Page 6


Don’t Move: A Memoir By Steve Barthelme Austin Looking back \(we discourage looking that they’ve been a good 14 years, and that they have been this way for one quite simple reason finding one’s niche. Yes, the life of the ne’er-do-well. Failure is a rich and fertile field relatively unexplored except by our novelists who insist on failing in such grand and grandiloquent terms that their failures are useless to the rest of us. I mean, who cares, really, about his identity? Sophomores. Early on the ne’er-do-well should be distinguished from the derelict. In romantic moments, I used to fancy myself a derelict, with stubble and eyes streaked in red, tubercular and twitching, filthy dirty and splashed across a four-page full color spread in Vogue’ with Jean Shrimpton in tow. How the ladies do like violation! But clearly this is not the case, so clearly in fact that I have relinquished the term altogether. A derelict has a lot of integrity and pathos and things of that kind, things I’m sure which are sticky and obvious, things which you can’t rid yourself of \(if Albuquerque. A derelict usually has a bottle of cheap whiskey and an old coat, neither of which I have ever felt much attraction toward except at parties where there are inevitably many bottles of whiskey which the host resents your taking with you. And if you have an old coat, you have to stand around outdoors a lot, and I hate the cold like nothing else. DERELICTS inevitably, too, have some sort of tragic past, something I can’t manage, unless you count the nuns on the worry about things like nuns, they tend to have real problems. They also have a kind of vulgar authenticity like that of the zealot, but the value of authenticity, clearly, has been blown all out of proportion in recent years. Just as failure is a richer phenomenon than success in the great majority of cases, so the fraud outshines the real. If reality were all that sweet, who would bother with fantasy? Further on the subject of derelicts, derelicts tend not to have any money, which is a pain in the ass, and which one finds oneself unable to support as a continual condition. Life without money, as my old friend Anita Bryant is fond of saying, is like a day without sunshine. Who needs it? The only thing worse than not having any money is looking like you don’t have any money, because then you’re just about cut off from getting any. No one ever accepts a hot check from a wino, but a clean shirt and a Texas driver’s license America trusts you. Now the life of the ne’er-do-well is more complicated today than it was 50 years ago. Don’t you know. The basic new element in the life of the hardcore ne’er-do-well is the proliferation of other ne’er-do-wells crowding up the act. They are actually more bush league derelicts than pure ne’er-do-wells, but it’s not a distinction the public makes easily. The bush leaguers themselves often fail to distinguish between the two, actually quite different, fields. A particularly resistant strain of imitation has arisen, conveniently described by the term “committed”; which means, basically, that they will kill you for an idea. A kind of personality which has always made me uncomfortable. They do not care about finesse or performance, they care about the ecology. Or sexism. So one is invariably confronted with these subjects when all he’s trying to do is hustle a meal. Spaghetti is all right so long as while you’re eating it you don’t have to discuss vaginal politics, a subject, I confess, which has always seemed fairly simple to me. Open and shut. But people nowadays just can’t tell the true-hearted ne’er-do-well from his committed, well-pimpled brother. Proud of his complexion. A lot of extra TV sets and broke down radios and cans of chili go astray, I’ll tell you. The first task for the apprentice ne’er-do-well is to get himself one, two or six girlfriends who work. This is a delicate problem, because girlfriends tend to lord it over the poor ne’er-do-well and don’t much like him splitting up his allegiance. The ne’er-do-well would do well to remember the old saying, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free. Don’t drink the milk if the cow is unemployed. Almost by definition, a ne’er-do-well is required to be supported by the sweat of a beautiful woman, than which sweat there is perhaps none sweeter. Maybe you saw the Carroll Baker version of Harlow; remember the stepfather. Also, while it is true that presently there are a lot more working women, there are fewer and fewer with enough self-hatred and self-doubt. They’re all certain they are. Mary Magdalene, in the “After” pose. This is probably very healthy for them, but it presents a real problem , for you. The show needs to be revised. Paul Newman no longer amuses them the style is more Dustin Hoffman. You’re ugly, but you have “character.” You’re rotten in bed and you cry over animals a lot. You can get into a rage over the trans-Alaska pipeline. And you know exactly what a berserk Swedish bankrobber means about Western Civilization. In fact, you spend most of your time reading Newsweek and the L. A. Free Press in states from euphoria to tears. In other words, manic-depressive in a Che Guevara suit. THE GREAT fear of any ne’er-do-well worth his salt is that he will succeed. A man may spend years learning the art of failure only to blow his brains out when met with success. And the danger is a very real one in our culture where the happy dilletante may at any moment fall in front of the capricious cameras and have a half dozen microphones pushed at him by a half dozen jerks. The jerks wish him to have opinions because that is their job. The ne’er-do-well knows that he does not need the opinions but he is seduced. Suddenly, he is a success. Whole new attitudes are required. A closet of new quips. He gets a job. Buys a Volvo. Shoots himself. The true work of the authentic ne’er-do-well is to wander. Wandering is best accomplished if some vague order is given to the activity, more or less in the manner of the classic “quest.” The trick is to be on a quest without any object. No white whales, if you please. With no object, you can hardly succeed. Or perhaps it is only that the quest must be for an object without any pretense, a simple, common goal. Money is good in this context. Rain. The wanderingwhich is the central exercise of the ne’er-do-well is not the “wild odyssey, sex drugs truth” variety but more the across-town style. When you find yourself standing somewhere trying to figure a socially acceptable rationale for standing there, you have hit it. Wandering does occasionally bring you face to face with conflict. Go around it. All that is required is answers to a few questions, and you have years to work on them. Your fellowman always asks the same questions it’s amazing. What do you do? Do you want to go? Can I help you? In a humane spirit, the ne’er-do-well usually answers his fellowman on approximately the desired level of complexity. I’m a broker, no, no thank you. The ne’er-do-well is always civil; it is his code. But occasionally he must also accommodate his needs: I stare, I’m sick, and penicillin. Or something else. November 2, 19 73 31