11 July 2011
I was very pleased to find Tyrone Williams's Pink Tie in the mailbox a few weeks back, recently published by Brent Cunningham and Neil Alger's inimitable Hooke Press. An elegiac prose rumination on friendship, calcified figures of masculinity, and the complexity of loss, Pink Tie acts as a timely investigation into the tragic afterlife of largely heterosexual figures of friendship. A eulogy of sorts for his friend Peter Ross (who sadly committed suicide in 2002, shortly before the release of Williams's first book of poetry, the massively influential c.c.), Williams's investigation of friendship is fittingly as much a study of race and class and gender and the ways loss informs our understanding of joy.
Here's a taste near the beginning:
"I did not know...how Peter's former life had been one that had played out a kind of masculinity which had surfaced in this country in the 1940s and 1950s, one associated in part with the re-masculinization of art, immortalized in literary figures, before the period, in Ernest Hemingway, and after the period, in Norman Mailer. But it was the Beat poets and fiction writers that fascinated Peter. The Beats recast the concept of American masculinity even as their in-fighting and disputes betrayed their anxieties, displaced in their work and lives, over their own self-images as men. The Beats' notion of masculinity was inextricable from what they perceived as a different mode of masculinity among black musicians in particular and black culture in general. Black male musicians seemed to have 'solved' the problem that was itself, as a Western phenomenon, only a couple of centuries old. This generally meant that art had to be made masculine, virile, and blues and jazz seemed to encapsulate these values in their bluster, in their aggressiveness, in their winner-take-all ambiance. Most important, this was a masculinity of the art that could feel equally at home among factory workers and museum patrons. Of course, as it turned out, the museum patrons and academics were the ones who would turn these young rebels into the Beats, which is not to undermine or minimize the liberating effect their collective work had, and still has, on working class stiffs.
Like so many young people at the time, like the Beats themselves, Peter had a certain romanticized perception of the 'real' black culture of blues and remained, for a long time, indifferent to the middlebrow pop tenor of Motown. Needless to add, Peter's disdain for rap and hip-hop was predictable. Like so many then--and even now--he saw black pop as a sellout to white values and hip-hop and rap as the thuggerization of black musicianship. It took me many years, many drinking bouts, and more than a few letters and emails, but I think I finally managed to convince him of the validity of these other musical genres even if I knew he would never be a fan. For what Peter could not abide in hip-hop music was the return of a naked brutality that echoed a more stereotypical, more convert, masculinity he, no doubt, associated with the world of 'business'—that is, the world of his older brother and father.
Thus, for Peter the Beats represented a chaotic escape from the "straight" world of commerce and money, the world as it 'really' was. And Peter, like the Beats, like all Romantics, could never accept the world for what it was. His defense was to adopt the world-weary cynicism of a European raconteur straight out of a Henry James novel, one too wise, too experienced, to accept the possibility of a different world. Hence he could never be persuaded to 'political' solutions—he lacked that kind of faith or desperation. Thus the parable and allegory of the 'road,' immortalized in Kerouac's novel but also lived out in the hippie life the Beats inspired, mesmerized a troubled young teenaged Peter, and he hitchhiked his way across America. The road, for the Beats, for many hippies, for so many of the film noir heroes-qua-deadbeats that Peter loved, was the only true 'home' of Baudelaire's flaneur, a man (and this peculiar mode of alienation is male through and through) out of time, out of place, a man searching for Erewhon, for a literal utopia. And of course the road was a path to, and a figure or, a culture the Beats, misreading the desperation that drove underappreciated jazz artists to marijuana and heroin, made of legal and illegal drugs. Drugs, like the road, became for the 'new' man what martinis and grey flannel suits had been for an earlier 'kind' of man—tools to accentuate and buffer a masculinity rapidly mutating under the pressures of an increasingly stalled industrialism (the Rust Belt in formation) and revved-up consumerism. Peter, haunted his entire adolescent and adult years by his inability or unwillingness to accede to these new modes of masculinity, found refuge, as did so many others, in drugs (he could no more accept the Midwestern apotheosis of sports than he could that European anachronism called aristocracy). Still, he was an American guy even if he was never as Americas as the next guy..."
Pink Tie is a beautiful illustration of how one might approach autobiographical writing through the investigation of one's fidelity to others. Essential reading...