Introduction by the Author
Ian Stansel is a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a debut work of fiction.
Introduction by the Author
Publishers have asked for introductory words before and I’ve always declined, but it seems that with age I am going soft. So here we are. I find myself unconvinced that these words will illuminate the novel or its characters of Hal and Tasha in any way (in fact, I rather doubt it), but since I did agree to provide something to accompany the new edition you hold in your hands I might as well take this opportunity to address one glaring absence from my storytelling career.
But first: at a recent gathering, I overheard a young graduate student assert that, “Every good rock star wants to be a writer, and every bad writer wishes he was a rock star.” It was a fundraising event for a well-respected and impoverished literary review, and I’d been invited (and paid) to speak on the “writing life,” a topic I have been reluctant to discuss before, as the phrase holds little meaning for me. The evening was pleasant and largely forgettable, except for the young man’s remark, which was just the sort of self-congratulatory bon mot that I’d love to untangle from my synaptic bramble (though Lord knows I’ve uttered a bounty of them myself), but which will stick like a nasty burr in a brain such as mine. It forced me to consider all variety of unpleasantries like aspiration and ability, when all I wanted to do was retrieve a promised post-talk glass of something red. Well. No going back. While I’ve had what most people would rightly call a successful time of writing, as evidenced by the book you hold in your hands and others (I’ve been assured) heading to reprints (depending on the receipts from this one, alas), and I would never denigrate the literary community that has provided me with the means to live a comfortable and well-fed life, the fact is that the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is a painter.
Now the novel. Upon its release there was a fair amount of discussion of what was fiction and what was fact. I have remained silent on the subject for two reasons: one, what has happened in my life and in the lives of those close to me should be of little concern to a reader of a novel; and two, my silence served to prolong the discussion, thus keeping the book on certain lists for longer than expected. But few people anymore care about the blue exploits of this old dallier, so I’ll say this: it is a work of fiction. If the events of The Imagists had occurred I would have written them as nonfiction. I have written one memoir (focused, I see now, on the writing life—what a hypocrite I am) and essays on literature and art and beauty, as well as one on minimalism, that couch-cushion fart of a movement. I’ve written articles on Oldenburg and Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns for Artforum and Art News. This is all to say that I do not have a problem with writing the real. I will leave it to biographers—should any interest remain—to produce a detailed catalogue of my post-adolescence, but for now suffice it to say that the events of the book did not happen, not exactly.
While I did, like Hal, move to Chicago from Ohio in the waning days of the 1960s, I was not, as Hal is for the first two months of the book’s chronology, homeless (well, not for more than a night or two at a stretch). When I arrived at the gloomy majesty of Union Station I was greeted by a cousin of mine who didn’t quite know what she’d let into her life. I overstayed my welcome in her Hyde Park apartment by a good four months. I ate her food while she attended classes at the U of C. I tried to sleep with her friends (and, I admit, one drunk night, her). She tolerated me with what I see now was near superhuman patience. Eventually I lied my way into a job as a line cook at a greasy spoon and then as a handyman at a gallery where I learned to light the shows of too many painters I felt were below me (I was nearly uniformly wrong about that), and a few who I admired greatly. I moved into a one-room flat in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, an apartment I’d stay in for the next three years.
In the book, Hal has had no training. He works with an innate knowledge in his hands and eyes. I myself had gotten good, though not great, marks as a student at the School of the Art Institute, where I enrolled my second year in the city. In critiques my teachers spoke of potential, though none were all that impressed with my compositions, which were by and large bad abstracts. My fellow sub-pars and I were defined in two groups: the meek who wanted to make what they thought was “proper” art (which almost invariably meant some spin on Impressionism), and those (including myself) who wanted to eschew all rules and create something terribly new, which really just meant that we were too lazy to spend the hours at figure drawing or even color theory. The result for the first group was work that, while perhaps proficient on a craft level, lacked any imagination. We mavericks on the other hand, churned out canvas after canvas of muddied and formless dreck. While my occasional piece might have offered a spark of inspiration, that was overshadowed by my fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of visual communication.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time. I rolled my eyes at my classmates’ fumbling attempts to extract meaning from my work. I spent my nights in dive bars with other artists, all of us as proud of the array of hues crusted in our cuticles as we would have been the scars of some noble war. We were a tribe, we young turks of the scene, all ready to set the art world ablaze. And a couple would, in their own small ways. Most of us, though, would either continue to create in obscurity, or give up and try our hands at something different. So it was, is, and ever shall be.
During my third year of school, my brother Lucas joined me in Chicago. I should say straight away that Lucas is the aforementioned absence from my oeuvre. If you look back on my books, there is nary a brother to be found. There have been drafts where he makes an appearance in one form or another, but no finished product features his likeness. (And for you archivists waiting for me to shuffle off, I have never been in the habit of keeping these early drafts.) This, I suppose, is his long overdue debut, and though I have no hope of doing him justice, he is, I realize now, the reason for this rambling and otherwise unnecessary prologue.
We grew up on a small dairy farm outside of Dayton, an operation barely kept afloat over the years by government subsidies and frugal living. Our father and his antiquated ways could not keep up with the rising trend of factory farming. Father’s outfit was organic before organic was a term, a farming practice born out of nothing more than an utter lack of business sense. Lucas was younger than I by four years. Through our respective teenage years we tended to the girls, as Father referred to the three dozen cows we held, feeding twice a day, slogging through mud and manure, the stench of the animals and their waste weaving its way into our clothes and branding itself onto our skin. No matter; most other boys at our school carried with them the same olfactory residue (or worse—those poor pig farmers’ sons). This might seem a pastoral existence looking back from the brave new nightmare of GMOs and cage-farming we live in now, but at the time I had little conception of any of that. All I knew was that I hated it. I hated the land and the slow, stupid cows, and I hated Father and every other man of the town for what I saw as the smallness of their thoughts. I saw them shuffling from the feed store to the tractor supply to the café, slump-shouldered and monosyllabic. I saw them all—Father included— look at me sideways whenever I accidentally verbalized my artistic ambitions or was caught admiring too long the sunset over the fields.
Who rejected whom first would never be answered. Facts of the past slip away into constellations, forever subject to interpretation. But words? Ah, words will dig their serif’d fingers into gray matter and take hold. One night we sat in our living room, the radio playing quietly in the corner. I was fifteen. Father looked up from his Sears farming catalogue and said to me, “You get yourself a girl. Ask one of them little things from school to go out to the pictures. And you make sure some folks see you.” The implication was clear enough. I can see now that he said this for my own sake as well as his own, that he saw this as a part of his job as a father, to teach me the ways of being a man in the world. But it only served to reify my discontent. From the time I was able to imagine a place outside of our farm and Dayton, I dreamed of getting out.
Lucas came to Chicago with little save for his usual generous spirit and an old Nikon box camera. I hadn’t seen him in three years. Upon his disembarking the train we embraced as we never had before. He was taller than he’d been when I last saw him, and broader. His hair shagged over his ears. Out on the street I flipped the collar of my Navy coat up against the wind and Lucas did the same with his beat-up old brown barn parka. I was overcome with relief that he had left behind the life of the plodding farmhand, and that we could now, together, begin our lives.
And of course I was delighted that he’d taken on a hobby such as photography, so with materials pilfered from various departments around the school, we built a darkroom in a corner of our apartment (an addition my landlord surely would have objected to, had I ever actually met the man), a space with what I know now must have had dangerously insufficient ventilation. But despite the shoddy equipment, Lucas’s aptitude with the camera was clear from the first prints. He took a job at a developer and spent his off time riding the El end to end, disembarking wherever the tableau caught his eye, and snapping stills.
This is not to paint the kid as an innocent. We were brothers after all. The predilections of one become the habits of the other, or some such equation.
Now Tasha I’ll get to in a moment. But first, let’s talk about the other women. Hal, you’ll find out soon enough, has experiences with a rather long string of women throughout the greater Chicago area, as well as one or two in Wisconsin. These scenes are all, to one degree or another, if not autobiographical in the strictest sense of the word, then certainly created with a notable level of education behind them. Through my twenties I was profoundly and inexplicably successful with women. I can say this with little fear of being seen as a braggart now that that success is a mere speck in my life’s rearview, ever nearing the vanishing point. I craved women constantly. Their skin, their voices, their gaits, their briefest of underthings. I wanted to devour them. I was so preoccupied with them that now, looking back, it is a wonder that I was able to finish any paintings, even ones as slapdash as mine.
Luckily for me, my brother turned out to be as adept as myself when last call came around. Plus, he had a youthful wholesomeness about him to which women responded. I and most other men I knew had developed a film over us, an emulsion of paint thinner, sweat, and secreted whiskey that formed a sort of paste which was, if not actually visible, then certainly odorous and ever-present. Lucas, though, despite his hours in the darkroom, and the fact that neither of us spent too much time in the shower at the end of the hall, always appeared unsullied.
For a week during my final year at the Art Institute, the department brought in Henry Worthe, who we all admired either for his work in the realm of abstract expressionism or the money he made off that work, or both. We showed him a series of three paintings each, along with a written artist’s statement. He critiqued my work, using words like “primitive” and “reductive,” words that I somehow in my arrogance and idiocy took as compliments. Later at a bar, as we hopelessly poor students bought round after round of drinks for the man, he put a small, dry hand on my shoulder and said to me, “I liked your statement. You’ve got a way with words. Your paintings are shit, but you’re a good writer.” I didn’t know which implication I hated more: that I had no knack for the canvas, or that my real talent might lie in something so pedestrian as the written word.
The first piece of writing I had published was a letter to the editor in Art News. Those of us who stuck around the city after school had started exploring new styles and subject matter. Our works began taking on more figures, as well as more of what we saw as social import. In part this was a reaction to the political climate—Vietnam was still happening and Watergate was in full swing—but also to what we decided was a sort of stagnancy and hollowness in the more established corners of the art world. We’d grown tired of trying to be New York. We began to embrace our Chicago-ness. We were the stockyards. We were the elder Daley and the ’68 convention (though none of us had actually been there). We were so many sweaty summers on the lakefront. Our work became surreal and grotesque, often cartoonish. Meat became a recurrent motif, as well as severed limbs and outsized genitalia. It meant to disturb, to challenge the integrity of our viewers’ stomachs. It was not pleasant to look at. In my letter to Art News, I spoke of the emptiness of what was still being hailed as new. I spoke of what art could be, a visual microphone for the injustices and systemic inequalities of the world. I alluded to the artists through the world that were using their work as a soapbox (implicitly including myself and my cohorts in the group), while they at the magazine still thought we should be wowed by Warhol’s Brillos. I fully expected to have my missive ignored, but not only was it printed, but they contacted me about writing a short piece on the Chicago scene. Thusly, my writing career began, though I hardly knew it then.
Lucas shot the paintings (which did not include my own) featured in that story, and in the process got a sidebar of his city work in those pages. What he captured in those photographs was a city I had never seen before. Yes, he got the grit that we’d all latched onto in our own work—the South-side poverty, the factory smog, the desperate river fishermen—but he captured it all with the admiration of an outsider, of a young man who found grace in just about everything he saw. It was remarkable, a lens into humanity itself. Some of my cohorts would refer to Lucas as my “project,” as if I had been guiding him into the world, advising him, teaching him the tenuous rules of composition. But, no. His was the untrained genius, the innate sense of space and form, with which I imbued the character of Hal. It was, as they say, a God-given talent. I knew even then that I had nothing to do with it.
Soon he was being contacted by galleries through the city. He was put in group shows, his work blown up and mounted, often on the coveted back wall, the centerpiece of the evening. Within a year of his humble arrival from little old Dayton, he was the first among us to get a solo show. He and I arrived at the Meyer Gallery on Diversey, and surveyed the room: his work pinned to the walls, the simplicity of the mounting a perfect complement to the easy brilliance of the photos. The turn-out was larger than either of us had expected. I watched as the owner hurriedly slapped a wad of cash into her assistant’s hand and sent him out for more wine. That kid, I thought: not too different from myself. And then there was my little brother. A sold-out show.
The gallery owner, a rail-thin brunette half looped on white wine and unforeseen profit, came up to Lucas, put both hands on either side of his face and said, “They love you. You can have everything.” This might have been a case of well intentioned hyperbole, but compared to the rest of us, myself and my friends, many of whom began to ache with envy and mask that feeling with increasingly self-righteous contempt for the fickle bourgeois art establishment, Lucas did seem to be boarding a great and mysterious cruise liner while we were anchored to a pier of obscurity.
Now, finally: Tasha. She was Lucas’s girl. Or rather, she is based loosely on Lucas’s girl, who prefers not to be named in these pages, and so whom I will refer to as S.
Lucas met S at the Berghoff, where she was working as a hostess. She was a lovely girl—intelligent, happy, unassumingly beautiful—and she came into our lives like a cleansing rain. I say “our lives” because though she and Lucas were the official item, we were a trio to the point that others took to calling Lucas and me Jules et Jim. Unlike us, though, S was Chicago through and through. Grew up in Pilsen. Daughter of an honest-to-God meatpacker. Did two years at DePaul studying accounting before dropping out due to what she referred to as her “Kafka-esque ennui.” Her mere presence tore holes in the identities that I, and to a lesser extent Lucas, had spent years developing. And we loved her for it. Each time she exposed some small ignorance of the city, we took it as a challenge to live more honestly, to be ourselves and to know the place more deeply. It was just the opposite of what should have happened. Had anyone else done this, pointed out where we’d taken shortcuts in our quest to be to artistic spokespeople for the place, we probably would have excommunicated them from the group. We certainly wouldn’t have gone out of our way to envelop them into our lives, as we did with S. But her honesty won us over. Not just honesty with others—in which case she might have just been another insufferable critic, and Lord knows we had enough of those—but honesty with herself. She was a constant introspector. She would happily announce over our meager breakfasts that she’d suddenly realized she’d been an inadequate older sister, or that she would never be able to truly appreciate opera, or that so-and-so was far more in tune with the spiritual world than she. Lucas and I began joining her in these revelation-confessions. In our dark apartment I’d say, “I’ve never read one word of the Bible.”
Lucas would counter with, “I’m constantly afraid of dying.”
S would say, “If I could have only one taste for the rest of my life, it would be deviled egg.”
Before you ask: no, I did not sleep with her. Rather, before you reach a certain part in the novel (which will begin as soon as this introduction concludes (should it ever—the prospect is feeling increasingly in doubt)) and begin to foment your own connections between what I am telling here and what transpires between the characters, I ask that you trust me this once: even I who once tried to make it with my cousin had some standards, plastic and ill-defined as they were.
We were happy around S. We were quite happy in general. Lucas continued to hone his craft. He invested in a Leica, and we found an enormous, run-down hovel in Humboldt Park. S all but moved in with us, only occasionally venturing back to her studio in Edgewater for fresh clothes or to pick up her bills. The new place had two bathrooms, one of which we made into a slightly more proper space for Lucas to develop his pictures. Each time I went in there I was astonished at the images he captured. It is useless to try to describe the way they made my heart lurch. His was a rare combination of talent and compassion. His one monograph, published by a local art press and entitled Shared Chicago, still pops up in used book stores every once in a while. It is an item worth hunting for.
I wrote more articles for small art magazines, reluctantly accepting my knack for sentences and slowly reducing the time and energy I put into painting. I also started playing around with stories. I suppose it was during this time that I first had the idea for The Imagists, though I wouldn’t actually begin writing it for some months and whatever nascent notions had been in my head then bore little resemblance to what would be the finished book five years on. I was, though, starting to be able to imagine myself as something other than a painter. I wish I could look back on the embryonic days of this career and recall excitement and passion, but what I felt most was resignation. The last painting I would complete was of the living room of that place in Humboldt.
At our urging, S took a position answering phones at the Meyer Gallery, where Lucas held his first solo, and was quickly promoted to assistant to the director and became known through the community as a person who could get things done. Everyone we knew saw what was happening. With the connections S made at the gallery and Lucas’ growing reputation, the two of them were quickly moving beyond our scrappy beginnings. They were getting personal invitations to the city’s biggest openings. They began slipping off to dinners and would, only after being pressed upon returning home, admit that they’d been with such-and-such painter or sculptor or gallery owner.
In September 1976, we got a call from our father, asking that we come home for our mother’s sixty-fifth birthday. By that time I had realized that I did not in fact hate the place, only pitied the people who lived there—which might be worse. I attempted to beg off, but Lucas insisted that we all go. For some reason I could not fathom, he wanted to show S the farm. The three of us drove to Ohio the next day. We picked up that cousin of ours, the one with whom I stayed upon my arrival in the city and who had seldom spoken to me since. She’d become a lawyer, news we’d heard by way of letters from our mother. She tucked herself against the passenger door while I drove and Lucas and S leaned into each other in the backseat. We smoked cigarettes and ate oranges that the cousin brought while Lucas spoke excitedly about home.
“When it rains,” he said, “you can smell all of the colors of the place. The green of the grass. The brown of the mud. Even the white paint on the porch.”
It occurred to me that my brother and I might have had very different lives back in Ohio. He always blended in with the town’s men better than I did, and was in turn more accepted. But, of course, it might have been that he did not, as I did, look down upon them and Father for their middle-American ways. He seemed to genuinely enjoy the bland food and wordless conversations. The silence between Father and me was less carefree. As the years went on, as my adolescence developed, the silences between us lengthened and deepened. He didn’t understand my ambitions, and I showed no respect for the life he’d chosen to live.
This was the first time I’d been back since leaving five years earlier. The place was largely the same, though the paint appeared a little more chipped, perhaps, and the gravel drive was empty of bikes and balls, those trappings of boyhood. Our mother came out to meet us, descended the porch steps with her arms out and her face smiling and wet with tears. She went to Lucas first, then me, then S, whom she’d never met before, kissing us all. That was Mother. For further insight into the woman, see every mother character I’ve ever written. But in the meantime I’ll say this: she had a heart that pumped love like an open hydrant. She’d nearly made growing up there bearable for me. She brought us into the house, where we encountered our myriad uncles and aunts and cousins, all of whom embraced us and led us further into the house to where they’d laid out a spread of food that could have fed all of our compatriots back in Chicago for a week. And the party wasn’t until the next day.
For Mother’s sake, Lucas gave S his old room and slept on the couch. I spent the next few nights in my room amidst the smell of the cows and the ghosts of my past.
The party was an assembly of generations of farm people. They settled themselves into the folding chairs, wiping hay fever from their noses and eyes with handkerchiefs. The young ones ran in and out of the old house, toddlers laughing at their own movements through space. Nearly the entire town was at the house. More food: ham, casseroles, Jell-o, baskets of rolls. From the living room I looked out the window at Lucas and S as they strolled the pastures arm-in-arm. My aunts brought out a sheet cake and Mother insisted that the little children help her blow out the candles.
That evening, after everyone had left, Lucas asked me to join him in the barn. The cows were resting, breathing shallow bursts of air from their wet snouts. Lucas said to me, “We’re going to stay. We talked about it and we’re going to stay here and help run the farm.”
I didn’t understand. “For how long?”
“Forever,” he said. “Or until we do something else. But for a good long while anyway.”
I smiled. “You’re feeling sentimental. That’s all. Jesus, as soon as we get back to the city, you’re not going to want to leave.”
“We’re not coming back,” he said. “Not at all. I have money saved up for the next couple months’ rent, enough time for you to find a roommate or a new place. I know I won’t want to leave. That’s not the life we want, neither of us.”
“I forbid it,” I said, trying lamely to wrest control of the situation.
Lucas smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t be happy about it.” He looked down at the ground, said, “We’re going to have a kid. Found out a couple weeks ago. We’re getting married.”
I suddenly saw him devolving into one of those marble-mouthed simpletons I’d known all my life, one of the morons in John Deere caps that had inhabited our parents’ house all afternoon. And what of S? Given over to baking and cleaning and child-rearing. And worst of all, the child: how lucky I’d been to escape the morass of boorish traditions and philistine customs that permeated the world of my youth. Would the child have such luck to desire something more? Surely the chances would be better with Lucas and S at the helm of his upbringing, but there were too many variables, too much risk. Was I a snob? Yes. Unquestionably, yes. But that snobbishness was born out of a genuine suffocation, a personal history where I saw individuality and expression—those things that I valued above all else—squashed. I could not imagine how my brother could be satisfied with the life of a dairy farmer, for himself or a family.
“What are you going to do,” I said, “take pictures of the fucking cows?”
“Maybe,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll take pictures anymore.”
And then I hit him. With as much force as I could muster—which in all likelihood was not that much, as I was a relatively weak young man—I struck him in the face with my right fist closed. He fell back to the dirt and held his jaw and looked as if his eyes were swimming. A few of the nearby cows looked at us. I leaned over and said, “I will never speak to you again.” I repeated myself and expanded. “I will never speak to you again if you stay here as a fucking dairy farmer. If you stop taking pictures, and milk cows for the rest of your life, you will no longer have a brother.”
What audacity to present such an ultimatum. What heartlessness. And yet I did not back down. I went to my childhood room and sat sleeplessly on the bed, alternately enraged and overcome with a feeling of desolation. The next morning I waited by the car. “What’s going on?” my cousin said. I ignored her. When my watch hit nine o’clock, the time we’d all appointed for departure, I opened the car door. At one minute past, I got in, said, “Let’s go,” to the cousin. She settled into her seat apprehensively and we drove the width of Indiana in silence.
I sold the prints that Lucas had left hanging in the bathroom. Brought them to the Meyer Gallery and told the tiny brunette that Lucas was back home tending to family business and that he wanted me to act as his emissary in the meantime. She said she’d gotten a letter from S saying that she wouldn’t be returning. She put those prints up and they sold and I paid the next three months’ rent and bought myself a heavy wool overcoat for the upcoming winter. Then I went into Lucas’ darkroom and developed a roll of film that he had not gotten around to before—as I saw it—abandoning me. I’d spent enough time in there with him that I’d learned the basic techniques. Even in the dark I could tell they were exquisite. In the light, after they’d set, I saw clearly the faces of children, one after another: laughing and crying, dirty and fresh, beatific and doleful. I’d never known Lucas to focus his work this way, to train his lens on one subject. I found another roll and developed those and discovered another sequence of small faces, this one perhaps even more heartrending than the last. I tacked a length of twine across the living room, hung each print, and walked back and forth in front of them like an animal in a zoo, my anger growing with each pass. How could he give this up? How could he turn his back on his own talent like it was a mere hobby? Of course I know better now what I was feeling. It was not only envy of his great abilities or even righteous indignation over his denying the world access to the product of his eye. It was jealousy born out of the knowledge that he chose the farm over me. He chose the life that that our father offered over the one I gave to him. He chose, ultimately, the world that never accepted me. Sure, yes, I was the one to leave Ohio, but Ohio had made it all too easy.
By that point the rumors were flying. Lucas was dead. Lucas and S were in Europe. Lucas was going to debut something any day now, something extraordinary. I refused to answer gossip, but I knew that Lucas’ work was too recognizable in Chicago. The new series would raise more questions, ones I wouldn’t be able to smirk and shrug off. I packed some clothes and Lucas’ prints and negatives, tried to collect on a few debts from friends, and scanned the Greyhound schedule, found a place about as far from Ohio as could be.
Should I tell you how that Midwestern boy felt upon first seeing San Francisco? The Pacific Ocean? Shall I attempt to articulate the sense of precarious freedom that the edge of the world provided him? How he wept at the sight of that great bridge, how he climbed the Headlands on the far side and scanned the water and the city with its banks of fog, that place for which it seems the word vista might have been first enunciated? Shall I describe to you the scent of eucalyptus and how that boy felt the molecules bloat his lungs and take root within him?
No. Those are the happy details of an altogether different mythology. The beauty of the Bay has been extolled enough, and anyway there are crimes to be confessed. Let’s instead discuss how that boy entered the first gallery he found and introduced himself with his brother’s name, how he laid his brother’s prints on a desk and claimed them as his own. Let’s focus on how that gallery owner jumped at the sight of them. “Amazing,” he said. He used other words. Divine. Magnificent. “Where did you come from?” he asked, in awe of the faces looking up at him.
So I got my first solo show. I’d only given the owner one set of prints and so when he asked for more, I said, “Give me a month,” and holed up in a rundown motel, the other set waiting patiently beneath the mattress on which I slept and ate and drank and communed with a number of young San Franciscans. The city knew me as Lucas and I answered without hesitation at the mention of his name. I spent Thanksgiving in a bar and brought a sad girl with a heroin habit back to my room. I showed her Lucas’ work while she shot up, spread it out across the floor. She said she’d never seen anything so beautiful, and I knew that it wasn’t the dope talking.
By the night of the show I’d almost convinced myself that the work was mine, that I’d somehow earned the accolades I was surely about to receive. I walked thirteen blocks to the gallery, stopping at the top of each hill to catch my breath. The sky was clear and the ocean wafted over me on the wind. I spent this time as I had every waking minute since I left Chicago: making sense of what I was doing. I told myself that if the son of a bitch wouldn’t take it himself, I’d have it, all of it: the attention, the money, the validation. At the gallery, before going in, I watched through the window as people were already huddled in front of the mounted photographs, whispering to one another, smiling, slowly bringing hands to faces in near disbelief at the beauty captured before them. Where would their love go if I were not to take it? I’d let their praise soak into me like watercolor into paper.
Inside the gallery the evening passed like a dream. As might occur in a dream, the Midwestern boy was two people at once. He was artist and criminal. He was guest of honor and trespasser. And what does the boy do when pride and guilt collide? He shakes hands. He smiles and laughs and sips wine and never lets on that he is not who he claims to be, that he has never created anything of worth in his life. Mere days later he collects his money, twelve thousand, and smells someone else’s sweat and genius on those bills. He breaks down, spends the next two weeks alone in his room, denying himself both the distracting pleasures of company and the numbing anesthesia of drugs and booze. He begins to write. He composes the first line of what will be his novel: “Hal wanted to be celebrated.”
The Imagists went on to win a number of prizes and was alternately lauded and reviled for its “frank treatment of sexuality”—a treatment that no doubt seems downright abstemious by today’s standards. The book has remained in print all this time and has been translated into more languages than I can remember. In the past quarter-century, Hal’s hubris-fueled fall from the heights of fame and adoration has sparked enough Icarus and Faustus references to drive prep school literature professors to consider the lucrative field of data entry. And Tasha’s unwavering commitment to her man despite his many infidelities has provided women’s studies departments with further evidence of the “masturbatory fantasies of late-20th century American male novelists” (yes, words stick in such a mind as mine). To many readers the mention of these characters has come to reference artistic devotion, the dangers of success, and (not to let on too much for those of you who have yet to thumb through the final movements of the story itself) the resilience of the human heart. Yet when I have had occasion to look at it over the past two-and-a-half decades, it calls to mind none of these things. Nor am I reminded of moments of critical and commercial triumph or even the sensation of satisfaction I’m sure I must have felt at times during the writing process. Instead, the book has always seemed more like the work of some twisted poet, an erasure project in which all references to love and fraternity have been wiped away.
Six months after returning to Chicago from California, I ran into a friend who’d been holding a letter for me. It was from S and said that my father had died not long after my mother’s birthday. He went as I imagine he’d have preferred: out in the barn, tending to the girls. It also said that they’d heard about the sale of Lucas’ work at the Meyer Gallery and the show in California. He wanted me to keep the proceeds in gratitude for all I’d done for him. I did not respond. Forgiveness can be the cruelest punishment. Decades elapsed and eventually there were days when I did not think about Lucas or S, but they have been rare.
Then, earlier this year, I was contacted by my cousin, the lawyer, who is now partnered in a small practice in the west suburbs and whom I run into from time to time. She directed me to an article in Art News alerting its readers to an upcoming show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, an exhibit that would showcase a certain photographer whose work has not been displayed since the mid-1970s. The show, entitled Touch, would examine the connections between humans and animals, as well as birth and death, and focused most closely on life on a small Ohio dairy farm. The article included one photograph, a close-up of a cow, her mouth open in mid-low. So, he did it. I would have recognized his work anywhere. Time is not the villain folks like to make it out to be. Rather, it is the most effective of mentors. I am a fifty-six-year-old man, married with two children, a list of books to my name, and little connection to his beginnings. So I went to the show.
Each photograph was framed in simple black. The cow I’d seen in the article took up the far wall, the centerpiece, her big black cow eyes cast in my direction as I entered. If anything, Lucas’ talent has advanced, his relationship with the subject both deeper and more purely articulated. There were animals feeding, playing, sleeping. They were giving birth and being slaughtered. The camera’s eye was not a foreigner in the landscape. Rather, its presence felt as vital as the very moments of life being recorded.
I saw him almost immediately, standing towards a corner with S. He looked older, but lean and robust. He wore what looked to be a new suit. His hair was thinning. S was beautiful as ever, breathtakingly so. They stood, each with an arm around the other’s waist, speaking with another woman, an old Chicago socialite type sipping champagne. S and the woman broke off from Lucas, and his eyes found me. I approached and we said hello. “You look good,” I said.
“I’m bald,” he said, running a hand over his sparsely occupied pate.
I set a hand on my stomach. “I’m fat.”
And so our reunion began not with words of apology or mentions of the past, but with brief admissions of our middle-age vanities and insecurities.
Since then I’ve met Lucas’ children and he mine. He and S invited my family and me to the farm, where we spent a long weekend, my girls—seventeen and fourteen—engrossed in the muddy mess of it all, neither of them able to imagine that their old man had grown up in such a world. Lucas’ son helps run the place. A tall, muscular, good-looking young man, he sent my daughters into state of coy muteness. Intelligent, too, that one. And S, she seems to have taken to farm life like I never could have imagined. She seems utterly at home, content. Late one night I tried to offer her and Lucas the money I stole from them through his work, but of course they refused. I am still trying to find a way to make amends.
Upon returning from Ohio to our home in Winnetka, I started a new novel, my ninth (though that hardly seems possible). This one is loosely based on the story of Castor and Pollux, sons of Leda. In the version of the myth I prefer, the former is fathered by a mortal and the latter by Zeus, king of the gods. The brothers are inseparable until one, Castor, is fatally wounded in battle. Pollux, the divine brother, unable to live without Castor, strikes a deal with the gods to allow them both to live on as the constellation Gemini, the twins. A fable of sorts, I do not predict this book will sell well. Yet I write it anyway.
I’ve also begun painting again. My hands show the first signs of arthritis as I stretch the canvases, but the discomfort dissipates as I set my brush to the empty plane and happily lose myself in the creation of truly terrible art.
Excerpted from Everybody’s Irish by Ian Stansel. Copyright © 2013.
Purchase a copy of the book at FiveChapters Books.