Back in the ’40s beat poets turned on, tuned in and wrote until they passed out. In the ’50s, William S. Burroughs proved that automatic writing could actually produce great work. Fast forward to 2004 and San Francisco poet August Kleinzahler has found his own express lane to the muse: Jet lag.
“There’s a window, thirty six hours or so,” writes Kleinzahler in his new book, Cutty, One Rock, “when traveling by air between places…inside that window you’re hyperawake.…the buildings, river light, the smell of benzene and tidal flats, what have you become almost stereoscopic, carrying a taste of the unreal—as if the world has been passed through a solution, cleansed.”
Cutty, One Rock feels like a song composed entirely with this circadian blue note. Bouncing between the twin poles of his existence, San Francisco and New Jersey, Kleinzahler blows one sweet riff after the other about his childhood, his move west and the pain of reaching back to remember it all. Learn just a bit of his life story and you will understand why he needs to enter a fugue state to retrieve it.
Like so many families, the Kleinzahlers looked one way on the outside and another from within. Kleinzahler’s brother attended the Wharton School in Philadelphia; his sister scaled the halls of academia at Smith College. They were not, as so many families around them in this breeding ground of Tony Sopranos, mobbed up. They had a dog and a decent home.
On the other hand, Cutty, One Rock is a book drenched with loss. The book’s title piece remembers Kleinzahler’s brother, a street-tough genius whose yen for danger was eclipsed by an even more powerful desire for self-destruction. He was the kind of guy who upon arriving into San Francisco asked his driver to take him to the roughest bar in town. Just for kicks, of course.
So how and where did the family fabric unravel? Cutty, One Rock doesn’t entirely answer this question because it is, in part, a reluctant memoir. The book opens with a bittersweet essay about the family dog, who Kleinzahler jokes was closer to him than his own parents, and then skips around the poet’s life like a photo album with some of the key sections torn out. A movie review of Leaving Las Vegas and an essay on Eros in poetry are sandwiched awkwardly into the mix, as if Kleinzahler is determined that his book not be yet another handwringing exercise in self-pity.
If such reluctance strikes you as charming, than hurry up and buy yourself a copy of Cutty, One Rock. The book will provide you an exciting alternative to the phony linearity of life as presented in conventional memoirs. Instead, Kleinzahler presents his life through its detritus: snapshots of him with the family dog; throwaway memories of running next door to ask a minor celebrity for his autograph; a bus tour across San Diego. His counterintuitive storytelling style finds an apt summary in the opening section of the bus piece:
“One of the inadvertent pleasures of life is getting stuck. We, some of us, understand, as regards travel, that much of the pleasure is in the getting there, and being waylaid somewhere one might not ordinarily have chosen to visit for any length of time can turn out to be an interesting, even instructive adventure. But we Americans are not too ready to buy into that possibility, choosing instead to demolish mountainsides, tunnel under rivers, and lay hundreds of miles of asphalt over the most productive soil on earth simply to expedite arrival at our destination.”
And so even though this is just a wee 150-page book, it feels luxuriously roomy, the perfect place to spend a melancholic Sunday afternoon. Why go to a bar when it can come to you in Kleinzahler’s pages? In “The Zam Zam Room,” he describes the infamous San Francisco watering hole and its Baghdad-born paterfamilias, Bruno. “Bruno liked the fog,” writes Kleinzahler. “He looked a little like a deep-sea creature out of his element when you saw him in the sunshine wearing casual clothes. If Bruno were a plant, you’d have to feed him lots of cigarette smoke, liquor, and red, fatty meat if you wanted him to flourish and bloom.”
For all his wise-guy humor and love for dishevelment, Kleinzahler is an exceptionally pretty writer and this shows in the book’s incredible title piece, perhaps the best memoir to appear in a magazine in the last decade. In it, Kleinzahler describes his brother’s swift descent into debt, crime and self-loathing—and his own guilt over not stopping this transformation. “For a twenty-year-old who was aiming to be writer,” having a front seat to this show was better than an MFA, writes Kleinzahler. As Cutty, One Rock also makes abundantly clear, it also broke the young man’s heart.