Thursday, 22 October 2009

cassowary and suicide on holiday

contemplating suicide
Originally uploaded by Scratchin Dog.
"Perhaps he found what he came here for, but the odds are huge that he didn't. He was an old, sick and very troubled man, and the illusion of peace and contentment was not enough for him... So finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun."
'What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?', pg. 395 in "The Great Shark Hunt" by Hunter S Thompson

So Hunter finished his piece about Ernest Hemingway's final days in Ketchum, Idaho. He could well have been writing about himself. On February 20th 2005 Hunter shot himself in the head at his home 'Owl Farm' in Woody Creek, Colorado. I have just finished rereading the long and rabid collection of his early work "The Great Shark Hunt" and it has sent me back to that hot summer holiday in Australia when I first heard the news of his death.

We flew into Cairns in mid-Feb 2005. A smart beautiful English mathematician I used to live with was visiting Australia and we took this opportunity to stay in a friend's holiday house on Etty Bay. From the airport we picked up a small red rental car and headed south through the flat stretches of sugar cane country. The heat of Tropical North Queensland shimmered over the roads creating mirage pools of water ahead that you never arrived at. Along the dust at the side of the roads were numerous stalls offering every kind of tropical fruit imaginable. Just past Innisfall we took a left and headed for the ocean and soon wound our way down to an arc of sand surrounded on all sides by dense tropical vegetation. There was not much there - a small shop and a surf club. At the shop we picked up the keys from a one armed man with leathery skin and perpetual squint. He pointed us towards a gap in the trees and up a short steep dirt road we found our holiday house - a squat concrete building with cyclone shutters pulled down over two sides. It hunkered down amongst a fecund, almost threatening abundance of plant life.

Inside was a basic beach house with a main room that could be opened to the elements by rolling up the shutters, a couple of bedrooms and a bathroom. The floor was tiled and designed to be hosed out when too much sand had been walked inside. Across the ceiling were lines of meandering dots where vines had grown in and attached their roots before being pulled away. The air was full of insects and the noises of insects and other creatures unseen. We dumped our gear into the house and changed for the beach. It was off season, so the beach was practically deserted of people. Warning signs, however, were plentiful. There was a large rectangular swimming zone surrounded by nets that were meant to keep stingers at bay. A variety of poisonous jellyfish are populous in these waters - the stings ranging from irritating, through painful to deadly. A plastic bottle of vinegar is permanently placed below the life saving ring at the top of the beach as a first treatment for stings. The nets also help keep out sharks, and caution was to be taken at the creeks at each end of the beach where crocodiles were not unknown. Poisonous spiders and snakes were also common, though those at least, I was used to.

What I was not used to was the cassowary - a couple of which we immediately met in the car park on the way to the beach. These are a huge kind of flightless bird - the third largest, and second heaviest in the world. The kind of bird you only usually experience in nightmares or whilst caught on acid in a turkey pen. They can stand up to 2m tall and weight 70kg. Their long necks are a violent blue and they sport a thick bony horn like protrusion on their head above their thuggish red eyes. Their feet are composed of three large claws - the middle one particularly savage - which they can use to disembowel whatever they find threatening and in their way. And the problem is whilst they are physically huge, their brains are very small, mean and vicious. Very much like that of inbred conservative politicians in remote country areas where unwary travelers can disappear without a trace. It is the same kind of glazed dumb eyes that assess the world in terms of food, fuck, fight or flight - and when I gazed into those eyes I backed away and didn't even try to get the camera out. They unnerved me - monster mutant chickens with a chip on their shoulder about every mcnugget that has ever been eaten.

Yet the sand was white and clean, the water near body temperature which is the only way I like it. I floated, and swam to the nets and back, and floated more and let the summer Queensland sun lick my arc-light-white body into redness. On the walk back to the house was a stretch of road where the trees on each side made a canopy overhead and a stagnant creek ran along the side. We soon discovered that it was a mosquito infested tunnel of hell where walking would guarantee you at least a dozen bites. There was no option but to wrap a towel around as much exposed flesh as possible and run like buggery to get back into the light where you could slap yourself all over in some fiendish high-speed mockery of an Austrian dance. I soon found it also helped to keep your blood alcohol level as high as possible to potentially stun the evil fuckers once they took their first sip of blood. Once back at the house, however, with the mosquito repellant on, mosquito coils burning, and thick clouds of intoxicating smoke spiraling around your head, it was possible to relax reading books until the tiredness came upon you and you slept the sweat drenched tropical sleep of the Heart of Darkness.

Each night it was important to take the rubbish of the day down to the sealed bin in the car park. If you didn't, the whole thing would be ripped apart in the night by possums, rats, bush turkeys and a dozen other denizens of the night that you could hear, but not see until you came face-to-face with them on the kitchen counter. And whilst possums look cute in daylight, something about stumbling out bleary eyed to face off with a arrogant marsupial making devil noises through its yellow teeth at 2am isn't worth encouraging. So on the third night I dosed myself with repellant, finished my joint and picked up the rubbish to make the dash through the mosquito corridor. The corridor was only about 40m long and straight - but very dark and totally infested. I picked my way over the rocks and around the curve to the beginning of the straight, then broke into a fast run. About two thirds the way along I collided heavily with something solid, soft and covered in course feathers. For the next long 5 seconds the world was nothing but my screaming mixed with a high pitched banshee squawking and a rain of garbage coming down as both me and the cassowary ran randomly around in the dark finding anyway away from each other. I heard it crashing into the foliage of the creek as I rounded the bend back to the house. That garbage had made it far enough that night and it took much scotch and sedative smoking before I regained any semblance of control which was mostly hysterical hyper-ventilating laughter.

We had brought no laptops or music systems and had to make to with the local radio station which played the usual round of cheap music and adverts for agricultural suppliers. The band Green Day had just released their latest hit 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' and it was being played on high repeat - it seemed once for every four other songs. Despite not even liking the song, it became the defacto anthem of the trip through repetition. We would start singing along with it without even thinking... "I walk a lonely road, the only one that I have ever known. Don't know where it goes, but it's home to me and I walk alone." And I think it was after one such playing that the news came on and delivered the news of Hunter's suicide. The pithy words of the song for a moment seemed to hold some meaning, though of course they didn't, and I was thrown into contemplation of the death of a literary hero of mine. I cannot remember exactly what I was thinking back then, but having just finished 'The Great Shark Hunt' again, I have been drawn back into contemplation of what I think of him, his mythical persona and his writings.

And a week later, with copious notes and hours spent mulling what I think I am no closer to finishing this damn blog entry. One thread follows the style of writing where the journalist is a character in his own work. The role is made explicit - and with Hunter - even mythical. The style is in opposition with 'objective' reporting that still makes up the mainstream of contemporary journalism - a style dedicated to 'telling it how it is' or 'just the facts'. The years I have spent contemplating the more corrosive side of philosophy (corrosive to the concept of attaining simple value-free 'facts') have made me wary of this style of journalism. 'Objectivity' too easily is a cover for unstated bias and subjectivity. The value of injecting the journalist into the story explicitly is that usually you can tell from what perspective the story is being written from. Did anyone ever wonder what Hunter really thought of Richard Milhouse Nixon? Philosophically speaking - I see no problem with subjectivity - especially when it is explicit. Partly related is Hunter's use of his contacts. He knew many people, from all walks of politics, and was not afraid of quoting them verbatim (nearly always taping his interviews) and naming his sources. Every second opinion or 'quote' in today's papers are from unnamed or anonymous sources - with all the abuse to truth and accountability that comes with that. However, I have not been able to expand upon this thread coherently.

Another thread concerned a corollary of injecting yourself into a story - that you end up writing about yourself. I think most people would concede that writing objectively about yourself is nearly a contradiction in terms. Our everyday lives involves projecting a persona into the world, and writing about yourself is projecting yet another persona. In this sense Hunter reminds me of another two authors I respect, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. In each of their works - the author is loosely represented through a persona that is a hyper-real fictionalization of themselves. Miller hams up the sex in his works, Bukowski the alcoholism, Hunter the drugs and violence. Each is deeply concerned to project the individualist freedom of their self-characters. And in each case they were criticized for 'making stuff up' about themselves. And in each case, they experienced problems when people expected them as people to confirm more to their fictional characterizations of themselves. I remember the photos run by Playboy of an elderly Miller playing ping pong with a naked buxom young woman. Photos of a over-weght Bukowski climbing into a box car to represent his homeless drifting (though he never rode in a boxcar) and his famous acting the belligerent buffoon at university readings. In a 1978 interview with the BBC Hunter said: "I'm never sure which one people expect me to be. Very often, they conflict - most often, as a matter of fact. ...I'm leading a normal life and right along side me there is this myth, and it is growing and mushrooming and getting more and more warped. When I get invited to, say, speak at universities, I'm not sure if they are inviting Duke or Thompson. I'm not sure who to be."

And yet - when they were not writing about themselves - there seems to be a honesty of purpose or truthfulness running through-out their work. Each in their own way writes in a humanitarian way that seems counter the male-centric bravado of their personas. And perhaps the key to this seeming conflict of perspectives is the fierce anti-authoritarian that each author espoused. In siding against authority, they tended to side with those who are the natural enemy of authority. Those without power or position, the poor, the oppressed, those that want to be left alone to drink or take drugs without harassment. I wouldn't want to draw too many parallels between these authors on this thin thread. Many would contest my opinion of Miller or Bukowski as humanitarian writers - there are plenty who would write both off as misogynists and leave the argument there. Being labeled a misogynist is like being labeled a racist, or anti-semite - in some circles it is case closed - there can be nothing good about the writer. And I'm too tired to try and fight those battles, too tired to even have a firm opinion on them. I will stand with the anti-authoritarian nature of their writing and leave it there for others to draw conclusions from that. All authors have plenty in their writing to offend you if you are looking to be offended. All I would say is that there is also plenty in their writing to be uplifted by, if you are looking to be uplifted.

In contrast to being uplifted, I was also thinking about three books that produced strongly negative reactions in me. I remember reading 'Disgrace' by J. M. Coetzee that put me in a depressive angry funk for a week. The mathematician I went on holiday with highly recommended reading 'Broom of the System' by David Foster Wallace, one of the few books I have hurled across the room after finishing. And finally one of the books I read whilst on that holiday in Queensland, 'Something Happened' by Joseph Heller. Nearly 600 pages of waiting for Something to Happen which it only does in the last 10 pages and leaves a bitter resentful taste in the mouth. Each of these books are rightfully acclaimed as fine pieces of literature - but I hated them at the time and have no desire to return there. Strange how it works... Like how my memory of that holiday long ago as been pinned into my personal chronology with a unusual degree of clarity by the death of Hunter S Thompson.


Deepwarren said...

Didn't you read 'Disgrace' on the roadtrip to Innaminka? I thought that it, and 'Sorry' by Jack Marx where the reading material for that trip. Or it could be just what I read. I was reduced to pinching other people's books on that trip, cause I had run out of reading matter (or didn't bring any). Could that be possible?

You probably scared that cassowary as much as he scared you. Strangly enough male cassowaries, for all their small brains, look after the chicks for about a year until they can survive by themselves.

estd1869 said...

Nicely written Ross. Can't say I ever identified Bukowski's humanitarianism. He seemed to hate himself - did he love others? But he wrote well at times also! Enjoyed your account of the tropics.