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A Talent for the Low & High

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Dominique Nabokov
Gary Indiana, New York City, 2000

In an epilogue to I Can Give You Anything But Love, the writer, actor, and artist Gary Indiana explains his decision to avoid the familiar form of the conventional memoir:

At some point I began to prune away anything suggesting the sort of “triumph over adversity” theme that gongs through so much of the so-called memoir genre, paring away most evidence of my eventual career as a writer and artist—which has not, in any case, been an unmitigated triumph over adversity…. Eventually I let go of any pretense of documentary reality, and kept instead the evocation of things happening to a person for the first time, of being young and completely unprepared for life.

Indiana need not have worried about anyone mistaking his book for one of those heartening narratives that charts its author’s voyage through a stormy youth into the bright harbor of a glorious career. Unlike the memoirs that suggest we too can survive childhood trauma and live to tell the tale that, with luck, will become a best seller, I Can Give You Anything But Love is discursive, impressionistic, punctuated by incisive reflections on history and culture, witty evocations of period and place, mystifying forays into character assassination, and frank descriptions of sex.

Indiana, who has written novels, criticism, and plays, who has acted in films and in the theater, and whose video, shot mostly in a dilapidated prison on an island off the coast of Cuba, appeared in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, has created something like a collage composed of discrete events extracted from his past to illustrate what it’s like to be young and clueless. He never suggests we are getting a complete account of his life so far, or a work of trenchant self-analysis. Instead, we may feel that he has turned himself into a literary character: the Gary Indiana who was once young and a mess and is now older and steadier though by no means out of the woods. The voice we hear in these pages is intelligent, obsessive, amusing, self-mocking, extreme, and, on occasion, unpleasant. The author wants to tell us what has happened to him but also to show us the person those experiences produced: a proudly eccentric guy with a wide range of impressive, admirable, and less appealing traits.

The book’s structure more closely resembles the scattershot associations of memory and consciousness than an orderly chronology of personal history. Characters we meet early on return, pages later, greatly changed and diminished, the way the towering figures of our youth can seem, when we encounter them years afterward, to have shrunk to the size of ordinary beings. A chapter may begin in one location—New Hampshire, Boston, San Francisco—and end up in Los Angeles or Manhattan. Interspersed throughout are sections set in Havana, where Indiana has lived, intermittently, for more than a decade, and which inspires some of the memoir’s most engaging passages:

This city was built for giant people with histrionic lives, the bygone lives portrayed in the Brazilian telenovelas everybody watches here; lives magnified by vertiginous ceilings and endless marble-floored rooms. Many not-well-off Cubans with lives of lesser grandeur inhabit the weather-beaten villas of vanished gangsters and deposed politicians with a casual dignity that isn’t entirely borrowed from a different time and a higher class. They have as much ancestral memorabilia as their former overlords, and often more impressive family histories, educational credentials, and professional attainments.

Though Indiana only briefly reports on his childhood (“I’m old enough to justify writing about my history, but too old to remember much of it. It’s one thing to make things up, but painting specifics that are only guesses feels like fraud”), he tells us just enough about his upbringing in New Hampshire to explain why it was unlikely to produce a paragon of self-confidence and stability:

Our private psychological mess…was never acknowledged for what it was: a swamp of wreckage heavily tainted by alcohol. Reality was never discussed in the open, but brooded over endlessly in our separate mental jail cells. It was an unwritten law that any ugly circumstance was other people’s fault; we weren’t perfect, and didn’t claim to be, but we were a hell of a lot better than other people. Absolutely nothing supported this delusion, aside from a strict observance of three or four of the Ten Commandments that happened to coincide with the felony statutes.

In addition to enduring the stresses of daily life with “Drunk Daddy” and a grandmother who saw her grandson as a “saucy runt who shouldn’t have happened,” Indiana underwent a horrific attack at the age of eight or nine when two teenage swimming instructors blindfolded and gagged him, bound him with clothesline, and left him for hours on a raft in the middle of a lake. “Maybe that flipped me over to the dark side, as per Mumma’s preferred narrative. I tend to think I was pushed in that direction by things a lot closer to home.”

Connecting the sections of narrative are events and situations with recurrent motifs. The book’s title, with its play on the refrain of the well-known jazz standard, is not merely clever. It’s a highly compressed statement of a central theme: Indiana’s propensity for entering into relationships in which there is sex without love, or love without sex, but which are too nuanced and complex to be classified as exclusively platonic or erotic. In Los Angeles, the affection and care he feels for Dane, a handsome exterminator with whom he is having a passionate affair, cannot be acknowledged for fear of alienating his lover. Meanwhile Indiana develops an obsessive crush on Don, a married, heterosexual actor

whose rimless glasses, chipped front tooth, and wild hair made him look like a sexy space alien. In fact, he later played a space alien, in a series of moderately successful, low-budget science fiction films. I pursued him with the recklessness peculiar to the young and clueless…. It was a purely willful, physical attraction, but I had fastened on Don as the person I wanted to love me back, imagining my desire could make this person I didn’t really know into the person I wanted him to be. Unless I am greatly mistaken, the man himself was actually much less interesting than the space alien he one day incarnated, and for that matter, less interesting than the man I was actually sleeping with. An unlimited obtusity governed my relationships with all sorts of people, particularly “romantic” manias that never found an appropriate object. Dane was easy, available for sex, and even, in his less-than-impressive way, devoted to me. Yet for that reason, I didn’t place much importance on the real relationship we had, and invested my emotions in one that I didn’t have.

A similar divide between the physical and the emotional characterizes Indiana’s romance, in Havana, with Mastiu, a barely literate deaf-mute whom he finds addictively attractive and touching, but with whom he can barely communicate. Indiana revels in Mastiu’s mysteriousness even as he despairs of understanding his circumstances, his character, or his intentions:

When he’s back in his pants he turns into a puppy. Perfect.

Puppies are adorable, but they don’t have fascinating inner lives. Before his awkwardly held pencil completes a word on the yellow paper he scratches out the erratic lettering and starts over. His difficulty printing revives my downward estimate of his IQ. I lose interest in his clumsy list of bodies of water where he fishes, a dreary penmanship exercise that doesn’t interest him, either. I can do fine without conversation. It’s these dutiful attempts at having one that begin to bore me.

The most significant, influential, and long-lasting of Indiana’s relationships is with a man he calls Ferd Eggan, whom he meets in San Francisco at a dark moment: 1969.

In the long, rancid afterglow of the summer of love, the Haight-Ashbury had puddled into a gritty slum of boarded-up head shops and strung-out junkies, thuggish dealers, undercover cops in love beads and fright wigs. The hippie saturnalia had continued as a sinister parody of itself, featuring overdoses and rip-offs and sudden flashes of violence.

Together with his brittle, casually destructive wife Carol, the bisexual, charismatic Ferd spends his time shooting heroin, writing pornographic film scripts with titles such as The Straight Banana, and surrounding himself with a “posse” of “emotionally flattened hippies of both sexes.” Carol and Ferd are

fond of elaborate, cruel psychological games, like characters in Laclos. They attracted paramours and hangers-on like regents of a medieval court, or, to put it baldly, they operated with a good-cop-bad-cop teamwork, of a type I later observed in certain “power couples” of the 1980s art world, and elsewhere.

Enthralled by Ferd, Indiana has “rushed, furtive” sex with him a few times, and moves into the Broderick Street commune over which Ferd and Carol preside:

We lived allergic to daylight, when San Francisco felt like a graveyard under a bell jar. It had the muffled, overlit, queasy erotic gloom of Vertigo, with something in the grain of the daylight air a constant reminder that the drowsy dreamtime we occupied was sleepwalking to a bad end.

These premonitions of violence and doom will prove to have been justified. During Carol and Ferd’s “macabre masquerade” wedding, a ceremony performed by a minister from a satanic cult, a Hells Angel carries Indiana down to the basement of the Broderick Street house and rapes him, at knifepoint, for several hours. Indiana suffers a breakdown and goes home to New England. There, recovering in a hospital, he is sexually assaulted again, this time by a male nurse:

Men were not supposed to be raped, and when it happened, nobody called it that. If you were male you were supposed to be immune to it, or strong and scrappy enough that nobody could really penetrate you without your cooperation….

Two rapes seemed more ridiculous than tragic. Perhaps this sounds glib. But prevailing opinion that what happened to me was not even possible forced me to suck it up and keep my mouth shut about it. As it happens, I reported the second rape, with the consequence that the psychiatrist assigned to me filed an affidavit swearing I had admitted fantasizing the whole thing, while the hospital administration quietly transferred the rapist to a job at a different facility.

Evident here (as in much of Indiana’s work) is his concern with power and powerlessness, justice and injustice. Sixty years after the Army-McCarthy hearings, he recalls watching them on his grandmother’s black-and-white TV and notes that he has retained a “mental picture of Roy Cohn whispering in Joe McCarthy’s ear in the Senate hearing room.” (In his determination to omit the details of his literary career, Indiana neglects to mention that he wrote a play, Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, first produced at the Performing Garage in 1992.) In the past he has considered subjects including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election as governor of California and, more recently, the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers. In I Can Give You Anything But Love, he addresses—tellingly, if tangentially—the political climate and the economic hardships of Cuba:

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Gary Indiana
Photograph by Gary Indiana from I Can Give You Anything But Love

The CUC, a convertible peso, is a recent tweak of the island’s sad fortunes. Based on nothing but wishes, it’s worthless anywhere besides here. When I left in 2001, the standard currency was the US dollar, the sugar economy having collapsed along with the Soviet Union. That was what’s called the Special Period, which everyone remembers as utterly, horribly special.

Avoiding self-pity and polemic, he makes us understand, and sympathize with, the vulnerability of a young gay man without money, marketable professional skills, or helpful social connections. The book catalogs the jobs he takes in order to pay the rent on a series of dismal apartments: a stint at an overwhelmed, inadequate Legal Aid office, another at a movie theater concession stand.

Our offerings were undemandingly arty, slightly pretentious, domestic farces or dramas of middle-class marriage gone awry, or Italian sex comedies of the frou-frou type that featured the Antonioni-less Monica Vitti….

The cloying odors of stale candy and artificial butter were nauseating, but somehow stimulating too. In its own absurd way, working in a movie house wasn’t entirely unlike being in a movie or on stage as an extra.

The charm of Indiana’s cultural criticism has often derived from his gift for mixing references to high and popular culture, sometimes within one sentence, in order to illuminate or champion a book or film or painting whose meaning and worth may have eluded us. So this description of a holiday season “epiphany” at Walmart, from his essay on the artist Barbara Kruger, can persuade us to take another look at Kruger’s work:

Each department in Wal-Mart had its own Muzak system blaring Christmas carols, and each department manager, apparently, had decided to program a different medley of joyfully moronic carols. And, as you walked through Wal-Mart, these competing festive audios melted together into a completely dissonant, sour, even terrifying melange, as if Stockhausen had decided to do a Christmas album, and you know something, it was perfect, it was almost art, and no one in Wal-Mart seemed to notice they were being subtly encouraged to go home and commit suicide. This has something to do with Barbara Kruger’s work, I think. The ruin of certain smug and reassuring representations, the defacement of delusion, with just enough melody left in to seize your attention.

Scattered throughout the memoir, high-low juxtapositions reveal as much about Indiana’s sensibility—his ability to inhabit several worlds and speak multiple cultural dialects at once—as anything he tells us directly. The beachwear of the hustlers in Havana “magnifies their genitals to Godzilla scale, evoking commedia dell’arte phalluses.” A former lover resembles “Mellors in a telenovela adaptation of Lady Chatterley.” The battered Hollywood sign in the hills above Los Angeles moves Indiana to reflect that its

melancholy decrepitude suggested a moonscape in daylight, painted by Caspar David Friedrich in collaboration with Walt Disney. I dragged one of the scrunched, shot-off panels to my car and jammed it into my car trunk.

Installed in my bedroom at the Bryson, the battered metal resembled a John Chamberlain sculpture with a Cy Twombly painting scratched into its facing. The people who came to my apartment were not the type to have those references, and probably wondered if I was as geeky as this pointless acquisition seemed to indicate.

Indiana’s style is so jaunty and conversational, his control of tone so deft that the book’s off-notes seem more jarring and discordant than they otherwise might. Among these is a rehearsal of the ennui Indiana suffered while interviewing David Lynch. (“He seemed spellbound by his own accomplishment, and had already decided what he was going to say about it…. His stories were humorless and boring. His smarmy air as he stirred his Postum was even creepier than his movie.”) Why are we being told this? A passage about Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway promises to be interesting, then devolves into a rant excoriating Hemingway as “a lousy writer. A phony writer. A writer whose books are a tissue of falsehoods and moronic clichés of masculinity.” Citing the problems with Hemingway’s work is like shooting fish in a barrel, but surely he deserves some credit for having so profoundly influenced our literature, for having forever changed the way American speech—and American language—is rendered on the page.

More questionable (if only because it’s much longer) is an extended complaint about Susan Sontag. Even readers with no opinion at all about Sontag may find themselves wondering why Indiana spends seven pages describing how awful he thinks she was. There’s something interesting about the question of why, decades after their friendship ended, Sontag is the splinter that Indiana can’t seem to dislodge from under his skin. I would have liked to hear more about why certain wounds don’t heal, why we may find ourselves compulsively restaging arguments with the dead—and less about how he watched Sontag trash-talk her friends and lovers the minute they left the room. Perhaps in his recreation of an earlier era, Indiana is summoning up the full force of the resentment he felt then. It’s one strategy, I suppose, but it also reminds us that retrospect can have its value in sanding down the raw edges of unforgiven grievances that can no longer be redressed.

One of the book’s most vividly drawn characters is a drug dealer whom Indiana calls Benny:

Benny, who had suggestions of Ratso Rizzo in his general affect as well as his physiognomy—a great limp mane of oily black hair, and a reedy frame he covered in stained pinstripes and pointed ankle boots—had taken up permanent residence in the darkest side of nighttime Los Angeles, where people on copious drugs were unfixed in space and time, their movements determined by random phone calls at all hours from strung-out customers and far-gone freaks throwing parties…. I went to lots of parties with Benny, each weirder than the next, in pitch-dark apartments where clumps of wild-eyed protoplasm huddled around amplifiers or tables streaked with coke or powdered meth. An enormous amount of imperious staring went on at these soirees, where any social interaction only served as a time filler, instantly dropped the second more drugs arrived….

Everything moved too quickly, or else with slothlike slowness, from one sinister tribal meeting to another, each a tableau of spiked hair and scads of cloudy syringes, bleary interiors sealed in a bubble of amber silence, often dominated by some garrulous vampire with an unimaginable backstory and a cruel mouth.

After Indiana buys drugs from him, Benny decides they should be friends: “‘I like the way your mind works,’ he told me. These have always been ominous words, regardless of who says them. ‘We should hang out.’”

Despite how ominous Indiana finds the sentiment, the reader knows what Benny means. Not everyone will want to hang out with Gary Indiana. But for much of this lively memoir, one likes the way his mind works.