Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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Artificial Light


A new installment in Dennis Cooper’s “Little House on the Bowery” series.

$15.95 $11.96

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An excerpt from Artificial Light

Notebook One

You would be too: lonely and cold and scared. But the circumstances are new. Out the window, below whose sill I’m crouched, cross-legged, so that only the top of my head’s visible to anyone approaching up the hill, the first few crocus blooms have pierced a blue skin of snow. Spring cannot be far off. But in this room—more a hall than a room, with a twenty-foot-tall ceiling, walls covered in faded red fabric, floor with threadbare Arab rugs and silk-sheathed tasseled pillows‹winter reigns. Dead of winter, literal, present. In the corner where I try not to look, in every other corner too. A narrow stripe of colored lozenges, stained glass, runs the length of my high window, which faces west. When the sun sets, the light filters through the red, blue, yellow of the glass and falls in rows of blurry ellipses on the blond wood of the floor: violet, tangerine, sea-green.

Before hunkering at the window, I found a pile of empty notebooks in a desk drawer, and a few pencils. I found three large cans of tuna fish in the kitchen, and a box of crackers. I dragged an iron candleholder with six fat candles next to me, out of sight of the window but close enough to provide light to see, and scrounged from the pantry two cartons of cigarettes and a box of fireplace matches. Also a case of good red wine and a corkscrew and the coffee mug that Kurt found funny. The wine should not be kept so cold, but I have no choice.

I have assembled these supplies, in this place, because I intend to write, for as long as I’m physically capable, until I come to the end of the story. I’m hoping I will not be interrupted before I finish, but that threat is constant, and one reason for the cold and the candles.

If all goes to plan, you will come to know the full extent of my faults: that I am self-absorbed, melodramatic, vain, deceitful, petty, manipulative, superficial, sentimental, moody, dim: the usual human gamut: but I don’t mind. I write not to tell you about myself but to explode, by exploring, the labyrinth of self, yours and mine. If my goal were to make you like me‹and that has often been my goal, in the past—I might choose a different tack, or, and I don’t say this as warning but simply as plain fact, I might choose exactly this way. But please keep in mind that I am a twenty-two-year-old girl from a town in the exact middle of America, if not geographically then spiritually, and you are therefore required by law to cut me some slack. Sometimes I don’t know myself whether I am telling the truth or constructing the truth, or whether there’s a difference, or why.

The story I intend to tell—that I’m compelled to tell—is not my story, but it does encompass my story. I would not have elected me to write this particular story, or any story, particularly, but as things happen everyone who should have told the story—everyone who was better placed, so to speak, or better able for one reason or another—has died. Even the second-best heads, or hearts, have been incapacitated by circumstance or caprice or simple twist of fate. So there’s just me to tell the story, which certainly must extend much longer than the period to which I have been privy. Despite clear evidence of the story’s longevity, I will not discuss its origins or guess how long in the even longer course of things the chief players gamboled and japed and plotted their own ends. I only know what happened recently—the months to which I bore personal witness—which you’ll agree, when you hear its constituent sum, is bad enough, and sad enough, and probably far too long anyway.


We first noticed Kurt C— a few weeks after he returned to Dayton, his hometown, after a period of accruing apparently world-class fame and fortune playing in a rock band (please forgive my ignorance in these matters—I love music generally, but know nothing about it specifically). He had grown up in a rough part of East Dayton, the product of an abusive and divided household, like most of us, but—unlike most of us—had shown evidence of genuine talent, upon discovering which, he lit out for the hinterlands in search of greater glory. Having found more than he wanted, he retreated to his hometown to live as much like a recluse as possible. It’s a familiar story: riches bring only problems, celebrity isolates. It’s also a wearisome story, and this is not a biography, after all.

My theory, or what will now become my theory, is that Dayton attracts as much as it repels its natives. There’s something about this city, a kind of centrifugal force deriving from its literally central nature, its beating heartland, that creates a vacuum in the hearts of anyone who leaves, and binds those who stay with unbreakable chains. Though Kurt would have no reason to hold his hometown dear—his childhood friends, such as they were, had long left town or died or ballooned into unrecognizable mesomorphs with mesomorphic broods and Not One Thought in their heads—he nevertheless came back. He could have settled anywhere, in any country, and lived like a Mongolian warlord, but without the need for a standing army. Instead, he came here. He came home.

Sometime in the fall it was rumored he had bought the big mansion on Hawthorn Hill that formerly belonged to Orville Wright. The house, purpose-built to Wright’s own crazy specifications, had stood unoccupied for as long as anyone could remember, which was not long, as we were not old. The rumor, as sometimes happens, was correct, and not long afterwards Kurt moved into Albion, as he always called the place. A surprisingly small moving van pulled up in the long circular drive (it was reported, by one of us who decided to watch, I don’t remember who, not me), and a couple of movers under Kurt’s supervision unloaded a few boxes and several flight cases containing musical instruments stenciled in the way these cases generally are with the name of Kurt’s rock band. Most of the musical-looking equipment was loaded around the back and placed in a small room that I saw only once. Kurt may have spent a lot of time there but not when we were around. We were surprised that anyone would want the place, which was a hulking wreck, and even more surprised that Kurt did not seem inclined to perform many improvements. The mansion’s colonnaded portico and massive lawn had fallen into disrepair. There were peeling patches of paint on the white columns and the parts that weren’t peeling were blistered and dingy. The bulk of the place was brick, formerly white but aged by weather to a dusty yellow and chipped and cracked like bad teeth, as you see in movies featuring British people. My own teeth are crooked and yellowy and one incisor, victim of an adolescent root canal, has turned paralytic brown.

Before Kurt’s arrival, Albion’s interior was mostly bare, echoey, dark. When we were teenagers, and probably before that, a ground-floor window in the back had been broken, affording easy access, and we discovered that the empty mansion was a good place to get drunk or take drugs or have sex, back when we needed a place to do these things. Now we all had apartments, or rooms of our own in houses shared with many others, who did not care if we drank or did drugs or had sex. After Kurt’s arrival, not much changed. He’d arrived with very little furniture of his own, preferring to make use of the tattered remnants of Albion’s former splendor. With the exception of a small suitcase in which was heaped a tangled pile of monochrome clothes and an exceptionally large, heavy-looking chest which I never saw him open, he had very few possessions. When we started spending time with Kurt at Albion, we noticed that he liked to keep things sparse. No gold records lined the walls, no posters or artworks of any kind, even though I knew that Kurt himself spent a good deal of time painting in a room upstairs (another room I saw only once). This was something you rarely encountered even among people my own age, who often seemed not so much defined as advertised by their possessions. I would have expected that an older man would have even more stuff, not even less, and at first I found Kurt’s asceticism romantic, like in an existentialist novel. He had no car, not even a bike. Many of us used bikes to move around, but not Kurt. Kurt walked everywhere. To the bars, to the restaurants, to the coffee shop, to the record store. He most often walked north, downhill from Albion, to the quarter-mile stretch of Brown Street from Stewart to Wyoming, the central artery of the artier element in Dayton. Every once in a while someone’d see Kurt struggling uphill, south, on Far Hills Avenue, to the grocery store in Oakwood, which was almost a mile away, or even further up the road in Kettering toward some undiscovered place. In fine weather and rain or snow, he wore the same brown overcoat.

A few weeks after he moved in we started to see Kurt in our locals, the Snafu Hive and The Pearl. These were the two poles around which our social lives revolved. The Snafu Hive was on the corner of Brown and Wyoming. Approaching across the short expanse of grass between the Quikburger and the fire station—the route I usually took from my apartment nearby, on Hickory—you could see the orange border of light around the bar, just above the rust-colored awning, and the sign, which was a blood-orange-fading-to-mustard sun set in a deep blue sky, the sun grazing the tips of some dark leafy trees, and the words Snafu Hive below in the same orange-yellow shading. The sign was rimmed also in orange neon hanging from the unused second story of the windowless building. Even in the dark you could see the pale blue-green paint of the second story’s aluminum siding peeling, in the streetlight and the neon glow and the floodlights mounted near the angled eaves of the roof. The rough gray-and-white bricks of the ground floor reflected amber from the streetlight and orange from the neon border and the green-yellow-red of the stoplight at the corner and the red taillights of braking cars, too. Inside, black vinyl booths were set against tourmaline walls. Parallel lines of blue and green neon light lined the walls near their top. The stripes of neon from the walls were reflected in the curved glass of the jukebox front. When you tried to see what songs to play you had to hold your hand in front to block the reflection. Candelabras with coarse imitation Tiffany shades hung from the ceiling over each of the booths along the wall, and fake old-fashioned streetlamps were posted halfway up. The ceiling in the front room, where the bar itself was located, was tiled with the playing surfaces of every possible board game.

The Pearl was about half a mile away, located in a remote nook of the Oregon District, but linked more or less directly from the Hive by a concrete pedestrian bridge that transversed the highway. Approaching The Pearl, which was a low red-brick building fronted by twin maples—both still young and lovely gold-and-red in the fall—you were alerted to the purpose of the place only by the muted blue-and-yellow neon beerlight in the transom. We went to The Pearl, which was darker and grimmer than the Snafu Hive, only when the collegiate presence at the Hive became overbearing, which often happened on weekend nights when the University of Dayton was in session.

Kurt came first to the Hive. He sat by himself, for hours, turning pages in a notebook, occasionally drawing or scribbling something. He generally ordered a pitcher of beer and nursed that through the night, sitting in a corner table or an otherwise empty booth. Sometimes he would go over to the jukebox, flipping through the hundred or so albums on offer, and very occasionally he’d feed a dollar or two into the slot and ask anyone standing nearby to pick some songs, explaining that he had no taste in music, but liked the idea of it, which depending on whether they recognized him or not was either a good joke or the truth. At peak hours the jukebox was nearly inaudible over the buzz of the crowd, anyway.

I found the secret struggle between words and music, with its shifting front lines, sudden incursions of bright sound—a singer’s yelp, a guitar’s howl—followed by equally sudden retreat, as the sea of talk drowned the plaintive whine of some flowery folksongstress (for instance), one of the more entertaining aspects of bar-going. That and the talk itself, which, whenever I slipped into the bad habit of listening without paying attention, struck up a rhythm & blues of its own. When I was younger I had ambitions to chart the ebb and flow of the conversation among my friends, cross-referenced by personality type and amount of alcohol consumed, but I’m older now and my ambitions have consequently matured.

Nothing about Kurt except the natural force field of fame seemed unapproachable, but for some reason we did not approach him for a while. Not even Mary Valentine or Amanda Early, who approached everyone male, regularly, in the hope that he would buy them a drink. Amanda and Mary were very charming, and silly, and manipulative, and pretended to hate each other. Both were pretty but in different ways. Mary was small and blond, had a face constructed of oblique angles, and wore very tight clothes to accentuate the camber of her shapely nates. Amanda was taller, moon-faced, dark-haired, with heavy, soft breasts that she hid (to the extent possible) under oversized shirts or sweaters. She was both proud and embarrassed of her breasts, which I can understand even though I’ve never had that problem myself. Mary was smarter, and Amanda neurotic to the point where she’d been prescribed lithium for what her doctor told her was a manic-depressive disorder, but she sold the lithium in order to keep drinking. She was also nicer than Mary, as slightly stupid people are apt to be nicer than slightly smart people.

Boys loved Mary and Amanda, not least because for all their insincere flirting, they were both kind of slutty. I’ve determined after much research that boys like sluts. The kind of boys that hung out with us, anyway. I’m not really a slut but sometimes I feel like one. Usually when I feel slutty I’m just pretending, though. For fun. But sometimes you back yourself into a corner. Then you have to fuck your way out, which isn’t always fun or a good idea.

Eventually, though, curiosity got the better of Mary, who was more outgoing than Amanda, sometime around October of last year, not more than a month after Kurt first showed up. There were about ten of us grouped around two adjacent booths at the Hive. I saw Mary stop at Kurt’s table on the way back from the ladies’ room. She leaned over him, her hands resting on the table, fingers restlessly tapping as she talked.

Kurt nodded slightly and she slid into a chair next to him and laughed her frilly, girlish laugh, which was the thing I liked least about Mary.

“What are they talking about? What’s he saying?” asked Amanda, sucking intently through a plastic straw at the half-melted ice cubes in her empty drink.

After two minutes or so Mary rose and flitted back to our group. We quizzed her eagerly.

“He says to please leave him alone,” she reported, flush with drink and the excitement of something new.

“Everybody’s got a gimmick,” muttered Joe Smallman into his vodka and grapefruit, sitting next to Amanda.

“What else did he say?” I asked.

“He muttered something under his breath. I asked him to repeat but he wouldn’t. So I told him it didn’t matter anyway, because I only speak French. So then he said something in maybe French and I said . . .” Mary drew a breath before continuing, “. . . not that kind of French.”

Amanda looked at Mary, puzzled. “What kind?”

Mary giggled.

“He didn’t buy you a drink?” I asked.

“No. Bastard.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Cute, huh?” said Mary, still giggling.


Once Mary had made contact, others followed suit over the ensuing days and weeks. We grew used to Kurt’s presence, and he grew used to ours, and more tolerant of our occasional incursions on his table’s turf. He was never what you’d call convivial, and certainly not forthcoming (he would never talk, for instance, about what he was writing or drawing in his notebook), but he was never less than kind. As he came to know more about us, he would ask polite questions about our personal lives, without ever seeming intrusive or unduly interested, but at the same time without seeming as if the questions were pro forma or mere conversation. Something about his manner encouraged us to reveal more than we would reveal, or consider wise to reveal, to each other. Had he been so inclined, Kurt would have made an excellent psychologist, so realistic was his engagement with the listener, so attentive and appropriate his questions, so benign and non-judgmental his expression. He could coax startling revelations from the most reticent people, though to be honest none of us were particularly reticent, and the greater part were glad of an audience that had not heard their particular tales of conquest and betrayal repeated over a half-drained glass of weak beer.

Not so much me: I too preferred to listen, especially when Amanda gave an explication of the ways and means of her obsession with Druids, with sloppily drawn diagrams on a series of sodden bar napkins, later taken by Kurt and shoved into the jacket pocket of his pea coat, which was chocolate-brown in color, almost ginger-dark, so that when you first looked you thought maybe suede, but no, the material while soft and texturally similar to suede—like moleskin—was a wool blend. Kurt tried to put the napkins into his pocket surreptitiously, balling them in one quick movement, but I saw. I see more things than I want to see, sometimes.

It’s okay, though. I was part of the group, sure, accepted long ago by virtue of my reliability as a go-between in matters of love and a fortress of neutrality in the (inevitable, and frequent) event of fallings-out. I was the Switzerland of our circle. A little too clean, a little too respectable for most people’s taste, but safe, and remote, and unwilling to commit to either side in an argument. I have very definite opinions, but I don’t like to state them publicly. I understand how that makes me useful, and how that usefulness is the basis for the general amicability of my relations with the members of our group. But I don’t have any close friends—I never have, not even when I was small.