Sunday, 2 June 2013

South of the Border

When I was writing my PhD on American Dystopian fiction 1950-1970, I thought I had trained to be a specialist in science fiction. My supervisor was David Seed, now Professor at the University of Liverpool, who, when supervising my work, was also writing his book American Science Fiction and the Cold War. Now, some 15 years after I submitted that thesis, I realise that I’m not really a science fiction specialist per se (though I tend to write pretty much on genre and popular fictions), I’m mainly a 1950s and 1960s specialist. (I’m writing a book on 60s science fiction at the moment and have a long-standing infatuation with the New Wave.) In my reading, especially, I return over and over again to those two decades – we can stretch it to 1945-73, really – and find pretty much everything to do with 60s – film, tv, popular culture, fashion, music – of sustaining interest. (When I was a lad, my dad used to tell me about the silly plots of The Avengers – he was particularly fascinated by ‘A Surfeit of H2O’. I have now seen them all for myself, of course.) A game of ‘Know thyself...'

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve experienced one of those ‘calls’ to pursue a tranche of connected writing, one book leading to another. I had a hankering to read On The Road, and after barrelling through that, in short order finished: Hunter Thompson, The Rum Diary (1958/1998); William Burroughs, Junky (1953) and Queer (1954/1985); Charles Bukowski, Post Office (1971) and Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972/1983); and Dylan’s Chronicles, vol.1 (2004); John Fante’s Ask the Dust (1939) is to come. (I’m currently reading Fleming’s Live and Let Die (1954) for reasons that will become apparent.) As I was reading, several things became apparent that connected the books. The first was the influence of Hemingway, particularly stylistically, but also in the form of masculine subjectivity at work (the hard-drinking, abrasive and ‘tough’ blue-collar sensibility) and in the influence of a book like Fiesta/ The Sun Also Rises, with its depiction of damaged men in search of the authentic during the bullfights and fiesta in Spain.

The idea of Spain, the blood and wine and violence that circulates around the aficionado in Fiesta is relocated to Mexico in many of these texts: On The Road, Junky, Queer and ‘The Stupid Christs’ from Tales of Ordinary Madness have significant trips South of the Border, and The Rum Diary – in which the Hemingway influence is pronounced – is entirely located in San Juan in Puerto Rico. Mexico, in many of these texts, is the space of the authentic life erased in post-war America: a place of wracking poverty and corruption, but one in which some kind of alternative mode of existence, more dangerous and (thereby) more vital, is available for the American male traveller. This existential mode of cultural tourism, in which booze, ‘whores’, boys (in Burroughs) or narcotics (Burroughs again) are more freely available, is at once liberatory and corrosive. Mexico is a place of freedom but a journey South of the Border inevitably recalls colonial power-relations and the Imperial romance narrative, in which the British or European colonist or adventurer encounters the darkness without and within, a motif extended by Graham Greene in novels like The Quiet American (1955), The Comedians (1966) or The Honorary Consul (1973). This corrosion, in a book like The Rum Diary, is the inevitable consequence of too much booze, too much money, and a pervasive disquiet at the half-acknowledged resentment and antipathy of the local populations for the gringos.

In terms of the cultural moment, it’s no surprise to recall the ‘End of the West’ mode of late Westerns which feature Mexico as a symbolic space in the 1960s. While the Spaghettis Mexicanized the US itself, with Iberia standing in for the South Western states, films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) articulated the trip South of the Border as the place to go for the superannuated shootist, when America’s path to industrial modernity can no longer contain the gunfighters and outlaws of the mythic West. The apotheosis of this mode is of course Pekinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) – no surprise in itself, considering Peckinpah’s inheritance of Papa Hemingway’s mode of hellraising, abrasive masculinity – where the Bunch’s self-immolation in the final ‘shoot-out’, while re-inscribed as a socially utile act (clearing the way for a peasant revolution), is really a completion of the logic of ‘going to Mexico’, crossing the border into death. (We can find this motif overtly in Burroughs’s brilliant short story ‘Where He Was Going’, from Tornado Alley (1989) and recorded on Dead City Radio (1993), where the young gangster/ outlaw Ishmael, caught in a fatal shoot-out, dreams of escaping South of the Border: ‘Get away to Mexico. I’ve been there. Only way to live. Got 3 G’s in a money belt. Go a long way down there’. Accompanied by a teenage boy, Ishmael watches two pinwheels sputter out on the Day of the Dead, and the blackness between the fireworks spreads to cover the whole world, when Ishmael knows ‘where he was going.’ Another version is in the ending of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway (1958).)
What I’ve also found is a kind of triangulation in the books, a crossing of the North American continent which implies a rupturing of the borders. On The Road, Junky, The Rum Diary, Chronicles (and Live and Let Die) begin in New York, but the journey South often has a way station in New Orleans (On The Road triangulates NY/NO with San Francisco; Junky sequences NY, NO and Mexico). New Orleans is, in postwar American literature, often the marker of a different kind of American sensibility, a tropicalised States. In Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire (1949), the city is marked by exoticism: ‘you can almost feel the warm breath of the brown river beyond the river warehouses with their faint redolences of bananas and coffee’; ‘A corresponding air is evoked by the music of Negro entertainers at a barroom around the corner […] a tinny piano [is] being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers’; ‘New Orleans is a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races in the old part of town’. There is French, there is Creole, there is African-American, there is Southern white. New Orleans is heterogeneous, plural, egalitarian, jazzy, but also rotten, drunken, licentious: anything goes, more or less. New Orleans becomes the gateway to ‘South of the Border’, to life, to death.

The insistently colonialising imperatives of the white male in search of the ‘authentic’ life is always at issue in these texts, and is turned into a much more explicit set of anxieties in Live and Let Die, where the Harlem gangster/ SMERSH spy ‘Mr Big’ is also bound up with New Orleans and with the Caribbean (particularly Vodoun and Haiti). Bond, the agent of Northern, colonial power (the Caribbean is conceded by the FBI and CIA as a British zone of influence in the book: not much in the way of the Monroe Doctrine at work) travels into the imperial (‘pleasure’) periphery in order to secure the political and symbolic order of the Cold War, but his trip South of the Border is a reflection of the questing, overloaded, corrosive journeys of William Lee, Paul Kemp, Dan Skorski, or Sal Paradise. To really complete the logic of these texts, though, Bond should end up as a broken, flatulent lush, boring his fellow barflies in a bar in Jamaica, before being beaten up by local police and flown back home to an internal exile. For, in search of the ‘authentic’, just like Jake Barnes, the American male protagonists simply carry their own sense of exile with them, wherever they go. 

Popular Posts