that panoply of voices


Five or six or seven of my creations speak for themselves:



“To write at all well is to relinquish one’s casual understanding of the world. One’s self-protecting misconceptions of the world. To write at all well is to yank the veil off it. The process changes the writer, and only a changed writer can change the world for the reader reading him. Writing for a complicated, captive, paying audience of con men, arsonists, robbers, rapists, drug addicts, tax evaders, purse-snatchers, brawlers, burglars, bootleggers and sundry uncouth disturbers of the peace, I developed a complicated knowledge of what I was and wasn’t; what I could and couldn’t; what I longed for and abhorred, and my written words slowly became real writing, even if it was just material for womenless men to masturbate, or rape other men, to. But isn’t that the goal of any writer, metaphorically speaking? To make his reader come?”

—Napoleon Fanon, one of the narrators of JESUS IN VEGAS (novella)


“Grownups had introduced the topic of Sex Education and whatnot already at that point. So we had Sex Ed from an early age. But I had no idea that all that talk about semen and stamen and fallopian tubes had anything to do with Juan playing with himself. You know, I had no idea all this stuff had anything, potentially, to do with me. You know? Like the math you learn. Right? I assumed this miracle of life stuff was more of the same. You’d never use it.

“This frigging book was called ManTan in Lily Land and it was one of those bestsellers from the ‘60s. A black man writing about the rapes he’s committed as a revolutionary act… he’s raping and stealing in this cross-country journey of self-discovery kinda thing. Can you imagine someone getting away with a book like that now?

“This frigging racist, lookist, misogynist book was a must-have for liberal intellectuals who would, like, you know, dispassionately discuss the fucker at hoity-toity cocktail parties across the nation. To be offended by it would get you labelled bourgeois so fast your head would spin. Rapist, fine, bourgeois bad. You know? There were high school English departments with this book on the curriculum. I’m not even sure what it was doing in my step-father’s library. He was a good man, O’Sirus. But Juan junior, he reached the magic age and he homed right in on that sucker. He kept it under his comics or whatever. I was basically on my own, with Juan and that book. Defenseless lily-white Shaunna Astaire. You can imagine.”

—Shaunna Astaire, from THE BROTHERLAND MIRACLES (novel)


“Time after that fell away like a rope I no longer had the strength to clutch at; a rope tied to an undefined object of great weight… perhaps the heavy object had been me. Freed of this weight but only at the cost of falling. Moth filled out… her breasts lost any memory of boyishness and her face rounded many weeks before the bulge in her stomach showed. Of course, anyone privy to Moth’s nakedness would have detected the first subtle change down there immediately but I just watched from the outside of the expensive Irish sweaters Amanda kept her in throughout the mild winter.”

—John Just-John, the narrator of THE BOMB COLLECTOR (novella)


“Yeah. If I had the money, I’d get my ass over to West Berlin ASAP. From there I’d grease some palms at the border and cross over into the deepest parts of the radical East. You can live there well for a year on like a fucking thousand bucks. Eat wild rabbits and drink rainwater. Right there on the front lines of the revolution. No more yak yak yak and pose pose pose… just do do do. You know? The scene in Minneapolis kinda feels like a naughty Sunday School class in comparison, don’t you think? Ironic songs about Lutefisk and shit? Songs about kissing on the fucking bus? Fuck the Replacements. Fuck the mythology of the Midwestern American suburbanite Oedipus-flavored white boy, you know? This is a petite bourgeois hell-hole, man.”

—Donnie Himmelfarb, from THIS INCREDIBLE SEX COMEDY (novel)


“All the really grandiose classical music, the stuff for cavernous auditoriums and cathedrals and opera houses, the music performed by and for crowds of roughly the same social class, always sounds like collapsing architecture to me. Magnificent buildings crashing to earth, around your head, your ears, at a stately and balletic tempo. Every minuscule sliver, chunk, pane, loop, shard or crystal of glass, brick, timber, brass, iron, marble and wire as it hits is a single note inseparable from the sustained torrent of parallel and subsequent notes sounding out as they smash the ground during the aesthetic demolition of what might as well be a virtual or platonic copy of the building the music itself is performed in. I never know the names or composers of the music but quite a few of the pieces are familiar to me as they back-drop trivial or watershed moments in my life.

This one I very much recognized and would guess, if forced to, that it was made by the German with the irresponsibly large family, Bach, because Bach, or maybe it’s the Germans in general, is always good (at at least very well-rehearsed) on the topic of Death. Having proved a thoroughly inoculated pagan, at heart, from the moment my parents attempted to infect me with Christianity, I carry no internalized image of a Christ but I could quite easily picture this son of God weeping, in a dignified but movingly empathetic way, regarding his own death or the death of the dedicatee of the ceremony, on one knee, head down, posed prettily with the knuckles of his clasped hands touched lightly to his lips in prayer, center-parted mane lustrously impervious at the center of the vast collapse of the virtual copy of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City around him. Around me.”

—Sierra Tremaine, narrator of KOOTCHIE TOWERS (novel)



“The goal, I had to keep reminding myself, was not to prove to Martin Amis that I was a person; the goal was to get on the other side of that Wall. To do so I had to become a character: any member of the congenital underclass knows how to snag the attention of a proximate, well-off White Person. If well-off White People aren’t psychopaths they feel guilty, and if they’ve been swaddled in privilege since forever,  they are also bored.  A carefully-hurled, cleverly-curated presentation of Blackness can be the stone with which to kill both of those flightless birds.

The rules are simply that you have to be articulate enough to get your earthy argot across, but not so educated-seeming that you come off as a boringly house-broken (or ego-threateningly accomplished)  “Tom”.  And that you must appear just wild and unpredictable enough to be “sexy” yet probably constitutionally incapable of rape or murder. There can (and likely should) be tales of youthful indiscretion (car-jacking, armed robbery, gang warfare) but these should be leavened by mumbo jumbo about Jesus (in which case a discreet gold crucifix works nicely). Let’s face it: no White Person is intellectually intimidated by any Black person who affects to believe in Jesus. There’s always that old shtick about the promises made to one’s “Mama, “ on her Ghetto deathbed,  about turning one’s life around, too. This stuff is invariably very charming to well-off White People, who can, as a result,  enter in the same kind of trance that even I can enter into when confronted with a certain kind of Beautiful Woman sporting bulging breasts, a narrow waist and a mild overbite. Though one false note can spoil the trance.”

— “Steven Augustine,”  narrator of The Counter-Comedians (novella)


She had a room… a “suite”… to herself. Or he did. To himself.

“If there is no ultimate God toward whose Perfection we are striving in order to sit in glorious Righteousness at the foot of His throne, Baby, the European notion of historical progress loses its meaning, does it not,  since existence is therefore sort of random, is it not? And what evidence is there of an ultimate God?”

Issels chuckled, sitting on the bed beside her, his clipboard in his lap. “The Gnostics might claim that conversations about God are, a priori, proof enough. Or proof enough that investigation is warranted…”

“Well, okay, but how so? Even if God appeared in the sky above Times Square tomorrow…”

“As a node of pure white light, possibly. Not as a bearded Hassid in a robe…”

“Pure white light, giant eye, whatever. If God appeared in the sky and said, finally, after all this time, ‘I am God’… how could we believe Him?”

Issels frowned down his long nose and said, softly, “I am not quite sure I follow you, to be honest.”

“How would so-called God prove he is God? Name one infallible method. Name one.”

He licked his lips. “Oh, any number of ways, surely. Rain of frogs or blood? Change the sun to Prussian blue? Reverse the force of gravity? Turn the Africans white as salt…”

“But what you are talking about are only displays of relative power to witnesses at the low end of the damn scale, Sugar. We can convince our house pets, or our little children, or tribes along the Amazon or even feeble old Aunt Millie, whoever, that we’re gods, the exact same way. With a remote control garage door opener, even. Shazam! But we know we’re not gods. How many levels of power are there, between us and so-called God? Ten? One hundred? A million? Infinite? All it would take… something or someone could come along…”

“Aha. I see. One powerful trickster. Angel or demon. For sport, perhaps. Above us by orders of magnitude but…”

“But still not God. How would we all know the difference? How would we all possibly know, for sure? Ever. The impossibility of answering the question makes the question… I mean, is it even a proper… ”

“Yes. Moot. Beside the point. The question itself is error. Merely the question an inferior entity would ask who hadn’t thought the question through before asking. Reformulate. Carefully. As rhetorical question. Perhaps the only properly philosophical questions are rhetorical. Not is there a God but is there Power…”


“Interesting, what you propose. There is no Herr. There is no God. Every god has a god. There is no Heaven. Only local jurisdictions. Perhaps many universes, each with its assigned god. Assigned by whom? And so the question continues up the scale, forever. Infinity. Infinity the same as its opposite.Yes. I see.”

Issels’ habit was to seem to be talking to himself, with his digressive mumbles, even as he was staring at his interlocutor, in this case Ricky. Staring and mumbling.

Then his red-faced smile: the wise old cat with a pretty young canary’s feather sticking out of his mouth.

“Yes. I am thinking that you really are dangerous, aren’t you? I’d assumed they were exaggerating. But not in the way they seem to think. A very special monster. Negress smarter than a Jew?  And so young. Mutation. But intelligence without physical force, to back it up, this is not power. No.”  Ziss iz nawt powa.

Issels stood emphatically and gestured, impatiently, for Ricky to attend to the distending fly of his woolen trousers. He said,

“Culture runs in the direction that physical force pushes it in. Now it is my turn to teach.”

He pushed into her mouth. He held her beautiful skull firm, touching it only with his fingertips, angling it just so and she was exquisitely responsive to the subtlest indications of communicative pressure: left or right; up or down; faster or slower. Halt. Resume. He had trained her so quickly. He had trained Nefertiti’s skull. Enjoying the rarest treasure in the noblest museum of antiquities. The Pergamon. Imagine the vitrine; the track-lighting; the Aztec masks and Chinese daggers and Hebrew chalices shining in every vitrine surrounding them… the armed museum guards, golem-like. Unreadable expressions. Awed by the audacity. He (who never had and never would call her by name) said,

“But who should I thank for delivering you to my unrestricted use if not God?”

… and Ricky managed to squeeze out the tears he required until his nerve-endings blurred and burned on her tongue. He by an infinitesimal measure diminished and she by the selfsame increment improved, he felt. I am a generous man.

He helped her to wipe her chin, thinking Omne animal post coitum triste: Wirklich, Galen? He felt great.

“You are a generous man,” said Ricky.


The biggest price she had paid was having her head shaved to make her look, at least, like she’d had the electroshock she was supposed to be getting (or maybe Issels just didn’t like Afros). Issels had shaved it himself, fascinated. Surely they kept detailed records of things like that,  records of all the sessions and surely her record stated that she’d never gotten it, that the patient had eluded the full extent of therapeutic punishment that the clinical arm of The State had sentenced her to. The oversight was never acted on if it was ever noticed. Were they serious about it or not?

Issels had said that appearances can be stronger than statistics. Maybe, in the end, The State valued Issels that much that they let him have his fun, didn’t insist on the memory-erasing electroshock for his slave (how much fun can it be to rape a vegetable? Even less fun than torturing one, probably: happy is the torturer called upon to force whimpers and pleading screams from theoretical phycisists, college professors and formerly high-ranking officials), because they were planning to kill her anyway? Maybe Issels’ fun had always been the point. A debt they owed him. But here’s the irony: Ricky had actually learned things from the man. You can learn from Evil, she was thinking. Maybe more from Evil than from “Good”.

—Richardina Fortneaux in conversation with Dr. Josef Issels in GERMANTOWN (novel)

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