Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Sunset Limited

famed sunset

December 28, 1999

Dear P_____,

Here I am on a train, double-decker type, sign called Los Angeles by my window, two seats by myself, half-empty train with folks less anxious than a plane, and I've decided to write this train journal in the form of a letter to you which may get long-winded, or just long in length, but that may be the only way I know how. Brought with me The East of Eden Letters, a collection of letters that Steinbeck wrote every morning before working on the massive book...just started rolling, the Sunset Limited, and I'm about to start this book called "North of Sunset" on this very trip and here I sit on a train named for it...anyway, I'm reading this book that Steinbeck wrote to his editor outlining his thoughts about the book as it progressed, his thoughts about his life. Sometimes illuminating, sometimes very dull. If you know the collection, I apologize. Point is, that's what I intend this letter to you to be, a place to work out thoughts to an imaginary reader (Steinbeck's editor never actually got to read the letters), to work out the novel I have proposed for myself, and to work myself out of the place I have been for the past few years. I've got a lot to get down. Here to you and there in the novel. This past visit to L.A. family could fill a novel in itself. Getting along with the family better but privately feeling like a black sheep. Don't have the patience or the eyes to get that all down right now. The scenery is moving by so I think I will watch my exit out of L.A. It's 10 o'clock at night so darkness has fallen...Sitting across the aisle from me is a Mark David Chapman type, wide glasses, soft, shaken, reading a book called High Lonesome. Writing what looks like could be farewell postcards. One wonders who is going to be the one to bomb the train this millennial holiday. They don't x-ray bags on a train. Any one of these people could be a private lunatic. Planes are too difficult to bomb, too ambitious, so the high lonesome man takes his revenge on the ground.

Dec. 29

Woke up in the desert. I needed to sleep off the L.A. trip and get to the real writing today after a dining car breakfast and coffee. Sleeping in my seat on the frozen train wasn't so easy but I'll get used to it. Today I'll buy an Amtrak blanket. The female conductor asks me if I'm writing Arabic. "No, that's English," I say. "Sorry," she says. "That's a doctor's writing." I spent breakfast with Earl and his wife and a frowning, overweight lady who wanted to see the desert. She'd never seen a cactus up close. The great thing about a dining car meal is that they put you at any available table, placing you with people you would never meet otherwise. It's an exercise in communism- sleeping car dines with coach. Somehow in the course of the meal I didn't get all their names, just their destinations. Chicago for the Earls, Louisiana for the lady, conspicuously reticent about telling us which town. I only got Earl's name because his wife used it like punctuation: "Earl, you gonna drink coffee? Look at that desert, Earl." Earl was dressed in a stained light-blue v-neck sweater, sport jacket, worn gray hat, like a dandy who never washes or changes his clothes. Earl's wife was a frail, heavily wrinkled old woman, dressed in black. Both were Southern-accented. Earl's wife tried to convert me to Christianity. "Are you Jewish?" she asked. "Yes." "My great grandfather was Jewish. He married a gentile and had four sons. He loved those sons," she said as if this were a miracle in itself. "I wish I was Jewish," she went on. "They're the chosen people. Jesus was a Jew, you know. It's all in the Old Testament." She then handed me some Jews for Jesus literature- "How tolerant are you?"- and we leave it at that. She then tells us about her car accident last week over our cold egg breakfasts. "You should have seen me. The whole side of my face was black. Black. And my legs down there are all bruised and beaten." She looks down at her legs with a kind of pride. A pleasant meal all around. The dust barren land going by, Joshua trees, a trailer here there, mountains in the distance on either side.

I was listening to an interview with new boy-genius director Paul Thomas Anderson (who stole my idea about porn with "Boogie Nights," kind of a nemesis, but a nemesis I respect) and he said that most of the directors he admired had grand stories to tell. Ernst Lubitsch had gone to war. Scorsese grew up in Little Italy. He felt inadequate until he realized that there were plenty of stories where he had grown up, the valley- the most suburban flatland of strip malls that L.A. has to offer, the ridiculed outcast of the main city. I always felt the same way about my upbringing- the Hollywood high school, the Hollywood dinner table conversations. It always seemed separate from the meat and grease of the real world. A place devoted to the manufacture of fantasy was like living on another planet. I have titled the upcoming book "North of Sunset" because for me it represents limbo. I grew up on Bundy drive, north of Sunset Boulevard. Sunset Blvd. sweeps around the city. All the wealthier homes are north of Sunset in the hills. Kings always lived in the hills, in a high castle. To me life was always south of Sunset. South was the heart of the city, the life and lights. North of Sunset were just disconnected houses, no neighborhoods. No stick ball games that Brooklyn writers reminisce about in their memoirs. No local life except for people who were glad to be removed from each other in their work-earned isolation. It's a key reason for my sense of alienation, feeling removed from the stuff of life. At the same time though North of Sunset represents celebrity, name in lights, fame. So it's a loaded title and I'm glad to have it at the start. I have come to realize that the Hollywood story is as lively as any, especially now that Hollywood has become such a force in the world. And I think, is it really that easy? Am I really that lucky that I can use all this shit that I had once thought was so cynical and useless and worth being leveled? It's a nice sense of liberation that is a long time coming.

We are stopped in the El Paso train station. On the right of the train, Mexican shanty towns, on the left, American opulence. People taking pictures. Right now the guy in front of me is explaining how he can't read long chapters of books. "I get bored," he says. So maybe I should stop. This train was a good idea. Watching the scenery go by at 70 mph is a kind of meditation. Writing in my seat in the unmoving train tells me why I like writing in trains, as if the movement of the train keeps my pen going. There's something about it being on a track, a straight line, clear cut destinations, goals that can be met.

I am reminded of a faintly psychotic letter I wrote to you in Paris when I walked as far as I could South until I ended up at the offramp of a freeway. That was a grim procession. This ride is more hopeful, less a defenseless and angry collapse. Towards something and not away from something. The millennium is of more than minor importance to me. It comes at a strangely opportune time. I just finished my novel and my life is due an abrupt and vital change. The resolutions I want to make are real and not just some vague feigned optimism. It's the pilgrimage I mentioned to you on the phone. I imagine the resolutions are obvious enough to you, just reread the tendencies of all my past letters and reverse them. I'm a self-immolating lunatic when it comes down to it- a person who whispers "fuck you" in closed quarters when a bad memory flashes into his head. I'm just that kind of Ray Tompkins crazy. A person who burns himself up so he can write burned-out characters. Burns himself so he can't write at all because writing is as hard as life...A gruff little dog chases the train. I'll set down my pen and look out at Texas...Probably the best site I've seen so far: The Houston dump. Thousands of birds, seagulls, pigeons, sparrows, little black birds, flying around almost like blown debris, somehow not hitting each other. Thousands of them.

Dec. 30

I spent breakfast with a couple whose son is the war corespondent photographer for Time magazine. He was held captive seven days during the Gulf War. Not fed well but not mistreated. His parents are very proud of him. The mom ordered her food in broken Spanish to the Spanish waiter; she is a high school Spanish teacher. Dinner last night was spent with a dull cheerleader blonde woman who is terrified of planes, and her two children. Her husband took a plane back to their home in Dallas. She no doubt married a Jew because there was no trace of blonde or tan or button-nose on the freckled children. She seemed to regard them almost as if they were strangers...Running cows...The problem is not that I don't like people, I just don't like people in their twenties. All those New York bars swooning with uniform white kids can't touch the variety characters I've already met on this ride. I've enjoyed all my meals with the old folks. They have nothing to prove or make me prove. If they were in their twenties there would be so much more loaded testimony and questions rather than calm talk between people. This is a good realization. My misanthropy is not limitless...The South is rolling by now, Louisiana, lush and wet and green after the desert only a day before. The train tracks are flush up against the backyards of the more impoverished neighborhoods so you get a real sense of how a lot of people live. Many people wave as the train passes. A train seems to make people happy.

sunset south

I have been working on the novel when I am not writing to you, or staring out the window. I can say this, the novel may very well be good. It's going to be from at least five different characters point of view, and it will contain everything I've got, again like Steinbeck and East of Eden. I only hope I have the maturity to write what I want to write. Steinbeck wrote EOE at the end of his career and life. It was a culmination. I needed to revisit L.A. once more before I started this L.A. novel. It gave me all the last minute material I had been looking for. My family's non-stop talk about movies. The bright and dark, romantic and unromantic, ugly and beautiful, sex obsessed and desperate city. The subtle, unsubtle rivalry with my brother. This train away from that city, through the South, towards New York and home is just what I needed. I really did right by myself. This may just be my fantasy vacation, what can be had without a girl by my side. Sitting and writing all day, watching the new scenery float by, eating meals with gracious strangers in the morning and night. If people were forced to sit with strangers at restaurants the world would be a better place...Train getting mooned by local redneck children.

Later. Dinner. A meal eaten alone. Nothing so depressing as a meal eaten alone. Or at least a long succession or them laid out in 99, 98, 97, only "God's Wife" as company. It needs to be replaced by a real wife, flesh and bone, because lonely dinners like that are below down. That's the last testament of December 30, the last full night of this century. Bomb sniffing dogs can't smell smoldering thoughts. At New Orleans the train emptied of 80% of its passengers who were going off to the midwest or celebrating the Eve in New Orleans, and now I am feeling alone, a fetal loneliness, a last bash of the year. This mercurial monkey had to hang from these trees at least once more. Small morsels of pride erupt when I write but last only a short-time before I get hungry again. Even big meals digest.

Dec. 31

The Eve morning. I ate breakfast with a guy in the Navy. He just finished boot camp a month ago and it was his first taste of French toast in five months. It occurs to me that if I made up the stories of the people I have met on the train and called it fiction, people might accuse me of being clichéd. But maybe that is America, a country full of archetypes. It's almost as if I dreamed the people I would meet on this trip. Save the young, lonely girl genius. But I guess real life has its characters. That this is a revelation is testament to my solitude. Navy and I talked about baseball- he's a Red Sox fan- but when I told him the plot of my novel, about a celebrity stalker, he frowned darkly and was very eager to get the check...This morning I scared a woman in the Jacksonville train station with stories of a potential bombing of the New Year's train. "There are no x-ray machines on a train," I said. "It's not like a plane. There are no x-ray machines." I'm a nutcase. I have been looking at everybody like they're a potential bomber. The scarlet redneck and his leathery girlfriend. The Amtrak worker with the thick mustache who just gave me a dirty look, he knows something. Stranger and more dangerous things have happened. A fat woman watching TV in the station wouldn't let me switch to the news showing New Years around the world because she wanted to watch football. Loud, divine revelry going on right now and I'm sitting in the warm Florida station, Southern California weather, nervous about terrorism. "Everything's going to be all right," a man nervously tells another. "Oh yeah, it's all just a lot of hullabaloo." A couple in cowboy clothes, from Roswell, NM describe their slow trip on trains across the country. She has blue 2000 glasses and a hat hung with tinsel. And I am certain that this is all going into the novel. It's strange to be watching my life unfold as if it were fiction. Right now I'm writing on the number 9 location on the Jacksonville platform, waiting for the New Years train up to New York. Willim Billy Jr. gives a warning to stay behind the yellow line.

sunset bridge

Back on the train. I spend New Years dinner with a real lunatic. Didn't know they made them like that anymore. He works at a high school in Champagne, Illinois. Fat, glasses, only suit ill-fitting. Has a nose that some women chop away to achieve but on a man looks pig-like, not to say it doesn't on women. Most of all, the man gently giggles to himself. Everything on the menu is a fantastic joke. He's coming back from his college's bowl game in Miami. I wonder if the waiters are as nervous as I am about the giggling, pudgy man. "Have you ever spent New Years on a train?" I ask. "No, but I've spent it at Disneyland and Disneyworld!" he says with glee. The man smiles everything he says. Until he doesn't and then it seems as if he's never smiled about anything. This man gets angry, everybody does, and I wonder how it exhibits itself on him. Time will tell. His brand of lunacy is almost too refined for him to be the ONE...Kids screaming as they play Go Fish. Old lady says, "Won't need any noisemakers tonight."

A drunk woman, wide-eyed, spiked blonde hair, frequent trips to the dining car to refill her spiked drink, her mouth and her eyes don't move in accordance with what she is saying. She wants to meet my eye, start a conversation. "I overheard you," she says (regarding a conversation with Mark David Chapman who turned out to be a nice, nervous photographer from Savannah) "that you were writing a book about personality disorder." She's drunk, slurring, and I assume she's talking about The Golden Calf. "I am," I say.

"Do you know anything about personality disorder?"

"I guess," I say.

"The reason I ask is because I know about personality disorder."

"How's that?"

"I work with them."


"Where doesn't matter. I know about personality disorder. And I think it is presumptuous of you to be writing about something you know nothing about. If you want to be a successful writer you should know about something and not be so blasé about it. I know these people. I work with them."

I sat back and started writing this. Once I've written these things down I can't quite believe they've actually happened...I am coming to the end of this trip and it's time to reevaluate what's gone on. I didn't get it all out as anticipated, every last nuance of character stripping, but I have a lifetime for that I suppose. It was unrealistic for me to try and grant 5 train-borne days to immediate and final self-improvement. I got down what I wanted, the basics, yet they are so obvious that they are almost forgotten as habit. Bad habit as second nature. It's amazing that I've set this up so that the trip doesn't only culminate in the new century, but it is carrying me home with a new degree of optimism which is more than any grand celebration could give me. This will be a strange New Year's Eve...A guy gets his sweater caught on the handlebars between trains. He trips, falls to his knees and smiles. In my nervousness about terrorism I see this as foreshadowing more falling and disaster, less smiles.

I spend my New Year's Eve in the lounge car. Bright yellow tables. Away from the smoking car so there are more kids. An exquisite young black girl, about fifteen, plays cards with her younger sister. An old woman alternates between solitaire and a computer game version of solitaire. "I like the computer game," she tells me. "I win more." At around 11:30 people begin piling into the lounge car with the promise of free champagne. Piling may be too strong a word. The folks are quiet, maybe even a little embarrassed that this small train celebration is their last hurrah of the century. Some of the men look bitter. Mothers with their kids. 80% black. A lot of people for whom it seems New Years is just another day of the week...I talk to Mike, a perch fisherman, landscaper, and logger who's had squirrels, skunks, pigs as pets. Just raise them from a baby and they'll love you for life, he says. He gives me his recipe for hunted deer- marinated for a day and a half with Teriyaki sauce, soy sauce, and Worcestershire and then cooked on a grill. Followed by fresh roasted pecans in cinnamon and sugar. Tells me how to fish for gopher turtles using a long, coarse wire. Just stick the wire deep in the mug and snag them. It's illegal but they taste good. Takes nine or ten to make a decent meal. He looks at me with slight disgust when I tell him I've never been hunting. He seems like a character, unreal, but he's authentic as they come and I can't tell you how much I appreciate that in this life. He's working on a novel called "100% Pure Evil," a horror novel, about a "mean mother," and we talk about writing.

I spot a man at the other end of the car. He seems to be glaring at me, hating me. He's balding, hair pressed across a sweating head, wide glasses framing dark eyes. It's the glasses that always make a person look like a wounded lunatic. The most frightening thing about him: he's cradling a small bag as if it is his life. There he is, I think, that's our bomber. That's the man who is going to make all the anxiety and pre-hysteria a reality. I sit in my seat for a few minutes, nervous. Finally, I stand up thinking, "Almighty, I've got to talk to this guy. Find out who he is. If there are no undercover cops on this train, maybe I can stop him." The seat across from him isn't taken so I sit down. "Hello," I say. "Hello," he replies with a larger, more gracious, smile than I had anticipated. And then his story unravels....

It turns out he is the most gentle of men, smiling, warm, even childlike. He lives with his mother and collects trains. He has so many boxes of model trains piling up in his small 9x16 room that they cover his bed and he has to sleep with his arms by his side. A certain kind of lunacy but on him it is endearing, unthreatening. He dreams of a time when he will have a home of his own and be able to set up all his trains. He is in his mid-fifties. He spots a car out of the train window and becomes excited, hopping in his seat. "Did you see that? That was a fifty-nine Cadillac. I've got a fifty-eight Cadillac but I like the fins better on a fifty-nine. Maybe I can go back later and see it." He then shows me what is in the bag he had been cradling. Along with harmless papers is a pack of photographs of his prize 58 Cadillac. "A little rusted at the bottom," he says but it makes him beam. This is the man I spend 12:00 with. The Amtrak folks hand out champagne and train whistles which everyone blows when the conductor counts down over the loudspeaker 10...9...8...The train-loving, Cadillac-loving math teacher from the Bronx holds up his plastic glass of free champagne and says, "They outdid themselves." And then, with big, earnest eyes, "God bless you Amtrak."

I wake up January 1st and outside is thick with fog. The train is rolling through white. I see an attractive girl smoking a cigarette in the lounge car. She is the only attractive girl in her twenties I had seen on the trip to New York. I figured she had gotten off the train before 12:00 the night before but she must have spent the New Years in her sleeping car. It's the last anti-serendipitous encounter of the old century. I sit down and read the newspaper. The Washington Post says that no millennial catastrophes occurred the night before.

January 3, 2000

Epilogue punchline: I guess I couldn't expect the old life to come to some sort of perfect happy ending. The train trip as a final voyage out. Life is never that clear cut or simple. Who the fuck could have counted on a bout of gout on my reentrance into the city. I try to declare that I'm going to tackle the world and when I get back to it I can't even walk. There's some other force at work here. God maybe- he wants to make me fight for it. Or for you atheists, my subconscious doesn't want me out there, wants me to remain in limp hiding. Of course, my disability got me writing, as usual. Writing as if the scenery is still flying by my side. The familiar Seward Park scenery now must inspire me. And maybe that is the point. I wanted too much too fast. A publishing deal, a wife, friends, physical comfort. It's as if I were asking to win the lottery.

Upon my return I had to start immediate work on the galley proofs for The Golden Calf. My pained foot locks me to the apartment so I have no choice but to work steadily, though I have to do it all through a codeine haze. Which is not actually a problem; might actually help it. In old days I would say, that's why I am held up with gout- in order to get this work done. It was a way to justify ill health by saying it is helping me write. These were the kinds of habits I hoped the train ride would exorcise, but I fall right back into it on day one. I swear to God, someone is playing with me. Maybe this is a last gasp of the old work. I was hoping to start the century new and bright and smooth but there's no such thing as a smooth transition. Growing pains are painful and life is just one big act of growth. At least it feels good to get some thoughts down and not have them clogging the soul upstairs.

On a positive note, the galley proofs look good, very good. I don't agree with many of the corrections I made in the last revision and so I am changing them but the layout of the book looks much nicer than the Soft Skull edition. I'm also sending a copy of the book to Michael Chapman. He was the cinematographer of "Taxi Driver" and I met him on Christmas Eve in L.A. I was drunk, inarticulate, but still it was a fine experience and he offered to read the book. He was fairly pretentious, told me that "Taxi Driver" was about "the death of religion," so I don't know how he will take the book...I'll get to work and try to forget the strange, hectic deflation I felt on the morning cab ride back from Penn station. The bus stops with the fashion photography advertisements at every corner. It's like driving through television, unreality. The people walking the streets with a sense of unearned pride. This is what struck me, this instant cynicism, upon my release into the world. An abrupt antithesis to the calm lack of pretense I encountered on the train. Shostakovich screams a quartet like a Hitchcock scene.

And so this exercise in self-obsession ends. I was right when I predicted that this would be long-winded, but I was also right when I said I didn't have a choice. It ends on a down note but I am not feeling too down. I am hopeful for the new century. As hopeful as when I talked to on the phone. I am going to live out my life in the 21st century so nothing can happen but change. The past is gone, the new century a kind of clean slate. I just didn't think that I would have to fight through all the low habits so soon. Now that these thoughts are down I can start the novel in earnest and with it the rest of my life.

Your friend,


next time try sunset