(Warner Paperback Library, 239 pp, $1.25)
→ Out of the Whale: Growing Up in the American Left, An Autobiography by Jonah Raskin
(Links, 216 pp, $4.95)
Sick at heart in Los Angeles, John Dunne went to Vegas to live off of other people’s troubles, and came back after having learned something about America, a great deal about Las Vegas, and not a little about himself. Night-crawling in a world of grotesques, he got a feel for the value of his own normalcy, and for the limits of his craving for experience.
“The guy wanted to suck my nose,” said Artha, a prostitute Dunne hung out with. Dunne cannot escape this image; it pursues him. “Often after seeing (Artha) I would walk alone through the casinos on the Strip, staring at all those men who looked like sun-tanned liver marks… and I would wonder who were the nose suckers, and who were the nose suckees. If they sucked noses, I wondered what else was going on that I had never heard of, what baroque sexuality, wondered if there were special orifices drilled especially for the Vegas habitue, wondered what else was on tap.
Dunne’s book—all measured calm on the surface, and pure hysteria beneath it—gives the lie to even the best examples of the “New Journalism,” most particularly Hunter Thompson’s inspired Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas—all those self-important “participatory” accounts of tough writers who dive right into the maelstrom, but somehow never risk anything. Dunne’s persona in Vegas is not all that different from Philip Marlowe’s in Los Angeles; Dunne’s book, like, say, Farewell, My Lovely, is partly about the struggle to accept the changes a perception of horror forces on a person, without crossing over the invisible line where one becomes a part of the horror.
Dunne writes carefully, clearly, chasing Artha’s sexual past or his own, showing us how various Vegas hustlers have lost their nerve because that is the only way he can hold onto his own—as a writer, he gets past the fear, but only word by word. “People may go on, keep on, rush on, without souls.” D.H. Lawrence said of 20th century Americans. “They have their ego and their will; that is enough to keep them going.” Vegas is precisely about such people, and about Dunne’s attempt to refuse to be one of them. It is a very humanistic book, and one thing you can learn from it is that humanism does not consist in accepting everything—or everyone.
Jonah Raskin’s Out of the Whale rings false just where Dunne’s work rings true; one man takes his authority for granted, while the other assumes he has none but tries to create it anyway. The son of New York Communist Party members, Raskin chronicles his education—political, sexual, and otherwise—and emerges in his thirties without having learned anything, including how to write. To Raskin, raised on Stalinism and the Rosenberg case, the American mainstream is as threatening as the perversion of that mainstream is to Dunne, but Raskin is not truly afraid of the mainstream—the whale, “Leviathan”—because his only real struggle is to stay pure, avoid “selling out,” and to achieve such a goal and suffer.
Raskin raises interesting questions throughout his book (or rather, his life raises them), but he never attempts to resolve them; the questions posed by the Rosenberg case, his college years, the New Left, his wife’s leaving him to go underground with Weathermen, etc., come off as curiosities, or as questions with self-evident answers. Like everything else in the book, questions and answers are meaningless events, devoid of context, because Raskin’s idea of an autobiography is simply to relate a string of incidents and to assume that his life automatically has the coherence to tie everything together. Well, he began as a Stalinist and he remains one; one does not need to search for the truth when, deep down, one already has it.
There is an incident that offers a keynote to the book, though it was hardly meant to. A professor asks Raskin if he’s a communist—assuming that if Raskin is, he won’t be able to do his work with a truly critical spirit. It’s a stupid assumption, but Raskin seems to have devoted his life, not to mention his book, to proving that the man knew whereof he spoke.