Charles Wright

Written by Ron Bass

Charles Wright was born in 1933 and published three books within a decade: The Messenger (1963), The Wig (1966), and Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About (1973).  All are riveting. The first book is a relatively conventional novel. The second is an alternative present novel and a scathing satire that is definitely interstitial. The third, which is the topic at hand, is nearly unclassifiable, although I think it reads like a novel.

The book flaps of Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About contain blurbs from Kay Boyle, Anthony Burgess, Ishmael Reed, and Clarence Major. Burgess writes: “It would diminish Charles Wright to call him merely an important black writer. Such talent as his transcends race: his concern is with the human condition.” Reed writes: “Charles Wright is the aristocratic poet-in-residence of America’s seamy side. He doesn’t flay so much as he haunts.”

Wright lived until 2008 but didn’t publish any other books. His New York Times obituary described him as an important literary talent who “vanished into alcoholism and despair.” In 1976, as Wright was “spiraling into oblivion,” his former editor Jan Hodenfield offered him a place to stay for a few weeks and he stayed twenty years, leaving just before he turned 64; according to Hodenfield: “He was a second father to both my children.”

Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About is constructed from Wright’s columns in the Village Voice between 1967 and 1973.  Some pieces have been edited. Another material has been added. The individual segments are not dated, and there is no reason to believe the pieces are assembled in chronological order. The book feels timeless or perhaps it is taking place in waking-dream-time in a region of hell that feels like Manhattan crumbling into the nastiness that took full shape in the late 70s and 80s.

The book starts with a precisely described wallop, in a cubicle in a Bowery flophouse: “In the half-world of sleep where dreams and consciousness collide, I turned on the narrow, sticky plastic mattress. The brilliant ceiling light seemed to veer toward me.  But with less than four hours’ sleep, fourteen shots of vodka, six twelve-ounce bottles of beer, two-speed pills, one marijuana cigarette – I chuckled in my pale yellow cubicle. The stone floor had a fresh coat of battleship-gray paint. After less than a week the old terra-cotta paint was surfacing. The armless bentwood chair functioned as a night table. Narrower than a standard clothes hanger, the wardrobe was doorless. The new opaque window was jammed. Unlike other residents, I never came upon rats or snakes. What unnerved me were the goddamn arrogant cockroaches.”

Starting from a series of home bases of this kind, Wright describes his travels around downtown Manhattan and the people he encounters in lowlife haunts such as Bowery bars, an abandoned East Village apartment being used as a heroin shooting gallery, “Chinese Park” near the Manhattan Bridge where alfresco sex acts (one involving Wright) were performed, and a VD clinic in Chelsea.  Encounters with the police are not infrequent.

Wright’s relationships with women are complicated and compromised by his lack of money and job prospects. He was temperamentally unable to play the suck-up game to obtain a sinecure that would have provided him a measure of financial stability. He insults a female journalist who is interviewing him in the Cedar Tavern. He berates a city bureaucrat at an Upper West Side party hosted by a member of the black bourgeoisie, and the bureaucrat later prevents him from being hired for a writing job in the city government. Apart from freelance journalism and royalties from two well received but poorly selling novels, he works as (and writes amusingly about being) a  flyer distributor and a dishwasher in the Catskills and bar mitzvah halls in New Jersey.

Around these activities, Wright always comes back to his notebook and the stack of books he is reading. Hemingway, who is referenced four times, is his most constant touchstone. For Wright, who served in the army in Korea, Manhattan was a different kind of battle zone, one in which race relations played a key part. He also references Malcolm Lowry, Nathaniel West, and Norman Mailer (hard drinkers, all).

The book ends with a letter to Nathaniel West at “First Comfort Station/Purgatorial Heights”, that begins: “Por favor—forgive the delay. True, it has been almost six years. Hope that it has been less than a day in your particular hell. It began in our New York and followed me through the small transient rooms of all your depressing hotels. Now Absurdity and Truth pave the parquet of my mind. The pain is akin to raw alcohol on the testicles. But I’m not complaining. Life’s eyedropper is being sterilized with ant piss. Hallucinations? Joshing? West—I-Am-Not-Spaced-Out, despite the East and West Village rumors. Slightly skulled though. Celebrating the Day of the Dead.”

Ron Bass

Despite its journalistic source material I would, not without some reservations, shelve this book as a novel, as I would the books of Hunter S. Thompson and Carlos Castaneda.

Ron Bass is a regular contributor to the IAF blog, with periodic posts on rediscovering lesser known Interstitial writers.