Sitting to the right of my keyboard as I write are a book and a magazine. The book, purchased for ten cents at the (Salinas, California) John Steinbeck (public) Library’s discard shelf, is a dog-eared copy of the very first of the fifty or so books about Thomas Pynchon, written by Joseph W. Slade and published as the last of Warner Paperback Library’s “Writers for the Seventies” series in December 1974. The cover shows a bearded man’s head, photographed from the back. In a Nineties reissue of the book, Slade informed the reader that the head was his own, not Pynchon’s; the publisher, apparently, thought that the most recent photo of Pynchon then known to exist, from his 1953 Cornell University student register, wouldn’t quite cut it. The blurb page asks who, exactly, is “this shadowy, enigmatic figure who refuses to be interviewed or photographed … ?”
I put the book aside and open the November 11, 1996 issue of New York, to page 61. Therein is reproduced a photo of a man, seen from the back, walking down a street in the West Seventies of Manhattan, his small son by his side. The man carries a canvas totebag strapped across one shoulder, wears an oilcloth jacket, and sports a hat similar to the one Don Novello wears in his Father Guido Sarducci persona. The long gray hair curling over the collar of the jacket reinforces the Sarducci resemblance. The caption informs us that this man is Thomas Pynchon. The text of the article goes on to confirm what has already become common knowledge among the Pynchon cultists: that the man, for about all of this decade, has lived much the same life in Manhattan as any moderately successful, Macarthur-winning writer—going to dinner parties, chatting with Susan Sontag, lunching with Don De Lillo, going to the Hamptons or Westchester County every now and then. At article’s end, when Steve Erickson informs Cups magazine that Pynchon is mulling the idea of a signing tour to promote his new novel Mason & Dixon, the “news” is thoroughly anticlimactic. A literary agent, more on the ball than most of his kind, notes: “The people who are into Pynchon wouldn’t want to see him in person.” Indeed, when one opens Details and finds that Jessica Kaplan—the precocious seventeen-year-old who is Michael Stipe’s favorite screenwriter and Oliver Stone’s new favorite director (before she’s even directed yet)—believes that one’s pal Francesca Lia Block is “the first writer since Pynchon to remake the language,” one is startled to find that any teenager, most likely to have encountered Pynchon through Vineland, or maybe his liner notes to Lotion’s Nobody’s Cool, could want to investigate him further. Sure, when I was Jessica’s age, back when Slade’s book came out, I thought Pynchon was God. But he had not written the liner notes to, say, Left End’s Spoiled Rotten.
At this point, the only thing Pynchon could do that would raise an eyebrow is get resolutely downmarket—like (assuming he does follow through on what he said to Erickson) limiting his book signings to Super Crown stores only. Forget the suggestion of a publicist in the New York article that he do bookchat on 60 Minutes, 20/20, Fresh Air—it would have to be what he could get from the Big Five.
Let’s start with the man who beat Letterman with the Dancing Itos:
Pynchon:. . . Now, back when I still lived in California, in Aptos up by Santa Cruz, I had this 1963 Buick Skylark—this would have been around 1978—and the way I’d keep sand from blowing under the hood and getting into the air filter was to coat the filter with mink oil a little. No friction at all—the sand would slide right off.
Jay: Really? Somebody told me Mazola did the trick, but I dunno. Now, you’ve just written this book here, Mason & Dixon, and man, this is a big one! A regular doorstop. How long is it?
Pynchon: Um, about 700 pages.
Jay: Really? What’s it about?
Pynchon: Well, it’s about the guys who laid out the Mason and Dixon line that divides the North and South.
Jay: So it’s about the Civil War, like Gone With The Wind.
Liv Tyler: Wasn’t Gone With The Wind a book as well as a movie?
Pynchon: I think so.
Liv: It was like, they put out a book with the movie, based on the script. It was, like, a novelization. My mom used to have it when I was a kid.
Pynchon: Well, I think that—
Jay: Back to your book, Tom. Now, does Lincoln show up in this? Lincoln was some President, eh, folks? No Big Macs for him …
Now, to the Hoosier himself:
Dave: I’m telling you, Tom, this is some book! Look at this thing, Paul. How big did you say this was, Tom?
Pynchon: About 700 pages.
Dave: That’s a lot of pages, Tom. It’s more like a beach read. Any reason for putting it out right now, in March?
Pynchon: Beach read—how do you mean—
David Spade: Irony, Tom, it’s a concept—over and above, get my drift?
Pynchon: Well, I—
Dave: Not to change the subject here, but weren’t you on “The John Laroquette Show” awhile back, Tom?
Pynchon: Not exactly, I was the subject of—
Dave, in his version of a Cajun accent: Ah’m aw Weezeeawnuh Maahn!
A stopover with a Harvard man:
Conan: Now, Tom, you were around back in the Sixties. The Sixties were something else, weren’t they?
Pynchon: They sure were.
Conan: One of my writers told me he heard you used to date Joan Baez back then.
Pynchon: I’d rather not talk about—
Conan: I dunno, Tom. She looked OK with that long hair back then, but after she cut it short and kind of let it go gray, she really started looking sexy to me. I don’t know—it might be the Irish in me—
Andy: I used to be Chinese, myself.
Conan: Oh, Andy, you’re such a kidder.
Tori Spelling: Joan Baez—wasn’t she a singer like Pat Benatar? I want to play Pat Benatar in, like, a made-for-TV movie. She had a really dramatic life.
Pynchon: Pat Benatar, I believe, named an album—
Conan: Speaking of albums, Tom, didn’t you write the liner notes to Lotion’s last one? We had Lotion on our show. Great guys.
Andy: I had them for breakfast. They were very good with blueberry syrup.
Conan: Oh, Andy …
Well, let’s just skip Tom (as in Snyder) and Larry. Not to be skipped, of course, would be Pynchon’s spot on another show:
Pynchon: … no friction at all—the sand would slide right off.
RuPaul: Well, Tom, when I was selling Porsches down in Atlanta, I heard from people who took them down to Myrtle Beach that Brylcreem on the filter was really what would keep the sand out.
Bill: I hate to interrupt, guys, but this show is about politics, not cars. Big topic tonight: Tabitha is getting hitched to that hunky neoliberal Michael Lewis. Your take, Jenny?
Jenny McCarthy: Well excuuuuse me (grimaces) but I think (grimace, jiggle) that Tabitha’s dude (sneers) is no hunk (grimace). He’s got flab, flab, flab (sneer, jiggle).
James Carville: Ah’m a Luzianne Maan!
RuPaul: I’m curious, Bill. Usually the panel here consists of two people in politics and two people from other areas. Tonight we seem to have just one politician.
Bill: No, we have two. Tom here founded the SDS, right?
Pynchon: Um, not exactly….
But the point of all this is simply that Thomas Pynchon long since has ceased to be an underground man in the world of American letters. He is part of the mainstream. This article concerns a man who, if still alive, is genuinely “out there.”
To the left of my keyboard is a book I bought for a quarter from the same discard shelf: Shake It For the World, Smartass by Seymour Krim. Krim, of course, was the man who functioned as an intermediary between the mainstream literary world and the Beats—that is, when he wasn’t grappling with his bipolar illness (as described in his essay “The Insanity Bit”). This book was the follow-up to his “underground classic” Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer. Krim killed himself in 1989 and a book of his selected essays, put together by James Wolcott, was issued later.
Kapelner (too little known) is seasoned, unique, resourceful, and beautifully cocky toward existence.
After buying it, I went home and looked through the chapters at random. The book consisted of looks at Krim’s usual mix of subjects: profiles of Dave McReynolds (of the War Resisters’ League) and Jan Cremer, both names very big in the Sixties and half-forgotten now; reviews, sometimes expanded from their original publication, of books by Nelson Algren, Leslie Fiedler, Paul Goodman. (It’s worth reflecting on the changes of fortune. In 1970 Fiedler and Goodman were very big names, while Algren was a half-forgotten relic. Now, for nearly a decade, Algren has been an “in” writer. When a copy of Growing Up Absurd was found in Ted Kaczynski’s cabin, it made me think of Goodman for the first time in years. Today Fiedler’s name means about as much to readers under forty as that of John Jay Chapman, Karl Shapiro, or Orville Prescott.)
With one exception, I had encountered every name mentioned in the book. The exception, it turned out, was the subject of a chapter in itself: “I Talk To Alan Kapelner.” The chapter was Krim’s interview with the writer, dated 1967. The acknowledgments page did not list this chapter as having previously appeared in a magazine, as was the case with most of the book’s contents. I can only presume that Krim intended to place the article with a magazine and was unable to do so. Nonetheless, it was clear, from the prefatory statements, that he regarded Kapelner as important:
“Both men [James Jones and Norman Mailer] along with Alan Kapelner of our mutual generation (and James T. Farrell of the older one) have by their almost unconscious behavior taught me root-truths about the boldness necessary for being an American writer of consequence. I have learned from everyone, but I hold these four special…. Kapelner (too little known) is seasoned, unique, resourceful, beautifully cocky toward existence and humble to individuals he respects, a writer lying in wait for readers, practically undiscovered in the overpopulated wilderness of the U.S. 60s.”
If one is familiar with the comparative rank accorded Jones, Mailer, and Farrell in 1970, one will realize that Krim was putting this Alan Kapelner in heavy company. Jones, though now remembered chiefly for having made it possible for Sinatra to win an Oscar, would then have appeared on many short-lists of the American writers most likely to win a Nobel. The same thing would have applied to Farrell, who had been a considerable influence on Mailer, Jones, and many other writers of the Depression and World War II generations. Mailer, of course, was the overwhelming favorite to win the Nobel, rather than Saul Bellow; Toni Morrison was some months away from publishing her first book when Krim was writing his words.
Several things of interest emerged at once:
1. Krim clearly regarded Kapelner as a sort of precursor to the Beat Generation, or, at least, a fellow-traveler in the mold of Chandler Brossard. Kapelner did not so see himself, calmly dodging each opening Krim gave him in that area. He was not interested in belonging to a literary school.
2. Kapelner paraphrases Dan Wakefield, author of a number of well-reviewed novels in the Sixties and Seventies, as saying, “Gee, you did it so long ago, and now people are getting on that sort of thing without even knowing of [Kapelner’s first novel] Lonely Boy Blues.” Later on, I looked through Wakefield’s memoirs of life in the Village in the Fifties and Sixties, published around 1989; Alan Kapelner’s name does not appear. Nor does it appear in similar books by Samuel Delany, Ron Sukenick, the late Anatole Broyard, or any other chronicler of the period, except one other book of Krim’s: his posthumous anthology, where Kapelner is mentioned once as having been a neighbor of Peter La Farge’s—a folksinger who was a close friend of Dylan’s until his suicide. “That sort of thing,” in the context of the interview, refers to Kapelner’s book having been the prototype of a thousand subsequent chronicles of children caught in suffocating relationships with their parents—from Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses to Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint to, moving further a field, A Confederacy of Dunces. None of these writers, though, show any familiarity with Kapelner’s work.
3. Kapelner’s aforementioned first novel had been published in 1944 by Scribners under the auspices of Maxwell Perkins, still by common consensus the greatest editor of literary fiction in American history, the man who molded Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe into touchstones of the written word. Also, at one point in the interview Kapelner brushes aside a comparison Krim was making with Louis-Ferdinand Celine by saying, “Of course, being a Jew, I dislike Celine on other levels.” Until reading this, I thought that Henry Roth, who started the follow-up to Call It Sleep under Perkins’s supervision and then abandoned it, was the only Jewish-American novelist to work with Perkins—but this Kapelner had finished and published his book. It should be noted, however, that no major or minor characters in Kapelner’s published work is identified as Jewish.
I resolved to look up the entries in Book Review Digest for Kapelner’s two novels. The review-snippets I read were intriguing, to say the least. Concerning Lonely Boy Blues, I found:
Mr. Kapelner’s effort to tell this in “the beat of the blues” leads him into all sorts of strange mannerisms…. Despite the use of these devices, Lonely Boy Blues bears a strong resemblance to what used to be called proletarian novels.
—Herbert Kupferberg [Tuli’s brother] in Weekly Book Review.
What Kupferberg meant by “strange mannerisms” was more fully explained in Saturday Review’s notice. There N. L. Rothman wrote that the book used verbal experimentation of the type last seen in transition, the quintessential “revolution of the word” journal, while dealing with themes reminiscent of Farrell and William Saroyan.
The excerpt of reviews of Kapelner’s second novel and only other book, All The Naked Heroes, published by Braziller in 1960, were even more interesting. Maxwell Geismar, Nelson Algren’s leading champion among the American critics of the period, had this to say in the New York Herald Tribune book section:
A novel of the 30s, acrid, angry, desperate—sometimes sentimental—but also full of a folk humor and folk wisdom that we have not had in our literature for quite a while. It is a kind of prose-poem of the decade more than a strict novel: a panorama of the period in the bitter brilliant tone of the early Dos Passos. It casts a hard and scornful light on the social criticism of such recent writers as Norman Mailer, and it makes the beatniks look like the disturbed and mystic children that they are. Perhaps the only real comparison with Mr. Kapelner’s chronicle, and the only recent rival it has had, is Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side. . . . This novel indeed, coming so late in time as it does, forms a curious link between the “art novels” of the 20s and the “beat novels” of the 50s.
Other reviewers were not so enthusiastic. David Dempsey, in the New York Times Book Review, remarked: “This book appears to the reader as a sort of double-glazed plateglass window…. The experiment (if such it is) is not entirely successful. Mr. Kapelner’s style has what is usually called ‘vitality,’ in this case, the vitality of a pneumatic drill tearing up Third Avenue.” Kirkus Reviews called it “desperately earnest but pathetically inept,” and asserted: “The most disturbing and unforgivable element in this first [sic] novel is the fact that although the setting is supposedly the thirties in America the situations and characters belong to the Beat Generation.”
Though I have talked with a man who saw him as recently as 1990, Kapelner has published nothing since a short story appeared in 1970. The only photo of him I have seen, on the jacket of his second book, shows a man who appears to be in his early forties, with narrowed eyes and stern mouth who resembles nothing so much as a tanned, macho version of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. An early volume of Contemporary Authors that carries an entry for Kapelner gives no birthdate or birthplace, stating: “Kapelner explains his missing personal data with these words: ‘The work of a writer is enough for inclusion.’” But the 1955 anthology New Voices 2 includes a contributor’s note that is slightly more forthcoming. It states that Kapelner was “born in Brooklyn, where he attended P.S. 164 and Erasmus Hall High School, afterwards taking courses at the New School.” A 1984 Manhattan phone book gives an address and phone number for an Alan Kapelner; there is no such listing in the current phone book. When I called the number I got a modem tone, and am inclined to think the number belongs to someone else.
This was extremely unfashionable stuff in 1944.
It is plain from the variety of stylistic influences in Lonely Boy Blues, however, that Kapelner had read widely in modern American fiction before he started writing. Music was an even greater influence. The title Lonely Boy Blues is taken from a 1942 record by Jay McShann’s Kansas City jazz band that featured one of Charlie Parker’s earliest recorded solos, and Kapelner was quoted, in his 1944 biographical writeup in the New York Times Book Review, as saying that he had written the book with jazz and boogie-woogie records playing nonstop, seeking to capture their rhythm in his text. It is remarkable how close Kapelner came, in some of this novel’s passages, to devising his own version of “spontaneous bop prosody” nearly a decade before Kerouac wrote On The Road.
What is really startling is to find Maxwell Perkins, who steered Thomas Wolfe and Fitzgerald away from heavy experimentation, not only accepting a book like this but seeing it through the press in the fall of 1944, at a time when paper shortages were most pronounced and only the most surefire sellers were seeing print. The third paragraph of Lonely Boy Blues gives an idea of how starkly it contrasted with the Kathleen Winsor historical romances and Ernie Pyle war journalism of the day:
Now let’s get this straight:
The flesh spins to the skull, and discharging in the skull lives the brain, jackpot brain, passport to a future, mardi-gras destiny drowning in confetti and wine. The future belongs to you, you are the future. Very elementary, my dear brain. Paste yourself to the bandwagon. Be the spoke in the wheel, you bitter American Dream brain, brain most likely not to succeed as a spoke, brain not knowing where it’s going, but it’s going. Oh, it’s a good brain as far as good brains go, but as far as good brains go it went.
The first chapter in the book is related in the first person by a protagonist whose name we learn later is Chesty Anderson. He is walking around Times Square, ruminating to himself about the bums, the food, and his own vitality in a manner that seems to be borrowed from John Fante’s Ask The Dust—now renowned as the book that inspired Charles Bukowski, but at the time a novel that had gotten lost in the shuffle. Or Kapelner may have gone straight to Knut Hamsun, from whom Fante learned the approach. Either way, the protagonist spots a prostitute whom he christens Kathleen in his mind. But before he can do anything she picks up an old man and steps into a hotel. Chesty returns to his home in Brooklyn and falls asleep. In the second chapter, he dreams of being married to the phantom Kathleen, of killing her, and of witnessing her resurrection and return. Following this short Joycean fantasia the book is written more or less in the third person.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are told from the points of view of Chesty’s sister Mabel, brothers Joe and Skinny, and father Harry, respectively. There is also a mother, whose name is never given. Chesty and Mabel are grown, but since there’s a war on they still live at home. Joe seems to be just short of thirteen, and Skinny is a teenager. Mabel has a boyfriend in the service. Harry is working in a war plant. Chesty, whose physical prowess is stressed, is waiting to be drafted.
It soon becomes clear that the atmosphere of the Anderson home is not only physically stifling (the three brothers share one bed), but spiritually so. “Mrs. Anderson” (as she is called in most of the book) is obsessed with keeping Mabel out of “trouble” before her soldier beau, in whom the daughter has already lost interest, comes home. Harry Anderson is deeply suspicious of the intellect and deeply admires anything involving physical bravado. He treats the thin, sickly, introspective Skinny contemptuously, encourages Joe to swagger (one entertaining chapter features Joe harassing the owner of a pool hall), and tolerates Chesty’s interest in reading because the boy is so damn big and strong that he’s sure to be a success in the Army.
Besides reading, Chesty is also interested in writing; in Chapter 6, the narrative comes to a halt while he reads a 37-line poem to his uncomprehending friends. If Lonely Boy Blues had come out fifteen years later, the poem would have been a perfect parody of high Beat coffeehouse fare, with clever Corsoesque echoes. But since it appears in a book published a few months before the Battle of the Bulge, it only makes sense as a pastiche of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Patchen:
a yellow horn
the smoky room
the pale girls
the pale girls.
This was extremely unfashionable stuff in 1944, when Karl Shapiro and Robert Lowell were winning acclaim for bringing rhyme and meter back to poetry, and this may explain why Kapelner became a novelist rather than a poet—not that he made any special effort to accommodate literary fashions with this book or its successor.
Chesty’s attitude toward the war wavers between revulsion at having to be a part of it and simple resignation to the fact that being in it is something that he has to do. In this respect, the book reflects the views of many intelligent Americans of the period, and goes some way toward explaining the attitudes that emerged, inchoate, during the war and subsequently found their articulation in Existentialist philosophy. Nonetheless, the family drama is what counts in this book. Mabel finds a job in Washington, moves there, and is soon involved in an affair with a married bureaucrat. Her mother, receiving no letters, goes down to spend a weekend with her, and promptly dies in her sleep while next to her daughter in bed. Waking up, Mabel expresses not sorrow but only anger at the way her mother’s demise is interfering with her liaison.
Meanwhile, Chesty is finally called up. He frets, gets drunk, gives the frail Skinny a pep talk, and goes to Manhattan for induction. But Chesty’s physique proves a fraud; he has a heart murmur and is classified 4-F. He goes home and breaks the news to his father. The old man, it turns out, has just received a beating from some strangers in a bar, shattering his own notions of being a strongman. Hearing this news, Harry goes into a reverie where the whole story of his life flashes before his eyes. Kapelner thus makes rather obviously the point he summarizes when talking about the novel to Seymour Krim: the book is about “the failed men and women, greedy, hungering to resurrect themselves in their children. To relive their lives in their children, never realizing they’re destroying their children.” Harry Anderson drives it home by attacking his 4-F son, heart murmur and all. The last paragraph of the novel does not make it clear whether Chesty is actually dying of shock at the assault, but is worth quoting in its entirety:
But the helpless terror and the bewildered terror smothered the cry, and he looked at his brothers and their eyes were open to witness his terror and the old man’s fists, and he saw the tears in Skinny’s eyes, and he wanted to hold him very close and tell him how he felt so very close to him, and he looked at Joe and Joe was grinning and glowing, and he looked up at the old man and saw the face of an old beast, and he was captured by some hungry appetite to inspect the livid welts that coughed from his body and face, but the drive of the saturating fists strained his senses, and he collapsed into an endless pit of exhaustion, and the room became a frenzied whirlpool, and he was being sucked into the whirlpool, and everything went around and down like a ball rolling around and down and down a hill, down, down, around and down, the ball rolled and rolled down, down, around and down, and down the hill, and the pain in his body stopped screaming, and the canopy of the soaking blows that came like the precise rhythm of a fugue were incapable of penetrating the blankness, the catacombs of his mind. No, not anymore.
It’s obvious why Perkins was willing to fight wartime shortages to get the book published. Kapelner is employing Steinian repetition and Joycean onomatopoeia with no small skill here, and with far greater control, stylistically speaking, than he would in his second novel. The double meaning of “fugue”—Chesty may or may not be in just that psychiatric state—is utilized superbly. There are several other passages in the book that are nearly as well-done.
Kapelner’s more obvious verbal pyrotechnics—lines from nearly a hundred popular songs are woven through a book that runs 127 pages in its paperback edition, none of which are encumbered by quotation marks—conceal the full extent to which he echoes earlier books. It was not until I transcribed the above paragraph, for instance, that I realized that the three Anderson brothers are patterned after the Brothers Karamazov.
Lonely Boy Blues was the most thoroughgoingly experimental book edited by Max Perkins (mysteriously, Kapelner is not mentioned in A. Scott Berg’s otherwise definitive biography of the editor). It was a fine beginning for a writer still in his early twenties. Anthony Quinn later purchased the motion picture rights to the novel, and in 1956 it was issued in paperback by Jim Bryans at Lion Books (which issued most of Jim Thompson’s best books). But it never generated much in the way of sales. “After Blues,” Kapelner told Krim, “I didn’t know what to do with my time. I screwed around a lot, I wasted a lot of years…. I first came down to the Village then, I didn’t know what life was like, I wanted to see paintings.”
He goes on to say that his second novel, All The Naked Heroes, was initially called Strangers In The Midnight World. “And a lot of publishers told me to put it away. It was during the McCarthy period. Random House … Little Brown put it away. I got a lot of letters, and always specifically, ‘This is not the time for a book of this kind.’ … So I read the book … and I said it’s a lousy book. I thought I’d write this entire book over again from beginning to end…. And I got used to a sense of language which never occurred to me before. Certain sounds of words, rhythms, feelings for words. It could be one of the debits of All The Naked Heroes, the romance with words.”
While Kapelner’s first book echoed The Brothers Karamazov, All the Naked Heroes nearly echoes the Gilgamesh epic, and has a similarly elemental feel. Ripley (Rip for short) and Paul Gomery are brothers in Manhattan. It begins, quite specifically, on August 12, 1938. The Munich Crisis is weeks away and war talk is in the air. Rip is disturbed by the prospect of the oncoming war. Paul is more than disturbed; he can think of nothing else. Four days before, their mother Anita has died, leaving a letter to them and their father, Steve:
Due to the fact that you, my husband, Steven Gomery, consciously brought me cruelties and cruelties during the last five sick years of my life, I, your wife, Anita Gomery, sane in mind, leave to you the sum of $2 on the following conditions: that you use $1 of the sum to buy yourself a last meal, and the remaining $1 to buy a rope to hang yourself. To my sons, Paul and Ripley, I, Anita Gomery, leave the total sum of my savings, $697. May they live a kind, kind, kind life.
The father promptly disappears, and the brothers live for a while on the money (Paul has a job at a department store then gets himself fired) until it runs out. At this point, it becomes clear that Anita’s last will and testament is more than merely a flip sendoff for the book’s plot. The war and those responsible for creating it—Hitler, the Japanese militarists already slaughtering in China, the arms dealers and financiers who think a little conflict now and then a fine thing—are the threats to Rip and Paul’s future. By vanishing, their father simultaneously fails to protect them against these predators, and joins the predators, a bit like Chesty Anderson’s father did at the end of Kapelner’s first book. Their mother leaves them with, essentially, the new Testament injunction to “resist ye not evil,” so beloved of Tolstoy. The story of the book is how one brother resists not evil (less because of Christian charity than because of simple despair) and the other brother decides, finally, that engagement is preferable to distance.
At first it looks like Paul may have the better prospect of surviving, thanks to an episode that shows that Kapelner is not aiming for plausibility to make his point. Scanning a newspaper, Paul sees an ad asking one Billy Hathaway or anyone knowing his whereabouts to call Mary Hathaway. (The use of the maiden name of Shakespeare’s wife is probably intentional, given what happens later.) He phones. It turns out that Mary is a woman his own age, and Billy is her missing younger brother. When he tells her he just wants to talk, she hangs up. He calls again, and launches into a “sensitive” speech which causes her to agree to a date. Not too plausible, of course, but as it turns out she has to be brought into the story, so Paul can embark on a love affair and the brothers can have something to fight about and part ways over.
Before too long the paths of the brothers have diverged. Paul falls in with a marijuana dealer and his circle of hopheads and becomes the kept man of a wealthy hausfrau. After he recovers his self-respect she ditches him. Before long he is on skid row, his journey to a final gin-sodden jump into the Hudson interrupted only when, in a highly effective chapter, he spots his father on the street, trails him to a hotel, then, without the nerve to directly confront him, calls the old man from a phone booth and alternately tries and refuses to establish communication despite what is either a bad connection or his father’s refusal to admit the caller is known to him, or both.
Meanwhile, Rip decides to see America the boxcar way in the days before the onset of war. The scenes described in his journey range from acid in the manner of early Nelson Algren, to whimsical in the style of Saroyan, to a mixture of both, as in a scene where a “mouse-bodied girl” offers to cut off one of her ears and sell it to him.
The single most obvious stylistic hallmark of All The Naked Heroes is the constant use of nouns as verbs, in a style less grating on the ear than the early press conferences of Alexander Haig during his brief tenure as Secretary of State, but nonetheless obtrusive, and generally employed in an alliterative fashion that may or may not derive from Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon epics. “Bare-breasted girls beefed on the block,” for instance. Or a turkey being “ovened,” or potatoes “brown-sugared.” Or men who “wolf-job” baked beans. Two or three similar examples may be found on almost every page (This mannerism also appears, much less frequently, in Lonely Boy Blues):
[Rip] huckstered Eskimo Pies in a Bristol burlesque for room-money. Top banana: Bango Yancey, deathcell’d in a nightmare of un climbed ladders to fame. Strip queen. Juicy ‘Love Me’ Janel, camouflaged lesbian, hater of her birth and body and thirty years of busty fruits. Watched Bango and ‘Love Me’ feed raw jokes and breasts and belly to a fever-glutted audience. Saw eyes fry and blur and breaths hiss and lips puff and legs wag and hands race into pockets. Smelled the smell of wet conquests.
The apostrophe on “deathcell’d” tips the reader off to what Kapelner is really up to here. Rip’s saga is really a late-depression version of Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days. And it comes as no surprise that this process of “finding” America is dispositive in making Rip’s destiny different from Paul’s.
Paul, in Manhattan, falls into what was then the tight subculture of pot smokers. (It is doubtful that any but the hippest critics noted that Kapelner employed drug slang of a mid-to-late Forties vintage in these chapters, rather than terms common when he was writing. The interesting thing is that the context in which it is used is not quite the same as it was within the gay culture of the 1950s where Susan Sontag picked it up from Alfred Chester. Kapelner’s pot smokers use “campy” as a general term of approval, with just an echo of the later meaning of the word, that something is a compound of cute, quaint, and outré.) After failing to adjust to that culture, he falls out of it and into the less demanding circle of Bowery bums. But even there he cannot handle the minimal terms of survival. His world, in other words, shrinks from Manhattan to lower Manhattan to the Bowery to the bottom of the river. Rip, by contrast, expands his horizons from Manhattan to cover all America.
Both brothers, at the start of the book, have aspirations to be writers; Rip to articulate a sense of wonder at life tempered with awareness of its dark side, Paul to articulate his rage at its dark side. The only writing that Paul can do, by book’s end, is to send his draft card back to FDR with a letter that demonstrates why Kapelner could find no publisher in the early Fifties, and why nearly any other publisher besides George Braziller might have balked at the book’s theme at the high point of the Cold War:
These tragedy makers should, by law, be so sacredly entitled to the deathliness they manufactured. They, these sick plaguing sick, are Hitler’s makers. They plucked him from hell to murder a German Republic. They babied him, they nursed him and coddled him and fed him and fattened him and schooled him and uniformed him. They electrified him with a Party and an Army, and the makers’ creature murdered the Republic. But as it comes to all dark makers, creatures betray the minds that create them, and Adolf Hitler knifed his bonds and plundered his makers’ trade and international loot and conquered their lands and today crazes to bleed and boss their world.
In other words, Paul would not be surprised to read the current articles regarding the activities of the Bank of International Settlements involving assets looted by the Nazis from their victims. But after writing this letter, Paul has a change of heart, hurries back to the mailbox into which he has dropped it, and persuades the postman to give it back to him.
Rip continues to resolve to be a writer, providing he survives the war (for he has decided, unlike Paul, to come to grips with the world). Even so his intention is not to achieve fame. Kapelner thought highly enough of what he has Rip write to Mary that he repeated the words from the book, slightly revised, in his Contemporary Authors entry:
. . . what a rough tough lonely job serious writers have. To make points, to make ideas stick in hope of re-routing minds … they’ve got to just about rape people with words. . . . It seems to me too many writers write as if they were committing acts of espionage. When reading their work, it always seems they’ve spied on and stolen some great writer’s state secrets. [In CA a few years later, Kapelner changed the passage to read, “He should steal no man’s state secrets.”] I think a writer should be enslaved to no dead or living god. He should create strictly from his own personality. His signature should be so deeply his own.
This goes some way toward explaining why Kapelner published so little and why he was disinclined to push his work on the public in the fashion of other writers.
It should finally be said about this second novel that, as Maxwell Geismar noted, it has something in common with the more lyrical side of Thirties fiction, from Dos Passos to Henry Roth to John Fante. At the same time much of it reflects the acid, sardonic side of that same decade, from Nathanael West to Daniel Fuchs’ Low Company. But what is especially striking to a reader in 1997 is the extent which the novel presages the fantastic, verbally extravagant fiction that emerged later in the Sixties and whose vogue lasted long enough into the Seventies that Jerome Klinkowitz, Thomas LeClair, and Larry McCaffrey were able to write whole books about it. I refer to such “postmodern” works as Ron Sukenick’s Up and Out, Steve Katz’s The Exaggerations of Peter Prince and Creamy and Delicious, the novels of Raymond Federman and Jonathan Baumbach, Frederick Barthelme’s earliest work, and other such examples of what was termed “metafiction.” None of these writers, in books or interviews, refers to Kapelner however, making him quite an anomaly in literary history.
Kapelner’s entry for Contemporary Authors, probably written in 1963, indicates that he was writing a “contemporary novel on boredom” for Braziller. There is no telling if this is the same book that he discusses in the 1967 interview with Seymour Krim. There Kapelner calls the book The Air-Conditioned Hell, and states that he has just rewritten it, as he did his previous book: “I first wrote it in first person and it satisfied me.” In a footnote, written three years later, Krim states: “As this collection goes to press, Kapelner is rewriting his book yet a third time.” The novel never appeared.
Last year I was taking down three copies of All The Naked Heroes from a shelf at the Strand Book Store in Manhattan when a man exclaimed from the foot of the ladder: “What are you doing with those books by Alan Kapelner?” The man turned out to be a fairly well-known author of latter-day metafiction who had not only read Kapelner’s books but had met him at a writer’s colony in Virginia in 1988 and had stopped by to see him in Manhattan once or twice over the following two years. This writer told me that Kapelner, at the colony, spoke little about whatever he was working on, but talked a bit about his past work, and told a couple of stories about his sessions with Max Perkins, which startled a good many of the younger listeners. Kapelner also told him that he had taught on occasion at Hofstra University. But he had heard nothing about Kapelner in six years.
And that, as things stand, is the story of an author whose idiosyncratic and experimental novels, scouring disparate styles and decades in a serious attempt to make sense of the journey this nation took over thirty years, occupy a literary place all by themselves.