Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Man Who Saw His Own Liver


The Man Who Saw His Own Liver was conceived and written by Bradley R. Smith as a one act play. It was performed in 1983 in The Theater of Note in downtown Los Angeles with John Ackelson playing the role of A.K. Swift. With minimal editing, it is presented here in novelized form.

“Joseph Conrad and the Monster from the Deep” is excerpted from Bradley R. Smith's work-in-progress, A Personal History of Moral Decay.

Introduction: Death and Taxes

Bradley Smith is one of those writers. Like Hunter Thompson or Hubert Selby; like Brautigan, Bukowski, or the Beats. You read him when you’re young. You read him with a rush of discovery, never to be forgotten. The prose is clean and relaxed and punctuated with a distinct, tumbling, rhythmic flair. It goes down easy. It makes you want to write.

The world Smith made is suffused with a restless vitality that feels personal and true. Everything unfolds as pitch-perfect Zen comedy, where wanderlust and quiet desperation harmonize with the dimly consoling romance of existential resignation. Reading Bradley Smith would be a rite of passage. Except that it isn’t. Hipster clerks who trade in the semiotics of outlaw literature have never heard of Bradley Smith. Or, if they have, chances are their familiarity will be shaded by poisonous misapprehension.

Bradley Smith writes about the inner life as revealed through dreams and books. He writes from experience about war and bullfights, and that time when he was asleep in a Mexico City jail and a cellmate took a shit on his foot. He writes, lyrically at times, about nature; about family and friendship and sin and shame and the tragicomic folly of bureaucracy and organized religion.

The problem came only when Bradley found his subject. There’s that ruined passage from Job: I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came. And so it did. Not that he wasn’t asking for it.

The broad strokes. A young man goes off to war, gets shot in the head and decides then and there to become a writer. Returning home, this aspiring writer flails and fails and somehow ends up being prosecuted by the State of California for selling a book – Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. He loses that one. Years go by. Times change. The writer works. The writer writes. Then comes this shattering, unforgivable epiphany when the muse steers headlong into the “great question of belief.” And the stakes are forever changed.

The man makes choices. Choices make the man. Or maybe things just unfold the way they do. No matter. Your friends and professors have it all figured out. Bradley Smith, they will assure you, is the worst sort of character. Bill Burroughs kills his wife and his crime is casually bought and sold as countercultural
mythology, but Smith, you must understand, is a special case, a man whose defining transgression exists beyond the pale of permissibly decadent writerly lore. He stands naked and guilty of something wholly unredeemable; he dances by the flame of the only evil still worth naming.

There’s no point in softening the lede. Bradley Smith, the very best people know and understand, is a Holocaust Denier. Rumor has it, he even dips hummus with Ahmadinejad. Ask the next question and you’ve made your first mistake. This is where things get stuck. It’s too bad, really. But also very nearly perfect.

At one end of the bar sits this avuncular old raconteur, sipping Mexican beer. He wears his heart on his sleeve and laughs at death. Buy him a fish taco and he’ll tell you the funniest war stories you ever heard. Or maybe, if the mood is right, he’ll bore you with the one about how he came to doubt the gas chamber stories.
On the opposite end, your eyes meet the collective, disapproving glare of Mom and Dad and everyone you’ve ever trusted, imploring you to simply turn away.

It’s happy hour, and everyone is looking. You have a choice. Or maybe you don’t.
If it helps, The Man Who Saw His Own Liver is not a book about the Holocaust. At least not the one you have in mind. Of course, if you can’t bring yourself to wade past the emanations and penumbras, you’ll find what you’re looking for. To be sure, the crisis of apostasy is prefigured, obliquely, in delicious criminal traces. If that’s your game, chug a lug. The book is always open.

It’s odd how easily we forget. About the Bomb. The way we forget about death, perhaps. The decades pass and Cold War anxiety washes into gray newsreel nostalgia. Pakistan still has nukes, but the hundredth monkey calls in sick. Nothing has changed, of course. You simply learn to drop the subject. Somehow, the other Holocaust is passé.

Removed from the once urgent night- mare panic of a billion childhoods, Bradley Smith’s epistle owes its resonance to deeper yet simpler verities. Beyond the din of political protest, beyond the cloying refrains of refashioned liberation theology, or regurgitated Chomsky loops, or Ron Paul bumper stickers, the bead hovers ever nearer the visceral quick, where the heart races and everything is music.

Make no mistake, taxation is theft. But true freedom belies and defies every slogan. While the grim specter of nuclear annihilation looms just offstage, the grit and gristle of Smith’s monologue distills to the imprisoned logic of Sartrean humanism; his is a helpless moral gesture telescoped through the distant lens of American transcendentalism. A dire predicament dooms us to brotherhood. In the reckoning, there is grave responsibility. And there is the longing for atonement. In the marrow, “the wanting.” Smith’s surrogate narrator, A.K. Swift, is at once quixotic and apathetic. Thoreau and Mersault. A tax resister who can’t be bothered to go public. A libertarian with blood on his hands. An absurd rebel, kicking against the pricks. A writer with no role. He stands athwart the immovable rout of "bureaucrats, revolutionaries and priests," speaking softly in the one true voice; his call to reason unheard and unheeded, swallowed up in the churning clockwork of history.

A working-class dreamer is cast against implacable forces from without and the story is as old as Sophocles. Seul contre tous. Impotent and beset by failure, his fate is sealed in eternal measures of comic futility. Camus insisted that where there is the greatest danger there is also the greatest hope. He was wrong, of course. There’s no cheating the reaper, or the taxman. Yet when hope is dashed and failure foregone, one man can laugh, or he can cry. Or he can relent. The trick, as A.K. Swift – and Bradley Smith – might remind us, is in finding right relationship.
Just ask the Buddha. Or Anne Frank. They understood what the Nazis and bureaucrats will never confess.

Chip Smith
November, 2007

No comments: