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Normal People

On Gary Indiana’s crime trilogy

In a curious document written on the occasion of Heidegger’s eightieth birthday, Hannah Arendt recalls the hushed tones in which admirers in the twenties had spoken of him as “the secret king of philosophy.” I have the sense that Gary Indiana occupies a similar position in American letters. Spoken aloud, his name is like a Masonic formula or one of those strange locutions Cosa Nostra members use to identify each other. He is not exactly a persona non grata—you might even get away with sneaking him into the canon or anti-canon as a pioneer of queer literature (the term deserves italics, since it used to refer disparagingly to men who fucked other men and now just perpetuates the idea that sexuality inevitably defines us while denoting nothing more than my sex life is weirder than mom and dad’s). For a time, he was comfortably categorizable: an inheritor, perhaps, of early Burroughs or John Rechy or Alexander Trocchi, or a “fixture,” as journalists like to say, among the writers and artists who congregated around Manhattan’s East Village in the 1980s. These are clichés, but amenable ones if you’re inclined to try and interpret the zeitgeist, and there must be some reason besides low rent and easy access to drugs that Kathy Acker, David Wojnarowicz, Cookie Mueller, Robert Mapplethorpe, and so many others were hanging around in the same place at the same time. Now, most of the downtown luminaries are dead; a few got rich—which in artistic terms is often the same thing—but, like his own apartment building, “an architectural pentimento” of grimmer days holding out against the metastatic luxury of condos, boutique hotels, fancy eateries, and NYU dorms, Gary Indiana is still there, developing the vivid ire and grit of his early works into a sulfurous dissection of the American character that has few if any rivals.

Indiana’s work is abundant and motley: there is video art, poetry, plays, a monograph on Andy Warhol, several years’ worth of art criticism for The Village Voice, a memoir, and of course, the novels. If one cared to assign all this an overarching theme—the exercise is dubious, but no less so than reviewing in general—it might be, put bluntly, bullshit. Concretely, bullshit in America: the way clichés from the media, pop culture, so-called high culture, and self-help books are grafted into conversation and seep into awareness, obstructing the possibility of an individual understanding of the world and oneself, and, in the process, perverting any human drives that might be called authentic, bending them in a direction consonant with that weird amalgamation of capitalism, rapacity, entitlement, egotism, and whininess that forms the marrow of what passes for moral awareness in much of the United States. The contempt inspiring this vision was well in evidence in such early dramatic works as The Roman Polanski Story, with its grotesque shifts from hyperbole to euphemism, all phrased in a kind of détourned Leave It to Beaver-ese that disarms any programmed sanctimoniousness the audience might bring to the appalling highlights of the director’s life:

What interested me was to treat the events that found their way into the play in a parallel way to the way the media treats everything. In other words, predigesting them and giving them a particular kind of flippancy. The most conspicuous examples were at the beginning with the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews and, later, the Manson Family. These events, no matter how tragic they are, have become the property of morally smug people who, because of the way these events are treated by the media, feel they know how to think about them.

Spoken aloud, Gary Indiana’s name is like a Masonic formula or one of those strange locutions Cosa Nostra members use to identify each other.

The protean individual who exploits the shallowness of popular conceptions of virtue is already a theme in Indiana’s debut novel Horse Crazy, the first-person chronicle of a semi-established writer in love with a waiter and wannabe artist who twists and coils his biography like a pipe cleaner to please whoever he needs something from at a given time. Its world of cultural figures and their epigones—their discourse speckled with intellectualoid fancies that conceal their primary interest in getting the best possible deal in abstruse exchanges of sex, money, and status—reveals a basic emotional poverty, or an impotence of the mind to address the emotions, above all in light of the HIV epidemic, which kills several of the novel’s secondary characters. It is a book about infatuation but also about honesty, about how little we really know about life in the face of death, and about the horribleness of what we do know (the ineluctable decay of “this big elastic bag of flesh you’ve carried around in total confidence for years and years”).

With 1993’s Gone Tomorrow, the pique and exasperation of Indiana’s earlier works compresses into diamantine scorn. The narrator, an actor who takes to magazine writing after a tumor on his cheek mars his good looks, recollects, over drinks and cocaine on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel, his participation in an avant-garde film in Cartagena. The city is “a recumbent, scar-pestered body whose breath was the soughing of the tide.” An erstwhile vamp has her “chunky hourglass figure . . . tortured into a white dress resembling a mutant Ace bandage.” Everything is quite simply horrible, and one of the few moments of unaffected mirth comes as the narrator flicks a cigarette from a balcony and imagines it landing in someone’s hair. Life as he knows it is proceeding without cease into “a gray, homogenized blankness,” the repellent futility of which finds its avatar in the piles of overpriced groceries that a man in mourning, on the verge of suicide, buys from a corner bodega:

I looked at all these packaged goods, all this shit, in one tiny store, in one little neighborhood, full of so much plastic and glass and cardboard you could pollute a whole country with it, and I thought, there are millions of these stores, millions of these cheeses in boxes and milk cartons and Styrofoam egg containers and millions of assholes shitting it all out, chewing it up, shitting it out, but of course you can’t keep this kind of idea in your head for very long.

In 1997, Indiana published Resentment, the first in a trilogy of crime novels that would include 1999’s Three Month Fever and 2002’s Depraved Indifference. Like his earlier fictions, they are romans à clef, drawing respectively on the cases of the Menéndez brothers, Andrew Cunanan, and Sante and Kenneth Kimes; and like those other novels, the roman here is far more interesting than the clef. The curious can dig up the models behind the venal psychologist Potter Phlegg or the fashionably lesbian Condé Nast editor Morgan Talbot (contrasted with a seedy journalist in her employ who “squandered the cash value of being a fag by being a public fag before it could do his career any good”), but that’s not the point. Theirs is a chatter we’ve heard before, whether we know their identity or not: an incessant, inane hum of contradictory commonplaces the truth-seeker is condemned to listen to for want of anything better, even as he recognizes their fundamental mendacity.

Of the three books, Resentment is the most radical in its resort to rampant hearsay, and its telescoping accounts of who said what to whom remind one of Thomas Bernhard’s The Lime Works amid the alternating chintz and glamor of Los Angeles:

The main outline of the Martinez case is undisputed by either side: one evening in August, 1989, Carlos and Felix Martinez, brothers twenty-one and eighteen years old respectively, shot and killed Fidel and Peggy Martinez, their mother and father, in the so-called rumpus room of their mansion on Woodrow Wilson Drive, blasting two rounds of birdshot and three rounds of buckshot into Fidel Martinez, eight rounds of buckshot and two rounds of birdshot into Peggy Martinez, though it is unclear how many of the shots were fired by Carlos Martinez and how many were fired by Felix Martinez.

And so on for several lines. Resentment gives the feel of channel surfing, not only for its quick cuts and its pastiche of talk show interviews and trial transcripts, but above all because it proffers judgments and hypotheses in the vacuous jargon of the self-appointed experts television endlessly promotes, which is in turn aped by those who feel themselves expert because they watch so much television. Initial speculations about the Martinez murders point to gangland killings or mob-connected killings, but the sons, too, raise suspicion with their wild spending spree and their extravagant show of grief. The opinions Indiana portrays are not reflective abstractions aiming toward truth but of a piece with a generalized depravity of which the killings at the center of the story are no more than an especially florid offshoot. The Martinez brothers’ motive is only addressed at a remove, in the gossipy musings of their acquaintances and the postulates of authorities brought to the witness stand; all of these accounts are disputable, and none of them are necessary. In the end, people are unscrupulous, and it is no surprise they do unscrupulous things.

Violent Delights

Three Month Fever was marketed as nonfiction in its original edition, which I bought as a dumb twenty-two-year-old and never bothered reading, mistaking it for the kind of true crime schlock Indiana says in the foreword he intended expressly not to write. Its subject, Andrew Cunanan, is known from a whole shelf’s worth of books and now, dismally, a season of American Crime Story, as The Man Who Killed Gianni Versace. Maureen Orth, whose Vulgar Favors is the inspiration for the Ryan Murphy TV series, set the tone for the cubic tons of ink spilt picking Cunanan apart in a 1997 article in Vanity Fair, where she asserted that with the Versace murder, “he reached an exclusive pinnacle that provided him with the celebrity he had always sought: he became America’s most wanted fugitive.” Indiana is bemused by this explanation, first because Cunanan’s only real stated ambition prior to his killing spree had been to become “an art historian, possibly a museum curator, something within that tweedy range of opportunity,” and second because of its breezy way of misprizing the four non-personages he murdered two months before targeting Versace. It is not so much the killing itself as the coverage devoted to it that is symptomatic of “a society where only media celebrities are considered to have actual existence.”

When Ted Bundy was asked what kind of person could have committed his crimes, he replied:

You go to the mouth of any great river and pull out a handful of water that’s flowing from it and say, where did it come from? To trace it back, okay? And this is what we’re dealing with here—We’re talking about microscopic events as it were, and undistinguishable, undetectable events. The melting of a single snowflake as it were, okay? The advent of spring and the combination of other forces perhaps and the ultimate result that we appreciate which is the river itself.

All of these accounts are disputable, and none of them are necessary. In the end, people are unscrupulous, and it is no surprise they do unscrupulous things.

Indiana scrapes together as many of these microscopic events as he can document. Immense credulity or a second helping of suppositions are necessary to construe them into a criminal profile. Cunanan was the fourth child of a Filipino American Vietnam vet and a Sicilian American mother from western New York state who resided in “an affordable condo in the not-so-great part of Rancho Bernardo.” He was intelligent, a voracious reader, and apparently fawned over by his mother. One of the less wealthy students at the private Bishop’s School he attended, Cunanan came out of the closet early and somewhat flamboyantly. He developed a habit of spewing self-enhancing exaggerations and outright fabrications as well as splurging on fancy meals for himself and friends, paying with a credit card given him by his father. He told people his name was DeSilva and claimed his father was a parking lot mogul, or that he was born in Israel, or that he and his family had lived for several years in the south of France. It is true he exhibited a damaged or underdeveloped capacity for relating to others—that what came naturally in a genuine connection between two people was for him something to be studied, copied, and practiced but rarely felt—but how unusual is this, really? Cunanan memorized details of people’s lives, quizzed others about them, bought or stole uncannily apt gifts for them, things just a touch too sumptuous, and he molded his image to fit the perceived predilections of potential friends, status enhancers, objects of desire, or prey—the difference is often unclear, in his case and everyone else’s. This reminds one less of Norman Bates than of something you might read in an advice book for small business owners or would-be entrepreneurs.

For that matter, murder itself can hardly be described as abnormal in American society. Real shootings and stabbings may demand perfunctory shows of outrage, but violence itself is choice entertainment, not just in films, series, and music but also in obsessive news coverage that scratches an itch very close to the one soothed by pornography (whatever one makes of the work of Peter Sotos, he was right to tear the respectable pretext of staying informed away from people’s lubricious fascination with the finer hideous details of child molestation and murder). In 1999, in the halcyon days before 3 Guys 1 Hammer or, it was already estimated that the average American would witness sixteen thousand televised murders and two hundred thousand acts of violence by age eighteen. There’s no need to hand-wring about the baleful effects of media to recognize that violence saturation in American life facilitates its normalization, particularly as whatever might sway one against it—the psychological effects on its perpetrators and victims or the stupefying effects of gun-wielding hero worship on the broader society—make for unfortunately bad TV.

Honest Graft

The mistakes the delinquent makes, I believe Indiana suggests, are of degree rather than of kind. The scandals at the center of the crime trilogy float on a sea of iniquity that forms the habitat of these people who “skidded off the Monopoly board into the darker regions of the golden dream”: crooked attorneys, fame-seeking psychiatrists, private eyes, junkies, losers of all stripes. The comforting myth of the sociopath-as-other gets short shrift here: “One could usefully argue that many of American society’s most admired figures, its so-called role models, from CEOs to movie stars . . . could easily qualify as sociopaths, the culture of narcissism having segued some years ago into the culture of total-self-aggrandizement-by-whatever-means-present-themselves.” What Indiana portrays in place of this myth is a kind of pathological integument binding together nodes of “normalcy,” where the deficits and obsessions characteristic of the criminal appear in an acceptable guise—acceptable meaning, in the milieus he describes, harmless to pre-existing mechanisms of exploitation and profit.

The lawbreaker-as-failed-capitalist is particularly salient in the most recent of the three books, Depraved Indifference. Money has its part in the killings depicted in the earlier volumes—the Martinez brothers, after shooting their parents, blow money on Rolexes, a Porsche, limousine rides, and plane tickets; Andrew Cunanan starts killing when his earnings as a kept boy run out and the prospect of a low-wage life with a single, mundane identity proves insupportable. But in both cases, there is a lack of sustained calculation and even a sort of naivety that contrast with the long-con wheedling of Evelyn Slote and her hapless son Devin (Mommy and Clyde, as the papers called their real-life counterparts), who murder, in relatively short order, a lawyer, an insurance-claims inspector, a bank auditor in Nassau, and Baby Claymore—a rich widow, former bit actress, and owner of a townhouse carved into apartments that will be the Slotes’ last civilian residence. Evelyn—Evangeline Annamapu Thurlow Slater Carson, along with a dozen other aliases—has committed numerous petty and even grand larcenies before the novel begins but has for various reasons eluded prolonged incarceration. Her husband, a millionaire motel owner and dawdling sybarite, permits her legal access to the jewels and furs she feels she merits, but wealth only drives her to more elaborate, often perplexing trespasses—the most heinous being her enslavement of a series of Mexican maids she could just as well have paid. (One of the curious and elucidating motifs of media portraits of Sante Kimes is the claim that her husband’s wealth meant her crimes were “unnecessary,” as though a slightly lower account balance might have made them comprehensible.)

What is fascinating, if at times baffling, in Depraved Indifference are the complex financial arrangements of the wealthy, the murky amorality of which eases the transition from licit to dubious to unprincipled and vile. Evelyn’s husband, Warren, apart from his properties, keeps money in an offshore account in the Caymans thanks to his connections with a licentious Saudi sheik; together, he and Evelyn sign over their assets to a series of cutouts to avoid paying penalties in a civil litigation suit. They file insurance claims for fake burglaries and damages from fires they set themselves; they even cook up a scam for America’s Bicentennial that gets them briefly into the White House, with the justification, “it’s a country full of morons, we really owe it to ourselves to make some money off them.”

Violence itself is choice entertainment, not just in films, series, and music, but also in obsessive news coverage that scratches an itch very close to the one soothed by pornography.

Warren acts as a brake on Evelyn’s “furtive, bottomless indifference to the existence of other people.” He indulges her devious caprices so long as there is a “loophole of deniability built into it for [him].” His apathy and disavowals, his willingness to lay blame for his wife’s actions on the supposed voices she hears, do not extend however to assuring her a share in his estate, and when he slumps dead over the steering wheel of his luxury car, she and Devin find themselves looking at destitution. They travel from California to the Bahamas to Manhattan, paying their way with cash from a mortgage taken out in the name of a man they have killed in the interim. Their goal is to rent an apartment in Baby Claymore’s Upper East Side townhouse, forge a deed transfer, take out a loan against the property in the name of a Toronto-based shell company, and abscond to Canada with the money. Their error lies in conspiring with a man endowed with “aptitude but no push in any remunerative direction,” Wilbur Sumac, who collaborates with the police after the ATF arrests him for an illegal gun sale. Evelyn calls him to New York with an offer to manage an apartment building she’s just purchased; suspecting she’s more likely to kill him, he leads the police to her and her son after a bottle of “Château du Nord or Château de Neuf” at the Warwick Hotel. The book ends with Evelyn decrying her victimization in “the biggest frame-up . . . in the history of this country” on—where else?—an episode of Larry King Live.

In a profoundly outré but very suggestive 1935 essay on mimesis and entomology, Roger Caillois coined the term “teleplasty” to suggest the way bodily forms might migrate across space. Indiana invoked this same notion several decades later in one of his Village Voice columns, concluding that “some mimetic creatures fool their own kind well enough to eat each other.” His three crime novels are an exhaustive consideration of such creatures, and they show the monstrous side of the American ideal of the self-made man: what we might call the self-making man, stripped of any abiding attributes, shedding his skin at will to suit his surroundings. The traits he appropriates are pulled prêt-à-porter from the utopian pornography of mass media, with its perfunctory and hence readily imitable models of success, sophistication, intelligence. He is a response to a peculiar condition of our era: the hardly realizable sense of possibility that capitalism gives rise to as it multiplies the quantity and luxuriousness of its temptations. All the things one might own, all the fun one might have, are a spur and an affront to the pure egotistical potency that is the only thing left when generosity and compassion are either absent or burned away, as they easily may be in a culture where “winning” is the ne plus ultra.

The inner emptiness of Indiana’s protagonists is a minor form of deviance, a necessary but insufficient condition for their gaudy criminality; of no less importance is the cultural medium that induces greed while proscribing their particular ways of getting what they want. We reject such characters by conjuring up fictions of an unbridgeable ethical divide between “them” and “us.” In doing so, we ignore the hosts of statesmen, security consultants, and fixers the United States has happily promoted and protected. When we recall the ease with which these figures accede to power and the difficulty of ever bringing them to justice—I am thinking of the Dulles Brothers, of Henry Kissinger, but the list is nearly endless—it is hard not to conclude that sociopaths who fall flat or get reeled in by the law have simply failed to find their niche.