Issue #09/90, May 11 - 25, 2000  smlogo.gif

Moscow Babylon

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By Mark Ames

The Camus Guy

So the eXile book tour of America is over, ending neither in spectacular failure nor in wild success. In fact, those six weeks left very little film. I try to recall powerful impressions of any kind: shame, humor, excitement, but nothing comes to mind. I only remember cities, and not even all of them. The rest is a flat blur, vaguely unpleasant. This must be what spending time with your ex-wife is like long after the bitterness of divorce has worn off.

Somewhere around Van Horn, Texas, Taibbi and I just stopped talking to each other. There was no bitterness, no squabbling–no, that would imply that we were still alive, capable of emotion. Instead, once we’d traveled our 5,000th mile, we hit spiritual autopilot, as if pre-programmed by something larger. We stopped listening to our tapes. Ice Cube, Guided By Voices, Lou Reed, the soundtrack to Romper Stomper: you couldn’t hear the dynamics anymore. We may as well have been playing Winger. Things got so bad that we even bought some books-on-tape. Bought Dennis Miller’s so-called rant near Lexington, Kentucky. Jesus, what a moron! As caustic as my hippie 6th grade teacher! The tape went out the window somewhere outside of Cincinnati. Not out of anger, but out of reflex.

The flatness, the repetition, the cultural messages that are so effective in crushing individuality under the rhetorical cloak individualism (what American doesn’t believe that his strength lies in his alleged individuality?)–at first you shake your fist at the terrifying hypocrisy of it all, but after awhile, you go limp.

I always hated those cool, dead, emotionless people. But for the past three weeks, I’ve been one, a cheesy Camus protagonist, incapable of caring about much of anything. This must be what it feels like to be an American in your early-mid thirties. I understand now that pod-person dullness which hits most Americans around the age of twenty, something that passed me by then. I was just slow. It wasn’t choice, just a biochemical defect; I was a little too emotionally immature.

That drive through West Texas was what purgatory must be like: endless flat prairie, the repetition of shrubs, heat, bugs, desolate, dusty. We seemed to be sitting still in our borrowed car, while fake prairie backdrop rolled past as if on a treadmill, repeating the same shrubs and baked earth over and over. Once in a while we’d pass a small town. Sonora, Junction: those are all I remember. It was hard to work up any enthusiasm for our speaking engagements.

In Texarkana, Little Rock, Nashville, and Akron, we were speechless, crossing from the prairies through the low hills and the Smoky Mountains, not saying a word to each other, feeling neither hostility nor camaraderie. We must have seen a thousand totally identical strip malls across that great country, each with the same superstore anchors, the same chain restaurants, the same Southwest pastel and stucco, the solid peach and beige, flat-roofed structures, always with one huge A-frame-like projection to give it that down-home feel… and hundreds of Factory Outlet malls, also identically designed, whether in South San Jose, Urbana, or Longview. Flat roofed, always flat-roofed.

We’d arrived with such big plans too. We wanted to buy pith helmets, khaki shorts and net-guns, loudly stomp around the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, and fire the net over David Eggers, bagging him for the cameras. Maybe we’d send one of his ears to Dr. Dolan as a gift. We wanted to hire Russian whores from Brighton Beach to accompany us to the book launch party in Greenwich Village. We wanted to get arrested during a protest, to drop acid at a political rally and confront middle-aged paranoia in its most redundant form, to mercy-fuck a fat American grad student, to take a shit on Jedediah Purdy’s gated West Virginia estate. But we couldn’t. Hell, we couldn’t even get around to decaling the old Lincoln that Matt’s dad loaned to us–we’d planned to tag it with hammers and sickles, and huge tacky eXile X’s, and see how many times we’d get harassed in Bumfuck, USA. The only decaling we got was on the drive from Boston to New York last week, when we hit a fully grown deer while going 65, sending it flying over the roof, onto the trunk, then sliding down a center divider ravine.

Coming back to Russia didn’t make things better. In fact it got so much worse the night that I returned that I was forced to make a desperate, ill-fated scab-run just to keep from throwing myself out of my window. It was no fucking joke.

Objectively speaking, there were some highlights. Like last week, when, after we spoke at the Barnes & Noble at Boston University, we were led to a pair of leather throne-like chairs on the fifth floor and spent the next thirty minutes signing books. The first one I signed was for some art fag with bushy ironic ’70s hair and horn-rimmed glasses. I looked up at him, opened the book the he’d just dropped $16.00 on, and wrote on the title page, "Get a fucking haircut. Mark Ames." He dejectedly took the book, ducked Taibbi’s guffaws, and slumped away, shaking his head as if to say, "What did I do to deserve this?"

In Washington D.C., we spoke before a respectable crowd of suits. It was almost terrifying: we thought we were going to get grilled, so we popped the last of the dexys that we were handed in LA, and dove in. But there wasn’t much to dive into: most of the audience was either genuinely grateful for our alternative coverage, or else incredibly adept at being two-faced. If they were, then I have to admit, I like two-faced people. They usually wait until the coast is clear before launching their cruise backstab missiles, but that’s a lot easier to shoot down than a live confrontation. Michael McFaul, who had bravely RSVP’d, very conspicuously deserted his post. The moron: he could have just ignored us, never acknowledged the invitation. Instead, he became the laughing stock of the conference.

It’s nice to know you can still annoy people like him even two years after the battle.

In New York, on my last night, we were taken out for an evening of amped-up growling with New York Observer columnist George Gurley. He liquored us up, then brought us out to that disgustingly tame area of New York around the Village, which is about as on-the-edge as my hometown San Jose. You can see why Scorcese’s last New York film was so shallow and embarrassing: it wasn’t that he’d lost his touch, but rather, his subject had become thin, there’s nothing left to squeeze out of Manhattan but carrot juice.

Spending a rocket-fueled evening with Gurley seemed like fun at the time: having our every snide remark recorded into his cheap corner-store cassette recorder. Going into ridiculously affected bars and having the opportunity to immortalize your long-practice sneers. I got carried away, became convinced that the walls of those vile yuppie bars, packed full of dull bourgeoisie whose idea of a good evening out is going to a bar that "hasn’t been discovered yet," would crumble from my devastating judgments. Now I’d rather not know what was recorded, or what’s going to get published.

It’s good to be far from home.

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