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Thanksgiving in Vegas
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 7:53 pm - Thanksgiving in Vegas
December Press Box 302 Highland Park, ILL 60035 12.50

Curt Johnson: Master Of White Multi-Culturalism

I used to be a multi-culturalist and would probably still be one if it hadnít become a jingoistic parody of itself. I paid my dues for truth during the highwater mark of federalism in the 50s; I said in college papers the United States has many and diverse strands of survival systems. I was almost kicked out of school for it.
Well, if one lives long enough oneís ideas either fail or take on a grotesque and indefensible quality if they were true because somebody has figured out a more cunning way of evading what they cannot destroy.
I tell my son, now enduring the early destruction of most of his own generation in the public school system, that multi-culturalism he hears is lies. Martin Luther King for example, was a much more interesting and peculiar man than the icon the schools make him out to be, sharing with JFK a fatiguing passion for adultery and promiscuity. His civil rights movement was one big party as well as a juggernaut for Black political franchise. His economics consisted of a plan to put the whole country on Welfare: called a guaranteed income. People are not icons. They have bad days, bad idea, erratic judgment, and yet they deserve or compassion and charity and King was one of the best of us; errant humanity is what we have and what we are.
We accept naivete and failure in love but not ideas. In the end the far right racist States Righters and the far left Lefties were the great multi-culturalists of America. Merde, what a paradox!
Multi-culturalism and its oddities have everything to do with Curt Johnson. Back in the early 60s of sainted memory Curt was the editor and spiritual force who led a movement based around Chicago that for now over three decades has published native Midwest writers among other geniuses, and has for thirty years been the spearhead of indigenous White middle class multi-culturalism.
His December Press has printed novels and tales by hundreds of authors as good as anybody. As a leader, Curt has stood for the singularity of a rebellious country whose capital is Chicago, whose old time writers include Ernest Hemingway, Ben Hecht, Richard Wright, James T. Farrell, Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and Hugh Hefner. Curtís published people in a much tougher time for writers of sterling quality. Those who love literature and want thirty excellent books should write to him for his list. Again and again, he has written as a critic in mags or such books as his Wicked City, (note the Lutheran irony of the title) a bible of the singular traditions of the Midwest and the path to avoid provincialism of the East Coast and Europe by taking oneís own life and the world around one as oneís realty.
Chicago is a harsh city where contrasts do not even include spring and fall: it is a logical place for Curt to have evolved into what he is. The dissenters in such a great town would be as decisive in their rebellions as their weather. August institutions like the University of Chicago look as if they were transplanted by a comedic deity from Oxford. One can walk from this etude in fantasy south several blocks to 63rd Street down Richard Wrightsí cruel streets where to the legendary blues joints where Muddy Waters once reigned and one may still hear the harmonica of Junior Wells. Itís a good town for the birth of White middle class multi-culturalism.
Curtís latest novel, Thanksgiving In Vegas, is the most direct harvest of his meditations on Midwest culture and its congress with our local range of humanity. The narrativeís two parts tell of twin affairs, one at nineteen, the other over sixty, in which a very White very middle class Lutheran-born Midwesterner has an amorous episode with a woman who is the epitome of the Jewish literate culture of the 1940s, and a lady equally a paradigm of the Black culture of the 1990s.
As brilliant and subtly amusing as Curtís writing is, the singular central effect of this books comes from the multi-cultural meditation of the author on the peculiarities of three very different cultures and the comedy of living in a country where they often meet.
The hero and linchpin of this tale of amorous dark comedy has most of the paradigmal virtues and vices of your Ernest Hemingway Midwesterner. He is honest, tries to be truthful, drinks too much, has a Manichean sense of the pilgrim that both life and his own weakness has corrupted him, is curiously in love with his own innocence and has never committed himself to a marriage, lives well on a corporate hustle, is crippled by a curious sense of passivity in the face of experience and a world which seems forever strange, and is possessed of a furious and nihilistic melancholy.
The Jewish lover of his youth, Barbara, is part of the epicurean and morally loose midcentury upper middle class world in which the grandchildren of Jewish emigrants took up a kind of sybaritic and fashionably mildly depressed pagans with much style and little vigor. The hero reacts toward her with a mix of chivalric and lustful attitudes both painfully parochial; he is a momentary fling to her yet he even fantasizes during the brief liaison and afterwards that he might woo and marry her.
The Black lover of his early old age, Ruth is a feisty, slightly crazy and self-destructive high flyer who basically is beating her lover out of as much cash as she can hustle him for. She has a graduate degree in social science, she has been in prison, she is a coke head, and most of the time she seems out of control. Even as an old man, oddly chivalric and possessed of a kind of pickled innocence, he is not armed for what is in front of him. He cares about the long legs and beauty and style of these women, and for these virtues endures their character.
Las Vegas becomes the capital of a psychic country he inhabits: an artificial city filled with a thousand experiences all of which are some variety of blind crapshoot.
The hero is a fool. Curtís take on his multi-cultural world, as in his earlier Three Voices, is that nothing in Midwestern life prepares a man for the complexities of sexual intimacy or scrambling in this republic. His multi-culturalism is a tool for being himself in a diverse reality. He has no icons, no enemies, no causes, no jingoistic notion of native perfectibility.
Curtís world is one of many different people wrestling with their demons with diverse tools to face the inner sprites and dragons, with no conclusions, no victories, and never as long as one is alive, a decisive defeat. Somebody ought to hire Curt to do a bio of both Martin Luther and Martin Luther King.
If Curt knocks the preparation of whitebread American Lutheran training we all might reflect the founder of that sect was Martin Luther: no icon, wrestling with demons his whole life and whose personal honesty is more important morally than all the crazy things he thought and did. Maybe Martin Luther is the grandfather of multi-culturalism.
Though realistic as the ultimate Midwest multi-culturalist, Hemingway, for the cognoscenti Curt is spinning an elaborate and subtle myth in his opus. In a holy city of pure money Thanksgiving is celebrated ironically by three paradigms at the rise and decline of the Pax Americana. Barry, the whitebread hero, advisor of corporate CEOs, has medievally good qualities- honesty, bravery in a fight, a high chivalric adoration for women, but he never marries, never finds his love, and by the days of his ripeness swims in a sea of alcohol. Very crudely, he is an icon of the American Empire.
Sadly, the midcentry epicurean populism of self-invented melancholic New Yorker type gentry in his youth were not his true love; his Jewish lover with all her elegance was too shallow to appreciate anything beyond graphic pleasure. Ruth, the Black lover of his pathetic, swinish and impotent old age is too obsessed with money and sybaritically chaotic to see more in Captain America than a living credit card.
It is civil of Curt to clothe this severe critique in narrative and myth. Who can deny his esoteric charge that in our century the solitary, honest and innocent Lutheran wrestler of the American heartlands was never loved or embraced for his deeper self by the feminine harbinger of a supposedly superior civilization embodied in successive forms of alternative other-than-whitebread populist quests for pleasure? Martin Lutherís God never let anybody including Martin Luther off easy.
Multi-culturalist Curt does not offer us a colonial parable of history such as one might get from Franz Fanon or the more subtle Derek Walcott. Civilization is divided, says Walcott, into empty slave societies with only the power to dominate and folk tribes whose very language cannot rise about the particular to the general and abstract argot of power which produces science and internal surveillance (Foucualtís term). Curt, the Midwesterner, no colonialist, has three inept populisms hump and bump into each other in the dark. Had he lived in the East Curt would have had an Episcopalian lover and some federalist and anti-federalist meditation.
This side of Curt, the social critic, is offered in a larger way in the encyclopedic study of the effects of greed, a pure overriding hunger for money, and the moral deceits of capitalism upon Americaís real capital, Wicked City (same address, 19.95). This is no narrow polemic but a Balzacian meditation on human capacities for good and evil, very similar in tone to Gene Fowlerís elegiac Timberline.
If nearly all its massive narrative is a satirical compendium of such colorful and raffish luminaries as Insull, Yerkes, Marshall Field, Al Capone, Torrio, and the other high flyers, the study of class American style defined by money, the dream of order of its ruthless hitmen peacemakers to make theft efficient between the inevitable betrayals, the central departure from a healthy politics that dominates a society in lawless free fall, lards every line. Curt notes that none of those mad for money and power were interested in love. Charity and intimacy was an insane taste to them.
In the last chapter Curt offers a major analysis of the inherently moral skew under which we are living as our Ancient Enemy, the corporate world, and its doppelganger with a gun, the crime world, have come up from the dead to haunt us again.
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