t mention it here, because it turns out, we discovered, that a lot of people who read our hypertext novel tend to believe that everything we write about all the highly regarded literary figures who we mention in the hypertext is true. Which, as I’ve explained, again and again, it’s not. It’s mostly bullshit, as they say in the vernacular. Still nobody believes me. Like this is some kind of fucking biography. But anyway, I’m not gonna have anybody believing that Coover, who is an American literary icon, a true great man in the “great man” theory of history sense of the word, was actually sitting there getting stoned with us. Regardless.

So we were flying, and then William got lost on Aukema’s porch. I should explain. Aukema’s porch is a great library. Bookshelves floor to ceiling, chock-full of literature. Almost all of the influences of the Unknown are in there, a lot of them signed. Because Aukema, I should mention this about Aukema, Aukema knows everybody worth knowing who’s a writer. Almost. The script to Taxi Driver, for instance, was sold over a long distance phone call from the very kitchen we were right then sitting in. T.C. Boyle made Aukema a dwarf character in his novel World’s End. Aukema is a very cool guy, who, I should mention this right now as a little bonus for all you dissertation-writing types out there, actually had a great deal of influence on the course of late twentieth century American literature. Particularly hypertext literature. Once, I got into a fight, not a real fight, but some pretty serious verbal sparring, in that kitchen of Aukema’s with Chris Offut, who thought that my short-short story “Mohawk Hangnail” was dangerous, and that it would be a bad influence on American literature. That it would be bad for the kids. I like Offut’s stuff, but we had both been drinking quite a bit of whiskey. I think the word “fuck” was exchanged several times. He might have said “fuck postmodernism,” and I might have said “fuck naturalism,” but I’m not sure. As I’ve said, we were both quite drunk. He’s a good writer though, check out his book Kentucky Straight.

But we were talking about Coover. Have you read Pricksongs and Descants, or A Night at the Movies, or Pinnochio in Venice, or The Public Burning? If you haven’t read any of his work, I’d recommend that you pop open another window on your browser (yeah, right now, but leave The Unknown open, too) and go to your online bookstore of choice (But not Barnes & Noble, fuck them, monopolists) and purchase a copy of one of his books. Now, you might not be able to find a few of his books, but I think that most of them are back in print, finally. Which is very good. That it’s back in print. His work. Which is good. So let me just come out right now and admit that we’ve (the Unknown, here referred to collectively) lifted a few techniques from the guy. Is that a crime? I don’t think so. Writers can get away with all sorts of that kind of shit. He didn’t mind, at any rate, at least that’s what he said, when we were sitting in Aukema’s kitchen and we admitted to his face that we were ripping him off left and right. And it’s not just us I’m talking about either, it’s a whole generation of hip American writers. But that’s another story. Or is it?

We talked about a lot of things with those two guys, Dirk and me. We talked about molecular biology. We talked about cannibalism and stereotypes of Native Americans. We talked about new medical instruments that are invisible to the naked eye. We talked about evolution. We talked about various pharmaceuticals and how they are tested. We plotted, we schemed, we made big plans for American literature. Hypertext especially. It was a good night, that night in the kitchen at Aukema’s house in Iowa City. I think William stole some books from Aukema. I remember thinking that I write an awful lot about marijuana when I am out of it, or some words to that effect.



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The Unknown at Spineless Books.