Part Three: Ultimately All Pretense was Dropped

Sam Price

My favorite scene from a movie is the closer to No Country for Old Men, which is also the last scene in the book. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones in the adaptation, tells his wife about his dreams from the night prior, dreams which involved his dead father: “I’ve been older now than he ever was for almost twenty years so in a sense I’m lookin’ back at a younger man.” The gist of the dream is that he sees his father passing his campsite in the night, carrying fire, and he knows that his father is going to get a fire started so that when he gets to where his father is, it won’t be quite so cold and dark.

Especially for those of us with a dead parent, this scene is haunting and beautiful. Even in darkness, a certain amount of comfort can be found in memories of love, memories that are as real as a hug, as warming as a cuddle. For me, personally, I like to think I have a protector, much like I did as a child, and one that’s not only waiting for me in whatever comes after this life but here with me now.

I find this scene so bursting with meaning and potential that I feel like I have nothing to add to it. This is often framed as a problem, at least in modern society where creativity is another tool to leverage one’s own personal worth or brand. Being an observer or participant is passive. Framed as a mere follower, these roles are portrayed as being occupied by creatures persuadable to the point of mindlessness, only a mark that spends money, purchasing according to one’s station in life. In this binary the consumer is the B-side to the “creator,” a word rich with imagery and history, much of it religious, at least until the cringe-inducing “content” is added.

This worldview brings immense pressure to find a way into the gaze. Even when we know the gaze will not bring us any happiness. That it might, in fact, bring the opposite.

Plus, there is a certain amount of self-promotion that a lot of popular people have to engage in nowadays, which puts off a large portion of the population, who have to ask: Do I want to be liked? Or like myself?

America branded itself as the “land of opportunity.” If you search that phrase today, however, all the top hits inquire if this nation has retained this moniker when the American people are constantly confronted with inequality and bigotry. Yet these articles miss the point of the original phrase: Land is the key word. Those who owned the land had the opportunity.

Land, now, is no longer tracts of good farmland to be stolen from Native Americans and harvested by slaves as it was in the “land of opportunity” days. Most of the non-public land has already fallen into the hands of the wealthy. Opportunity has been relegated to the digital space. Worth is determined by the number of views, the number of followers, and opportunity—often to sell these viewers something—is doled out based upon that.

Even if we are largely being sold to by canny marketers, individualism is not absent from “passive” enjoyment. At least, on certain days, I am able to convince myself of this. Regardless, our experiences, our choices, shape the way we live. In doing something simple as slightly increasing my bowling average week after week, I invent a new future for myself. Conjuring a sort of hope out of nothingness. It is something, however small, that I am capable of.

When bleakly feeling like a product at the end of a long production line made up of past choices plugged into complex algorithms, what could be worth more than hope? Though painted as fairy tales, stories that start with “once upon a time” often end with “and they lived happily ever after.” The ending is impossible to write without the beginning.

Some days I admit to myself that I want to create something beautiful and I want others to share in seeing its beauty. I push back the voice reminding me that goals string along vulnerability, for there is a much likelier chance that I remain unknown, unread, my dreams scattered to the wind, unsown in the wild. As pessimism straps me down, I struggle to read anything worthwhile in my own work; it’s too convoluted or self-involved. When the clouds clear for a moment, I remind myself that the art I love is vulnerable. Its characters flawed. That their flaws, more than their strong points, are why I connected to them in the first place. My writing, following this logic, might stand a chance. And, even beyond whether or not I ever find recognition, isn’t it true that it’s not the admiration that will satisfy me in the long run but rather finding joy in the journey of creation? Well, let’s not be ridiculous; believability can only be stretched so far before it snaps.

Though No Country might contain my favorite movie scene, Blood Meridian has my favorite passage of McCarthy’s. Though the book is famously brutal, this is one of the more grotesque scenes in the book and McCarthy masterfully shows wickedness increasing exponentially throughout one sole paragraph:

Glanton took charge of the operation of the ferry. People who had been waiting three days to cross at a dollar a head were now told that the fare was four dollars. And even this tariff was in effect for no more than a few days. Soon they were operation a sort of procrustean ferry where the fares were tailored to accommodate the purses of the travelers. Ultimately all pretense was dropped and the immigrants were robbed outright. Travelers were beaten and their arms and goods appropriated and they were sent destitute and beggared into the desert...Horses were taken and women violated and bodies began to drift past the Yuma camp downriver.

When I came across that passage first I had to stop and re-read it a few times to see how natural McCarthy had made it seem to go from increasing the price of the ferry to murdering, robbing, and raping anyone that came to the crossing.

Anyone who dabbles in mind, mood, or pain adjustors is familiar with tolerance. In 1875, the word entered the lexicon in the phrase “tolerance was often obtained for these heroic doses” in the medical textbook by Horatio Wood called Treatise on Therapeutics, a mainstay text throughout the rest of the 19th century.

Something we want becomes something we need. With enough exposure, need can become prodigious.

For years, as I smoked cigarettes while friends were trying to quit—because that is the smart thing to do—I would tell them, honestly, that I had never even attempted to stop. I knew that I would not be strong enough, that it would only be an experiment in how long it might take me to cave, that the attempt would only be a new example of my weakness.

They stopped, those brilliant, capable people, and I kept on smoking more and more, making any thought of quitting seem less relevant than ever.

I first encountered the phrase “heroic dose” in Terence McKenna’s work. He thought the ideal way to take mushrooms was a huge amount at a time, in complete darkness and silence. I have never tried this all the times I’ve taken psychedelics. I can’t imagine spending a trip alone with my own thoughts. They’ve always been something to alter (read: run from). Instead, I’ve spent my trips listening to music or sitting around in a park with a small group of friends.

Though McKenna had been a habitual pot smoker, another trait I share, he also thought that a heroic dose was the best way to ingest pot. Again, alone and in the dark. Again, not something that has ever interested me.

McKenna also claimed, after years of continuously smoking weed, “I simply stopped smoking it, and took up reading in the evenings.”

This has not been my experience.

A headache preceded my Friday evenings. I would not get this headache any other night of the week, no matter if I’d been drinking or not. But come Friday, drinking no longer seemed like a choice. My body demanded it. I gladly obliged.

Drinking, however, loses its luster. A tolerance builds and even if one breaks through that into drunkenness, the same escape does not await a seasoned drinker that it does for a dabbler. Or maybe I’d gone down the same road too many times to find the scenery still interesting. So, never averse to trying anything, I began adding substances like a mad chemist. I fell back on the phrase “I have an addictive personality” when these chemicals became mainstays, yet I did not think it all that much prior to ingesting them in the first place. A fun thing to do shifted quickly and easily into a thing I did, without facing any resistance from me.

Though Blood Meridian has my favorite passage from McCarthy, my favorite McCarthy novel is All The Pretty Horses. The book starts the “Border Trilogy,” an epic adventure through the West and Mexico that dabbles in death and violence but has elements that Blood Meridian doesn’t touch, like romance. It’s also set after most westerns, with its events starting after World War II. Many places harbored their last vestiges of wildness long after readers might assume.

The Border Trilogy matches McCarthy’s own journey in a way. He came to the West late, too; it was 1974 and he was over forty when he moved from Tennessee, where he’d lived since he was four years old, to El Paso, Texas. Why did he make this move? He told the New York Times in 1992 that he’d “always been interested in the Southwest. There isn’t a place in the world you can go where they don’t know about cowboys and Indians and the myth of the West.” What better parchment than a palimpsest of already-existing myths for a writer like McCarthy to etch his own over, complicating both the past and the present? The setting of his books moved with him.

It might come as no surprise that the young lovers in All the Pretty Horses do not live happily ever after. Wouldn’t be a McCarthy novel if they did, really. Maybe this fatalism mirrors his own life in a way, since he told the New York Times that most of his old friends have passed. What of the survivors? “The friends I do have are simply those who quit drinking.”

He spreads the myth of the drunk writer, too: “If there is an occupational hazard to writing, it's drinking.”

Stephen King confronts the mythos of the drunk writer in his memoir On Writing. He writes, “The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.” He gives some examples, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and then continues, “Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers—common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words.”

Writing, as far as I can see it, is a game that takes patience and time. Longevity is needed, often even to write and edit something short, let alone a novel that is worth reading. Alcohol isn’t exactly ideal for this.

In On Writing, King reminisces—oddly enough—about barely remembering writing Cujo because of his prodigious alcohol and coke habit.

According to Madison Smartt Bell’s biography of Robert Stone, while writing Children of Light, Stone’s workday consisted of eight hour “coke-and-writing binges…and then I wouldn’t have any idea what to do now that I was so out of my mind and so usually that meant I’d have to make a drink, and, well, there you go.” While finishing the novel, he was invited to teach one semester in San Diego, He spent around six grand on blow during that short visit but, hey, he delivered the manuscript before the deadline.

There’s so much loaded into Stone’s “well, there you go.” Trying to re-fortifying himself with booze, after a drink or two he’d of course need another line to go along with it. And one leads to another leads to another. Soon, morning interrupts the party, it’s cruel light framing the curtains like a police spotlight.

Surely there are many more examples of coke or speed novels that go on to be loved. If I was a decade younger, I would have used Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson as examples. But Stone and King are the authors that interest me now. Who mapped out a sort of life I want. Or wanted once. Or sometimes want.

I wrote the first half of a western novel mostly at night while high on fifteen-dollar capsules filled with pure molly that I’d parcel out by snapping them open and putting the crystals under my tongue. The drug tasted incredibly bitter but, after I became familiar with its effects, turned oddly delicious like psychedelic mushrooms did for me a decade or so earlier.

The molly’s main effects lasted about an hour but provided a sort of afterglow that allowed me to be really productive, writing-wise. Oddly, I found it easy to pull off plot while I was fucked up. Maybe what I wrote was interesting, probably not—I set it down to work on another project (that I then set aside to work on this one, you might see a pattern if you look closely)—but it was a rush to write with the screen in such a strange glow, my jaw clenched, endlessly thirsty.

I wrote about the west with the help of drugs that didn’t exist back then. The west will never end. Not after the turn of the 19th century, not after World War II, not even now, with the landscape grown so hot and brittle from recent neglect. We will walk among the bones of animals bleached by the sun sooner than we think, cursing that the meat has already been picked off by some other, more efficient predator, cursing that we only learned how to kill generally, not locally. Mass die-offs, though they may produce a lot of available meat at once, aren’t great for food stores.

I only knew how to numb myself generally, too. There was no local anesthesia but if I had to numb everything to dull the depression, well, that was a fine trade-off. One I was more than willing to make, even knowing it would come back multiplied, carried on the morning sun filling the room. But the nights prior I’d thank the brewers and chemists for those few hours of solace and cling to the hope that I’d be able to sleep any tomorrow away, at least until dehydration woke me after having swollen my tongue, rotted my piss, and clamped and squeezed upon whatever remained of my brain.

Years spent in the warm embrace of alcohol. Long nights unraveled until they discarded me, half-crazed, into cold mornings. What boring, fruitless, common hobbies. The addict is the perfect consumer, especially one like me with overlapping interests. Yet all years are lost years and these, in some strange way, were connected to my survival. But because of or despite?

There are questions, even after much deliberation, I may never answer. Myths that prove impossible to eradicate.

Sam Price

Sam Price lives in Pennsylvania.

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