Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 123 in June, 2010.
Drive By: Shards & Poems
By John Bennett
(San Pedro, CA: Lummox Press, 2010)
Review by Jim Feast
Recently, Barney Rosset and I were discussing the idea of the American writer as an outsider.
It was apropos an historical essay on Bukowski, who is quoted as saying that he was afraid if he were published in Evergreen Review, he would lose his status as a literary outlaw. I don’t know enough about Bukowski to say if my next claim is really accurate, but this small quote certainly makes one question how authentic of an outsider he was if his obsessive concern was to preserve his image as a renegade.
I want to say a few words about John Bennett’s new book Drive By in light of this discussion, but first another word about Rosset’s comments. In our talk, he compared writers such as Bukowski (and by implication Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and so on), all of whom were considered, at least by the mainstream, as literary bandits of one sort or another, to Genet. Genet spent years in prison, even in a Nazi one, jailed as a thief. When Rosset tried to get him a visa (so he could come to the U.S. and report on the ’68 Democratic Convention), his request was turned down. Genet was banned as a homosexual. The French author promptly smuggled himself across the Canadian border.
So, as Rosset noted, without running to the extreme of saying Bukowski and similar authors don’t have any right to their credentials as outlaws, it hardly seems that getting drunk a lot, not holding a steady job, and being sexually deviant and politically aberrant really allows the writer to measure up, experience-wise, to the likes of a Genet or, for that matter, a Beckett, who lived for years, isolated in the South of France, to escape death at the hands of the Nazi? This is the Beckett who gave up everything: career, family, homeland, to live for decades in abject poverty while he perfected his art.
What about Bennett? Is he any more qualified to pick up the mantle of outsider than the other American writers I’ve mentioned? Well, yes. But first a word more about these rebels.
At the moment, I am talking about how a writer lived and was perceived, not about her or his skill. In my opinion, one doesn’t have to be on the fringe to be a great author. Moreover, I should add that a lot of this is a question of history. Duras, for example, grew up in an impoverished, deserted, single-parent household in Indochina, then returned to France where she became a Resistance leader. Malraux’s trajectory, from East Asia back to France (and Spain) and the battle against fascism, was similar. (Need I add, that Rosset’s life ran along these same lines, from being in the army fighting in China, back to the U.S. to fight American fascism by making Strange Victory.) Such harrowing, on-edge experiences were not available to Americans unless they fought in the war. But now I come to the crux.
To stay with the French/American comparison, in France for the writers of Beckett’s generation, such devastating experiences were common coin. Everyone lived under the Nazi occupation. Having lived years of terror hardly made one an outsider since nearly everyone did. A true rebel was someone like Genet who lived more dangerously in a situation where everyone was on a precipice.
Let me add a further qualification. To be a white outsider writer, as Bukowski seemingly fancied himself, in the less hazardous conditions of the U.S. in the 1950s and ’60s, meant living on the margins of an affluent society. (The conditions for black writers and those of other disenfranchised groups in those years, it might be remarked, were closer to those of the French outsiders we are discussing.) It is not till now, not till the great economic collapse of the last few years, that something resembling the dissolution of postwar French conditions and, so, something resembling the French outsider writer could emerge for whites in the U.S.
Why do I say that? Because, although my predictions may be wrong, I believe our country’s entering of a long-term economic depression combined with cascading environmental collapse has created a limit situation with much resemblance to the German occupation and its aftermath. Not as drastic, no, but analogous.
So, how does Bennett fit in? His book, like many of Bukowski’s, represents a life of hard scrabbling, years as a drifter, waiter, and now, in his seventies, earning his daily bread as a window washer. Unlike Bukowski, however, he has toiled into old age with near zero recognition (especially judged in relation to his masterly chops as a writer). His edgy writing is preeminently capable of capturing the brink nature of U.S. reality, so now, after (I admit) this overlong prelude, let me turn to his words.
Bennett zips back and forth from zany but down-to-earth fantasy to reportage-like, insightful accounts of life on the poor side of town, sometimes pausing halfway between these modes, as in “Begging Bowl,” where he channels some of the real miseries of his childhood into the surreal brutalities of a character who is tied to a “two-fisted auntie … who was all smiles and honey around his parents, but a banshee when she had him alone, wrapping him naked in duct tape, squeezing his little cock and balls while slamming him along side the head with a frying pan.”
In a more realistic vein he reminisces about when he and a friend were down to their last sou in Brussels and met a group of gypsies, who took them home where, as he puts it, “We sat around by candlelight drinking wine and smoking hashish and the Gypsies mapped out their strategy for the day to come. In the morning they sent us on our way with enough folding money to get us to Munich.” As he summarizes, “This is the human spirit … [that] will be there when the oil runs out.”
This was a dramatic story, but he can also tap into the everyday for smaller, but wildly imaginative passages, as in this poem where he finds a novel way to rejuvenate himself: “I’ve got a picture album that goes back to childhood, and I’ve taken to cutting the faces off the old me and pasting them over the new, which can be taken two ways, depending on what you want out of life … The old me is the new me and the new me is the old, and that pretty much sums things up and cancels out the whole show.”
However, when he really gets all cylinders firing is when he draws on his fantasy to depict in livid colors his vision of the insanity of the current world situation. Here, he gives his own take on fear of Arab terrorists. “The Muslims are angry. They plant bombs in our teddy bears that we rock in our arms, hoping for sleep.”
It is drawing on such rejections of the status quo, and years of living hard, that Bennett has the chutzpah, but also the authenticity, given his unique social position, to compare a scene in his life to something depicted in Sophie’s Choice. Out of context, this might seem grandiose or awkward, but within the whole poem it is not so. He remembers a scene in the novel where “Sophie … is marched through the mud of the concentration camp and through a crude wooden door with coils of barbed wire over it into the Technicolor world of the camp commander … a lush garden.” Now put this next to a scene he experienced on a day in 2009. “I’m up on a ladder wearing my dead father’s Korean War wool-lined army cap with big ear flaps … wetting down high glass on this three-million dollar home, and on the other side of the glass is another world, a technicolor one with a roaring fire in a fireplace [on this freezing day] and two fat children … lounging in front of it.”
It is Bennett’s consummate skill, combined with his unique social position, in which he looks up from society’s absolute bottom, but in a way that can see all the way through to the penthouse with total clarity, that allows me to dub him the first amalgam of the American outsider and the French étranger.