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Bruce Boone Weekend

By Thom Donovan

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This past weekend in New York City I will always remember as the Bruce Boone weekend. On Friday night Boone read as part of a launch event for Nightboat Books at Metro Pictures gallery in Chelsea. He was preceded by Evelyn Reilly and Marcella Durand, who read from the Eco Language Reader (co-published by Nightboat Books and Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, edited by Brenda Iijima), Stephen Motika, the publisher of Nightboat, who introduced the readers and their books, Edwin Torres, who read from his book In the Function of External Circumstances, and Rob Halpern, who read from his forward to the Nightboat reissue of Boone’s 1980’s New Narrative classic, Century of Clouds. Triumphantly, Boone read from the final pages of Century of Clouds, wherein he breezily recalls the social atmosphere around the Marxist study group in which he, Fredric Jameson, and others participated.

The following day, Boone read at SEGUE series with Rob Halpern. I introduced Boone (which I include below) who read an out-of-print story called “The Truth About Ted.” In signature fashion, in “The Truth About Ted,” Boone combines high gossip with acute social analysis and witty personal insights. “The Truth About Ted” concerns speculation among Boone and his friends at the time about a particular friend’s, Ted’s, sexual identity. Very few storytellers I know of are so capable as Boone at creating an atmosphere of suspense and disclosure around the most ordinary, yet tricky, of social situations—in this case, a man’s coming out.

Though Boone wrote the story nearly 30 years ago, it could have been written yesterday—so fresh and unpretentious is the story’s conversational narrative style. The following day I was fortunate enough to be able to hang-out with Boone, who suggested we go to the Frick—a museum I had never been to, but had always been curious about.

Walking through the Frick with Bruce was like few other experiences I’ve had attending art with another person. Whereas normally I go to art with a sense of separateness from another person’s thoughts and perceptions, Boone was generous in asking me questions about what I thought about a certain painting, and offering what he also saw. Often what he saw were historical relations beyond my own understanding of the artwork, but sometimes we saw the same thing. When this happened I felt the excitement one has having had the same thought as someone you admire, having fixated on the same details or seemingly random idea.

The Frick isn’t a large museum, so Boone and I took about 5 minutes with each painting, oblivious to the other patrons who we often bumped into. My favorite moment was walking into a room—a room entirely of Fragonard’s and mirrors—and hearing Boone exclaim that the Fragonard’s were “so wrong,” yet that they made him so happy. Boone’s statement encapsulates how I understand the man, whose interests in Western and Eastern spirituality, Roman and Greek history, militant leftist politics, and bourgeois aesthetics would seem in conflict, yet somehow add up. Here is the introduction I wrote for him at SEGUE. New York City misses you Bruce!

The first story I read by Bruce Boone was not his classic New Narrative work just reissued by Nightboat Books, Century of Clouds, but a short story called “My Walk With Bob.” In “My Walk With Bob,” Boone tours the Catholic missions of San Francisco’s Mission district with his friend, the writer Robert Gluck, reminiscing about his days as a monk, telling stories as a way to work through, to process, to reflect and act. The gorgeous structure of “My Walk With Bob” has to do with feeling and recognition. The reader is adrift in a world of saints, sacred mysteries, monstrances but all of these otherworldly digressions crash hard against Boone’s sudden admission: “Language was a kind of horizon for me, and I could hardly care what lay on the other side. There were too many things on my mind I didn’t want to think about. For instance, how would I learn to live without Jonathan.”

Boone is a master of this moment. Where everything that was under the surface—felt just below the surface of a story’s language—emerges suddenly. It is crushing and evental, this moment, and yet it is what a reader most longs for it. It is perhaps what all storytelling boils down to: intimacy, transmission, recognition, disclosure. Disclosing the world at large by giving form to one’s most deeply felt experiences and desires. How—all of Boone’s work begs—does the personal become political, the private public, the real imaginary and the imaginary real. Storytelling shatters these binaries that touch each other through a structure of feeling storytelling makes accessible, if not legible.

“When you tell something to someone, doesn’t it change their life forever? For me such questions bring with them a great sense of melancholy, as if in interrogating language I come that much closer to some bedrock loneliness inseparable from history itself. But perhaps I should really say prehistory—since I don’t believe that these foreclosures are fated to remain forever. And what does narrative open up into, if not human love, called into existence for the first time.”
–from “My Walk With Bob”

Storytelling is a consequential art—Boone keeps reminding his reader of this fact through the self-reflexive digressions and interruptions of his works. It is not consequential because Boone naively believes that his stories will stand the test of time, becoming “great works” (though I hope they may); nor because they will directly affect political action. But because stories organize our sense of belonging, of having been among others. Robert Gluck and Jonathan in “My Walk With Bob”; Fredric Jameson and countless others in Century of Clouds. Likewise, they organize our sense of loss, how the social is constantly shaped by loss, whether the death of a comrade or merely falling out of touch with a friend. Sublime sadness informs every word of Boone’s prose, and it is for me the inverse of a sublime life-affirmation—that is, of joy.

As Rob Halpern’s forward to the Nightboat reissue of Century of Clouds suggests, Boone’s classic comes to us like a set of futures that never occurred. Which is to say, reading this book one is reminded of the hopes and desires of a generation of activists that never came to pass. For my own generation, New Narrative writing— which Century of Clouds inaugurates—is our future anterior. It is a place rich with promise of futures never followed, let alone fulfilled. What to raise out of the dustbin of Century of Cloud’s legendary ephemera?

“There’s an explosion when I think these thoughts. Letelier is blown up in his car by the agents of Chilean reaction. The sound of nearly silent bullets—and 9 black men are dead in Oakland from police assassination. Racism; poverty. Lives of women and gays oppressed in patriarchy. Daily violence done to workers. A worker’s movement now bloody and sundered with wounds.

These thoughts large and public, how to relate them to my life? How to link with experience and touches—only rarely—my past? To tell about desiring too.

Perhaps beginning to tell your stories. Some important friendships, in between spaces as my life moves outward. Problems. Questions.”
—from Century of Clouds

Century of Clouds is also instructional for the ways it moves among political journalism/analysis, and a micro-politics of desire—how politics occurs through the most intimate and personal facts of our lives. How to put the macro and micro political into dialogue? How to make them porous to one another? Humbly, Boone admits: through “problems” and “questions.” In other words, through life. How else?

Comments (6)

  • On January 28, 2010 at 10:58 pm Kaplan wrote:

    Thanks, Thom, for the report. I wish I could have gotten into the city for the weekend.

    Funny, I finally got a chance to read “The Truth About Ted” just a few weeks ago. It was the copy that Boone sent Robert Duncan!

  • On January 29, 2010 at 6:40 pm Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    “Walking through the Frick with Bruce”: is like the title of something. Thom, I love in your other/regular/trenchant blog [ “http://whof.blogspot.com/” ] when you interdict (sp?) a sequence of prose posts with your own poems. Is it possible to dare you to write a poem with the title I have extracted, in a fibrous sense, from your post above: in a post? And also would love to hear more about: “How to bring bodies together?” The question of the attractant.

  • On January 29, 2010 at 8:26 pm thom donovan wrote:

    you were missed Kaplan. oh and thanks for sending on your piece about New Narrative. I can’t wait to read it!

    did it seem like Duncan had read the copy? I mean, was there any marginalia or anything like that?

  • On January 29, 2010 at 8:34 pm thom donovan wrote:

    gosh Bhanu, I wish I cld figure out how to incorporate the rhythms of Wild Horses of Fire here, which has always been something of an open notebook for me. “Walking through the Frick with Bruce” has a nice ring to it. I will write the poem–if only for your eyes–and post it to WHOF where poems are needed (I have been slacking, for sure, on this moment of process). the thing I wish I cld be more faithful to above are all of Bruce’s insights about the art at the Frick. it was really quite wonderful and I’m not doing justice to it. not to mention the stories he was telling at breakfast before hand, about his experiences as a chaplain, and of Philip Whalen. this amazing story about a Whalen’s dream life. Bruce’s live speech/conversation enfolds petrushka doll-like, not unlike the narrative digressions of his stories. really quite wonderful to listen to!

  • On January 29, 2010 at 8:41 pm csperez wrote:

    hey thom, this is unrelated to your post here, but just wanted to say that i really love your review of zolf in the new ppnewsletter.

    c

  • On January 30, 2010 at 9:23 am Kaplan wrote:

    Alas no indications like marginalia. But letters & other manuscripts suggest some contact, so perhaps!

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Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, January 28th, 2010 by Thom Donovan.