On Joe Buck, the Midnight Cowboy.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been chipping away at “Midnight Cowboy” by James Leo Herlihy. This is the novel that the famous movie was based on, and although I cannot help but picture a young, cocky, blonde Jon Voight as Joe Buck, the Buck from the book beats the movie Joe handily – to a fictiony pulp, in fact.

This is not to say I don’t like the movie. I love the movie. The movie is beautiful to me. But although it was the novel that led to the film adaptation, in a weird inverted loop-around, it was the film that got me interested in the novel.

On the silver screen, Joe Buck is kind of surface-sincere-sweet and demonstratively himself, but in the novel, once you’ve read two dense pages of Joe’s internal deliberations on whether or not he’s being noticed in the Universe (or if he’s even worth noticing), the book version of Joe seems novel indeed, and the onscreen version seems as flat and fleeting as a film frame.

In his novel, Herlihy gives Joe Buck a depth of feeling and an existential sincerity that completely enobles him. Joe searches his blurry memories and his daily street life for answers to the question of who he is. The Cowboy is Joe’s conscously-adopted swaggering persona – the outward-facing role – that he, a lost and wayward son, has adopted in response to a hard, uncaring, and confusing world. Midnight is the dark confusion in which he sits, asking himself and the Universe his deepest, most difficult questions.

He’s lost so much in his young life: his innocence, his family, his security and identity, and his place in the world. The novel is about Joe’s world, his estrangement from it, his attempts to reconnect to it, and how he claws his way back into the light of hope by ditching the Cowboy in him. Texas and New York city are the gauntlets that Joe must run in order to pass through his trials.

Finding Rizzo gives Joe an unlikely ally, but even more, it gives Joe someone to take care of. As a wannabe hustler, Joe only really ever held alegiance to money and to the sexual power he could exercise to get it. However, throughout all his nasty adventures in dark movie theatres, hotel rooms, or up on rooftops, Joe always felt sympathy for those others who were suffering. He had compassion within him, perhaps waiting to be drawn out from under the embroidered shirt and suede jacket. So, the cowboy finally ended up trusting Rizzo, and became a friend and confidante to him. Joe Buck became a caregiver to somebody smaller and weaker than himself. He evolvd from a man-child to a parental figure, in his own way.

Herlihy uses plain language and essential phrases to weave together an elaborate world of internal confusion, torment, and compassion. Through Joe Buck, he questions the nature of love, the meaning of life, and the nature of family and friendship. In the movie version, Joe is a bit of a shallow but well-intentioned hayseed, and it is Voight’s personality that illustrates the sweet soul of Joe Buck onscreen. In the novel, we dive head-long into the emotional quagmire and philosophical dillemmas of a sensitive, yet illiterate young man who’s desperate to ask the big questions about his life without really having the tools to articulate them.

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William S. Burroughs: The terrible truth-telling Orifice.

I bought Naked Lunch back in 1997, I think. I never could get into it past the Introduction sections. I really liked William S. Burroughs’ opinions on addiction and the junkie mindset. His opinions sounded so authoritative, with a mixture of almost clinical objectivity (which drugs he’d become addicted to, how much and how often he’d tried to cure himself) and an acid-tongued cyncical editorializing on the Doctors and approaches that had failed him. Burroughs’ voice is cold and smart and sharp, but soaked in a bitter backwash of pain and regret. But, as much as I liked his observations in the intro and the epilogue of Naked Lunch, I’ll be damned if I could get into the guts of the book in any meaningful way. I wasn’t ready for it, I guess.

The closest I ever got to seeing the whole Naked Lunch novel rendered was by watching Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch movie, which was a collage of Burroughs’ stories and experiences, framed in a narrative featuring cockroaches, centipedes and throbbing anthropomorphized typewriters with talking assholes for mouths. I think the first talking asshole typewriter reveal was the biggest moment in that movie for me. It still makes me laugh.

Cronenberg captured or interpreted a lot of Burroughs’ imagery, and did his work as much service as possible, I think, while making somewhat necessary concessions to his own film tropes. I’m still crawling through Naked Lumch the novel, and digesting it slowly, while regurgitating scenes from Naked Lunch the Movie.

So, flash forward another 16 years, and I found myself reading Kerouac’s “On the Road” for the first time (and generally liking it), and getting a sideways introduction to Burroughs via Kerouac’s “Old Bull Lee” persona. Now I’ve restarted reading Naked Lunch, and it seems I’m ready for it now. Burroughs writes in this crazy, satirical voice with these cut-up chunks of narrative that mostly use a terse, clipped style, resembling a secret agent’s espoionage report, or a detective’s telegram. I found myself picturing him in his fedora and long overcoat, banging out reports in his almost anonymous, government worker voice, with hints of vernacular from the streets of New York or Tangier. It began to feel like watching a documentary film about a Raymond Chandler detective who was addicted to morphine, and whose cases were just falling apart in his face.

So, the writings of Burroughs are very interesting to me because of his challenging style. But Burroughs the man seemed a dependent, fucking mess. The portrait drawn of him in the book “Call Me Burroughs” demonstrates his ample wit and dry humour, but also his itinerant life, co-dependence in relationships, his many (many) addictions, and all the complicated pain that he endured as a gay (or bi?) man. I really don’t know what to make of his life from what I’ve read so far, except that he was probably fortunate to have survived it into his eighties. Burroughs took a beating, but a good deal of his misfortune arose (I think) from his own bad judgement and misadventure.

I started to envision something of a lineage growing down from the post-WWII Beats, down through later poets like Bob Dylan, and especially Jim Morrison. Old Beats like Ginsberg and Lucien Carr quoted Rimbaud’s idea of pursuing a “sustained derangement of the senses” as a path to finding the truth, or perhaps, as a way of escaping a rigid, distasteful reality. I could never do that, personally. I have often wanted to escape reality, but not through drugs or alcohol – just through my imagination or mental escapes into fantasy.

In my teens I loved Jim Morrison, and now after reading about the Beats a bit more, and relistening to “American Prayer” by the Doors, I truly think that no child of the Beats pursued a sustained derangement of their senses like Jim Morrison did. “Break on Through to the Other Side” was Morrison, singing about that same break with conventional values and ways of thinking that drove Burroughs, Kerouac and the Beats.

William Burroughs used a cut-up, collage technique in Naked Lunch. That is very intriguing to me. I’ve played with collage with images from magazines, comics and photos, inspired by Gary Lee-Nova, my art school multimedia instructor (himself a life-long fan and scholar of Burroughs). But I’ve never done it with words. Sometime, I want to look at different ways to derange my thoughts after I put them down on paper or record them.

These days, with composition and acquisition being commoditized into microscopic electronics, there might even be an app for that.

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On Connecting to those worlds out there…

In a recreation centre basement, a middle-aged man feels that old anxiety – the anxiety of having to speak in front of a group of strangers. The address he must make now is especially poignant. He clears his throat and swallows the fat dry lump that had formed there.

He pictures a room filled with men and women, some older than him, many younger. He closes his eyes and sees row after row of folding metal chairs, each physically supporting a soul not unlike his. It’s just like an Al-Anon meeting, except that he really can’t see his audience very well until individuals make themselves known by responding. He feels like he’s standing in a dimly-lit room full of cardboard cutouts.

“My name is John, and I’m addicted to the Internet.”

Instead of a verbal welcome from his audience, he receives a chorus of invisible mouse clicks from unseen hands. Supportive audience members register “likes” and RTs, or vote their approval by forwarding his statement onward to their own circles of friends.

The reaction of the group is organic and almost immediate, but it’s far from natural. But this is the way many of us share our personalities with each other nowadays.


Recently, we suffered a power outage in my part of East Vancouver. It affected almost 8000 citizens for kilometres all around us. There was that funny buzz or “thump” and everything suddenly went pitch black. After a few moments of disorientation and cursing, we got some candles lit and phoned the local power utility to get an ETA for when they’ve have power restored. Once we had an idea of a timeframe established, we sat down at the kitchen table and ate a few cookies by candlelight.

What struck me was how very quiet it was without the constant background hum of our building’s ventilation system, electrical power supplies, elevator motors, or the buzz of fluorescent lighting. All those little mechanical noises become the background noise of one’s life. We get used to never hearing the absolute silence of a powerless town.

I also noticed that the sky outside was a lot brighter than I’d realized. With all the streetlights off, my eyes quickly adjusted to the relatively light early evening sky. The electric lamps that we power on to help us see at night seem to make the night sky look much darker than it is, so we become dependent upon them.

Even though I live in a condominium surrounded by a couple hundred other occupants, I would only recognize a handful of them by sight, and only a few of them in the dark. We live in physical proximity, but also in relatively anonymity. By comparison, I can identify most of the personalities who associate with me online, and I know how and why we are connected.

It was only a few moments before I began to feel bored, “jonesing” for information. With no AC, there could be no radio, but I found immense satisfaction and relief in the fact that I could tether my laptop to my smartphone to get Internet access. This allowed me to go to the power utility’s web site and see a Google map of the areas affected by the blackout, and a revised estimate of when power might be restored. Twitter and Facebook provided echoes of what other citizens were experiencing, in real-time.


The Internet and social media kind of serve to connect my mind to others in a personal way. It surprised me how much I missed having access ti the Internet for real-time news updates, and to social media for that weird invisible community.

It’s the same feeling of fascination I get when I get a headache and realize it’s because I haven’t had a coffee yet. My body is telling me I’m dependent upon that thing.

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On Creativity: Multiple Media and a Billion Artists

Once in a while, an artist will inspire me, and make me appreciate connections to other artists, from the current time, or from a relatively distant point in the past.

Once in a while, an artist will inspire me, and make me appreciate connections to other artists, from the current time, or from a relatively distant point in the past.

Maybe a singer-songwriter like Adele or Beck will say something extremely poignant to me through their music. The same with film-makers like P.T. Anderson, Michel Gondry, or Quentin Tarantino, through their movies.

But even more so, the farther back in time I go: Orson Welles speaks to me strongly.  Buster Keaton makes me cheer for the little guy, and Fritz Lang and Murnau make me wonder what happens in the darker corners of our minds. Illustrators and graphical storytellers like Will Eisner, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee feel like uncles. Their lines are like well-known handwriting that evokes a familiar voice in my head. Steinbeck made me anguish for the poor and desperate working families. Charles Dickens made me love the charity, trust and loyalty of dear David Copperfield.

Some of the stories were recorded decades ago, and some well over a century ago, but they are alive in real-time whenever I experience them again.

I think that the human mind must truly not care a thing about timeliness, or temporal sequence. There is just now.

And now, we all have the capability to dream, to create, to defend our values, and to reach out to each other through our art. The insanely fast, relentless growth and spread of digital communications technology allows us to bring our minds and hearts together in time and space with an immediacy that we’ve never before known.

Of course, there’s a lot of crap and idiocy out there online and in realspace, but in the midst of it, a billion potential artistic voices are trying to call out to each other.

 

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Enigmatic Memes: Bathroom Grafitti I Have Known

Bathroom wall graffiti gives a glimpse of the way people think: it is drect, anonymous and comes with little sense of responsibility, similar to how most people’s backyards tell us how the homeowner truly lives.

Bathroom wall scribbles hardly qualify as art or creative writing, but I can think of some that is more creative than others.

Back in 1985, when I was a first-year student at the Emily Carr College of Art, the men’s room in the Foundation Department had some enigmatic and interesting graffiti. Above one of the urinals, written in tiny letters in the grout between the tiles, were three words, a little zen riddle which puzzled me in the back of my mind. Weeks later, for some reason I can’t recall, me and a few classmates were standing in the hallway at lunch hour, discussing bathroom grafitti. Shaun Hayes-Holgate only had to say the words “Toast or Pockets?” and we all knew what he meant, and exactly where we all, er, stood.

Gossip also went ’round about a long exchange between a student and one of our instructors, which apparently became fairly heated, to the point of using very blunt expletives. The instructor in question was known for writing copious notes on sheets of paper on his classroom walls using a brush pen, which gave his writing a distinctive calligraphic style. Apparently, the instructor’s brush pen was equally effective on drywall and may have given him away. So much for an author’s anonymity.

By comparison, I found the bathroom grafitti at UBC rather disappointing. In the men’s room in the Student Union Building at Western Canada’s largest, most prestigious University, I half expected some sort of first-year philosophy course scrawled across the tiles. Instead, it was the same sort of racist, homophobic ranting and cartoon genitalia that you’d find on the walls of any high school. So much for higher education. (My wife, defending her Alma Mater, declared that these were just first-year students.)

Today, 25 years later, Emily Carr seems to have kept some of its off-beat, enigmatic flavour, but overall, I find that my old school seems so much more mainstreamed and packaged than it was back in my day. Certainly, the quality of bathroom discourse seems to have degraded. Maybe students and teachers have their meaningful exchanges in Twitter and Facebook nowadays. All I know is that today, over the toilet in the Emily Carr Foundation men’s room was scribbled “Kelsey Grammar, bitches!” to which someone had replied “Hell yeah!”

Perhaps devolution is real, or perhaps I expect too much from post-secondary education.

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On Reading: Raymond Chandler, a Biography

It seems like the last few times I’ve read certain authors, their names have become prefixed with “Uncle” in my mind. Is that weird? Well, maybe. It’s human though.

I guess I want to identify with, or feel connected to good storytellers.

When I read Einstein’s book on Relativity, his voice was so distinctively heard in my head, that it felt as if I were sitting on Uncle’s lap, with his voice speaking in my ear. It may have started there, I’m not sure.

Next were the memoirs of Groucho Marx, whose anecdotes, observations and humour seemed warmly self-deprecating. It wasn’t long before he became my “Uncle Groucho”. Likewise with his brother Harpo, whose long, detailed autobiography seemed to put me right into his early life in New York, and later, into the middle of his loving, idiosyncratic years as a devoted family man in California.

I think it’s the first-person narrative of an autobiography that makes it work so well. The “you” is replaced with an “I”, which we all have inside us, and which resonates one-to-one with similar “I”s.

That’s why pulp fiction author Raymond Chandler got under my skin more than, say, Ian Fleming. Like an autobiography, Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe novels are written in the first-person, so they each sound like Marlowe’s autobiography (although really, they are Chandler’s).

Raymond Chandler was highly intelligent, a keen observer of people and human nature, and also a major, chronic alcoholic who came to a sad and lonely end. He’s triumphant and tragic, all together.

So, he’d probably be a colourful “Uncle” who could spin tall tales and be witty as hell, but also could as easily fall down drunk into the tree and ruin a Christmas morning.

Been there.

Welcome to the family “Uncle Raymond”.

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On Writing: Motivating Characters (and their Author)

What is it that will drive a character to take an action?

By this, I mean to ask “What, in the character’s mind/worldview is the rationale that will cause them to do one thing instead of another? For the Author, this includes considering the underlying goal of driving the story in a believable way, consistent with the character’s behaviour as the reader understands it at that point in the story. An Author pulls a lot of strings and balances a lot of balls in order to get these goals to mesh.

For me, this requires either research into the elements that form a character: lifestyle, health issues, career or technical skills, values and religion, speech/vernacular and attitudes.

It sounds like a lot when I lay it all down at once here, but realistically, I only have to focus on one of those categories/areas at a time. In many cases, I can use my own experience to answer questions and narrow down the scope of research. Subjective elements (a character’s personal opinion, for example) is much easier to write – it requires little qualification via research.

Basically, whether I can immerse the reader in my character’s world by virtue of objective-seeming realism, or by using compelling and rich subjective “opinion” based on my own experience, it all boils down to creating an experience that the reader accepts and in which they want to immerse themself.

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On Writing: Having Uncommon Thoughts in Common

To observe and comment on your life and world, you need to have a certain amount of objectivity – detachment – from it. If you’re too-comfortably living inside your world, you really can’t see the outside shape of it.

To observe and comment on your life and world, you need to have a certain amount of objectivity – detachment – from it. If you’re too-comfortably living inside your world, I don’t think that you really can see the outside shape of it. You’re too close to it.

On Having an Outsiders View of Things

By outsider, I’m thinking of someone who goes against societal norms, conventions or values, especially in cases where they wish to help someone else who is less fortunate.

Dickens and David Copperfield

I tried to read Copperfield back when I was about twelve. We had inherited a few classics in old hardcover editions, which I’m guessing could have been from the early teens of the century. Being something of a fetishist for old things, I took David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn to my bookshelf, like a thief in the night. I wish I still had those old books. I got through Huck Finn without any trouble, but Dickens’ complex, florid style stopped me cold after a few pages, and I never went back, until recently. Thirty years later.

Anyway, Dickens had really gotten to me when I finished reading Copperfield last month. It struck me just how much I felt in agreement with the social values that he communicated through his characters. He boldly ran counter to the class-snobbery of his day, imbuing the poorest folk with the purest ethics and strongest character. David felt compassion for others, and tried to help them even when he himself would suffer because of it. Especially, Dickens seemed to care for the suffering of children living in poverty.

I recall one character (maybe Wilkins Macawber?) stating that you cannot judge a book by its cover. As a young lad, David was not well-off at all, and went out of his way to demonstrate character traits that one wouldn’t expect from such a young person. I heard David’s voice in my head, throughout the course of his “life” in the novel, and identified with his ethics, humanity, strengths and weaknesses.

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep, and More…

The two Raymond characters who stand out in my mind the most are probably his most famous: Phillip Marlowe, and The Continental Op. Marlowe’s clear-minded, almost weary cynicism, and keen observations of the weaknesses in the ethics of others fascinates me. At first, I found some of Chandler’s use of period vernacular to be too frequent (almost to the point of obscuring meaning, rather than accentuating the colour of it), although I’ve come to appreciate how skilled he was at it, and how difficult it is to create punchy, compelling and rich dialogue that portrays the personalities, motivations and world of each character. Chandler wrote as if he was having fun with his colourful, smirking, almost expressionistic similes. You were allowed to accept his artistic license with tongue in cheek. Marlowe seemed a bit too flipant or devil-may-care, but he was no chump, and neither were you, thanks to Chandler. (I think the makers of the James Bond movies used this same kind of flippant tone. Ian Fleming did not, in his original novels, although he admitted to being a big fan of Raymond Chandler.)

Jeff Lindsay’s “Darkly Dreaming Dexter”

Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan (you know – from that TV series?) is a unique mix of cold-blooded serial killer and objective observer of the human condition. He’s bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the emotions of his friends (and his victims), and searching to validate  his own existence. He kind of sees himself as the trash collector of the universe, killing those most despicable monsters – child killers, rapists, pedophile priests – whom he decides deserve it, according to The Code of Harry.

Dexter is highly intelligent, wryly funny, and in many ways, truly superior, and yet, he is bereft of real emotional reactions (i.e. sociopathic), so plays an elaborate game of pretend in order to pass as normal to his coworkers and the rest of the waking world.

Something in Common with Uncommon Voices?

What is it that makes me feel kinship to someone who died well before I was born? I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed David Copperfield, and hearing Dickens’ voice. Chandler’s voice acts on me similarly: I feel a familiar personality at work in my head, some recognizable territory that I’ve visited in the past, but remains a little fresh each time I see it again.

I think that the intimate, personal sense of recognition that I have with these two authors has a lot to do with their characters’ first-person perspective: David Copperfield, The Big Sleep (and all the other Phillip Marlowe stories I’ve read by Chandler), and Darkly Dreaming Dexter are all written in the first person. It’s incredibly personal, intimate and effective – putting the reader right into the protagonist’s point of view.

Perhaps because I live in my head so much of the time, I enjoy living in someone else’s head in the same way.

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On Writing: Emily Carr’s life stories are an inspiration…

I just finished reading “The Emily Carr Collection”, which includes four of her books: Klee Wyck, The Book of Small, The House of All Sorts, and Growing Pains. Emily Carr’s voice has become familiar and sympathetic to me. Reading her is like listening to an old friend. In my mind, she is not Emily Carr, internationally reknowned Canadian painter. She’s just Emily.

I just finished reading “The Emily Carr Collection”, which includes four of her books: “Klee Wyck”, “The Book of Small”, “The House of All Sorts”, and “Growing Pains”.

Emily Carr’s voice has become familiar and sympathetic to me. Reading her is like listening to an old friend. In my mind, she is not Emily Carr, internationally renowned Canadian painter.

She’s just Emily.

I find it ironic that I never read her writing before. Here on the west coast of Canada, she’s an icon. I’ve heard about her since high school. The art college I studied at for four years was named after her. I’ve seen her paintings a number of times in the Vancouver Art Gallery downtown. But I never heard her voice.

Emily’s passion for her natural surroundings and her love of Western Canada is evident ion the way she describes every person, plant and animal. In particular, her description of forests, trees, and totems are vivid, portraying the life growing around her, and the symbolic life that the natives imbued in their totems and houses. Emily felt this quite deeply.

Her friendships with the natives in her time (poor, sweet Sophie!), her sensitivity to unfairness and hypocrisy as a young child raised in the English tradition, and her continuous pursuit of her artistic truths – all these themes resonated with me so strongly. The impression I have of Emily is that she was not a religious person at all, except insofar as it was required by her family and culture. Spiritually, I think Emily identified most with the nature and native art of her beloved west coast of British Columbia.

Almost 100 years separates us (Victoria would be absolutely unrecognizable to Emily if she were to see it today), but still, the connection and recognition I feel is very strong indeed.

When Emily describes Victoria places such as Cook Street, Fort Street, Fairfield Road, and Rockland Avenue – these are streets that I romped along as a little kid in Victoria in the 1970s. When she describes a little old lady strolling by outside her parent’s fence while she was playing in the yard with her sisters – I can picture the same thing happening to me and my sister Kim, as we played in the front yard of Poppy’s house at the corner of Cook and Rockland. Christ Church Cathedral, Beacon Hill Park and its Peacocks, the look and smell of Arbutus and Cedar trees – all of it touches me in a personal way. We lived in different worlds, but something seems to have persisted through her words…

She’s also just an inspiring, amazingly strong woman. Her determination to follow her own path, and her unwavering love of living things – these were personality traits that I thought my sister Kim could appreciate, so for Christmas this year, I sent Kim a copy of “The House of All Sorts”, which focuses especially on Emily’s success as a dog breeder, and her struggles as a landlady. On the one hand is the unwavering devotion and love of her dogs for her, and on the other hand, the cruelty, idiocy, and deceit of many of her human tenants in the House of All Sorts. These were themes that I think my sister Kim could probably appreciate.

True Life – My Own Memoir

Reading Emily’s biography also inspires me to continue developing me own. Since about 1998, I’ve been slowly cobbling together an illustrated life story on my website, at http://truelife.ejohnlove.com

I think that I must one day work harder to complete True Life, or perhaps bring it to life in a book. I love fiction – reading and writing – but there is something very powerful about reading someone’s autobiography. Literally, the realness of the thing makes it so much more powerful.

Of all I read from Emily, the biggest theme I took away was to maintain one’s integrity, and one’s personal vision – to remain true to oneself.

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