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Before he was Gary Indiana, the author, he was Gary Hoisington—“a true son of 1950s backwoods New Hampshire.” He left home when he was sixteen to attend UC Berkeley, suffered a “nervous breakdown,” and wound up back on the East Coast. He could have stayed in Boston, where he’d been sent to recover, and where he could have lived near his parents. But hearing some fateful siren’s call, he set out to San Francisco and eventually Los Angeles. Communes, the porn industry, alcohol and drug abuse, West Coast punk rock, being raped by a Hell’s Angel, a subsequent psychotic break—he experienced all this and a hell of a lot more. He dabbled some in writing, and, in fact, it was during this period that he first used the penname Gary Indiana.
Until 1978, when he fled to New York City, he lived on an amphetamine-fueled “hamster wheel of wage slavery and drunken sexual abandon.” He worked two jobs, that is, one at Legal Aid, and another at a movie theater concession stand. And every night, after work, he picked up a different man. The next day and night, he did it all over again. I know as much because these and other goings-on are chronicled in Gary Indiana’s latest book, I Can Give You Anything But Love (Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2015).
It’s a “kind of memoir, though we’re not calling it that” Indiana recently told The Paris Review. By “we,” I suppose Indiana means himself and… oh, I don’t know, his people? But why would Indiana or any publisher not want to call this hard-edged gem of a book a memoir? Maybe because the label would oversimplify the fabulously eclectic contents. I Can Give You Anything does, in fact, give you just about everything: travel writing; diary entries; fragments; and deliciously wicked but not inhumane portraits of a variety of noteworthy figures: Janis Joplin, the venerated AIDS activist Ferd Eggan, Susan Sontag, Exene Cervenka, from the punk rock band X, and writer Kathy Acker.
“I’m old enough to justify writing about my history,” Indiana writes in chapter one, “but too old to remember much of it.” This problem with memory may be another reason Indiana doesn’t want to call I Can Give You Anything a memoir. But perhaps the biggest reason is the editing process Indiana followed after completing a first draft. “I began to prune away anything,” he tells us in the final chapter, “suggesting the sort of ‘triumph over adversity’ theme that gongs through much of the so called memoir genre.”
Which makes sense. Over the course of seventeen books, both fiction and nonfiction, Indiana has never been one to cozy up to redemption. Or easy closure. Rather he’s recognized as a dark realist, a satirist. He’s infamously cast a cold transgressive eye on all that passes before a seemingly unlimited field of vision. And with I Can Give You Anything, Indiana seems to wants to keep it that way.
Or does he? I ask the question because, typically, what Indiana wants and what his own writing betrays about him are often at odds.
With few exceptions, those odds are our riches.
Indiana, as indicated above, wants to resist contemporary self-help culture in this and all his books because that culture too often wants to force positive outcomes on personal nightmares. And yet some of the memories Indiana “recovers” from his childhood in I Can Give You Anything are just the kind of scenarios that lend themselves to self-help analysis:
Shotgun in the hall closet. Drunk Daddy: One of these days I’m going to take that gun and put all of you out of your misery. Mumma: Your father doesn’t mean what he’s saying. Even if he did shoot me, he would never shoot you.
It’s almost as though his human experience reveals itself despite his intellect, which, because of his bleak vision, is necessarily hard and uncompromising. The quotation above, by the way, is also a good example of Indiana’s cleverness. He’s using terse, clipped sentences to convey the difficulty of trying to recapture memory. Soon enough, however, thinking back on his home-town American ethos, he returns to his usual, almost classic style:
None of us leaves town except in a family bubble, so when we go anywhere, the town comes with us. In town, each family is its own sealed-off country, surrounded by other counties they don’t trust.
Another major and rewarding tension in I Can Give You Anything But Love is Indiana’s contention that he’s a failure at love, both the getting and the giving. “I am too peculiar to figure importantly in anyone’s life, even my own.” That’s the getting part. “I had, in fact, no real capacity for romance.” That’s the giving part. Yet, there are many parts of this memoir set in “the present” in Cuba, a place Indiana visited extensively before post-9/11 travel restrictions were imposed. “This city is my heart,” he writes. “Unlike the whole world, an island is a place a solitary person can attempt to understand.” Right away, however, a hustler who used to count Indiana among his clients intrudes upon Indiana’s solitude. Indiana gets rid of him, but not too much later the author confesses, “Down here fascination with male beauty impedes my progress.” By book’s end Indiana has a young lover, a deaf-mute who intrudes less on his solitude but who seems to frustrate Indiana as much as he seems to please him. (And maybe that’s love, after all?)
It may all sound too raw and too convoluted to make for an entertaining read, but the case is quite the opposite. I Can Give You Anything is moving and it moves, too, especially once it starts to roll to an end, which it does with a well-crafted novelistic pace. Indeed, this marriage of forms—memoir and novel—is no doubt another reason Indiana and the mysterious “we” don’t want to call it a memoir. And if you’re still not sold, then you should also know I Can Give You Anything will give you quite a few good, if sardonic, laughs. In this passage, for instance, he considers his own fate while working at Legal Aid in Los Angeles and interacting with a client who has just confessed to assaulting her lover:
I felt less fucked up the more I listened to them. On a good day, I considered myself lucky to have a job and a paycheck, relieved that I was only gay and unstable [….] I suspected nobody would ever love me enough to hit me with a piece of metal, either, but you can’t have everything
I Can Give You Anything But Love
By Gary Indiana
Rizzoli Ex Libris
Hardcover, 9780847846863, 240 pp.