The Big Nowhere: Rudy Wurlitzer's Rediscovered Trilogy and Bob Dylan Revisited
The myths of unspoiled frontiers and the freedom of the open road, lives played out on the margins of society, attachment and detachment, wrestling matches with the ghosts of Samuel Beckett and Louis L’Amour…
A pivotal moment occurs late in the third act of Rudy Wurlitzer’s sardonic post-apocalyptic novel Quake, a morbid and surreal episode that unifies his third novel (after Nog in 1969 and Flats in 1971) with the balance of his work. The setting is Hollywood, California, in the late '60s. An 8.0 magnitude earthquake has brought Los Angeles and its skyscrapers to its knees and “the city has broken into little pathological groups… giving expression to what has always been latent within us.”
As Quake hurtles toward its redemptive climax, the nameless and faceless narrator, a man with no discernable past or future (a Wurlitzer trademark), is cowering in the darkness of a ruined Hollywood Boulevard restaurant after escaping from one of the armed and deadly militia bands that have sprung up from the ruins of the metropolis like wild poisonous mushrooms. The narrator observes:
Author: Rudolph Wurlitzer
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
Publication Date: 2009-09
Length: 168 pgs.
A woman helped me. She was weaving down the middle of the street clutching a doorknob, wearing only a fireman’s hat and galoshes. She was middle-aged and plump and she was covered with blood. I could hear her laugh and talk to herself, the words running into themselves so it sounded as if she was talking in tongues. Slowly she executed a series of figure eights from one side of the street to the other. She stared at me, slapping her thighs and shouting unknown words and as I stepped further out into the street she turned faster and faster.
The late afternoon light was soft and diffuse through the heavy layers of smoke. I began my own turn further down the street, turning slowly at first but then going faster. We shouted and whirled and flung our arms over our heads and my fear receded and I was able to stop. After the dizziness had left me I looked towards her. She lay crumpled in a heap, her stubby legs bent underneath her, one arm twisted and grotesquely extended at a right angle. I knew she was dead. I lay on my back, staring at the sky. The sky was no help. There were steps coming at me from down the street.
The footsteps belong to a dozen or so men and women, weary and frazzled earthquake survivors, former suburbanites and Bel-Air mansion dwellers. They sit down around the narrator to rest and continue their heated discussion.
“If you don’t keep up, we’re going to leave you,” a man’s voice admonishes.
A woman answers, her own voice dripping with exhaustion and disgust: “Go ahead and leave me, Allen. You’ve been talking about it all day. That’s what you want to do anyway.”
“That’s not what I want to do,” Allen says angrily. “But you have to do your share. Jesus Christ, baby, you can’t just bitch about everything. This isn’t a camping trip. We’re in the middle of a goddamn disaster.”
“Go fuck yourself,” the woman mumbles. “You’re an asshole and doing a lousy job leading us anywhere. You don’t know where you’re going. You should let someone else try.”
“We’re trying to get out of the city,” Allen says. “Everything has been completely destroyed and people are killing each other in the streets and we’re in terrible danger.”
“I know people are killing each other in the streets,” the woman insists. “You don’t have to tell me that people are killing each other in the streets. My child was just clubbed to death by some lunatic in the middle of the street.”
“My child too,” Allen fires back. The woman then begins to scream and curse at her husband, calling him a lame dick and an emotional cripple. Allen warns her against “getting hysterical… freaking out.”
“You sound like a Boy Scout leader,” the woman yells. “Who says I shouldn’t freak out? Why not freak out? We might all have a better chance if we freaked out instead of creeping around trying to figure out some half-assed plan. It’s all over, don’t you understand that?”
Time and time again, over the last five decades that have played witness to the Vietnam war, Watergate, Ronald Reagan and the rise of the conservative party in America, the fall of Communism, the dot com bust, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the worst economic recession on record, Wurlitzer’s work as an exemplary novelist and screenwriter repeats in boldface type the message that John Updike delivered in Rabbit, Run:
“The world keeps ending but new people too stupid to know it keep showing up as if the fun just started.”
When independent upstart publisher Two Dollar Radio took on the task of re-issuing Wurlitzer’s long out-of-print first three novels this year, it presented the gatekeepers of literary academia with a unique gift – providing they were paying attention or have taken the time to unwrap the three-volume parcel of nihilistic, experimental American literature and recognize that herein lies a unique specimen any course on contemporary writing cannot afford to do without.
With all due respect, gatekeepers of academia, push aside Brautigan and Ginsberg and make room in the curriculum for Wurlitzer as an overlooked and undervalued voice of the counterculture of the '60s and '70s, wedged comfortably between the collected works of William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson.
Over the last 20 years I have explored Nog, Flats, and Quake as stand-alone reading experiences. But with the reissue of the three novels in chronological order it is impossible not to notice that the trio of works (written back to back and challenging the norms by which stories are frequently put on paper) are more than vaguely interconnected; a close reading of all three books reveals that the unreliable narrator of the tercet just might be the same person, bouncing like a human pinball from one corner of the North American continent to the next before coming to a full tilt rest at the Tropicana Motel in L.A. moments before the earth rips open and all manner of hell breaks loose.
(As an important aside, it should be mentioned that several literary critics have insinuated that all three novels are semi-autobiographical efforts taken from the author’s own wanderings both at home and abroad in his youth, an accusation that Wurlitzer has neither denied nor confirmed in my many conversations with him over the last 18 months; the nearest he came to asserting truth to allegation was when he bristled at my overstated reference to recreational drug use in my original PopMatters review of Nog, protesting irritably that he “wasn’t doing a lot of drugs back in those days.”
[Wurlitzer has every reason to be sensitive about the topic, however, as Jeremy Hatch points out in his insightful and useful review of Nog for The Quarterly Conversation (Jeremy Hatch, 7 December 2009), writing that the critical neglect of the novel over the years since its initial publication is “perhaps as simple as the fact that many contemporary reviewers pegged the novel as a record of a drug trip -- based on no evidence other than sales copy -- and that the most superficial reading of the book would likely focus on the vaguely hippie-like characters and their pastimes of popping pills and having casual sex.”]
Nog, Flats, and Quake are novels rich in invention and introduce the recurring narrative and stylistic tendencies in Wurlitzer’s canon: the myths of unspoiled frontiers and the freedom of the open road, lives played out on the margins of society (“the politics of displacement”, as Wurlitzer calls it), the dissolution of ego and the illusion of self, attachment and detachment, wrestling matches with the ghosts of Samuel Beckett and Louis L’Amour, and the author’s stubborn but refreshing resistance to “narrative authority” and “the false deliverance and redemption… of recreational enjoyments and dramas” (Wurlitzer, "This Long Century", 2009).
Let’s examine Wurlitzer’s connection with iconic western novelist Louis L’Amour a little closer, conscripting the author’s own words from a 1970 essay titled "Riding Through":
Somewhere in the early seventies I wrote a piece for an obscure literary magazine. The title was: The First Two Pages of Louis L’Amour. I was enamored with Louis L’Amour's first two pages, which were almost always about a man riding through the vast phenomena of open Western space. A rider, riding, without intention, into emptiness, with no beginning, no end or assigned direction. Off the map. East equal to West or South or North, the rising sun usually behind, the setting sun in front, leaving civilization behind, riding always within the mysterious rhythms of unannounced form and emptiness. The open range, silent and spacious, the rider never having a particular name or identity or defined boundaries, inside or outside. So it was just riding, always riding. But then, inevitably, after these introductions, Louis L’Amour, needing to hook the reader, would set the trap of 'self', the rider finding himself inside the entertaining and seductive prisons of plot, character and story, to what James Bugental calls the ‘self-and-world construct system.’ And so inevitably the reader would be squeezed and manipulated into a grid of good and evil Judeo-Christian myths that so mark the Legends of the Old West.
The origins of Wurlitzer’s "Riding Through" essay are muddy and unclear – thousands of small indie press publications flourished in the '70s in America, actively seeking out musings and scribblings from underground writers like Charles Bukowski, Gregory Corso, and Michael McClure – but the mandate is loud and clear: The tradition of linear narrative is a decaying, irrelevant corpse whose habitual use and overuse results in stagnation instead of illumination. Or, as Thomas Pynchon wrote in his oft-repeated praise for Nog: “The novel of bullshit is dead.”