Shelfie: Luc Sante


Luc Sante is—to use that blurb-whore phrase deservedly, just this once—a writer’s writer. Greil Marcus, in his introduction to Sante’s fine essay collection, Kill All Your Darlings, thinks it’s all in the tone, which telegraphs Sante’s “quiet, calm, forceful, attempt to get inside those people, places, artifacts, and memories that attract him, with a commitment to the subject at hand that is as passionate as it is modest.” Yet Sante is, at the same time, possessed of “a cold eye worthy of Twain, or Hemingway, or Chandler,” says Marcus.

I’ll buy that, all but the Hemingway; Sante is more acerbically punk rock, and more devastatingly understated (and thus wittier) by a long shot. But Sante’s genius is also in the classical lines of his syntax, pleasing to the ear as a Doric column is pleasing to the eye. And then there’s his poet’s ear for funk and swing; he gave up poetry long ago, but still writes to the beat, which is why he can’t listen to music while he writes. And his vocabulary: equal parts pulp fiction, Lower East Side street hassle from the burned-out New York of the ‘70s, 19th-century lowlife, flaneur and flimflam man and hard-luck Parisian littérateur from the silent-movie era, the Gauloise glued to the corner of his mouth syncopating his sentences as he talks. (I keep thinking I hear Edmund White, too, but that might just me).

Flipping through my copy of Kill Your Idols, I see that I’ve underlined Santean turns of phrase by the dozen: New York in the ‘70s “was a ruin in the making, and my friends and I were camped out amid its potsherds and tumuli” (“My Lost City”); filterless Kools are “the very summit of impeccable, unmatchable, glacial suavity” (“Our Friend the Cigarette”). He’s got the Chandlerian trope down cold: Salvador Dali is “a performing flea” (“The Detective”); Blood on the Tracks “is so many people’s favorite Dylan album in large part because it is the one people can imagine themselves creating, were the muse to tap them on the forehead with a nine-pound hammer” (“I is Someone Else”). He has a pulp novelist’s eye for detail, the concrete truths that give words heft: “a factory-fresh jumbo house made of two-by-fours and gypsum and Tyvex and filled with gadgetry, on a street with no sidewalks and planted with saplings” (“In a Garden State”). Underlinings on practically every page flag his delicious vocabulary, words I’ve singled out, in the way of all writers, for shameless appropriation: lamsters, ward heelers, bindlestiffs, testamentary, in mufti. If you’re a writer, or even just wish you were a writer, I defy you to read a passage like “The cigarette could be a conductor’s baton, a colonial officer’s swagger stick, a conjurer’s wand. It functioned as an extension of the body, an exoskeletal limb with potential menace at its glowing tip”—and tell me you wouldn’t kill to have written it.

Ricky Jay, who is a conjurer, has been clocked throwing a playing card at a speed of 90 miles an hour—and embedding it, from a distance of 10 paces, in what he likes to call the “thick, pachydermatous outer melon layer” of “the most prodigious of household fruits,” the watermelon. Luc Sante does something like that, with words.

Mark Dery: In your fabulist memoir, The Factory of Facts, you mention, early on, your boyhood interest in books about the ancient Romans, an obsession that led you to acquire a small library on the subject (not to mention a treasured plastic sword, “short and broad, with an imperial eagle at its hilt”). Born in Belgium, of Belgian parents; shuttling between Belgium and New Jersey throughout your peripatetic childhood, you devoured bande dessinés and subscribed to Franco-Belgian comic magazines such as Pilote, which featured the escapades of Astérix and Obélix, “a feisty Laurel-and-Hardy pair” of unconquerable Gauls who sported winged helmets and invariably outwitted their would-be Roman conquerors. Later, as a disaffected, culturally dislocated teen, you succeeded in getting yourself expelled from school, a hiatus you put to good use reading “books that would have made my parents blanch, beginning with Naked Lunch when I was 13.” What’s the first book, no matter how juvenile (Goodnight Moon?), or even infantile (Pat the Bunny), that made an impression on you?

Luc Sante: Although apparently my favorite book as a tot was a Little Golden Book (in translation) about a small dog who is rescued from falling into a pond by his friends, possibly a goat and a stork—it seems I had it memorized—the first book that made me realize that literature was somewhat more than a train of content-bearing lexemes was a children’s edition of the Fables of La Fontaine. The one everybody remembers, “The Fox and the Crow,” was the first to be engraved in my head, where it remains. In case you’ve forgotten, the fox tells the crow how beautiful he is; the crow is moved to insist he’s not just beautiful, but a great singer, too—and in the process he drops the cheese he has been holding in his beak. Before making off with the cheese, the fox reminds him that “tout flatteur vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute”—every flatterer lives at the expense of a listener.

La Fontaine’s hexameters embody the beauty of the classical style: its measured pace and calm consideration, its clarity and simplicity of syntax matching its architectural clarity matching its moral clarity. My appreciation was admittedly helped along by my father’s recitations of the fables; he had quite a few by heart and recited them with the nineteenth-century intonations he’d been drilled in. Do Americans ever read La Fontaine? Are there any good translations? I seldom see him referred to, but every French writer of every description read him in childhood. He’s at the molten core of French literature. And check out Grandville‘s illustrations (made two centuries later), which perfectly match the text.     

MD: Americans don’t read La Fontaine; we absorb the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen osmotically, through Disney.

Do you recall which books first made you think, “I want to write like that”? You told an interviewer from Guernica magazine, “I stumbled upon what you might call modernist literature—Rimbaud, Breton, and Burroughs in particular, and Bob Dylan’s early electric period figured strongly as well—in a series of great swoops when I was around 13. One of the effects it had on me was a kind of intoxication with form…” Did Naked Lunch, with its smack-addled take on Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, its echoes of mountebank’s patter and hardboiled voiceovers and speedfreak monologues, cut the die for your style?

Or do we have to wait for your encounters with A.J. Liebling or Joseph Mitchell or maybe even the 19th-century criminal patois and cop lingo of the sources you researched for Lowlife before you really blossom as a writer? (Asking you about this makes me realize that I don’t think of you as a “modernist” at all, at least not in the Burroughsian sense you seem to mean, but rather as a pitch-perfect mixture of the corner-of-the-mouth, wiseacre newsies in Ben Hecht’s Front Page, Mitchell and Liebling, and the criminal underclass in Lowlife, with their florid argot, all strained through the punk-rock milieu of New York’s Lower East Side in the ‘70s and ‘80s.) 

LS: I did try to imitate pretty much all of the above, as well as Pynchon, Ed Sanders (Shards of God and The Family especially, and Tales of Beatnik Glory; his poetry not so much), Michael O’Donoghue, Emmett Grogan, Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Ballard. I went through the obligatory Kerouac period. But yeah, Burroughs actually predates most of them, because I was in seventh grade when I found at the public library a copy of Writers in Revolt (ed. Terry Southern, Richard Seaver, and Alexander Trocchi), which included a section from Naked Lunch—a remarkably chaste selection, but anyway—alongside Genet, Sade, John Rechy, and I don’t remember what all else. And it was definitely that totally American voice of his, part carny barker, part gold-brick vendor, part disbarred attorney, part some guy in fake clerical garb conning old ladies—imagine him as one of Mitchell’s subjects, but infinitely more corrupt. It’s a voice and stance that effortlessly condense the nation-long American pursuit of the angle.

And Burroughs, as a Rimbaud man, imagines that voice engaging in the dérèglement de tous les sens—dim jerky faraway 1906 centipedes—and as a consequence it becomes this astonishing phrasemaking machine. No wonder so many band names came out of Burroughs’s books! I was 14, so when I read about the “Mayan Caper” I thought it was very cool to write about Toltec Capers as if I’d made up the phrase myself. And closely linked with Burroughs for me then was Captain Beefheart, who you could imagine occupying the next stool at the 42nd Street Automat, napkin between cup and saucer always. “God’s doing the jerk and it’s the jerk’s fault for letting him do it.” At one point the Captain was announced as writing a novel called Brown Star—great title!—but he may have just made that up during an interview.

Anyway, Burroughs, Beefheart, Grogan, and the crime writers—that’s how I found the American voice. It was after I read Grogan’s Ringolevio, Hammett’s Red Harvest, and Cain’s Postman Always Rings Twice in quick succession that, aged 20, I went from poetry to prose, conclusively. And then I worked back to the great 19th century—Stephen Crane was an important missing link, for example—but it was those ‘60s hepcats who first lit my fire.

MD: Shards of God? What did that do for you—and does it still do it (not that standing the test of time matters)? And what it was about Sanders’s narrative-nonfiction account of the Manson murders (better than Bugliosi’s potboiler, but what wouldn’t be?) that grabbed you. Was it the proto-gonzo backbeat, hipper by far than Tom Wolfe’s take on New Journalism, coupled with his surprisingly fastidious attention to well-sourced fact?

LS: I haven’t even looked at Shards of God in more than 40 years, but what has survived of my high-school juvenilia is lousy with its undigested influence. With all three books it’s the use of language above all, and the reason he meant so much to me as a teen was his proud and undisguised classicism (that word again)—his Greek and Latin allusions flattering me when from ‘68 to ‘71 I was on the (ancient) Greek track in Jesuit school, especially since he was deploying those allusions in concert with then-current hepcat slang and all. It’s measured, stately, satirical, wild all at once. I learned many rhetorical strategies from him—little things like balance, symmetry.

And it’s not gonzo! I despise gonzo! I can’t stand Tom Wolfe’s relentless exhibitionistic superiority (his best book is definitely The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, in which his characters refused to be schooled or ridiculed by him and he was forced to be more humane than is his wont). And although I very much admire Hell’s Angels and enjoyed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that was all the Hunter Thompson I could take.

MD: What was it about Michael O’Donoghue’s work for National Lampoon that spoke to you? Lampoon, for anyone who came of age in the ‘70s (especially, it seems, white guys from suburbia)—along with the Firesign Theater, George Carlin, and Creem magazine (during Lester Bangs’s exuberant train wreck of an editorship)–was a monthly portal to an alternate universe of gleeful subversion and nothing-is-sacred perversity whose mind-shattering iconoclasm people born in the Web age simply can’t imagine. 

LS: Michael O’Donoghue was another wild man with deep schooling in English prose. He was my favorite of the Nat’l Lampoon people, and the Nat’l Lampoon was as you say the bible for white male teenagers in a particular window of the early ‘70s, leaving an imperishable trace some years later by way of the first Saturday Night Live crew, which intermittently included O’Donoghue.      

MD: Grogan—legendary ‘60s culture jammer, street-theater provocateur, dispenser of free food to the ragtag and bobtail of Haight Street—was also the author, I was surprised to discover, of a crime novel, Final Score. Why isn’t that the connection, I wonder, instead of his controversial memoir of hippie’s utopian aspirations and crass sell-out, Ringolevio? 

LS: I’ve never read Final Score. Always a bit suspicious of crime novels by people noted for other things. Yes, Ringolevio is wall-to-wall fronting and styling, and if I hadn’t read it when I was 20 and came across it now I might laugh, but I admired the Diggers—still do—and I loved the NYC tough-guy voice. It had the same effect on me that Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries had on people just a hair younger than me (I liked it, too, but was just a hair too old when I read it). Ringolevio had great and (for me) unprecedented style, and it was dense with period wish-fulfillment.

MD: I love the idea of Burroughs and Beefheart on adjacent stools in an automat, Burroughs “huddled in someone else’s overcoat looking like a 1910 banker with paresis,” Beefheart “shabby and inconspicuous, dunking pound cake with his dirty fingers, shiny over the dirt” (Naked Lunch). Both, as you suggest, are American Originals, unimaginable anywhere else. But they also seem, specifically, like emissaries from a Lost World, a world where the eccentrics chronicled by Joseph Mitchell—Professor Seagull (Joe Gould), Lady Olga, Mazie the ticket-taker at the Bowery movie house—weren’t quite the endangered species they are today, in a world where Times Square is safe for Orange County tourists and Lady Gaga is the spear point of transgression. I suppose I’m outing myself as a closet reactionary by even asking such a question, but don’t you find it hard to write about the American Scene at a moment when characters like Burroughs and Beefheart, not to mention Harry Partch or Henry Darger or, I don’t know, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, seem almost unthinkable. I know you detest the retro sensibility—the past as prop room and wardrobe department—but isn’t it the gap-toothed, gimpy legged irregularity of all those Average Joes in daguerreotypes and picture postcards, in the world before mass production and mass-marketing really took command, that attracts you to the past?

LS: I’m not on the current American-scene beat. I never really was, except when I was an active participant and not really writing about it. I’ve never been much of a reporter. But if I were one today I think I’d be daunted by the fact that eloquent weirdoes like Mitchell’s have become exceedingly rare, while no congeries of hill-dwelling shrub-worshippers is without its documentary film crew, longform journalist, and anthropological team. These are the consequences of extinction. The free poor and the eccentrics have almost vanished. This is not to say that the rich pageant of human types has suddenly narrowed, just that the material conditions for certain kinds of lives have been lost.  

MD: Regarding Chandler and Cain: Chandler, much as I love the Spatter-Pattern Baroque of his style, his deadpan-purple prose that pretends to be terse but is really pretty rococo stuff if you pick it apart, I’m more and more convinced, the older I get, that Cain is the deeper writer, an Existentialist in all but name. It’s the difference between his novel, Double Indemnity, with its uncanny, terrifyingly bleak ending, and Chandler’s screenplay of it, which gives us a much more conventional denouement.

LS: Hammett and Chandler and Cain have always seemed like an allegorical Renaissance figure with three faces. They each have strengths and drawbacks that balance out the others’. Hammett was in many ways wanting, but he was the pioneer, and in Red Harvest he got the epic sweep the others never mustered. Chandler (is there an anti-Chandler backlash all of a sudden?) had the waspish gifts of his schooling, the high prose and low opinions. You can say what you want about his lacks, but I’ll hang on to The Long Goodbye and the depictions of LA in The Little Sister in particular. Cain is something else again. He wrote two flawless books: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity (did you know that the movie originally showed Fred McMurray going to the gas chamber? It was actually filmed), a couple of varyingly weird camp flourishes (Mildred Pierce, Serenade), a handful of very strange failures with flashes of brilliance (The Moth, for one), and a whole lot of unreadable dreck. Cain was from Grub Street. You could say the same kind of thing about Daniel Defoe.

Actually, what Cain was most like was one of those mid-century poverty-row filmmakers who made dozens and dozens of pictures and once in a while grabbed hold of the sublime, and who usually, no matter how bad the movie was, managed in some way to show their emotional underwear—Edgar G. Ulmer, for example.

MD: This is a ridiculously reductionist question, verging on caricature, but I can’t not ask it: is noir central to your consciousness, as a writer, because, as a kid with a split cultural psyche, half Franco-Belgian, half-Jersey boy, you were both fascinated by, and alienated from, America, and noir is central to American mythology? I’ll tip my hand: noir, to me, is the foundational myth of postwar America—the industrial-gothic underside of the morning-in-America, Reaganesque optimism we show the world—in the way that the gothic, and Puritan theology before it (in Hawthorne’s hands, its own sort of colonial gothic), were for earlier eras. Noir is Machine-Age gothic, and the gothic is the truest story America has to tell about itself.

LS: I don’t like using “noir” as a catchall term for pure-products-of-America-go-crazy, for so many reasons it would take 5,000 words to cover them all. But yes, if we remove that term I will acknowledge. Harold Rosenberg: “American life is a billboard; individual life in the U.S. includes something nameless that takes place in the weeds behind it.” That’s a given. It applies in some way to every society on earth, but the US has taken much more trouble with the billboard—in that specific 20th-century way of the billboard—than almost any other. You could expand on that in myriad ways: the facade masks not just the skeevy backside, but also some of the very best things about this culture, such as its racially and ethnically and socially mongrel essence.

MD: You mentioned switching, at age 20, from poetry to prose “conclusively,” an adjective that to my mind has a sharp edge to it. Do I hear the sound of a chisel putting the period at the end of an epitaph, not just for Luc Sante the Rockin’ Rimbaud but for poetry as any kind of contender to prose? You’ve mocked your sophomore attempts at poetry elsewhere: in a New York Review of Books essay on Patti Smith, you recall how affronted you were, at 17, to hear Patti describe herself as “one of the best poets in rock and roll.” You write, “At the time, I didn’t just think I was the best poet in rock and roll; I thought I was the only one, for all that my practice consisted solely of playing ‘Sister Ray’ by the Velvet Underground very loud on the stereo and filling notebook pages with drivel that naturally fell into the song’s meter.” Does the very notion of poetry, or at least poetry as it’s now written, make you wince, at this point? Is there any poetry on your shelves that you can’t for whatever reason bear to throw out–that you even return to, on rare occasion, when no one’s looking? Playing Carnak the Magnificent, I see Philip Larkin hiding, double-shelved, behind tastes you’re more willing to admit to, alongside Sylvia Plath, Bukowski, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, maybe the odd Surrealist and—who knows?—Sam Shephard’s Hawk Moon. Or did the politics of switching allegiance from poetry to prose require that you renounce poetry not only as a writer but as a reader, too?

LS: I found poetry by chance when I was a teener, and it went from Rimbaud to Breton and Ginsberg to O’Hara, and then I went hog-wild when I discovered the second New York School—the Padgett/Shapiro Anthology [An Anthology of New York Poets, 1970] was my bible. I wrote 10 tons of it, published a few things in very small venues, won a few high-school prizes, decided to go to Columbia so I could study with Kenneth Koch. He accepted me in his poetry writing class as a freshman; I thought for sure I was a poet for real. Then as a sophomore I took his prosody class and the whole thing crumbled. I was forced to realize I had no idea why I was writing in verse. Well, there were song lyrics, of which I wrote some then and later, but on the page I liked my lines longer and longer, which meant prose. So that’s when I made that conclusive change.

I still read some poetry today, although mostly the sort of stuff I read then—which K. K. did enlarge, introducing me to the Elizabethans and Jacobeans and Dickinson and Williams and Stevens, e.g. But I still pledge allegiance to the Nerval-to-Coolidge line. Plath and Bukowski I can’t do for roughly similar reasons. (Send your complaints to management.) Larkin I can coldly admire without actually liking; he certainly has almost nothing in common with the reasons why I like poetry. Don’t read much current stuff because I dislike 95% of what I come across and while I know there’s stuff out there I’ll like, it’s an awful lot of bother doing all that earthmoving to get to it. Although here’s one I got hipped to very recently which I dig: Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip (Coach House Books). It hits my sweet spot! All is not lost!

MD: What’s on your night table, right now?

LS: Muriel Spark, The Ballad of Peckham Rye; Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck; Ray Johnson, Not Nothing; Ron Padgett, Collected Poems; Little Caesar 9, featuring Piero Heliczer.

MD: A thought experiment: I have here before me a time machine like the one Ray Bradbury imagined in his 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder”; exploiting Lorenz’s so-called “Butterfly Effect,” I can travel into the past where, by altering one minuscule detail I can change the course of history so that everything in the present is unchanged except that you, not X, are the author of any book you choose, which means that not only will you have written, say, À la recherche du temps perdu, but you will have written it in your own way. To be clear, we’re not talking about the mere transposition of bylines, here, but about an alternate-universe history of letters. So: What book shall it be? 

LS: Jean-Paul Clébert, Paris insolite (1951; a translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith will appear sooner or later from NY Review Books) or Gilbert Sorrentino, Steelwork. Paris insolite is Clébert’s account of how he lived in Paris for years without having a domicile. You could say it’s the French On the Road (even written in something very close to spontaneous bop prosody), though it all takes place inside Paris and the only mode of transport is shoe leather. It’s also where Guy Debord got the concept of the dérive, or drift. Steelwork is a flawless book, from conception to execution, a novel in which the main character is an entire neighborhood. 

MD: Desert Island Books: You’re shipwrecked on the usual idyllic tropical island and, in the usual, Swiss Family Robinson way, an Ikea’s-worth of provisions helpfully washes up on your shores, among them a chest with 10 books in it, the entirety of your library for the rest of your days. (Just as helpfully, they’re not waterlogged.) As you pry it open, which 10 titles are you hoping will be in it? 

LS: Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark, The American Thesaurus of Slang (1941). The Oxford English Dictionary (2-volume edition; counts as one book). William Blake, The Complete Poems. Stéphane Mallarmé, Oeuvres completes. Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems. Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command. Frances Yates, The Art of Memory. Jean de la Fontaine, Fables.

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton