If Dante were writing his epic poem Divine Comedy today, then suburbia might constitute one of those circles of Hell. At least that’s how Jack Grisham seems to conceive those not-so-sleepy enclaves in his new brutal and artful memoir An American Demon. In his perspective, suburbs are chock-full of demons, such as himself, wandering the bland wasteland of the American dream gone berserk.
In these treacherous territories, mom and dads belittle children verbally, then smack and bruise them with arms that wallop with the precision of snake strikes; kids huff common chemicals in bags and rags, eager to disappear into a black hole at the back of their heads; rednecks and preppy losers assault punk rockers, like two armies of youth clashing headlong into chaos; kids torture animals, parents, and friends anyway they know how, all the while they are steeped in boredom, angst, and misery.
Molestation, theft, and sadistic sex stumble through people’s lives, too. Put your seat belt on. Those incidents make up just the first half of the book.
Anyone mildly familiar with punk rock, hardcore, or underground music from the ‘80s should be able to pinpoint Grisham. He is the iconic singer of bands like True Sounds of Liberty (TSOL), Cathedral of Tears, Tender Fury, Joykiller, and the reformed TSOL, who have managed to remain potent and primal well into their middle-age bracket. This memoir, though, eschews a dissection of those careers and aims for something with more creative license and scope. As such, he is a poet of pathology, an uber-punk in a nest of vipers.
Buyers beware: he offers no factoid-bound summary of the anarchy-steeped Huntington Beach brotherhood. Nor is this a salacious tell-all that examines the distinct personalities that set hardcore punk rock into motion.
Instead, Grisham hands readers a murky, allegorical, and densely violent prose work that weaves literature, memory, and diatribe into a rough lens. To touch this book is to touch a man, and readers may not like that skin contact, at all, unless they like touching demons.
Like the transgressive authors Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) and Dennis Cooper (Frisk), Grisham explores the pent-up violence lurking in the male psyche, including the minefields of sexuality barely hidden beneath skin. In some sections, he even seems to invoke a Third Sex version of himself –- the Devil as sexual aberration.
Punk rock has always been a call to arms for outsiders, margin walkers, and queer/queered people, just like it has always been saturated with sleaze, cross-dressing, performance rituals, and uncontrolled bodies. The New York Dolls might have faded by 1980, but Grisham embodied a hybrid between such lipstick rebels and the beachcore hoodlums. He was the handsome guy kickin’ teeth with motorcycle boots tied up with dirty bandanas and razor-sharp spurs, but he also donned a bright femme scarf, too.
More like a gender-terrorist than a gender-bender, he exploited people’s fears and prejudice concerning boy norms, Christian sexual identities, and suburban codes of dress. Sure, bands like the Dicks and Big Boys featured cross-dressing gay singers with ribald, Texas-sized queer attitudes, but Grisham was an impenetrable mystery –- dashing and dangerous, slightly effete and surfer sinister.
He was a buccaneer like Adam Ant, a vampire like Dave Vanian (The Damned), a white-faced precursor to Eric Draven (The Crow), and a male Siouxsie with the girth of a football player. If you attempted to cross him, you would suffer, and not just some flimsy words but real blood and guts.
The violence doesn’t subsume the whole book, though. Moments of transcendence mitigate the terror, such as the vignette where he surfs filthy water, a pipeline of millisecond-measured peace, even when it is choked with diesel fumes and raw sewage. In these brief episodes, a dead cow offers up Grisham-style haiku as he pictures it “drifting in the current, its twisted legs galloping futilely towards shore.” This section differs distinctly from the audio version released in 2008 by MVD Visual on TSOL: The Early Years Live, plus it reveals his ironic and edgy manner of dealing with death.
In that same body of water clinging to the sullied coast, in the churning froth and whiplash speed, he enters the cave of a wave on the verge of crushing him. Blown out the other side in a blast of air, he emerges a “hero untouched”. That temporary free zone, that empowerment, is untrammeled by the sins of parents, cops, and teachers. Oozing with self-satisfied triumph, that incident is, despite the enthralling ego boost, a moment of utter isolation as well. He is like the figure in a 1957 poem by Stevie Smith that concludes, “I was much too far out all my life/ And not waving but drowning.”
Many readers might will be drawn to the dark sexual proclivities that shape the story: drunken chicken-hawk swingers disguised as neighbors needing lawn work devour teen Grisham; an elderly woman seeks furtive intercourse with Grisham in a crypt next to her husband’s ashes; and boy virgins gang-bang a young woman in an otherwise nondescript house during a pool party. These moments are not overly graphic and seedy. Grisham states them in a matter-of-fact, semi-detached voice, like a reporter from Dante’s void.
Other portions will make readers recoil and cringe, but they are not pornographic or overly morbid. Grisham is no moralist, either. He portrays humans in three categories: the barely good, the mostly bad, and the often ugly. These monsters do not stem from a vacuum, though. They emerge as byproducts of the decline and fall of the Me Generation—the detritus and flops of family units in the ‘70s, which stir a breeding ground of despair.
Some readers will be baffled by the anger manifested in the land of plenty: others will recognize their own darker memories. In my suburbs, men drank beers with hands missing fingers that were chopped off at factories; drunken fathers held their families hostage with hunting rifles; gay high school guidance counselors were beaten and burned near the local woods; and all kinds of men stuck their fingers in children.
Grisham’s visions are not fringe, by any account. He just adds a punk sense of disarray and disorder to the mix. By the end of the narrative, he walks through a local wetland, finding a rare breed of consolation: connectivity to the things around him. A new woman enters his life, helping him steer through his sordid past, including the obvious turmoil and intransigence. He finally forges a sense of self that is not deadlocked to the past, though, as he admits, his daughter will view him as “left of left”. A few years ago, I witnessed this man.
I was broke and cold, filming TSOL through a slot in the metal back door of a sweat-drenched club in Eugene, Oregon. Grisham caught sight of me, yelled at security to let me in, then herded me on stage. I captured the last few songs while hunched next to the PA speaker, becoming an eyewitness to the throng of people catapulting themselves through the frenzy of each song. The band never missed a single frenetic beat.
After the gig, a sweat-drenched Grisham retreated to the back parking lot just as some young inebriated punks chased each other down the street, embroiled in fisticuffs. “C’mon Jack, some kid is getting his ass kicked. Come check it out!” one kid enthused. Grisham looked a bit pained and befuddled. The kid ran off, confused as hell why the Lord of the Flies wasn’t joining him. He didn’t realize the truth. Grisham was not their Lord, not their Demon.
This book navigates how Grisham shed that evil doppelganger, burned away the last cinders of that macabre and malevolent cocoon, and entered this new world cold and vulnerable, even as the stories bleed behind him. By the end, he has reclaimed his identity and staked himself in language and storytelling, where purgatory can give way to some tentative piety – not religiosity but a sense of dutifulness. He has the duty to wake up and seize the day, as he once conferred to me in an email, because “it is your choice.”