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Fear and Loathing in a New Mexico Cabin

Hunkered down in the wilderness, betrothed to a monstrous novel


By: Bob Shacochis

Eighteen hundred miles east from where I sit, shivering at my cluttered plywood desk, and eight thousand feet below down the long continental slope, I believe I have a home, though I have not set foot in it for 11 months. And I am fairly certain I have a wife, residing in that home, who goes about her business without me, at least until the Florida legislative season ends in June, when she will head my way again. It will of course be lovely to see her, though not so wonderful to watch her eyebrows raise as she asks, Well?–meaning, Is the book I’ve been working on since 2002 finished?– and sort through my menu of responses–Leave me alone. Quit nagging. What do you want from me? Can’t you see I’m losing my mind? How are you fixed for cash?–until I sigh and answer, simply, No.

The iconography on the walls of my one-room writing cabin here in the still snowbound Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico reflects the richness of a once-and-future lifestyle woefully out of sync with the poverty of my present-day habits. There are the mementos and residue of images from various magazine assignments: a Kosovo Liberation Army battle flag; a group portrait taken in Haiti of me with a Special Forces A-team; the opening layout for a profile I wrote of Kathmandu, the Himalaya towering over the skyline of the city; a glossy photograph of an exploding volcano in Kamchatka, where I was investigating the Russian mafia’s theft of entire salmon-packed rivers on the Siberian peninsula. A working author’s miscellany also competes for space: artwork prototypes and proofs of book covers, a Patagonian fishing license, a tango poster I purchased on the streets of Buenos Aires, where the middle book in the trilogy I’ve been working on since 1989 will be set. And piled everywhere, mockingly, is the gear I have no time for at this endless present moment: dusty, cobwebbed and unattended fly rods, spinning rods, backpacks, tents, downhill skis, snowshoes, kayak paddles, an outboard motor and a 150-millionyear- old saligram (an ammonite fossil) I plucked out of the Kali Gandaki Gorge on an expedition to the ancient kingdom of Mustang on the Tibetan Plateau. I use it now to keep the door of the cabin cracked open to allow my dogs in and out, their free passage synonymous with my sanity (and ice-cold feet from the draft).

"Novel writing, Russell Banks once told me after finishing his book Affliction, is like living in an airless, lightless cave married to an ugly, depressed person, year after year."

Last week I received an e-mail from Roger Hodge at Harper’s Magazine, saying, in effect, time to climb back into the saddle. Where would I like the magazine to send me? What would I like to write about? The fact is I haven’t had a word published in Harper’s since 2000, which is also the last time I saw Lewis Lapham, who told me–I’m not kidding–to go f*** myself because I had the audacity to be nominated for an award by The New Yorker for my book on Haiti. And I haven’t dared in years to look at the masthead to learn if I’m still listed as a contributing editor. One must sweep out the deadwood every so often, I understand, and as a magazine correspondent, deadwood, however painful the description, describes me these days accurately.

I have become, not with any enthusiasm but of my own free will, a recluse, hunkered down in the wilderness, betrothed to a monstrous novel. Novel writing, Russell Banks once told me after finishing his book Affliction, is like living in an airless, lightless cave married to an ugly, depressed person, year after year. I concur with that grim assessment, with the caveat that for a garret-bound writer, life is just this: merely work, and hard, and not romantic, and not noble. The struggle has little to do with cosmic truth or mankind’s troubled soul, and much to do with energy and concentration and the monotony of the dream-like repetition of one’s lonely days.

Being a correspondent, on the other hand, is like flinging yourself into whirlwind affairs with one fascinating partner after another. Seduction runneth over. I miss the road. I love it so, love the gravity of the illusion that out there–on the move minute by minute–life is finally, indisputably, meaningful, one’s intentions to contribute something useful to society are being consummated, one’s insatiable curiosity is getting a good soaking, et cetera. But I don’t much miss editors, except for the very few great ones who aren’t insulated morons or breathtakingly negligent and careless, who aren’t shameless lying bastards, who aren’t visionless mandarins of the status quo, airheaded cheerleaders for fatuous trends, or tyrants of self-aggrandizing little fiefdoms. The truly good ones, though, are like second, better, selves—precious and indispensable, a writer’s grace and blessing.

Each day at midday, after I have dragged my heels through the morning chores, I walk the short distance from the main cabin to my writing cabin, plug in my laptop, survey the symbols of grievous temptation nailed to my walls, resist anew the daily urge to gallop for the horizon, and start my writing day by fighting off the overpowering desire to take an undeserved nap, as if I’m a wayward bear in Yellowstone darted by an invisible park ranger. Give me go-fast drugs to stay awake and I will take them, gratefully and guilt-free. (Frankly, I’m more comfortable with the CIA running drugs than the Taliban, Al Qaeda, FARC, the Chechens, the Sicilian mafia or the Jamaican, Dominican and Mexican cartels. But that’s quite another story).

Sometimes I do fall asleep, which makes me feel miserable in every conceivable way. Neither sleep nor stimulants have any effect, however, on the speed at which I write these days, which is glacial. I begin each session by revising the 300 or 400 words I extruded–wrenchingly, haltingly–the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and I end each session with 300 or 400 new words, the dogs dancing around my chair in anticipation of their before-dinner walk. This process goes on and on and on, a type of limbo that terminates in the next as yet undetermined stage of my life. A quiet retreat? Flowers and kisses? I have no idea, and don’t much care. I just want to get there, be there, take a deep breath, and start again.

"And whether writing fiction or nonfiction, I research my milieus and subjects exhaustively. Research is the happy, fun part of writing, not to mention an excellent form of procrastination."

What’s the relationship between the torture of writing this novel and my parallel but dormant career as a journalist? Not much, really, beyond the crybaby angst and warm nostalgic yearning for being back out in the world, running with the dogs of histories grand or otherwise, animated and engaged and enlivened. Yet, reading this sentence, I realize it doesn’t amount to full disclosure, since my novel, like much of my work as a correspondent, is unapologetically geopolitical and informed by assignments overseas. And whether writing fiction or nonfiction, I research my milieus and subjects exhaustively. Research is the happy, fun part of writing, not to mention an excellent form of procrastination.

In my callow youth, as I tried to shape and define myself, journalism seemed the most attractive or enlightened or potential- shimmering pursuit around which to wrap an identity. It formed the path I walked throughout my teens and early 20s. But the pony I eventually rode to town was fiction-writing, in the mid-1980s, the same pony I intend to ride out of town in the last decades–or who knows, years–of my life. Why the bias? Why this and not that, since both disciplines have provided equally welcome homes for my writer’s voice and sensibilities? No answer, except to say still and forever, I will be torn between the two, fiction and nonfiction, marriage and promiscuity, living an imaginary life internally and bearing witness to the firehose-inyour-face-blast of the external, between invention and reportage, between the profound truths that spin out of elegant lies and the profoundly damaging lies that are the inevitable by-product of inauthentic truths. For a writer, both this and that, you might agree, are spellbinding. “The poles of fiction and nonfiction are constantly bouncing their force fields back and forth between each other,” writes the brilliant David Shields in Reality Hunger, his manifesto on the age-old blurring between the two genres. “What I want,” says Shields, “is the real world, with all its hard edges, but the real world fully imagined and fully written, not merely reported.”

But of course I’m as flabbergasted as everyone else that here in America in the 21st century, the Fourth Estate, a free society’s fail-safe mechanism against government gone wild, has faltered in its mission, enabling the administration’s disasters while disabling its own institutions for the sake of the voracious corporate metabolism, fueled by profit margins at the expense of principle. The establishment press looks pretty tarnished these days–“the drive-by media,” the clown Rush Limbaugh calls them, that leering pimp of the spectacle (Chris Matthews is a leering pimp as well). And it’s hard to feel sorry for the mainstreamers, because if you lose your integrity, it’s not because some one took it away, it’s always because you gave it away.

The vital difference between a mainstream journalist and a disciple of literary journalism like myself is not the real and pragmatic distinction between front page and feature page, or between hard news and soft news—the reportorial skills that produce one also produce the other—but a fundamental disagreement about objectivity, a myth in which I find no currency and which can help explain the astronomical gap between, say, a Judith Miller writing about WMDs, and a Sy Hersch writing about the same topic. Verifiable facts are objective entities, for a day, a year or a century, until contradictory verifiable facts emerge. The mainstream journalists I know bend over backwards to be objective. But it’s a metaphysical impossibility—even if they were machines, someone would have to program them. Editors and publishers are never objective, the illusion that they are is specious, and their contrived attempts at fairness are usually misleading or obfuscating, hammering unequal positions and sources of disproportionate merit into a fraudulent balance. I’ve withdrawn commissioned articles from The New York Times Magazine and from Harper’s Magazine over political disagreements with the editors. I’ve declined to write op-ed pieces for the Wall Street Journal and The Times because an editor has expected me to promote an ideological point of view I did not share and the facts on the ground did not support. Fair enough, on both sides of the line, as far as I’m concerned; every journalist worthy of respect–and they are legion–fights such battles continuously. The friction between office and field, between objectivity and subjectivity, helps define and sharpen their professionalism, while making everybody nuts to boot.

From the very beginning of my life as a journalist–high school newspaper, University of Missouri J-School (magazine sequence, thank you), cub reporter, agricultural journalist in the Peace Corps (the things I could tell you about banana disease!)–my own narrow comfort zone (which makes me basically unemployable) and my own expansive sensibilities about language and information and how they best combine to create knowledge in order to express the ineffable (otherwise known as reality, that most controversial and diverse aspect of human existence) have turned me in the direction of what’s been called (wrongly, and grandiosely, in my opinion) NewJournalism.

"I hear mutterings these days, which I don’t quite understand, about the demise or, less dire, failings of New Journalism. Nope. Sorry. Wrong."

I hear mutterings these days, which I don’t quite understand, about the demise or, less dire, failings of New Journalism. Nope. Sorry. Wrong. There’s nothing of substance that’s new about New Journalism, which is a tag that appeared in the 1960s when iconoclast correspondents began to assimilate the counterculture into the ironic hipness and psychedelic crackle of their prose—a change in stylistics, not core principles (bell bottoms were still pants, after all, and “new” only in their mass appeal). Journalism that is narrative-based and a good faith practitioner of what, throughout the millennia, evolved into what we commonly call fictional techniques– character development, dramatic arc, linguistic dexterity and texture, an operative aesthetic (anathema to strict reportage), authorial voice or presence (subjectivity)– has been around forever–Gilgamesh and the flood; Homer and the Trojans; Thucydides and the Roman conquests–and arrives in North America with the likes of Captain John Smith, Lewis and Clark, the Harper’s correspondents who reported on the Civil War, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, A.J. Liebling and H.L. Mencken, smashing into a rather locked-down First Amendment with the gate-crashing words of Lenny Bruce, Henry Miller, J.P. Donleavy, on and onward to the names you know from the post-modern era, the impresarios of New Journalism, only a few who had much of an influence on me, or who navigated me in some radical or entirely innovative direction away from the rich and varied traditions of their predecessors.

I joined the staff of my high school newspaper because there was a girl already on it I wanted to court. But I had already been courted myself, successfully, by journalism, thanks to The Washington Post, or rather The Washington Post as it existed in the 1960s, under the stewardship of the legendary Ben Bradlee, when I was growing up in the D.C. metropolitan suburbs of McLean, Va. Before walking five blocks down the road to school, every morning at breakfast I would read The Post avidly, the front section of course, because the events being reported were always astounding, but especially Bradlee’s new and improved Style section, and the delicious accounts of life on the planet as articulated by a trio of young female feature writers recently hired–Sally Quinn, Judy Bachrach, Judith Martin–and serious wordsmiths like Curt Suplee, whom I fantasized one day might profile me. Add to that crew Norman Mailer (The Armies of the Night), William Buckley, and Gore Vidal (who cares that they existed at the opposite ends of the political spectrum– the intensity of their love of language was mesmerizing), and the young Hunter Thompson who immersed himself into the world of the Hell’s Angels, plus Tom Wolfe’s explosions of language into his subjects (cars, LSD, white liberals cozying up to black militants) and you arrive at a pretty reliable set of ingredients for a recipe on How To Cook A Young Writer, circa the ‘60s.

Most importantly, it’s germane to the present moment to understand New Journalism as–

...to give some thought to-

Hold on. Did I mention that my wife back there in sunny Tallahassee told me I shouldn’t, couldn’t, come back home until I finished my stinking novel? That was 11 months ago. No, strike that, it was 12, and I’m looking down the road at six or seven more before I can again taste the salty divinity of an Apalachicola oyster, raw and by the dozen.

All right. I’ll get back to you on that. Promise. Maybe.

Excuse me. I need another cup of coffee, I am going to light another cigarette, and I am going to sink back into the vast, echoing underworld of my book.

Did I say already the novel is set—foolishly, in my opinion— on three different continents, with four separate but interlocking chronologies, each backdropped by a different war, with I think more than 10 but I’m sure less than 50 characters (it’s not that I’ve forgotten the number—I’ve never actually counted them). Have I bragged that I am now on page 456? Did I choke when I told you I suspect I have about 400 pages more to write?

Did I mention any of this? None of it? I can smell springtime up here in the alpine air and it’s making me, I must admit, a bit squirrelly.

SOS. SOS.

Send women, guns and money.

 

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Hunkered down in the wilderness, betrothed to a monstrous novel
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