September 2011

Kathleen Reeves

features

Perishable but Never Ending: Great Jones Street Then and Now

[A couple of months ago an online design and culture magazine called Sight Unseen set up a pop-up shop on Great Jones Street, boasting the likes of “Plumen light bulbs by Hulger, thread-wrapped hand mirrors by Grain, blankets by Suki Cheema, pillows by Eskayel, ceramic pencil holders by Jason Rosenberg and painted vintage lamp fixtures by Jonah Takagi.”]

I spent the spring writing about Don DeLillo’s 1973 novel Great Jones Street, which is attentive, in its way, to interior design. Bucky Wunderlick, the protagonist, takes stock of his apartment, which may well have been a stone’s throw from the thread-wrapped hand mirrors above:

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... The knife stood in the empty jar, blade up. The unwound clock was on its back in the bottom of the closet, helpless as an insect, legs in the air, winding key partly dislodged.

Forgive me for becoming completely obsessed with Don DeLillo while writing my master’s thesis on him this spring. As lovers of Don know, reading him is like seeing the world through rose-colored lenses, if “rose” were a color you’d never seen before. Reading DeLillo is like stepping into a closet in your hallway that turns out to contain an entire, gorgeous weird world. DeLillo’s world is like the fantastic, tattooed closet room inversion of the world we live in. You go in, you don’t come out.

I read Great Jones Street for the first time last November, and then read it for the rest of the winter and analyzed it, mostly, by inspecting its sentences over and over.

They were free of old saints and martyrs, but painfully so, left with their own unlabeled flesh.

My interest in the human body in Great Jones Street may have grown out of the very material circumstances of my involvement with the novel. I pay greater than average attention to the physical properties of my DeLillo novels. I float in and out of used book stores looking for just the right copy. I’m still waiting for the right copy of Americana and The Names. I caved and bought a terrible copy of Great Jones Street, with corporate clip-art images of a syringe and an airplane on the cover, resembling a fact sheet about addiction or a brochure for travel insurance. Happily, the text feels preserved, original. The font is large and raw and kind of wild.

DeLillo has said that he pays attention to the visual, spatial properties of words. In an interview with Adam Begley in 1993, in response to a question about how he comes up with plots, DeLillo got very quickly to sentences and words:

the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look... I’m completely willing to let language press its meaning upon me. Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence -- these are sensuous pleasures.

While I was reading and rereading Great Jones Street I walked every day past Great Jones Street, up and down Bowery, between the subway and the building where I work. Sometimes, on my lunch hour, I walked down the block where the novel’s protagonist lives. When I was having a petty and self-absorbed morning I would turn down Great Jones and take off my headphones and put myself in an attitude of reverence toward the mind that mined this neighborhood so diligently and to such devastating effect.

The novel’s setting is especially specific because Great Jones Street is so short; it runs only two blocks, from Bowery to Lafayette to Broadway. The end. Elsewhere, it’s 3rd Street. So when I stood on the corner of Bowery and Great Jones, I saw the whole thing, and somewhere there was the apartment of Bucky Wunderlick, Great Jones Street’s hero.

So I walked up and down Great Jones Street. I stood in front of the firehouse that Bucky watches from his hermitage, and which spurs a particularly strange meditation that is one of my favorite scenes in the book:

The room behind me was dark. I thought of opening the window and shouting:

Fire! Hey, fire!”

The great doors of the firehouse would slowly come open. I’d get a glimpse of the big machine, fire-engine red, rigged with shiny appliances. Then tiny men in black booties would appear, edging out onto the sidewalk, lifting their beady eyes to my window.

“Fire!” I’d shout. “Hey, fire, fire!”

One small man would take several steps forward, moving into the light shed by a streetlamp. He’d tug at his booties for a second. Then he’d look back up at my window.

“Water,” he would say, barely above a whisper.

A moment would pass and then his little comrades, standing all around him now, would commence whispering, as if by prearranged signal:

“Water, water, water, water, water.”

Finally all the tiny men would return to the firehouse and the vaulted doors would slowly close behind them.

This is Engine Company 33, Ladder Company 9, at 42 Great Jones Street, and it’s the only building marked on DeLillo’s sketch of the area, which is tucked under the front cover of the novel’s manuscript, at the Ransom Center archives in Austin, Texas. Along with David Foster Wallace’s papers, which have gotten a lot of attention recently, the Ransom Center also houses DeLillo’s typewritten drafts, notes (including newspaper clippings), research (often quite extensive, as for Ratner’s Star, Libra, and Underworld), and letters. The DFW Mystique is strong in the DeLillo files; the two corresponded for ten years starting in 1992, beginning with a letter in which Wallace apologizes for violating DeLillo’s privacy, assures him that he “had to go pretty grotesque lengths” to get DeLillo’s address, and tells DeLillo that his books “inform my heart and my work, inspire me in the very best sense of ‘inspire.’” DFW sent DeLillo a Christmas card in 1995, with a 16th-century-ish Virgin and Child on the cover and inside the message, “May love and peace and joy abide. Amen.” Wallace had written, in all caps,

Don – Thank you for your kind letter. I appreciate your taking the time to write to me this fall. I hope your Christmas is peaceful. W/ every respect, David Wallace

He also circled the Hallmark insignia on the envelope flap with black marker.

I wrote my thesis about materiality in End Zone and Great Jones Street, DeLillo’s second and third novels. I was especially interested in the body, which is by turns gruesome, beautiful, and strange in the novels, especially in Great Jones Street. Hosting a party for burned-out, broke artists and freaks, the refugees of the '60s with “bad teeth, smudged fingers” and “horrible posture,” Bucky imagines

the inner organs in the room... apart from the people they belonged to. For that moment of thought we seemed a convocation of martyrs, visible behind our skin. The room was a cell in a mystical painting, full of divine kidneys, lungs aloft in smoke, entrails gleaming, bladders simmering in painless fire. This was a madman’s truth, to paint us as sacs and flaming lariats, nearly godly in our light, perishable but never ending.

This imagery leans heavily on a famous passage from Teresa of Ávila’s autobiography, a vision in which a seraphim pierces the saint’s “entrails” with a fire-tipped spear. All this physicality has a counterpart in the setting. Bucky says of Great Jones Street,

Its materials were in fact its essence and this explains the ugliness of every inch. But it wasn’t a final squalor. Some streets in their decline possess a kind of redemptive tenor, the suggestion of new forms about to evolve, and Great Jones was one of these, hovering on the edge of self-revelation. Paper, yarn, leathers, tools, buckles, wire-frame-and-novelty.

The signs of commerce Bucky saw -- “shipping and receiving, export packaging, custom tanning” -- have given way to the Great Jones Spa and an Au Bon Pain. There’s also an expensive restaurant, two expensive home-design stores, an expensive upholstery and fabric store, actually three expensive home-design stores, a Japanese speakeasy called “Bohemian”, a fashion consultancy, and, within a half a mile, another Au Bon Pain and three Chase banks. In short, Manhattan. The urban decay that DeLillo brings untamed to the page -- “two feeble men” wrestling “quietly,” a woman “bundled in pounds of rags,” the “luxuriant gash” in a homeless man’s thumb -- the crumbling buildings and bodies that made downtown Manhattan feel “like a community in the Middle Ages,” as DeLillo put it -- is gone from the area, with only a few hard-knock folks, from the nearby Bowery Mission or Catholic Worker house, remaining. (I recently witnessed one of these, a short, unshaven man in dirty sneakers and an oversized T-shirt, adding his testimony to a small tour going on outside the John Varvatos store on Bowery. The guide was saying, “…which stands for Country, Bluegrass, Blues…” “It was right there,” the man said with a tinge of pride or nostalgia, half-turning and pointing to John Varvatos, moving fast.)

In the novel, the ruin of downtown Manhattan is redeemed by its very palpability, even when it verges on the grotesque. At the party with the artsy woebegones, the literally starving artists, Bucky touches one of the guests: “I leaned over and touched her arm. Therefore I am.”

Wallace claimed not to share DeLillo’s preoccupation with the physical properties of words, which he called “real interesting” though he “identified with them not one whit.” (“My eyesight’s really bad anyway,” he added.) But he had lucky objects or relics like the rest of us. On the back of an envelope mailed on September 6, 1996, Wallace wrote (again in caps), “PS- I got your 9/4 letter on my way to the mailbox to mail this. It made my month. Now I’ll mail this on the way to the laminator...”

What is in this impulse to preserve? Touching something reminds us of other things. DeLillo’s letter, laminated and set on Wallace’s desk or taped to his wall, reminded the younger writer about writerly discipline, or perseverance, maybe. Perishable but never ending, Bucky thinks of the bodies in the room, in a crumbling building in a plagued neighborhood. In the second draft of the novel, DeLillo fussed over “never ending,” typing it as one word at the top of a page, and then x-ing it out, letter by letter. Below it, he retyped the paragraph with the word broken up. neverending. never ending.

Do writers still correspond on actual paper? Will the “papers” of the writers of my generation be papers at all?

A Times reviewer panned the novel, finding Bucky unbelievable and the other characters “beyond redemption.” She gave DeLillo demerits for his “failure” to conjure the “rock and drug world,” which, she claims, is his intention. But if DeLillo “intends” to conjure anything, it’s not a scene but a city, which rises through Great Jones Street from the ground up, as when, in the novel’s last scene, two women “wearing plastic liners over their hats, coats and shoes” announce the debris that they pass on the sidewalk:

NEWSPAPER VOMIT SHIT GLASS CARDBOARD BOTTLE SHIT SPIT NEWSPAPER GLASS SHIT GARBAGE BOTTLE CARTON BOTTLE PAPER STOCKING SHIT GARBAGE SHIT GARBAGE GARBAGE SHIT

The novel, a meditation on the specific physicality of downtown New York, ends at downtown’s end, the Battery, where Bucky has a vision of Manhattan that’s reminiscent of Nick Carraway’s vision of Long Island in the final pages of The Great Gatsby:

Harbors reveal a city's power, its lust for money and filth, but strangely through the haze what I distinguished first was the lone mellow promise of an island, tender retreat from straight lines, an answering sea-mound.

For DeLillo, both the earth and the junk on it are sacred, and they both somehow redeem a city sunk into urban decay. In 2011, Great Jones Street is no longer a post-industrial slum, and I can call up chapters of Great Jones Street online. For this reason, DeLillo’s early-'70s unearthing of the city seems just as relevant now, or moreso. Paper, paperless; prospering, crashing, prospering: through boom and bust, under new condos, stores, wireless signals, and satellites, the earth abides. (For now.)