Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller. Semiotext(e), 432 pages.
First, some things Cookie Mueller loved: dogs, drugs, jewelry, hair dye, tattoos, makeup, which she often slept in, New York City (but not in the summer), Baltimore (but not enough to stay there), art, parties, her friends, her son Max. She loved acting. Her star-making roles with director John Waters—particularly in Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble—imbued her with a grubby mystique, and her very own fan club. She loved writing. Her short stories, her long-running advice column in the East Village Eye, and her art criticism for Details were diaristic, farcical, sometimes barbed snapshots of an era of excess. Surveying the political and cultural cesspool around her in 1986, she counseled, “We have to relax and hang onto a sense of humor.”
Laughing it off is central to Mueller’s aesthetic. Her stories regularly sketch traumas—rape, overdose, illness—with a survivor’s comic irony. Perhaps that’s why her legacy feels so incongruous now. When Mueller died of AIDS-related complications in 1989, at age forty, she was subsumed into what was already a rote narrative of tragedy and untimely sanctification. The writer Gary Indiana, one of Mueller’s closest confidants and collaborators, said later that “part of New York died when Cookie died.” Her death had the rude epiphany of last call, and it signaled the denouement of a certain way of life in the city, a culture of DIY bohemianism that was part hippie, part punk, part Hollywood. It was, for many, the final insult of a plague that had claimed thousands of lives but was just getting started.
Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, a new, expanded edition of Mueller’s posthumous 1990 collection, is, contrary to most retrospectives of writers silenced by AIDS, not a testament to what we lost when Mueller died, but a freewheeling sensorium of her life. These pages are sordid with cigarettes and beer, dog hair and breastmilk, lipstick and shit. Mueller is fully present on the page, as a joking ingenue, a cynical den mother, and a genial euthanizer of art world pretensions. Her first-person voice is relaxed and impromptu, but calibrated to seduce the reader into anecdotes of misadventure and precarity (financial and otherwise) that often end with a sardonic rimshot, as if Mueller were the O. Henry of the downtown demimonde. But for all of her supposed hedonism—selling cocaine out of her apartment, working as a topless dancer—the stories also reveal a woman yearning for tradition and her own version of family. “Why does everybody think I’m so wild? I’m not wild,” she writes “I happen to stumble onto wildness. It gets in my path.”
She was born Dorothy Karen Mueller in Baltimore in 1949. “Somehow I got the name Cookie before I could walk,” she explains in an autobiographical note. “It didn’t matter to me, they could call me whatever they wanted.” At the age of ten, she finished her first novel, a 321-page account of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, featuring the nurse and Red Cross matriarch Clara Barton. (“On Barton’s hemlines there were always bloodstains and she carried morphine in her pockets.”) With money saved from a department store job, Mueller ventured West in 1967, to San Francisco. Her stories “Haight-Ashbury—San Francisco, 1967” and “Waiting for the New Age” form a diptych that captures both the idealism and corrosion of the times. The former is a picturesque romp through standard counterculture scenery and includes cameos by Janis Joplin (Mueller’s neighbor), Jim Morrison, and Anton LaVey. The latter opens with a helicopter scattering LSD on a public park and ends, sarcastically, with hippies waiting to inherit the earth. In characteristic Mueller fashion, there’s a dark edge to her trippy bonhomie, as when, in “Haight-Ashbury,” the Manson Family tries to recruit her on their deadly descent toward Los Angeles; she politely demurs. Later in the story, she is raped by another interlocutor, but “it wasn’t even done well.”
The San Francisco sojourn ended with Mueller admitted to a mental hospital, where she “accidentally” received electroshock therapy. “I got in the wrong line. I thought I was waiting for drugs. It’s the truth,” she writes. “Truth” is a two-ply material in Mueller’s work. There is, on the surface, the literal report of whatever happened, which roughly accords with oral histories gathered in Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller by Chloè Griffin. Beneath, though, is the truth of how these incidents felt. Mueller’s artistry as an unreliable narrator emerges in this second layer, where she invents, exaggerates, and digresses, conjuring an atmosphere of absurdism leavened by the intimacy of her conversational tone. “The Birth of Max Mueller,” a story about when she went into labor in 1971, opens with a mock gothic baritone: “The night Max was born mongrels roamed in packs. The moon had turned to blood and the hungry hounds were howling for it in wild lunar lust.”
Much of her work falls into the stylistic and thematic camp of New Narrative, a loose cohort of writers, based largely in San Francisco in the late 1970s, who used their own lives as grist for experimental and discursive fictions. These writers—Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Steve Abbott, Kathy Acker, Sam D’Allesandro, Lynne Tillmann, and Eileen Myles, among others—dramatized themselves and the culture in ways that were playful, philosophical, metatextual, and often existentially (not just sexually) queer. More recently, the term autotheory has denoted literature in this vein, albeit with roots in feminist and activist discourse. Mueller is less theoretical than some of her New Narrative contemporaries, but no less enamored of cheeky provocation. Her story “Fleeting Happiness” ends:
If the ultimate goal in life is to be happy, then you have to admit that one-celled creatures have it all over us. Little germs are probably always happy. They are superior, they don’t sing the blues. Think about that the next time you bring out the disinfectant bottle and start scrubbing them away.
Exiled back to Baltimore in 1969, Mueller met John Waters, who was then screening Mondo Trasho in churches and bingo halls around town. Waters fell hard for Mueller—as everyone did—and cast her in several of his next films. “The word ‘future’ wasn’t part of my vocabulary,” Mueller writes of that period. She worked in a fish factory to make ends meet, but her gonzo performances were a ticket to underground fame, both for her and the other Dreamlanders, the local misfits such as Divine, Mink Stole, and Edith Massey who comprised Waters’s bargain bin of stars. (Legend has it that when Mueller was hospitalized for a minor ailment, Waters visited her and asked what the problem was. “Just a little female trouble, hon,” Mueller replied, a phrase Waters later repurposed.)
In 1976, Mueller moved to New York. It feels foolish to talk about a “mature” phase when Mueller died so young, but the writing she produced in her last decade is her finest and most formally ambitious. (“Fan Mail, Frank Letters, and Crank Calls,” a story narrated through transcripts and letters, is a standout.) The city was an entropic sidekick for her imagination. New York was in recession, crime was high, entire blocks had the bombed-out glamour of an irradiated zone. There was the ambient sense of an empire in decline. (“Narcotics,” a previously unpublished story included in the new edition, depicts Alphabet City as a hive of shooting galleries and junkies, almost comical in their industriousness.) Mueller moved into a $435-a-month apartment on Bleecker Street, which she furnished with salvaged art and decor.
The stories from this period are evocative vignettes of Mueller hustling to provide for herself and her son. “Go-Going” relates the beginning of her career as a topless dancer in “really sleazy” go-go bars. The plot concerns an unsavory customer who confesses to Mueller that he’s a mass murderer (and even shows off a severed finger in a bag), but the story crackles because of Mueller’s almost pointillist descriptions of the environment: the furry bathroom rugs dancers bring from home so they can gyrate onstage comfortably; the booking agents’ offices, “filled with cigar smoke, pictures of broads on the wall, the telephone ringing”; the litany of candied stage names—Jujubee, ChiChi, CoCo, Taffy. There’s also the pathos of a mother dancing for dollars at the end of a long day spent piecing together other gigs. “All I wanted to do was lie down,” Mueller writes. This story offers no defiant feminist cri de coeur, just a bemused acceptance of doing what she has to do to scrape by. (Two other previously unpublished stories included here, “Edgar Allen Poe on Ice” and “Careening Around in Career Vehicles,” are equally potent evocations of the exhaustion underlying creative labor.)
That theme continues in “Another Boring Day,” whose one-thing-after-another narrative has the madcap briskness of a sitcom episode, one that encompasses the burnout of the New York grind. “Everyone in the car looked so sad, the weight of all those subway years etched in their faces,” Mueller writes. She receives a check for her freelance writing, but forfeits it twenty minutes later when a friend comes to collect his loan. At the end of the story, she finds what she thinks is a fat wallet in the dark backseat of a cab. She smuggles it into her apartment only to realize that it’s a stranger’s address book, and the cycle of disillusion begins anew.
Mueller’s wildly unsound homeopathic advice column in the East Village Eye, “Ask Dr. Mueller,” and her art criticism column in Details are more structured iterations of her disheveled literary persona. In the former, she answers readers’ questions about impotence, cellulite, leg cramps, insomnia, nicotine addiction, and other workaday complaints. Her advice ranges from the plausible (“zinc-rich foods are vital for virility”) to the crank (recommending a chiropractor and a nutritionist as a virtual cure for AIDS). There’s something poignant about her doling out home remedies in the midst of AIDS and Reagan’s War on Drugs, as if friendly encouragement and a juice cleanse are enough to stave off the inevitable. That attitude, perhaps a holdover from her hippie stint in the Bay, is also a tacit acknowledgment that government has failed and that individuals must triage themselves through a combination of superstition and willpower. Inherent in much of her writing is a strain of native optimism that, for example, makes her believe she can reverse a heroin overdose with an injection of salt and tap water, as she does in the story “Sam’s Party.” And it’s an optimism that’s synonymous with her faith in art, which sweetens even the jadedness of her Details column, where she urges readers to see through marketing and sycophancy without rancor:
Now, in the history books on the East Villagistic Period there will also be facts, hard and cold, to swallow: that 80 percent of all East Village art looked the same; that 70 percent of it was inspired by money; that 60 percent of it was rendered by impostors; and 50 percent of it was expendable. But wait. This is not so horrible. Remember, every era has its style. Money is not necessarily evil. People who make art don’t always have to be aesthetic, sensitive types. And yes indeed, 50 percent of most creativity is expendable. One has to eliminate things that are less than sublime.
Her criticisms jibe with Gary Indiana’s, whose art column ran at the same time in the Village Voice, although his method is more akin to blunt force trauma. Whereas Indiana is interested in art qua art, Mueller seizes it as an occasion to muse about travel and parties, media and drugs—all the accouterments of the self-respecting connoisseur.
What comes through in all of Mueller’s writing is her generous devotion to pleasure. Besides her appetite for booze and drugs, she found beauty in unlikely places, such as the Fell’s Point neighborhood of Baltimore, a low-rent district of “flophouses, soup kitchens, and bars.” But she wasn’t immune to the more familiar enchantments of nature, particularly in Provincetown. “There is a little hill right outside Provincetown where everything opens up big and wide, the sky, the bay, the sea, and the dunes,” she writes. “From this point you can see the end of the world, or at least the end of America, the very last tip of the Cape jutting into the Atlantic.” She shares this pleasure with readers, but also with her friends and her son. Mueller’s commitment to being a good mother and a loving wife are palpable. In 1986, she married the artist Vittorio Scarpati, whom she met while traveling in Italy. Those who knew the couple speculate that Mueller and Scarpati were both HIV-positive when they married. They shared a hospital room at Cabrini Medical Center in their final months. Scarpati died in September 1989; Mueller died that November.
Before she passed, she wrote an oft-quoted elegy, the final consolation from the disreputable Dr. Mueller:
Fortunately I am not the first person to tell you that you will never die. You simply lose your body. You will be the same except you won’t have to worry about rent or mortgages or fashionable clothes. You will be released from sexual obsessions. You will not have drug addictions. You will not need alcohol. You will not have to worry about cellulite or cigarettes or cancer or AIDS or venereal disease. You will be free.
Even as she lay dying, she thought to send word that death isn’t a disaster. It’s a gift, a release from the anxieties and cruelties that befall us all, a kind of merciful adventure into the infinite. Anyone unafraid of death has figured out a secret to life that the rest of us are still learning. That’s Mueller’s charisma, both on the page and off. When she died, her ashes were scattered on the beach near Provincetown; in the flowers of Greenwich Village; in the Scarpati family crypt in Italy; in Brazil; in the South Bronx; in the Ganges River—as if no one place could possibly contain her.