The Dim Light at the End of Long Tunnels
Before the celluloid trail beckoned Rudy Wurlitzer, there was Nog, the startling novel from the edges of the counterculture that elicited high praise from none other than noted recluse Thomas Pynchon.
This is some book,” the author of Gravity’s Rainbow and V enthused. “I mean, it’s more than a beautiful and heavy trip, it’s also very important in an evolutionary way, showing us directions we should be moving in—hopefully another sign that the Novel of Bullshit is dead and some kind of re-enlightenment is beginning to arrive, to take hold.
It is difficult at best to distill the slim yet exceedingly complex plot of Nog. If all art is at once surface and symbol, as Oscar Wilde suggests in the preface to Picture of Dorian Gray, then Wurlitzer’s 1969 debut novel is the ultimate expression of that statement, a writhing copperhead snake that is difficult to hold onto but spellbinding to observe in its raw, natural beauty.
In true Barthesian style there is no limit imposed on the text by the author in Nog; Wurlitzer rejects the traditional tendency to consider the narrator’s identity (politics, religion, even ethnicity) to distill meaning from the work. Nog is all about the subjective experience, not unlike Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.
Originally published by Random House, the slender novel presents a hallucinatory journey across the modern American West, following the meanderings and internal monologues of a narrator who may or may not be named Nog who may or may not have once hauled around a live octopus in a bathysphere and whose meanderings from one empty space to the next is nothing more or less than a rigorous attempt to erase all memory of his past and all desire for a future. There is only the here and now in the world of Nog and the future is to be looked upon with great suspicion.
“I don’t trust the dim light at the end of long tunnels,” Nog says to himself deep into his journey with no end, “the promise of events to come.” That single passage alone can be viewed as a nihilistic reproach to Fitzgerald’s idealistic and optimistic “green light at the end of the pier” in The Great Gatsby and a dismissal of the staid and sedate linear approach to the craft of the novel that had dominated American literature until the early ‘60s and ‘70s.
Later novels that would show a direct or indirect lineage to Nog include Joan Didion’s introspective Play It As It Lays (1970) and Robert Stone’s harrowing drug running drama Dog Soldiers (1974), books that depend on the complex inner workings of the human psyche for drama as much as external events. The characters in all three novels – the titular Nog, the mentally unstable actress Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays, and jaded journalist and playwright Frank Converse in Dog Soldiers – all surrender to impulses and compulsions and the authors allow us to follow the tragic, fucked up consequences of their actions.
It’s more than just the grubbiness of the human experience and the moral neutrality of the characters that is laid bare in Wurlitzer, Didion, and Stone’s trio of interlinked novels. The major target for social criticism is the west and the dark and troubling alleys and byways created by the so-called California Dream in the birth of a new frontier during the gold rush of 1848-1855 when the old gave way to a disturbing new, a theme that Wurlitzer has visited over and over again, including the screenplay for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; writing about Peckinpah’s film in the Christian Science Monitor in May 1973, journalist David Sterritt observed:
Peckinpah sees the Old West’s decline as a strange and troubling occurrence, a time when established chaos yielded painfully to a dubious new order. The growth of empire – social, financial, governmental – underlies his view. Yet he worries most about those excluded by the growing empire, men whose natural language is one of hopelessly self-seeking violence.
The growing empire of California is more than just the end of the road – as Kerouac would have it – in Wurlitzer’s collected works … it’s the end of civilization as we know it, the exhaustion of Manifest Destiny. “There’s nothing more to do,” he writes in Nog. “Everything has been built, everything said, everything ruined.” Master Sergeant Alva Bent, “a peg-legged veteran of the Mexican War as well as several campaigns against the Comanche and the Apache” summarizes the westward experience for mountain man turned outlaw Zebulon Shook in Wurlitzer’s The Drop Edge of Yonder:
It was all arranged: politicians puttin’ the muzzle on all of the free-floaters, squeezin’ the country, makin’ it safe for business and greenhorns. ‘Come on out to Paradise, folks, and get rich beyond your wildest dreams. Scoop up a few bowls of gold dust. Buy yourself a big hotel and fill it with easy women, or go back where you came from richer than your biggest dreams.’ Those boys in Washington have put a noose around our necks. I know. I helped Fremont push the greasers back to old Mex. Fremont had his orders from back East: go for the gold and open up the sluice gates and watch the joint rip. Trains will run east to west and back … Hoe it down, boys. Plant your potatoes and your tomatoes and to hell with what used to be.
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
Billy: Ol’ Pat … Sheriff Pat Garrett. Sold out to the Santa Fe ring. How does it feel?
Pat: It feels like … times have changed.
Billy: Times maybe. Not me.
— Rudy Wurlitzer, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
How shall the murdered man convince his assassin he will not haunt him?
— Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
The production of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in Durango, Mexico, was a Conrad-esque journey into the dark heart of the eternal war between the angels and demons of art and commerce. It would take almost a decade before Wurlitzer and Peckinpah’s tone poem of death in the west would be reassembled and presented the way it was meant to be seen. In a 1982 feature for Rocky Mountain Magazine titled Last of the Desperadoes: Dueling with Sam Peckinpah, journalist and Elle magazine advice columnist (Ask E. Jean) E. Jean Carroll summed up the experience in a colorful and breathless single adrenaline-rushed paragraph that reads like a passage from a later Peckinpah film, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia:
Peckinpah wants to shoot in New Mexico for authenticity. Metro wants Mexico to cut costs. He loses. Peckinpah wants a Panavision repairman in Durango, Mexico, to fix the cameras. The studio says nothing doing. The first footage is sent to L.A. to be processed. The lab calls Peckinpah. Says the film’s out of focus. Panic in Durango.
Downtime. The camera is fixed and the paranoia sets in. The actors get sick. The crew gets sick. Peckinpah is puking every day. They fall behind schedule. James Aubrey, president of MGM, wants to save time and forbids Peckinpah to shoot a raft scene. Peckinpah shoots it. The scenarist, Rudy Wurlitzer, starts complaining. Says Peckinpah is rewriting the picture with the help of his old TV scripts. Jerry Fielding, Peckinpah’s music composer can’t work with Bob Dylan and quits.
Dylan’s unhappy. Kris Kristofferson (the Kid) says Rudy’s dialogue is corny. Rita Coolidge (Maria, the Kid’s lover) says all that remains of her role thanks to MGM is that of “a groupie.” James Coburn (Garrett) says Peckinpah is a creative paranoid who generates tension to give everyone the same experience to feed on during the film. A fight breaks out one Saturday night.
Two guys. One is on the phone ordering a couple of gunmen to Durango. Wants the other guy killed for threatening Peckinpah’s life. Whitey Hughes, Peckinpah’s stunt man, says they always have a good time, but on this film they aren’t having a good time. The hit is canceled at Peckinpah’s insistence. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is brought in 20 days over schedule and $1.5 million over budget.
MGM’s building a hotel in Vegas and needs cash. The studio moves the release date up and gives Peckinpah only two and a half months to edit. On the sly MGM duplicates the work print and employs another cutter. Peckinpah’s version runs between 122 and 126 minutes. The studio’s runs 106. The producer, Gordon Carroll, negotiates day and night. Gets nothing restored. The picture’s released. Peckinpah sues for $1.5 million. Orders all the cuts put back or his name taken off. Nada. Nada. Nada.
In a career that spans 40 years, Rudy Wurlitzer’s path of creation is inextricably linked to Sam Peckinpah’s and that is somehow as it should be, as sure and certain as shooting the head off a chicken buried up to its neck in sand, restless men wary and uncertain of the future, staying in the moment, occasionally snatching a glimpse into the rear-view mirror. “How am I to know except by looking back if I am settled or not?” Wurlitzer’s nameless narrator muses in Nog.
“Man is not a shark, always moving forward,” a character philosophizes in The Drop Edge of Yonder. “He goes backward. He holds his ground. By changing directions he avoids boredom, which, I submit, is the biggest curse of all.”
All of the characters in Wurlitzer’s works, beginning with Nog and coming full circle with Drop Edge, are restless wanderers. “You’ll always be on the move, trying to find out who you are,” a seer warns Zebulon Shook. “Like the rest of this crazy country,” she says, Zebulon “thinks doom is death and death is doom. That’s why he wanders around like a ghost not knowing what trail he’s meant to walk on.”
Nog reminds us that American literature once had a bright and promising future that, in many respects, has been gunned down like a dog in the street over the last couple of decades. Experiments in form and narrative have been shunned and controversial memoirs embraced. The psychic vampires in the works of Wurlitzer, Didion, and Stone have been replaced by the supernatural vampires in Stephenie Meyer’s mundane bestsellers. Literary explorations of ennui have been pushed aside in favor of the latest exercise in vapid self-actualization.
It’s not often that the essence and tone of a writer’s work is captured in popular music but Bob Dylan did just that in 1973 when he composed and recorded the score for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
“Bob wrote the film score in Mexico City,” Wurlitzer says. “But before that, one night when we were returning to Durango from Mexico City – I forget why we were there – he said he wanted to write something for Slim Pickens’ death scene, which was due to be shot the next day. He scrawled something on the airplane and showed it to me line by line and when we got off the plane, there it was, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Dylan’s beautifully simple ballad – which would go on to be his first Top 30 single since Lay Lady Lay – captures the paradoxical fear of and longing for death that is the hallmark of Wurlitzer’s narratives and what lurks at the heart of the human experience. Wurlitzer calls it “the misty beyond” in Drop Edge of Yonder, “or the jornado del muerto, as he had heard death referred to south of the border.”