It’s a phrase from All the King’s Men, one of many that have stayed with me since I first read Robert Penn Warren’s novel in my sophomore year of college.
I never know how to describe the effect that book had on me. Transformational might do the trick, but then, that seems a bit trite. Maybe the greatest compliment I can pay it is that when I’ll pluck up the courage to plumb through the broken-in spine of the copy I’ve kept since that fateful fall—wondering, with each new pass, if it’ll still hit home this time—I’m never disappointed. My blood quickens as I return to a well-known passage. Which is rare, once you’ve tilted into adulthood, middle age creeping up on the horizon, crowding out youthful exuberance.
I’d always loved reading, Sundays spent curled up on a couch, getting to school early to burrow away in the empty library, but at some point in college that love, like so many others, drifted away from me. Former passions, locked away in a dark room. Why? Well. Utter inability to adapt to new surroundings, and an ever-present heaping of fear confusing my neural makeup. I didn’t read because I was petrified.
Difficult to name this fear; only that it ushered in an all-encompassing desolation. Days became a burden, time dripped, dripped, dripped during interminable evenings. You fix your gaze upon the date you can leave this place, not yet wise to the fact that what is driving this despondency is not the place, but you. But still, there are reasons—such as, extraction from the sturdy familial backdrop you’d relied upon. For someone who prizes time spent alone, suddenly there was no respite from the crowd. No way to shut off the lights. New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane put it well, once, that writers are like plants that only need a bit of attention now and then; but really, they’re happiest left alone. Try imagining the shock of returning to a dorm room and realizing that you’re going to have to go without that sense of solace for the academic year.
Adulthood means learning how to create an ecosystem conducive to a solitary spirit, one replete with outward sources of motivation ready to be seized upon and studied. Cafés, concert halls, and movie theaters are great for this. College—well, maybe, but you have to look pretty hard to find it.
And yet, every so often I’ll find myself getting all wistful about being 18. But it’s a wistfulness dominated by those precious days and weeks I could get away from school. Coming back for Thanksgiving, freshman year. The rush of a Tuesday evening, back in the Bay Area. I was so excited I initially took the wrong train from the airport.
But oh, how you learn: that these rivers of nostalgia, though seemingly comforting, are just part and parcel of the folly of delving into dreams now past. Sure it’s nice, but it’s not real, and what’s more these halcyon days are nothing more than a kite that’s long since blown away in a storm. Y’aint getting it back—and even if you found it now, it’d have long since been shredded past recognition.
This is all related to King’s Men.
It had been five years since I’d last read it, but as has been a nice little theme during lockdown, when there’s nothing to do other than whine and complain, on your social media platform of choice!, sit on your ass and drink the evenings away, amid the encroaching gloom, you might as well make a habit of returning to former loves in music, books, and the like. If only to continue the rampant theme of disillusionment that seems the official mood of the New Normal.
So much of what had moved me so fervently as a youngster, teens into early twenties, now washes over me with nary a flicker of recognition. Kind of like those fond memories: I don’t trust them. A few days ago I went for a run and listened to the new Killers album. Ick. But not King’s Men. It is uniqlo—I mean, unique—in its ability to continually provide the cocoon of a good book. A hollow that mutes the madness of modernity.
That has to do with the wonderfully wicked world Penn Warren worked into being, not to mention his devastating social commentary, but what always brings me back is the main character. Like any reader, I’d long made a habit of finding bits of myself in the heroes of stories. That identification is sacred stuff. But if a reader is going to be honest with himself, those comparisons can be a bit of a stretch. But in Jack Burden, the disillusioned man the action revolves around, I truly felt I was looking into a mirror—give or take a few personality traits, like his indifference to music, that I found incomprehensible.
Burden wanders aimlessly, another favorite line of mine is when he tells his lifelong love that he doesn’t have any ambition—a modus operandi I’ve long identified with, forcefully. But contrast that show of indifference with Burden’s rugged ability as a researcher. Once he gets the scent of a story, this newspaper man turned right-hand, or sorts, to his boss, doesn’t let up until he finishes the job. It’s a way to build up a world around you; like drinking or any other vice, it’s a temporary distraction from the disappointment and tedium of life.
But those passages. And the way I’d marked those pages. Often, my copy seems like my own personal research project. Thoughts and observations littered throughout.
The way that world of memory that opens up! Like scent and sound, so it goes with certain novels. Sophomore year in college meant the prospect of seeing the senior girl I had a debilitating crush on, which of course I would never act upon—though I did speak to her (once!). Frustration with the ladies: another trait I shared with Mr. Burden!
That book proved the saving grace of an otherwise unceasingly dreary Literature in Film class that met once a week in the Administration building for three hours in the afternoon. The irony that a book would be my greatest takeaway from a film class was not lost on me.
Oh, that always encroaching darkness endemic to the northern United States. In summer, light seems to linger on the warm evenings; then, it goes away so soon when winter begins its steady creep. Come a certain December evening, it’s dark at 3 in the afternoon.
I’d spend most of those classes drifting along mental tracks I’d set up impromptu (Who knows what I’ll think of next!), fumbling for amusement but mostly trying my damndest to disregard the clock on the wall to my left. God did those hands tick, tick, tick me off. But then, the class is over and the students trickle out. A last stolen glance at the girl and the euphoria of springing from that dimly lit room into the brisk and biting early evening air. The evening can be my own. I’m so charged up I don’t want to be around anyone for a while.
What had once been hopeless; now, perhaps, a little less so. I could have sworn that girl had looked at me on the way out! Then, walk, walk, walk. There was a path you could follow along the river adjacent to the campus, several miles worth of puttering about, out and back, with me happy to do nothing more than fulminate to the tune of good songs coursing through my headphones. Ah, the bliss of being 19, sidling along to music, reveling in the worlds you create in your mind’s eye.
What was this reality I couldn’t handle? In the midst of what were supposed to be the best years of my life, I was somehow in the process of bottling them, incapable of casting aside my standard operating levels of misery to carpe the diem or make the most of whatever it was I was supposed to be making the most of. Going to parties? Eh. I’d rather be alone. I think I learned then, but was only able to elucidate recently, that I use interactions with people as a kind of fuel storage that propels me into my preference for being alone.
Here all I could count upon were those brief respites from gloom, and those in activities that were in no way unique to this particular place. So, again, why was I here? And it is here we come to another of my prized quotations from All the King’s Men, which of course I will paraphrase: that there is a kind of man in who are never at home anywhere in the world. When I went back and visited campus a few years after leaving, I noticed that after walking through it once, I felt nothing. But that had mostly been the case. The only places I spent any extended amount of time were the library, or during my first two years, a couch in Crosby, the student center, or the athletic fields, but never just lingering, like, on a bench or somewhere weird like that, drinking in the essence of the place.
I have a dim memory of the first weekend of senior year, sneaking into the business building, long since empty of students gone home, and watching a soccer game on my laptop. I didn’t know what I would do once it ended. Face down solitude once more.
All I wanted to do was all I’d done my last year there: head out to a cafe some three miles from campus. Well, maybe two-and-a-half. At first I’d do the walking thing, there and back, five miles in total with a heavy hill on the way to it. Once, I passed the cathedral just as Death Cab’s St. Peter’s Cathedral came up on my iPod. Heavenly bliss. But I was 22 then, 23. I had good music to listen to, and snatches of ambition in my belly. My legs didn’t even notice the strain of toting an often-full backpack containing my computer, some magazines, and books. Always good books. Then, the reward of coffee (free refills) and an apple-cinnamon streusel muffin. Mmm.
What do these memories mean at the moment, when time has waxed and waned but mostly turned molasses? Days dragging with no end in sight. Kind of like college. But six months of lockdown, simultaneously, seem to have flown by. And that’s the fear. These six months have sucked, and all anyone can talk about is how things will be different in the New Normal—as Orwellian branding as it gets. If things are only a bit better than what they’ve become, well, shit.
Wake up without the nearest sense of relief that came from the most basic of daily interactions. Sure, you can go out, do some of the things you did before—but before long you’ve settled into the gloom of recognition that everything is now going to suck. Plagues have occurred throughout history; people did what they had to do to survive, and it seems like they’d have been buoyed by the hope that if they could just stick it out and survive, they’d emerge one day into a bright light, the sickness finished, ready to reclaim the dignity they’d enjoyed in what must have felt like lifetimes ago. In some ways, that seems a worthy reward for a citizenry that’s done its duty.
I mused the other day during one of my ever-lengthening long walks, which then became runs, which then became jump roping inside when the air became choked by wildfire smoke, which then became interminable bike rides when the air got a bit better…each activity done for the sole purpose of cutting through the tedium of these interminable days, that I was back to doing what I was doing in college—waiting for this to end, so life could begin!
And if what we are graced with, once we return to “Normal” life, is just a fragment of what we’d once loved about the world, well, what was the point of it all? A note of despondency that would have made Jack Burden proud.