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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Great Jones Street

I am sorely lacking in my reading of Don DeLillo, one of America's greatest writers. I've read Libra and Underworld, and now I can add one of his earliest books, Great Jones Street, from 1973. In a nutshell, it's about the excesses of fame and the dying of the counterculture.

As I mentioned in my review of Joe, though good music was still being made in the early '70s, the hippie ideal was gone. Soon it would be the "me" decade. DeLillo's book is about the disillusionment of a rock star and about drugs, and at that time I suppose they were intertwined.

"Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. I mean long journeys across gray space. I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic." So says DeLillo's narrator, rock god Bucky Wunderlick, who has just abandoned a tour in Houston and holed up in his girlfriend's dingy apartment in Greenwich Village, on the title street. He is just shy of 26, but is facing an existential crisis.

He is visited by an array of characters, including his manager, Globke, his guitarist, Azarian, and then his girlfriend, Opel. shows up. Opel has a package that needs to be delivered, a "product," that turns out to be a powerful drug that shuts off the part of the brain dealing with language. Many people want it, but Bucky doesn't have it--Globke's assistant, Hanes, has it. Opel throws him a birthday party: "Several days later people of various sorts appeared in the room. Some I knew; others were unknown to me. I sat in the bowl-shaped canvas chair. Opel led the celebrants around me. I nodded, blinked and occasionally touched another’s jutting hand. I had little to say but was sure no one would mind. They already knew my voice. It was my presence they were eager to record, the simple picture of man-in-chair, a memory print to trade for other people’s time. Slowly the room began to fill. It became obvious."

Bucky talks to almost no one, except a writer living upstairs who struggles to find a genre (he tries child pornography--that is, children having sex with each other, but turns to financial writing) and a woman living downstairs with a severely disabled son. There's a British rock star named Watney who wants to bid on the drug, and carries with him an airline bag full of bubblegum cards with his picture on them. Eventually Bucky will meet Dr. Pepper, who is sort of the omnipotent force of the book.

Great Jones Street is very reminiscent of the beats, and in particular William S. Burroughs. I couldn't help but think of Dr. Benway from Naked Lunch when Dr. Pepper arrives. The book is full of truths that are handed down to an amused and indifferent Bucky, who is obsessively glib (when someone says "Peace," he says, "War."

The book also includes song lyrics of Bucky's, a news story about him lighting a flight attendant on fire, and a panel discussion with a bunch of intellectuals in which he says, "What I’d like to do really is I’d like to injure people with my sound. Maybe actually kill some of them. They’d come there knowing full well. Then we’d play and sing and people in the audience would be frozen with pain or writhing with pain and some of them would actually die from the effects of our words and music."

Many have figured that Bob Dylan was the inspiration for Bucky. A paragraph like this one is certainly Dylanesque: "The telephone sat on four phone books stacked on the floor. One candle burned, the other did not. I exhaled on the window. There was a loud sound in the pipes, the hollowing-out of dank iron. Opel’s collection of pennies filled two ice trays in the refrigerator. The bathtub was full of used water." This sounds a lot like the atmosphere surrounding the song "Visions of Johanna."

What I couldn't tell was whether DeLillo is an admirer of Dylan's or was mocking him. The lyrics written are somewhat Dylanesque, though not as good as Dylan's best. There is a lot of talk about his "Mountain Tapes," which he made on his own in Woodstock (where Dylan lived) and are a mystery--certainly this is a reference to Dylan's "Basement Tapes."

There is a lot of rich language in Great Jones Street--I was stopping to highlight constantly. There isn't a throwaway line, and we get such great similes as "Rarer than a pair of blue suede shoes in Tierra del Fuego."

Wondering what DeLillo actually thinks of Dylan is intriguing, considering Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which probably means DeLillo never will.

This is the close of the book, which also gives Bucky a little touch of Elvis: "Meanwhile the rumors accumulate. Kidnap, exile, torture, self-mutilation and death. The most beguiling of the rumors has me living among beggars and syphilitics, performing good works, patron saint of all those men who hear the river-whistles sing the mysteries and who return to sleep in wine by the south wheel of the city."

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