Gary Amdahl’s Big Little Black Book

July 12, 2014   •   By Andrew Tonkovich

I ADMIRE both Gary Amdahl’s writing and the topics he chooses, the Left politics and dreamful associations built on physicality, and especially that alchemy which keeps me absolutely with him at each and every step of his always digressive stories. Amdahl’s poetry, his unions of fact and fiction, his kismeto-logic — the symmetry and obviously if creatively calculated denouement — makes me satisfyingly giddy and breathless, nearly vertiginous, a dumb younger brother to his older-brother mesmerizer, scamp, and guide. I read his long and gratifyingly, dizzyingly complex, disturbing, and yet affirming new novel, Across My Big Brass Bed: An Intellectual Autobiography in Twenty-Four Hours, and then immediately reread it, because I couldn’t help myself.

Amdahl’s near-Reichian body-mind provocation demands, like Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest nonfiction project, indulging a particular kind of suspension of disbelief. Ehrenreich describes her mystical adolescent vision in Living with a Wild God, and attempts calibrating, however impossibly, the disparate biological and existential impulses of young adulthood, making her real-life story a nice companion to Amdahl’s pretend memoir of a brilliant, unnamed Minnesota boy who attempts to reconcile knowing, seeing, being, and girls. Both books are meditations by so-called baby boomers, Ehrenreich a sort of older sister to Amdahl from those storied times that were a-changin’. His young, self-aware narrator, on his Orphic journey, assumes the necessary role of the inexplicable, as the counterculture once did.

In Amdahl’s work generally, but especially in Across, his first novel, he cannot finish a thought, thus engaging readers as fellow thinkers and co-conspiring imaginists. And, yet, simultaneously, he doesn’t seem to know when to stop, climbing and falling down and up the steps, peeling the onion, layering the story, reassembling the psyche, brain, and heart of history itself, as we stare in ponderful awareness and self-congratulation at being so easily immersed in the whirlpool of consciousness.

Amdahl’s newest, longest, and deepest book is the first full-length novel published by the playwright, poet, and storywriter. Sven Birkerts, who published an excerpt in AGNI, calls Amdahl, correctly, a “language-obsessive.” A tiny publishing house has established, of all things, “The Gary Amdahl Library” (no kidding, this the second volume printed in that inspired project), and Amdahl is in the best sense a writers’ writer, especially in this latest house of mirrors, where a writer writes about a writer in a (fictional) memoir, adding to the other delightful unlikelihoods of Amdahl-world.

In previous collections (Visigoth, I Am Death, The Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts) we understand that the Minnesota-born (1956) author, now living out West, occupies personal-is-political territory. In a signature story, “The Breezeway,” the protagonist begins by asking THE epistemological biggie:

When, for Christ’s sake, when did I come to know what I now know? Or could I have failed to mark the date, the moment, how could I not remember where I was? I must have known something from the very beginning, but did not, could not, understand it. And consequently, because I did not, could not, understand it, forgot about it? Is that possible?

Yes, it is possible, it turns out, so that what the protagonist knows needs to be reconsidered constantly. Indeed, Across is a novel posing, fully nude, as a remembrance of episodes past, episodes misunderstood but never forgotten: an elegant and seamless and endlessly self-interrogating and self-reinvigorating crazy-big 1960s and ’70s late-boomer story meets autobiography meets political wish-fulfillment meets love, sex, empathy, and despair story, with motorcycle racing, music, gemology, love, theater, anarchism, the defining philosophies of public intellectuals — Karl Popper, Kant, E. F. Schumacher, and Reich — the Vietnam War (and draft, of course!) and resistance to it, and always the amazing, long, textured, funny, startling Amdahl sentences, here more than 400 pages of them. A sane Holden Caulfield, Proustian rememberer, and kinetic fabulist, Amdahl’s child to adolescent to recollectingly middle-aged broken-down junkie-musician narrator (who plays, among other sad, beautiful instruments, the concertina-like bandoneon, of all things) writes the whole long book, we are meant to believe, in a single 24-hour period, sitting in a lonely garret in Barcelona, something totally believable for an Amdahl narrator.

The completely genuine and vulnerable appeal in the Dylan-ballad title — with its shy seduction bravado — has its pretension and predictability immediately undermined by the comic subtitle. This is, nonetheless, a book of ideas, if mostly sexy ones, about the political economy of love, guilt, and the urgency of a young man’s simultaneous apprehension of the world in romantic and philosophical relations (eros and intellect). It should be expected in a novel about a mini-epoch of frenzied American possibility, and especially the apprehending of it, the reconsidering from a place of rich despair and extremely hard-won wisdom.

Together title and subtitle affirm the elegant premise of this book of confession and complicity, the life story of a lover, a rake, an all-American boy who was too smart and horny for his own good as they say, if too genuine, finally, in his doomed empathy, his effort to reconcile contradictions, whether in politics or love, battling flesh and mind. Charmed by the cute little bucktoothed girl, he desires buck teeth himself, the early stirring of his doomed effort at “sharing unified souls” and achieving that “selfless union of souls,” the defining expectation of our naive if also near-savant elementary school boy.

The desperate autobiographer describes himself later, never sure whether to be proud or ashamed of the growth of both his intellect and his passion:

This was a top-drawer brain, fourteen years old, heavily and recklessly used, it is true, but capable of registering on seismographs even so, coming up out of ordinary alpha-waves. Was this a consequence of what I had glibly termed sex and violence? Was my brain, which might have developed into something good and useful, deteriorating under the assault of sensations?

Indeed, the first scene of this dense, beautiful 400-page monster of a book, as introduced by the narrator (not Amdahl but, yes, someone very much like the author) establishes the authority and purposely self-defeating joy and misery of our hero/antihero, whose compulsions and sensory accumulation are introduced on page one:

I drove, aimlessly but alertly, fighting traffic, around the basement. I pressed the big red plastic button in the middle of the knurled steering wheel with the heel of my palm, but the horn didn’t work. I recall it clearly: the silent horn in my mind. If it was powered by batteries, and those batteries were dead, that was a problem I could solve. Already a problem solver, because my parents and I had been in the business together — never seeking a profit, only union — from the beginning. I recall the silent confidence in my mind as clearly as its silent envelope or cloud of unknowing. Were there lights too? In mind or car? Two little flashlight beams for our perpetual twilight?

In these nine sentences, we are run through a diagnostic of boy-child automotive and autobiographical consciousness, if a weird, precocious boy indeed, and one whose experience of pretend-driving the toy car offers both the map of his worldview and the problematic, yes, vehicle for much about which Amdahl has written in previous short stories and novellas: North American manhood — whatever that means, finally — revolutionary politics, gangsters, sex and intimacy, violence. Here is the ur-moment, with the little guy pedaling and pushing, then locating, swerving, colliding with the dichotomies of expectation. It’s revelation and disappointment foreshadowing the philosophical, intellectual, and spiritual angst that arrives with that twofer of self-awareness, mind and body, which seem unable to live together, at least not with self and others.

Again, this is the late 1960s, where it might be understood that Big Ideas were more available, or at least seem so now, less filtered, mediated, where adults could not get out of the way of their children, to invoke Dylan again, children thrust into the fast lane of racial politics, war, drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll.

Amdahl’s protagonist endures misunderstandings and humiliations, telling jokes like a funny mini-man, flirting, fainting (hilariously) during a public school “sex ed” film, each either an emotional armoring for protection or, when successful, girding for battle and romantic conquest, or what passed for union but turns out to be the hollow victory of conquest. There are little girls, more little girls, their mothers, bigger girls, and grown-up women, Cathy and Tina and Cheryl and another Cathy and Beth and more, and with each a new hope for selfless if increasingly complicated love, with rejection too. Each is dramatized in scenes of both classic preteen and teen everyday drama, which is to say exaggerated, obsessive, with writerly awareness, all portending the responsibility, joy, and misery of adult authorship of the book of love: playing house, kissing, sharing the responsibilities of crossing guard and collaborating as biology class lab partners.

Each moment of conflict and difficult maturation, disappointment, sophistication, and loss presents the young narrator his genuine if progressively calculated opportunity to mature. And in each we see him embrace the opportunism of the presentation and misrepresentation of self in everyday life and love.

He’s a smart kid indeed but, like so many, is betrayed by the innocent greed of his own body and the unimagination and emotionally conservative or reactionary mores of most grown-ups and nearly all the kids with even less a clue. Our hero, shamed or betrayed, usually by stupid remarks and easy meanness, learns to give as badly as he gets.

The limits of love, to bowdlerize Wittgenstein, are the limits of other people’s language about it. But not all people, and not all grown-ups. Enter, as if a teenage wet dream realized, the crazy social studies teacher, and advisor to the high school’s Current Affairs (!) Discussion Group. A sexy young wannabe radical of the barricades who helpfully invokes Norman Mailer herself. He’s the obvious literary sexist pig foil to our protagonist’s attempted egalitarian if not quite feminist political leanings. Liberated teacher recognizes blossoming artist-genius-poet, introducing herself to him and other students (but mostly him, solipsistically) as author of the influential, even defining classic of the era, The Open Society and Its Enemies. It’s via this perfect trick, a provocative fraud perpetrated by Ms. Karla Popper, whose own name she has contrived to suggest the famous philosopher Karl Popper, that our Stephen Dedalus is introduced to more duplicity and actual sex. It’s a lovely joke through-line, the offering of a kernel of truth to our young rooster about the premise of liberation, so fraught with responsibility and confusion, here from a wonderful fantasy character brilliant, false, and mad, his redemption and his comeuppance. Of course, our boy doesn’t really understand the critique of the open society though divines that he will, someday, finding encouragement in Popper’s (the real one, not kooky hippie girl) quoting of Socrates that “Eros moves the mind to learn just as it does to love.”

Teacher Karla assures our young fella he’s a natural-born philosopher while tending to his injuries after a (Dylan-like) dirt bike accident, seducing him in the vitally important nursing-sex palliative trope of teenage masturbation fantasy. She plies him with drugs (it’s 1968), herself goes further into turn on, tune in, drop out land only to disappear, and so further hurts him after demanding/promising so much.

Pause to recall here that vehicle of imagination motored by the young lover-boy down in the basement of his first girl playmate’s house, just days before the Kennedy assassination (“Whatever it meant to be human President Kennedy could no longer manage it.”), and consider the speculation that followed a few lines later, but by the careful reader not forgotten — “an entirely false horn from the first moments of its design, a play-horn, a big button connected solely to my imagination” — and you are back at the beginning, for the first of many moments of existential Q&A about what we think we know.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but we are being asked how much anybody can stand being and knowing and nothingness, having to observe oneself fucking and fucking up, then going back and making some kind of painful if illuminating sense of it all. Wisdom! Shame! Basic stuff for a smart Lutheran kid in Midwestern broken America whose first, no second, memory is of the assassinated prez, but this kid is impatient with himself and confused at his own super-awareness, his coming to know of what he now knows, and its consequences: “When you know, as soon as you know, you are in danger. […]”

Across speaks all this to the narrator himself as much as to the girls, women, love objects, and reader. It’s a dialogue with Self. Which is to say that the novel has a lot of moving parts, in all senses of the word. Speed and dexterity race against implausibly careful dream-recollections, whose luxuriously slowed detail is Amdahl’s forte, here with the manic affect of a dying man pleading to live, the clock running out, yet him unwilling to miss explaining a single moment. Telling the stories, including one lovely long section almost entirely a mystical-hallucinatory mash-up of busy self-testing in the dream ecology of a lake, and in it, diving but not dying. It may keep him alive for at least the long night and day it has taken to write the “involuntary memory” so far, Henry James on a dirt bike, a Don Juan of self-loathing, liberated lothario who can’t help perform the conquest but wishes it were more egalitarian.

Across may also be the story of a boy’s victimization by not only the herself arguably immature free-love girl-woman. But that psychological or legal element is the least of what’s important in what our narrator calls this singular “epoch” in which he grows up. There’s more. The loss of Karla gets us to about age 15, with more ways to ask, retell, celebrate, however despairingly, the sex life of the mind. As in Ehrenreich’s shorter and more concentrated looking-back, there is in Across the bigger challenge, of a whole life of consciousness’s consequences: “And what constitutes the beginning of a thought that requires decades to express itself, is, of course a definition none of us is up to.”


Andrew Tonkovich edits the West Coast literary magazine Santa Monica Review and hosts the weekly literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.