Friday, April 01, 2022


With "Tuffy." (L.A. Downtown News)
Here is an interview I conducted with Ann Charters, after a second volume of Kerouac letters she’d edited was published back in 1999. Fresh from two years working as a lowly book reader at Creative Artists Agency, I snatched the free copy that showed up at the “L.A. Downtown News” and read it over the weekend with an eye to impressing her. But Charters would not do an interview until I had also read volume one, which she overnighted to me. And so, with a deadline two days away and fresh from two years working as a lowly book reader…

Charters was right, the two volumes are of a piece and must-read for Kerouac scholars and fans. I was managing editor with 17 years as a journalist behind me and, rather than ask questions, I prompted Charters into conversations that fit around quotes from Kerouac's letters I had added to both arrange for Jack's presence and to shape the piece. 

Her talk at the L.A. Central Library was packed; a clear demonstration of the writer’s enduring popularity, the academic drubbing he had been taking, notwithstanding. The audience was hip to every Beat anecdote. There were plenty of people there who knew "Bill," "Al," "Jack," "Larry," and Charters was at the top of her game running things.

Charters, who met Kerouac, is still around, having participated in a big Centennial event a few weeks ago.


Ann Charters to Remember Kerouac at Central Library.

By Stephen Siciliano

He was the original American original. A hitchhiking, booze-guzzling roustabout who lived fast and died relatively young. But before doing that, Jack Kerouac would produce a Proustian remembrance of his own things past in a series of novels that would map out mid-century marginal America for all-time and a legend for himself. His On the Road is part of our cultural canon, a classic about a new breed of American youth “out for kicks,” a how-to for living life intensely and for the moment. 

Ann Charters has been a student of Kerouac and his Beat Generation cohorts for years now, has written a book about them, edited the Viking Press Kerouac Reader as well as two volumes of letters. The second has just been released by Viking. She will be discussing Selected Letters 1957-1969 at the Central Library on December 9, 7 p.m. Charters met Kerouac while compiling the first bibliography of his work. 

“I like it, I like it, I tell you I like it literature. What a hell of a better way to do it than apply paint squares and oblongs and pop out designs and worry about color or design. Have you ever noticed how the letters of famous painters and great painters were never so cherished as the letters of authors?” (Letter to John Clellon Holmes, Dec. 8, 1964) 

Downtown News: Selected Letters II is very much a book about writing. All this business about Viking or Grove Press putting commas and dashes in the wrong places; each grammatical mark was a pitched battle. He didn’t seem to care for the rules of writing so much as for the music of it. 

Charters: Looking at the vast body of correspondence, I thought it would make things interesting to focus on his development as a writer, starting from his time at Columbia [University] up until the day he died. I chose those that had to do with writing and it wasn’t difficult to find two volumes of his letters to different people that traced his concerns. Central to it was his discovery of what he called “spontaneous prose.” Volume Two entails the extraordinary attacks he suffered and the way he ultimately caved into them. 

Very few people understood what he was trying to do. He had [Allen] Ginsberg, Holmes, [Gary] Snyder who he could write to and really unload. 

He was delighted to hear that Malcolm Cowley at Viking was to be his editor. Cowley had a reputation for working well with experimental writers, but his experimentalism didn’t go beyond the ‘20s. Hemingway and Gertrude Stein were people of similar standing. With Kerouac we have a working class writer who is belligerent and makes things difficult by not making concessions. Cowley edited On the Road without involving Jack in the process - a terrible thing to do to a writer.

Ann Charters (about 30 years ago).
Within a very few years after getting New York publication, something he’d dreamt of for a decade, the mainstream acceptance, he’s embroiled in all of these editorial fights, which he wins, but at the cost of being labeled an eccentric. 

“Dean and I embarked on a tremendous journey through post-Whitman American to FIND that American and FIND the inherent goodness in American man. American man and Child.” (to Carol Brown, May 9, 1969)

Downtown News: The selection spins a lesson about personal freedom and how the demands of a literary career launch one onto a permanent quest for it. Kerouac hurt people, abandoned a daughter and did somersaults to stay unattached.

Charters: It demonstrates how difficult it is to be a professional writer, to make it your only business. It’s an unrelenting demand for you to produce, produce, produce. For a decade of his life he was writing as prolifically as John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates - two who have been doing it for decades. Kerouac inadvertently realized that his autobiographical style demanded a lifetime of excitement. The adventures are few and far between because he spends his life at a typewriter. That’s one reason why he felt so much pressure to keep time for writing. He never came to terms with the fact he had to keep up with the pace for years and years of his life. Sadly enough, when On the Road was not made into a movie, and without good paperback advances, Kerouac never managed to stay atop his financial world, If [Marlon] Brando, who was very hot at the time, had played Dean Moriarity, he could have been financially free. 

“By God WILL end up 2 old bums in the alley! It’s coming closer all the time! Silverplated garbage cans! Tuxedo bums! with velvet hoods and a moat!” (to Neal Cassady, September 1960.)

Downtown News: These letters chronicle a man’s downfall. It begins with On the Road and success and then he starts the dive. 

Charters: That’s true. Volume One is a very happy book. He’s best friends with his most extraordinary character, Neal Cassady and he’s Kerouac’s inspiration. He writes letters to Neal that are most astonishing. Letters from just before the three weeks it took him to write On the Road. He never had a friendship with anyone like he did with Neal. None of his later friends gave him the perfect audience Cassady gave him. 

“We had an interesting banquet, a Pekingese banquet (Imperial Cooking) with the Chinese Teacher who later brought a lovely 15 year old Japanese high school girl to interview me and I said, ‘Okay, but only if you ask me something interesting,’ and she said, ‘How are you?’” (to Gary Snyder, December 5, 1959).

Downtown New: Critics of the time said he couldn’t grow up. He was 40 years old and out drinking and getting into fights. He behaved like a hooligan. 

Charters: Kerouac was a hooligan. A working class writer. I was astonished when I met him. He was 44 years old and living like no one I had ever met. He and his mother were really from the old country, uninhibited, scatological, getting drunk in public, throwing knives… they felt free in allowing themselves behavior most of us are not willing to. He wasn’t a violent man in that he picked fights, but he got into them because he did dumb things and his judgment was often impaired. He hung out with people in bars with very little understanding of what he did. Gravitated down rather than up, if you will. 

“Yes, me and Memere are most comfortably moved into our new home, which is really such a great pad I can’t believe it and just sit in a more or less drunk stupor staring at it - fireplace, etc. It just goes to show that when you get what you always wanted, it’s maybe too late.” (to Philip Whalen, Jan. 14, 1963). 

Downtown News: Here’s this prototypical rebel, a man capable of setting the publishing world on its ear with his writing and gruff habits, living with his mother. 

Charters: A lot of writers lived with their moms. Flaubert and Whitman did. Today we’re living in such independent enclaves that anyone who stays with his or her mom their whole life seems like an eccentric. It was much closer to the norm up until the ‘70s. Kerouac describes very openly the fact he lives with his mom. In Desolation Angels he has chapters about riding the bus with his mom. What’s getting you there is the sense of excitement of being with your mom. He has an extraordinary joy and muscularity of description so that he makes being with his mother a great adventure. 

"Try to rent a house near or in Sanlando Springs so you’ll be near the construction projects (and remember a quiet place so that cat won’t get run over.)” (to Caroline Kerouac Blake, June 18, 1959). 

Downtown News: She was on the road in her own way, dragging him to over 20 different dwellings from the time of his birth in 1922. 

Charters: She wanted to stay in Florida to be with his sister Caroline and her grandchild. He liked it, but only for short periods of time. They would bounce back and forth on these horrible moves (to New York and back) which meant, not only that his writing would be interrupted, but it was expensive. It was terribly inappropriate for a writer not making a lot of money to be living that way. He was faithful to his pledge to take care of her. 

“I am hopeless paralyzed drunken mess and I don’t know how long I’m going to live, if I keep on like this. It’s not my liver or anything like that, it’s my brain getting soft and paralyzed. Yet I have such a good time when I’m drunk. I feel such ecstasy, for people, for books, for animals for everything. It’s a shame there’s a string tied to everything, huh?” (to Robert Giroux, March 31, 1962). 

Downtown News: In the book you quote Timothy Leary characterizing Kerouac as “an old-style Bohemian without a hippy bone is his body.” What separated the old-style from the new Bohemianism? 

Charters: Kerouac really does come out of the ‘20s ‘30s older style. Simply put, it’s an alcohol versus marijuana versus LSD question. Kerouac wants the joy, not so much the altered perception. Kerouac is also Catholic and feels as an older-style bohemian that you have to work to get there whereas the new style gives it to you in pill form, right away. 

“There is a dream of cold mountain ranges on a gray day with clouds that I always get when I’ve been home 2 days sleeping with an open window. Cities and poets are repetitious. It’s time for the world to change. Nobody believes in enlightenment, i.e. kind tranquility, kind silence.” (to Allen Ginsberg, Nov. 2, 1959). 

Downtown News: He manifested a genuine disdain for modern conceptual thinkers and comes across as a roll-up-your-sleeves, common sense kind of guy. 

Because he lived with his mother, this aspect of himself never left him. This is what William Burroughs also protested against. He said it kept Kerouac socially retarded. He never had to seek out any friends who were anything but wild since his mother provided him safe harbor at the end of a wild night. She’s an old-fashioned, conservative housewife. She is also very intelligent and has him whipped into line. I didn’t spend but two days with her, but in her letters she’s a troublemaker and full of malice. A real piece of work. 

I recently had horrible visions of the too-muchness of the world which requires really too much of our attention, our mind essence is completely blasted by music, people, books, papers, movies, games, sex, talk, business, taxes, cars, asses, gasses, yack ack et….and let us hope that the great calm hearts of Melville, Whiteman and Thoreau do sustain us in the coming hectic years of overcommunicating Americas and Telstars and other Galaxies.” (to Allen Ginsberg, June 29, 1963). 

Downtown News: When reading Kerouac’s Zen wordy passages, it is easy to conclude he’s choosing them more for sound than meaning, but he really was serious about religion.

Charters: He was a very religious person. He was on a religious quest to find spiritual meaning in the horror of everyday life. He had seen his father die and there is an underlying sadness to his chasing joy all the time. He was living his life very intensely. He never finds release, the center. To me the saddest letter is the final one which he writes to his nephew, Little Paul, saying he’s leaving his estate to him so that his wife’s “Greek family” doesn’t get it. At the end of Kerouac’s life he seems to finally understand that family is central, that you can’t be a family of one. He had chances to be a father to his daughter and with his wives and he blew it. 

“Love to Yam Shirley

And Marshmallows

And Nunnery Stew 

And Ecstacy Pie.” 

(to John Clellon Holmes, June 8, 1962. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

When It Was Still a Hill (John Fante's Downtown Los Angeles)

Here's a look at old Bunker Hill, now a cultural-corporate corridor, through the eyes of L.A.'s own John Fante.

Travel writer Charles Keeler wrote of downtown circa 1900, “...the charm of Los Angeles lies in its combination of hills and level reaches, of massive business blocks and, but a few squares removed, residences set in the midst of gardens where tropical plants and brilliant flowers thrive. The beautiful Sierra Madre mountains form an ever-present background for the city, blue and jagged in outline, with summits of snow during winter months.”

Those residences and gardens were on Bunker Hill, the property of a 19th century Victorian aristocracy enriched by oil revenues and banking services they provided to capitalize them.

In 1901, J.W. Eddy built the Angel's Flight funicular. By then, the neighborhood had lost its shimmer and apartment buildings rose up alongside the old Victorian mansions whose occupants headed into “suburbs” such as West Adams and Angeleno Heights.

The Hill was viewed as an obstacle to traffic in and out of downtown from those same suburbs. City Engineer Henry Babcock noted that, “architecturally [Bunker Hill] has not kept pace with the modernly growing parts of the city.”

By the 1930s, Bunker Hill was a renters district. An amalgam of apartment buildings, boarding houses and cheap hotels sheltering a working class that labored below in downtown proper.

In his novel “Ask the Dust,” author John Fante's alter ego, Arturo Bandini, returns home to Bunker Hill, “past the soot-covered frame buildings along that dark street, sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet. Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street.”

The neighborhood's steady decline finally resulted in a leveling of The Hill to make way for the corporate towers and cultural institutions we know today.

There are sepia-tinged pictures of life on Bunker Hill and adjacent neighborhoods. Fante's writings provide a perfect companion to them, fill in the black and whites of the imagery with color in conversations, character, drama.

Poet Charles Bukowski, deceased dean of Los Angeles versifiers, said Fante was his “God” and that as a young man he adopted the irascible Bandini as his own alter ego.

Fante enjoyed youthful success as an author and screenwriter, but it was offset by an attack of diabetes that left him blind. Said Bukowski in a forward to “Ask the Dust,” Fante's story “is the story of terrible luck and a terrible fate and of a rare and natural courage.”

In “Ask the Dusk,” Bandini is living in a weekly hotel on Bunker Hill during the Great Depression. He's trying to survive by writing and things are not going well, his low life peopled with odd balls and economic castaways drawn to The Hill's cheap housing.
John Fante

“One night,” he writes, “I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles.”

A close reading highlights the fact our downtown isn't “down” from anything, the way downtown Manhattan is actually down-island from uptown. Our downtown is in the “middle” and is pretty much the only place people from the east and west sides actually mingle.

The night, Bandini remembers, is important because he was late on rent and was faced with paying out or packing up. He is five weeks overdue and owes the landlady $20.

He decides to go for a walk and it is through a downtown of which only traces remain.

The anti-hero goes to a restaurant, orders a coffee “that tasted pretty much like coffee,” takes in a newspaper and “noted with satisfaction that Joe DiMaggio was still a credit to the Italian people...”

He takes Angel's Flight down into what we call the Historic Core.

“I walked down Olive Street past a dirty yellow apartment house that was still wet like a blotter from last night's fog... Then I went down the Hill on Olive Street, past the horrible frame houses reeking with murder stories, and on down Olive to the Philharmonic Auditorium...”

The environment is neither friendly or pleasing. It is the height of the machine age and downtown is a configured mechanism itself.

“And so I was down on Fifth and Olive, where the big street cars chewed your ears with their noise, and the smell of gasoline made the sight of the palm trees seem sad, and the black pavement still wet from the fog of the night before.”

Passing the Biltmore Hotel, he has little time to indulge the instant disliking he takes for the doorman “with his yellow braids and six feet of height and all that dignity,” because his eye is drawn to a couple of swells exiting a fancy black car.

The woman “was beautiful, her fur was silver fox, and she was a song across the sidewalk and inside his swinging doors.”

Young, hungry, economically impotent, Fante yearns for his favorite lady, the city itself: “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”

His utterance has been echoed down the decades by newcomers in search of some golden ring only to meet with the brass knuckles of a reality soaked in sunshine patina.

“The uprooted ones,” writes Bandini, “the empty sad folks, the old and the young folks, the folks from back home. These were my countrymen, these were the new Californians. With their bright polo shirts and sunglasses, they were in paradise. They belonged.”

Bandini sells his short story The Little Dog Laughed, soothes his landlady and gets a bit of separation between himself and resident neighbors such as Mr. Hellfrick, who “was an atheist, retired from the army, living on a meager pension, scarcely enough to pay his liquor bills, even though he purchased the cheapest gin on the market.”

Flush with newly inflated ambition and a thickened wallet, Bandini heads downtown again to see what life holds for a man of his surging stature.

“A night for my nose,” he says, “a feast for my nose, smelling the stars, smelling the flowers, smelling the desert, and the dust asleep across the top of Bunker Hill. The city spread out like a Christmas tree, red and green and blue. Hello, old houses, beautiful hamburgers singing in cheap cafes, Bing Crosby singing too.”

Bandini takes the steps down Angel's Flight (140 of them, he informs) “with tight fists, frightened of no man, but scared of the Third Street Tunnel, scared to walk through it, claustrophobia.”

You don't see many pedestrians opting for the Third Street Tunnel, but Fante is writing before L.A. becomes a freeway metropolis. Later, Bandini takes his ill-fated love Camilla to the beach by gunning Olympic Boulevard the whole way.

But on this celebratory night his first stop is a burlesque show on Main Street to see someone named Lola Linton.

Chuck Bukowski

Upon exiting he encounters, “Main Street after the show, midnight: neon tubes and a light fog, honky tonks and all night picture houses. Second hand stores and Filipino dance halls, cocktails 15 cents, continuous entertainment, but I had seen them all, so many times.”

He walks to the “Mexican Quarter,” which is not part of present day downtown argot, but sounds much like Olvera Street with its adobe church, “Plaza,” and proximity to the old Chinatown that was moved to make room for Union Station.

He makes a play for some gal who turns out to be a prostitute and she is picked up by a Mexican guy and Bandini watches them depart: “They walked under the banana trees in the Plaza, their feet echoing in the fog. I heard the Mexican laugh. Then the girl laughed. They crossed the street and walked down an alley that was the entrance to Chinatown. The oriental neon signs made the fog pinkish. At a rooming house next door to a chop suey restaurant they turned and climbed the stairs. Across the street upstairs a dance was in progress. Along the little street on both sides yellow cabs were parked.”

There is something pedestrian, village-like and intimate to Fante's downtown that urban planners have striven for decades to regenerate.

Somewhat deflated, Bandini returns to Spring Street and stops in a bar “across the street from the second-hand store. With my last nickel I went there for a cup of coffee. An old style place, sawdust on the floor, crudely drawn nudes smeared across the walls. It was a saloon where old men gathered, where the beer was cheap and smelled sour, where the past remained unaltered.”

In Fante's writing, we find downtown's past unaltered from all that has transpired until our times. It is a downtown at the center of things, served by trolleys and subway and strange tracks that climb hills.

It is the downtown of when Bunker Hill was still a Hill.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Send in the Clowns

In Italy, Democracy Makes a Bed for Some Strange Fellows

In Italy, sex and politics have finally been joined in unholy matrimony following the election of reigning porn queen Cicciolina (“Little Cuddly One”) to the national Chamber of Deputies. The man responsible for this transgression against all things good in decent in the country Pope John Paul calls home?

Meet Marco Pannella, founder and driving force behind the Partito Radicale.

The Radicale, vigilant advocate of 2.5 percent of the voting population, is a political dwarf when one considers the numbers racked up by the likes of the Communist Party and the Christian Democrats.

Pannella protesting (as usual).

What's unique about I Radicali is how effectively they communicate their message despite their diminutive stature. During the campaign, one could open a newspaper to page one and see Cicciolina, bare breasts and all, holding court in the center of Rome, promoting her seductive crusade against “society's pervasive sense of shame and sexual timidity.”

Would you give me your little vote? (il voticino) Just that?” she asks of a passerby who responds, “And who wouldn't?” And so, who didn't? The only person in the party she didn't outpoll was Pannella himself.

Hers is a story of Italian democracy as its inclusive best. Soon to represent a party stronghold in Rome, parliament's sexiest deputati is 36 years old and was born Ilona Staller. A veteran of the Radicale's anti-nuclear campaign and a party member since 1979, Staller took the initiative and nominated herself, something you can do with a little money and a set of values that are in line with the party of your choice.

Not surprisingly, Cicciolina's first order of business is to strive to abolish Article 528 of the penal code, which prohibits obscene shows.

Italy is in an uproar over her election, but that's nothing new to the Radicale, who specialize in the outrageous. The party's ticket for the June 14 ballot include two self-proclaimed homosexuals, transsexuals and two ex-generals who have renounced militarism in all its varied deformities.

Among the winners was one-time singing star Domenico Modugno. This “radical,” who got a close-up picture of the country's medical system when he was crippled by a stroke, ran in protest of its inadequacies.

Modugno is famous for having penned “Volare,” that light-hearted ode to the joy that is life. In one political advertisement, the party cynically attached the song to 60 seconds of images featuring blossoming mushroom clouds, bloated African babies and brutally vivisected animals. It ran on Video M, Italy's answer to MTV, which the Radicale canvassed heavily for votes.

La Unita, the daily paper of the Italian Communist Party, accused the Radicale of engaging in transgression for transgression's sake. “Under what banner are they?” challenged the Communists. “What do they fight for, these Radicals?”

Toni Negri
The party, responds spokesman Sergio Roazio, entertains a platform best described as “an attitude against injustice.”

It is Italy's fount of self-righteous indignation, and Pannella, now in his 50s, is its eternal angry young man. He has gone on hunger strikes against laws he thought unjust, and once organized the party's officeholders to get high in Parliament as a protest against repressive drug laws.

In one of its most infamous outrages, the Radicale ran a candidate from jail. Toni Negri, a professor at the University of Padua and committed revolutionary theorist, had been accused of being linked to the terrorist Red Brigades and locked up without so much as a hearing. He was looking at up to 12 years incarceration before his right-to-trial kicked in under Italy's special anti-terrorist laws.

The Italian system, however, provides immunity from prosecution to members of Parliament. When Negri won his election, he was freed – and promptly fled the country.

Some people are amused by the Radicale, but more are horrified. Yet there is something to be said for a democracy that grants this collection of social maladroits a place on the ballot. The Radicale, for their part, make the most of what they have by providing some of society's most marginalized sectors with the biggest bullhorn in Italian politics.

Pannella broke from the Liberal Party in 1955 to form the Radicale and was first elected to Parliament in 1966. He is vocal, visible, and charismatic. Still, his party was not part of the last ruling coalition, nor is it likely to be a part of the next.

He tends to alienate serious people: Pannella dressed as Santa Claus; Pannella smoking hash; Pannella on a hunger strike; Pannella leading the party faithful in an a capella rendition of “Volare.”

Anyway, the Radicale are having too much fun to soil themselves in the dirty business of running a country.

When asked by a reporter how the party could run “a whore” for a such a position of responsibility Pannella challenged “the cynical priests and mafiosi in high government to cast the first stone, and promised to take it from there if they dared.

Cicciolina is Pannella's modern-day Mary Magdalene.

Because our hands are clean,” he raves, “and no one can deny they aren't, how do they attempt to discredit the Radicale? By saying we are clowns? Well, better clowns than criminals.”

Saturday, March 05, 2016

The Poetri in Jimi

"I see we meet again.."
Today we’re going to walk with the gods and talk about the poetry of Jimi Hendrix; specifically his wonderful song “The Wind Cries Mary."

After all the Jacks are in their boxes
And the clowns have all gone to bed
You can hear happiness staggering on Down Street
Footsteps dressed in red

And the wind whispers “Mary”....

A broom is drearily sweeping
Up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life
Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife

And the wind, it cries “Mary..”

The traffic lights they turn a-blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed
The tiny island sags down stream
‘cause the life that lived is,
is dead

And the wind screams, “Mary”...

Will the wind ever remember
the names it has blown in the past?
And with this crutch, its old age,
and its wisdom
It whispers “no, this will be the last”

And the wind cries “Mary”...

The talk about rock poets was worn out as early as the late 1970s, but the scribe proposes that the above is pretty damn good stuff.

After all the Jacks are in their boxes
and the clowns have all gone to bed...

What an opener. Easy to understand, and taking you nowhere. The second makes certain the witching hour, before dropping that double meaning. Are the “clowns” like the “jacks”; make believe and metaphorical? Or are the clowns the people without painted faces who make you laugh or cry depending? For that matter, are the Jacks real people, too? Their boxes merely their drafty apartments?

You can hear happiness staggering on Down Street,
footprints dressed in red.

Does happiness stagger? All things reaching the end stagger and what better place than Down Street? Dressed in red. The red of blood? Red crepe from the last party? It is up to you and maybe its yo mama’s Friday night red party panties. That would be your problem, or pleasure, depending.

And the wind whispers “Mary”...

“Oh, boo” you say, “the wind is ‘whispering’. How whispery!” But hey, hardly any knowledge is new and a poet returns to the box and reuses tools.

And besides, the wind whispers, “Mary”... and the scribe has always thought that, on the track, Jimi misses a great interpretative opportunity by not actually whispering “Mary” in his inimitable Hendrix way: “Mahray”

A broom is drearily sweeping
Up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life.

Yeah. We sweep drearily, all of us. But the broom itself? Why not when you’re talking about gathering up “the broken pieces of yesterday’s life”? You’ve left them behind right? Or maybe you just can’t face up to doing the job on your own. And you leave it to the broom.

Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife

The high-point of the piece. So much silliness, so much desperation, so many sixes crossing with sevens, all the madness and lunacy of the great push spread out in this simple dilemma of loose ends.

And the wind it cries “Mary.”

Whispered one time, crying the second. The wind is going someplace and we’re invited to follow its utterances, its voice.

The traffic lights they turn a-blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed

And that’s him, Jimi Hendrix of Seattle, Washington, electric guitar god shedding the evening’s radioactivity on a mattress where he grinds his teeth and shakes his leg and lets the lights of the city color him green, yellow, red, Jimi, red – not blue.

The tiny island sags down stream
‘cause the life that lived is,
Is dead

As far as the tiny island, your guess is good as mine. Not that it matters because the poet is painting here and the primary colors are “down” and “dead”. Goes nice with that empty bed.

And the wind screams “Mary...”

Again. Imagine Jimi having worked his way (on the record) from whispering, to crying, to screaming. “Maaahraaay!”

Will the wind ever remember
The names it has blown in the past?

Surely the wind has memory. That’s what we hear when it arrives, recollection and message from where it has been. Will it remember the names from the past? There must be so many, yet the wind is so vast, if inconstant.

And with this crutch, its old age, and its wisdom
It whispers “no, this will be the last.”

And the wind cries “Mary...”

Mary is last. Maybe you’ve met her.

Friday, September 26, 2014

"Hillbilly Bikini Bottom" (a short story) by Stephen Siciliano

Jefferson Davis was in a fix.

It was towards the end of the fourth quarter already and the natives were getting restless. Bugs swarmed in the high and bright lights and the players' pads were soaked in Indian summer sweat.

Jeff saw Brenda Lee Underwood over by the south end bleachers, just above where they liked to drink beers and nip at each other most nights when football wasn't on.

The Little Honey was there with that prick who owned the Camaro from up north of county line and didn't she just love anything with pants on?

"Should've listened to Danny Joe Dean, the Highsteppers' bass player," he told himself, "when we was up at the Collection House and he said she wasn't worth the cheap dress she was burstin' out of."

Darnell Hampton was loping back to the huddle. He saw his mother standing in the north end, hands clenched in prayer, old before her time. There were others from the family and neighborhood standing frozen around her. Aunts and uncles come to see Darnell the Wonder Boy. He didn't need to look to know they'd all be praying, too. Or passed out already from delirium at the Jaguars' pending defeat.

The football religion was strong on both sides of the tracks and both sides of the tracks were simmering in disappointment.

This was no homecoming crosstown rivalry. It was a little 'ol Catholic school you couldn't even find in the Arkansas state high school football rankings. And here were the Jaguars sputtering toward the final gun, ready to blow a shot at the perfect season for 1979 in the first warm-up game.

Whitman High took a last time out. Coach called Jeff Davis to the sideline so he could draw up a play. As Jeff jogged in he scanned the bleachers and saw Danny Joe Dean giving him the finger.

Damn he loved that 'ol boy!

Coach whipped up Xs and Os that had a shotgun, a pulling guard, and a wildcat something or other. He sent his quarterback out to hunt with those words, but Jefferson Davis hadn't heard any of it. 

He just nodded and jogged to the huddle.

His left guard, Ralph Mazzanti, looked like something come out of the meat grinder and Henderson, the right side tackle, was useless out of habit.

Jeff Davis looked at Darnell. "You hear that farm boy call you a nigger?"

Darnell looked out at the north bleachers and his praying people again. They kept all the stories, the terrible dark stories he had heard. Held them close and whispered to themselves.

Uncle LeRoy was gone, because somebody had to get the chicken and ribs for after the game. That's when they would all rush back to the other side of the railroad tracks to eat and sing and be apart from everything else happening in town.

Darnell was always invited across the track on football Friday nights, but before the clock clanged twelve he was back in the low shacks, a speedy Brougham turned brown pumpkin again.

"Ain't nobody called me a nigger all night 'cause they know I will kick a lot of serious ass if that was the case."

"Like Hayl," Jeff spit. "Number 77 called you a fast country nigger."

Darnell looked into the Maria Regina huddle for a Number 77. "He's black you fool."

"So he's cool?" Jeff asked. "He can say it?"

"Mostly," Darnell practically whispered.

"It's true anyway," Mazzanti said. "The bit about bein' a fast country nigger."

"D'jou just call me a country nigger Ralph?"

"Um, not direct-like. Not like, 'You, Darnell Hampton, are one very fast country nigger as per my words, Ralph Mazzanti.' No. I was paraphrasing."

Jeff knew Ralph picked up "paraphrasing" in Miss Keating's English class, because she wore patch pocket bellbottoms and they kept him focused.

Henderson knew none of those boys cared if one was green and the other blue so long as they could get a miracle touchdown, and avoid facing up to family and friends with so great a debacle. There were girlfriends on the line, scholarships...girlfriends!

So he put it out there: "Hayl Darnell, Jeff's just a little hot-and-bothered about Brenda Lee Underwood and her being with that ol' boy from Paragould."

"Henderson you are a useless piece of crap," Jeff Davis shot back.

"Maybe, but it don't change the veracity of what I said none."

Jeff knew Henderson picked up that word from Doc Hotstetler's dairy cattle judging class where he talked about the "veracity of a heifer's udder."  

He looked over at the south bleachers again and saw Brenda Lee kiss her new beaux.

Jeff would like to get a gun and kill her straightaway after the game. He thought he'd do it. Get a pistol, shoot all her friends, too. End her world, the little bitch.

And he was drifted back to that night in July down by the river when Tiffany James come up and told Jeff all about how sweet Brenda Lee was on him, and how she was over by the swimming hole swinging around on the rope hanging down from a tree.

"You know the place," she tilted her head at him and pulled on a Busch beer. He almost didn't want to leave.

Jeff Davis went up river and he saw Brenda Lee hanging down from the rope, swinging, her cut-off blue jeans getting pulled up her butt like a hillbilly bikini and this about drove him wild. He watched her swoop out over the water and let loose, landing in the black oily splash. He licked his lips as she hit the surface.

Then, like a kinda swamp rat, this guy's head popped up laughing. Brenda Lee squealed and made like she was trying to get out of his arms and that's when she saw him, Jeff, standing there.

"Why Jefferson Davis!" and Brenda Lee looked at him with a kind of challenge in her face, before she turned and kissed that 'ol boy that was in the river with her.

The ref came over. "Break it up," and blew the whistle, waving his right arm around like a whirlybird.

This was the moment. Jeff Davis had never given his troops the play, because he'd never heard it, and because of Tiffany James and Brenda Lee and that night down by the river. Same kinda night. Summer night. Bugs and gnats in the air, in your lungs.

He looked over at the bleachers. Again. Brenda Lee pulled herself out of a kiss with the Camaro Kid and stared straight at him. Her face had the same challenge in it as that July night by the river. Her little piglet-button nose pointing skyward.

And he was sparked. Hard. Not by the challenge of a Camaro, or a perfect season, but by the memory of that hillbilly bikini bottom.

Jefferson Davis turned to Darnell Hampton and looked at him across generations of blackness and whiteness and railroad track and said...

..."Go deep. I'll hit ya!"

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Origin of Vedette's Truth

In this musical spoken-word duet with the marvelous Omar Torrez, I recount how Vedette's father traumatizes her into becoming a truth-teller for life.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Ineffable" a poem

"Brooklyn Overpass" (Alessandro Barthlow)


Believe in miracles?


The Miracle.
Thing not explained.

In an inexplicable universe
marred by its recurrence


Saturday, March 08, 2014

highwayscribery book Report: "All the Birds, Singing," by Evie Wyld

Evie Wyld is a poetess of the ugly.

Whether it's a cigarette with a still-lit butt being run under a faucet, a ewe getting her throat slit, or the little pink penis of her protagonist's captor, Wyld employs her marvelous prose to drive bile from one's gut into the bottom of the throat.

There is a place for this in literature: the youth with jaundiced eye, the angry take on a world that has disappointed too early, and the newly minted among us can be particularly rabid about the letdown.
So prepare to be bit.

"All the Birds, Singing," is the story of a woman whose first steps along the path of life are the wrong ones. Very wrong. The device, employed across a number of issues affecting Jake's life, is to let on that something is amiss and keep the reader guessing until the end, which limits the breadth of review so as not to spoil the story.

In any case, the narrative will take you from Australia to England, though it may take time to sort out where you are at first, because the second device employed is the presentation of chapters with no relation to chronology, except for the stacking of issue-resolving revelations at yarn's end.

The publisher, Pantheon Books, is very excited about Wyld, "All the Birds Singing" and the advance reviews ("completely and utterly monumental") focus on the author's crisp and textured prose.

There is, floating about the Internet, a "Ten Things Writers Shouldn't Do" list crafted by American author Elmore Leonard, whose specialty was the noir/thriller mystery.

Among Leonard's scripting sins is the use of adverbs, avoiding anything but saying the subject "said" during bouts of dialogue, and eschewing long descriptions of weather, places or people that a reader can jump over without losing the narrative thread.

"I'll bet you never skip over dialogue," said Leonard, whose big idea was that novelists should avoid "self-conscious writing."

Wyld would probably disagree, because she breaks all of Leonard's rules.

And that's because there is is good storytelling and there is good "writing" with carefully crafted crevices, rises, flatlands and, yes, adverbs. Wyld has chosen this type of scribery over the keep-em-turning-those-pages approach, which is fine, with all due respect to Mr. Leonard. Readers find joy in the revelry of language, too.

Jake has got scars nasty enough to send one of her johns (semi-spoiler) heading for the exits without paying what's owed and, by golly, you will wait good and long before the writer decides to let you in on how they got there.

"Dark," "guttural," "raw": Pick your descriptive for this rural rant that does not offer up a boulevard of broken dreams so much as a gallery of damaged souls; emotional runts who make an art of barely coping.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day: "Studies on Love" by Jose Ortega y Gasset

The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) made a name for himself in the 1930s with Revolt of the Masses, a book which lamented the industrial era's effect on Western culture. It created, he said, a need for specialization which led to a stunted humanity characterized by mediocrity and the "median man' of which he observed: "This planet is condemned to the reign of the median man. As such, the important task is to elevate the median as much as possible."

Ortega abhorred the dehumanizing effects of science and its handmaiden, reason, upon the life of this world. Nonetheless, as editor and publisher of the El Sol newspaper, and as the leader of his own political party in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War, Ortega was a logical voice in an era when violent passions would ultimately prevail. 

While not nearly as seminal a work as Revolt, a collection of Ortega's essays edited from El Sol, and packaged as "Estudios Sobre El Amor" (Studies On Love)(1939), is certainly his most charming. In this collection, Ortega, a professor of metaphysics at the University of Madrid, takes reason and trains it upon that greatest of human mysteries: Love.

Here are the results

Ortega sets out, as a good philosopher, to define his concept and debunks the equating of love with happiness. "Who doubts that the lover can receive joy from the beloved? But is it no less certain that love is at times sad as death, a sovereign and mortal torture?"

He quotes the letters of a Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado, to her untrue seducer: "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the desperation you have caused me and detest the tranquility in which I lived prior to knowing you."

Love's hypothetical happiness disproved with an example, Ortega bores into his subject. Love, he maintains, is incitement. "Through a pore opened by the arrow launched from an object of affection springs love, actively directing itself toward them...It flows from the lover toward the beloved -- from me to the other, in a centrifugal direction."

As an emanation toward the object, love is not unlike hate, the difference being that love flows toward its target positively, whereas hate proffers negativity. Both, however, generate heat produced in varying degrees. "All love," he notes, "passes through phases of diverse temperature and, subtly, the language of love talks of those relations which 'cool,' and the lover complains of the beloved's tepid responses, of their coldness."

The third aspect to love's definition must naturally, perhaps hopefully, take into account the point at which lover and beloved are united.

Perfect Projection

Ortega insists that love not only errs upon occasion but is essentially an error. "We fall in love when our imagination projects nonexistent perfection upon another person. One day, the fantasy evaporates and with it, love dies."

The idea, like so many around us, is born with the Greeks: Plato to be specific. Ortega points out that for Plato, all love resides in the desire to unite the person who loves to another being blessed with perfection, in the volition of our soul toward something excellent, better and superior. "Let the reader try generating a state of enchantment -- sexual enchantment -- in an object which provides not a single aspect of excellence, and see how impossible it becomes."

Sexual instinct, he points out, may preserve the species, but does not perfect it. Throw love into the sexual mix, however, and enthusiasm for that other being, for their body and soul in union indissoluble, and what you get is a gargantuan effort to improve the breed.

"With the erotic process barely initiated, the lover experiences a strange sense of urgency to dissolve their individuality into the other, and vice versa, to become absorbed by the beloved...This recalls the doctrine of the Saint Simonians, according to which, the true human individual is the loving couple."

Our world, Ortega says, is cluttered with innumerable objects whilst the field of our conscience is very limited. The details of this world engage in a kind of fight for our attention, which supplants one object with another, according to its importance. "Mania," consequently, is a condition of focus extended beyond the limits of normality. Ortega suggests that all the great thinkers have been maniacs. "When they asked Newton how he was able to discover his mechanical understanding of the universe, he responded, 'By thinking about it day and night.'"

Love, our philosopher says, works the same way, represents an anomalous focusing of attention upon another person. "It does not constitute enrichment of our mental life," he points out, "just the opposite. It grows rigid and fixed, prisoner to a single being. Plato called it Theia mania (divine mania). Nonetheless, the person enamored has the sense of life being much richer. In the reduction of their world, it seemingly grows more concentrated."

For a lover, then, the world ceases too exist, having been supplanted completely by the beloved.

Loves Fatal Machinery

Curiously, the evolution of enchantment lacks spirituality, depending as it does upon the paralyzing of our attention -- that which regulates mental activity -- leaving the lover dependent upon a series of automatic, mechanical processes. Love, Ortega reasons, is an imposition which mocks free will. The great heartbreakers know this, that once they've managed to affix someone's attention to them, total preoccupation is possible with a simple tightening and loosening of the string attached to their romantic prey.

The lover falls under a "spell," an "enchantment." These, he notes, are words which point to love's extraordinary character. We resort to religious terminology when trying to describe it.

"The curious sharing of lexicons between love and mysticism leads one to suspect common roots." For Ortega, mysticism is also a phenomenon of attention. In the mystic, "God permeates the soul to the point of becoming confused with it, or the inverse, with the soul becoming diluted in God. Such is the union the mystic aspires to. The ecstatic perceives said union as something definitive and perennial, just as the lover swears eternal love.

"Once initiated, the process of enchantment develops with an exasperating monotony," Ortega points out. "What I mean to say is that all those who fall in love do it the same way - the smart one and the dope, the younger and the elder, the bourgeois and the artist. This fact confirms love's mechanical character."

The only exception to this mechanistic rule is found in the question of precisely what attracts the attention of one person to another. Ortega does not shrink from the challenge.

Naked in Love

By demonstrating an interest in someone, we expose much of ourselves that is hidden. "In the election of his mate, the male reveals his essence, in the election of her man, a female does the same," notes the philosopher. "The type of humanity we prefer in one another being sketches the profile of our own soul. Love is an impetus that emerges from the subterranean reaches of our person, and in traveling to the surface dredges the algae and shells of our interior with it."

Ortega posits that not unfamiliar situation which pairs a gregarious woman of beauty with a man considered low and vulgar. The judgment is usually an optical illusion because of the distance involved. Love, Ortega asserts, is the business of minute detail and the fact is that, viewed from far away, authentic love and false comport themselves in a similar manner: "But let's say the affection is genuine," he asks. "What are we to think?" One of two things: Either the man is not quite so vulgar as we thought, or the woman not so select."

The great error, vigilant since Descartes and Renaissance, is that which views human being as living by the dictates of conscience, "that small part of ourselves with which we see clearly and which operates according to our will." The greater volume of our being, he asserts, is neither free nor rational. "In vain does the woman who would be viewed as exquisite try to fool us. We have seen she loves Joe, and Joe is clumsy, indelicate; caring only for the perfection of his tie and the shine to his Rolls."

Ortega argues that a man likes most women that pass within his periphery, but this instinct rarely strikes at the depths of his person. When it does, when that aforementioned emanation springs forth and toward the other, that is love. "If it is an idiocy to say that love between man and woman contains no sexual element, it is a bigger stupidity to suggest that love is sexuality. The sexual instinct has an ample sampling of objects to satisfy it, but love is exclusivity, selection."


Beauty is that which invites selection and Ortega tackles the concept with particular relish. "More than acts and words, it is best to focus on what appears to be less important: gesture and physiology. Because they are spontaneous, they permit the escape of profound personal secrets and do so with exactitude."

He says that society has its "official beauties," those whom people point to at parties and in the theater, as if public monuments, which in a sense they are. Ortega suggests that such women may pique a man's desire to possess, but rarely gain his love. Their esthetic beauty sets them apart as artistic objects and the distance prevents love.

"The indifferent find beauty in the grand lines of the face and in the figure -- in what we typically call beauty. For the enamored, they do not exist, the grand lines and the architecture of the person which beckon from afar, have been erased. For them, beauty is found in the scattered features, the color of the pupil, the curve at the corner of the beloved's lips, the tone of their voice."

Boys and Girls

Ortega believes that woman is more capable of this all-encompassing, almost mystic state of love. He argues that the feminine psyche is less concentric, more cohesive and more elastic, thus better lending itself to the singular pursuit, or attention, required for love. "The feminine soul tends to live by a single axis of attention and each phase of her life rests upon a single matter.

"The more masculine the spirituality, the more dislocated the soul, as if divided into separate compartments," says Ortega. "Accustomed to living upon a multiple base, and in a series of mental fields with only the most precarious connection, conquering the attention of one achieves nothing since the rest remain free and intact."

Ortega points out how the woman enamored is frequently exasperated by a sense that she never has the entirety of the man she loves before her. "She always finds him a little distracted, as if, in setting out for their rendezvous he has left, dispersed across the world, entire provinces of the soul."

For this reason, even the most sensitive of men is shamed by his inability to attain the perfection a woman is capable of lending to love.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

"The Legend of Carmen Amaya" by Natalia Ramos

Here's a link to a poetic tribute by flamenco dancer and writer Natalia Ramos of Madrid. They are dedicated to la flamenca Carmen Amaya on the 50th anniversary of her death.

Stephen Siciliano, highwayscribery's inimitable and anonymous alter ego, translated two of the poems from Spanish to English.

The presentation was published by Alison Mackie, an author and painter whose work amplifies and defines her passion for the Gypsy peoples.


Friday, July 05, 2013

"Ninfas" por Stephen Siciliano

(a mi prima Pilar)

Ella hablaba con su guitarra
pero ésta cantaba otra canción

Levantó su vestido florentino
tocando al agua, descalza
temblando el río en los rizos
de su cabellera.

Tapaba su boca
tan miedosa subiendo la cuesta
por llantos plañideros
y detrás de ellos
ella, galopando

"¡Soccoro, alguien!"

Y llegó la otra
pero ella le huyó
y durmió
y soño con la canción
de la otra
despertó en el alba
y levantando su vestido
hasta el muslo
tocaba, temblando,
el río.

Ronroneó. Y eso sin saber por que.

Le hablaba la canción a su guitarra
y cantaba cuando se
la devolvio en melodía

Y llegó la otra
pero ella le huyó
bajando la cuesta
con su guitarra.

Notándose un silencio
y dudando que le devolviera
más canciónes
y dudando en volver
a dormir de esa manera.

(dibujo de Jóse Pérez de Lama Halcón)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Anne Theroigne: Portrait of a Portrait of a Lady

Sometimes bit players steal the show.

That is not to say the historical figures of Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre are upstaged by the sparse appearances of Anne Theroigne in Hilary Mantel's
"A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel," but she certainly adds to the conversation.

This post is both about a fascinating person, and about the author's masterful crafting of a secondary book character.

Throughout this expansive historical novel, Lady-Anne Theroigne de Mericourt surfaces, burns and submerges, resurfaces again, lighting the dank torch-lit streets of ragged and unjust Paris...just a few passages, evocative ones, transmit her flavors.

Late Entry

Camille Desmoulins, pamphleteer extraordinaire of the revolutionary cupola, first stumbles upon Anne at a theater audition where she is being humiliated.

It takes place at page 118 of this 748-paged literary chronicle: "She was about twenty-seven, he thought; small bones darkish brown hair, snub nose. She was pretty enough, but there was something blurred about her features: as though at some time she'd been beaten, hit around the head, had almost recovered, but would never quite."

They exchange barbs before she submits that her future looks bleak. Desmoulins wants to know what she has done in the past when faced with a dry spell between acting stints:

Answer: "I used to sleep with a marquis."

"There you are then."

"'I don't know,' the girl said, 'I get the impression that marquises aren't so free with their money anymore. And me, I'm not so free with my favors.'"

She then establishes her unique status as a free-ranging woman when divulging to Desmoulins her plan to meet contacts in Genoa.

"She put her cheek on her hand. 'My name is Anne Theroigne.' She closed her eyes. 'God, I'm so tired,' she said. She moved thin shoulders inside the shawl, trying to ease the world off her back."

This is an introduction to someone mordant, socially astute, battered, yet unyielding.

She is being marginalized by fading beauty and diminishing artistic talents. Anne Theroigne is afraid and her future actions reveal she thinks the government, or society, or somebody, should do something to arrest her tailspin into the gutter.

This is Theroigne before the revolution. And this is her France.

Once the deluge is unleashed, Desmoulins is out in the street doing what he does best, rousing the rabble. Among them is a "pretty young woman with a pistol in the belt of her riding habit, and her brown hair tied back with a red ribbon and blue one."

These are the colors the ascendant radicals have adopted and she is with them, flowering, purposeful.

Though she may be fading, Anne has been feted by Paris. Has heard a few stories. She has been at the center of the world and lived off making believe she is other, made-up people.

"Her face seemed luminous in the watery light. Now he saw that she was very cold, drenched and shivering. 'The weather has broken,' she said. 'And so much else.'"

The streets are seething and a few hours later she is a portrait of action. 

(Eros strikes me through the written page. I want to merge with this woman in a series of self-destructive, righteous acts.)

Made for the Part

Underemployed, she certainly has the time. Dramatically gifted, the troubles of 1789 provide her with a proper stage.

"Another night on the streets: at five o'clock, the tocsin and the alarm cannon. 'Now it begins in earnest,' Anne Theroigne said. She pulled the ribbons from her hair, and looped them into the buttonhole of his coat. Red and blue. 'Red for blood,' she said. 'Blue for heaven.' The colors of Paris: blood-heaven."

You can earn respect by cranking out 749 pages of engaging literature, and sometimes, in one brush stroke, give the whole thing a strident coloring that clings.


 In the earliest phases of the revolution, action draws the highest premium and the new order has jobs for people like Camille and Theroigne; heir gang, a disparate lot of social maladroits and axe-grinders, is somehow on the rise.

Centripetal forces continue to drive politics in France; Paris in particular and apart. Louis and Antoinette's days are numbered. The politics of the moment revolve around what to do with them. The king does try. He receives a delegation of women and makes promises.

"Theroigne is outside, talking to soldiers," Mantel revives her anti-heroine. "She wears a scarlet riding habit. She is in possession of a saber. The rain is spoiling the plumes on her hat."

Anne can dress the part, although there is usually some element gone awry, screwing up the perfection of the whole, gaining empathy.

Laying Low

And then she is gone, though not for long, returning to chaotic Paris sorting itself out -- going to the theater, dining, sexing it up, and carrying the enemy's head around on a pike -- Theroigne marshals support and plays her hand in the deadly game for power.

The author finds a character who can tell us they are all -- Danton, Desmoulins, Robespierre, Anne and their revolutionary caste -- "virgins."

Soon enough, Lady Anne reappears before Desmoulins. "Theroigne swept in. She wore a white dress, and a tricolor sash about her waist. A National Guardsman's tunic, unbuttoned, was draped over her slim square shoulders. Her brown hair was a breeze-blown waterfall of curls; she employed one of those expensive hairdressers who make you look as if you've never been near a hairdresser in your life."

Desmoulin rebuffs her sexual play and denies her a job writing for whatever paper he's editing at the moment. She is damaged goods and he's worried about his reputation.

"As far as he knew, Anne was leading a chaste and blameless life; the strange thing was, that she seemed dedicated to giving the contrary impression. The royalist scandal sheets were not slow to pick up on anything. Theroigne was a gift from God, as far as they were concerned."

So she gets labeled the whore while Danton and Desmoulins enjoy the winning revolutionary's celebrity, notching their belts with every belle at every ball in town.

Anne, by opting for a public life, for demanding a voice, gets tarred, and good.

And though she's acting, it's not an act. She's a revolutionary having her say and you can't mistake Theroigne for anything but what she is, except for what she's not.

Which is to say there is ambiguity in this portrait, someone we can both like and not like, a person on whom we are still withholding judgment, but find worthy of attention.


The revolution, as most left-wing ventures tend to, begins consuming itself. First overboard are the dreamers. Mantel tells us, "In May, Theroigne left Paris. She had no money and was tired of the royalist papers calling her a prostitute."

Noblesse Oblige indeed.

"One by one, the "murky layers of her past," Mantel writes, "had been peeled away to reveal unsavory acts and liaisons that "we've all done when necessity has pressed. It left her open, though, to ridicule and insult."

Anne's plan is to return once the libelers move on, but she suffers the star's burden of being missed: Her scarlet cloak, her "claque" surrounding, pistol swinging as she prowls the National Assembly's corridors looking for deputies to berate.

And so rumors circulated, in her absence, that the Austrians, with whom the revolutionary government is at war (along with the rest of Europe), have abducted her.

"Hope they keep her," is what Lucile, Desmoulins' modern wife and newly minted revolutionary, says. "What gave her the right to be a pseudo-man, turning up at the Cordeliers [that most ferocious of workerist sects] and demanding the rostrum."

Aborted Catfight

Lucille gets a shot at some answers when Theroigne shows up in her tricolored salon. Anne has been released by the Austrians with some money to boot, but she has not come to square-off with a feminine rival. She has come to lament. For her part, Camille's wife is very pregnant.

Their lives have assumed radically different paths, and each prefers the other's.

Theroigne is out of sorts, tattered, not sharp. Lucile can see that the hem is frayed on her scarlet coat, "that the dust on the streets was upon it, that even the red was not so red as it used to be."

Anne is furious that the papers are still spreading lies about her. And Camille is ignoring her.

"He's busy," Lucile covers for her husband.

"Oh yes, I'm sure he's busy. Busy playing cards at the Palais-Royal, busy dining with aristocrats. How can anyone think of passing the time of day with an old friend when there's champagne to be drunk and so many silly, empty-headed bitches to be screwed?"

"Including you," Lucile murmured.

"No, not including me," Theroigne stopped pacing. "Never including me. I have never slept with Camille, or with Jerome Petion, or with any of the other two dozen names the newspapers have named.".

Theroigne goes into her particular grudge against a royalist by the name of Louis Suleau, publisher of The Acts of the Apostles who has had his way with her good name in print.

Lucile is miserable in this hellion's company. She explains how Anne's bankrolled release from the Austrians has left her open to the charge of spying.

Theroigne comes a little undone. She admits to having a daughter who died after being left behind. She doesn't know how to write. Things are not going her way, her tribulations multiplying willy-nilly.

Today she has been weak.


But life can turn on a dime, and soon the angriest  of the revolutionary factions is literally up in arms, jailing aristocrats left and right, and forcing the king's imprisonment.

Desmoulins is witnessing a riot outside the Royal Palace at Versailles.

“Theroigne had taken charge. Here was her own, her little Bastille.”

She has led an “unfocused rabble” to a place where the royalty are being held against their will, and is breaking in, not to save them, but too...

More revolutionary and feminine portraiture:

“Theroigne wore black; she had a pistol in her belt, a saber in her hand, and her face was incandescent.”

It’s romantic writing, without getting melodramatic. Theroigne is incandescent, but she’s also out of her mind. Camille watches as the fourth prisoner emptied into the mob’s maws is Louis Suleau, the guy who’s been spreading the rumors.

It’s not a heroic moment, but an ugly one. Your own politics determine whether it is necessary.

Leader of the revolution, or some part of it, Desmoulins can do nothing but watch Theroigne, “approach Louis Suleau and say to him something that only he could have heard; Louis put up a hand, as if to say, what’s the point of going into all this now? The gesture etched itself into his mind. It was the last gesture. He saw Theroigne raise her pistol. He did not hear the shot.”

Don't call her a whore.

As all of the revolutionary class learned, direct action is effective, but does have its drawbacks. Among these are constant exposure to committed enemies and overheated throngs.

Some time later, Robespierre asks Camille if he’s heard about “that girl. Anne Theroigne.”

“What’s she done now?”

“She was making the speech in the Tuileries gardens, and a group of women attacked her -- rough women from the public gallery. She’s attached herself to Brissott and his faction, for some reason only she understands -- I can’t believe Brissot is delighted. She found the wrong audience -- I don’t know, but perhaps they thought she was some woman of fashion intruding on their patch.”

She is saved by the dangerous Jacobin scribe Marat, soon to be assassinated himself, at the hands of a “fashion plate.”

Camille laments that she was not killed. “I'll never forgive that bitch for what she did on August 10.”

Robespierre is philosophical. Old schoolmate or not, Suleau “ended up on the wrong side, didn’t he? And then so did she."

This "Brissot" is on the extermination list, so Theroigne’s made a bad political call. It means Robespierre wouldn't mind removing her head, but does not, because everyone thinks her own choices are doing it much better. 

Theroigne, in fact, ended up surviving the stunning violence of her time and living another 25 years.

With a handful of appearances and some second-hand conversations, the author both creates a secondary character with a full trajectory, and links the revolution's major players to the woman in the street.. 

Anne is done before the revolution is done. Disappearing as easily as she first appeared, she is an afterthought in the fast-moving paces of a tumultuous situation.

“A few weeks ago in the street Lucile and her mother had seen Anne Theroigne. It had taken them both a moment to recognize her. Theroigne was no longer pretty. She was thin; her face had fallen in as if she had lost some teeth. She passed them; something flickered in her eyes, but she didn’t speak. Lucile thought her pathetic -- a victim of the times. ‘No one could see her as attractive now,’ Annette said. Lucile smiled. Her recent birthdays had passed, as she put it, without incident. Most men still looked at her with interest."

Not this reader fair
 lady. Both eyes are on the Rebel Girl.