A World of Saints and Gangsters

In his essay on Walker Evans, one of twenty-five essays and reviews included in his new collection Kill All Your Darlings, Luc Sante quotes the photographer’s third-person self-description—“Evans was, and is, interested in what any present time will look like as the past”—and goes on to note: “Wherever he went, Evans thought of himself, consciously or not, as documenting Pompeii just before the volcano blew.”

Pompeii, as it happens, has already made an appearance in Luc Sante’s book, in an extraordinary piece (“The Ruins of New York”) originally written to accompany reproductions of the frescoes that Francesco Clemente painted on the walls of the subsequently demolished New York club the Palladium. Imagining a volcano erupting in Upper New York Bay in late 1985, Sante proceeds to a description of the life preserved in its hardened lava as it appears to the eyes of a twenty-fifth-century archaeologist:

We see thieves holding guns to the heads of grocery-store proprietors, prostitutes leaving grimy hotel rooms bearing the wallets of drunken clients, policemen in uniform clutching envelopes filled with cash in the hallways of ghetto drug dens. We see sex slaves in leather harnesses cowering in expensively appointed dungeons, clergymen of high rank sharing drugs with naked schoolchildren in the crypts of great churches, fresh corpses rolled up in carpets in the trunks of limousines arrested in flight on the peripheral roadways. Everywhere we dig, it seems, we find exchanges of money, sex, drugs, and death.

This bit of miniaturized social epic—lurid but hardly exaggerated, the material for a thousand-page novel by Hugo or Dreiser folded neatly but completely into less than a paragraph—exemplifies the density of Sante’s own excavation of ruins both past and future.

In “The Ruins of New York” he enlists the resources of a brilliant comic imagination in order to realize the impossible gesture of stopping time and walking around in a frozen moment. The lava-encrusted city becomes a museum in which everything can be contemplated just as it is, and for as long as the scientist from the future may desire. The frozen moment itself contains other, earlier moments—the interior of “an enormous billiard parlor favored by old men who carried knives in their socks,” the ruins of a classic German restaurant “fallen out of favor when Gemütlichkeit passed into obloquy”—until the proliferation of alternate realities, gone worlds nested in other gone worlds, encourages a mood of exhilarating freedom, a mood suggested in the first place by the freedom of the form in which Sante has cast the piece.

The Palladium as Pompeii: the game is appealing precisely because it’s been conceived in such an idiosyncratic spirit, the author amusing himself even in the absence of any reader. Yet it’s executed with such cartographic exactness that if you were anywhere near that place or time you could measure your distance from his position. The reader’s phantom city is superimposed on Sante’s until there is an impression of sleepwalkers exiled from history passing each other in parallel corridors, looking for doorways that no longer exist. By then it is no longer purely a game. The ultimate effect of this time-traveling excursion is to make all the more palpable and unavoidable a sense of what the limits are—the limits of what can be known, and the limits of any given life. All this in five and a half pages.

Ruins—including the invisible ruins of what has been altogether erased—are everywhere in Sante’s book. In his essay “My Lost City,” he writes:

The New York I lived in [in the 1980s]…was a ruin in the making, and my friends and I were camped out amid its potsherds and tumuli.

The salvaging of the discarded is a fundamental act in all of Sante’s writing, and it is anything but casual. In the pieces collected in Kill All Your Darlings he comes back repeatedly to those moments when the past is unceremoniously dumped as no longer of value, tossed out by the landlords of tenants who have died heirless or intestate, spread on the sidewalk to be sold for a pittance. In a heroin-ridden precinct of the East Village he comes upon the business card of a vanished beauty parlor. In a Canal Street parking lot he finds a stereoscope image of the Second Avenue El.

Such unsought discoveries were the genesis of Sante’s first book, Low Life (1991), with its obsessive reconstruction of a lost New York of brothels, back alleys, and saloons, and of the photo collection Evidence (1992), rooted in a whole police archive of crime scene pictures that had been left out for the garbage collectors. These found objects are both starting points and ends in themselves. Infinitely suggestive clues, they are also to be valued for their sheer material presence: not merely reminders, but relics as important for what they don’t reveal as for what they do. Mutely pointing at mysteries beyond retrieval, they are a substitute for metaphysical promises long since discounted.

In the spring of 2007 Sante mounted an exhibit at the Apexart gallery in lower Manhattan, “The Museum of Crime and the Museum of God,” which managed to realize some of these implications of his writing in three-dimensional form. “Assembled entirely,” as he wrote in an accompanying brochure, “from my walls, my filing cabinets, and my attic,” it was the kind of show that many others have imagined. All of us to one degree or another inhabit our private museums, taking periodic inventory of its holdings and yearning on some level to display those mementoes and secret treasures otherwise mostly hidden in shoeboxes and manila envelopes, like costumes and props stored away for some future enactment of a long-meditated ritual of disclosure. They are the things that we cannot dispose of even if we cannot explain their function or significance. Few, however, could hope to realize such a display with the sense of rigor—of inevitability even—that was evident here.

Sante’s improvised museum (the word being used in “its older sense… a ragtag assemblage of bones and shells, reliquaries and chromolithographs, medical oddities and thinly veiled pornography”) found a place for every lost thing to declare its worthiness: pulp cover art, souvenirs of crimes, postcards of baptismal festivals, crude woodcuts of miraculous visitations, remnants of the “competing mystery cults” of crime and religion as practiced in America and Europe alike. The effect was not precisely, or exclusively, aesthetic. There was little sense of distancing. To call it an assemblage—to define it as an art form in itself—would take away from the power of what was assembled. The show’s force was precisely in the unmediated recalcitrance of its elements at being brought together in this way. It was as if, yoked in a single space, they persisted in dragging their original worlds with them.

Those worlds, of saints and gangsters, vamps and martyred children, impinged so closely on one another that one might imagine a form of disembodied voodoo warfare going on among the images, at least when the lights went out in the gallery after the customers had gone home. There was an aftertaste of violence about it—whether the violence of murder, or the violence of Christian apocalypse, or the ordinary violence of death and loss symbolized precisely by the random discarding of such volatile materials—that kept at bay the equanimity of the civilized connoisseur parsing issues of influence and formal design, or the canny practicality of the dealer who well understands the relative value of any given item without having a personal stake in it.

At any point in Sante’s work, an appreciation of just how personal the stakes are inflects even the most accidental and apparently trivial discoveries. A random object found on the street may connect him to a buried history which turns out to be in some sense his own. “You had the feeling,” Sante writes of the flea markets that sprang up on Astor Place in the early 1980s,

you would one day find there evidence of your missing twin, your grandfather’s secret diary, a photograph of the first girl whose image kept you awake at night, and all the childhood toys you had loved and lost.

The ruins he walks among, of course, include the ruins of his own earlier selves. The proposition that “every human being is an archeological site” is enlarged upon in his 1996 book The Factory of Facts, a superb memoir that is also a systematic dismantling of the very idea of memoir. To retrieve his own past—a past divided between the Belgium of his birth and the America to which his parents emigrated—and thereby define his identity, he undertakes to catalog the materials out of which he, like anyone else, has been made:

offhand remarks, things glimpsed in passing, jokes and commonplaces, shop displays and climate and flickering light and textures of walls.

But such pieces of memory are only the starting point. Each layer of detritus, remembered or reconstructed, reveals further and older strata—Belgium, colonialism, the industrial revolution, Christianity—until personal identity begins to resemble a midden heap on which certain fragments of the world happen to have accumulated.

The inward journey leads out of the self. Early in the book he describes its inception in a haunting dream about a lost remnant of the Byzantine Empire; by the end even a dream will seem like an outpost, however remote, of a reality thoroughly outward and material. The innermost levels of experience turn out to be littered with what the dead have left there, more or less by chance.

Kill All Your Darlings, Sante’s first book since The Factory of Facts, gathers writing from a fifteen-year period, but represents only a portion of what he has published in recent years. (The title is identified as “writerly advice attributed to William Faulkner.”) It gives us no more than a taste of his writings on art and photography, on music and film, on crime both “true” and fictional. Still to be collected are his literary essays on writers as different as Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Roussel, James M. Cain, and Chester Himes. That is another way of saying that at three hundred pages the book is all too short. At the same time, given Sante’s genius for compression, each of these pieces has a quality of quite amazing breadth. As in his excursus on the ruins of the Palladium, a whole buried world can often be discerned within a few closely knit sentences.

The pieces have been grouped to reflect distinct aspects of Sante’s writing. Six pieces explore his continuing fascination with New York and its fate (with New Jersey thrown in for good measure). A further group of essays in one way or another touch on received notions of pleasure and addiction (cigarettes, New Year’s Eve, the nature of hipness, the decay of the Woodstock ideal), along with a memoir of his youthful stint in a New Jersey plastics factory. There is a set of five pieces on music, including a pair of meditations on the origins of the blues and jazz that for many will be the high point of the book:

The blues was not a reaction or a spontaneous utterance or a cry of anguish in the night, and it did not arise from the great mass of the people like a collective sigh. It was a deliberate decision arrived at by a particular artist through a process of experimentation, using materials at hand from a variety of sources. It was taken up by others and expanded to encompass anguish as well as defiance, humor, lust, cruelty, heartbreak, awe, sarcasm, fury, regret, bemusement, mischief, delirium, and even triumph. It grew to be the expression of a people, but not before it had become as diverse and complicated as that people. It, too, ranges beyond the monochrome of its name.

The book concludes with a series of sharp and often near-definitive portraits of such varied types as Victor Hugo, Robert Mapplethorpe, René Magritte, and Tintin’s creator Hergé, supplemented by a digression on the roots of modern American photography, and a final pair of affectionate salutes to Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Rimbaud. However disparate the subjects, they are bound to each other and to Sante’s earlier books by multiple threads. The New York pieces might be seen as adjuncts and sequels to Low Life, the sketches of Magritte and Hergé as annexes to the exploration of his Belgian identity in The Factory of Facts. The photography and music pieces, one can only hope, foreshadow other future volumes.

As with any such collection, Kill All Your Darlings can be taken as a kind of self-portrait, and indeed fragments of life history emerge at many points. What is most striking is Sante’s determination to treat his own experience with the same detachment he brings to bear on more remote subjects. In “The Injection Mold,” the extended narrative about his factory days, he produces as exact a description as one could ask for (assuming one were inclined to ask) of a boring, repetitive, physically oppressive job. It can be read as a chapter of autobiography:

My job was maddening, and I was constantly exhausted from the combination of a full day of high school with an eight-hour evening of work and frequently a few hours’ partying afterward, and I stoked my rage by reading Céline—but I was impressed with myself. I needed the money and didn’t have other prospects, let alone entrée to glamorous sinecures the way some of my friends did, but the job was in part a role I was playing. I was being a badass and a hard case, converting into defiance the fact that my parents were poorer than almost anyone else’s parents in our comfortable New Jersey suburb. Working at the factory the night of the senior prom, I enjoyed a strange feeling of triumph….

But finally the point isn’t what the job meant to him but what it was in itself: the site and what went on there is reconstructed like a Colonial Williamsburg of minor-level rust-belt industrialism of the most desolate variety, providing an imaginative space in which the reader too can climb “up the side of the machine to dump the contents of the overflowing grinder box into the hopper while simultaneously opening the mold door with one foot.”

I Is Somebody Else”—the title of his piece on Bob Dylan and (another thread) a link between Dylan and Rimbaud—might also be the secret motto of the whole enterprise. That detachment allows Sante, in one piece, to describe, as if observing his own inner life from a quite alienated distance, himself at nineteen weeping over his failure to become a child prodigy, and in another (“A Riot of My Own”) to annotate the misrepresentations and false judgments of his own description of the police attack on Tompkins Square Park in 1988 as originally drafted for The New Yorker.

The investigatory tone Sante maintains when looking into his own past—isolating and precisely defining various temporary attitudes and states of consciousness—is not different in kind from what he brings to the investigation of the past of a city, a musical form, or a style of photography. It seems quite appropriate that Greil Marcus, in his introduction to Kill All Your Darlings, invokes the figure of the hard-boiled detective “poking around in a place where something happened.” Sante aspires to the clarity of an ideal op’s dossier, alert to revealing analogies and dovetailing patterns, and undistorted by (although not denying the existence of) emotional loyalties.

One thing detectives are supposed to do is refrain from formulating theories before the facts are all in. In the wide-open arena where Sante operates, naturally, the facts are never all in. Broad and satisfying conclusions are not so much his province as are nagging details and unshakable impressions. Meaning is established one detail, one sentence, one entry at a time, as if taking care of the small parts ensured that the whole would take care of itself. Thus his writing manages to combine high precision and ultimate open-endedness. Any mystification that can be punctured will be; alibis will be broken down and the motives of false witnesses exposed. A worldly resistance to the obscurantist claims of every sort of religion and pseudo-religion (including the religions of hip and love and peace) is everywhere manifest. Yet we are not led into the precincts of a satisfyingly rational sitting room but rather to the brink of the void. Solving mysteries begets further mysteries. But it’s always good to keep a clear head about one.

The figure of the detective makes a direct appearance here in the form of René Magritte, “methodical, persistent, and subtle,” propounding and solving impossible problems, undermining social definitions of reality even as he passes himself off as something like his own iconic bowler-hatted man, “an agent who works in such deep cover that he may not be aware of it himself,” and who indeed at last “became his own disguise.” All artists, as they pass in review in these pages, tend to resemble undercover agents whose allegiances and long-term strategies can be deduced only obliquely. The sympathy for anarchist resistance which is a deep current in Sante’s writing tends to attach itself in particular to those rebels who mingle unperceived in the crowd, sowing paradoxical humor and unsettling doubts, rather than those who make speeches on the ramparts on their way to seizing the presidential palace.

The closest thing to an out-and-out political statement here—an angry re-cap of Rudy Giuliani’s political career—seems uncharacteristically blunt, as if Giuliani were simply too obvious a target for Sante to bring the full complexity of his thinking to bear. Once he has caught Giuliani telling the New York Post that “freedom is about authority,” he has little further use for him. Sante’s most telling social points are made by indirection and undermining: “methodical, persistent, and subtle.”

A kind of social history is being written in most of these pieces, but it is written often by registering the tiniest of incremental changes. “Hangover jokes,” he tells us in a piece that touches on the decline of New Year’s Eve drunkenness, “were plentiful in newspapers until the late 1970s.” Elsewhere, discussing the dour visages on display in early American photographic portraits, he observes: “People didn’t learn to smile for the camera until after World War II.” By such signs eras are measured: not statistically, but aphoristically. The opening sentence of his long disquisition on smoking, “Our Friend the Cigarette,” has a world-historical grandeur of cadence that seems positively Spenglerian:

Not very long ago, the whole world smoked, no room was truly furnished unless it contained an ashtray, and all of waking life was measured out in cigarettes.

Having thereby established a tone of truly serious historical discourse, he will go on to compare American versus European modes of holding a cigarette, discuss the effect of long-term smoking on Blaise Cendrars’s facial expression and skin texture, and in passing will offer a sublimely apt list of the kind of people who by tradition smoke cigars:

ward heelers, dog wardens, skip tracers, rack jobbers, claim jumpers, lawn jockeys, bounty hunters, bailbondsmen, exterminators, repo auctioneers, and persons who aspire to like status.

His treatise is no less valuable and reliable for being also a parody of a treatise, poring over the minutiae of undervalued and underobserved phenomena now accessible (no matter how recent they are, or especially because they are so recent) only through leaps of association.

Some part of Sante is always busy as encyclopedist or lexicographer, establishing the limits of subcategories or establishing durable definitions for elusive terms. When he describes a book as “a laboratory specimen of third-rate biography,” he is not content with the generalizing phrase but goes on to outline just what that entails:

apparently written at high speed without much effort wasted on thought or depth or nuance, incorporating gelatinous lumps of potted history straight from the tin, long lists of undifferentiated names, much tone-deaf slinging of readymade phrases, and numerous small errors of fact and grammar.

The generic mid-1960s American rock group is thus epitomized:

Five guys with turtleneck dickies, bangs combed down so they took a turn at the eyebrows, garrison belts, elastic-sided boots, Vox amps, Mosrite guitars, Farfisa organs, tambourines, well-rehearsed sneers.

This would not be so funny if it were not true—or perhaps it would not be so true if it were not so funny. Comic edge at times becomes the only appropriate tool of differentiation.

A savage account of Woodstock ‘99—a music festival evidently more closely resembling an overcrowded and overpriced street fair in a prison camp—is perhaps the funniest item in the book, but the rage and disgust it evokes are no less palpable. This piece, describing a moment that already (given the lurches of recent history) seems distant, will I suspect remain of enduring interest for having written down what might have seemed scarcely worth looking at in the first place. By making a meticulous verbal record of what he saw (in a mere, but apparently quite sufficient, four hours), he achieves some kind of defense against an encroaching edgelessness, tallying, before they melt, the elements in a slow swirl of collective commercialized stupidity:

The menu ran primarily to grease, although vegetarian grease was also available…. Up above, the air was dense with advertising: blimps, enormous blimp-shaped balloons (one bore the apt legend “Fried Dough”), and small planes pulling banners. One of the latter announced: “Woodstock ‘99—CD and video available September.”

Appalled as he is, Sante manages to avoid blaming the hapless youth roped into the low-grade carnival even as they descend into “bovine stupor” and “unfocused rage,” and even as he anticipates the unpleasant forms their rage may take when they grow up to become part of the corporate workforce. His target, as usual, is not those caught in the trap but the structure of the trap itself.

How, block by block, realities are constructed—including the counter-realities of art—is Sante’s underlying preoccupation. Questions of deeper meaning are implied rather than stated, deducible perhaps from the questions of method that are more frequently foregrounded. The sublimities of Victor Hugo are evoked through a listing of the materials used by him in his visual art—“soot, black coffee, fingerprints, fingernails, matchsticks, inkblots, stencils, sprays of water, the impression of cloth textures, of lace, of stones”—and when writing of Bob Dylan he is less interested in visionary promptings than in the way Dylan’s “use of rhymes is not unlike a Surrealist game or an Oulipo exercise, a way to outsmart front-brain thinking.”

Sante’s style, pointed and uninflated, is informed by the spirit if not the actual tone of a technical manual. His sentences themselves flaunt their solidity and flexibility of construction, by way of illustration. The solid building allows for a great deal of freedom in the way of ornament. Discussing one of the difficulties of being Bob Dylan, he writes:

An even greater burden comes from being ceaselessly analyzed, as if one were the reviewing lineup at a May Day parade and the rest of the world was composed of Kremlinologists.

With syntax so cleanly carpentered, the reader might well feel he is standing on the platform himself, in the bright sunlight of a Moscow morning, memories of the cold war flooding in very aptly, Kremlinologists neatly recalling the origin of the term “Dylanologists”: while at the same time delighting in the free-floating, but not altogether arbitrary, relation of Bob Dylan to a passel of Politburo members, figures of hidden power nevertheless exposed to the speculations of any prying eye.

One may come back to a sentence for no other reason than the seductions of its lingering music. The Victor Hugo essay gives us in this manner an establishing shot of the writer’s latter-day stature:

Collected editions of his works in translation, published around the turn of the last century, languish in book barns, their high-acid-content pages disintegrating as you turn the previously unopened pages.

The rolling rhythms of the sentence nicely echo Hugo’s own grand manner, while its length recapitulates the passage of a century, a time long enough to disintegrate pages that (for a final flourish of encapsulated cultural history) were never read in the first place.

Far from being incidental, such pleasures are the essence of what this writing is about. In the tensions that animate them, the whole drama of present life fighting its way through a labyrinth of inherited artifacts is played out—language being the most unavoidable inherited artifact of them all. To a remarkable degree the sentences partake of what they describe. When Sante writes of Walker Evans’s work constituting

a comprehensive inventory of the hand-made, worn-out, jury-rigged, lost-and-found, inadvertent, make-do, hand-me-down, faded-glory, Mulligan-stew aspects of America,

the adjectives, by being strung so visibly and consciously together, are made to point out their own faded and hand-me-down condition. We are made to look—in just the fashion of Evans’s photographs—at what was always there and almost always unnoticed.

The Clear Line,” the essay on Hergé (Georges Rémi), the creator of Tintin, might be taken as a kind of hidden aesthetic manifesto, a supposition encouraged by Sante’s association of Tintin with his own early ambitions: “I wanted to be an artist at an age when most kids want to be firefighters.” With typical exactness he lays out the cultural and historical parameters of Hergé’s world-within-a-world, noting for instance that it is a world

in which servants wear livery, savants wear long beards, men emerge from fights with their false collars jutting out, and the lower orders are identified by their caps.

The miniaturized encyclopedia that is Hergé’s work is further miniaturized into the dimensions of Sante’s clean and well-lighted gallery. But what it really comes down to is that unmistakable line:

He enclosed every particle of the visible, no matter how fluid and shifting, in a thin, black, unhesitating line.

He goes on to describe Tintin’s adventures—“unsullied by maturity or experience”—as “an Eden of the graphic eye, in which every object…is in some way the first.” The world as described by Luc Sante is anything but unsullied, but his thin and unhesitating line still harbors the memory, and recreates the impact, of things seen for the first time.