Authors: Steve Erickson
There’s no Cabal because none of us who are supposedly part of this Cabal—except Shale—gives enough of a fuck to even deny there’s a Cabal, let alone be in one. Dr. Billy O’Forte is the most popular guy on the staff, maybe the only person on the staff everyone likes. One night when he was drunk and just sober enough to hope I was too drunk myself to remember it the next day, he confessed to actually having a Ph.D., if you can imagine such a disgrace; he was even more chagrined to report he had written his doctorate on something called “Modern Thought in American Literature.” He swore me to secrecy and I assured him that of course I would tell no one. I didn’t, however, promise not to openly call him doctor, so now everyone calls him doctor. Besides working for the newspaper Dr. Billy is also trying to get financing for a film documentary he is making about sex addicts in Guatemala; this project follows his last, a documentary about sex addicts in Copenhagen, which followed his magnum opus, a documentary about sex addicts in Bombay. At one point a few years back he was awarded a grant by a mysterious millionaire in San Francisco, the terms of which were that he would tour the world for a year with his wife Jane and make a documentary about international sex addicts. Soon after the money came in, the millionaire died and Dr. Billy sort of forgot about making the documentary and just took the world tour. Rio de Janeiro was nice I hear. The newspaper seized on this freakish development to name Dr. Billy its “international” correspondent until, weary of all those tedious stops on the itinerary like Bangkok and Barcelona, he returned to America in a fit of ennui, whereupon the paper instantly named him its national correspondent. Now he drops into the office every once in a while to groan about the onerous task of traveling the world on a dead millionaire’s money. Dr. Billy is about five-and-a-half feet tall, which is only worth noting because everyone who reads his work thinks he’s six-and-a-half feet tall. His favorite scam is to always tell everyone what a bad writer he is and what a duff story he’s just written, and every single time I’m sucked in by this routine—there is, after all, no happier occasion for a writer than another writer writing something bad—until I read it and then I want to jam his fingers in a pencil sharpener. For someone who’s supposedly such a terrible writer he seems to be the guy all the paper’s other writers routinely steal their wittiest one-liners and most insightful observations from, as I’ve done myself many times.
Then there’s Ventura. Ventura started the newspaper when he first came to Los Angeles from Texas fifteen years ago. He’s written a column for it every week since day one and became one of the most famous writers in L.A. doing so; over the years he’s refused at least three serious offers to become the papers editor. In his spare time he’s written four or five books and three or four movies and tosses in a volume or two of poetry when he feels like he’s been under-productive. He is entirely self-educated and his working knowledge of everything from geology to the Chinese economy to the novels of Willa Cather and D. H. Lawrence is too intimidating to be around very long; I’ve long since given up on any possibility I will ever know or have read as much. He’s a seer and crank, the star of his own movie, writing all the dialogue and giving himself the best lines. He drives a puke-green Chevy he thinks is beautiful, with half a million miles on it, which he keeps rebuilding and restoring; his symbiosis with this piece of junk was born about the time he crossed the L.A. border, and has been getting more twisted ever since. He thinks his movie is a Western and this car is the horse. “The voices are telling me not to park in the garage tonight,” he intones after an earth tremor that shakes the Hamblin right down to the beams of the underground garage. He’s not worrying about the building falling on him, he’s worrying about it falling on the car. The “voices” are always talking to Ventura, telling him what’s transpiring in far reaches of the universe. “The voices,” I say, “are telling you that you worry too much about your car.”
“That’s not what they’re telling me.”
“That’s what they’re telling me.”
“My voices are talking to you about my car?”
“No they aren’t.”
“Yes. They’ve told me to tell you that they’re tired of hearing about your fucking car.”
“They’re not saying that. Maybe they’re talking about
“My voices don’t talk to me about my car. My voices have more important things to talk to me about than my car.”
“Your voices don’t talk to you at all,” Ventura retorts. “You haven’t been on speaking terms with your voices since you were toilet-trained.” The voices are a big thing with Ventura. When he founded the newspaper he found himself in the inky placenta of its birth, as both a man and writer; the two have become intertwined ever since. He likes to think of himself as some kind of living local legend, which is total megalomania of course—except maybe not total because, on some level, though I’d never tell him this and would probably have to kill anyone who did, he is a bit of a legend. He’s one of the few people about whom you could coin the word
—though I always thought
had a nicer ring to it—and make it sound … well, I was going to say legendary, but that would be positively Venturaesque. “See this?” he says, pointing at something on the refrigerator.
It’s a clipping of an article he saw on page twenty-six in this mornings paper, a couple of hundred words about some volcano that went off in Bora Bora and displaced the shoreline three thirty-seconds of a millimeter, according to some scientific study. But what those scientists aren’t telling us, Ventura explains, his mouth just beginning to turn up in its familiar crazed grin, is that a three-thirty-second millimeter rise in the ocean tides off Bora Bora throws the entire seismic gyrations of the Pacific Rim completely out of whack, and … and by the time Ventura’s done he’s got the earth splitting open and everyone tumbling into fiery crevices and swallowed up in craters the size of Long Beach—people, animals, buildings, bad movie producers who cheated him out of twenty-five hundred dollars years ago, everything except his damn car which is a totem of the cosmos and our only chance at salvation. What is Venturaesque about this planetary exegesis is not the inevitable apocalypse of Ventura’s speculations but the absolute
with which he recounts it; in his heart Ventura believes the human race is too arrogant and fucked up to go on surviving with impunity. He can’t wait for all of us to be put in our place, wherever that happens to be.
In the end, however, no matter how many years go by or where they take us, my friendship with Ventura remains in its place, where we were at the beginning. When I was a nobody in this town, a writer barely on anyone’s consciousness, Ventura, the most famous critic in the city, reviewed my first book. It was not only one of the smartest reviews I ever got, which anyone would have expected, it was also the most generous, at a time when he hadn’t a thing in the world to gain by building up a potential rival. His intellectual integrity simply demanded that he do it. He has renewed the generosity over and over, time and again, and I don’t know anyone—once you get past all the mystic tough-guy posturing—better-hearted, or anyone—once he’s cornered with no escape—who will laugh harder at the puncturing of his own pretensions. As a crank and seer, two out of every three things he writes may be ridiculous, but one of them is likely to be something no one else has thought of before or said in just that way. In other words, a completely original thought. Who else these days has one completely original thought out of three? Who else has one out of
-three? The same passion that mesmerizes those who love Ventura also drives other people fucking bananas, because if there’s one thing that sends people right over the edge, especially among the current Zeitgeist’s self-anointed watchmen, it’s a passion that never surrenders, and accepts none from anyone else. Ventura’s passion draws a line in the sands of our time. People get on one side or the other, but no one can straddle it.
Last time I caught a glimpse of my career as a novelist, before it disappeared altogether in the dark, was in New York City. I had been cordially invited by a local arts group to give a reading in Central Park with another author, all expenses paid including my hotel tab and the train fare east. For the first leg of the trip, from Los Angeles through Arizona and New Mexico, up into Colorado all the way to St. Louis, I had my own compartment, quite a spiffy little compartment too, where my meals were brought to me and my bed was turned down for me at night. “Why, I’m a big shot author!” I thought to myself in amazement, ordering vodkas and waving grandly from my window to startled passersby like I was the president. Circumstances deteriorated, however, as we advanced east. Somewhere beyond St. Louis I was transferred to another train, and as we slipped out of Chicago across Illinois my accommodations got rather less impressive, until I woke one morning in Pennsylvania to find myself sharing a cabin with several mops and a fire extinguisher. No one brought my meals and no one turned down my bed. “What do I look like,” the porter growled at me when I ordered my vodka, “the fucking porter?”
Just arriving in New York, just breathing its air, seemed to confirm that my trajectory had taken a decided dip. As with Los Angeles, if you’re not actually from New York it becomes, every time you go there, a greater and greater monument to what you’ve achieved or, more to the point, failed to achieve—the urbanology of your own particular success or failure. On the way to the reading in Central Park I wound up snatching a taxi from a woman who had been waiting for one some time; and as I was sitting in the back seat feeling bad about this, the taxi just narrowly avoided a head-on collision with another. Contemplating flaming, metal-crunching death I thought not about how I should have let the woman have the cab but how she would never know that if some asshole hadn’t stolen her cab, she would be dead. I couldn’t stop thinking about this all the way to Central Park, wondering if I should die in an accident in this taxi cab how I would let the woman know what a reprieve fate had narrowly granted her; I imagined clutching the paramedic’s arm and croaking out a description of the woman and making him swear to track her down and explain it all to her. And then I got to thinking about all the fatal accidents I didn’t know about that I must have missed in
life, and how the present is just a culmination of all the unknown near-misses that are part of an unknown past, and …
In other words, I had worked myself into quite a state by the time I reached the park. The other writer the arts group had paired me up with was a science-fiction novelist of phenomenal renown. He had virtually invented a whole school of science-fiction single-handedly and was always being quoted in important magazines. A very nice guy, actually; from time to time, in one place or another, he had said some kind things about my own work. We had met before in Los Angeles and hung out at the Cathode Flower admiring a beautiful Eurasian stripper named Kiyo while trying to have one of those simpatico literary tête-à-têtes that aspiring big-shot authors always imagine having with other authors, I envying his phenomenal reputation and staggering success and religiously devout world-wide readership and him envying … well, I don’t know what he was envying of mine, but I think he was feeling frustrated at having become hopelessly mired in the science-fiction genre, and if there was one thing I could take solace in, it was that I wasn’t hopelessly mired in the science-fiction genre. Anyway I fully expected he would be the events main focus of interest, which he was, though I suppose I didn’t need to have it so emphatically reinforced by the write-up in the local paper where, after several hundred words about him, my own presence was acknowledged in as cursory a fashion as possible. I also assumed that, as the bottom of the bill, I would read first. But backstage the publicist for the science-fiction author argued with the program director that his guy should go on first “because everyone wants to leave early.” Since I was only two feet away when he said this, it seemed obvious he just didn’t realize who I was, so I thought I should try and make my presence known, clearing my throat, shuffling my feet, yawning lustily, humming obnoxiously, moving furniture, rattling dishes, blowing my nose and waving my book in the air, all to no avail.
When all was said and done, however, I wound up going on first. I had given readings before but never like this: outdoors, in the dark, on a high stage with lights shining in my eyes so that I was reading to blackness, without a clue whether two people were in front of me or two hundred or two thousand. Every once in a while from out of the black, but as though from far, far away, would come a response of some kind, a titter of laughter for instance at a line which I may or may not have intended to be funny. But otherwise there was only the stillness of what I liked to believe was rapt attention, though it might as easily have been the stillness of empty seats. Then, at a crucial moment in the narrative, exactly half way through, all the lights suddenly went out.
I stood in the dark, waiting for them to come back on. The minutes ticked by, everyone silently sitting in the darkness, waiting. Finally, all I could say was, “I’d go on, but I can’t see.”
Well, I suppose it served me right for ever having thought that writing novels was a “career” in the first place. Reviewing movies, on the other hand, now
a career, and when I started at the newspaper I suppose I was almost passionate about it. For whatever reason, I made it my particular specialty to defend those movies about which the critical establishment had already put out the dreary word, movies where some poor deluded filmmaker tried to reach for something the cultural mavens could have told him was far beyond his grasp. In fact, I quickly came to have little use for any movie that didn’t completely embarrass itself. For a while I got something out of this, extravagantly championing displays of incompetent audacity; but enough time has gone by now for the culture to bleach out any embarrassments of real consequence, which is to say the sort that actually disturb anyone, and Shale has recently hinted that I’ve gone off-track. Lately it’s all I can do to write anything at all. I’ve taken to just staring out my apartment window at night watching the helicopters drift in and out of the plumes of smoke, listening to Now, Voyager and Marrakesh drums on Station 3 and wondering what failed third career awaits the failure of my second. …