I've been getting letters lately from Salon readers, asking that I stop writing so often about friends with cancer, death, funerals, or the woman with just one arm; that I stick instead to Bush-bashing, and stories of tribal uplift. Now, I'm always glad to attack Bush, and his para-fascist regime, "para-fascist" being a term my father coined to describe Ronald Reagan's term as governor of California. I am upset about the Bush much of the time. I go to bed hoping that the front page of the Times will have headlines saying that terrible things are happening to him politically, so that I can go ahead and enjoy my morning coffee. But the bad news is that I am not going to bash Bush today. The good news is that there is no cancer in this story, nor is there one single person with only one arm. There is, unfortunately, no way to tell this story without including one tiny little funeral.
So: In 1985, the year before I got clean and sober, I published my third novel, "Joe Jones," which went on to do worse than any other book in history. I am not tooting my own horn -- I got such bad reviews that people pretended the book hadn't really even been published. I thought this book would end my career. Some reviewers even said they hoped I would get Ebola and bleed out and die -- or at any rate, that's what they said if you read between the lines. But the only paper that mattered was the San Francisco Chronicle: It was the paper my family and friends read. Bad reviews didn't matter as much in other papers, as long as the Chronicle ran a good review.
I had called the book review editor there during the week of publication, hoping she'd liked the book. She hadn't. At all. She was kind, though, not one of the reviewers who hoped I would die of Ebola -- perhaps just a bout of gingivitis, or gout. But there was going to be a bad review that Sunday.
I was humiliated, and vaguely suicidal. Luckily, I was still drinking at the time. I spent several days holed up on my houseboat, talking on the phone, leaving only to get supplies, and for walks along the bay. I didn't see anyone, except for people who lived on my dock. For years, I'd been friendly with a tall, elderly Austrian named Fred who lived at the far end of the dock, who walked by my houseboat several times a day, always accompanied by his little Scottie, Otto. Each time he passed, he said enthusiastically, "Hello! Good to see you! Have a nice day. Come along, Otto." For years, this is all he had ever said to me -- "Hello! Good to see you! Have a nice day. Come along, Otto."
But on the morning my review appeared, when I staggered out to get the paper, savagely hung over, I looked up and found Fred and Otto walking toward my houseboat. Fred stared grimly down at the dock as he passed. He muttered, "Saw your picture in the paper today," and hurried on.
The Chronicle had assigned it to a writer no one had ever heard of, which I mean nicely, in no way implying that they assigned it to a mentally unbalanced nobody. Still, some of you may be thinking, For God's sake, it's a book you're talking about, not a kid. And you are right. And you are wrong.
I cried a little, and had one or two cool, refreshing beers for breakfast, and then I headed off to the church I'd been attending for a few months at that point, in Marin City, by the flea market.
The people were used to me there, and very kind to me. They knew not to talk to me too much, and not to touch me, except during the Passing of the Peace, and not to crowd me, or try to get me to sign on to the nice little Jesusy situation they had going on. They mostly offered me sanctuary from the storm raging within. There was one old black guy named Theo, though, who always asked me how I was, and then threw his arms around me. He was one of the two men who burbled amens throughout the service -- him and old Deacon Hensley -- oh yeah, uh-huh, amen. He always blessed me, many times over, the way children splash water on you at the beach, blessyoublessyoublessyou; one word. He was very wise: One day he said something that I later quoted in a book, when I kept mentioning having lost my favorite sweater. The third time I mentioned it, he looked at me, somewhat askance, and said, "Honey? Sugar? It is gone."
This is a lesson that continues to defeat me on a regular basis.
Anyway, I sat in church the day of my bad review with my head bowed in shame, and people touched my shoulders gently during the Passing of the Peace. And then Theo came over and more or less forced me to receive a hug. "I saw your picture in the paper!" he said. "We're so proud of you! And we thank our dear Lord for bringing you here to us."
Within a day or two, Fred was calling out again to me as he passed, "Good to see you! Have a nice day! Come along, Otto," and since most people were pretending I hadn't actually even published the book, there was a sort of compassionate amnesia. Time passed: I had great friends, and so somehow I survived.
A year later, I finally got sober. My mind and life began to heal slowly. One day I reread "Joe Jones" and could see that it was not very good. I liked the funny, broken people in it, and how a rundown riverfront cafe served as a sort of church for them, and the sadness, and the lostness, because more than ever those seem such truths of our lives, in this overwhelming mess we find ourselves in together. Still, I knew that the reviewers had been right. I put it away, and over time, everyone forgot about it. It was gone.
After three years sober, when I wrote "All New People," my career got back on track, and hardly anyone ever mentioned "Joe Jones" again.
Time passed, and I wrote more books, and had a kid. Many people at my church died along the way, and with some of these losses, we weren't sure we could go on, but by sticking together, with faith and lots of food, we did. But then our beloved Theo died at 90, and the jig was suddenly up.
Here comes that funeral story I warned you about: We often have open caskets at our church, so we can see the person we love one last time. It is both unnerving, and mind-blowing, like being present for a birth. Theo was laid out in a dark wood casket, dressed in his finest black suit, lying on frilly bed liners. He looked like an oddly colored blackish clay figure, with thick yellow ivory fingernails. We began to lay him to rest. At our funerals, we rise, we sing, we sit, we rise, we weep. Our pastor Veronica glowed as if she were in her kitchen, even as she cried; her hair was braided in tiny extensions, like excitement of thought. In the beginning, everything was smooth and shy and glided right along, like the casket on its wheels, manned by the unctuous butlers from the mortuary.
People evoked the Theo they had known -- family, friends, old, young, white, black, Asian. Family members read Scripture, and reminisced. Theo's grandchildren looked clobbered by it all. The great grandchildren wiggled, solemnly. Black skin captures the light, highly polished, gleaming. It glows, like smooth bark, manzanita or madrone, and there are so many textures in the hair, and voices. How did we white European types get to be the standardized beauty ideal? It's laughable.
Then the rawness of the grief kicked in, with deep cracked voices and high teary ones, sounding out the depth of their love and loss, spoken and sung. It stirred us all up, even as it gave off air and moisture, because when the shadow steps forward and claims itself -- takes someone away whom you can't live without -- at least the fear of it can't suck at you anymore. It gives off something, like space in which to stand, if you still can; and it gives off shade. Shadow becomes shade.
The funeral was like an advent calendar, windows opening, full of surprises. Embers sparked, and got blown on by all that breath, and the fire of one small church in one impoverished town grieving for one old man, grew more crackly.
We filed by the casket for one more look, and the choir sang one last hymn, holding us up in song, and then the choir entered in the procession too, so there were only a few of them singing, and then only one soprano, who sang until a tenor returned, and an alto, and then they were all back in place, and the song swelled again. They kept the hymn going, pumping it, no matter what they were going through, and they were going to keep singing the song because once the singing ends, it's really over.
So we have never stopped singing of Theo, because his is such a beautiful song, but by the same token, we have never stopped singing about any of our people, even the people in our church who are what you might call a handful. Or a mess. For instance, right after I got sober, a man named Jim staggered into our church, a street person, who kept coming back, sometimes disrupting services, and other times listening attentively. He could freak you out with how crazy he was when he was stoned or hung over, muttering his dark thoughts. He wore tattered clothes that smelled of grease and urine. He was really a mess: I used to study him and think about how much worse he was than I had ever been. I had been a much nicer, cleaner mess. A cuter mess. I never disrupted service, since I refused to speak or to let anyone touch me.
Eventually, however, before and after worship, Jim would sit at the piano and play the most astonishing music. Our pastor taped him playing several times: He had obviously been classically trained, but he played like Keith Jarrett, eerie haunting lines. But you could never predict how crazy he might become on any given Sunday. And one horrible day, when I was standing next to Theo, he embraced Jim warmly, looked him in his bloodshot eyes, and told him how proud he was of him, and how we all thanked the good Lord for bringing him to us.
My first reaction was betrayal. What a fool I'd been! It turned out that Theo said the same thing to everyone; to any old mess. And here I'd fallen for it.
It made me feel cheap.
But then, years later, when Jim's kidneys failed, we baptized him at the hospital, a few days before he died. He was a much cleaner, calmer mess, which, if you ask me, is a lot. At his memorial service, our pastor played a tape of Jim's wolfy, ethereal melodies, harmonies that only Jim could hear, and I got it.
This book of mine, "Joe Jones," is the street person of my books. It's my raw, wolfy child. Yet there has also been some consistent if peculiar appreciation. Jack Shoemaker, the man who published it at North Point, has always loved it. It was my therapist's favorite book of mine. And when I submitted descriptions of its characters, settings and themes to the Guggenheim Foundation, I was awarded a fellowship. So there must have been some there there. Also, an odd cult of people would come up to me at readings, to say they could not understand why "Joe Jones" was out of print. They loved it. They're my Trekkies. Sometimes I didn't know what to think.
My priest friend Tom said once that there are always two points of view about yourself -- yours, and the opinion of people who love you. Our opinion is that we're a mess, a fraud, maybe vaguely disgusting. But others seem to love us, to feel great relief that we are in their lives. So one of these opinions is wrong, and you get to choose which one to believe. Over the years, Tom and I have encouraged each other to believe the opinion of those who love us and, in this case, I chose to believe the people who loved "Joe Jones."
So Jack, and his publishing partner Trisha Hoard, decided to reissue my book. My great friend Jane Vandenburgh helped me edit it slightly -- not with a fine-tooth comb, but with an afro pick, big spaces between the teeth so as not to tug too hard. I hadn't read it in 17 years, and when I finally did, this winter, I could see why it had not done well. It wobbled and flopped, and didn't fly in the upward trajectory that I had hoped, and certainly my readers and critics must have hoped. It's in the present tense, which I don't like, but I do love the characters. And I can see its part in my evolution as an artist: All of the elements of what were eventually going to lift me out of the swamp are there, beating against the walls of the cafe.
I am really, really not suggesting that anyone buy this book when it comes out in September: only that I love having this child back, this part of me home.
It's like meeting the girl I was in high school or in my 20s, with all those affectations, those tics and vague accents, who knew more then than I ever would again; who tried to be like other young women, because everyone said to be -- as e.e. cummings said, "Being nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight."
I wanted to make this book a little better than I had been able to back then. I gave it a haircut, scrubbed its face, and my boyfriend made a beautiful new dust jacket for it to wear. If you happen to read it -- the first chapter will be published in Salon in two weeks -- you'll be able to see what was growing in that ground of my youth, all the sadness and hollowness and mess and vigor, watered by people's kindness and booze and holy spirit.
Maybe you're like me, a connoisseur of dirt; most artists are, as are many spiritual seekers: We love the rich smells and bugs and textures and lights and roots and stones of earth. Sometimes the soil is barren and isolated, other times it releases green shoots and surprises, bottle caps and cocoons, itty bitty leaves, bits of bone, lost jewelry. Many things grow in your yard that you didn't even plant, that you don't particularly like, that you know should be weeded or pruned. But maybe the connoisseur in you wants to let it stay in the dirt awhile, let it just be. I tell you: It's taken me such a long time to discover that I can know a lot of stuff for sure, without being right.