People often ask me, "John," they'll say, "What's wrong with you?" Well, no one seems to know in any general sense. That is, if we're not settling for some facile cleverness like, "I'm an idiot!" or "I'm an asshole!" As utilitarian as those answers may seem, ultimately, they are not. Particular answers can be found in areas like, "I've got a slow thyroid," or "I'm old," or "I'm a liberal." But recently a simple enough and straightforward kind of double-barreled question caught me in a familiar chest-clutching, ya-got-me-pal slump to my knees when an acquaintance asked me, "You don't like people much, do you?" I returned with an instinctive, involuntary, "Guess not," to be rounded upon with a familiar backhand, "What's wrong with you?" My opponent disengaged from his tall horse with a side-straddle dismount and did not wait for a reply as he slapped his gloves together and accepted a towel from his squire. I lay gasping in the dust, trying to wheeze out the phrase, "...don't know."
Hardly an adequate response either, but almost nothing is. Still, the question remains a good one. In a novel I wrote years ago, a character asks my protagonist, "You don't like rich people very much, do you?" His answer was something like, "I suppose they're not any more unlikable than poor people, they just have more money." The answer seemed glib and unsatisfying but not because it wasn't true -- it was just too easy. The character, in this aspect, was me, and that would have been my answer to a question like that. At least I wasn't a snob; but it occurred to me then that I was something worse, a genuine misanthrope. I then adopted that word as a knee-jerk defense against charges of misogyny that, coincidentally, abounded after the publication of that book -- not for that remark, but because none of the female characters in that story were trustworthy, a convention in noir fiction that I gleefully played with, just like dialogue and description of Southern California and people shooting each other over mixed drinks and cigarettes.
Several months ago I had to ask a roommate to leave, partly because he was having one particular guest over constantly who insisted on using our living room as a kind of chemical amusement park. In defense of his choice of company, the roommate said, "I don't expect you to understand, Mister...Private Person! But some of us like to invite friends over!" Mister Private Person? He must have been mistaking me for someone on A Current Affair or Access Hollywood. "You know, Brad is really a very Private Person." Or, "Britney...blah blah blah...a Private Person." The way he said it, I could almost see him put his hands on his hips and his nose in the air. He didn't, but you know...
Just yesterday, I received a letter from an old high school friend who has made attempts to reach me via phone, letters, the message board for editorial responses, and, for all I know, psychic emanations through my dental work. Twice he referred to my "need for solitude." This is a promotion, as I see it, from Private Person and only one step away from the conflictedly coveted Eccentric or Neurotic Recluse. I say conflictedly coveted because there is that type of writer (and I am one) or painter, or, say, lone gunman who wishes to dwell alone, deep in a cave, far from humanity, but who occasionally looks outside to say, "Hey! Where is everybody? Why didn't anybody follow me in here?" Then, shaking a fist to the sky, "Ungrateful cretins! Fools!"
Recently, a friend who had been reading a biography of Oscar Wilde was remarking on the sad fact that toward the end of Wilde's life, he was so ostracized in London society that he was reduced to, in effect, paying for dinner companions. When she remarked on this to me, I mumbled, "Crysakes, I'd pay to be left alone sometimes." It's not as if I've ever been mobbed for attention due to any notoriety of mine. It's just that I was in rehab at the time and had to eat dinner with 32 other guys who seemed incapable of eating with their mouths closed but could easily bark crumb- and grease-flecked obscenities across the room while ripping out virtuoso glissandos or tuba-like accents of flatulence -- all at deafening volume.
People. Ya gotta love 'em. Well, that's what they say, and they're probably right. Have you seen the bumper stickers, WWJD? What would Jesus do? I should remember it often because my attitude is an accurate-enough reverse barometer of that hypothetical. On the rare occasion when I do something even vaguely Jesus-like, I can hear my friend (and she is the best of them) say, "Doesn't that make you feel good?" And I'll nod or say, "Hmm...yes." But what I could also say more truthfully is that I feel very little, almost nothing; and then I will be reminded of one of the most interesting novels I've ever read by one of my favorite writers. It is A Burnt-Out Case, by Graham Greene.
In Greene's story, an architect named Querry leaves his successful practice in England and boards a boat to the end of its line in the African jungle, a leper colony. Querry has no spiritual axe to grind, no urge to "do good." He simply feels numb and wishes to feel something, anything at all. He supposes changing the rotting bandages on the feet of lepers would provide, at least, repugnance. On the boat downriver, a father superior asks him if there is anything he wants before turning in. Querry, like many of Greene's characters, is likely to be somewhat lit at the end of an evening in the heart of darkness. "Nothing. I want nothing." He nearly added, "That is my trouble." The father recommends something for prickly heat, and Querry declines. "I suffer from nothing."
"Oh well, you know, suffering is something that will always be provided when it is required." And that was something like an article of faith I found on page 12 of that book. And with faith you bring hope on board, "a damnable thing," as Greene calls it somewhere else.
And here, I suppose, is where I've flopped onto the shoreline pretty much out of breath, with Barbra Streisand's song over the credits, "People who need people..." those reliable providers of suffering and its damnable sister, hope.