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The Derelicts, Drunks and Ne'er-Do-Wells of Literary Fiction

Originally published on Chapters-Indigo Fiction Blog Great art tends to nudge unhappiness into the light. The question is why look? Why not hide your head in the sand and just watch a fluffier movie? Perhaps it is our curiosity to understand a side of society we’ll likely never know. In a cynical sense it’s a kind of gross gossip. I like to think, however, that it has to do with our humanity – that reading this kind of work connects us with our empathy. To hear the derelict or drunk’s side of the story. To try to understand why a person would do those things to himself. To simply ask why these things happen in the first place.

The derelicts, drunks and ne’er-do-wells in this piece are not good men - sometimes they're downright bad - and yet there is a strange appeal in their own atypical integrity; even if it follows a rather perverse moral compass, there is always something captivating about it.

THE DERELICT: CORMAC MCCARTHY’S SUTTREE

Critics often refer to Cormac McCarthy’s fourth novel, Suttree, as a comedy. It’s a relative statement. To describe this intense human drama principally concerned with the darkest and most unusual fringe characters of Southern American society as a comedy only makes sense if you are familiar with McCarthy’s work. Sure, up against the stark and dire post-apocalyptic nightmare that was the author’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, The RoadSuttree is a regular romcom. Ie Suttree has moments of levity. Compared, however, with your regular book club fare, Suttree is pure McCarthy: raw and unrelenting.

Set in 1951, in and around the slums of Knoxville Tennessee, the novel, which the New York Times described as “a doomed Huckleberry Finn” in its 1979 review, follows a loner of a character by the name of Cornelius Suttree, who when he works, catches fish out of the Tennessee River to sell in town. The place he calls home is a dilapidated houseboat, the people he would claim as friends (were he to claim any) would include drunks, thieves, gamblers, prostitutes and criminals.

What makes Suttree as compelling as he is confounding is the devious ways McCarthy slowly reveals the details of the man’s life. When you first meet Suttree he is a derelict, a loser even. You soon learn, however, that he came from a wealthy family and chose to abandon them. Understanding that Suttree has actively opted for the meagre life he leads makes what first looks like squalor, come to seem almost idealistic in its simplicity and self-resourcefulness. In our increasingly materialistic age, there’s something downright heroic in that. Yet, just as we begin to admire Suttree we learn it’s not just a life of luxury he has abandoned but also a wife and child that he’s left behind. And once again the guy is a scoundrel.

Suttree is no sweetheart. Nor is he a saviour of men. Even when he does provide some protection for the most pathetic character in the book, we know Suttree does it reluctantly, as if acts of heroism were a terrible fate he wished he could avoid - and for most of the book, he does.

Nothing, though, is as redemptive to the darkness of the storyline and the deep imperfections of its anti-hero as McCarthy’s ungodly ability to turn a phrase. For the only way to truly convey the genius of Suttree is to share a brief passage:

Suttree stood among the screaming leaves and called the lightning down. It cracked and boomed about and he pointed out the darkened heart within him and cried for light. If there be any art in the weathers of this earth. Or char these bones to coal. If you can, if you can. A blackened rag in the rain.

THE DRUNK: CHARLES BUKOWSKI’S HAM ON RYE

Henry Chinaski, narrator and alter-ego of author Charles Bukowski’s great novels, is a hard drinking, womanizing, oft unemployed son-of-a … you know the rest. Oh and at night he writes poetry. When he works he works crap jobs for crap pay and when he doesn’t, he drinks and goes to the track to gamble when he isn’t busy getting laid in the poorest neighbourhoods of South Central, Los Angeles.

Bukowski’s novels, like his poetry, are exclusively concerned with this less than noble lifestyle. In every way the guy is an anti-hero and none too beautiful to boot. Yet like Suttree there is a pureness of heart to Chinaski that has won him fans around the world. He champions the little guy, fighting against the injustice of dishonest employers or, if nothing else, provides a voice for the drunken slobs we would otherwise ignore.

Much like all of Bukowski’s work, including Women and Post Office, Ham on Rye is semi-autobiographical. Often cited as Bukowski’s best, the novel stands out because it's the author’s harrowing and tender coming-of-age story. Set during the Great Depression, when Bukowski was growing up in LA, much of the narrative is concerned with Henry’s relationship with his abusive father. Henry’s miserable life at home is almost as bad at school, where he is ostracized at first for being bad at sports, and then later for a case of acne so severe, that Henry’s “fictional” scars in the story would remain on the author’s face for life.

Adam Kirsch in the New Yorker beautifully sums up Chinaski’s enduring appeal saying, “… he combines the confessional poet’s promise of intimacy with the larger-than-life aplomb of a pulp fiction hero.” We see the poet in Henry in his observations and the short stories he has began to write in secret. That larger-than-life pulp fiction hero side comes out in the tough guy stance Henry fronts, as he threatens to beat up anyone who wants to mess with him, including his father.

In the Review of Contemporary Fiction (1985) Ernest Fontana, compares the angry, acne-scarred Chinaski to great monsters of literature, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Kafka's Gregor Samsa. And as with all great poet-monsters, his story is ultimately one of pain and loneliness. The most tragic moment in Ham on Rye being a scene late in the book when this tough, angry young man is left standing outside the window of his high school on prom night looking in, little pieces of toilet paper tacked up against the bloody boils popping all over the poor teenager’s face.

Nobody’s about to dance with this monster.

THE NE'ER-DO-WELL: WILLIAM S BURROUGHS’ JUNKIE

You don’t need to read too hard between the lines to see that McCarthy and Bukowski both love their anti-heroes and want you to love them as well. With Junkie, however, William S. Burroughs is unique. It’s as if he’s trying to push the reader’s love away. In protagonist William Lee we get an anti-hero so ‘anti’ it seems there is nothing heroic left in him at all. Ne’erdowell is not nearly a strong enough word.

The stark and very real telling of what it’s like to be addicted to heroin, Junkie is never sentimental or easy and it’s rarely admiration you feel for William Lee. Like a great character actor (think John Cazale - Fredo - in The Godfather) who seems to not even care if you look their way, Burroughs’ protagonist draws you in by his very indifference.

Burroughs was prolific in his lifetime, writing some eighteen novels and novellas, including Naked Lunch, as well as short story and essay collections. Like McCarthy’s Suttree, Burroughs was from a wealthy family and had a great intellectual foundation, having graduated from Harvard and attending medical school in Vienna. His story turns dark when he is rejected by the navy during WWII and begins a lifelong addiction to heroin. The very next year Burroughs would wind up in New York befriending Jack Kerouac (On the Road ) and Allen Ginsberg (Howl), fatefully entering the epicentre of the Beat Generation.

A story about a person dealing with such an extreme addiction would be a publishing event in the first place, but Burroughs’ hard-boiled style on top of that raises the book well beyond the pedestrian. Junkie reads like a brutal eyewitness account – every raw nerve and detail of the addict’s often pathetic life is uncovered and put out for us to behold. In a letter to Ginsberg, Burroughs wrote, “The book is the only accurate account I ever read of the real horror of junk. But I don’t mean it as justification or deterrent or anything but an accurate account of what I experienced while I was on the junk.” And indeed like one of last year’s darkest films, Shame, about extreme sex addiction, Junkie manages to neither glorify nor vilify its subject, but instead allows the curious reader to peak into a dark and often horrible world without having to suffer its dreadful side effects.

A portrait of even the blackest world can be filled with beauty if only for the elegance of the painting’s craft and style. To think that these three authors, who undoubtedly suffered as their protagonists did, could reach through their pain and give us something so beautiful, to share of their experience – this in and of itself makes their art heroic, and there’s nothing anti about that.