Monday, July 14, 2008

Guy down in front next to the lady, he's our man in Panama: a comic chronicle of heartache, humiliation and pathology in Key West, circa 1978

I have never been to Key West, Florida. At least not, you know, in the conventional sense. But I have written about it, several times in fact, and what’s more I even wrote about Key West for the people of Key West. My pal Paul moved down there and got me a gig with a local magazine, interviewing Key Westers or, in any case, people somehow associated with the place, however incredibly tangentially. I’d talk to them and then write about our conversation in such a way that made it seem like I personally had something profound to say about Key West, even pretending it was a place I could in some way call home. The ruse was encouraged by my superiors. It was weirdly fun.

Most of what I do know about Key West I learned the same highly dubious way I learn most things: from reading fiction. Key West’s literary history is of course formidable, with its Hemingways and Tennessees and Elizabeth Bishops, though the period that really got me interested occured after their time, a period that previous to this gig I knew absolutely zilch about. Everyone I’ve ever talked to about Key West seemed to talk about what the place was like in the 70s, the time before colossal gentrification, the time of locally sanctioned madness, cheap real estate, too many guns, too many drugs, rampant corruption and literary outlaws. And I don’t know that any one figure seemed to sum up that time better than Thomas McGuane, a.k.a. Captain Berserko. Dude was so crazy he even married Margot Kidder. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t live there anymore.

The McGuane novel that everyone considers to be the his defining Key West work is Ninety-two in the Shade (1973), which he himself eventually made into an amiably off the wall movie with Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton and Kidder (enough said). But the one that strikes me as the genuine article, the one that comes closest to mapping out the particular pathology of that era/place/generation is in fact the novel McGuane took his biggest critical whipping for, largely on account of its disquieting degree of autobiographical content delivered in the treacherous wake of McGuane’s time spent courting Hollywood and seducing starlets. Literary types tend to find it distasteful when ostensibly serious writers overstep the boundaries of literary celebrity, and Panama (78), dragged McGuane’s private hysteria and public fumbles out into the open. You ask me, it’s a hell of a book, that much better—not to mention funnier—than its predecessor for laying its heart so crudely bare—though like Ninety-two, the mercurial comic prose is in high gear.

Panama’s protagonist is one Chester Pomeroy, returning to Key West to lick his wounds following some sort of debacle, or a perhaps series of them. The back cover blub explains that Chester’s a washed-up rock star, though you’d never glean that from anything described in the meat of the novel. He mentions being on tour, seems to like music, and at one point recalls having lunch with Jean-Luc Godard, but the way he conveys his past vocational adventures tends to be willfully oblique and/or surreally embellished: “I was making a tremendous living demonstrating, with the aplomb of a Fuller brush salesman, all the nightmares, all the loathsome, toppling states of mind, all the evil things that go on behind closed eyes. When I crawled out of the elephant’s ass, it was widely felt I’d gone too far; and when I puked on the mayor, that was it, I was through. I went home to Key West and voted for Carter.”

Chester’s two central concerns upon his return, the poles of some Oedipal wish-fulfillment, are: a reunion with Catherine, a woman he apparently married years ago in Panama, though neither can remember the ceremony, a woman he publicly insulted at some point in his blurry past but whom he still loves with an aching force, so much so that he stalks her in super markets and actually nails his left hand to her door while super-loaded on Bolivian cocaine; and to continue denying that his father is still alive, wealthy and boring, rather than a store detective who died of smoke inhalation in a Boston subway fire years ago. This is just one example of our hero’s selective or severely damaged recall skills. Chester’s memory issues are offered some degree of remedy when Catherine hires a private detective to follow him around so as to report back later on his actions. Yet in Chester’s first-person narration there’s never anything less than a rich sense of someone less than obsessed with coming to terms with his own identity. In an especially memorable moment, that sense of self-actualization is specifically concerned with how his relationship to place: “I didn’t know what I was, not a Southerner certainly. A Floridian. Drugs, alligators, macadam, the sea, sticky sex, laughter, and sudden death.”

In a certain sense Panama is a novel of redemption, though the shape or value of this redemption is hardly clearly defined or entirely resolved. It is a sort of staggering celebration of self-implosion and fiery bullshit, and a treatise on the limitations of willing oneself toward insanity. And it’s thick with a palpable, desperate heartache that refuses to surrender to the notion of a polite, quiet laying down of arms in romantic battle. What’s important too is that it speaks so specifically of a geography and a people as an entry point into persona and story. Whether or not the Key West of Panama really existed matters less than the fact that only Key West, that crazed, slightly suicidal Key West of the 70s, could have helped give birth to this heartfelt, daring, extraordinary goof of a novel.

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