Arthur Nersesian began to establish himself as a chronicler of New York’s increasingly elusive demimonde with The Fuck-Up, his first novel. Much of the plot unfolds in the early-’80s East Village with nary a mention of the nascent gallery and club scene of that era, yet The Fuck-Up is as much a book about bohemia as anything written by Dawn Powell. So are Nersesian’s four other novels. By the time The Fuck-Up was published in 1991, of course, the East Village scene and bohemia itself looked quite dead. But then, laments over the demise of la bohème date back to at least 1871.
Nersesian’s characters aren’t necessarily artists or writers, but then the demimonde has always been a refuge for many others alienated from middle-class values. (For example, the protagonist in his last novel, Suicide Casanova, was a lawyer but also a kind of sexual outlaw.) Nowadays, when subterraneans often have no real terrain, bohemia is an attitude, a lifestyle choice. As the artist protagonist in Nersesian’s new book, Chinese Takeout, ultimately says of the deprivation and daily ordeal he endures: “the passion, the reversals, and all the little intrigues and gambles, with no guaranteed outcome, that was the whole point to life.”
A boho he may be, but Nersesian’s characters aren’t exactly the angelheaded hipsters celebrated by Ginsberg, “burning for the ancient heavenly connection.” Who can contemplate the cosmic in the midst of a housing crisis? The artist in Chinese Takeout is living in his car.
He goes by the improbable name of Orloff Trenchant, better known as Or. By day, he sells books in front of the NYU library or on some East Village sidewalk, and at age 33, he’s eight years past his one successful solo show. He’s already tried once to give up his impoverished and exhausting boho life, “but then I remembered that there was really nothing else out there.” He knows an older artist, a walking cautionary tale by the name of Shade who has a cheap loft on Canal Street, acquired back when no one but an artist was willing to live there. Shade sublets to Or for the summer, making room for him by consigning stacks of old paintings to the garbage. “Whatever I am now is all I’ll be,” Shade says of his failure as a painter. “Look at all the space that was being used up by hope.”
Even a talented and dedicated artist can have that kind of failure, but New York no longer has loft space for them. Orloff knows he’s on the cusp. “Although I didn’t write myself off as a complete failure, all the illusion and romance was gone. I was no longer able to inflate myself; I had already disappointed my own expectations and was genuinely worried about dying on the streets.”
Chinese Takeout, the first Nersesian book issued by a mainstream publisher, is one of the best I’ve read about the artist’s life. Nersesian captures the obsession one needs to keep going under tough odds. Orloff even dares to ask himself the hard questions, like the one he poses, for example, at a fabulous P.S.1 opening for some rather mediocre work: “Did my art, which seemed so important to me, actually suck this much?” Then, he not only falls for the world’s most hopeless love object (a junkie), but also takes on an exhausting sculpture commission. Always, though, he is trying to stay true to himself, and his struggle against the odds makes for a compelling read.
This isn’t always the case with Nersesian’s other characters. The protagonist of Suicide Casanova is a bona fide creep, while the “hero” of Manhattan Loverboy is both nasty and put-upon. (This widely praised and deeply cynical book is my least favorite.) But they’re all fuck-ups. They carom from one bad relationship and one crummy job to the next. They live in bad places or nowhere at all. They sleep on your couch. They go with the flow, following up on chance encounters that change their lives. The narrator of The Fuck-Up overhears a conversation on the subway about a job opening at a 12th Street theater and immediately traces it to a gay porn palace, where he must pretend he’s queer to keep the job, leading to one series of entertaining plot twists. The heroine of Nersesian’s dogrun ends up in a rock band, by accident, while on the trail of her dead boyfriend’s exes. As she explains it: “Things start out one way and then turn out being another.” That’s the beauty and the risk of the boho life.
What I used to call the Lower Worst Side has seemed utterly gentrified for over a decade. But it is now the subject of Reverend Jen’s Really Cool Neighborhood, a reminder that each generation finds a bohemian nest where it can. Reverend Jen, the self-appointed Patron Saint of the Uncool and Voice of the Downtrodden and Tired, hosts the weekly Anti-Slam at Collective Unconscious, runs the Lower East Side Troll Museum out of her living room, and often appears in public wearing elf ears.
Reverend Jen moved to New York in 1990 and sees her Ludlow Street environs as “a place where I could live and talk to puppets and be praised for it.” While her Really Cool Neighborhood is more autobiography and artist’s book than a functioning tour guide, she covers the vital stuff thoroughly: Budweiser, pizza, Mexican food, open mics, porn. About a third of the book is devoted to Les Misrahi, an epic puppet show about her landlord. This story of Jen Valjean, who emerges from prison (after serving three years for stealing a glue stick at Kinko’s) to lead a revolt against real estate developers, doesn’t exactly sparkle on the page but may be better when read by puppets. Still, Reverend Jen is a beacon of hope—that the unconventional can thrive, even among trendy new restaurants where they can’t afford to eat.
Well aware that these are not the best of times to be an artist in New York, she declares, “I feel it is my duty to take this sucky era in which I live, in which fat jocks turn over pretzel trucks at Woodstock, and transform it into something beautiful.” These days, I think it’s all one can hope for.
Nersesian reads at Half King on Monday, August 18. Call 212-462-4300 for more information. Reverend Jen’s Lower East Side Troll Museum is on view at Printed Matter, 535 West 22nd Street, through September 6.