"I know the way you can get / When you have not had a drink of love." --Hafiz
Some books take almost a life time to be written, because they are born of experience, of having been there and back again, living to tell the stories that no one else could possibly tell, not in this way, with as much truth, pain and broken beauty as such experience affords us. In Spent Saints, Brian Smith writes a book sorely needed in this current age where we often come up short on empathy, here we are confronted with all of the people our culture forgets, addicts, the working poor, the unemployed, unloved kids, bad marriages, bad lives, unkind, unforgiving landscapes, unresolved hatreds, glimmers of hope and just enough love left in these lost, weary souls to still be recognizably human. Brian Smith is a more forgiving Hubert Selby, there is no last exit, there are many roads left open, even if they remain mostly untraveled by the wounded inhabitants of this book.
In Lost in the Supermarket, the book opens with a man named Rowdy passed out on someone else's lawn. Surrounded by "Flawless symmetries of houses and yards. Boomroomy tract houses with polished door hinges and wagon-wheel mailboxes and shiny cars that left no oil stains on driveways, each home filled with a happy family so perfect that they left no mark in front yards or on the street, never an errant playground toy or uncoiled garden hose. Brand-newness owned everything, like the hundreds of homes he’d worked on. Rowdy saw it all as unreachable success, the kind of success designed for people who aren’t him."
We are pulled into Rowdy's skin from the get go, something wet wakes him and us up. These are not easy, gentle lives. We hear pool filters humming, promised lands made to everyone else, like salt rubbed into a wound. "Clean, rinsed suburbia always made [him] aware and ashamed of his scars, and he felt like a dirty outsider. He longed for that car, that dog, that wife, that dental plan, that stainless steel refrigerator stocked to the gills. He could be unsoiled, walled in by all-you-can-drink wet bars and swimming pools, with big screens in every room and fake Mexican tiles and giant silk pillows on king-sized beds. Everything would be swollen — the cars, the faces, the lawns, the sun, the wallets, the sky, the produce sections, the cancer, the lives. He wanted to be numbed and comforted by all of that safety, diversion, excess."
Walking in the desert heat, trailed by bored suburban kids on bikes, we hear Rowdy's inner monologue of all that has gone wrong for him over the years, and of all that he still dreams of, still longs for. A passing driver of this unattainable suburbia, shakes Rowdy's mind, "He reminded himself that people do what they must to survive. He understood a need to survive, how it manifests into a profound blankness that’s a long long way from ever returning to nature. People here overcame the odds to live and breathe on these streets and lead dreamed-of lives with their wives and their wounds and their kids." Rowdy may have missed that boat, but he hasn't stopped wanting it, something far better than he has now, which is next to nothing. Next to nothing is not nothing, this is Smith's core reminder throughout Spent Saints.
In The Grand Prix we have a kid who competes, extremely, as a cyclist, like a cutter with a blade, to make manifest and real an inner, inescapable ache. His coach's hand on his shoulder "felt like it belonged to someone’s dad, and it comforted him." The youngest character in Spent Saints, a kid who has "heroes, not parents." Whose "parents’ marriage had gone off the rails before [he] was born. Mom couldn’t stand Dad who couldn’t stand himself. Dinner table conversations were non-existent, only tired grunts from a dad intolerant to the sound of his children; Mom rarely made it home after work. She’d occupy any number of mid-town barstools and hotel rooms with her married boss from the downtown office where she worked." And the kid is good. He pushes himself past what a body is capable of enduring, but these bodies defy logic, they have little choice but to defy it. In a world so shut down and short on kindness, one person's belief in you can go a long way. When your Dad can only muster this advice, "Dreams just don’t work out, son. You’ll wind up flipping burgers. That way of teaching violence, from father to son, filled the living room with fear, rage and dread. The knuckle-to-bone terror that only a father can administer to his son."
Pushing himself through blinding, bone crushing pain in a competitive race, Smith conjures up, through this kid, one of the many profound insights that bubble up throughout these incredible stories; "It’s an addict’s need, this yearning and learning to live on risk and pain. Winning teaches you how greatness lurks down deep inside, and quells childhood beat downs that said you don’t ever belong anywhere. And that joy of winning — there’s something about that kind of joy, it’s hard-earned because it rises from a place of pure agony. Hums like the perfect song, the perfect prose, the perfect painting, and your shoes can hold you up above the earth and you’re able to walk like that." There is something inside each of these characters that just will not allow their lights to go completely out.
Part of the challenge of living, especially when so much has been taken from you or has never even been given to you in the first place, is developing appreciation for the possible in the face of the impossible. Smith strives to place questions marks in the suffering of these lives. We don't know for sure if they're doomed or not, we suspect they can still turn things around. There's no naive optimism here, but if you've ever lived rubbed this raw to the bone, and are still here, it's the kind of faith you can't have in things beforehand, it comes at the other end of the tunnel, this book and its author, I suspect, somehow made it through.
In the title story, Spent Saints, we get a glimpse into the music business and a California where "even the palm trees [want] a better life."
Of music producers who are on "spiritual Auto-Tune," who no longer "get it" the transcendence, the emotional weight of a song. At a coke fueled party we encounter a faded actress who is "reclined on [an] antiquated sitter, framed by Beverly Hills in the window, she was lost, broken. I fought off images of our own future lives, the disconnections, sadnesses, and agonies. This is where it all leads," muses the main character, as he musters the courage to follow his integrity and leave the luxury flat back out into the unforgiving California night with his fellow band members. We get the sense that things may not work out well at all for any of these people, but as Bob Forrest once said of his own battle with drug addiction, "I thought inevitably this isn't going to end well, but I was mistaken because it does end well if you don't die." Smith understands this and conveys it hauntingly in the pores of every single story in Spent Saints.
In Eye for Sin, a man and his friend Tinkles, on their way to score meth from a racist skin head, gives this description of a place that time has forgotten and that hope has overlooked, "I saw sallow faces in joyless interiors lit up in reality show colors, the hues of celebrity deification and yearnings for easy fame and wealth. It gave the illusion of living in vibrant lights. Hi-def desperation fueled on meth, fantasy." Inside a trailer that smells of armpits and despair, a woman at the door who "vanished like a ghost down the dark hallway. She had no presence, emanated nothing, and left little impression. People ravaged by crystal meth are like that; like something tangible in their being — astral planers say “aura” — had been eaten away. You see them physically but they’re lighter in every sense of the word."
Another woman in the same despair filled trailer, missing an eye, had "taken the time to apply makeup around her one eye — eyeliner, shadow, mascara. In that moment she broke my heart. She knew too many ways to die but instead had accepted some way of living, and the makeup committed her to a kind of composure, or a sense of place in this world. Maybe the colors helped her dream of the girl she used to be and no amount of deformity could crush that." Smith works hard to portray the glimpses of inner children even in the deepest, darkest corners of living. Humanity won't quit these people. We should know this, but we often forget it. That is the power of this book, its reminder that nothing human should be foreign to us.
In No Wheels, a man on his nightly run to buy alcohol from a convenience store, "this Circle K was life among the dead. It was the quick fix in a neighborhood where there were no outs. At night its bright fluorescent lights reached out offering hope for late-night transience, for the lonely and the reclusive. Hope for the meth-addled prostitutes whose bodies were long past reclamation, and for the desert-rat dayworkers with shot, red eyes. It was light for those like me who were just becoming aware that they were speeding on some road to the bottom and not even listening to what their own story might or might not have been telling them." Where fellow neighbors "get drunk and slow dance to old Emmylou Harris records on the front porch," and conversations amongst curbside drinkers who "had zero chance of ever becoming one of those people whom others respected and admired." Who had all "dropped out of something, or [were] hiding out from someone, or [were] just damaged in some way. [Or] all three of those things." One of the curbside drinkers, Raul, asks another man named Frank, “So how do you live with a wife that you hate?” Frank said, “You take that hate and tell yourself you’re just reliving some hateful episode from younger days. It’s not hate. It’s love. You just get tired.”
We don't know what we're capable of surviving until we do. Dark nights feel like they'll never end, the years piling up in front of us like reminders of all the things we can't change but nonetheless long to. It's longing that saves our ass sometimes. This book and its author know just how dark a life can become, which is also why Spent Saints keeps roads, fates open. It's a testament to Leonard Cohen's "through the cracks, that's how the light get's in." That goes for people too. Through the cracks in each of these character's skin hope gets through, a little broken on the inside, wounded on the battlefield, a lot can go wrong, a lot can go right, if we survive.
These lives aren't good, or easy, or joyous, but they are lives nonetheless. Smith's great achievement is to constantly remind us at every pained, turn of the page, that these are in fact lives, broken ones whose pieces matter. Smith pays attention to the fragments a person can become, not to romanticize their suffering, but to hear voices still singing in the dark, unrecognizable but worthy songs, a chorus of lives in disrepair and breakdown, hauntings of could have beens, promises just out of reach. Yet the point is that they still reach, still go on despite almost unbearable odds. Doing the best and the worst that they can with what little they have. A little bit of anything can go a long way. Hope, love, empathy, will, desire. Maybe having too much of something keeps us from acting at all. These characters are worn out but they are still in their lives. Hurting, struggling, longing, living. Wildly, bravely, brokenly, for as long as their bodies will let them, which is to say for as long as they are alive.
"All we need to begin again is our lives," Susan Sontag once wrote. Smith takes that dictum very seriously. In Spent Saints, we see an American landscape that is still very much like the one we live in now. Hope is on short supply, and even when everyone is said to have access to it, very few feel like they do. But this book isn't about defeat, like a plant that survives in an ill suited climate, the characters in Spent Saints do too.
Buy the book here spentsaints.com
Spent Saints will be released from Ridgeway Press in March
Visit Brian Jabas Smith's website for all of his latest news and projects at www.briansmithwriter.com/
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