Friday was a bad day for me. Over my morning coffee I learned yet another writer I loved and admired had asked himself Camus’s question and replied in the negative. Only a few days before, I’d seen an ad for Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and resolved to watch it as I had once obsessively watched every episode of No Reservations, sometimes repeatedly, before failing to follow him to CNN. Having forgotten Bourdain, there he was on a billboard, like an old coworker with whom I’d lost touch. It made me happy to catch up, to think of what adventures we would have together. Again.
A certain chill creeps down the spine whenever I learn of a writer’s suicide. By and large, writers are not well in the head to begin with. The compulsion to record, to constantly jot in notebooks, to write down every thought or trivial experience is not something ordinary people experience; it’s a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder sprouting from the anxiety each and every one of us feels, that black thing we try to keep hidden but which lies there like a wounded bear in a cave. Nor is our constant introspection, most of it self-critical, a looping Movietone news reel of past failures and mistakes and embarrassments, particularly healthy. There’s also the loneliness. And the rejection. Then too is our constant dismay at the state of things, in all places and all eras, at the injustice and stupidity of the planet. Scratch a writer and you scratch a glass half-empty, no matter how many teaspoons of jokes and one-liners he may stir into it.
And that’s the baseline. Spread a clinical mental illness like depression on top and it’s a wonder why more writers don’t rev the engine with the garage door closed.
Not all suicides affect the same way. I can only shake my head at Robert E. Howard, who at his death — at age 30! — stood in the doorway between the fantasy stories for which he is remembered and the kind of American adventure writing that would have probably shelved his works beside those of Jack London and Louis L’Amour. Ernest Hemingway’s shotgun-guzzling is easy to explain once you realize he very likely suffered from CTE after a lifetime of taking too many knocks — from amateur boxing, from auto accidents, from airplane crashes within days of each other — to the noggin.
On the other hand, the news of Spalding Gray bothered me. And Hunter S. Thompson rattled me hard, leading to several nights of face-on-my-desk consumption and a black umbrella that lingered overhead for weeks. I apologize, BTW, for anything I might have said or written on the Internet during that period.
To a writer, a writer’s suicide is always personal. You think about their spouses and children, and maybe even the works unwritten, but you can’t help suspect, deep down, that the act may be a prophecy as well. Is it future or is it past.
A few years ago I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which was met with less concern than relief. My father had bad OCD and was a hoarder while my mother was the victim of physical abuse by her parents, the reverberations of which it’s taken me some forty-odd years to recognize. You grow up thinking your life is normal, and only through the lens of hindsight do you think maybe not, and wonder if maybe it molded you a little, if perhaps it explains certain behavior.
“The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion,” Sartre tells us. “He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse.” There’s a lot of sense in that. Yet if your default position is toward a certain passion and you have to consciously move yourself out of that position to avoid going in a bad direction, then it stands to reason you may not have always possessed the awareness that such action was required on your part. You went with the default, which wasn’t the right choice, because you didn’t understand you had a choice. For me, the diagnosis was a map. It’s easier to see the exit to the hedge labyrinth from overhead than from ground level.
I have a to-read bookshelf in my house — not a virtual to-read shelf like on Goodreads but rather an actual shelf where I have books queued for landing like airplanes at EWR. Plucking Medium Raw, Bourdain’s brilliant collection of post-fame essays from 2010, off the shelf this weekend reminded me what a writer we’ve lost. The book is, cover to cover, electric prose, mixing personal stories of adventure and behind-the-scenes anecdotes with calls for basic cooking competency to be taught in our schools and Asian-style hawker markets — basically food courts with independent food stalls instead of chains — in our towns. You can hear his voice in every word; every chapter reads like the longer, uncut draft of a No Reservations monologue. It’s a beer with that funny friend of yours, the one who’s been out traveling the world while you were home paying the mortgage and helping Johnny with his math homework.
It also makes me wonder about Bourdain’s default positioning. Suicide is mentioned often, usually in Thompsonesque too-weird-to-live hyperbole. In one chapter, Bourdain describes escaping to St. Martin after the collapse of his first marriage, where every night he drove drunk while listening to a local, maybe pirate, radio station that spun an unpredictable playlist of yacht rock and classic hits:
You never knew what was coming up. In the rare moments of lucidity, when I tried to imagine who the DJ might be and what his story was, I’d always picture the kid from Almost Famous, holed up, like me, in the Caribbean for reasons he’d probably rather not discuss; only in his case, he’d brought his older sister’s record collection circa 1972. I liked to imagine him out there in a dark studio, smoking weed and spinning records, seemingly at random — or, like me, according to his own, seemingly aimless, barely under control, and very dark agenda.
He then talks about playing Russian roulette with the station and a stretch of cliffside road.
For a second or two each night, for a distance of a few feet, I’d let my life hang in the balance, because, depending entirely on what song came on the radio next, I’d decide to either jerk the wheel at the appropriate moment, continuing, however recklessly, to careen homeward — or simply straighten the fucker out and shoot over the edge and into the sea.
The French investigator in Bourdain’s death has said the evidence points to it being “an impulsive act.” That I believe.
I imagine death to be the ultimate earmuffs and blindfold, the only and best way for a writer to finally shut up the voices and the critics, to shut off the looping film reel projecting all of the bad memories and bad thoughts onto the screen behind their eyes. I can imagine peace there, and I suspect that’s what those writers who answer Camus with a No are really looking for — not attention, not you’ll-miss-me-when-I’m-gone spite, but just simple peace and quiet. What they don’t realize is that in the absence of their words, their blog posts and impressions and stories scribbled in notebooks and on the backs of envelopes and napkins while sitting in the waiting room or at the bar, the noise and lights are that much louder, that much more glaring, for the rest of us.