American Money on the Sea of Cortez by Joseph Mailander
In Pulp Fiction, once hailed as the feelgood film of the ‘90’s—and which happens to be set in my hometown of Los Angeles—John Travolta tells Samuel Jackson all about Europe.
“Alright, well you can walk into a movie theater and buy a beer,” Travolta’s character Vincent Vega wistfully moons as the duo is on their way to lay waste to some petty punks. “And, I don’t mean just like a paper cup, I’m talking about a glass of beer. And, in Paris, you can buy a beer in McDonald’s.”
As a native Angeleno, there are many good lines that ring true in this absurdist movie, but this little segment rings most true for me—because it is precisely my experience of what the kind of people I grew up with would say about a European visit. And it’s the fact that such people as Vincent Vega might have occasion to visit Europe at all that really anchors the scene for me. There goes an Angeleno, off to Europe—and not bringing back memories of the treasures of the Louvre or the Uffizi, but of the experience there of movie theaters and McDonald’s.
When you encounter Americans in European films and novels, conversely, they typically are cultured, urbane and uninterested in McDonald’s. In Europe, Americans are, in fact, very often portrayed as a Deus ex machina—or at least their money is the Deus. American money may save a bankrupt countess from poverty. American money may facilitate the double-dealer who is selling arms to a secret cause. American money is the ever-obliging cushion of the American tourist who is otherwise hopelessly naïve. American money is the modus vivendi of the American who escapes to Europe from a hopeless situation at home, becoming entirely self-indulgent and all-consuming as she plunders her way through rive droite boutiques.
One of the best exercises in recent memory regarding the view Europeans have of Americans when it comes to money is found in Martin Amis’s comic masterpiece Money. “Money” it turns out is a film the protagonist—a Falstaffian figure named John Self—is trying to make, and money is also very much the subject of the book.
In this book, now twenty-five years old, the working title of the film in America is “Good Money”—but in Europe, the film’s working title is “Bad Money.”
American good money in America; American bad money in Europe. The difference between the two characterizations—the way Americans portray Americans abroad, and the way Europeans portray Americans abroad—owes especially to each of their views of American money. Which is mostly a fantasy view for those on both sides of the Atlantic.
While European artists are often reticent to talk of money, American artists, musicians, and writers, whether they are in America or elsewhere, always have questions about it. They are very curious about the stuff. And they often end up buying into one of two key myths about it.
There is a residue European feeling from the Romantic Era that hunger and poverty are key prompts for the production of art. This is certainly false for all kinds of art and writing except for a very narrow variety that documents the resourcefulness of the artist, as in, say, Jack Kerouac. Yet these American paintings and narratives tend to be the most self-indulgent and diary-like—purportedly the most reality-based—productions of all.
Some American artists even believe that money is the stuff of totem and taboo, and that there is a kind of magic formula for successful art production that demands remaining free of work and excluding all other kinds of remuneration for the sake or producing successful art. They must ignore countless examples, perhaps most notably the example of American slaves, who composed magnificent, soaring spirituals—many of which are still sang with enthusiasm today—even after working grueling sixteen hour days.
This kind of willful impoverishment among artists and writers may trace its roots to Romantic and Bohemian Europe of the nineteenth century, but it was most invigorated in America in the 1950’s by the example of the Beats. The Beats were sensibly responding to the consequences of the pent-up consumerism of the Eisenhower years—the U.S.A.’s primary peace dividend from relative success in World War II—and strove instead to find god, kharma, dharma and trippy sex in the strung-out bleakness of the starry American night. They were the American bohemians. Many died young, some settled and lived—Ferlinghetti is still alive, for instance. But their example and their blueprint for living impacted thousands of American artists and would-be artists.
While the Beat life was a difficult one, those who practice the arts in America must typically find some path other than that of the benevolent family or the obliging patron to do what they do, and this is the one they like to choose, even above other far more prudent paths. And those who choose not to refute bourgeois life entirely still must cobble together some alternative career path in order to create. In a country where non-conformists are greeted with suspicion nearly everywhere (unless they have money), they face inordinate emotional pressure from family and even friends to conform, as conforming is thought to be the key ticket to stabilizing not only a life but artistic production. They must gain hard-won worldly experience that informs their ability to say whatever needs to be said.
The example of the two great streams of American literature, that of the extroverted adventure stream typified by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., and that of the introspective, bohemian, journey-within stream exemplified by Henry David Thoreau are expressive, at bottom, of each author’s relationship to money, and also exemplify the bourgeois and the bohemian approaches to creativity. The novel is necessarily a product of leisure time, and necessarily finds a reader in leisure; the question for most readers and writers alike is how to attain it.
Richard Henry Dana, Jr., son of a well-established colonial family and on his way to becoming a fabled maritime law attorney, had a vision problem late in his studies at Harvard. He heard that sea travel and sea air would correct the problem; and as a class-distinct American version of a gentleman, he decided to enlist with a merchant ship out of Boston Harbor for two years of service.
The resultant narrative, Two Years Before the Mast, a classic of robust American adventure, takes Dana all the way around Cape Horn to the California coast (which is not California yet), defying death and danger nearly every nautical mile. The book, a journal written while Dana was a young man, became an immediate sensation in 1840. Though Dana himself referred to it as a “boy’s book,” it was one of the great American adventure narratives.
And throughout the narrative, even though Dana tries to hide his class distinctions, they come out anyway—and when he swaps ships in a port near present day San Diego to duck the service of an unruly, we can see the effects of money and privilege, even in a place where there is no American law to rule the day.
One other Harvard student stepping out in the world in 1840, Henry David Thoreau, two years Dana’s junior, was so awestruck by Dana’s success that when it came to memorializing his own deceased brother, he wrote a book at Walden Pond that aspired to stand deliberately in opposition to Dana’s grand book. Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is so deliberately antithetical to Dana’s book that it now reads almost as satire of it—even in the title you can see the wheeze.
But Thoreau, resolutely bohemian though he was, transcending most worldly goods and more worldly connections, could not perfectly keep class distinction out of his introspective narratives either. His greatest book, Walden, thought by many to be a philosophical rumination, contains expense sheets, even inventories. He has much to say about prudence and Yankee thrift and money’s relationship to American life, even at one point asserting that walking is the fastest way to travel, as you don’t have to spend time earning a fare to do it.
It was my own good fortune to become acquainted early on with the American narrative dichotomy—the Dana stream v. the Thoreau stream, as I saw it—and how truly involved both ends of this thematic American dichotomy were with money and class distinction, with the bourgeois and the bohemian. I had gone to an Ivy League school, for starters. Though there are good educations—I think—to be had at these eight elite schools, if you ask an American to play a word association game, and drop the words “Ivy League” into the mix, most will, I would wager, say “money” before they say anything else. (If they don’t say “money” they will certainly say “elite,” which in America is nearly a perfect synonym for “money.”) This is very different from the kind of associations that the Sorbonne and Granada would elicit among their own native populations, though perhaps not so different from the stigma of the various Oxbridge colleges.
But my memories as an Ivy Leaguer are not memories of preppie clothes, club ties, regattas, and weekends in the Hamptons at all. They are not even memories of privilege. They more memories of eating street falafels and scrounging dollars together for pitchers of beer, and wandering across town to Franklin Delano Roosevelt Post Office to pick up a badly needed Express Mail envelope that might contain $50 emergency dollars inside. They are memories of comparing the cover charges at various jazz clubs and always choosing the cheapest.
And my experience was the typical one. A few classmates were certainly sons of wealth and privilege, but these did not make the school especially vibrant or distinguish it in any particular way. Only a handful—maybe even one percent—belonged to the now-proverbial one percent. Typically, the student body at these schools were largely composed of scions of mere upper-middle class or even middle-class distinction. Typically, they went on to become attorneys—as Richard Henry Dana did. Some others went to business school. A few became journalists; a few became editors; a few went into financial services. As at every other school in America.
In this way, the Ivies were far more vocational than we might suppose—far more vocational than their own graduates and recruiters might like to admit—far more vocational than their syllabuses suggest. But to learn about Dana and Thoreau and the different approaches to leading a creative life, however briefly or however devotedly, was indeed useful in ways I couldn’t immediately discern.
In 1991, after managing my parents’ health and decline for five years, they both died, within ninety-five days of each other. This was not a personal catastrophe—in both cases, it was simply their time. But it did affect my life in a profound way: I suddenly needed a lot more money.
An artist or a writer needs money to live and even more money to work. And when it comes to money, living in America still has its rewards. Its scale is such that one can easily find a place in which to fit; its markets large enough that cracking even a very a small portion of it is reward enough. “If you work hard in England, you’ll just get tired,” an expat Brit once told me. America still does generally reward hard work; but hard work does not necessarily prepare you to paint or compose or write. Actually, hard work exhausts you; for most, it simply becomes a foil to your artistic life.
You have to keep healthy, however. We don’t yet have the cushion of a national health plan that is so helpful to Canadian and European artists and writers.
In the run-up to the death of my parents, I began to look to other writers for clues regarding how to subsidize my vocation. I certainly looked beyond the bohemian Beats.
During my parents’ long decline, I held many para-professional jobs. I was a litigation paralegal at one point and a technical writer at another. I continued to write fiction and also essays that appeared in various newspapers and alternative weeklies and magazines. I could take time off to manage their illnesses and also to be away, to give myself some relief. I traveled extensively throughout America, mostly from California to Maine and the rest of New England, even while connecting dots between various jobs.
And when things got dicey, some friends and I joked that we could always live in a truck in Baja if we hit bottom, perchance to open a fish taco stand.
That was how it came to be that in the middle of it all, I tried one broken night on the Sea of Cortez, alone, only me and a blanket and a bottle of tequila, no money, no electricity, no poetry, no fire. The night—but one night of my life—left me feeling listless, unscrubbed, and certainly sacred. It was also, I knew, awful on my health, and thus dangerous and irresponsible to my parents as well. I did not feel that I was not made of this stuff, this stuff that the Beats peddled so fervently, the stuff of an intransigent conviction to the strung out American night. My night was star-puffed and adequately lonely, and left me feeling listless, unscrubbed, exhausted, and, sure, marvelously sacred.
It was far from the only night of my life I spent broke, outdoors, or broke outdoors. But it was the one that stayed with me most as the instructive one, the one that gave me permission to take care of myself at least adequately enough to do what I was born to do: to write.
They died—my parents died. It turned out that they left me $26,000—or, as a friend put it, “Enough money to buy a really good car.” The amount surprised me; after their long illnesses and the degree to which the American health care “system” had drained them, I even found it generous. I did not buy a really good car. I spent half the money on their two funerals, and bought some badly needed furniture with half of the remainder. I cleared up a long-standing debt I had incurred traveling to a couple of weddings for a couple of friends. I also found a few eccentric items: a very sculptural propeller from an old war plane, a wooden sculpture of Moses that everyone hated, and the original soundtrack to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But I also bought some books—collections of Pritchett and Gore Vidal, and a Lawrence Durrell biography—to which I especially turned for clues regarding how to lead my own life as a writer. I also dutifully invested half the remaining money—about $6,000 at this point—in stocks and savings. And I spent the rest on drinks, especially at the Dresden and especially on a woman who would later become an entanglement and then an editor of mine.
I also soon became an arts manager for my city’s cultural affairs department—perhaps the most truly stable job I had ever held—and it was here that I began to see the challenges of other American artists and writers first hand. I saw how my own story was far from unique among artists and writers. I heard the stories of their own nights on the Sea of Cortez.
The entanglement girl and I continued to travel to New England annually. When we finally made it to Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, we arrived in a rental car.
After a few years as an arts administrator, I began to work as an administrator at a bank—a good one, one about which people have few complaints today. I became an officer, then an assistant vice president, then a vice president, all within a few short years.
And I learned things about money that had even eluded me as a small investor: for instance, how in the typical American life, whether one owns a home or not, the amount of debt owed is perfectly offset against the amount of assets or equity accrued at age 43. Which described me at age 43 as a perfectly typical American.
But the trips to New England were now trips to Europe. There were far more operas and far more bars and far more tennis matches. The worry over where the next residence might be was now supplanted by the thousand thankless tasks of maintaining a stable home. If I needed a car, I simply bought one.
And as mystically as I appeared at the bank, I also left. I came to a point at which it was time to jump off. After a five year creative dry spell in which I barely wrote a word for keeps.
And of the things I have, thirty years of writing fiction and non-fiction have given me—nothing of what I bank or own as one owns chattel. Yet the compass that was set so early pointed to a kind of Eden that makes accessible to me everything essential to living a comfortable life.
There is a fellow in LA whose mother has written twenty-one novels. When he found out that I too wrote novels, he told me as much. It may even be up to twenty-three or twenty-four by now. He also told me that the top selling novel of all only fetched her $2,000. Writing is a difficult trade.
I have written six novels, which have netted me even less, especially as most of them are completely unavailable. I feel completely confident in the merits of all of them. But their history has given me nothing to inspire such confidence.
The first has been lost, though a woman in Spain might have a copy. The second was read by about forty people at presses and never published. The third I spent over twenty-five years writing—I’ve just finished it a year ago, and the jury is still out on where it might appear. The fourth I thought fit the electronic world better than the print world and I published it myself, online—then issued it as a second edition years later, and a publisher will re-issue it soon as part of a collection. The fifth was written when my wife was in chemotherapy and received extensive edits at a press that ultimately stopped publishing quality fiction, and I have shelved it for the time being. The sixth I have only recently completed and have no idea what to do with—it is certainly not a commercial work, and not even a longtime friend would write back to me regarding its prospects.
This nearly invisible oeuvre constitutes what I’m sure will be the bulk of my life’s work, such as it is.
Each one needed time, each one needed lots of living and lots of leisure, and each needed time away from someone or some condition or some other kind of toil.
I have lived both kinds of lives, both the bourgeois and the bohemian. Dana’s and Thoreau’s. And I know that in both you need time away from either to do something so recklessly merciless as to write a novel. Whenever I could in my life, whether taking the boho approach or the bourgeois one, I took that time.
My friends often mistook this for shiftlessness. I was obliged to ditch the friends who did so—they were discouraging.
Should they not have been? They had every right to be so. Nonetheless, this is what I do. This is my vocation; this is the center, even if it is often the center that does not necessarily hold.
Almost a decade ago, on New Year’s Day 2004, my wife and I flew to Guanajuato, by way of Mexico City and León, and we had a marvelous time away.
On the flight home, we were bumped up to First Class. We passed in broad daylight over much of the length of the Gulf of California. We were still sipping champagne and before us were not only the States but the promising prospect of another new year.
I kept looking out the window for some kind of landmark indicating the beach on which I had slept in 1989, broke, outdoors, in shorts and a tee-shirt, with a blanket and a bottle of tequila and nothing else. The beach was still glistening, still pristine, still beckoning. But it felt as I passed over the final strip of coast and later into America as though I were watching an object recede in a rearview mirror, as the cerebral, hale Dana watched Boston Harbor recede when he undertook his two-year exploration into maritime extremes.
Yet even so, I also knew that within me always would be the possibility of philosophically engaging ruin, of no success and no reward, of sacred dilapidation, of spending another night on Walden Pond, on the road with Jack and Neal, on the beach on the Sea of Cortez.