Happy birthday, Lance Olsen! Celebrate by reading Olsen’s “Beautiful Boy Falling” (which we published last year and is included in Olsen’s forthcoming Skin Elegies) and “169 Tweets on the Nature of Possibility” (which we published in 2019). Also read Peter Wortsman’s interview with Olsen (which we also published in 2020). Also, check out my interviews with Olsen: “O for a Muse of Fire” and “An Illuminated Interview with Lance Olsen”; and my 2016 birthday tribute: “60 Reasons to Celebrate Lance Olsen.”
Beautiful Boy Falling
You were there, only nobody saw you. This is what you are good at: not being there when you are there. This is what people are bad at: seeing—giving a shit about any part of the universe that isn’t them. Everything has become hocus-pocus yoga classes for middle-brow mid-life worker bees craving a weekly application of Eastern clichés to their washed-out existences to encourage them to stop caring, stop thinking, stop living. Because you grow up and all the lights go off one by one and then it’s Oliva Newton-John. It’s Captain and Tennille and your life dimming out of view before you. Because later it will be something else. Later it will be this skinny balding doctor standing in puddles of blood in a mob-scene emergency room, cracking open a guy’s blown-apart chest, plunging in his hands, lifting out the heart, holding it in his palms, feeling the—the—what do you call it? Only now it was just this chubby, clean-shaven, double-chinned, twenty-five-year-old in a pair of over-sized aviator glasses and fur hat and overcoat with fur collar. It was you. Let’s call him you. It was how you loitered on the sidewalk on West 72nd Street out front of the Dakota. Scarf. Jeans. Track shoes. Double Fantasy album hugged to your chest. You wore a red t-shirt with some oriental crap written across it in black and nobody saw you strike up a conversation with the doorman, with José, with José Perdomo from Cuba, the man with glasses big as a scuba mask. Nobody saw you hang out with him on and off throughout the day, shooting the breeze in front of his gold-painted guard booth next to the gothic archway that led into whatever it led into. You and José commented about how warm the weather was for December, how it wasn’t what it used to be, how everything was changing, how it always would be, look at these temperatures, look at these dismays. You asked him where you could get a good cup of coffee around there that didn’t cost a million bucks. Then you asked him where he was without looking too interested in José’s answer. It was just a question. It was just a way to pass another minute. José told you he was at a nearby barbershop getting a Teddy Boy in preparation for a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz who would be dropping by soon, which is you pay attention, which is you’re not done falling yet, you can tell some of the lights are still on, which is you learned some stuff about José and then you forgot it because it didn’t matter, and fans came and went, nobodies busy not noticing you. Because later it will be something else. Later it will be that doctor in the emergency room holding a heart in his palms. It will be that Rolling Stone cover with him, naked and fetal, clinging in their bed to Yoko all dressed in black. It will be her photo of blood-spattered glasses through which you can blurrily make out Central Park. Only now it was this dumpy dumb-ass with camera and Hitler mustache walking up to you and asking if you were waiting for him, too. We’re all waiting for him, you said. The dumpy dumb-ass with camera and Hitler mustache said he was from New Jersey in a tone suggesting his words were a secret language in which every syllable meant something more than it meant to mean. He said he’d dropped off his copy of A Spaniard in the Works yesterday to get signed and was back to pick it up. He must have thought you two had become best friends. He must have thought you two had something in common. I’m from Hawaii, you said, using his system of communication. He said: Where are you staying while you’re in town? You said: Why the fuck do you want to know? He looked at you, sizing you up, then said: Go back to where you were standing and leave me the fuck alone. Which if you think about it every person really only has one story to tell, and you’re not from Hawaii, not in any way that counts, which is you didn’t grow up in a whatever suburb of Atlanta, even though you did. Your dad wasn’t an asshole in the Air Force who watched Lawrence Welk from his recliner, listening to dead accordion noises while chucking handfuls of Hot Tamales into his mouth, even though he was, even though he did, even though you never saw the purple marks like hickeys he left behind on your mom’s neck when she got out of line, which you did, which is it happens, because women. The one story you have to tell is the power you gained when you were seven over the little people living in the walls of your bedroom. Only it could have been others. It could have been, say, Johnny Carson or Elizabeth Taylor. It could have been them, you thought about it, you considered, only it was something else, because John, because in high school the little people started asking you what the big deal was about ditching classes, whispering to you about how all your teachers were idiots or they wouldn’t be teachers, how everyone knew they taught Faulkner from the Cliffs Notes. You could smell it on their chintzy sports coats, their dead-lung dresses. The little people gave you the codes, told you to become a garbage head because they had to eat to reproduce, and the more little people, the more interesting thoughts you would have, so zoomers and buttons and blue boys and we were the Egg Man, which was proof how alike you and him were, how easy it was when you were fifteen to live out on the streets for two weeks, see how they fly, before Jesus crashed into your life, shouting at the top of his rage, Fuck the fucking little people and get into my goddamned heart, and all the lights blazed on again, you precipitously realizing the older somebody gets, the stupider somebody gets, because those lights then start going off, and how can anybody believe in Himalayan salt lamps and all the other mind-control tapeworms fastened to your intestinal walls? That’s the only real story, which is why you began working at the South De Kalb County YMCA day camp and in Arkansas at Fort Chaffee with those kids, those refugee kids from Vietnam, because you could see in them how Jesus loved each and every one of us in his own fucked-up way, all that cellular amplification, all that holy-holy blaze, you had to squint because there was so goddamned much leaking out of them. You played your guitar for them, led them in singalongs by reporting the wisdom the little people visited upon you, one voice, one mind, one bind, because I am he as you are he, because you took the shy ones aside and showed them how to shoot arrows and feel hopeless in special keys. When somebody tired out on a hike, you hoisted him onto your back and carried him down into camp, just like Jesus did in whatever part of the Bible it was, so it didn’t matter that you failed at college or. What mattered was those kids kept growing up into who they weren’t. It killed you, watching all those sparkles winking off one by one simply because they started listening to Kenny Rogers. It tore your fucking heart out, and the only thing left to do at some point was book a flight to Hawaii, throw away your last money at the ritziest hotels, drive your rented car to an overlook at sunset, sky above you one big Glory-be-to-Him-in-the-Highest holocaust, attach a hose to the exhaust pipe, and roll up the windows, which is when that fisherman started tapping at your car window, asking if you were okay, and you opened your eyes to see Jesus in his aloha shirt smiling down upon you, insane beard, sun-staring visionary eyes, surrounded by all these post-nuclear rays, mouthing his words of gentle mercy: You fucking retard—you can’t even do this right, can you?, which is when you awoke a second time, your new life beginning in Castle Memorial Hospital, peering up into the faces of that circle of balding doctors peering down at you, you in mid-explanation about how you had come to conceive of yourself lately as a boxer in the twenty-seventh round, while Christ whispered tenderly into your soul: You little shit—I told you to fuck the fucking little people and get into my goddamned heart…what are you, some kind of one-man Watergate for spiritual cripples?…stand the fuck up, dust yourself off, and let me help you save your sorry ass, you little bitch, and that became the one story, the only story, the story you had to tell yourself for the rest of your days, which is how you didn’t talk your way into staying on at that hospital as an employee, even though you did, working in the printshop in the basement with horrible lime-green walls, because there you could be alone with Our Savior and one day fall in love with a celestial spirit named Gloria Hiroko, the travel agent you visited once when contemplating a trip around the world, because Gloria looked just like her on that album cover you were clutching to your chest outside the Dakota, you know, and she let you join Jesus in her heart, despite the lack of room at first, despite it being like trying to squirm your whole body into a raisin, which you could tell from the start Gloria would forgive anything you were capable of, cherish you despite the you of you. You didn’t soon after that get into a shouting match with some hogbeast nurse sporting baggy arm fat, even though you did, quit your job on the spot, even though and so forth, and thus the Resurrection and the Life came unto you and spake softly, filled with his glorious love, whispering: There are worse things to become than a pathetic-shit night security guard who spends every day adding a drop too much kirsch to the fondue, and sometimes you’ve just got to hit them, sure, nothing dramatic, the sky won’t fall or anything, you’ll see, just a clap on the ear, peck with the open hand, enough to make them take notice and sit down and consider for a minute who they really are, what they’re really worth, wake them into an unpacked newness, because Gloria will absolve you and in the end allow you to stay home while she goes out to earn some bread, amen, just like she allowed him to stay home and become a phantom for those five years, no interviews, no albums, you sitting naked in the middle of your living room, earphones on, listening to the Beatles with the volume turned way up, because happiness is a warm gun, motherfucker, yes it is (bang, bang, shoot, shoot)—hatching your plans to evolve into a what-do-you-call-it human being, which is to say: Look how many men have been precisely as troubled morally and spiritually as you. Some of them kept records. Now you’ve got a record, too, and you will offer it to others, and maybe one day, Alpha and Omega willing, someone will even take something meaningful away from it. What you’re talking about here—it stands beyond education, beyond understanding. It’s a category of purity, which is everything matters. You can feel every atom in the universe gather mass around it—your flight to Atlanta, your purchase of hollow-point bullets, your target practice in the woods on the fringes of the city, your flight to New York, how you spent Saturday, Sunday, today drifting alongside Holden Caulfield’s paperback shadow, the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, the Carousel, because Jesus had led you to that article in Esquire, the one by Laurence Shames, about how John had entered that half-decade of phantomhood a genius and exited it a forty-year-old businessman worth a hundred fifty million bucks, this househusband who watched bad TV, this prophet whose soul withered into profit, an owner of five apartments in the Dakota alone and this big-ass estate out on Long Island. He had a son he doted on and a wife who intercepted his phone calls, which is I get that sometimes we ask too much of people, because sometimes you do something too well, and you don’t watch out, and pretty soon you start forgetting what it was you did well, and so one day you look up and you’re all of a sudden just another phony among a planet of them. They used to say Paul was dead, except it was really the Walrus, who had assumed room temperature singing about peace and love, even though he donated bulletproof vests to the N.Y.P.D., asked us to imagine no possessions, even though he racked up yachts and dairy farms and country estates all over the globe. How much money did he give away to the poor? Ask yourself that. In what ways did he help any kids at all as they plummeted? The answers are: zero and in exactly none. Two of his apartments in the Dakota were used for storage alone. Storage alone. He became the self-centered bullshit he pretended to rail against because he was really railing against himself, and railing against anything makes good money. Ask the Catholic Church how rich it is. Ask the Dalai Lama how rich he is. John hated himself and only you understood how much and only you knew how to help. It was your lifework to compose and deliver the gift he craved in the form of a simple truth: tapeworm history is exactly what you make it. Which is it was the room you stayed in at the YMCA for sixteen bucks, so noisy with hacking and snoring and weeping and fucking and hammering at the walls in outrage and ecstasy that you moved to the Sheraton in midtown, where you had this hooker sent up, just like Holden in the Edmont—petite and grizzled at eighteen or whatever it was. You told her you would call her Sunny, even though she said her name was Anna, and you told her to call you Jim Steele, even though she knew better. You sat in the blah easy chair under the blah lamp and Sunny shinnied into your lap, back pressed into you, flittering her right foot up and down like a birdheart until you asked her to take off her dress and get into bed, but her slip, leave her slip on, you told her, which is you crawled in beside her, clothed, and talked to the ceiling, sharing all the purity of that moment, how the world is just a story that repeats itself, but less and less, Jesus Christ Our Savior hunched over trying to stifle a giggle in the far corner aswarm with turquoise butterflies, except it without warning occurred to you her voice had become all high and whiny and reminded you of a stepped-on mouse, her being a foreign language you couldn’t even say hello in, so pretty soon you paid her twice her rate and told her politely to and so forth, which is why you ended up sleeping late. You looked at the digital clock on the nightstand and it said all redly 2:00 a.m. You looked again and it said all redly 10:30 a.m. And the sun was pissed off outside the floor-to-ceiling window and so you shaved and showered and laid out on the bureau your talismans for the cops to find later: your miniature leather Bible, your expired passport, your snapshot of a ’65 Chevy and one of you and some those refugee kids, the kids from Vietnam, plus your favorite still from the Wizard of Oz: Dorothy wiping away a tear from the cheek of the Cowardly Lion, an image that shredded your soul over and over again because you wanted to catch every child as he or she fell off the cliff, it was why you had entered this dimension, you were certain of it, plus it felt like you were just falling and falling yourself and would never, ever, hit bottom, or what happened next was meant to be from before time. That part was easy enough to get. That part and the part about the whole thing being so much bigger than guilty or not guilty, right or wrong, five hollow-points or six, because the humongous breakfast down in the hotel restaurant: southern omelet with country sausage, American cheese, shredded potatoes, onions, sausage gravy, one glass of orange juice and three cups of black coffee, then off to buy a mint copy of Catcher in the Rye, which is you let the Prince of Peace inscribe it for you: From Holden Caufield to Holden Caufield. This is my statement, after which you returned to your room to take an alpha-male dump, reminding yourself as you hunkered on the toilet that some events are eternally immutable and humbling, praise be, and, as you walked out of 2730 for the last time, the mystical number of reincarnation’s cycle, number of higher consciousness reaped, lock clacking into place behind you, the tapeworms awoke in your intestines and whispered in unison, quick as hornets teeming: Just pack up your bag and go home, Mark. Get the doorman to call you a cab. Return to Gloria. Taxi toward life. Nothing has happened yet. Everything is possible. For Jesus said—which is when The Light of Our World interrupted the tapeworms in his infinite wisdom and compassion, saying: No one speaks for me, goddamn it, you fuckwits, for it shall begin to feel unto you like you’re inhabiting a movie, but forget not that you are the director now, oh, yeah, and that little pussy with the twelve-string playing hell music is just one of your actors, and you shall tell him to do anything, and he shall do, just like everybody around you, because see how they run, damn goddamn straight, like pigs from a gun, see how they fucking fly, which is when you sidled back up to that dumpy dumb-ass with the camera and Hitler mustache and apologized for the way you acted earlier, explaining you never knew who you could trust these days, could you, it’s fucking psychotic, this city, which is when it—maybe four o’clock, let’s say, maybe a little later, you don’t—only nobody except some fans were hanging around the guard booth as the sun grayed out and then it was John and Yoko standing there under the gothic archway that led into whatever it led into, and John, in this gingerbread fur-collared leather jacket, all these dried-out animals hanging around his neck, was talking to said dumb-ass, saying Don’t forget to get your book, which is it felt like somebody had squeezed all the air out of you, you were so activated, and so you strolled over and opened your mouth to say something, and your hand dove into your pocket in search of your gun, except your mouth jammed the fuck up, it was so goddamn pathetic, and our King of Kings groaned inside you, shrugged, and lumbered right out of your heart, slamming the door behind him, yet you nonetheless held out your copy of Double Fantasy, and John turned and looked at you and looked at the album and looked at you and said: Do you want that signed? You could feel yourself nodding, Jesus already halfway down the block, back hunched against you like a cat on the windowsill, which is out the corner of your eye you saw that dumb-ass raise his camera and snap a couple shots of you and John as he signed your album, you couldn’t believe your good fortune, you and him sharing the same frame, the same time box, what were the chances, it took your breath away, and afterward he asked if there was anything else you’d like, which made you start backing away a couple steps, instinctively, like you do with snarling dogs and grandmothers, trying to say thank you in your retreat, reaching into your pocket for your stubby .38 Special, it hitting you what a curious condition thinking was, exactly like waking up one day with a French accent, except now the songs in your head were changing too fast to concentrate and the gleaming black limousine was easing up to the curb, its door opening, John and Yoko sliding in, and then easing away, leaving you marooned on your two-foot-square island of where, listening to the sound of decay all around you, watching the limo’s red brake lights merge with traffic, you recalling how every time somebody gave you a gift it ended up making you shit miserable, just fucking sad as hell, which is you released your grip on the .38 Special in your pocket and sidled up to José from Cuba to ask where they were going. José told you the Record Plant, the studio down on West 44th, where they were working on her next single, which is you thought about how outlandish it was that the last music John would ever make would be for somebody else, a couple of guitar licks that sounded precisely like nothing special, some studio musician hired for an hour or two, which is José was explaining sometimes they got home pretty late when they were out recording, you might not want to hang around, only you said it didn’t matter, you really wanted to see them again, be with them again, you might not have another chance in your whole life, because in the end everything was going to be just—Another way of saying this is the next six hours lasted four seconds because the gleaming black limousine was already easing out from traffic and drifting up to the curb, the door already swinging open. Yoko slid out first, then John a few heart flutters later, and the tapeworms…oh, man, you should have heard them…they were whisper-singing so all magical…they were the Vienna Boys’ Choir…the voice of someone saying she loves you for the first time…and John Lennon stood there, just stood there, looking up, admiring the pinkish nightglow over Manhattan, and do it he stretched wide and Yoko stepped through the black wrought-iron gate do it under the archway and do it John fell in a few steps behind her do it which another way of saying this is there has always been a big person and a little person brawling inside you, and all your life the big person has been winning, but today it felt different somehow, like this dimension was really some other dimension in which the little person could win for once, which is the man who would be dead in five minutes glanced at you as he passed, briefly took in the album he had signed still clutched to your chest, and you could tell he didn’t recognize you anymore, didn’t even remember talking to you just a couple hours ago, because the tapeworm whisper-singing was getting louder, like the man who would be dead in five minutes and you were accelerating inside their song, and all these burning buildings were flickering past, and so you took two or three steps toward the archway that he had started to enter and you thought…what did you think? You thought—you thought yourself into a semi-squat, that combat stance you’ve seen in the movies, you know, aiming, calling out quietly: Mr. Lennon, only he didn’t hear you, was already fifteen feet away and he didn’t hear you, or maybe he did hear you but didn’t care, or maybe he was tired, or maybe he just had to take a piss, so you helped him care, calling after him a little louder, Mr. Lennon…John, and as he began to turn, you helped him care even more, just like they taught you on the shooting range, because John Lennon had changed the world, and now you were changing John Lennon, because you squeezed the trigger slow and steady, and it was BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!, and four of the five shots kissed him, and each shot knew it was a very special kind of love. Big chunks of him came out across the sidewalk and you imagined he would instantly collapse in a pile of his own reputation, yet he kept walking at an unbroken pace through that archway, following Yoko, and you kept trying to feel some sort of goodbye, each bullet not only a kiss, but also a wave from the shore as he waded out into the dark sea, it was good to have known you, John, good to have shot you, which is next you commenced hearing the Sixties quietly coming apart around you and hearing Yoko’s voice screaming John’s been shot! John’s been shot! and José was all of a sudden blundering at you. You didn’t move. Why would you move? A few eons later, he reached you and knocked the gun out of your hand, kicked it across the pavement. Do you know what you just did? he was shouting. Do you know what you just fucking did? He seemed confused. I just shot John Lennon, you said, trying to help him parse the recent developments, which is it was all at once very warm—what sort of December was this, anyway?—so you removed your hat, removed your coat, put your hands atop your head, and commenced pacing back and forth under the archway. Only that didn’t work. So you decided to take a seat on the curb and wait for the next part of your story, signed copy of Double Fantasy still clutched to your chest, mint copy of Catcher in the Rye still napping in the pocket of your coat bunched on the sidewalk. You passed the timelessness watching José remove John’s glasses, cover John with his own jacket, Yoko caught in the God Swirl, because later it will be something else. Later it will be that balding doctor holding the blown-apart man’s heart in his hands. It will be Gloria flying five thousand miles to the single-wide trailer they give us in Upstate New York, away from cameras and guards, where for forty-four hours at a stretch they let you pray together and order pizza together and watch Wheel of Fortune together and enjoy your cellular structures. Only then it was something else. It was just you sitting on the curb on a too-warm night, people standing way back, watching you as you thought about how this afternoon you were milling around in front of the Dakota after talking with José, after talking with the dumpy dumb-ass with camera and Hitler mustache, zoning, and out of the crowd stepped Sean with his nanny on one side and bodyguard on the other. He was five, and his face said he didn’t know yet what falling meant, didn’t have a fucking clue, and as they walked by you you stepped forward, came up from behind the nanny, reached around, and took Sean’s hand. He squinted up into your eyes and an electric breeze scrambled through you. He’s such a beautiful little boy, isn’t he? you said to the nanny, which is the bodyguard made a gesture as if he would undo the breeze, so you let go, and smiled, and stood up, and stepped back, surprised once more how hard it is to explain, but there is something so real, so present, about holding a little boy’s hand, you know, all this complicated simplicity allowing the body to say so much by doing so little.
Lance Olsen is the author of many novels, including My Red Heaven, Dreamlives of Debris, Theories of Forgetting, Calendar of Regrets, Head in Flames, and Skin Elegies; five nonfiction books, five short-story collections, a poetry chapbook, and two anti-textbooks about experimental writing, including Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing; as well as editor of two collections of essays about innovative contemporary fiction. Recipient of numerous awards, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.