As the Wolf Howls at My Door, by Chandler Brossard

This Book Kills Fascists!

Zachary Tanner

“‘I’ll tell you the fundamental difference between me and most people. While everybody else is striving to give their existence purpose, I, on the contrary,’ and he rose up in his chair, ‘am striving to give purpose existence.’”

Harry in The Double View

Ah, the tube-zonked ‘90s, localized infinity that spawned me. Has it really been twenty years? What a decade for heavy American novels! The whole schmear delights me. In no particular order: Vineland, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, The Tunnel, three of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams, Infinite Jest, Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, A Frolic of His Own, and, not to use a superlative lightly like a pinch of cream of tartar, but as the very roux with which to caramelize our now-synaptically-linked grey matter, now that we are one and the same brain, perhaps the most forgotten of its kind, As the Wolf Howls at My Door (aka Somebody’s Been Sleeping in My Bed; Somebody’s Been Eating My Porridge; Thin Air; Come Out with Your Hands Up!), the last book from the first hipster, the novel as Jungian echo chamber, as lewd bulletin board of the collective unconscious.

            It has been said for seventy years and will continue to be said (unless his two forgotten, mammoth fictions happen to be read by more than the few hundred people who will somehow come across these paperback reprints) that Chandler Brossard (1922-1993) is best known today for his protobeatnik, hipster novels Who Walk in Darkness (1952) and The Bold Saboteurs (1953), which might be shelved quite nicely abreast such contemporary cult treasures as Junkie, On the Road, and Giovanni’s Room.Brossard’s career changed radically after these first two novels when the necessity of making a living required that he stoop to writing “threepenny dreadfuls,” or what are listed in his editor’s bibliography in The Scene Before You (1955) as Entertainments. After acting thusly, that is selling out, pimping the Muse, it is no surprise that his later works were pawned off as crackpot curiosities, not to mention the radicalities of style and realpolitik that will deter more than a few readers. Indeed, what little scholarship on Brossard exists has primarily concerned itself with the pre-potboiler phase. Authors don’t die; they become cultural artifacts. In 1987, several essays were collected in a slim, 196-page issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction, which is primarily a dossier on the first two novels, but also contains an unparalleled trinity of Brossard content by guest editor of the “Chandler Brossard Number,” Steven Moore: a primer on Brossard’s career from the early-50s to the late-80s, a bibliographical checklist, and an outstanding 1985 interview. One looks back at this interview, at early Brossard, at the Brossard number, at early-middle Brossard, late-middle Brossard, at mammoth Brossard, does some thinking, and finally returns to the interview:

SM: You’ve probably received less critical attention than any other significant writer of our time—

CB: Damned right.

After the “Entertainments,” Brossard spent the early 1960s writing plays and returned to serious fiction with The Double View (1960), The Wolf Leaps (written around the same time, but not published until ten years later as Did Christ Make Love? (1972)), and She Cried Out to Me (unpublished), the former two ornately-plotted tragicomedies in the spirit of the Bard with all the freedom of the French new novel, the latter yet unknown to me, the lot undoubtedly the awakening of the author’s mature use of free indirect style, often to comic, slapstick effect. Next were we treated with Chandler’s protogonzo journalism of Franco’s Spain in The Spanish Scene (1968). A few years later, Wake Up. We’re Almost There (1971), a grand Bacchanalian phantasmagoria, a wonderful book that gets at the collective experience of simultaneous sense processing (i.e. human connection) unlike any other I have ever read, appeared to virtually no recognition, and Did Christ Make Love? followed suit the next year. So began Brossard’s final twenty years of creative work, which would produce six more fictions: Dirty Books for Little Folks (1978), Raging Joys, Sublime Violations (1981), A Chimney Sweep Comes Clean (1985), Closing the Gap (1986), Postcards: Don’t You Just Wish You Were Here (1987), and finally As the Wolf Howls at My Door (1993), first published in a thick hardcover by Dalkey Archive Press the year before Brossard passed away from cancer, that edition reproduced here in facsimile, in paperback for the first time ever.

Such as when we study Henry James or William H. Gass, we have the luxury of clarifying the demarcation between the Major and Minor Psychedelicarcana of Brossard studies with the novelist’s own criticism. In his furious vituperative published in Harper’s in June 1972, we can find an artist’s statement:

True and original fiction, on the other hand, is vision, and fiction writers are visionaries. It is myth and magic, and the writers of it are magicians and shamans, mythmakers and mythologists. Their creations do not tell you what you already know. Their creations, like those of the seer or the primitive shaman, are mythical structures, including totemic systems, that integrate within one shared experience the reader and himself and the myth—in other words Man, Man with himself, his conscious and unconscious, and the world around him and the life within that world. These creative structures permit man to transcend his seeming mortal, physical limitations and soar, in and out, and yet at the same time make it unnecessary to set foot outside his room. They permit him to make those interior voyages that we have all been warned result in insanity and nonbeing and terrible punishment, without going crazy or disappearing. In fact, by taking these voyages he is sustaining and increasing his complex humanness, not diminishing it.

And as early as 1951, in response to an American literary scene plagued by campus novels, he wrote in New American Mercury:

Another thing, in those days there seemed to be a fear of sounding like another writer, of losing your individualism. This produced a diversity of styles and visions the like of which has never before been seen in our culture. Today, however, this fear seems to have been reversed; you get the impression that one mind with a thousand pencils is doing all the writing.

Maybe this is because there are simply more writers and it is harder to sound different among so many. I don’t really think this is so. I think this is simply a period of dullness, of ultra-respectability and imitation. One explanation, I venture, is that all over the country, in every college, young men and women, God help them, are being “taught” how to write the “correct” way. And a great many of the people doing this “teaching”—as if you could “teach” somebody how to be a writer—are writers who have a humdrum, unexciting technique themselves, and who can’t help teaching their students to write the way they do, whether or not the student’s own talent and material happen to gibe with this technique.

An awful lot of writing reads as though it were turned out, willy-nilly, in some “workshop” or other. (Every time I see the words “writer’s workshop,” I can’t help thinking of grammar school art class, when forty of us brats, seated at a workbench, were all trying to build the same bird house.)…The mass of today’s prose, as typified by the book under discussion (for our purposes nameless), is some strange, colorless tasteless substance, something you might call “perma-prose,” made of plastic, turned out by the roll, and quite easily converted into suspenders or belts, or used to wrap bundles with.

What does Brossard offer where most novels offer only perma-prose? What adhesive was used to bind this big black book but “the irresistible, fecund, antediluvial ooze, where tadpoles and lizards and fish were changing into birds and baboons and men, was coming into me, swallowing and reclaiming me, making me a liquescent part of the tidal wave of mankind. Other beings and their voices oozed through me: I was that transforming, ineluctable ooze of human essence.”

In “About Wake Up,” a valuable unpublished essay, Brossard describes: “I discovered my own vision, is what I am trying to say. And that my vision had its own needs, its own language and image system, which had nothing at all to do with the abstracting expertise I had picked up while snuffling under the influence of those in power.” This remained the author’s aesthetic mode for the rest of his working life, culminating in the text at hand. As in Wake Up, there are several things here which have previously been printed elsewhere. Several of the short stories, rants, and naughty fables here first appeared in readily-available literary journals or in limited runs such as Dirty Books and Postcards, though these books are still worth individual pursuit for such absent treasures as “Jack and the Beanstalk: A Hustler’s Progress,” “Hansel and Gretel: Why Should Sleeping Dogs Be Permitted to Go On Lying,” “Rumplestiltskin: Don’t Fuck Around with Dwarfs,” and a third Little Red Riding Hood tale subtitled “A Novice Policeman’s Original Oral Report to the Chief of Security and the Director of Special Medical Inquiries.” The only Postcard reproduced in its entirety is Letting Bygones Be Bygones, Oregon, but the postcard vignette structure is adapted freely and enigmatically. The pragmatic collector can find both of these and more in the posthumous edition, Over the Rainbow? Hardly: Collected Short Seizures (2005).

What the totality amounts to is an “autarkic” classic of vernacular lyricism like Omensetter’s Luck or The Dick Gibson Show, an insane labyrinth of metafictional asides used as an enjambment method in a vast circus of erotic tales reminiscent of Wally Wood’s Malice in Wonderland and Far Out Fables, peppered with disembodied voices, obscene intrusions, word salad, exorcised consciousness, the author’s former work, rabid lunges at the puppet-masters of American foreign policy, and, most spectacularly, several double-identity soliloquies à la The Double View, all of it together staging the documentary depravity of Malaparte through a Playboy lens, the entire production directed by a madcap obsessed with such oblique fictions as Hind’s Kidnap and V., and finally screened by a projectionist who has “gone bananas.” In his essay, “The Abuses of Enchantment,” William Levy pegs Dirty Books with an onion roll from forty yards as a Menippean satire, which, in relation to the eventual work within which Smut for Small Fry was subsumed, is not only fair but worth careful consideration. Certain modern readers will be made uncomfortable by the slurs and hate-speech thrown about so carelessly in this book by such characters as Truman, Nixon, and Ishmael, but we must remember that these are not the symbols of the author, but of the Empire. As a queer, I am not so offended by the use of “faggot” and “cocksucker” in a book where I am also gifted a veritably European amount of full-frontal male nudity and “a dialectical analysis of the perpetuation by the mass media of the mythology of black cock.” If one can look past the scatological humor commonly endemic to great English novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and JR, perhaps, like me, you’ll find evocations of Chaucer, Varro, and Petronius in this authentic hunk of homegrown, cornfed anti-Americanism, a sprawling work of the magnitude of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet or Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva México!

Ultimately, As the Wolf Howls at My Door asks the sort of big questions only fiction can ask, such as: “What was Julius Caesar supposed to do or say when he woke up that particular morning, turned his wife Calpurnia over for a better shot of her ass, then looked up and saw all those fucking elephants pouring out of the Alps with Hannibal in the lead? What was Big C. supposed to do? Call up the director of the Zurich Zoo and say, Kurt, I think there’s been a bad breakout, fella? Grab his autographed copy of The Decline of the Roman Empire to see if the whole thing wasn’t some kind of typo? Goddamn drunken printers. Or simply go right on fucking his wife up her ass? Try putting yourself in his toga and see how smart you feel. It’s about time you Monday-morning quarterbacks got straightened out and called onto the mattress.”

Here is a book for readers kindred with our buxom Little Red: “She could have taken the shortcut, a well-ordered path cut by the village council and used by the utilitarian villagers who had no inclination to mess around, but she preferred the longer, more arduous way that took her through the unkempt, raunchy parts of the forest where one’s imagination could get a little nourishment. Odd and slinky animals abounded there, as did trolls, centaurs, gremlins, thieves, gypsies, mushrooms, marijuana, and brazen birds with long wings and big mouths.”

Behold the last great work of the patron saint of autodidacts, anathema to North American anti-intellectualism, Chandler Brossard’s As the Wolf Howls at My Door.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s