Some People Have a City Instead of a Life: The Work of Tim Hall

The first line of Tim Hall’s novel, inspired by his experience writing and editing an underground New York City newspaper, Full of It, is “Some people have a city instead of a life.” In a short story from his collection, Triumph of the Won’t, the protagonist summarizes a romantic relationship from college that consisted solely of exchanging massages by saying, “Sometimes the best sex is the sex you never have.” In his novel about an alcoholic giving up booze cold turkey, the narrator defines a yuppie as “someone who has moved into your neighborhood six months after you.”

Memorable aphorisms and one liners of power and wit are so common throughout the work of the novelist, comic writer, publisher and travel journalist, that I am tempted to fill space with quotations until I’ve created a text that would rival the Ambrose Bierce classic manual for understating the real world, The Devil’s Dictionary. Indeed, Hall possesses the uncanny gift to compress startling insight into short phrases with such care and concision that he could likely turn a Twitter feed into a system of philosophy. It’s an ability that provokes pauses from most readers and creates envy within most writers. The talent may be rare, but then again Hall is a man of rare talent. His reporting on a pilgrimage to the legendary Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama was nominated for a Pushcart Prize (“Muscle Shoals: A Pilgrimage to the Heart of Southern Soul”, New York Press 25 September 2001). His work has been featured on Chicago Public Radio, and Joey Ramone said that Hall’s writing does everything that he “tried doing with music in The Ramones.” (“One Damned Thing After Another” Outside

The quality of Hall’s work is strong and consistent, while the vision of his work is sweepingly grand and wonderfully immense. Unlike that of Joey Ramone, however, Hall’s greatness is largely, and unfortunately, undiscovered. The pain and loss that results from the lack of exploration into Hall’s impressively varied and vivid literary landscape is not merely a case of missed opportunity for artistic enjoyment. It’s missed opportunity for a shot in the arm so desperately needed in American culture, which seems to be suffering from intellectual cynicism, emotional sterility, and the decay of the imagination.

Hall’s first novel, Half Empty, published in 2005 by Undie Press, begins with a Dostoevskian atmospheric assault and maintains the mood of Notes From the Underground throughout its entire telling of one man’s struggle through the desperation, despair, and dirtiness of living in the cracks of New York City while navigating the cracks of his heart, mind, and spirit during the first months of sobriety. Hall calls it a “romance novel for men,” and it makes sense that he would attempt to put the “man” back into romance, because he identified himself during an interview with another unforgettable one liner: “I’m a romantic with a small ‘r’ and capital ‘r’.”

Half Empty’s protagonist, Dennis, swings freely from ecstasy to agony as he negotiates the internal conflict and torment of loving two women at the same time – one a girlfriend he met in the early days of his sobriety and the other, an ex-girlfriend, with whom he made history in the throes of alcoholism.

Citing Kenneth Fearing’s classic thriller, The Big Clock, and Albert Camus’s fiction as heavy influences, Hall creates an enveloping world of dread in Half Empty in which the reader is fully embedded inside the mind of the man living on the emotional edges in a state of terror, dying for a drink, but knowing that more drink will kill him. The intensity of its 235 pages never relents, and as Hall guides you through Dennis’s sensational sex with the two women that are fighting for territory in his heart, both of whom have their own problems and dangers, Dennis’s battles with co-workers at his graphic design job who range from mildly annoying to comically sadistic, and Dennis’s inconsistent search for himself – the fodder of all fine fiction – the joy that emerges through the dirt and despair feels well-earned and gives the reader not only pleasure, but strength. The strength is imbued with the energy and uplift Dennis finds to survive another night without booze, another night without finding reciprocation for the love that overwhelms him, another night of dealing with the dreams and devastation of New York City.

The first line of Full Of It – “Some people have a city instead of a life” – is thematic for Hall, whose work set in that most American and most cosmopolitan place gives his characters the avidity and anger of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The protagonist of Full of It searches for a life when all he has is a city, and Dennis searches for love when his true angel and bitch of a marriage is to the Empire Queen. Dennis moves through New York City, always on the verge of falling in love and ever ready to explode with vengeance.

When I’ve spoken to Hall about his work, he has embraced the emotionalism of it and has charmingly and bravely acknowledged its sentimentality. Sentimentalism has become suspect and is often used in a defamatory context in book, movie, and music criticism. As John Irving wrote in his essay, In Defense of Sentimentality, “If we writers work to escape the slur of sentimentality, we should ask ourselves if what we are doing matters.” Too many writers fail to ask themselves that question. Hall turns the question on himself, and refuses to become a member of the flaccid fraternity of writers whose work risks nothing and earns nothing.

Hall points to the old distinction between design sensibilities and artistic sensibilities. Design is slick. Art is sloppy. The rewards of art are greater, but the risks are deadlier. If Hall aspires to anything, it is to advance the art side of the argument.

The advancement began with Half Empty and continued with the unofficial and informal sequel, Full of It. Full of It walks a tightrope between memoir and novel, blurring where the truth ends and the fiction begins. Dennis is gone, and his replacement, Tim, is also a recovering alcoholic, who like Hall, spent his immediate post-alcohol years writing and editing an underground New York City newspaper before the advent of the internet. Throughout the story, Hall delineates a world of excitement and effectively captures the captivation of creativity. Chasing ads, laying out pages, printing editions, and distributing newspapers in bars become the romantic call of the reluctant misfit.

The human drama, as it always should in literature, eclipses the cultural and social commentary. Tim meets, loves or fights what Hall calls “real life angels and demons”. Buzzy, a rich woman wearing a poor woman’s shirt, helps run the newspaper, but exploits it for her own social agenda, manipulating everyone – leaving them used up and chewed up – as she climbs some imaginary heights to literary chic that she desires, but won’t work to achieve. She’s a cold person, seemingly without the capacity to love anyone but herself. In a conversation with Hall, he compared her, in real life and in the real world of Full of It, to Jack Nicholson’s performance of The Joker in the moment that the evil villain grins sardonically and says, “Wait ’till they get a load of me.”

Late in the story, he meets a woman who is a true angel – a loving, generous beauty who invites him to a tropical vacation after the death of a friend. Hall has told me that he believes there are people who serve the function and purpose of angels and demons in our lives. He doesn’t claim to understand it, but he believes it. Romanticism, mysticism, and spiritualism are the properties of the soul and the imagination. They are the chemicals of the most lasting creations from the literary laboratory, and they are the ingredients of an artful life.

Hall’s latest project is a collaboration with Emmy-award winning illustrator Dean Haspiel. The Last Mortician is a web comic published by Tor about a future in which through advanced medical technology, people are able to escape death and live eternally. Universal immortality has made the mortician just another obsolete profession.

The character, the last mortician, wanders a hollow utopia learning how to live with “love in an age of deathlessness”, as Hall calls it in a behind the scenes look at the making of the comic. He also learns to acclimate himself to an era in which people can “build hearts that never give out, but cannot build a love that lasts” and “eyes that never go blind, but cannot see either”.

Tim Hall (photo by Seth Kushner)

Hall believes in the truth of the imagination and the affections of the heart. He is writing for himself, as all good writers do, for his own sanity, but also for those who still believe that no matter how sophisticated we make our machines or how savvy we make our minds, nothing will outlast or overpower love. Love may be beautiful, but it is also brutal. Love may be triumphant, but it is also terrifying. Love may be miraculous, but it is also murderous. Hall’s work, regardless of form, for all of its romanticism and emotionalism, elevates and emphasizes the reality that love, with all its potential for pain, is the best that we have, and at the end of our victories and defeats, at the end of our glories and humiliations, at the end of our lives, is all that we have.