Friday, April 15, 2011

5 Most Badass Modern Writers

Look, a lot of us writers are--how do I put this--limp-wristed nancy boys. Simply no getting around that. There's a reason that when most people imagine a sterotypical poet they flash to some pale, Keatsian dandy, half in love with easeful death and all that.

But not all of us (I still am though. Oh god, am I a limp-wristed nancy boy). Here are five 20th-century poets and fiction writers who should make us all ashamed of our testicles and how little we have proven ourselves worthy of them.
These are the men who would have written Roosevelt's odes.
(Also, Col. Rondon, to the right there? Pretty much a Native American version of Roosevelt)

#5: Antoine Saint-Exupery
Fighter pilots are badass, right?
For starters, Saint-Exupery has the credentials of making every single one of us cry. Yeah, he's the guy who did The Little Prince. Yes, it's an adorable kid's book. But it's also, for a lot of kids, the first book that introduces some incredibly dark stuff to literature: the ambiguous death of its protagonist, the failure to maintain a relationship, the freedom of oblivion, the stupidity of routine. The moment when the Prince realizes that taming the fox he loves would change it so utterly he could not love it remains, I think, one of the most powerful moments in literature.

But St.-Exupery has credentials galore as a certified ubermensch--even though he was French. You know how in The Little Prince our narrator begins the story in a plane crash in the Sahara? That's true. Antoine was a lifelong pilot and airplane enthusiast, and at one point he crashed in the largest desert on earth, sustained himself with a handful of fruit and a bottle of wine (but of course!), and hitched his way out with a wandering trader on the back of a camel.
I surrender my respect to this man.
He later, despite being exempt from the draft due to his status as a writer, volunteered for the French Air Force after the outbreak of World War II, reasoning that a Nazi victory would annihilate everything he had devoted himself to. His writings from this period are wonderful--absolutely dripping with disgust both for the authoritarian powers of Europe and the spineless civilians who wouldn't stand up to them. Also, a lot of lines like "when I landed with my plain full of bulletholes, I like to relax with a glass of Pernod," which is simultaneously the most badass and most French thing ever. When France was conquered, he defected from the Vichy government, calling them "collaborationist worms," and joined the Free French Army (Le Resistance), flying volunteer recon missions with his own plane. He disappeared in 1944, presumably shot down (more than presumably, since chunks of his plane have been found at sea) in the service of freedom.

Coincidentally, I was in Paris last winter and happened to, without looking on it, stumble upon Saint-Exupery's memorial plaque (no body was ever found). It seems unlikely that I could just accidentally find it, but, well, it's in the Pantheon, the burial hall of French Heroes. Like Mme. Curie. And the leaders of the French Resistance. And Joan of Arc.
"Cette machine tue des Fascistes."
Most Badass Book: Barring The Little Prince, which is his undisputed masterpiece, it's probably the posthumously collected War Writings.

#4: D.H. Lawrence
"Bloody 'ell, there's another protester out there. And I just got the blood out of my beard."
For starters, Lawrence is the guy who pretty much grabbed the literary establishment by the throat and didn't let go until it agreed to stop being an uptight prick and start getting laid. Without his willingness to write about dicks waving about and the like the work of later, rebellious writers (Burroughs, Ginsberg, all the other guys who say fuck a whole bunch) wouldn't have happened.

Lawrence grew up in pretty much the most badass location of the Western world short of, say, the horrifying parts of Scotland (that'd be where Ian Banks is from)--a bleak, continually-depressed, Northern coal-mining town. His father was (of course) a coal miner, making the young Lawrence's life like a version of Billy Elliot with sodomy and modernism instead of ballet.
"Nay, nay! Fuck's only what you do! But cunt's a lot more than that; 'tis thee!"
During World War I, when he had already established himself as a writer, he was literally chased out of the country by the military under the rationale that his work was so vulgar that it counted as treason. He spent the rest of his life in what he termed "The Savage Pilgrimage:" a nonstop tour of violence, drinking, fighting, sex (almost certainly with both genders), painting, and pissing off moral guardians. The man lived the way most people dream about crazy artists living, and he did it (unlike Pete Doherty, Van Gogh, Rimaud, Baudelaire, Basquiat, Iggy Pop, Behan, or I can go on and name a few dozen more here) without compromising his genius, instead using his life like sandpaper to sharpen it to an absolutely deadly edge.

Also, can I make a final comment about the gay affair thing? Now, I don't think that in any way having gay sex makes someone less of a man--I think Rob Halford and Freddy Mercury proved that pretty conclusively. What I do think, though, is that when you describe your "perfect love" as being a teenage affair with a Northern coal-miner and state that your homosexual tendencies are a result of your greatness...well, it seems like the only thing I can take from that is that Lawrence was just too much of a man to have sex with a woman without destroying her.
"He was never gay...Larry used to say 'fuckin' females is for poofs.'"
Jesus, I love Layer Cake.
Most Badass Book: Almost certainly Lady Chatterley's Lover, if for no other reason than it's the one that enraged the most people. And had the hardest-core sex.

#3: Yukio Mishima
This might be a good time to mention that "badass" doesn't necessarily translate to "sane" or "admirable."
Oh hell yeah. I love any chance I can get to talk about Mishima--a writer I first discovered when reading the Wikipedia entry on "seppuku." Small, stuttering and sickly from a young age, Mishima became obsessed early in his life with the notion of perfection: both desperately trying to attain physical perfection by non-stop, relentless training, and an unhealthy fascination with the destruction of perfection. Over and over in his works, his protagonists are destroying that which they love out of hate for it (often including themselves). Also, he said that he got his first erection from a painting of the suffering of Saint Sebastian, which--okay, not sure if this falls more on the crazy or badass side of the line, but it's definitely something.
Like Lawrence, Mishima also had affairs with men, and for even more badass/crazy reasons (beyond the fact that he was attracted to them, obviously). Towards the end of his life, Mishima became more and more fixated on feudal Japan and the Bushido code of the samurai (including the gay parts of that code). He took up swordsmanship, became more and more involved in the ancient rituals, and devoted himself and his art to attaining the highest form of perfection possible.
Close, if The RZA had been nominated for the Nobel Prize 3 times.
No, seriously. I am not kidding with this whole samurai thing. And then, as if honing himself into an unstoppable death machine just for the satisfaction of it weren't enough, he built an army. No lie. The government of Japan let him and his squadron of handsome young ultranationalists, the Shield Society, practice on military grounds. And then everyone suddenly found out how crazy he was.

In 1975, his small army took the defense minister of Japan hostage in his office and called for rebuilding the Japanese army, throwing off American Imperialism, and re-embracing the honor of ancient Japan. When this failed (because the whole samurai thing wasn't exactly a hip concept in the 70's, and also because of Hiroshima), he ended his life in the only possible way that would make sense: straight-up seppuku, complete with decapitation.

There are a lot of people (me included) who think the politics were incidental to the event--that Mishima's obsession with self-destruction had come full circle and he was trying to die with dignity. Whether he was crazy and quasi-fascist or crazy and suicidal, though, we can all agree few artists have burned that hard and exploded that loud, and there's something to be said for that.
I'm not sure if he's an artist or a Street Fighter character.
Most Badass Book: Toss-up. The Sea of Fertility tetralogy is the collection that explores his themes the most: every book is centered around marshal achievement, destruction, and suicide. Sun and Steel, which he mailed to his publisher the day of his death, is an absolutely beautiful explanation of his personal philosophy and his life, making it clear that his politics were more philosophy than crazy fascism. Paul Schrader's film Mishima: A Life in Four Acts is also an incredible introduction to the man and four of his major works.

#2: Ernest Hemingway
Gonna be honest, I was debating leaving Hemingway off this list. Not for a lack of badass-ness, but for two reasons. 1) You likely know how badass he was, and 2) I'm not the hugest fan of his writing. But, the man deserves his spot here and I'm gonna try to do it justice.

Wrote about bull-fighting, hunting, fishing, World War I, shooting, fighting, and drinking, and wrote about them because he practiced all of them in profusion. Was a veteran of the French theater of WWI. Second only to Teddy Roosevelt in his love of going to Africa and shooting literally everything. Decided to essentially give American fiction ball-enhancement surgery and didn't use adjectives because they were for girls. Had a long-standing feud with William Faulkner, a man with a gigantic stockpile of guns, horses, and whiskey.
Yes, he was 5'4" and a momma's boy, but he was definitely classier than Ernest.
He invented a cocktail that was at least 30% absinthe (usually around 60 percent alcohol), and advised sipping "three to five" over the course of an afternoon, to relax. When he wasn't fishing or shooting things, he rigged his fishing boat to be able to hunt Nazi submarines. Granted, there weren't exactly a lot of U-boats off the coast of Florida, but still. It's the thought--the crazy, crazy thought so high on testosterone it might as well be mescaline--that counts.

When Hemingway's wife spent a fortune on installing a swimming pool (which they couldn't put water in) while he was off, I think covering the Spanish Civil War or something, his response was to go to his favorite bar, take one of their urinals out of the wall (the building was condemned), throw it into the lawn, and scream that it was a swimming pool for his cats and she'd better keep her goddamned hands off it. If you go to his house it's still there. She put tiles on it to make it look classy.

When he killed himself, he did it with a shotgun to the head. He used both barrels. Presumably because he knew it would take both.

Most Badass Book: Honestly, just pick up any of them. Hemingway was not a man who dealt in restraint. The Sun Also Rises is, of course, incredible, but almost any work of his that's based on parts of his own life will be dripping with testosterone.

#1: William T. Vollmann
Vollmann has one thing going for him that elevates him to the top of this list: he's a contemporary writer. This is important for two reasons: one, it shows that you don't need to have survived a World War or only exist in black and white photos in order to be badass. Two, it demonstrates that somehow, for reasons unknown to God or man, the man is somehow still alive.

Vollmann got his start when he went over and reported on the Afghanistan War. Now, I know what you're thinking-- "come on, they let frickin' Sarah Palin go visit Afghanistan if she wants, that's not badass." You're wrong, but that's really my fault. I should have been more specific. I meant the Soviet war in Afghanistan. In 1982 he illegally hopped the border from Pakistan, lived with a local arms smuggler, traveled with a Mujaheddin cell while they fought Soviet soldiers, and toured war zones, mass graves, and bomb craters. He was 23.
Significantly less of a nerd, now that we know that.
While touring the world, writing about violence, morality, and sex, Vollmann has interviewed the various people, among others:
  • Khun Sa, a Burmese warlord known as the "Opium King," who was almost totally responsible for about 90% of the heroin in Australia and America (the first American to do so).
  • A general of the Khmer Rouge, in a Khmer base in the Cambodian jungles.
  • The leader of the New York Guardian Angels vigilante organization.
  • Taliban officials in 2001 Afghanistan.
  • High-ranking Yakuza members, including the second-in-command of the Sumiyoshi-kai, the second-largest family.
He was in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War and drank vodka with Serbian militia--commenting that everyone in Sarajevo is pale because when you are in the sunlight, a sniper can see you. He has been the passenger in a moving car when its driver, a friend of his, was shot and killed. He has smoked crack "maybe a hundred times", dropped acid, chewed qat leaves constantly throughout a journey through Yemen, and toured more war zones than I have states.
I will bet you like twenty bucks that field is either a mass grave or full of heroin.
Here's my favorite Vollmann story. When touring Thailand with a friend, he kept telling their drivers they were interested in girls. "No, no," said Vollmann. "I'm especially interested in very young girls," and then he would wink. Eventually their driver took them to a brothel whose owner also controlled the local government, police force, and a boatload of guns. Vollmann found the youngest, most abused girl in the building.

And then he essentially stole her. He smuggled her out at night, got her past the armed guards, hid her in his car past police patrols, who had been told he kidnapped her, and paid for her enrollment in a school for girls who have survived abuse.
He's like a combination of David Foster Wallace and Daredevil.
One of his books, The Ice-Shirt, is set during a 19th-century expedition to the Arctic Circle. When researching it, he realized he'd never known real cold. So he went and camped out at the North Pole for a couple of weeks, just to see what it was like. If you look at contemporary photos, you'll see he has no eyebrows. That's because his stove exploded. His first stove. He kept camping for a while afterward.

Most Badass Book: For his fiction, it's his first novel, You Bright And Risen Angels, a Burroughs-meets-Pynchon style narrative of the war between insects, electricity, and the establishment of Industrial Power in America. There's a scene where a Kindergarten teacher executes "counter-revolutionaries and VERY BAD MEN!" with an uzi in front of her class. For his nonfiction, it's volumes V and VI of Rising Up and Rising Down, which chronicle his travels through the world in search of answers to why we keep hurting each other.


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