Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sway by Zachary Lazar

There is a moment when the knife must be pushed in coldly, otherwise the victim triumphs. He looked at her, aware that the moment was passing --- Solo Faces by James Salter

This passage came to my mind as I read Sway by Zachary Lazar. Lazar traces the dark line of attraction that drew the Rolling Stones, filmmaker Kenneth Anger and Charles Manson to literally act in concert and pull the curtain on the 60s. And what these people all have in common is a varying capacity for precisely the sort of coldness Salter describes. It chiefly comes to the fore once the aggressor’s interest and appetite for manipulation is sated. And during the upheaval of that decade there was no shortage of victims willing to subject themselves to another’s manipulation — beginning with Brian Jones, and continuing on to the half-million attendees suffering the madness of Altamont.

Lazar follows some of the same dark currents that Don DeLillo has made a career of exploring. But where the latter frequently drops back into a meta-frame, Lazar takes care to view the sixties through the eyes of the characters, leavening these observations with critical insight, as in this early passage:

[The Manson ranch] was like a lot of places he’d been in the past two years — everywhere along the coast now there were groups of young people with nowhere to go and no money to spend. It was as if they were living in a fort or a tree house. They scraped meals together out of plants they grew or things they scavenged from the trash outside of supermarkets.

Later, Lazar again sifts through some of the spectacle via Kenneth Anger:

Someone had erected a pavilion of different colored bed-sheets. Around it were people in costume — a boy with a flute and a leather vest, a boy in a painted cape and a wizard’s hat. It was a style that mostly eluded Anger, an irreverent humor that never settled on innocence or sarcasm but wavered between them.

Childlike romance, or grimy reality? These qualities are constantly in flux, until a steadily growing litany of abuse finally obliterates the romance for everyone.

As I sank into the narrative, I quickly registered my own willingness to be manipulated, even as Lazar substituted great personal desperation (à la Anger) for dewy romance. Of course, any story involving Manson can’t help but be profoundly unpleasant. Nor do the Stones make for welcome company, although Lazar’s measured account of their nasty charm provides moments of grim amusement. Consider this passage depicting Keith Richards’ dismissal of girlfriend Anita Pallenberg:

She had given him a lot of things to forgive lately. She had slept with half the people he knew — that was what he had signed on for, he knew that. She had even slept with Mick, because she was crazy, or just to hurt Keith, or possibly just because she wanted to. She was threatened by Keith in some way. Maybe she had reason to feel threatened, because after all he had forgiven her even for Mick. She didn’t have as much power to faze him as she thought. He had forgiven everything except the scene last week, when she had taken too much heroin and blacked out close to an hour.

“She had given him a lot of things to forgive lately” — I love how that droll, blunt understatement captures Richards’ voice. Note also how these incidents are considered, with threadbare irony, as a gift. They are a means for Richards’ manipulation of his girlfriend, the mother of his child, into rehab and (for the moment) out of his life. The use of “forgiven” is the real irony: Richards' true capacity is for indifference, not forgiveness. And it is an indifference to everything but a medical episode that could have put him back behind bars on charges of drug possession. “Blacked out close to an hour”?? To resort to the era's nomenclature, Not cool.

I read this book shortly after viewing the Martin Scorsese Bob Dylan doc No Direction Home, a one-two punch I highly recommend. As Scorsese establishes Dylan's creative origins there are a few framing shots that suggest how the entirety of 1950s America — including New York City — was Small Town to a degree that is nearly impossible to recall or conjure up with any clarity. The 60s erupted with a howl from that Small Town, and for one ugly moment the Stones, Anger and Manson were howling the same note.

Forty years on I can't imagine attending a Stones concert and freighting it with any greater significance than I would a Country Bear Jamboree. But this is a generation that is not through with being manipulated, this time with a wink that assures everyone it's all been just so much good clean fun. The audience dances and cheers, while the younger generations collectively wonder if any of us will, in fact, survive the 60s.

Furthur: BOMB magazine alerted me to this novel, via Christopher Sorrentino's interview of Lazar. The BOMBsite has an outtake from the interview here. Amazon: Sway and Solo Faces.


paul bowman said...

Can't help feeling here that my own little world is very far removed from that one, though the truth might objectively be otherwise.

Really a terrific cover the book's been given, by the way. ('Little world' seems exactly apt phrase, suddenly, judging by it.)

Whisky Prajer said...

Actually, that sense of "little world" is something I should have raised in the review: Lazar's portrait of the Stones' world is, despite all the opulence and decadence, so insular as to be claustrophobic. And it begins that way, in a shoddy post-war London flat with no heat. The more things change...