John Long: A Confederacy of Dunces
Navigating commercial hoopla on a bellyful of bad fish.
The trip started poorly. At 6 a.m. the previous day, I’d flown from LA to NYC for a meeting with a network VP who was nursing a hangover so grim he could only mumble and barely listened to a word we said. We were in and out of his office in exactly seven minutes. Two hours later, I flew back to LA, snatched a few hours’ sleep, then crawled onto another plane jetting for Palookaville, USA, and a book signing at a trade show. Semiconscious, with three espressos boiling my vitals, I wasn’t two minutes inside the show when a VP for my publisher installed me behind a haystack of books. My mood brightened as a big line formed up. I reminded the VP that his company had prospered on the backs of authors with my cachet and popularity.
“In a pig’s eye,” said the VP. “If we weren’t giving the books away, even your mother wouldn’t line up.”
“Don’t talk about my momma,” I snapped.
Fact is, most everyone at a trade show is on swag alert: Mention free anything (especially over the PA) and it’s like a pack of hyenas spotted Bambi in the veld.
I hate lines, but apparently less so than the 300 people waiting for free books. To reward them for their patience, I tried composing luminous blurbs to folks I’d never met and would never see again.
In five minutes, they were crashing the line, throwing elbows, and yelling things like, “Jeez, dude, you writing another short story or what?” I’d barely gotten the “L” written in “Long” when one guy—only the fourth or fifth person in line—jerked the book away, leaving a big black stripe across the title page. The VP jumped over and said that if I didn’t continue signing the books, half the crowd would try for a refund at the local climbing store. Wanting clean copies, the retailers would return all the books to the publisher, who, in turn, would haul them back for the following year’s trade show, where I could pass them out once more. I felt ludicrous.
Just before the books ran out, “Zeke” introduced himself as a journalist-slashclimber- slash-caver who, naturally, did a bit of creative writing on the side. I cringed as he wrestled a 600-page opus from his daypack, a neo-epic, by his assessment, drawn from his diabolical slitherings in a Kentucky cavern and modeled after Dante’s Inferno, with a touch of Spenser’s Faerie Queen worked in “to caress the female demographic.” I shagged off to the bathroom and never returned, a move that so pissed off the VP he later tossed my expense report in the trash.
Tired and cranky, I was sure to start a fight if I didn’t get some food. The problem solved itself when I found a booth taking orders for what I mistakenly thought was smoked fish. To lure potential customers, the boss—call him Simon Peter—had laid out a two-foot deep-water lunker, and would shave off tiny morsels for any passerby who fancied a taste. But I needed an honest meal, not communion, so when Simon Peter moved off the cutting board to write out an order, I sectioned off the lunker with a cleaver, plopped a hubcap-sized fillet onto a paper plate, and bolted.
Between official business, I spent half my time looking for certain people and the other half dodging others. Whether chasing or fleeing, I beat a regular path up and down a labyrinth of aisles and booths, cramming chunks of that fillet down my cake hole. For a smoked article, that lunker was as flavorless and dry as a Presto- Log. It also expanded terrifically inside my gob, and I could never have gagged it down if not for the beverages I nicked from surrounding booths. But I was a starving man, and in 15 minutes the fish was history.
I pressed on, past towering displays of outdoor merchandise, some so fantastically kooky I wondered how the inventors ever sold enough yak jerky or inflatable skis to rent a booth.
Take the company hawking “collectable” saws and hatchets. Gleaming cutlery covered the booth, and the bossman, a buoyant 300- pounder under a coonskin hat, sounded so much like Porky Pig that folks thought the guy was putting them on. Naturally, I walked straight over to Porky’s booth and started fondling Neptune’s own trident, or something like it. Porky was on me like an ear of corn.
“Ha … hav … have you seen our th … throw … throwing knives?” asked Porky, whipping out a prodigious shiv, sharp enough to cut an atom. “They make wo … wonder … wonderful gi … gi … gifts.”
“You must do a tidy business with divorcees,” I said. Just then, I spotted Zeke ambling up the aisle, scanning the landscape, his tome tucked under his arm.
“See that guy walking toward us?” I asked Porky, pointing toward Zeke. “Throw everything you got at him—pikes, battleaxes, the works. Do that, and you got a sale.” I dashed off and ran straight into “Danny,” standing in the middle of the aisle, rigged out in baggy hip-hop gear, his neck freighted with paste bling, arms outstretched in preamble to roaring, “Yo, Largo!”
If ever a rascal could hop up the proceedings, or get us arrested, it was Danny. He’s the only man I’ve ever heard use the words “ain’t” and “supernal” in the same sentence. When Danny goes off, people don’t know if they’re listening to Marcel Proust or Jed Clampett. We exchanged a 50-move handshake, then Danny started going off.
“This gaggle of crackers is killing Danny,” said Danny. “But let’s motate,” he added, pulling me along by the sleeve. “I’m talking ’bout the ne plus ultra of fillies.”
“The who?” I asked, but we were already at our destination, the showy booth of a European ski manufacturer.
“The promised land,” said Danny, thrusting his chin toward the talent posing at the entrance of the booth.
Up on a little stage stood a daffy, shirtless Adonis with what-me-worry detachment and a gallon of “product” in his mane, flanked on his left by Helen of Troy. Helen sported that fetching medley of black downhill-ski boots and a black bikini shrink-wrapped athwart her jutting plantation. Her do, trimmed in a brassy pageboy, was likewise raven black, but her eyes were steel blue, adding a startling touch to her ensemble.
I sidled up to Helen, looked her straight in the eyes, and asked, “Are those real?”
“No,” she said. “They’re contacts. I’ve got green ones as well.”
“They work for Danny,” Danny said.
“How come I’m not surprised,” said Helen, fingering my nametag. “You selling books?” I said that I wrote books and she asked what kind. “I mostly just clown around,” I admitted. “But I’m working on the Great American Novel.”
“Sure you are,” said Danny.
“How does the plot run?” asked Helen, ignoring Danny.
“A guy goes to a trade show and meets a stunning beauty,” I started.
“A love story?” Helen suggested.
“More like a fling,” I said, “but a fling to blow the top off Mount Saint Helens.”
Then a sudden, exploding pain doubled me over. It felt as though someone was inflating a beach ball inside of me, and in seconds my gut shot out so far I couldn’t see my shoes.
“Sweet Baby Jesus,” said Danny, feeling my distended belly. “It’s like freakin’ Alien.”
As I stumbled over to a bench, a crazy notion entered my head. On my last ounce of life, with one arm draped around Danny’s shoulder, I staggered back to Simon Peter. My eyes went straight to a large day-glo sign hanging above his booth. Only a man blinded by hunger could possibly have missed those fateful words: “Enjoy Dehydrated Fish.”
“Doesn’t stuff shrink when you dehydrate it?” I gasped to Simon Peter.
“And how,” he said, sweeping his hand across the lunker. “This grouper was a solid six-footer before we steamed it.”
I slumped to the floor, and Danny pulled me back to my feet.
“I ate, like, two feet of that thing,” I groaned. “I didn’t know.”
“You’ll never finish that novel now,” Danny said.
I’d torn into that dehydrated fish and hadn’t let off till I had a couple feet of grouper on board. Half a dozen sodas had puffed the fillet back to tractor-tire dimension, and now I would surely perish.
“All things must pass,” said Danny, who stuffed me into a cab for the hotel, where I lay down to die, alone, in a strange city, my family none the wiser.
After half an hour curled into a fetal knot I couldn’t hack it any longer, and had the bellman deliver a purgative to my room, hoping to somehow “pass” the grouper and cheat death. I downed the 16-ounce bottle of brown sludge in one draw then blacked out for a spell, owing to spirits in the physic. When I came to, my guts boiled like Niagara Falls, and when I felt the maelstrom drop, I barely gained the toilet bowl when my entire innards—fish included—fired forth much as grain drops from a silo.
In minutes, I felt like my old self, except hungrier. I showered and called down to room service for three chili dogs and some ale. But the purgative still held sway and the dogs dashed straight through me. That made me utterly ravenous so, half an hour later, figuring my tripe had recovered, I had the bellman unleash three more dogs and a couple more ales. But verily, the dogs could find no footing at all. I rang down again and told the bellman to hold the dogs off but keep the beers coming.
Six months prior, during a skydiving shoot in Cleveland, I had toured the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and seen a display featuring the lyrics of various iconic songs, scribbled out on hotel stationery, menus and so forth. I could just picture Jimi or Janis, stuck in a hotel room in some strange city, with kith and kin thousands of miles away. Their heroic minds naturally encountered a melancholic brooding, answered by an archetypal creative process resulting in songs for the ages—or, in my case, me drinking beer after beer while watching an all-night “Mr. Ed” marathon.
As the sun burst over the hoary plane, the moment finally came when Wilbur, Mr. Ed’s master and confidant, leaned into Ed’s stall and confessed a bitter personal loss. Mr. Ed whinnied reflectively and said, “A horse can never lose something that belongs to him, even if he throws it away. Same goes for a man.”
This phrase snapped me up in bed. I couldn’t yet grasp the prophetic import of the equine oracle, but the words were worth remembering; I scribbled them onto a coffee filter, then dozed for a couple hours and took a long, chilly walk back to the show. Danny met me for breakfast (which, thankfully, took hold), and we began the compulsory tour of the aisles.
Every pillar and post bore blown-up photos of candied models posing as adventure stars, climbing and skiing and plowing through rapids. Video-promo reels zinged on gigantic plasma screens as pitchmen—slick, silly, with enormous white teeth—proclaimed some needless doo-dad as vital for all outdoorspeople.
“Zeus almighty,” said Danny, pointing toward a man storming around in front of a booth with a wireless mic on his head. “Ain’t that Ralph?’”
It took a moment to recognize our old friend, turned out in a scarlet Velour tracksuit and spewing all the cant of the advertising world, the native hearth of cons and wankers. Like a handful of other friends, Ralph had started his own company with one aspiration: to harvest funds for enough Spam and Diet Cokes to keep the adventures going and, occasionally, to mount a foreign junket. But as adventure sports took off, corporate mores and bosses smashed this lifestyle approach and booted the boys from the boardroom.
Ralph brayed on about a “revolutionary” new pack design.
“Guy climbs 50 big walls, and now look at him,” said Danny. “No more than a silly little gigolo.”
“Let’s beat it,” I said, as we headed over to the block-long booth of a popular softgoods company.
Before moving into the heart of this exhibit, where we hoped to meet a few old friends, we worked the edges, taking a moment to check out a dashing new line of sporting duds. We tallied up a complete outfit (including “technical” socks) for summertime sport climbing: $385.
“The only clods who can afford to rope up these days are tax attorneys and plastic surgeons,” said Danny, tossing the duds back onto the table. “And they ain’t got no time.” We moved into the crowd huddled in the middle of the booth.
Here were many of my peers—including several old ropemates—turned out in those pricey crag duds, glad-handing retailers while speaking out the sides of their mouths. I’d attended dozens of trade shows, had seen this opera 50 times, and still saw the boys in a bygone light. They were just performing up there. Screwing off. But now, when I actually looked, I felt like one of these same, pitiful buffoons. And Danny was right there with me.
“They ought to drop a bomb on the whole joint,” he said. “Put us out of our misery. … ”
We ran from the booth and down the aisle, past a huge rubber raft that I felt like paddling to the edge of the world. Years ago we’d all lined up for the hardest routes. The only demands were of our own making, and each of us was Captain of his life. Somehow we had veered off course and foundered on the promise of something more, something we didn’t have, one million things we thought we couldn’t live without. Now many of us had “everything”—families, houses, the works. But we also had nothing at all because we were no longer individuals in any sovereign way. We’d bastardized ourselves into human commodities, pimping adventure to the highest bidder.
Everyone holds in his heart an image of who they hope to become. Most of us counted ourselves blessed because we had surmounted that image high on a rock wall, where we embraced a frontier beyond words and beyond ourselves. Then we’d thrown it all away for a plug nickel, a feather bed and a shoulder to lean on. I remembered Chuck Pratt, Warren Harding and Billy Westbay, all of them now gone, three of the most uncompromising souls to ever come out of Yosemite, and I felt lonely and ashamed.
Almost silently, the words of that palomino philosopher, Mr. Ed, echoed through my head: “A horse can never lose something that belongs to him, even if he throws it away. Same goes for a man.”
Ed was probably right. I’d been through this many times: An imperious truth hurls you into freefall, and everything seems lost. And for a time, it is. New directions would open up only if I released my epic memories and a path that had run its course. No one can climb the same mountain forever. But just then it seemed we were no more than Eliot’s “Hollow Men,”and this was the way it all ended.