The Buick Cascada: RIP 2019
I noticed a convertible on the way into work today. Pretty good looking… especially for a Buick. Good grief, I’m admiring a Buick. Old, old, old. The kind of person who still says Good grief, because Charlie Brown used to say it and he read a lot of Peanuts as a kid, because kids read the funny papers back when newspapers were a thing…Good grief. Just brilliant: a theology of suffering — the sorrow of the cross transformed into the fulfillment of that thrill of hope that Nat King Cole sings about every Christmas — turned into a depressed little boy’s signature catchphrase. Hell, that kind of reverie is its own testimony to senescence. Too much accumulated bric-a-brac, too poorly organized. You go rummaging for one thing and bring four others tumbling down. Worse still, it turns out I was admiring a Buick that had stopped production in 2019. The dying eyeing the dead. I keep thinking I’ve had my midlife crisis. And then pow, I get on a train of thought that stops at Christmas, and recall that for the first time ever, a majority of Americans are not affiliated with any sort of church. Christmas? Humbug. Ancient history, of which I shall soon be a part.
The proprietor wisely resisted the bait.
An old friend visited over the weekend. Took him to Maxwell’s Books on La Mesa Boulevard, where he asked me for a recommendation. I passed by the copy of Every Man Dies Alone, but not before imagining the sales pitch. “It’s a thrilling, heroic novel based on the true story of a working-class German couple who became part of the German Resistance! I’m calling it Every Man Dies Alone!” Titles are marketing; who would buy such a thing? The movie version smartly changed it to Alone in Berlin. Instead, I suggested Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils, which at least has the good sense to be funny about the inevitabilities wrought by time. What’s better comedy than a man — that thing Shakespeare lauded as “in form and moving, how express and admirable” — struggling to move his bowels? “Not trying at all because that was the healthy, natural way, trying a certain amount because that ccould have no real adverse effect, trying like a lunatic because why? — because that was all there was to do.”
We had to wait to make our purchase while an old codger chatted up the proprietor. “Did you see Ken Burns’ documentary on Hemingway? It’s excellent. He’s the greatest writer of the 20th century.”
“Well, he’s certainly one of them.”
“No, I would say he’s the greatest. His writing is so direct. You really feel like you’re there.”
The proprietor wisely resisted the bait. “The thing about Burns is he’s so smart about marketing. Hemingway is the closest thing to a superstar celebrity author we have.” Read: nobody reads any more, but here’s a once-famous guy whose life — hard-drinking, hard-loving, full of shooting and explosions, capped off with pills, depression, electroshock therapy, and suicide — makes for good TV.
I used to read. I used to read Hemingway. Then I read Everyone Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, and got yet another confirmation of Lickona’s Theory of Success: all you have to do to make it big in showbiz, literary or otherwise, is betray somebody close to you. Hemingway did it no less than three times on his way up, first wriggling out of his small-time publishing house contract by sending them a savage parody of its star author Sherwood Anderson, who happened to be his first mentor and champion. When they declined to publish, he was free to move on to bigger things, and the bigger thing he moved on to was a roman à clef about a trip to Spain with some friends that turned them all into monsters on the page. They were stunned, but Hemingway was on his way. Oh, and along that way, he also ditched his first wife for her good friend. Later, he took a literary hatchet to another early supporter, my old favorite F. Scott Fitzgerald. But I still watched the Burns documentary. Celebrity has its attractions.
Fitzgerald drank himself to death before he got old, but before he went out, he gave us The Crack-Up, a personal essay which described a blow “that comes from within — that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”
The day after our visit to the bookstore, I took my friend to a dinner party at a hillside home in Spring Valley. “My God, look at all the gray hair,” said a fellow attendee. “We’re really getting there, aren’t we?” We are. We joked about how old people talk about aches and pains, and then, having taken the curse off, we talked about aches and pains. (Unlike Amis, we avoided bowel movements; it was a dinner party.) We talked about the idea of core identity lies — falsities with which we had kept company for so long that they had become rules to live by. Mine: that real change for the better is not actually possible. That the unbelievable thing about Easter is not that Jesus rose from the dead but that there is a new life in Him for me — or for anyone. That even the finest acquired habit is just a mask, waiting to slip off and reveal the sorry sameness within. We talked about how what a man does for work is often one of the least interesting things about him, contra the standard small-talk opener of “What do you do?” The sort of lesson you learn after you’ve spent a few rounds in the ring with a career.
But job or no job, there’s still the question, “What have you done?” followed hard by “What will you do?” At least Fitzgerald managed to crank out The Great Gatsby before cracking. Another night, another friend: He tells me that when he hears me talk like this, he thinks I’m on the verge of breaking through, of doing something really worthwhile. What a lovely thought.