Author: James Nulick
Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir (sort of)
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s written in a style one does not commonly see in memoirs, a style that demands that you read the book twice in order to really understand the whole of it. The truly odd part is that I don’t think you will mind reading it twice in a row.
Availability: Published by Nine Banded Books in 2014, you can get a copy here:
Or you can get a copy directly from the publisher.
Comments: It’s hard to write an American memoir in the year of our Lord, 2016. Modernity has caused most of us to live unremarkable lives. No more surviving small pox or famine. Not a lot of terrain to discover that doesn’t already have several Taco Bell locations within a fifty-mile radius. No invaders from foreign lands, no wars on American soil. No duels, few remaining sexy hippie cults waiting to indoctrinate the young and innocent, and even those who have fled to large cities in order to carve out an interesting career in the arts while living with lots of interesting people in a bohemian slum are more likely to micro-blog about binge watching some fucking show about women having lots of implausible sex in a prison than their latest attempt at creating a mural or a novel or an interesting sculpture. The bulk of lives these day are completely unremarkable but sometimes reading about unremarkable lives can be interesting, if the life in question rings true to the reader, offering muffled catharsis for the quiet depression that is so much a part of modern ennui.
Don’t get me wrong – suburbia has a lot to recommend it but it doesn’t lend itself well to the creation of great memoirs unless we have something really and truly nasty lurking behind the scenes, and those things happen to us rather than being experiences we seek out. Good modern memoirists need at least one crazy or alcoholic parent, one unsettling example of sexual abuse, a slowly developing drug addiction, and maybe, if such a writer is lucky, one of his family members will commit a terrible crime or get killed in the course of a terrible crime and then he’ll be rolling in the life experiences that make up the modern memoir.
But even if one has these qualifiers, so do many others. If one is going to write a memoir about a prosaic life, even one with requisite misery, one needs to be a very good writer because otherwise the readers will be tempted to say, “Shitty parents, stranger touched me, drugs during college, terrible job, why am I reading this when I can clearly write my own memoir because everyone in the benighted Generation X more or less lived the same fucking life.”
Nulick takes his cues from all three categories: he’s lived a life that seems all too common to most Americans; he has catastrophic life experiences that make for interesting reading and a certain prurient rubbernecking; and he is a very good writer, profoundly good at times. We recognize Nulick’s life as our own in some respects, we are appalled at some of the things that happen to Nulick, and we are drawn in and held in by his unique and near-poetic style.
I mentioned this before in an entry closing out 2015, but it bears repeating. The way that Nulick writes reminds me of conversations one has with an old friend. You know this person well, but you haven’t spoken in a while. Your friend mentions an incident or a person in the course of telling a story, thinking that you know all about that incident or person. You don’t know, but you don’t interrupt because your friend is on a roll and you feel certain that in a moment you can either interject and ask a question or your friend will throw you enough clues in the conversation that you can piece it together. Sometimes you realize the information isn’t important enough to interrupt, because the point of the story isn’t about that person or place – it was just mentioned as an aside in the course of a larger topic.
This is how Nulick writes. Sometimes he mentions a name before we know who that person is. The first time this happened I wondered if I had overlooked the person as I read and I almost backtracked in order to find the original mention that I was sure I had missed. It can be a bit odd if you begin reading this book unaware that Nulick writes this way, treating you like an old friend listening to a long conversation about his life, but once you are knowledgeable about this method of story-telling, it feels completely normal, almost comfortable. You feel like you are being drawn into Nulick’s story in a manner that implies that he considers you a trusted friend, and that’s an unusual feeling when reading a memoir. I’ve often felt some commonality with memoirists as I read their works but this takes that feeling of knowing an author in a direction I can’t recall ever having read before. You may want to read this book through once and then read it again a week or so later. That second read cements that feeling of being a friend because you now feel like an insider to Nulick’s story.
That sense of commonality takes you only so far, though. I find it interesting how many books about Gen-X men have come across my radar lately and how I respond to them. In Ann Sterzinger’s NVSQVAM, the protagonist Lester is utterly lost and a complete asshole, but as I mention in my discussion, he’s our asshole, my generation’s asshole. It’s hard to hate your brother even when he’s a prick. It’s irrational to hate a child you may have created but Baby Boomers despair of me and mine, and for some reason we all seem to be poking Millennials with a stick as if we didn’t fucking make the world they were born into, like we didn’t raise them or mold them into the people they are now. Yet Nulick, in as much as this memoir accurately reflects his real life, at times inspired in me the same nose-pinching desire I felt toward Sterzinger’s Lester. I just wanted to smack him as he artistically destroyed his life, almost as if he was modeling his destruction on those who came before him and set the example for the lost, dissolute, addicted writer.
Quick synopsis: According to my own interpretation of this book, a young man has gone to a Spanish hotel called Hotel Valencia. He has chosen this hotel because he recalls fondly a boy with the name Valencia. He has taken plenty of reading material and a box of pictures. This young man has AIDS, and I ultimately decided he had gone there less to die from his illness than to commit suicide (edit on 1/13/16 – as I was entering data for this book in book sites, I glanced at the back cover blurb wherein it spells out clearly that the protagonist was committing suicide and not passively dying, so, you know, my bad!). This story begins at the end, so to speak, and Nulick tells versions of his life, in no particular order. Or perhaps he is telling stories in the order in which he looks at the pictures he keeps in that box. Random stories that all end up linking together to tell the whole of the story of Nulick’s life and how he came to be the man in the hotel room, ready to die. Because this book’s content is peripatetic, it makes a true synopsis difficult, and while this is definitely not an Everyman tale, there are pieces of it that are familiar. There is a grubbiness to this memoir that reminds me of the movies Slacker and ET. Yes, ET. ET was such a grubby film in certain respects – shambolic house, improvised meals in a home filled with candy and treat foods, distracted mother, fractured family, the children living a life wholly separate from the adults. This was a part of Valencia – unprepared parents, fractured families creating extended relationships, some good and some bad, a lost writer, a boy struggling to find his place, a homosexual man trying to find his way, an asshole writer destroying himself, a little boy living with a grubby father in a grubby trailer. Again, I have no idea how much of this is exactly a representation of Nulick’s real life, so bear that in mind as I discuss this book. (I noted as I edited this discussion that when I am speaking of James Nulick the writer, I refer to him as Nulick. When I refer to James Nulick, the character in this book, I call him James. I think I did this unconsciously because I am genuinely unsure what content in this book is true and what is not.)
The book begins with the sexual liaisons that gave the James Nulick in Valencia HIV. It is seedy. It’s unfortunate and involves crack and happens after James fled from a lover who beat him up in a meth-induced rage. He considers killing the man who gave him the virus that causes AIDS, but the futility of such an action influences his decision not to do it. It’s all very dark and sets up the tone of the book – a struggle between the living man and the way that knowing we are going to die makes life seem futile.
When Thomas Bernhard received a minor award for literature in 1968 he said Everything is ridiculous, when one thinks of Death. To the winds bearing down upon us death is meaningless, and the truth is ultimately unknowable. I felt an animal sadness. I would die as each of us do, knowing very little of myself. Loved ones would forget the shape of my name on their lips, the classic monosyllabic simplicity of it. I tried finding sugar in the salt. Very few men know how they will die. I would.
The knowledge of how James will die – slowly ravaged by a virus bad decisions caused him to acquire – makes such self-knowledge all the harsher because it falls in line with so much of what makes life so tiresome and prosaic because it is just another in a long line of things that happens to James. Splintered family, molestation, relative poverty – HIV happened to him and it’s hard to achieve a sense of life mastery when the defining moments in your life are not anything you orchestrated yourself.
But the passivity of the more earth-shattering elements of these “just happened” events are mitigated by great writing and excellent one-liners that put this passivity into perspective. Observing what death means to him, James says:
Death is a library with all the lights turned off. Each story sits on the shelf unread, the words dead and without meaning. A care-taker pushes a broom in the darkness, whistling a tune. He smells of cheap cologne. The tune is offensive, but what can you do? That’s the beauty and the horror of the grave. The inactivity is wonderful, but we are left to the whims of the living.
What can you do indeed, sometimes even before death happens.
This sense of passivity, of being placed into situations where things happen, is a theme in this book. When James’ father opens an office for his repossession business, he has his little son work for him.
When my father was off on errands I was left to answer the phone. It was an important job. I was always scared when I was left alone at the wrecking yard. Keep an eye on any customers that come in, my father said. What could I do? I was four foot one.
Like many of our age peers, James was asked to grow up far too soon, and I often think this creation of little adults in the minds of small children is part of what causes the passivity so many of us experience later in life. We learn about how to be adults when we are weak and afraid and it’s hard to grow out of such a state, becoming stand-ins for grown-ups in our own adult lives.
Part of the passivity stems from all that happened to James in his young life. Parents adopted, divorced, remarried new partners and brought in new step-siblings and created new half-siblings, divorced and married again, birth mother makes an appearance and on and on. I initially needed to make notes of the family links in James’ story and if I had to make notes to recall who was who and how that person related to James, imagine what it was like living it. Such a life creates roots that spread far and wide but often those roots, however strong, can be shallow.
Having three mothers, all semi-detached, I’ve never understood the easiness between mothers and sons. Boys should not know their mothers. I realize I’m in the minority. When friends or co-workers suffer the death of a mother, I can only guess at their emotions, as if I’m an observer from a distant planet. Surely not all sons are as removed from their mothers as I am? I stand outside the majority. The world insists we celebrate motherhood with cakes and cards. I prefer silence and Epsom salt.
And those roots can be awkward. Widely spread, shallowly covered, and very awkward. And it almost seems like predestination that James’ best friend in college is a woman whose collegiate claim to fame was creating an enormous paper mache vagina. When she grows up and meets James at a college reunion, she brings her teenage son to the bar with her. As awkward as that would have been with my mother and me, Heather and her son show none of the weird distance and passivity that James does. He imagines him with them:
I watch Heather interact with her son. I pretend she’s my wife. I pretend he’s my son. There is an unspoken beauty between them. I will never have a son or a daughter. This brings great sadness. I catalog it and order one final round.
Great sadness gets cataloged in my life, too. Yeah, children were never a possibility for me either but I still look at parents and children and think about how excellent it can be to purge the mistakes of the previous generation with new, shiny people. You just have to pretend there is no possibility that you will recreate the distance and weirdness with a new generation and surely it will all be fine, right? And then those kids will remember you as the force that ensured they remain passive observers of life, exhausted by all the things you made happen to them. Circle of life, hakuna matata.
I should also mention examples of Nulick giving the reader information before we really understand what these names or places mean. This conversational way of writing comes upon us immediately in this book. We read about “paper sister 1965” and “Olvera Street” and mentions of Fleming’s truck and they make no sense when we read them, though they aren’t too jarring and they don’t disrupt the flow of the story. In fact, some of them make it clear that James had an awkward connection to family that might not make sense to those who grew up in a traditional nuclear family. The rest reminded me of that conversational tone I mention earlier. I read the book a second time, and knowing what I knew after the first read, the book really did appeal to me as a long conversation with someone assumed to understand the whole of the story out of the gate. It may seem like a problem, that you may need to read this book a second time to enjoy it fully but that worked in its favor for me. Almost all good books benefit from a second (or third and fourth) reading. Nulick programmed this need to reread as a feature and I think it is a pretty clever way to approach writing. Even if this was not Nulick’s intent when he shared interesting tidbits before we had enough knowledge to process them, it was my outcome and intentional or not this book had more going for it than the average memoir wherein the author is forced to explain every new name in depth in order to make sure the reader is always on the same page as the author.
There are moments in this book that are terribly funny to me and I wonder if these moments are funny to anyone else. James makes friends with a morbidly obese older woman he meets through work. He decides she’s worth knowing when he sees her with a copy of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, and they become friendly, dining out and exploring bars. One night she invites him back to her place:
Eventually she invited me to her condo to see her library. I’m queer, I said. I know, dear. You said you wanted to see my books, she said. I scanned her collection. An idea of her began to coalesce. I’d read some of the books on her shelves in college. Others were fairly recent. There were several by a Canadian author who dabbled in speculative fiction. I’d always meant to read her but never got around to it. There were very few translated titles. I made a note of it. A collection of bottles sat on one end of the kitchen counter. A bottle of rum was among them. She saw me eyeing the bottles. Would you like a drink? That would be great, I said.
Emphasis mine. Such a cliche, asking someone back to see your books, that when it actually happens it’s seen as a sexual pass. Of course this seriously obese, much older woman wasn’t interested in James sexually but it speaks of the relatively diminished value of actual book collections that inviting someone to see your books is no different than asking someone up for “coffee” after a fun date. I just found that “I’m queer, I know dear” quite funny. Yes, yes, you’re gay, but let’s see my books. Books and booze – these two were soul mates, in a way, because she was the sort of woman who knows where to watch the fireworks on Fourth of July, a place no one else went, a place where they could open their lawn chairs and drink themselves stupid as the sky exploded in pretty colors, and she wanted nothing from him other than his company. Hers was one of the few friendships James had that didn’t make my latent maternal nature cringe and she came and went far too quickly.
Another amusing event occurs when James and three other young men are put up by their college in New York for the summer in a sort of study-program. He is placed in a room in a hotel with a musician named Chad and is lent an electric typewriter by a writing mentor. James and Chad do not get along and Chad is an inconsiderate roommate but instead of dealing with Chad and making the most of his time in New York City, he just doubles down on stereotypical writerly misbehavior:
Thoreau wrote how vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live. I believed Thoreau was telling me I needed to fuck more whores, but I wasn’t sure.
I hate Thoreau, I should mention. Don’t preach to me about your self-sufficiency in the woods when a couple of women make you dinner on their own dime every night. Anyway, James just behaves like an asshole, but then again so did Kerouac and Burroughs and even Ballard at times:
I bent over the desk and opened the window. The cold wind of Manhattan settled on the blankets. I grabbed the cord of the Selectric and gave it a quick yank. I picked it up with both hands and tossed it out the window. Jesus Christ! Chad yelled. A loud crash sounded in the street below. Someone shouted fuck you! I opened the door. Chad and I raced toward the elevator at the end of the hall. I can’t believe you did that, he said. It was very late. The night clerk looked up as we passed his desk. I buzzed the door open. I pushed the heavy glass toward the night. A few people strolled along the sidewalk like ghosts. Ana’s typewriter sat in the middle of the street, mangled and unrecognizable.
It’s kind of funny, on one level, that James, when annoyed with Chad, threw a typewriter out a window. It is classic asshole writer self-destructive behavior. It doesn’t hurt Chad that James destroys the typewriter. It hurts the woman who loaned it to him and it hurts him, and is such a fine example of perverse behavior that I couldn’t help but be amused. But I also wanted James to make amends because we can forgive legends their outrageousness but skinny wiener kids on a college toot we have less leeway with because the arrogance of such a move is all we see and not the drunkenness or the desperation or the sheer unthinking stupidity.
And it does bite him in the ass.
Murray asked how my writing was coming. Not good, I said. I threw Ana’s typewriter out the window the other night. Fourteen floors down, I said. I illustrated my point by dragging my index finger from an imaginary hotel window to the imaginary street below. Boooooooooeeeewwwww, I said. Pwwwwccchhhhh. Someone kicked me under the table. Murray laughed. You’re joking? I wish I were, I said. Murray didn’t appear surprised. I laughed and took another drink. I was young and strong. Murray was old and weak. What could he do to me?
It helps that James is self-aware enough to see in himself the arrogance of the young and it helps even more that Murray wrecks his shit by removing him from the hotel and sending him on his way. The program rents him a room for three nights away from the other program participants but James has no money to get home and Murray doesn’t really care (in another passage I found hilarious, during this time the writer William Vollmann suggests that James become a sort of male stripper to make money and his presence in this book caused me to buy a couple of Vollmann tomes to read when I finally get some spare time). James’ life takes a left turn down a dark road with a transsexual named Magda, a story that needs to be read and not discussed. James had an interesting life lesson with Magda but Jesus, it was some heavy shit that happened, heartbreaking and unsettling, and I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had James not followed a script that many young writers seem to think they have to follow. Little bit of work, lots of substance abuse, terrible behavior. It plagued me when I thought I was going to be a writer. I don’t know why. I’m infinitely more demented and interesting when sober and exhibiting good behavior. But there you go. And it is the streak of this tiresome ritual in me that made me find the tossing of the typewriter initially amusing, even as I knew it was shitty and likely to lead to bad things.
But even as some of the text amused me, I found myself feeling restless because this is a restless memoir. James caroms from one group of friends to the next: skater boys much younger than him who exploit his affection for them and get tons of free stuff from his job at a mini-mart; a group of men who consume alarming amounts of cough syrup and take reckless driving trips in the middle of the night; Linklater-esque drunken and stoned escapades with people who eventually leave his life and never come back. The names flow through the book, they come and go, and his connections to them remain vaguely after they are gone, as he wonders what happened to them, but mostly they are gone, and he remains as semi-detached with them as he does his mothers. Linklater is a very good reference for this memoir – the tired and boring suburbs, the descent into substance abuse to substitute for real adventure, constant array of people who all sort of seem similar to one another, the wasted landscape of youth culture in a country that hates the young even as it sexually and socially exploits them.
Here’s a good barometer of whether or not you will enjoy this book. Do you have an affinity for this sort of unfocused life, told in no particular order, with enough truly terrible and interesting life details to prevent it from being a meandering example of the blankness of the modern experience? If so you’ll like this book. I had finished reading The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin just before I reread Valencia and the two books began to bleed together in my mind, one a work of fiction, the other a type of memoir, both arising from the same place. Both books mine the vein of blue-collar messiness, modern boredom, of parents who fail, of unpaid bills, catastrophic mistakes, miserable tragedy, substance abuse, loose connections, strange bonds. What prevents these books from being akin to being sentenced to prison for a few hours are those catastrophic mistakes and miserable tragedies, as they give what is otherwise a bleak, tiresome landscape gravitas. I don’t want to discuss these events in Valencia in any real detail because these events are the foundation of this book and need to be experienced. However, they do come – childhood exploitation, a frightening and fatal fire, among them.
I think the best way to look at this book is the way that James reacted to the following suicide (he is musing about the literary and artistic suicides that took place in hotel rooms, which is one of the reasons I think he is looking at suicide as opposed to being fatally ill from AIDS):
The actor George Sanders checked into a hotel in Castelldefels, near Barcelona, and gobbled Nembutals like Tic Tacs. Like most creative types, he left a note. Artists are uncomfortable with silence.
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.
Snappy and cheerful. The Brits have a wonderful sense of humor, even when they are sad.
This book deals with the extraordinary boredom that makes up much of our lives, musing about the prospect of leaving the boredom, considering the experiences of those who do leave and those who remain. Artists like Nulick are uncomfortable with silence, which is why he is telling us all about his life, the tiresome details, the dead chihuahuas, the childhood friend who moved away, the repetitive nature of young artistic people idolizing the early deaths of writers like Kafka and the miserable addictions of those who lingered, like Burroughs. It’s punctuated by funny moments, infuriating moments, but this is a story we have all read before and will read again because modern life is so very boring and so very sad, but it still has a wonderful sense of humor so we keep reading. Even as I wanted to twist James’ nose until he paid for a new typewriter or sobered up on general principle, I liked him a lot and I liked his story, too.
It’s a memoir and an account of modern life and how it can be so tiresome, of authorial street theater, of terrible events, all told in a language that is both direct and poetic. It’s a perfect synthesis of the modern memoir, honest in his boredom, punctuated by drama, self-aware and sincere. I recommend it.
*I assisted proofreading an early version of this memoir, working with Chip Smith at Nine Banded Books. None of the suggestions I made affected the book beyond noting basic typing errors.