My Body Was Never Broken

I was a pale and scrawny kid. I recall lying in bed late at night as a boy, poking at the bones that scraped a mere millimeter beneath my skin and feeling a profound shame at my emaciated form. My mother was so financially irresponsible that she would only go shopping for groceries every three weeks, yet somehow always managed to have a big box of cheap White Zinfandel in the fridge even when the food ran out. I have terrible memories of chanting with my sister for our mother to return home from work with food. She often forgot about us. Often, when we asked what was for dinner, she would hand us dollar bills and she would tell us to hike to the gas station up the street and buy two of the mildewed 99 cent burgers that rested for days under a heat lamp — all this as she lounged on the couch and drank vast quantities of cheap wine and felt sorry for herself as she watched Love Connection. (We would find the telltale Burger King wrappers in her car, revealing her clandestine post-work fast food trips, and this explained why she didn’t eat with us.) Still, we kept the faith. We invented songs to pass the time as our bellies grumbled. The phrase “Fend for yourself” became a regular mantra growing up. And since there was scant food, this often meant grabbing an English muffin, placing ketchup on the base, and topping this with a very thin layer of cheap Cheddar cheese. (We had a cheese slicer that allowed you to scrape veneer-thin layers because you didn’t want to be the asshole who took the last of the precious block. These days, whenever I buy more than one slab of cheese on any given week, it still feels libertine, if not scandalous or obscene.) Then you would microwave this ghastly concoction and wince as you wolfed it down. One of the reasons I became a somewhat accomplished cook in my adult years — even winning the praise of a professional food critic whom I dated a few years ago and who was very kind in her plaudits when I invited her over for a three-course home-cooked dinner — was largely because I was atoning for a childhood forged in starvation and neglect. And these days I always have a stockpile of beans and rice in the larder that rivals a well-equipped bomb shelter, along with tons of frozen meat in the freezer. I never want to live this way again.

We lived in a series of crappy apartment complexes that were often poorly maintained — brown paint rusting in jagged peels along the shaky sides of ramshackle buildings, perfunctorily touched up with a few fresh coats whenever there was a surfeit of vacancies. These units were populated by an untold number of hardscrabble survivors and troubled people. Some were comfortably lower middle-class and admirably resourceful with their money. I suspect that my knack for living quite frugally during lean times in one of the most expensive cities in the world was shaped by parsimonious exemplars established by some of these ingenious single mothers. Others were poor largely because they didn’t know how to squeeze the most from their meager paychecks. There was the family who dealt weed and coke who lived just beneath us at one place. My clueless mother was oblivious to their side hustle. Or maybe it was their main hustle. I really don’t know. I’ve never been interested in drugs, because I recall the sketchy figures who waited just outside this family’s apartment for a quick fix. There was a patch of lawn beneath an electric tower that hummed with the steady thrum of cancerous radiation and the grass was only kept watered because this swath happened to be situated next to the main drag and the cutthroat types who ran the apartment complex obviously needed to keep up appearances. There were a few crooked kids I bicycled with who urged me to shoplift and then, when one of our number was caught, they framed me as the criminal mastermind, even though it had never been my idea. I felt ashamed and guilty about stuffing a Weird Al Yankovic cassette down my pants at a K-Mart — the result of such vicious peer pressure — that I later profusely apologized to Mr. Yankovic in person when I had the opportunity to interview him decades later. Yankovic was incredibly kind but he was baffled and a little disturbed by this out-of-the-blue confession. But I had been carrying this burden for years and he seemed the only man who could provide expiation. As an adult, you learn just how much accumulated childhood trauma marks your path in adulthood. For better or worse.

But there was a silver lining to all this: these apartment complexes usually had a swimming pool. This was California, after all. And I had always loved to swim. Until there came a point where I dreaded going to the pool. Kids, as we all know, are deeply ruthless. And they were certainly incredibly cruel to me. I was called “skinny fuck” and “pale bastard.” And the insults were relentless. I became so paralyzed by these constant sullies that I began wearing T-shirts into the water, hoping that it would deter these bullies from their merciless commentary on my physicality. I never said anything in return. I hadn’t yet learned to fight any bully with devastating burns and vitriolic wit, something I am still forced to do from time to time. Yet still the kids kept up with their brutal fusillades.

By the time I was a teenager, I had come to believe that I was ugly and not sexy at all. Even though I had a few high school lovers, sweet girls who gently coaxed this backstory from me and encouraged me to take my shirt off and told me how hot I was. Still, I didn’t believe it. It certainly didn’t help that my family was incredibly Puritanical when it came to the realities of sex and the body. I rebelled against this by signing up for a Playboy subscription when I was sixteen and racing to the mailbox just after I came home from school to intercept every monthly issue bound in black plastic.

Despite all this, I was deeply ashamed of my body. Which was ridiculous. Because I never received complaints about my body from any lover in my adult life. (Oh, there was plenty to complain about on so many other fronts! I assure you that I was an awful boyfriend to many!) Whenever a girlfriend would compliment my body in bed, I would deflect her attentions, which completely embarrassed me, by becoming highly solicitous to her. I suppose that this is one of the reasons why I picked up a variegated repertoire of moves that later lovers remarked favorably on. They often told me that I was the first man to proffer a bespoke flourish that they greatly enjoyed. But this sexual precocity was driven more by pragmatism and self-disguise rather than any hubris-fueled desire to be some feckless fuckboi. I mean, you couldn’t very well distract your girl the same way every time, could you?

Years passed. I became more confident on a variety of fronts, save this thorny one that concerned my body. It deeply upset me that I was in my forties and still slightly ashamed of being shirtless. But my approach to any problem is to confront it head-on. And during the first months of the pandemic, when everything was closed, one of the few places that remained open was the beach. Like everyone, I had lost all of my gigs. And I was despondent. But the buses were free. And I started going to the beach on a regular basis. And when I saw older men who had let themselves go and who wandered along the sands without a single care in the world, it emboldened me to take off my shirt. Women approached me and flirted with shameless eclat. Gay men whistled at me. I was stunned by all of these developments. It became part of my routine to go to the beach with a few books and expose my bare chest to the sun. One of my closest friends accompanied me on some of these beach sojurns. She was very familiar with my body shame hangups and did what all good friends do: she urged me in the strongest possible terms to take off my fucking shirt. And I did. Another woman who I was dating had access to a rooftop pool in Jersey City. She also caught wind of my dysmorphia and declared that I was sexy as fuck and demanded that I accompany her with my shirt off. She pledged to wear her most revealing bikini and make the date very much worth my while. So I did.

Then, last year, I fell for the wrong woman. A narcissist who played a deep-level gaslighting game that you only find out about when it’s much too late. She did a number on me in so many ways. She contacted my friends and insisted that I was “troubled.” She emotionally manipulated me. In bed, she would curl herself up, making herself as cold and as emotionless and as unresponsive as possible. And none of my moves or the fulsome and multifarious attentions that I tender to any lover worked on her. Not a single one. I had never experienced such treatment. Even when the sex was not the greatest, I always hit a dependable baseline. And that simply didn’t exist here. The old pangs of body shame returned. I felt deeply unattractive. I felt sexually undesirable. I began to drink heavily. A bottle of wine, sometimes two, every day. Fifths of whiskey that I downed in a frighteningly swift amount of time. It certainly didn’t help that I was unemployed and burning through my savings at a rapid clip. I had a significant breakdown back in January. (Thank heavens that my friend Pete Lutz enlisted me to score a Western soundtrack for his audio drama. Pete has no idea how much composing these sixteen cues helped me to get back on the straight and narrow. And I am deeply indebted to him for his faith in my talent and his unfathomable graciousness. And I’ve discovered this year, much to my surprise, that I apparently have some aptitude for scoring and orchestration. When I rearranged an old Doctor Who music cue, I received an incredibly kind email from the original composer!)

When I finally escaped this toxic relationship, I took a break from dating for many months. I didn’t want to encumber anyone with my inner turmoil. I stayed sober for four months and this, combined with walking, caused the pounds that I had accumulated in the winter to melt off. (These days, I usually avoid hard liquor and I only have a few beers on the weekend. This is largely because I am hopelessly smitten with karaoke. And even in my old age, I still go to a few clubs because I love to dance and the only thing you tend to drink there is tons of water.)

But I still carried the dregs of feeling that my body was hideous. Christ, I was in my late forties and I still bought into this horseshit? I watched Lizzo videos over and over. She became a personal hero to me with her body-positive, give-no-fucks approach. Goddammit, why the hell couldn’t I be that confident?

Then I made a trip to New Orleans for my birthday weekend. I had never been to this incredible city before and had always wanted to visit it. It turns out that I needed New Orleans more than I knew. I wish that I had visited the Big Easy in my twenties. So many difficulties that I’ve faced in the last two decades would have been far more easier for me to deal with. I was stunned by the women — both the locals and the visitors. They were all beautiful, inside and outside. They walked the French Quarter with confidence. And they accosted me. Every hour, there was someone new who expressed interest in me. One woman asked if she could kiss me on the forehead. I said, “That depends. Will it bring you good fortune?” She said, “Oh, absolutely.” And I said okay and permitted her to kiss my forehead. Another woman pulled over in her car, veering sharply to the sidewalk from a good block away, and said, “Hey, baby, where you going?” I went to a club and saw a beautiful woman from Ecuador dancing by herself. I felt that this was criminal. And I jumped up on stage and started allemanding with her: my dependable mix of spastic white guy moves and a little salsa and swing that I had learned. We became more physical. I picked her up and spun her around the floor and she loved this. The crowd roared at our performance. Five minutes later, we were making out. And the DJ approached me and said, “Dude, I don’t know how you did that.” I told him that I didn’t know either. And there were plenty of other things that happened in Louisiana that I cannot report here.

But that’s New Orleans for you. And if you ever doubt yourself, I highly recommend that you hit the place for a very fun weekend.

But I returned to Brooklyn with some missing piece of me restored. I became determined to shut down this body shame once and for all.

So I started to make thirst traps. Friends-only posts on TikTok. I had never appeared shirtless on TikTok before. I have tended to stick with my wit and my erudition as foolproof charms.

But this obviously needed to change. For we all contain multitudes.

The first thirst trap involved me dancing and intercutting footage of me without a shirt, but I was still clutching my slightly chubby belly with nervousness and self-consciousness. But something unexpected happened. Much to my surprise, this video proved immensely popular. I was inundated with women sliding into my DMs and leaving scandalously flirtatious comments, demanding more. (One of my followers said that, if she weren’t in a healthy marriage, she would drop her husband in a minute and show me a fun time.) A woman from Canada tried to set me up with one of her friends here in New York City. Another person told me that he had showed the thirst trap to his date and that she had blushed with delight.

What the hell was going on here?

I made a second thirst trap in which I used a filter inspired by the grayscale rotoscoping from the famous video for a-ha’s “Take on Me.” And in this thirst trap, I crossed to the illustrative side and took my shirt off. It was blurry enough on that area of the frame for me to hide. This thirst trip also proved to be a big hit.

But I was still covering my shirtless form with my T-shirt. I was still a little hindered by the poisonous invective that these little bastards at the swimming pool had planted in my head so many years before. And I was a grownass man.

So last night, I decided to make a third thirst trap in which I would not disguise myself in any way. My body would be completely exposed. Fuck the haters. Fuck my dysmorphia. Fuck the little twerps from my childhood. This was about me owning who I was and being unapologetic about it.

I busted out my strobe light and put on my sexiest pair of underwear and I performed a number of poses: grinding against the wall, putting my leg — well-toned from all the walking — seductively into the air. I edited the video on my phone with a wonderful app called PowerDirector that is worth every penny. I cut each strobe flash on the beat into some footage of me walking obliviously in my apartment. The idea here was to show that I had this part of me. To suggest that it was all innocent, but to be a little outrageous about it.

I was fully prepared to be condemned and flayed alive for my boldest and most provocative thirst trap yet! But this thirst trap proved even more popular than the other two. My comments lit up with growing concatenations of flame emoji. Three women asked if I was still single. I was declared a DILF. Other women expressed how they loved my confidence. But, of course, I had been faking it. Confidence is really something that happens only when you become more comfortable after crossing a certain nervous line. And if you’re not doing that on a regular basis, then you’re probably dead inside, too mesmerized by a risk-averse and “stable” lifestyle in which you will never take a chance and you will never grow.

I was once again flattered, flabbergasted, and humbled. But it is now indisputable that, among a certain crowd, I still have it. And I can definitely go to the grave saying that I flaunted my body at the last possible time when it was in somewhat decent shape and that I had a lot of fun doing this. Better late than never!

It turns out that my body was never broken. That all of the hangups that I have lived with for more than four decades were largely in my own head. That women do like me and do find me attractive. And that I really need to acknowledge this more.

If you told me three months ago that I would be making thirst traps on TikTok, I wouldn’t have believed you. Certainly thirst traps are not for everyone. But one of the best ways to combat a deep-seated uncertainty is to throw caution to the wind and face the very fears that prevent you from being your fullest and truest self. After all, we only live once!

Sorry, Zack Budryk, But I Don’t Want to Fuck You

It seems I have a stalker.

Zack Budryk wants to fuck me. I know this because this puny man of the media world has been obsessively spying on me and harassing me on social media in the last few weeks and he has been rather careless in covering his tracks, despite his professed occupation as a “journalist.” (Look, Zack, I know you’re a hopeless clod (for some reason, media people have emailed me stories about you and I shall save you further embarrassment by keeping these confidential), but here’s a tip. Burner accounts and VPNs. Or maybe don’t sign into a social media account with your real name, as you did in harassing me, you pathetic rube. Oh, and I have the receipts if I ever need to file a police report or a lawsuit.)

His beef with me — and it’s really incredibly pathetic — is an article I wrote two years ago in which I called out his utterly mediocre and completely unaccomplished hackery. Rather than take his lumps and move on like a grownass adult, Zack Budryk has engaged in a seething and obsessive fury towards me, for which there is only one obvious conclusion. Zack Budryk wants to be my bottom. And he wants me to fuck him in a raw and animalistic manner.

Well, I’m flattered, Zack. But I’m not interested in helping you fulfill your kinks. I’ve been spending much of the day contemplating the repugnant and inexcusable attack on Salman Rushdie — a truly terrifying development that I obviously oppose with every fiber of my being and that seems to be an escalation point in the disturbing war against outspoken and transgressive artists, a trajectory that seems to have started with Will Smith’s assault on Chris Rock at the Oscars.

Hey, Zack, instead of obsessing about me, why not think about stuff like this:

1. For fuck’s sake, Salman Rushdie is going to lose an eye.
2. Salman Rushdie is on a ventilator and we don’t know if he’s going to pull through.
3. A writer was stabbed ten to fifteen times on an American stage simply for speaking his mind.
4. This shouldn’t be happening in America.

I mean, that’s where my thoughts have been right now.

I’ve also been thinking about the guy who was shot outside my Brooklyn apartment building tonight. I’ve lived close to shootings, but never this close. It literally happened about four hundred feet from where I’m now writing this. The entire neighborhood congregated together to make sure everyone was okay. We were obviously not okay. But it was nice to chat with the neighbors and to see that this community was united against violence. Nor is America okay. One would think that any thinking person would be contemplating this instead of despicably pointing his finger towards me as one apparent source of the problem:

I am vehemently opposed to violence. I only fight in self-defense and have talked my way out of 99.999999999999999999999999999999999% of all dangerous situations I’ve experienced. A gutterpunk once pointed a gun at me and I not only got the guy to put the gun down, but I got him to laugh. I somehow didn’t lose my cool. And I doubt very highly that Zack Budryk can say the same thing. I know violence. I’ve been the victim of violence. I’ve stopped dozens of people from committing violence. I once stopped a man from cracking a beer bottle over the head of a very prominent and very famous figure that everyone knows. I’ve put my white body in front of Black bodies to stop cops from beating the shit out of them. I hate violence. I want this cycle of violence to stop.

The absurd portrait that Zack Budryk has painted of me involves my first thought encompassing some narcissistic comparison of myself with Rushdie. I challenge anyone to find a single word among the millions I’ve written over more than twenty years in which I’ve compared myself to another person. You won’t. I’ve never expressed anything along those lines. I simply do not possess that type of mentality. My first thoughts upon hearing the news this morning were utter horror, sympathy, and sadness — and this despite the fact that Rushdie has used his literary power and influence to burn me, as well as a few friends and acquaintances.

Nevertheless, I offer my sincerest wishes to all of Salman Rushdie’s family and friends. This is a tragic reminder that we need to do far more than what we’re doing.

And, Zack, I know you’ve been waiting eagerly about what I’m going to write about you. I know your pants are bunched around your ankles right now. I truly hope that you’re equipped with enough Kleenex. And, hey, don’t worry, I don’t believe in original sin. You do what you need to do. But, for the record, I don’t want to fuck you. In fact, I don’t give a fuck about you at all. My DMs are not open to you, sir. But I do need to point out that you are actually part of the problem. In fact, in your deranged fixations on me, I’d say that you have more in common with Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old man from Fairview, New Jersey who pulled off this act of terrorism. Maybe that’s what you actually meant in saying that I would absurdly suggest that I was “just like Rushdie.” Given your recent behavior, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I picked up a physical copy of the Sunday Times about five years from now, sipped a cafe au lait, and read a story about you that concerned an act of violence that you perpetrated.

I have only five more words for you, Zack Budryk: Seek help and fuck off.

Heart of Darkness (Modern Library #67)

(This is the thirty-fourth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Main Street.)

Hello, Darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. Except that I don’t particularly want to. It’s not you, Joe. It’s me.

Don’t worry. We’ll still text each other. I’ll still speak fondly of you. We can still meet for Sunday brunch sometimes. I’m just in a different place these days. Namely the 21st century.

It can’t be an accident that the wildly underrated Julian MacLaren-Ross skewered the idea of reading Conrad as an upwardly mobile class aspiration in Of Love and Hunger. In Frog, Stephen Dixon took the piss out of Conrad along these lines as well. Indeed, slagging off Conrad seems to be a common trait among many of my literary Bohemian heroes. And I do need to heed them. I feel and trust their instincts. It’s almost as if we’re told that we should simply accept that Conrad is a great writer who changed the course of literature (and he did) even as we pretend that he isn’t ancient and hoary and horribly regressive. When I confessed my reluctance to reread Heart of Darkness to a few friends, they told me, “Well, it’s only a hundred pages.” Which suggested very strongly that nobody really wants to read Conrad anymore. He doesn’t pop out at you like Joyce or Faulkner or Nabokov or even Lawrence. And, to tell you the truth, I would much rather reread Finnegans Wake than anything from Conrad.

Yet I don’t detest Conrad. Certainly not with the full-bore commitment in which I direct my fierce energies loathing Henry James — a man who is represented on the Modern Library canon with three hideous doorstoppers and who I have tried to learn how to enjoy (even enlisting the tremendously gracious Dinitia Smith for assistance), but whose “charms” I have proven totally impervious to. And since I’m getting ever closer to fifty and there hasn’t been a break in the Henry James ice floe, I suspect that I’m fated to go to my grave hating him, possibly living a few extra months not only to spite my enemies, but to deliver a few final rounds of vitriol towards one of the most overrated and egotistical writers in the English language. I truly dread the James slog that’s in store for me about forty titles from now. The horror! The horror! Perhaps I shall be driven mad like Kurtz.

But not so with Conrad! There is much about Conrad to like: his intensity, his often beautiful imagery, and his insights into human atavism. Eleven years ago, Lord Jim did hold my attention — but I had to give Conrad everything that I had. Decades before I read Lord Jim, I was dazzled by Heart of Darkness in high school. I reread it twice in the last few months and, while the allure that once hypnotized me seems to be gone, I can’t gainsay that this is a masterpiece.

First off, I think we can all agree that Marlow is one of the most long-winded bastards in all of literature. “Mansplaining” doesn’t even begin to describe the dude’s incessant need to talk. Compared to your FOX News-watching uncle going on and on about Marxist conspiracies at the Thanksgiving table, Charlie Marlow is an outright conversational tyrant. All these poor sailors want to do is play dominoes, but the unnamed passenger listening to Marlow’s tale notes that only “the bond of the sea” keeps the sailors from bitching about this incessant rambler “so often unaware of what [his] audience would best like to hear.” (Incidentally, this two-layer approach to narrative is a shrewd move by Conrad to insulate himself from any charges of planting autobiography into his fiction. Conrad and Marlow share many similarities. Not only did Conrad go to the Congo to fulfill a boyhood dream, but he also, like Marlow, endured the stench of a fresh corpse while commanding a steamer. Small wonder that the Polish-Ukranian bard decided to devote all of his time and energies to a full-time writing career not long after this hideous tour of duty.)

Graying technophobes — the kind of unadventurous dullards best epitomized in today’s literary world by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Sven Birkerts — often complain about the Internet’s impact on attention spans. But consider the alternative. Do you honestly want to live in a pre-radio world in which men explain things with indefatigable logorrhea? In this case, we have Marlow counterbalancing the “savage” world with the “civilized.” There were points in which I felt great sorrow for the poor sailors and imagined sending smartphones back in time so that these poor men could wile away their hours with Candy Crush and cat videos instead of listening to a reactionary seaman splaying out his white supremacy.

And about that white supremacy. Chinua Achebe has been perhaps the most vocal literary figure who has denounced Heart of Darkness, calling Conrad “a thoroughgoing racist,” rightly impugning Conrad’s belittling and dehumanization of Africa, and pointing out how Conrad’s “generosity” in having Black people show up for token cameos is anything but. Achebe scolds Conrad for avoiding the word “brother” in lieu of “kinship” in relation to Black people. (Indeed, the ocean itself, described as “a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother,” gets more dignity than the dark-skinned “natives” of this tale.) What draws Marlow to Africa on a map is “a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.”

On the other hand, there is some modest pushback when the Company’s office is compared to a “whited sepulchre.” Smoke from gunpowder is described as “white,” thus suggesting some white complicity. Can we likewise interpret Marlow pointing to the Blacks being unable to distinguish between individual white men as “being so much alike at a distance” as an acknowledgment of Marlow’s tendency to do the same with Black people? And what are we to make of the white worsted tied around the neck of a dying Black man? Or the foreman whose beard is tied up in “a kind of white serviette he brought for the purpose”? Or a book “lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread”? Or the “cold and monumental whiteness” of a marble fireplace?

Humorless sods like Jonathan Jones have written masturbatory articles defending Conrad (and dissing Achebe) with all the clueless gusto of a Trump cultist declaring noted Hungarian tyrant Viktor Orban “a good guy.” But the truth of Conrad’s racism is somewhere in between. Conrad was racist. (The N-word appears ten times within Heart of Darkness‘s 38,000 pages. And the Black caricatures are frequently sickening.) Like all great writers, he executed his storytelling with instinctive ambiguity. And since many of the colonialists carry remnants of white, Conrad’s imagery — whether intentional or not — can also be read as condemnatory of imperialism and privilege.

And you cannot deny Conrad’s commitment to atmosphere! The old woman who greets Marlow with “flat cloth slippers…propped up on a foot warmer, and a cat reposed on a lap.” The Eldorado Exploring Expedition manager who resembles “a butcher in a poor neighbourhood.” The “torn curtain of red twill” hanging in the doorway of a hut that “flapped sadly in our faces.” A “long, decaying building on the summit…half buried in the high grass.” For all of Marlow’s garrulity, Conrad was a master of imagery, knowing the exact measure of words — never too many, never too few — to connote this tropical world.

Still, for all my complaints about Conrad’s racism, Kurtz is truly one of the all-time creepy fucks of literature. On one hand, we are told that “Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts” and that he is possibly mad. But his seemingly calm rationalization about how he has manipulated the world around him is deeply unsettling. And while Conrad suggests that Kurtz has become this way because of uncharted and unfamiliar terrain (“The long shadows of the forests had slipped downhill as we talked”), it is quite likely that Kurtz was always unhinged. And if this is indeed the case, then Conrad is saying something very vital about the tyranny of white privilege, even if it comes saddled with tacit endorsement.

Next Up: W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage!

Main Street (Modern Library #68)

(This is the thirty-third entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The House of Mirth.)

Evelyn Waugh, Erskine Caldwell, Iris Murdoch, Nathanael West, George Orwell, Joseph Heller, James Joyce, Rebecca West. They — and so many other writers — were far nimbler in their shellacking of institutional norms than Sinclair Lewis ever was. Yet it was Lewis who won the Nobel Prize. And they didn’t. Why? Likely because the Nobel Prize Committee had it in for Edith Wharton and the Norwegian cultural oligarchs may have secretly believed they were correcting a “wrong.” Just nine years before, Lewis quietly seethed after the Pulitzer Prize Board changed its mind and awarded the Fiction Prize to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence instead of Main Street. It was an appropriate correction. Not only is The Age of Innocence a far superior novel to Main Street, but this was also the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction awarded to a woman. And Edith Wharton could write Sinclair Lewis’s wino ass under the table. (Meet me in a coffeehouse and I will argue this point for hours! I am Team Wharton all the way!) We also know from Hermione Lee’s biography that Wharton, who was tremendously gracious and got along with nearly everyone, became disappointed in Lewis after he revealed himself for the self-serving drunk he truly was. She wrote to Gaillard Lapseley that Lewis was “utterly unperceiving, & frankly interested only in the sale of Arrowsmith! What a queer product — for he really is an artist, though he is so unaware of it.”

Wharton was being kind. Sheldon N. Grebstein suggested that Lewis’s clear disinterest in style is one of the reasons why he is not more widely read today. And even Grebstein, who was in the tank for Lewis, pointed out that the Minnesota bard was not exactly your goto guy when it came to unpacking the complexities of human behavior. (Main Street, in particular, fails on this front. More anon.) But Grebstein also held up this absence of eclat as a virtue, for Lewis’s primordial approach liberated him to explore chance and contrivance. And when his id was hitting the right targets, he could be just as efficiently brutal as any twentieth century writer. (Lewis’s line in Elmer Gantry about the preacher flunking Greek, but winning a ten dollar prize for “Sixteen Ways of Paying a Church Debt” is a genuinely funny one.) Perhaps this is one big reason why Gore Vidal declared Lewis a romantic.

But ultimately Sinclair Lewis’s visceral qualities are often vitiated by his limited understanding of human behavior. Jealousy is one of the cornerstones to the Sinclair Lewis formula. Martin Arrowsmith hates the starry-eyed men who fawn over his wife, as well as the success of his associates. In his 1930 Nobel lecture, Lewis was to invoke jealousy as one salient reason for American literature being poorly regarded in Europe. In his biography Rebel from Main Street, Richard R. Lingeman makes a persuasive case that Lewis’s late-life romantic relationship with Marcella Powers was cemented in jealousy. It’s certainly true that jealousy can take you far in life. Sure, you may end up looking and behaving like Emperor Palpatine near the end of your days. And you probably won’t have a sense of humor. And countless people will secretly hate you even after you achieve a modicum of fame and renown. But, by Jove, you tripled down on your reach and you got somewhere! And in Lewis’s case, it landed him a Nobel and a slot on the Modern Library list.

Lewis’s canonical “importance” has been greatly inflated because Lewis cloaked his privilege in Midwestern roots. Even those who were enlisted to stump for Lewis in his prime did so with great reluctance. (In 1961, Mark Schorer wrote a Lewis biography for the money and dreaded every minute of it.)

To my mind, Lewis’s strongest novels are Babbit, Elmer Gantry, and the underrated It Can’t Happen Here. All three of these books document the peculiarly American dangers of obsession and conformity. Read this triptych today and you feel that Lewis was writing from a place of great urgency. Read his other work and you will find slipshod prose (Lewis was an alcoholic and it has been suggested by a few scholars that he wrote most of Arrowsmith completely blotto), rambling and often incoherent narratives (particularly in his later work), and wildly inconsistent quality. To write well, Lewis needed beastly instinct and emotional angst. And when he didn’t have that, he floundered along with bloat and bitterness.

Sadly, Main Street is the only Lewis volume represented on the Modern Library list. And the unfortunate truth is that this is a vastly overesteemed, doughty, and ponderous volume — not entirely without merit — that will surely fade from public memory by the middle of the 21st century. Its attempts at Minnesota vernacular feel belabored rather than felt. (“W a’n’t it in 1979?” “Why no ‘twa’n’t.” Yeah, whole pages like that.) Yes, Carol Kennincott does try to bring culture and progressive values to a town steeped in bland vanilla values. But her calls for revolution are unpersuasive:

We want our Utopia now — and we’re going to try our hands at it. All we want is — everything for all of us! For every housewife and every longshoreman and every Hindu nationalist and every teacher. We want everything. We sha’n’t get it. So we sh’n’t ever be content —

Frankly I’ve heard more convincing platitudes from some “mic check” kid at a protest

Granted, Lewis is very good at showing how the town of Gopher Prairie subsumes Carol’s identity and erodes her standards. These uneducated Caucasian hicks — the great grandparents to today’s right-wing morons who rapturously pay attention to Tucker Carlson and other hate merchants with a bafflingly big draw when not donning their red hats and fascist paraphernalia and claiming to be victimized by critical race theory even as they espouse racism — truly believe that they are remarkable (Mrs. Ole Jenson’s “thoughts” on Shakespeare are the apotheosis of incuriosity and are truly more pitiful than a poorly sourced Wikipedia entry) and that they are “just as good as anybody in Minneapolis.” Midway through the novel, Carol and her husband actually make a trip to Minneapolis (the only place to see happening new plays and buy fashionable new threads) and we see just how residing so long in a backwards town has altered her:

She felt rustic in this once familiar city, after a year an a half of Gopher Prairie. She was certain that Kennincott was taking the wrong trolley-car. By dusk, the liquor warehouses, Hebraic clothing-shops, and lodging-houses on lower Hennepin Avenue were smoky, hideous, ill-tempered. She was battered by the noise and shuttling of the rush-hour traffic. When a clerk in an overcoat too closely fitted at the waist stared at her, she moved nearer to Kennincott’s arm. The clerk was flippant and urban. He was a superior person, used to this tumult. Was he laughing at her?

As someone who spent half his life slowly migrating his way from the colorless doldrums of the California Central Valley to the thrilling possibilities of New York City, Carol’s uncertainty and anxieties truly resonated with me. When Lewis juxtaposes Carol against the relentless judgment of Gopher Prairie, Main Street is good. Carol can’t even have a quiet moment of joy to herself without inciting the judgmental scrutiny of being a doctor’s wife. She can’t be anonymous. Her every move is written up with illiterate relish in the local newspaper. (These days, the libeling and shaming and speculation can now be found on the great hellscape of social media, where your residency in a big city or a small town no longer matters to the twisted hateful losers who condemn you for living a fun and interesting life clearly beyond their talent and initiative.)

Yet despite Lewis’s attempts to show how Carol is victimized for being a woman, the sad irony is that Carol is less of a character and more of an object. We really don’t have a strong sense of what attracts Carol to her husband Will other than his neck. (Look, I’m not going to kink-shame. But seriously? One of the interesting eccentricities about Main Street is its relentless neck imagery, applied equally to humans and horses. When Lewis preposterously described how Carol is attracted to “the last light brought out the planes of his neck, his flat ruddied cheeks, the side of his nose, the depression of his temples,” I laughed so hard on the subway that two otherwise indifferent New Yorkers shot me disapproving glances. Even accounting for the unconsummated lust that Carol is acting out in this late section of the novel, it’s abundantly clear that Lewis didn’t really understand what women are attracted to.) We are told at the start of one chapter about how Carol suddenly loves her husband Will — this mediocre scumbag who won’t even give her enough money to buy groceries — but why? Then when Carol pops out a baby, we are told that “she loved him with all the devotion and instinct at which she had scoffed.” Sinclair, buddy, put the bottle down and give us more than these superficial details!

I didn’t outright hate Main Street, but I was greatly disappointed by it. After a hundred pages of this, all the potshots at Gopher Prairie locals feel like Lewis shooting monkeys in a barrel. Sinclair Lewis either lacked the desire or the talent to portray small town people as anything other than caricatures. But three years ago, the town of Sauk Centre erected a statue to the man. And in the immediate wake of the book’s publications, many rural Minnesotans proudly called themselves “Main Streeters.” Either they missed the point of the book or, more likely, they never bothered to read it.

Next Up: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness!

The House of Mirth (Modern Library #69)

(This is the thirty-second entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Alexandria Quartet.)

“But brilliant young ladies, a little blinded by their own effulgence, are apt to forget that the modest satellite drowned in their light is still performing its own revolutions and generating heat at its own rate.” — The House of Mirth

Our universe has become more hopelessly transactional. Vile narcissists with limitless greed and an absence of smarts and empathy have taken over the landscape with their blunt bullhorns. At every socioeconomic level, you will find a plurality of mercenaries who will push any bright and promising head beneath the waterline with ruthless cruelty. Perhaps I’m finally understanding, at an embarrassingly late age, just how commonplace such self-serving treachery is in our world. But what’s the alternative? Cynicism? At times, I have a sense of humor that is darker than the nightscape above the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, but no thanks. I’ve always been a cautious optimist with a healthy handle on reality, but I still detest this state of affairs. I will still speak out vociferously against it and fight the business-as-usual cowards who uphold this great sham known as the status quo at any personal cost. I stump for the outliers and the misfits. The people who have authentic and vital voices. I don’t care who they are or where they come from. I will stick up for the gas station attendants and the baristas. I will listen to their full stories rather than judge them from a fleeting glance or a superficial and supercilious position. I despise bullies and opportunists. I believe in affording everyone basic dignity. I believe that everyone has it within them to grow and to learn and that inquisitive efforts should never be mocked, especially when genuine curiosity is now in such short supply. Reprobates who use their positions of power to denigrate the marginalized and the underprivileged are scumbags who need to be fought and, if necessary, destroyed.

So you can probably imagine how much The House of Mirth means to me. It is one of the best books on the Modern Library list and it should have been ranked much higher. This is my favorite Edith Wharton novel, although The Custom of the Country is a close second. Just this year, I have purchased four copies of this book for friends, urging them to read it with every ounce of exuberance I can summon. And you need to read it too, if you haven’t already. This book is vivacious and brilliant and funny and utterly heartbreaking. I rooted for Lily Bart. I wept for her. Even when I knew her fate. She did not deserve her downfall. She is one of the great tragic heroines in all of literature, right up there with Emma Bovary, Dido, Anna Karenina, Ophelia, Bertha Mason, and Francesca da Rimini. Much like Muriel Spark’s masterpiece The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, you can read this novel multiple times and always discover a new angle. That the rules of the game haven’t changed all that much in the one hundred and seventeen years since this classic was published is a great testament to Wharton’s sagacious and prescient genius. And if you finish this novel and you’re not in the “ride or die” wagon for Edith Wharton, then I’m sorry, but you simply have no literary taste.

Should Lily Bart be blamed for her fate? Conservatives (and privileged neoliberals) will likely condemn her for her apparent financial irresponsibility, but the peer pressure from her rich friends to gamble away vast sums she doesn’t have at bridge will be deeply felt by anyone who can recall the youthful horrors of trying to fit in. (In fact, I’d say the only contemporary writer today who could be an Edith Wharton in the making is the ferociously talented Adelle Waldman, whose excellent novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, mined similar territory. MacArthur people, are you listening? Award her a fellowship already! We really need to get her writing more books so we can find out!) And Wharton is exquisite in communicating to us precisely why Lily is so susceptible to social pressure from these higher-ups and hangers-on:

Her naturally good temper had been disciplined by years of enforced compliance, since she had almost always had to attain her ends by the circuitous path of other people’s; and, being naturally inclined to face unpleasant facts as soon as they presented themselves, she was not sorry to hear an impartial statement of what her folly was likely to cost, the more so as her own thoughts were still insisting on the other side of the case.

More than a century later, with the Dobbs Supreme Court decision and the Democrats’ failure to revive the Equal Rights Amendment serving as disheartening signs that a Handmaid’s Tale future could be in store for us, women are still pressured to be “good” and compliant. And while women have a lot more freedom today than they did in 1905, patriarchal conformity upheld through peer pressure has ensured that a lot of women silently endure such internal and external conflict.

Lily is lucky to have true friends like Carry Fisher (initially described as a “professional sponge” and “a mental habit corresponding to the physical titillations of the cigarette or the cock-tail,” but she turns out to be a hell of a lot more than this) and Gerty Farish (an indefatigable charity worker who doesn’t easily buy into any of the false charges eventually leveled towards Lily) when she eventually slips, but the affluent allure of the Trenors and their circle amaurotizes (and thus amortizes and possibly amouritizes?) her to the deadly puppetry of the Trenors and, most diabolically, the repellent and calculating bedhopper Bertha Dorset, whose doctors, we are informed, forbid “her from exposing herself to the crude air of the morning.” (Such a beautifully compact way of foreshadowing Bertha’s vampiric nature!)

Wharton was a master of gentle ambiguity nestling just beneath the surface of narrative clarity. The first time you read Mirth, you don’t buy Simon Rosedale’s mercy near the end. With his “small stock-taking eyes,” he’s little more than a bean-counting arriviste and his despicable tabulating also applies to people. (When Rosedale says, “I can’t help making love to you” to Lily near the end of the book, he’s basically every vulpine loser hitting a singles bar at 3 AM, scoping out the remaining women who haven’t gone home with anyone.) But the second time you read Mirth, you’re not so sure. Rosedale says, “The wonder to me is that you’ve waited so long to get square with that woman.” Can Rosedale be forgiven for simply being socially clueless? Is he a product of the system? And does his gesture actually mean anything? I’ll leave it to the capable writers of Jezebel and The Cut to argue the culpability of mediocre men.

Mirth‘s vast cast of characters tend to glom onto the split-second flourish of a socialite’s physical gesture to fuel gossip and umbrage. Consider the way that Mrs. Peniston is described as “the kind of woman who wore jet at breakfast.” But Wharton’s meticulous study of mercenary manipulators is far from vapid. She hoped to show that “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers…can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why The House of Mirth is so authentically devastating is because Wharton was undergoing a great deal of stress as she wrote it. Her husband Teddy had just experienced a nervous breakdown and his erratic behavior was worse than ever. Her fiction was in demand and was being published everywhere, but her social calendar was spiraling out of control. Scribner’s editor Edward Burligname needed a serialized novel at the last minute after another writer had dropped out. And amazingly, Wharton produced this masterpiece in ten monthly installments, with Mirth appearing in publication before Wharton had even finished it (although the tale had gestated in her notebooks for at least five years under the working title “A Moment’s Ornament,” taken from a Wordsworth poem).

Scribner’s knew that it had a big hit on its hands and promptly placed sensationalist ads on the cover — packaging that Wharton objected to — when The House of Mirth hit bookstores in October 1905. The publicity forces also talked up Wharton’s social movements and, while Wharton was happy to have her novel read, she feared that her work would be seen as nothing more than a juicy gossipfest.

She need not have worried. The book was fiercely debated in various letters sections, with many wondering if Wharton was accurately portraying the leisure class or mercilessly skewering them for her own gain. And the robust discussion lent greater credibility to Mirth‘s considerable literary merits.

In her excellent Wharton biography, Hermione Lee has suggested that The House of Mirth can be defined by the presence of books within the book: largely decorative and untouched by few outside Lawrence Selden, the young lawyer who toys with Lily Bart’s need to land a husband. But Mirth can also be epitomized by the actors recruited to entertain the wealthy at Bellomont:

Indeed, so skillfully had the personality of the actors been subdued to the scenes they figured in that even the least imaginative of the audience must have felt a thrill of contrast when the curtain suddenly parted on a picture which was simply and undisguisedly the portrait of Miss Bart.

If all the world’s a stage, why then are we still susceptible to objectifying people? It’s actually quite astonishing how effortless it is to transpose the cruelty of class trappings to the casual character assassination that now passes for “truth” on social media. (As Wai-Chee Dimock has observed, Lily Bart spends most of the novel marketing herself, attempting to appeal to the highest bidder. This is not unlike the behavior of a comely Instagram influencer or, if we want to take Gus Trenor’s sinister insinuation on its face, an OnlyFans model willing to say or do almost anything to extract money.)

Many disgusting creatures in high places fancy themselves Lily Barts — even as they stab with the fierce sociopathic duplicity of Bertha Dorset. (On literary Twitter, there can be no better contemporary parallel to Bertha than the monstrous bully and largely mediocre writer Jennifer Weiner, whose relentless attacks on other writers are quietly circulated among those in the know and whose odious demands for “literary respect” were smartly captured by The New Yorker‘s Rebecca Mead in 2014.) They jockey for precarious perches to cleave to their careers while piling onto the week’s “main character” with gossip and lies. An otherwise innocent figure’s glaring mistake is used to perpetuate further prevarications and even those in the know, like Rosedale, will not lift a finger to salvage their own shaky ascent into a perceived predominance. Indeed, as someone who has been the target of multiple smear campaigns, I can report that a literary man of modest renown — a figure who once maintained a blog inspired by Wharton — treated me, when I was homeless, with the same false solicitude that Rosedale tenders to Lily Bart in the final crushing pages of The House of Mirth. He strung me along with phony plaudits about my writing talent and he offered me the sham promise of a prominent magazine gig that I would have killed to land at the time. He was not unlike Rosedale. Indeed, like all of Wharton’s socialites, he inevitably deemed me invisible — likely with a cognizant irony. It is doubtful that I will ever forgive this motherfucker for tinkering with my dignity and my then shaky self-respect to delude himself into thinking that he was a “kind and decent man.”

So Lily Bart’s awful and needless plunge into the abyss resonates deeply and painfully with me. Today I am tremendously grateful to be gainfully employed, doing what I love, tackling new creative mediums, and to be very much alive. That there are so many “influencers” who hold this book up without comprehending or practicing its emotionally instructive lessons about the need for empathy says everything about the vicious myopia of the contemporary literary world, which now thrives on stubbing out noisemakers and ruining outliers. They cancel anyone with an even remotely disagreeable opinion and they murder anyone who stands in their way of their self-serving and meretriciously earned “success.” Cutthroat capitalism and opprobrious opportunism at its finest! Edith Wharton had her finger on the pulse of 1905 life. And sadly 2022 life.

Next Up: Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street!