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Fatwah / Featured / June 9, 2009
By John Dolan


He may be dead now, I don’t know. He should have been dead long ago, but these early boomers, born in California, have many lives. From some angles, Alex’s life was clear proof of what spoiled, invincible brats they were, the ungrateful beneficiaries of hippie primogeniture.

I remember him sitting in the little room his wife had assigned him in their hilltop mansion, his “study.” What Alex studied, mainly, was how to get more crack and get more blowjobs from prostitutes on his nightly forays into West Oakland. His wife–let’s call her “Elaine”–came in without knocking while Alex was whining about his misfortunes, between big puffs. She just popped in to ask him to take care of their daughter while she went off to do some chore for the underprivileged.

I thought it was the end of the world: the pipe still in Alex’s hand, the little room full of the hot exhale of crack. Alex barely went through the motion of putting the pipe in the open drawer of his desk.

But she didn’t notice a thing. Elaine was like that, a very successful person and as thick as an L. Ron Hubbard hardbound. That was part of the pleasant bitterness of visiting their modest palace on Grizzly Peak: listening in a kind of disgusted awe to the stupid things Elaine would say as she bustled around her uncomfortable kitchen–that cost more than I made in a year–or perched briefly on one of their peasant chairs–so peasanty it would have paid my rent for a few months.

Elaine was a constant reminder that in these parts, the race goeth not to the swift but to the…I wasn’t so clear about what it was that made her so perfect for the place. Being born the daughter of a billionaire helped, of course. Elaine’s family owned Kansas City. Her father had built the stadium there. His big break, Alex told me, was when he realized he was supposed to get a prostitute for the client who could sign off on a big project. Lesson learned, Dad went on to hire many a prostitute for many a client, accumulate unthinkable riches. and keep the dynasty alive with two sons, E-gulping entrepreneurs both, and Elaine. She was the family’s tithe to virtue–and she knew it. Alex, always good at catching and disseminating the worst moments of his nearest and dearest, told me he was watching The Last Temptation of Christ as Elaine zipped through the house between do-gooderies, and she happened to flit by the screen as Jesus was saying, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

He said Elaine remarked, without breaking stride, “I’ve never sinned.” He told me that story in his study, as he sucked on his crack pipe. (He had it to himself; I hate that stuff.) He gave his bitter little laugh. I laughed with him, uneasily–the envious goy, steeped in self-hatred, taking it for granted as the basis of any decency, at once disgusted and awed by Elaine’s obviously adaptive sinlessness.

Of course, it was a matter of definition. Elaine did virtuous things so terrible in their effects that I still wince to remember them. She was a leading pro-bono lawyer (it’s not as if she needed to practice for the money), working for the disabled, the disenfranchised, the dis-whatever. You live in Berkeley long enough, you develop an allergy for all those pious latinates, they blur in the same squished mass of numb piety pressing on the top of your head.

One of Elaine’s crusades was “mainstreaming” retarded kids. In the Oakland School District. If you’d ever been to the kind of school non-billionaires attend, the idea of taking those poor sweet Down’s Syndrome gnomes and throwing them into the pit with pubescent weasels honing their torture skills seemed downright Satanic. I ventured to suggest as much, politely, and managed to stop her in mid-stride. She stared at me in shock and said indignantly, “It’s a CONSTITUTIONAL issue!” I nodded and dropped the matter, but I’m still not sure how being terrorized from Homeroom to you can find refuge on the little yellow bus for the ride home, five days a week, was what the Founding Fathers had in mind for those poor puppies. Come to think of it, Elaine could easily have moved on to abolish the little yellow bus for those kids, ensuring they had their equal place on the big prison buses where the normal Oakland kids rode. That would have added a good hour a day to their constitutionally-ordained Hell.

It’s possible she actually did some good along the line. I’m probably being very unfair here. But that’s Berkeley; you become so accustomed to pious lies that you fall into the habit of flipping every public assertion. It went without saying that Emily, Elaine and Alex’s daughter, would never attend Oakland Public Schools. She was already enrolled at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center Preschool, one of three dozen reverently nurtured future achievers.

That was part of my nervous bitter laughing with Alex, too: the feckless goy friend sharing his half-admiring exclusion from all that Jewish achievement. Alex was never sure he was a Jew. It depended on how he could play it in a more maudlin way. In theory, that meant being as Jewish as possible–the Buchenwald pathos–but Alex was too smart to do the hack version of that. In the world we knew, Jews won. Elaine had picked Alex to sire a child with her only after verifying certain things about him, above all that he was, in her terms, Jewish.

Which he was, because he was born of a Jewish mother. From Alabama, for some weird reason. Alex was the product of her affair with a redneck Army man named Thacker who left as soon as the infant Alex started bawling. Mom raised Alex herself, enrolling him in those same very mainstream Oakland public schools before going insane. Alex used to recite one of his early poems with the refrain, “Just take the pills, Ma.”

Later, he sometimes claimed that his hobby of swooping down on the most miserable black prostitutes he could find in West Oakland was revenge for his time as the small, asthmatic white kid on those terror playgrounds. Other times he’d admit that was all a lie, sort of. That was another trademark of smart losers in Berkeley: being able to dissect their own lies, and a deep loathing for anything that reeked of humanist psychology.

Elaine found him after he’d dropped out of grad school, been anathematized by his cool literary friends, and divorced by his second wife. I went to see him–I’d always liked him, except for the mean streak, and besides, he’d introduced me to Celine–and had trouble even finding his hovel. People lived in a wild range of degraded habitats in Berkeley–under some professor’s house, in what used to be the maid’s punishment room, stifling mother-in-law suites over some immigrant family’s garage–but Alex was staying in a shed, an actual shed in the back yard of a pseudo-Asian duplex in Albany. I had to make my way through fake Korean shrines and a dozen cats to find him, sitting with his usual dazed, bitter smile in the middle of his books, on the one chair in this thing that was halfway between a cartoon dog house and a kid’s playhouse gone to seed.

I made my way out of that mess fairly sure that Alex was done for. His kind didn’t last long in Berkeley. He was the real thing, an actual intellectual–and also very intelligent. Bad, bad combination, especially with his big mouth. People used to mock him as soon as he left the TA lounge for his habit of wanting to talk about books outside the classroom. There were ways of doing that which were socially acceptable–you know, prefacing it with NBA chatter or elaborate self-deprecation–but Alex was too dumb to understand all that. He’d just start blathering, and worse yet about good writers, Celine or Nizan. They eased him out with hardly any delay.

He wouldn’t have been the first to–well, not “die”; people didn’t usually die outright, especially early boomers like Alex–but to vanish, fall off the screen. Go live with Mom, give up, pick coffee in Nicaragua, teach rich kids to beat the SAT, one of the many available awful fates.

Six months later I get a call from Alex inviting me to come and see him. The address was the first surprise, up there in the hills. But I figured it’d be one of those servant’s quarters sublets that seem so obviously degrading now but didn’t bother anyone back then. I risked my Hyundai’s moribund clutch going up Cedar Street and parked by the address he gave me, in the wealthy quiet, staring down on the losers stretching all the way to the Bay.

It was a modest mansion, a very Bay-Area phenomenon. Every time I go down to LA it makes me laugh, the gold Bentleys and in-your-face star homes. They must be very insecure down there. In Berkeley you know somebody ten years before they admit to you they’re rich, and they design their mansions with the same discretion. This one looked, from the street, like a suburban ranch house, almost a cleaner, newer version of our three-bedroom/two-mortgage Pleasant Hill place. It was as cunningly and falsely domestic as those fake subdivisions SAC used to build over missile silos in Kansas.

Step down into the garden and the place already disclosed some fraction of its real income. Many, many Mexicans were required to make a garden look so whimsically zen. Ring the bell and the house spilled its whole story, chuckling with you at the cool just-folks facade. Because that front door opened on a hallway as long as a Blue Whale, opening on the deck, the hidden gloat-altar at the back where the house could relax and boast and spit on the lesser folk. It was that vertical: you could have spat a long way down the old socio-economic graph from that deck. Only Marin County, far off on the diagonal, seemed to nod with anything like equality. Everything else was far below.

Alex waved me in, chuckling a little, proud of himself. Didn’t say a thing–odd for Alex–but let me enthuse. I look like Otis the Roofer, and have an easy time doing a Gomer-Pyle “Gol-lee!” mainly because a lot of things actually make me react that way. I used to believe those poor-mouthing trust fund liars, thought everyone was broke like us. Rich people were news to me, and this house was like being admitted to their secret HQ. Rooms upon rooms, from the top “I’m just a little house” level down through the three lower floors, ending at last with the garden, a terrace chopped out of the cliff and staffed with various hired showgirl fauna.

My appreciation did Alex good, and I was happy enough to ham it up for him. It took him a while, sitting out on that sin-soaked, ought-to-be-illegal deck, to give me the story of his sudden resurrection. Basically, he’d been well on his way to total failure, about to be evicted from his Asian doghouse, when he ran into Elaine at a party.

Alex was too smart and too grim to think he’d swept her off her feet. For one thing, Elaine was a lesbian, had been all her life. Once you knew her, that seemed obvious; not in the sense of a genetically-programmed sexual orientation but because Elaine was all one great complacent and implicitly male ego; she would always have to be in control of 51% of the stock. And the first, simplest and most obvious way to ensure that was to be the man.

Alex showed me a picture of Elaine with one of her girlfriends in some third-world boat being ferried to a beach tryst. He wasn’t stupid enough to think it was cool like most male porn-heads do, but he wasn’t hostile either. It was all part of the storyline that had landed him this job, and he was pretty damn pleased about it.

He understood what Elaine was after: a decent-looking, certifiably Jewish husband who had the sort of credentials which would please her family. One who could be controlled–and Alex’s passive, self-centered nature, along with his absolute impoverishment, made it easy to see how he could be controlled.  Alex accepted the role with pleasure, at first. It was a good deal for everybody. He made a good groom in the wedding pictures–Elaine was a dumpy roundish woman, so he was contributing 51% at least of the looks–and soon checked off Number One on his “To Do” list by siring Emily, born with all her limbs and no apparent mental disabilities. Emily seemed to satisfy, more than satisfy, Elaine’s maternal enthusiasm–she soon went into the hands of a succession of illegal mainland-Chinese nurses, whose hiring turned out to exclude Elaine from a cabinet post in the first Clinton Administration. All Alex had to do was finish his doctorate, then use Elaine’s connections among the Bay Area’s achievers to stroll into success.

He couldn’t do it. She got him a shrink, one of the expensive ones. The shrink knew everybody who was anybody and got to the point, offering to act as Alex’s literary agent if he’d just write something besides poems.

He couldn’t do it. Every couple of months, Alex would get so sick of exile among the achievers he’d call me and we’d go somewhere for coffee so he could bitch about Elaine and his gilded-cage existence, after which he would make a decent pretense of listening to my similar whines about the unfairness of hiring committees, the volume of nonsense written about Sade, and all the jerks in the Rhetoric Department. It was a lot like other distant friendships with fellow poet-losers, except that Alex had a car. That actually ran. And once, when we were getting money out of the ATM for lunch, he got distracted by his denunciation of Elaine and left $300 in the machine. He remembered about an hour later, just when he’d finished his designated 45 minutes of complaint and had settled down to pretend to listen to my 15 minutes. It was very typical of Alex to remember at that precise moment, and very typical of me to try to wedge my 15 minutes in anyway, as we drove back to the ATM to find the money gone.

He wasn’t worried about his wife’s reaction, like anybody else would have been. “No, she won’t even notice.” He was more embarrassed at having revealed how rich he was–pure Berkeley again–and in some way, I could hear in his whiny nasal dirge, so horribly like my own, that he had come up with some way to blame me for distracting him and making him lose the money. You always knew that with Alex: you were going to feature in his complaints to Elaine as soon as he’d said goodbye to you after a pleasant lunch elaborating on his complaints about her.

But it gave me an idea. I mean, $300 was serious money to me. “God, Alex, listen, if she…seriously, if she won’t even…come on, you’ve got to: I mean just do this every week. Your own account. Set it up. Every week $300! In a few months you’d have [pause while I try and fail to do the math]…a lot of money!”
I’d already heard about the pre-nup: Alex would get $10,000 if they divorced, flat sum, not a penny more. That was classic too: Elaine was thick and gullible about everything except money.

So I recommended slow larceny; that was my little Alex-improvement plan, self-help tips from the gutter. But he refused, wouldn’t say why. I think he was a bit disgusted with me, no doubt told Elaine that night that Dolan was really going downhill.

And Dolan was, too. Couldn’t get a job anywhere else, stuck at Berkeley–and the only reason I had a job there was because my dissertation advisor felt guilty about persuading me to write on Sade instead of Stevens, which accounted for my jobseeking record: 0-for-700, 100 jobs applied to every year, zero acceptances. Flying to the MLA at my own expense every Xmas to grovel in a hotel room to three or four tenured burghers. Condescending letters of recommendation for a Comp job at the University of Southern Mississippi…Not just Mississippi but Southern Mississippi. Not good enough for them. Not good enough for Central Missouri or Northern Louisiana (which is worse, Southern Mississippi or Northern Louisiana?). Fatter and balder and crazier with bitterness every time I made the climb up to see Alex.

Always I expected him to be sitting on the sidewalk, his pitiful unfinished Blake dissertation blowing in the wind. But no matter what he did, Elaine kept him on. He was still decorative and cheap at the price. It drove him crazy.

Thus the trips down to West Oakland. He ended up withdrawing a lot more than $300 a week and spending it on crack and blowjobs. And inviting me up so he could brag about it. I couldn’t believe it at first. Alex was about 5’8″, thin, affable and abstracted. And white. Very white. The notion that he could walk into one of those dreaded “crack houses” and come out alive contradicted everything in the paper. Lots of people did lots of drugs, but nobody I knew had ever tried crack. Even powdered cocaine was rare, out of our price range.

The way Alex told it, there was no risk at all. “If you’ve got the money, you’ve got the power. That’s all they care about, it’s all about power.” It sounded like more grad-school bullshit, but one time he took me along and I saw what he meant. I was living with my parents again, out in Pleasant Hill, because Mitzy had given me a Great Dane puppy as a goodbye gift when she went East. A fatal gift. You really hate somebody, give them a puppy. No landlord in Berkeley would take a giant puppy, so I parked him out there with my parents, who at least had a yard, and tithed most of the week to driving out and giving him a good walk in the park. And that’s how five years went by without much of anything.

When Alex called I said I had to take care of the dog, but he said he was staying at his mother’s house in Oakland and there was a yard: “Bring him along, we’ll leave him here, come on.”
Turned out the yard was about a meter wide and two deep, a garbage-can storage area more than a yard. For that matter, the house was more like a movie set: if the shotgun hallway of Elaine’s mansion was as long as a blue whale, the hall at Alex’s mom’s place would have had trouble accommodating a Hector’s Dolphin. Borstal looked at me the way only a dog who trusts you can look when you’ve thrown him in a garbage pen so you can go to a crack house.

I was scared. I grew up in the Bay Area when that stuff was real. It amazes me how little overt racial hate there is in California now. If you lived in Oakland back when I did, it was a given, and at that moment it was all flowing one way. We would be killed, and in the process my version of the world would be vindicated.

But Alex’s version was the simple truth. We picked up his contact, a middleaged black woman who talked very quickly. Alex had explained on the way over that she was a prostitute, and so was her daughter, who shared the apartment with her. He honked from the street and she came bustling out, the first sign that everyone would jump to Alex’s call as he’d promised.

We drove her to the crack house, and there I was even more sure we’d make the morning papers. Lank sudden zombie figures popping up out of nowhere to stare into the car, then shamble into the same door our contact had entered. But they weren’t hostile; they were preoccupied with other things. Nobody bothered us at all.

Our black woman came out and showed Alex the rocks. He was lordly but thorough, opening her hand to look them over, count them. She accepted this without question; they were both devotees of this feudal ritual. Alex was satisfied. We drove back to her place. Not a lot of furniture, just faces. Her daughter, nervous and submissive. And this other guy, a black Gollum who was always peeking over the arms of chairs and around the doors of rooms. She introduced her daughter, but not Gollum. The only time anyone acknowledged his presence at all was when we were out on their third-floor porch and I was finishing my first pipe. For about thirty seconds I was enthused and said, “Damn! It makes you want to, you could got out and conquer the world, destroy–” Just my way of saying, “An excellent vintage, madame,” but it scared the lady. Alex, in his new lordly voice, reassured her, “Don’t worry, he just talks that way, he’s fine, he won’t do anything.” Which was very very true. With the last volts of the hit I realized the miserable gap–miserable on both sides–between my nerd fantasy violence and the real thing, as it intersects the life of an aging crack whore.

I shut up and remembered my manners, passing the pipe to Gollum. The woman and her daughter stopped being scared and yelled, “Don’t give him any!” I looked at Gollum and he grinned, groveling and inviting me to kick him. I passed the pipe to the daughter. After her hit, she too felt the need for a restoration of high courtesy; she offered me a sip from her can of disgusting strawberry cola. I thought about all the places those lips had been and smiled and said, “Ah, yes, thank you, thanks,” and drank.

They did two more rounds but I was through. The high had been as crudely brief as a quarter’s worth of peepshow, and turned instantly to a childish whine in my head for more. I was suddenly convinced that all that Berkeley lefty bullshit about the CIA bringing crack to the ghetto to fund the Contras was the flat truth. I wanted to go home, get my poor dog and go home, weeping at the thought of my dog loose in merciless Oakland, run over, shot, fed to pit bulls.

We drove back to his crazy mother’s little house and there was my dog, unhurt but well aware of my betrayal. I drove him home to Pleasant Hill and was actually friendly to my parents for fifteen minutes or so.

Clearly the ritual did something for Alex it didn’t do for me. Which might have had something to do with the prostitutes. I went along on one of those rides too, but nothing much happened. We drove around the railroad yards, picked up a scared skinny black woman, talked to her for a while. Alex was driving, I was in the back; she thought she was going to be killed. And the weird thing is, as always happens, I didn’t enjoy that at all. Sade Schmade.

Alex enjoyed it, I supposed. That real fear. To be the cause of it, not the bearer. In theory I’m all for that, after all, but bleagh, if you’d seen this woman….no. That’s not what I meant at all. The same nerd-fantasy meets West Oakland gap.

Of course I didn’t have to go home to Elaine. That’s what made it savory for Alex. And even that savor didn’t last; when I saw him again he’d just got out of some expensive rehab place. And, he told me, one of the funny ironies of the program is that one of his fellow patients was this black woman who’d been part of the DEA squad watching his house. “They were watching your house?” I screeched.  “Yup. I knew it back then. I could hear them under the floorboards.”

It’s always weird when somebody you’ve known a long time flips from the “mean, selfish but roughly speaking sane” category to the “clinical” bin. I’d been in that house dozens of times. The floors were dug into the damn hill; nobody was under the floors.

It was time to be a good listener again, go into my “Gol-lee!” routine. He went on and on, as schizos always do, as if piling on details would make their overreadings valid. It annoyed me, Alex slipping into the loony bin, because one major premise of Berkeley life is that you don’t “go” crazy. There are crazy people and merely fucked-up people and they don’t overlap. Probably a necessary fiction when you walk home through a minefield of yowling lunatics every day. And now he’d disproved that consoling law. Selfish as ever.

And God knows, Alex was or is a selfish man, a bad dad, deceitful husband, backbiting friend and Exhibit A in the Spoiled Boomer diorama: “SEE the man who’s wasted more chances than certain entire countries–Chad, my friends, Mali, Kyrgyzstan! Think of it! This man has had more chances in one existence than Central Africa has had since the Ice Age! And yet, hear him whine!”

But Alex knew that too. He wasn’t stupid–very smart man, actually. Too smart for UCB; I saw that with my own eyes. And awful as he was, too decent for the literary world there. That was Alex’s saving grace: he kept blundering into scenarios that cleared the head, in a place where it’s very, very difficult (and dangerous) to display any interest in the truth. He fell well. Every horrible whining anecdote had a point, wrong and absurdly self-serving–like Celine’s–obnoxious and distasteful and somehow very wholesome, a palliative for life among those pious liars. His first fall had been from literary grace, avant-garde grace. It’s still my favorite. Alex was living the properly bleak life in a basement in SF, starving, staying up all night arguing ideology and poetics and Zukofsky and other unreadable crossword-puzzle ravings with the most, THE most disgusting literary mafia of all: The Language Poets. Believe it or not, these guys–and they were all guys, grim white guys with no talent or sense of humor, Miniver Cheevys wishing they’d been born in Leningrad, when it was starving and cuspy, you know, before it sold out. Alex was one of the original members, which was one of those chances he threw away. But here, see–“threw away” is tricky here; you live in Berkeley long enough and you kind of like people who threw this filth away, even if they did it by accident, even if they were trying to sell out–because at least they failed, at least they didn’t fit the bill.

Alex fell from grace with the Language Poets’ official coven when he entered grad school at UC Berkeley. He was ashamed of working for the Institution, but confessed it was nice to be able to feed himself and his wife, who was unavailable for fulltime work due to the fact that she was insane and spent her days talking to the squirrels in Golden Gate Park. Mocked by the sleek career-track future profs in the TA room, he was far more bitterly spurned by his Language-y pals. They were as furious as if he’d written a sentence that actually made sense. In their world, certain crimes were unforgivable, and working for the hated academic mainstream was the worst. The one time I saw Alex close to crying was when he told me how the Language poets who used to sleep on his couch now walked past him in the SF streets without a word, wouldn’t return phone calls, and let him know through intermediaries he was a heretic, a walking corpse, as far as they were concerned.

To understand just how petty and mean that was, you need to know how ridiculous their project was in the first place. These morons had managed to convince each other that, by writing gibberish that, when you read it now, sounds oddly like a bad standup comic’s notes to himself, gibberish which they called “L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E Poetry,” and god forgive you if you forgot the asterisks between every goddamn letter–by wasting their productive years writing unreadable crap, they would bring about the fall of the patriarchy.

Seriously. Seriously, that stupid. Makes the Mormons’ backstory seem plausible by comparison.

But see, that was Berkeley, that was Elaine’s world: under the virtuous crap, always the hiss of careers being crafted with devious patience. By forming an unbroken phalanx, writing pure gibberish and cornering the market on essays interpreting their production, the Language poets (forgive me for dispensing with the asterisks) slowly forged enviable careers for themselves.

And, Alex being Alex, doomed to star in allegorical slapstick, it was inevitable that he would run into Bob Perelman, most loathsome of the bunch, at the crucial turn in the plot. He told me all about it, the last time I saw him. Alex was in bad shape by then. Elaine had thrown him out, he was living with his mom in her 2D houselet without the money to buy crack or blowjobs. Worst of all, he was writing poetry then. He read me one of his latest, an upbeat thing about people working together, and before I could even puke up some fake praise, he switched gears, free-associating as always: “Oh hey, that reminds me, did I tell you I met Bob Perelman?”

I grunted. I had my own reasons to hate Perelman. I was introduced to him one and somebody mentioned my first book of poems, Slave. “Oh, Slaaaaaaave,” Perelman said, then he added blandly, “I liked the cover.”
Ah, all the people I didn’t maim. Where are they now, the subjunctive maims of yesteryear?

Alex was off on his story, and I could hear from his tone that it was something painful. Those were his best stories, so I shut up and nodded.

“You know when Elaine told me I’d have to leave the house? I actually felt pretty good that day, we’re probably better off this way–in fact I had, ahem, ‘conjugal sex’ just the other night–so I was feeling sort of OK about it but maybe a little down so I went for a walk in the hills, those trails up by Strawberry Creek. I was coming along and ran right into Perelman, Bob Perelman. I thought he was gonna walk past me like the old days but he was actually smiling. Talked to me and everything. He was in a good mood because he’s heading east, apparently this was some kind of farewell walk for him. He just got a job as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.”

Long pause. I wasn’t even going to offer a fake cheer for this one. Alex filed in the silence: “So, good for him, basically….”

“Wait, wait, didn’t you tell me they, those Language people, dumped you for being a TA at Berkeley?”
Alex nods, shrugs.

“And he’s going off to be a professor, so now you’re forgiven?”

Alex didn’t want to dwell on it. I did. I still do. I just looked up Perelman and discovered he’s flourishing as an English Professor, UPenn, giving lectures on the lousy writing he and his friends managed to sell as a magic spell against Patriarchy.

While I was at it I looked up Alex. He doesn’t exist online; he may not exist any longer at all. And like I said, that’s one for him.

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Add your own

  • 1. phil_collins  |  June 9th, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    What an insightful piece about the secret world of idiots

  • 2. Daar  |  June 9th, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Your writing makes my brain hurt but goddamnit they paint some really cool pictures about places and lives I’ll never get to see or know.

  • 3. MQ  |  June 9th, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Are you working on the sequel to Pleasant Hell? You need to be. I and I’m sure many others will pay money for it, good money. I gave $50 to this site but I just really want to give money to Dolan so he can write more books.

  • 4. Tyler Bass  |  June 9th, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Okay, for some reason, when I try to put my email address in the newsletter box, I’m referred to a comment box. Go figure.

  • 5. Brody  |  June 9th, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    I am not even sure what to say. You are great at capturing life’s little failures as they pile up, one on top of another. Well, they may as well be useful for something. I wonder, if I read more essays like this, when the inevitable disappointment hits as I get older, will I be more prepared for it? Nah, it will still sting.

  • 6. Homer Erotic  |  June 9th, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    Thanks, Mr. Dolan. It does me good to be ocasionally reminded that there are people in this world who have screwed up their lives worse than I have mine. 😉

  • 7. Thuggin  |  June 9th, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    Fuck, finally some real shit about Dolan smokin’ crack.

    Disable comments too. These people are retarded.

  • 8. Pedro  |  June 10th, 2009 at 12:28 am

    An interesting read. I like the comment about lifes failures piling up- so true yet not commonly the subject of intelligent writing in a humorous way.

    Keep it up….please

  • 9. Daar  |  June 10th, 2009 at 12:34 am

    #7 Doesn’t that make you retarded as well for posting? And on that case, doesn’t that make you a hypocrite?

  • 10. dsol  |  June 10th, 2009 at 2:41 am

    Great writing, please keep it up. And seriously, set up a paypal account or something.

  • 11. 11  |  June 10th, 2009 at 3:12 am

    Unrevealing, futile and trivial cynicism. Always focusing on the worst aspect of everything (say Berkeley) does not make much sense or – as the Exiled team seems to imagine – represent the pinnacle of human wisdom. It’s just obsessively sticking to an intellectually unsatisfying and inferior form of frustration.
    Get over it.
    There’s more to be said about the world. Think positive, maaaan. So much light in the world…

  • 12. Unemployed Irish Academic  |  June 10th, 2009 at 4:31 am

    John, have you considered the possibility that your difficulty in finding teaching is not only because it’s all mafia in this trade (which it is), but also because you come across as obnoxious and creepy? I don’t mean that as a dig, I’m just saying that’s how you come across.

    Though if half of what you say about Berkeley is true, your misanthropy is forgivable. . .

  • 13. doctor k  |  June 10th, 2009 at 9:47 am

    ‘the pinnacle of human wisdom’ lmao. if you think dolan is just being a negative nancy then you either haven’t left your room in ten years and dealt with human beings or you’ve made a tremendous mental effort to reinforce your illusions about them to the point where physical walls are redundant

  • 14. 11  |  June 10th, 2009 at 11:08 am

    hahaha I know people would be upset here.

    “if you think dolan is just being a negative nancy”

    that’s not what I said at all. read it again. My problem is that Dolan just keeps digging up his miserable experiences to impress others, without putting them in any context, trying to explain them (to himself at least) etc.
    This is futile. Sure there are idiots, jerks and ruthless careerists at Berkeley, some of them masquerading as humanists, but that’s not the whole picture and you know it. To stop at this point is not profound at all, it’s just pretentious and equally superficial nihilistic posing. “Oh, behind the surface it’s all about sex and drugs”…vow, how original, am I impressed.
    In reality of course, there are also other people doing interesting and valuable work and so on.

    This is exactly like writing reviews about films you hate, instead of films you (are brave enough to say that you) like.

    An adolescent’s world-view. Booooo-ring. And predictable too.

    I mean, what think would be fascinating is to hear about the people who were decent and wanted to make spaceship earth a better place for future generations. We should be in tune with the creative processes of Gaia. Now that is hard and takes talent.

    Anyway, who cares. Bye.

  • 15. Jasen Comstock  |  June 10th, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Seriously June. Best troll ever on eXile.

  • 16. rick  |  June 10th, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    I don’t know much about L*(etc.)ANGUAGE poetry but this is a real L*A*U*G*H riot:

    Get in tune with the creative processes of Gaia!

  • 17. Osho Honjaku  |  June 10th, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    People, people, people, there is no need to get in a twist. Firstly it looks like meditation will be good for everyone here. Secondly, what draws people to Dolan’s writing is a) that he is a very good writer AND

    b) Every writer has a theme and after you have read enough of what they have written you can spot it in whatever they write no matter how new the subject may me. Often this theme can be expressed in a few sentences (think about it, all those words reduced to just a few sentences!).

    Dolan’s theme is to report on the culturally required removal of passion that is part and parcel of modern life including the accepted wisdom that you do not take your ideals seriously. Nobody talks about passion more in places like Berkeley and nobody takes it less seriously than those there.

    (Especially) In California so many people have chosen landscapes over real lives and this is what Dolan writes about. Get that? That was Dolan’s poetry book, “people with real lives don’t need landscapes”. But what happens when people actively choose landscapes over real lives?

    If you are reading this you either
    a) have a life and just like to look back at the old crap. Well be careful, you become what you give energy to.
    b) Don’t have a life but still have some energy left in you and would like to have one

    Only meditation can help you! You must learn how to meditate and by and by you will fill up that empty space inside and enjoy living a full life of service again.

  • 18. Allen  |  June 10th, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    I enjoy Dolan’s writing quite a bit. His prose seems very well suited to what he writes about. In response to mister “11”, yes cynicism and misanthropy can be cliché and overly convenient escapes … but, to mobilize another cliché , you got to write what you know …

    Perhaps the little failures of life where it is actually lived, a day at a time, is just a subject that is really relatable. And the only escape from mediocrity is to turn the mediocre into a worthy, even romantic, subject. The heroic irony of misspent opportunities.

    “People with real lives don’t need landscapes” … That’s a really interesting thought.

  • 19. totalesturns  |  June 10th, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    @MQ — Agreed, as per my comments in the last thread. As great as it is to get this stuff for free, Dolan should be charging money for it.

    I really want to read a no-holds-barred account of Dolan’s experiences in the punk scene. Too much Gen X yuppie rock journalism about the heroic years of West Coast punk seduces Dolanesque Gen Y nerds into thinking that the “underground” is something other than one more form of sleazy careerism for slumming trust fund kids, and the world needs an antidote.

    @11 — Pretending for a moment that you’re not a troll:

    This is exactly like writing reviews about films you hate, instead of films you (are brave enough to say that you) like.

    I don’t give a shit about “films,” but Dolan writes amazing appreciative pieces of the writers he actually likes — check the Ted Hughes one from a couple months ago. I owe him for introducing me to Naipaul and Charles Portis, and I’d love to see him do article-length tributes to other brainy-outsider heroes like Gene Wolfe or Mark E. Smith.

  • 20. v21  |  June 10th, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Quite right, totalesturns. I owe him for introducing me to Celine. And I guess he owes Alex for introducing him…

    (But on the other hand: I’d like to hear Ames’ plan for fixing the world. The real one, not the obscenity he’d give (though the obscenity is a decent reaction to the world). But I suspect he’s smart enough not to have one. For that matter, I guess I should be strong enough not to be need to be told…)

  • 21. mmmm  |  June 10th, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    …”Dolanesque Gen Y nerds ”

    Wait, do you mean Gen Y nerds that happen to be Dolanesque or that Dolanesque writing has some gen-Y-ish character? ‘Cause he’s always struck me as having a more X-ish tone, albeit one often fixated more on Boomer/Joneser attitudes and obsessions.

    ouch my brain

  • 22. Tam  |  June 11th, 2009 at 12:06 am


    Would you recommend reading Celine then?

    I’m sort of tempted because he was one of Vonnegut’s favorite authors but on the other hand, all his champions seem to be smart but miserable misanthropes I wouldn’t really want to hang out with despite enjoying reading short bursts of what they have to say.

    Is this the transforming power of ‘great literature’ in action or are his fans self-selecting?

  • 23. Chris Williams  |  June 11th, 2009 at 12:43 am


    “It was as cunningly and falsely domestic as those fake subdivisions SAC used to build over missile silos in Kansas.”

    is the best sentence that I’ve read this year, and I’ve read a few. Ta, mate: tell Ames and Levine that although they are good, you are better, and my sub is for you, not them.

  • 24. Thuggin  |  June 11th, 2009 at 1:18 am

    Vonnegut was a chump compared to Celine. Don’t even try.

    @#9 Daar: Yes OF COURSE that includes my comment. In fact, my comment was edited by the modz, but that’s fine. It was meant strictly for the author. Everyone here, with the exception of ONE OR TWO people who come to mind, is either a total moron, or a naive pseudo-intellectual …

    The idea of people gathering cash via the internet to pay Dolan to write another novel? WOW. What the fuck? Seriously. Dolan is an ADULT. Like all real people, he’d like to see some REAL compensation for his work … not a pathetic E-drive resulting in a few hundred dollars thrown at him.

    You sick fuckers. Luckily there’s no way I’d ever meet any of you in person … cause I’d definitely fuck you up.

  • 25. aleke  |  June 11th, 2009 at 3:13 am

    hahaha, if Berkley was full of good people, then we wouldn’t have the perfect Manchurian corporate Obama in office. This is what “working within the system” means. Not only selling out, but descending all of us even further into a hellish spectacle.

  • 26. Celine  |  June 11th, 2009 at 6:09 am

    Does’t look like a simple short story, sets mag’s record in length and ofcourse purest crack fume invalation bitter truthness and emotional charge. Looks like Dolan has a sequel, a bit politically incorrect collection of short stories each featuring a Jew as the main character. All Jew are junkies or criminal so John has to do drugs or be a litttle involve insome petty crime in fact not to seem rude or unpolished. Each Jew despite being smart,talented is useless for the society and has derived himself of any perspective mainly because of his genetic defect.

    or fuck i have to go
    freaking carservice…

    to be continued

  • 27. Homer Erotic  |  June 11th, 2009 at 6:22 am

    What aleke just said.

  • 28. Daar  |  June 11th, 2009 at 7:51 am


  • 29. CapnMarvel  |  June 11th, 2009 at 9:00 am

    ‘subjunctive maims of yesteryear’ is the phrase of the year per me.

    Dolan, please publish another book. We will buy it. And yes, I contributed to the eXile primarily to fund your writing and the War Nerd’s. The rest is just icing.

  • 30. MQ  |  June 11th, 2009 at 10:46 am

    Dolan is clearly the best writer here.

    The idea of people gathering cash via the internet to pay Dolan to write another novel? WOW. What the fuck? Seriously. Dolan is an ADULT. Like all real people, he’d like to see some REAL compensation for his work … not a pathetic E-drive resulting in a few hundred dollars thrown at him.

    Are you volunteering to write him a $100,000 check or something? Anyway, 400 people * $25 each = $10,000, which is some actual compensation. Better than nothing, anyway.

    Luckily there’s no way I’d ever meet any of you in person … cause I’d definitely fuck you up.

    these kind of threats on internet comment boards are well known evidence that you are not a moron. They demonstrate that you are a real man who needs to be taken seriously.

  • 31. Publius  |  June 11th, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Yes, please publish another book. I bought Pleasant Hell and read it nearly five times… on the fifth read I lost it in a laundromat. I will buy it again. You are the best living writer I know, and I’m waiting impatiently for your next work – so I can study every word and be better than you.

  • 32. Bruce Andrews  |  June 11th, 2009 at 11:26 am

    In reading Dolan, this makes for, instead, a drastic unnerving constructivism all the way down to the level of the sign. And then beyond, backstage. I’M so TOTALLY WEEDED OUT RIGHT NOW. It looks behind the sign for the particulars, for an extremism of raw material, of what comes before signification, of preposterous dispersal & modularity, of energizing strangeness, of interferences, interruptions, & noise without a beat.
    (This puts the reading experience closer to sacrifice and surrender, to anti-productive expenditures and excess, to a surplus or hyper-trophy of enjoyments.) I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING ON.

  • 33. davai  |  June 11th, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    This is brilliant, thank you John. Now waiting for yasha’s next piece…

  • 34. Baked Dr. Luny  |  June 11th, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    It’s called LSD, it will be over in a few hours. Or schizophrenia, in which case it will be over when you take your pills.

    Anyway, well written little piece Mr. Dolan. I wonder if that crack-whore would have just been sent to rehab if she had been caught. I suppose she would have if she were a wealthy and connected Jew. The truly dangerous sadists out there, the ones with money and power, are always given the benefit of the doubt.

  • 35. Cap'n Kapo  |  June 11th, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    John Dolan gives us a spot on blueprint on how to fail up…

  • 36. 1of6billionsheeple  |  June 11th, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    speaking of people who wasted away opportunities, this guy was a former ancient history doctorate major at U.C. Berkeley turned…hobo bum living in the streets of Oakland!

  • 37. Mark  |  June 12th, 2009 at 4:00 am

    @ #11 (that is yr name): “Unrevealing, futile and trivial cynicism” is surely missing the point – ‘unrevealing’ is pure nonsense but regarding ‘futile’, Dolan knows it’s futile, that’s what the piece, and so many of his others, is about. About throwing stones at giants because it’s what the author believes in, while acknowledging that it will probably make no difference.

    The same thing goes for ‘trivial’: Dolan shows up the Language guys as trivial in here, and at the same time (ambivalently) celebrates someone who “may not exist”. He reveals and laments that disparity. So what’s ‘trivial’? Just depends where you’re sitting.

  • 38. Tam  |  June 12th, 2009 at 4:48 am

    @30 MQ

    Shh! Don’t tell dorks they’re dorks or they might get some vestiges of self awareness and become less entertaining for the rest of us.

  • 39. totalesturns  |  June 12th, 2009 at 5:27 am

    @mmmm – I meant “Gen Y nerds that happen to be Dolanesque.” Anxious, cheeseburger-scarfing types.

    @Thuggin – Yes, it would be very nice if Dolan were getting a real advance from a real publisher that paid him in real money. I’ll talk to my agent at HarperCollins — if we get front-shelf placement at Barnes & Noble, we could really sell _Pleasant Hell II_ to the Christian Inspiration demographic.

    Seriously, nobody deserves to make a living off his writing more than Dolan does, but if real publishers were taking an interest in it, he wouldn’t be giving it away for free on the Internet.

    Web-based print-on-demand publishing is easy and cheap now. An Xlibris or iUniverse book isn’t going to pay Dolan’s rent every month, but I think it would sell enough copies on Amazon to make a small profit. Compared to the alternative, that’s not such a bad deal.

    (On the other hand, “Gary Brecher” could probably get a decent advance to write a book that’s not just an anthology of reprints.)

  • 40. readthru  |  June 12th, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    I found Pleasant Hell in a laundromat and liked it better than a week-from-fresh Boston Globe. Needless to say, I feel in love with it from the moment I read once through. I want to help you make a Pleasant Hell movie. Oh, yes, publish another book!

  • 41. vkusi  |  June 12th, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    My friend 33#davai is disheartened that you changed his incisive post to the drek you’ve posted in his name. My Yellow Headed Parrot, Myana, whom I rescued from feral destitude, comes up with better wit than this imbicile, Dolan. Perhaps you are trying to start some kind of competition here to deliver the most boring sh*t possible ? The moderators here are a bunch of republican bastards.

  • 42. Thuggin  |  June 12th, 2009 at 6:38 pm


    Come on man … you’re oversimplifying with that Harper-Collins bullshit. The reason Dolan ain’t published large isn’t because of his subject or writing, it’s the fact he won’t play the game … go ahead, laugh, but books don’t sell themselves … you gotta hustle that shit. He spent the majority of his life writing poetry, but didn’t kiss asses: no big break going there. He spent that same chunk of his life trying to sneak his way into academic posts, but had a thesis on SADE, and, again, didn’t kiss the right asses: ho big break going there, either. EVERY great writer has to weasel his way into the right positions, even if it’s just for a while. Look at Hemingway: he took what he needed … then he stabbed all those fuckers in the back. Everyone’s gotta thrash around, the right way, to make waves … then ride em.

  • 43. 9redponies  |  June 12th, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    Hey readthru @40, I think you got @31Publius’s book!

  • 44. Jerome  |  June 13th, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    I keep reading about this legendary thesis on Sade. I’d love to read an article about your opinion of him.

  • 45. Osho Honjaku  |  June 15th, 2009 at 9:10 am

    “People with real lives don’t need landscapes”

    It becomes clear that Dolan is writing from experience and his words are lessons for younger folk.

    Apparently this man did his thesis on De Sade. Only an idealistic fool would do a thesis on De Sade – a fool who had bought all the lies about ‘doing what you love’. There are a gazillion other topics that could be sufficiently interesting and also allow for a reasonable career. (These are *not* mutually exclusive).

    Don’t take your ideals too seriously, this is actually very good advice. Even the antidote – a ruthless professionalism as demonstrated by the Elaine character – can become a perverse idealism of its own and leave a person miserable.

    So the point is that in this life don’t take anything too seriously. Your ideology is not real, nothing can match the overwhelming indifference of mother nature. Everything is impermanent and we would be wise to absorb a couple of good lessons that can easily be gleaned from the good doctor’s (and many others who have come and gone) writing

    – Sex is good for you. Sex, love and all that jazz is had best when you are young. Or you can look at it this way, you’re not going to be having much of it at fifty. And at fifty if you wish you were twenty, well as idealistic as you could be thats not going to happen is it?
    – Everybody has to have a job, some kind of work that at least some of the time engages and occupies you. So what? Everyone has to wake in the morning and do the morning things. You don’t complain about that do you?

  • 46. amar  |  June 18th, 2009 at 10:56 am

    i liked this.

  • 47. Osho Honjaku  |  June 22nd, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    With regards to hustling books:

    See the good doctor’s previous essay. This is his (and the Exile’s ) critique, that today everyone has to hustle everything and everyone is in competition with everyone else, including within families, within relationships. The ‘softer, moister’ world is long gone. One of the big lies of popular culture is that this kind of 24/7 competition on each and every level is actually good for you, you come to some glorious place because of it. The hustling, constant selling of yourself takes its toll, you may ‘arrive’ somewhere but in the process may well lose your original intention that set you on the road in the first place. You may have a hard time recognizing yourself when you have arrived. Paradoxically, the people you suffer the most from this cheer the hardest.

    It’s easy to glamorize the past, but they (the Exile) do seem to have a point.

  • 48. Thuggin  |  June 29th, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Osho –

    Way to fit your hollow analysis into what I said.

    I’m not talking values here. So stop with that “good for you” bullshit. You seem to get that there’s a fine line to walk in order to make it big. Do you understand that it’s necessary?

    If ya really wanna get real with it, you need to talk about whether or not any of it matters. What’s it all anyway?

    One huge sick joke.

    And if you don’t know that by now, you’re lost.

  • 49. chubbz molinoire  |  July 14th, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    Osho honjaku you make a lotta fuckin sense – more than most of these dicknozzles anyway

  • 50. w  |  October 19th, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    I agree with the comment that this article is cynical and unrevealing — it perhaps tells us a great deal about Dolan, but nothing about the world outside of his head.

    If Dolan ever bothered to come down out of the moribund Berkeley Hills he’d find a city teeming with life, youth, and energy. I appreciate his desire to criticize that which he sees as hypocritical or evil in the world, but seriously, choose your targets with a little more care next time. Only the rich and the boring/bored can afford to be so negative.

  • 51. Corry  |  July 21st, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Knowing Berkeley from that time, I can testify that some bits and pieces I recognize are an accurate portrayal indeed.

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