Timothy in the Underworld: a literary tour of the 1990s

  1. In 1995, I left Florida for Alabama. Thus, the ’90s for me were bifurcated in two perfect halves. The first half was childhood, beaches, and high school. The second was young adulthood and college in the former capital of the Confederacy. 
  2. This same year, an American terrorist named Timothy McVeigh detonated a homemade bomb in Oklahoma City. He killed 168 people, including nineteen children, and wore a shirt with John Wilkes Booth’s famous words, “Thus endeth all tyrants.” He was executed three months before September 11, in the year of our lord, 2001. 
  3. McVeigh has nothing and everything to do with the literature of the ’90s. He was a veteran of the first Gulf War, disillusioned not by the carnage of that short-lived conflict but by the standoff in Waco with the Branch Davidians and the killing of a separatist’s family in Ruby Ridge. These three events marinated in the early days of the Internet, blossoming into cascading conspiracy theories around black sites and mind control. 
  4. At a distance, it’s clear that terrorism in its various forms was a major theme of the decade, political discontent morphing into violence. 
  5. At a distance, it’s clear that terrorism has been a major theme since the 1970s: The Monkeywrench Gang, Americana, American Pastoral, Outlaws, Leviathan, and on and on. 
  6. (Let me be clear. McVeigh was no hero; he was a murderous asshole.) 
  7. I started the decade reading Christopher Pike and ended it reading Mark Danielewski. I was sluiced through the chunnel of higher education and grateful for it. It was nothing less than magic.
  8. The big novels of the ’90s—Infinite Jest, The God of Small Things, The Golden Compass, The Shipping News, Underworld, The Secret History, All the Pretty Horses, and The Things They Carried. Most of these passed me by. I was too young, too unplugged from literary culture. 
  9. The ’80s gave us Bret Easton Ellis, a sex- and status-obsessed rich kid with some good ideas and plenty of bad ones; Raymond Carver, now eternally locked in readers’ minds with his brilliant but punishing editor, Gordon Lish; Margaret Atwood, John Irving, Alice Walker, William Gibson, Salmon Rushdie, and Toni Morrison. 
  10. I missed all that. I read Stephen King and Peter Straub and Anne McCaffery and L. Ron Hubbard, dozens of discardable fantasy and plenty of junky action, like the Mack Bolan series. But my favorite author was Dan Simmons. 
  11. Simmons has written a lot of novels, but for my purposes he wrote two epic horror novels, Summer of Night and Carrion Comfort, alongside Hyperion and its three sequels. 
  12. Hyperion tells its story through a Canterbury Tales set-up, with pilgrims making their way to a distant planet, where the spiky sentinel god, the Shrike, rules in silence, guarding the time tombs, where time moves backwards. God, I loved it.  
  13. Summer of Night is the perfect mashup of Ray Bradbury nostalgia and Stephen King storytelling. Things go awry in a small town and a group of middle schoolers take it on themselves to combat the evil. It’s the summation of all the great American horror fiction up to its point, with elements of the gothic and the baroque, unease and titillation, where an ancient evil is conquered by adolescent team building. 
  14. Carrion Comfort is something else, an excessive and distressing story of aging, psychic vampires fighting each other through proxies, with loads of collateral damage. I’d never read anything like it, with its alternating viewpoints and enormous cast of characters. 
  15. So I was a pulp fiction guy, immune to the fineries of language, happy in my gutter of the literary world. I didn’t understand the way people rhapsodized over the prose of this or that book. I really was a philistine, and happy to be so. My favorite movie was Lethal Weapon for Christ’s sake. 
  16. Then I read Babbitt
  17. Babbitt is more known than read these days, a 1920s satirical novel that still has bite. It follows its titular character through a few months of his miserable life. He’s a bloviating know-it-all windbag, provincial to his core, close-minded, prejudiced. But he’s also likable, believable, anxious, self-sabotaging. I could recognize him. His small defeats and even smaller victories felt more important than the space battles and slaughter, the cheap sex scenes and the bullshit dystopias I was used to. The blinders fell off my eyes. I was nineteen years old, and falling in love. 
  18. My next class dropped me into contemporary novels. I read Beloved, All the Pretty Horses, and Love Medicine. Beloved was beyond my reach, upsetting and tough for me to absorb; foolishly, I read the bulk of it in one day. It’s magnificent, a great novel, but it demanded more than I had to give. 
  19. All the Pretty Horses was something else, an astonishing western that encapsulated the two major strands of American literature, the maximalism of Faulkner and the minimalism of Hemingway. Love Medicine was my favorite, a collection of linked stories set in and around an Indian reservation in Minnesota. It’s sexy, raw, harrowing, heartbreaking. 
  20. I read all of Cormac McCarthy’s books, most of Louise Erdrich’s. McCarthy writes in a neo-Biblical prose, his books feeling ancient and rugged; they feel like they exist outside of anyone’s mind, etched in stone or inked onto human skin. I now try to read Blood Meridian every other year. 
  21. But he’s a dangerous writer to fall for, demanding emulation but impossible to mimic and God knows I tried. He sits at the center of so many swirling strands of American literature, but writes with a voice all his own, some wandering mad prophet in the desert of America.
  22. What is American literature anyway? It’s an uneasy combination of art and commerce, an enormous bag of charlatans, outsiders, misogynists, poets, self-promoters, seekers, visionaries, wordsmiths, hucksters, hustlers, and mimics. It’s poetry and pornography. 
  23. The world sees us as a young country with an unsophisticated culture, but look at the books! I declared myself an English major in 1997 and immersed myself in the Western canon. 
  24. I read the defining novel of the decade in 2003. I speak of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. It was a profound reading experience. DeLillo is a product of the late 1960s and early ’70s, a workhorse postmodernist who hit his creative peak with this fabulous and dense novel, released in 1997. 
  25. The cover had the Twin Towers ascending into gray clouds, an eerie, sinister image that took on vicious new meaning four years later. 
  26. There it is again, terrorism, the specter that in retrospect haunts the decade of surplus, dot-com booms, and an entirely new vocabulary of computer-based logic and thinking. 
  27. The cult of Charles Bukowski ignited in the early ’90s. The dude was everywhere. I wasn’t immune to his charms. After reading On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at twenty, I discovered Bukowski and read Ham on Rye and The Charles Bukowski Reader—in Disney World of all the fucking places—in short order. I had zero in common with this grouchy ass, but I loved his work. A friend warned me, “Don’t hold him responsible for his asshole fans. They suck.” My friend was right. 
  28. “People prefer beautiful lies to the truth,” Bukowski writes in one of these books. That could be the coda of the entire decade. 
  29. The French love James Ellroy, another dominant voice in the ’90s, wielding a prodigious style—hard-boiled but also Dickensian, a distillation of all the crime and detective fiction of the 20th Century—painting enormous canvases of corrupt and stinking Los Angeles in the 1940s. I catch him at the tip of the 21st century. The French critics dubbed him the Demon Dog. Sounds about right. When he’s good, he’s remarkable, a singular voice and vision. He’s an outsider, like Bukowski or Philip K. Dick, coming to books through an autodidact’s love of reading. 
  30. The memoir craze kicked off with two books: Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. They’re very fine books, filled with truthiness, and they sold like hotcakes. We’re still living in the aftermath of their success. Ellroy wrote a memoir of his own, My Dark Places, where he investigates the murder of his mother when he was a child. It’s one of the darkest books I’ve read, a descent into utter nightmare. I loved it. 
  31. Back to Underworld. DeLillo captures a lot of the zeitgeist here: weird performance artists, racism, sports, government overreach, terrorism, and the vast spaces of America, the internet. It’s a miracle, but something in the writing of it broke DeLillo. He never reached the same heights again. I know because I read all of his books. My personal favorite is Running Dog, his take on the thriller novel, a very strange book. He seemed to intuit everything that was coming in this hard-to-define epic. 
  32. The writer who did the most damage was Thomas Pynchon. I read The Crying of Lot 49 for a class and was mesmerized by its funky idiosyncrasies. I sought out V. and Gravity’s Rainbow and read them both. I adored V. but I struggled through Rainbow, reading it over a one-month period, carting it along as my cousin and I drove across the country, through Tennessee and Oklahoma and Nebraska and Colorado and Wyoming then cutting back on I-90 all the way to Illinois. 
  33. Pynchon burrowed into my psyche, drawing occult symbols in my subconscious. He offers byzantine labyrinths of language and absurd conspiracies with no answers, plots with no resolutions, puns, slapstick, orgies, abject body horror. The first line of Gravity’s Rainbow is unforgettable: “A screaming comes across the sky.” 
  34. I discovered Steve Erickson, one of the great punk geniuses of American letters, who experiments with form, as opposed to his sentences or prose. You could call him Pynchon-lite, but that’s unfair to both writers. His characters leave dimensions, travel through time, exist in cities that are perpetually on fire. He’s so much fun to read, even when the stories are hard to grasp. He manifests not just an alternate point of view but an alternate reality of contemporary America, where time is permeable and symbols, myths, and stories collide, break into pieces, and reform. 
  35. Trainspotting appeared. I saw the movie first then read the book, not buying it, but reading it in chunks at a Barnes & Noble. It felt radical then but foolish now. I was stymied by the dialect but drawn to the sleaze and titillation, the degradation of its junky-heroes. This kicked off a drug-lit craze in my reading, culminating in William Burroughs’s best book, Junky, and attempts at his subsequent titles, many of them unreadable. For a brief time, I believed drug addicts were the purest humans, the best specimens of the genus homo erectus. What innocent nonsense. 
  36. Burroughs was still around in the 1990s, a crazy fucker who loved guns and knives. He gloried in his outlaw status. A lot of it was probably a put-on, a mask, but also the life he lived. I tried to read Naked Lunch multiple times, never quite getting it. He cut up a manuscript no one wanted and assembled it at random, now he’s a genius? I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now. He got a pass from peaceniks and lefties because of his Beat Generation bona fides. As the years pass, he looks more and more like a creepy predator with a vast appetite for transgression. 
  37. Barry Hannah’s Airships belongs in here, a wild collection of short stories that will blister your eyeballs. Hannah is one of the real wild men of Southern literature, a lifelong imbiber who wandered around the college campus where he taught, cranked on booze and armed with a pistol. I met him at a conference in 1999. He was fat, tanned, bald, sober, a cornpone Buddha, friendly and loose with his incredible smile. He’s a superb stylist, if sometimes slaphappy and prose-drunk. 
  38. (Ray is probably his best book, a compact, disciplined but also wild as fuck novel.)
  39. (Hannah wrote a story with William Burroughs in it, as a character, “Two Things, Dimly, Were Going at Each Other.”) 
  40. College syllabi: “Sonny’s Blues,” “A & P,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and The Awakening. Half a dozen Romantic poets, some medieval sagas, most of the plays of Shakespeare, William Dean Howells, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Morte d’Arthur, Melville, Hawthorne, Heart of Darkness, “Barn Burning,” and “The Blue Hotel.” 
  41. Plus too much Joseph Conrad—five or six of his books!—but The Secret Agent blew me away. It tells the true-ish story of anarchists in England trying to blow up a landmark. They fuck it up, a few of them die. The best character is the Professor, a madman who walks around with a detonator in his pocket. A policeman corners him and the Professor tells him that this is the best he’ll get, two deaths by explosion. The policeman lets him walk.
  42. There it is again: terrorism. This time in a novel from 1907.  
  43. One of my professors writes “truth” and “fact” on the chalkboard, and we discuss and debate the limits of one and the areas of overlap. We settle on certain fictions, especially Shakespeare, being true but not factual at all. It’s an epiphany for me. 
  44. I loved this professor as a teacher but hated him as a man. He was a joyful lecturer, but in person he was venal, dismissive, ungenerous, litigious—an all-around gaping asshole of a human being. I later end up helping him self-publish a work of fantasy, something he labored over for years. It was terrible. He was a dick when it didn’t sell. This, too, was an epiphany for me. People contain multitudes. I wasn’t unique. 
  45. My professors help but I’m committed to a path all my own. I initiate myself into the mystery religion of the people of the book. It’s a large, underground group of lone wolves, reading their lives away with every free minute. 
  46. I was impossible, relentless in my daily talk of the fineries of literature, opinionated without the years of reading to back those opinions up, pretentious and incorrigible. My appetite for books was rapacious. I was making up for lost time.
  47. My dad sees that I’m falling way outside the mainstream. He’s baffled by it. He doesn’t understand the appeal of difficult books, difficult authors, esoterica. 
  48. He’s right. I’m falling into the subterranean world of literary subgenres, a magical place where nothing is prohibited. Comics author Alan Moore argues that magic is really nothing else than unfettered imagination—that the realm of imagination is both a metaphor and a real place we can access through a variety of processes—and I agree with him. How else to describe communing with another mind, often a dead person?
  49. All reading is alchemy. All reading is magic. 
  50. Enter Terence McKenna, another figure in the 1990s, part of the underground drug literature that bubbled up into the mainstream. He’s a real wild thinker, brilliant but suffering from what he himself calls the “delusion of reference,” bowling you over with anecdotes about the plant kingdom, history, gnosticism, early Christianity, paganism, and more. He always almost makes sense. This is his superpower. No one read him, but everyone talked about him, his fractal graphs and chaos theory. He claimed that information would reach a saturation point in 2012, the same year the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world. 
  51. “Earth is a place,” McKenna writes, “where language has literally become alive. Language has infested matter; it is replicating and defining and building itself.” Language is an alien virus—that’s a sentiment that could have come out of Burrough’s mouth. 
  52. My own syllabi: Charles Portis, Philip K. Dick, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Patricia Highsmith. The ’70s, the ’60s, the ‘40s, the ’50s—all collapsing into a personal canon falling far outside my academic learning.
  53. I read James Joyce’s Ulysses around this time. I love/hate it. 
  54. I didn’t read enough women. I know it now. I read The Shipping News in 2005. I read The Secret History in 2021. They’re both fabulous. The Secret History works as a kind of cipher for the ’90s. Things are both straight-forward and elusive. There’s layers of meaning, symbols, metaphors. Plus a murder.  
  55. But I’m being dishonest here. I’m eliding. I’m being elusive. I’m hiding. The biggest influences of this period were three comic books, written by three British men. The Sandman was an exquisite work of dark fantasy, following the embodiment of dreams in a world of monsters, humans, and nightmares. The Invisibles is something else, a self-aware magic spell autobiography pretending to be a work of dark fantasy. A group of terrorists initiate a young delinquent into their battle with the outer church. It’s a dense, gnostic meta-textual work. And Preacher tells the story of an atheist pastor possessed by a spirit that gives him the power to control anyone with his voice. It’s nasty and profane. These are the hidden keys to my expanded mind, the precious gems, the enchantment, the opening up and the closing down. 
  56. The Sandman and The Invisibles are both, in essence, about language. Sandman is about stories, how we tell them to ourselves and to others to keep ourselves sane. Invisibles is about a new language, one that will restructure reality and heal our wounded selves. They are expansive, optimistic works filled with dread. 
  57. They’re both postmodern works, too, and the best descriptor of a postmodern work is a distrust of reality due to the gaps in language. We define reality with words. Words are filled with half-truths and distorted meanings, gaps and cultural biases. Therefore, reality is flawed and unknowable to any human mind that uses language. We can’t ever know any kind of objective truth.  
  58. Which brings me to City of Glass, Paul Auster’s incredible little crime novel that tells the story of a child raised without language, an experiment of his father’s. Paul Auster was a major writer of the 1990s, slipping into popular culture with his keen mind and subtle meta-textual games. He writes novels that end abruptly, novels within novels with no resolution, the entire facade of fiction a landslide into his personal obsessions, the thin barrier between reality and fiction. 
  59. Shifting gender norms, gaps in language, government conspiracies, meta-textual self-awareness, complex comics, terrorism, and violence violence violence—these are the markers and themes of the decade’s books. I was rutting in the zeitgeist without realizing it, which I suppose is always the case. 
  60. Put another way: we’re always living inside history, slowly digested by its trends and disruptions, and all the magic in the world can’t save us from this inevitable and ineluctable fact. 
  61. Reading can’t either. It’s magic, yes, but a kind of magic that changes the self, not the world. 
  62. I moved to Atlanta in 2002, got a job in a bookstore, kept reading. The US was ramping up to invade a second sovereign country. My political beliefs were dissolving. I began reading more history, especially about the ancient world, and saw parallels in the post 9/11 world. 
  63. The ’90s were over, taking all the dot-com prosperity with it. The age of terror had begun. 
  64. The child in me was dying. The man inside was strangling him. 
  65. McVeigh emerged from the underworld, resurrecting himself as pure mind, wagging his ghost fingers in our collective faces and smiling his semi-transparent smirk, wandering in and out of college campuses and the proliferating coffee shops, popping into novels where he didn’t belong, blitzkrieging the worldwide web, a deranged prophet for a deranged age, strangling Kate Chopin and Terence McKenna, stretching his sandpaper tongue over the novels and poems and short stories and sagas, masticating them into a soggy mass, dancing over CIA black sites around the world, nodding at water-boarding and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” slapping Dick Cheney’s ass. Look, he whispered. Just look at the state of this brave new world. I was right, wasn’t I?

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