Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming on a Mystery Train
by Tsaurah Litzky
“I could hear a story being written, but I didn’t know what it said, there was only the rhythm,The staccato pumping of the heart that was way faster then any human heart – more like a bird to be crushed in a fist.”
Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming (the title is taken from Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat) is a wing ding of a masterpiece surfacing from the literary underground. It was put out by Sensitive Skin Books, the radical press that is also responsible for Sensitive Skin magazine. The author of Backwards the Downed Go Dreaming, Carl Watson, has published one other novel, The Hotel of Irrevocable Acts (Unbearable Books/Autonomedia) and a collection of stories, Beneath the Empire of the Birds (Apathy Press). These books have also been published in France by Gallimard and Vagabonde Press respectively. Nonetheless, I can scarcely say, alas, that Watson is widely read. What a great, great shame, because Watson can write like an eagle flies. He knows that all surfaces are curved as the earth is curved and there is no such thing as a simple story. His vision is far reaching and his writing strong enough to carry us up and out to a place where we can breathe pure helium
For example: “Sitting over cheap local brews in roadside diners, we fantasized that people wondered who we were. We let them wonder and we wondered back. For all they knew we could be heirs to the Starkweather/Fugate heritage – highway killers reborn in passive bodies, but still bearing forth the noble momentum, the past life memories. For all we knew they could be the ones who’d gun us down on the outskirts of town. But it was that ‘wonder’ that drove Tanya and me insanely across the landscape, thinking that, if we stopped the world would stop making sense. Or maybe it would start making sense and then we would have to take responsibility for it. Or maybe we were just running out of piety.”
As the story unfolds, it appears to be a romance, a love story about the liaison between Tanya McCoy and Luc a.k.a. Frank Payne. They meet in Portland Oregon in the early seventies when she climbs in his window “but she was really looking for someone else.” (Isn’t this all too often the case?) Watson expresses his doubts that it is a love story. “I’m not even sure it was a love story. I’m not even sure that love stories exist except as models for emotional oppression.”
Mr. Watson, I need to tell you that, like the word, “safe” or the word “God,” the word “love” is an irresponsible word and that emotional oppression can be and is both good and bad. The “love” story of Tanya and Luc is as searing and memorable as any love story I have ever read and I’ve read a lot of love stories — indeed I am addicted to them, maybe because of my many failures in love. I will mercifully spare you my recollections; I prefer to talk about
Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming, a book about journeys and symbols and the open road which only appears open until you hit the brick wall around the next curve. It is also a book about the idealism of youthful desires and the search for some kind of ultimate freedom, which is itself a chimera, and it is as well a book that captures the burnt out flavor of the 70’s and the dead end of the American dream. Tanya and Luc set out seeking some kind of 60’s Utopian adventure but it is already too late — instead what they find is the cigarette butts floating in the dregs of a glass of gin and a 70’s wasteland of crash pads, lost souls and last chance saloons.
Tanya and Luc begin their journey hitching from Portland to New Orleans but eventually set out for the West Coast on a 1969 BSA Lightening motorcycle. “We took the little roads when we could, the blue highways, the diner lined routes, the 66s and the 77s. There were scorpions in our boots in the mornings, skies salted with stars, trucks like giant glowing grasshoppers in the night, naked drunks screaming in small town gas stations.” When they get to L.A. they hook up with some of Tanya’s old friends. Everywhere they go everyone wants to know about Tanya’s mother, Naomi O’Connell, “a legendary figure among Tanya’s less than legendary crowd.” Naomi knew the Beats, she had been to Woodstock, she was said to be acquainted with Norman Mailer and Gloria Steinem. Throughout the book, Naomi casts a shadow over her reckless, wild daughter as Tanya struggles to become a singer and establish her own identity. Naomi is Tanya’s cross to bear.
Out in California, while still “with” Luc, Tanya spends some time with an old boyfriend, Reggie. Because of his antics, she lands herself some jail time. Luc returns to Portland, Oregon, and takes a room in the Freeway Hotel. He meets Patsy Little Death (Watson has a genius for names) as well as a few other willing ladies and experiences his own summer of love. In a bar (where else?) he is approached by Walker Birdsong a grizzled character in green lizard cowboy boots, who may be a drunk who tries to pass himself off as a visionary and shaman or a visionary and shaman who tries to pass himself off as a drunk. Either way he talks a lot. Like Naomi, Walker is a pivotal character in the book.
When Tanya gets out of jail, she travels to Portland to find Luc and the pair go to Oregon, to Eugene, to visit Harry Sandman, Tanya’s “father.” Naomi has told Tanya that Harry is her father but that was one of the many things Naomi told her that Tanya never quite believes.
After spending some time with Harry, Tanya and Luc head for the mountains to find work in the orchards picking apples. They meet fruit tramp weirdos like Anthony Bloch who calls himself Blockhead and singing families that worked together like the Hernandez clan. Few were happy with their lot and around the campfires in the evenings disillusion raged. As Watson describes it:
“Drinking and fighting and spewing. It was a glimmer of what the world would was to become, a passing that was to take place subtly, in which we didn’t any longer live in a common tapestry of mixed fates, but an infinite number of individual productions in which the teller of the tale was also the star, and everyone’s subjective opinion mattered more than any collective destiny.”
After their time of what Watson calls the “sacrifice in the apple camps” Tanya and Luc head for Chicago. Tanya tries and fails to establish herself as a singer and the couple begins to drift apart. As I hope you will fall under the breathtaking spell of this book and want to read it for yourself, I will not detail all Tanya and Luc’s further adventures or tell you what happens at the end except to say that the mystery of Tanya’s paternity is solved and Tanya and Luc do not
marry and live unhappily ever after.
The failure of Kerouac’s classic, On the Road is, in my opinion, that there is no strong female protagonist. Watson remedies this in Backwards the Downed Go Dreaming when he gives us Tanya. She flies off the page and spits in your eye. She can shoot pool and change the oil in a motorcycle. “Tanya wasn’t one of those women who stalk the outskirts of a broken down scene bitching. She never gave thought to any physical, financial or chronological impossibilities.” I fell in love with her as, obviously does Luc.
The bedrock of this book is Luc’s memories and recollections of Tanya. So while it is a brilliant exposition about the dismal breakdowns of the seventies and the failure of the American dream, Backwards the Downed Go Dreaming is even more powerful when understood as a study of the power and importance of memory and recollection, a study of the way certain events and memories always remain as magnets, focal points in our lives.
This is how we develop our personal archetypes; i.e. whenever Luc hears a Janis Joplin song, whenever he hears a bottle breaking “down the haunted halls of the long hotel of mounting recollections,” he thinks of Tanya. Our memories are with us throughout life and attract other events to them; memory crosses and re-crosses the lines between imagination and recollection. (While I was first reading the book I was overcome with memories of the man I have loved for the forty years since we were together. Not at all surprisingly, he suddenly paid me a visit. You have probably guessed: we bungled it again.) Memories are part of all our stories and some say memories determine who you will become. Backwards the Downed Go Dreaming is a meditation on the way memories keep haunting us. Try as we may to exorcise them with drugs, booze and/or sex, there is no escape, no way out, no way to avoid the inevitable, unanswerable, existential question.
Skillfully adopting William Blake’s famous line, “What is the price of experience?” Walker asked: “’Do men buy it for a song?’ He shoved his face towards my face, ‘or wisdom for a dance on the street?’ Then he got up and stalked off.”
Jung would have approved of Backwards the Downed Go Dreaming replete as it is with archetypical situations and characters, such as Naomi, Walker Birdsong, the washed up hippie radicals, Jack Starkweather Algiers and Ruby Tuesday Beauvoir.
I believe Jim Jarmusch would like this book too. When I was reading it, I sometimes felt like I was in a Jarmusch movie, in part because of the book’s eccentricity, picaresque episodic quality, off beat characters, and lunatic humor. Both Jarmusch and Watson succeed in capturing the dystoptian character of the seventies, as well as tell a living, breathing hell of a road story. At the same time and perhaps most importantly, they triumph gloriously when they ruminate on the meaning, the importance of memory and recollection. I particularly thought of Jarmusch’s 1989 movie, Mystery Train. The earnestness of Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase as they wandered the nighttime streets of Memphis, searching for the ghosts of the sixties (mainly Elvis), reminded me of Tanya and Luc.
In writing Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming Carl Watson has written a phenomenal book that will interest anyone who is interested in the human condition, anyone who is interested in the powers of memory and recollection, anyone who still asks the question – why?
Watson reminds us that it can be both a sustaining lesson and a pleasure to remember.
“Still it’s good to be back, I said to myself, raising a glass to toast the indifferent universe, and Tanya, too. The jukebox helped me out by playing an appropriate pop song about the indifferent universe. A thin sheet of light cracked the afternoon dust. The light spread out into a greenish fan. A silhouette broke across it.”