Much ink’s been spilled of late on literate songwriters like the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle and Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, but way back, Richard Hell surfaced as a wordsmith even outside the seminal 1977 album
Blank Generation. Still, despite verbal acuity and 1984’s semi-retirement from music, he’s tagged as a lit-dabbling artiste
because of work with Television, the Heartbreakers, and the Voidoids.
Kentuckian Hell (né Meyers) moved to New York to write verse. Accordingly, he kept notebooks and worshipped Rimbaud. In 1979, his “Slum Journal” debuted in the
East Village Eye, mixing texts, graphics, and Poe tributes. In the ’80s he founded
Cuz (both a lit journal and a press), through which he’s published Dennis Cooper, Rene Ricard, Eileen Myles, and Nick Tosches. His own output includes poetry collections as himself and as Theresa Stern (a gender-bent collaboration with Tom Verlaine), a novel (
Go Now), and a textual/visual miscellany (Hot and Cold). He’s back with Godlike, his second novel and strongest piece of writing to date. It’s no wonder Hell grows testy when critics refuse to see him sans bouncy stage presence.
He prefaced a recent Godlike reading by mentioning that one too many scribes had misread Go Now
as memoir. To prove he could write fiction, he jettisoned Go Now‘s womanizing-junkie angle for a moving, scathing novel about the “love” of two male poets, the married 27-year-old Paul Vaughn and 16-year-old Kentucky prodigy Randall Terence Wode a/k/a “T.”
The two inhabit ’70s downtown NYC dives (memorably, T. pisses in a champagne glass at Max’s Kansas City), crash collating parties, haunt readings, and sit alone in T.’s dinky apartment collaborating on poems and chewing scenery as self-professed
flaneurs, “godlike philosopher poets” of the L.E.S. “languorously sipping their fer
mented grain as they spun ideas and mental- sensual constructions of life-language in the
air for the pleasure of their own delectation.”
Steering clear of narrative niceties, Godlike offers fragmented reminiscences of the middle-aged Vaughn. Pompous, unsure, he recounts his relationship with the deceased T. via interwoven letters, diaries, poems, essays, and a memoir-novelette he started in 1997 when spending time in a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown. In his 2004 prefatory letter, Vaughn describes T. as “a scumbag,” but the enfant terrible eventually emerges as the more likable (and talented) of the two, and questions of their “love” arise. (Hell convincingly writes in the different characters’ poetic voices.) Vaughn’s an unreliable narrator, sure, but as Hell puts it, “poets aren’t supposed to be beautiful or sane. Shaggy, itchy, preoccupied, mal-educateds. It’s a dirty and stressful and anti-social calling.” Well, like punk rock.
Punk/lit parallels exist: Like T., Hell was born in the Bluegrass State, and T. resembles the thin, pouty Hell and his “short and ragged” mid-’70s hairdo, but comparisons to Rimbaud also make sense. One of the best descriptions of T. (and perhaps Hell) takes place when looking at the books he grabs from Vaughn’s shelf: “a Bill Knott, a Borges, a Frank O’Hara, David Shapiro’s skinny little
January, and Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire.” (The moment evokes Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction
, wherein Kafka, Musil, and Bernhard himself are assigned reading.)
Rather than fish for Hell biography, readers ought to riff instead on tumultuous (Paul) Verlaine and Rimbaud. Vaughn’s pregnant wife, Carol, makes cardboard appearances. T. drops poetry for South America, shadowing R’s time spent as a trading company agent in Africa and the Middle East. There’s no amputated leg, but like Verlaine, Vaughn gets hold of a gun: “The freedom of youth! He was hardly hurt at all.” (Both Verlaine and Vaughn serve 18 months in jail, find religion.) Careful readers will uncover bits like a nod to a priest’s interruption of Verlaine’s incarcerated confession: “You’ve never been with animals?” Here, T. asks: “Did you ever try to fuck something not human?” Turns out he did, “a little pony.” Which makes sense: Vaughn’s eternally horny (“I never had that gay thing about boys’ butts really [while I do like women’s]”), and after he and T. tie up a female versifier from the Poetry Project, he enthuses: “The nicest people love a chance to be sexually used without worrying about it.”
Godlike often subscribes to Mallarmé’s symbolist ideals as well as the late-night amphetamine feel of Ted Berrigan’s
Sonnets. Much of the book’s composed of Vaughn’s proclamations and T.’s outbursts retold by Vaughn. Everyone from Liv Tyler to Egon Schiele earns memorable analysis. He waxes eloquent on cartoons and comic books as paradisal eternity. Birds and God show up hand in hand with Bresson, Dante, and J.Lo. Not merely class clown, Vaughn posits moving thoughts on aging with a touching romanticism. Unlike T. (“The positive anonymity of leaving is preferable to the negative anonymity of loving”), he’s a firm believer in love: “Is it possible that one other person on earth can render the rest colorless by his absence? Yes, of course.”
Through it all, Godlike also functions as a downtown guidebook circa 1971, inlaid with road maps to Veselka, Washington Square LSD, and L.E.S. versus the “cheesy media/marketing language” of the East Village. More importantly, the text’s a literary treatise stitched with shards of Padgett, an attempt to locate a gallant geometry verifying love’s reality, and proof again that Hell would have carved a smashing oeuvre even if he’d opted to remain plain old Richard Meyers.