“A howl against the self-important world of living literature…I laughed out loud several times, and underlined dozens of witty turns of phrase.”
– Marianne Ackerman Rover An Independent Review of the Arts
“This is literature red in tooth and claw; exhilarating, exhausting, relentless, Flagship sustains a pace of breakneck proportions throughout. At times the novel, like the main protagonist, seems in danger of falling into a gutter of bad taste; but it is rescued by its astonishing level of erudition.”
– Thomas Cowper-Johnson
What’s your future worth?
It wasn’t always easy. But I’d developed a routine. That’s the key, no matter what your situation. Whether you’ve won the lottery or find yourself on death row, it’s the routine that saves you, and keeps you from reaching for the terminator. Every night, I’d sign off at 11:45 pm. I didn’t push it. That was when I felt tired. For forty-five minutes, I’d sleep, until half past midnight. Then, I’d wake up, inside the cave, my subterfuge beneath the water table of Lake Ontario fifty metres away, and ready to start my long climb up the slope – coûte que coûte – back somewhere around compos mentis.
Everybody gets to where I had landed myself, but most never make it back. It’s usually the sign that you’re on the way out for good. So, basically, I was ahead of schedule. When I awoke, I would prop myself up briefly, then, I’d fall onto all fours, bay at the overhead ceiling,and bleat like a goat for a couple of hours. If anyone had found me in one of these states, I would have been arrested, booked, indicted, certified, locked up for good. But, I knew that to even breathe, pulsate – as if I were an anemone or sea urchin – was a victory. I was heavy, heavy, permeated with grief, but solid as hemp. Drenched with my own self-created tragedy. But, at the same time, gaining my first understanding that my life didn’t matter a whit, and the sooner I realized it, the faster I would get back on track.
By three in the morning, I’d have a hot pot of coffee going, and I’d start writing, and wouldn’t stop for twelve hours. It was in the early months of email, and I used that too. Sending up to fifty missives a day, using everything under the sun – poetry clubs, chat lines, porn sites, and every newspaper from the Moscow Times to the Jerusalem Post. As dawn cracked, I would feel a hard gritty strength seize me, and I’d shut down the internet lines and get down to serious work. Nine hours retreating into the inner recesses of the spirit, and trying to figure out how I had been fooled, tricked, hoodwinked, seduced, captivated, bewitched, then laid out to die, and had my own children taken away from me to boot.
I began looking at things, trying to figure out what got me to where I had landed, cashless, alone, in a sub-basement suite in a cold country which I had fled as a young man. And, I didn’t mind what I found down in the pits of my soul. I had dug myself into my own foul rag and bone shop. It was hellish at times, to be sure. But, from that place, where few would associate with me, I drew up the principles that led me there. And, I finally got down to the serious business of figuring out what writing was about, just when the entire world had turned its back on me, I began to examine the lives of the artists seriously. I forgot all about what any of them wrote, and I began to examine how they got there. No longer was it important that Gaudi had overhauled Barcelona. It only counted that he was a weak baby, and the last in a long line of coppersmiths. Balzac’s Herculean production? Irrelevant. I only wanted to see his work schedule, but once that was confirmed, I adopted it. Sleep at midnight until two in the morning. Write until eight. Tea and a biscuit. Read the proofs. Back to work. Then, after sixteen hours of self-flagellation on the altar of writing, get out in society dressed like a fool, and make outrageous statements to the world, be treated like a buffoon, descend into defiant acts of impractical foolhardy bravado. One after the other, in no particular order, I dissected their lives: Pushkin, Stendhal, Cellini, Chagall, Dostoievsky, Giacometti, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rilke, Cézanne, Strindberg and I realized that, despite having been ruined in the eyes of the world, then raked over the coals by disciplinary committees, bailiffs, false friends, and forced to scrape out a living moving boxes for a man of the purest hypocrisy, who refused to pay me anything more than five bucks an hour, and stole some of my best ideas, despite losing three children, and having a contract out on my life, despite my complete and utter marginalisation, I realized that every one of the men whose lives I studied had been through far worse, and that it was time I realized that my life was not worth a damn. That every deep dream I had of glory and fame, recognition of my genius, was pure chimera. And, oddly enough, once I got over myself, knew and accepted that I was nothing more than the waters of Lake Ontario lapping up on the shore of the Beaches, I felt better. It didn’t make me any richer, but I was alive and had a roof over my head, and that wasn’t bad, all things considered.
More importantly, I had acquired a visceral certainty that everything went on in the mind. If you were hard enough, you could resist anything, good or bad, and this knowledge, you could take it anywhere with you. Another thing. I truly discovered what writing was about. It was preceded by your own trip to places only you could go, and where you discovered the pure futility of chasing any of life’s chimeric illusions.
Instead of buying a gun, or jumping off a cliff, or inventing some post-modern terminal syndrome, I just sat down and wrote and wrote, intent only on reproducing the intensity of being fully abandoned by family, friends, colleagues, and ultimately by god himself, who I cursed, blasphemed, tore a strip off of. Occasionally, in a pure rage, I’d stand up and shake my fist at god, in a cold fury, and say “you’ve got things to answer for as well”, and the uttering of the challenge to the deities purified me, purged me, made me whole again. For, I truly believed that the devil, who I had met, could not exist unless god had made her. Which is another way of saying that I never lost faith in the gods.
Those are privileged times, and it is a lucky man indeed who can be raked over the coals like that before his day on the planet comes to an end. At least that would be my state of mind by three in the afternoon at the end of my day’s work. I’d step out of the house, look down Leuty at the ripples of winter waves crashing down on the shore, in the midst of the Ontario solstice, and think, fuck, Buffalo is on the other side. There were worse places in the universe than Leuty Avenue. Two thirds of the planet was starving to death. My troubles were laughable in comparison. Basically, my thought of the day generally went – if I already feel this bad, there’s no point in checking out Africa.
In the beginning, I had no money at all, so I had to find a trick to eat. I used the local supermarket, would take up a shopping cart, fill it up with food, walk up and down the aisles, eating the food, then reverse course, put everything back on the shelves, and leave after eating biscuits, cheese, juices, marshmallows, After Eight mints, barbeque chips, a regal if you had the guts to pull it off. Food was the great recompense, since people weren’t much use to me then. Generally, anyone who knew me from the past would give me the look – like what happened to him. Or say, “I heard you were dead.” Shake of the head, then I’d find myself alone again. It didn’t mean anything to me. Other than that, I was learning that anyone with cash flow doesn’t realize that most people are at the bottom already. So, there’s nothing they’d like better than to see the whole mess collapse. But, that was a thought I kept to myself. Just because you discover truths doesn’t mean anyone wants to hear them.
Gerry gave me my first break. He had told me that T.O. or as he labeled it, the big smoke, was my best chance to turn things around. But, there was another reason, which went to the core of Gerry’s admitted sadism. Gerry enjoyed the sight of me once again in squalor, and liked lecturing me on what got me into what he liked calling my pickle. Sometimes, he’d wave a cheque in front of my face, as if it were a streamer ad behind a Cessna two seater. He’d say “I made fourteen thousand dollars today, and you know why?” and after the pregnant pause, “because I’m a fucking genius!”. Gerry was leaving on holidays, and he decided to give me a chance.
“I could get you a job downtown. Like that.” Snap of the Gerry fingers. “But, you’re not presentable. Plus, I can’t tell how much of your brain is still operational. And, since you still refuse to see a shrink…” Shrug of the shoulders. Grin, like, you poor sop, what am I doing hanging with you? Oh, yeah, he’d recall, with his testamentary executor I don’t see your name anywhere in this will look. You’ve still got entertainment value.
Gerry was an adventurer and master of the universe. He used his holidays to leave wife and kids behind, then return from Arctic dogsledding, or Ecuador rock climbing, or simulation Navy seal survival weekends, and would spend days looking heming-wayesque and spinning long theories about the alpha male. .
“I’m scaling another rock face in Kashmir. And, no, you can’t come. If you really want to prove you’re finally getting serious…lemme see…” He raised his eyes ceiling-ward, then grinned. “Tell you what, homeboy. You’re a translator, right? Find me the Paki word for Sherpa, and you get ten bucks. I could also use a slogan, if you’re up to it. For a pension fund manager. A national campaign. So, listen up. No home run, no fucking enchilada, bean brain. And, stay off the sauce! That’s what got you in this mess in the first place!” “And if I hit a home run?”
“Five Gs. The rest I get.” “What’s the rest?”
“95 Gs. But, I’m the gatekeeper. Take it or leave it.”
So Gerry left for a ten day rappelling expedition down a Kashmir rockface, and I had no money to pay the heat. For a week I scratched my noggin. What the hell are people looking for in a pension? Don’t they realize pension fund managers are all shysters, and they’d be better off at the track? But, that was just another way of feeling sorry for myself. So, I put myself in the shoes of the manager. In my mind, I started wearing pin stripe suits, suspenders and red ties, driving BMWs, and putting my mental hand on imaginary clients’ shoulders, talking them up, cajoling them, bullying them. After a day or two, I started talking to myself in the cracked mirror in my suite. C’mon, Mister Hudson (that was my client name), you can’t call yourself a prudent administrator and good father if you’re not thinking to the future. Where’s the nest egg? What is, what is, what is….
And, then, out of the corner of my desperation, my poverty, my ridicule, my anger, my desperation to one day get fucked again, and take on the world and give it my take, and become a goddam contender, I scrawled out a phrase, or more accurately, the phrase scrawled me:
What’s your future worth?
Two days after his return, Gerry dropped by. The phone rang. I let it ring until the answering machine clicked in. Gerry’s voice came on.
“I’m sure you’re there, or you’re sleeping. Sleeping your goddamn life away.”
But I was wide awake, and ready to play this one out. I up-ended the four pieces of furniture in my flat and unlocked the door leading outside. Spilled a few ashtrays, turned on the gas heaters, reached for a bottle of wine, and poured half its contents on myself, then sprawled onto the floor amidst the mess I’d created, shut my eyes, and went into hibernation mode.
Gerry barged through the door. I could hear his steps clomping heavily towards the stove, switching off the gas elements, then over to me, pulling at my leg.
“Chrissakes, man, are you alive, fucking hell!!”
I groaned slightly, just enough to indicate there was slight hope that I might be prodded out of my coma. He shook me hard.
“What the fuck!” “Gerry, Gerry,” I moaned. “You okay?”
“Sure, I’m okay.”
“Jesus Christ, I leave you for one goddam week, with a responsible contract, and look at this.”
“Gimme a second.”
“Whattaya mean, gimme a second. You’ve blown your fucking wad, bro!”
“You got a pen, c’mon, if you love Jesus, gimme a pen.”
“What kind of fucking act is this, you’re history man, this is it.I can’t believe you’d let me down.”
“Pen, pen,” I croaked, struggling to a sitting position.
I fired up a cigarette, kicked a box aside. Reached for the wine.
“Gimme that, you fucking alcoholic.”
I pulled the bottle back greedily, then reached for a plastic ketchup bottle, squirted a puddle out on the kitchen counter.
“This time you’ve really gone fucking crazy!” The first letter came out. W-H-A-T-S. “What’s that?”
I shoved him backwards, then managed to cover the entire counter with the message: What’s your future worth?
“What the fuck is that?” “Think about it.”
He stopped cold, shook his head. Then a grin covered that Yogi Bear puss of his.
“Son of a bitch.” “Home run?”
Gerry reared, gazed around, rebecame Gerry, master of the universe, and assessor of the worth of all God’s creation.
“Inside the park. With a fast runner. And I’m the runner. Three Gs.”
“Four. Up front today.” “Four it is.”