Aram SaroyanAt the beginning of Desolation Angels, Jack Kerouac is all alone, a fire lookout on a mountain peak in the Pacific Northwest surrounded by mountain stillness on all sides. A practicing if erratic Buddhist—“I’m the Buddhknown as the quitter,” he quipped once to his friend Gary Snyder—he has an epiphany:

“It’s me that’s changed and done all this and come and gone and complained and hurt and joyed and yelled, not the Void,” and so that every time I thought of the void I’d be looking at Mt. Hozomeen (because chair and bed and meadowgrass faced north) until I realized “Hozomeen is the Void—at least Hozomeen means the void to my eyes.”

He eventually comes down from the mountain and joins his friends in San Francisco as the Beat Generation is inaugurated at the famous Gallery Six reading in the mid-1950s when Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl”—Kerouac in the audience with a wine bottle shouting “Go!” The novel, the middle one of his three masterworks (between On the Road and Big Sur), is a huge chronicle of earthly comings and goings, but it’s the stillness on the mountain at the beginning that sets the book’s compass—Kerouac carrying it in himself throughout the human panorama into which he journeys when he comes down from the mountain.
It’s this double vision, I think, that distinguishes the artist from the journalist or the historian, even while Keroauc plays both those roles too over the course of the book—a deeper vision running through everything he sees, the still center of the hurricane that is also the hurricane. He’s the fumbling guy—the charming troubled mortal Kerouac could be in his prose—and at the same time the steadfast mountain, unmoved by the sound and fury of an individual destiny.
In high school I read the treatise Art by Clive Bell, a Capricorn paperback with a palm tree rendered in quick green brush strokes on the cover. I was looking for an overview, which the title promised and which the book delivered in the form of a two-word catch-all: Significant Form. That’s what distinguished a work of art, Clive Bell wrote. I didn’t really understand what he meant, but I got it at some level that had to do with finding certain abstract paintings satisfying—like the works of Serge Poliakoff, for example—without understanding why.
In the early days of television, the mid-1950s, when I was seven or eight years old, I remember watching an episode of a weekly drama and hearing background music that affected me powerfully. It seemed to me the most beautiful melody. Some time later I found out it was Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
For 15 years I taught at USC’s Master of Professional Writing program and had many interesting, beguiling students scarcely any of whom became writers. The time they spent will no doubt serve them well in one context or another. But MFA programs, cash cows for universities, in effect promote an idea about art that is fundamentally false. It would be harmless most likely except that having so large a number of “certified” artists and writers tends to create a watered-down version of art itself.

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As very young siblings my younger sister Lucy and I used to take baths together. Facing each other at opposite ends of the tub, we would slowly lower our bodies into the water, always just the right temperature, and slowly enunciate to each other in unison, “Oh, my fa-vor-ite water.”
Story telling, all art maybe, can be a way of whistling in the dark, trying to reassure oneself and perhaps others that what is happening isn’t just terror and chaos. The cave drawings at Lascaux were perhaps an attempt to “domesticate” the wild beasts roaming outside. Give the terror a name or a drawing and its scale is at least to some degree reduced.
My early childhood was a mix of privilege and violent misery that tore the family apart twice by the time I was eight. For a child it was alternately wonderful—in the early years—and devastating—just a little later. By the time I was eight, when Lucy and I shared a little bedroom in my mother’s one-bedroom apartment on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills, I had a strong impulse to take the bull by the horns and tell a story—or maybe more accurately to initiate a sort of talking cure. In the darkness of the bedroom before we fell asleep I would imitate school “assemblies” with an announcement or a song, and ask Lucy to add her own contribution, which she sometimes did. It gave me, and maybe Lucy too once in a while, a sense of business as usual not raw chaos.
When I was ten or eleven, living in a ranch house in Pacific Palisades with my mother and sister, I found the blue and yellow UCLA colors a perfect combination.

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The first work by Richard Brautigan I ever read was in a little mimeographed magazine called Sum, edited by the Canadian poet Fred Wah, published in New Mexico and mailed to me in New York probably because I was editing my own little magazine, Lines, and we were on each other’s comp copy lists. This would have been 1964 or early 1965.
In one issue there were a couple of very short stories by Brautigan and they stood out for two reasons. The first was that they were flat-out wonderful. In one of them a woman was sunbathing on the beach and taking her own temperature. My memory may have the scene wrong but the piece had a kind of sunny languor. It made the scene come alive inside you.
The second reason the stories stood out was that both of them, and neither filled up a single page, included a formal copyright notice with the copyright logo, the year and the name Richard Brautigan. I had never read or seen anything by Brautigan before but the message was clear: Richard Brautigan was a delightful writer and Richard Brautigan knew it.
In the classic Alfred Hitchcock films of the 1950s—Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rear Window—he captures the ambient sounds of American urban and suburban neighborhoods more accurately than I’ve heard in any other films.
When my father took Lucy and me to Europe the summer I was 13 and Lucy 11 we stayed for two weeks at a hotel in Athens and from the street you could look up at the Acropolis on a hill above the city. The classic balance and beauty of it had the effect of instantaneous reassurance.
The same summer when I saw the Plaza San Marco in Venice it struck me as the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. The great breadth and depth of the piazza at the end of which stood St. Marks Church with the blue lapis lazuli mosaic in its façade was beyond words.
I collect pennies in a roughly sculpted clay cup my younger daughter made years ago in art class in elementary school. It’s painted yellow inside and out, with a purple flower on a green stalk on one side and a red flower on a green stalk on the other. It’s a small cup and fits easily into my hand.
For several years now, I’ve used the cup to keep pennies in from the loose change I accumulate. When it’s filled to the brim it holds around 150 pennies, enough to fill 3 penny rolls. When I get about five dollars worth of penny rolls I take them to the bank to exchange for singles or a five dollar bill.
There’s some kind of primitive satisfaction for me in taking something as non-negotiable as a penny, which once had the value of a nickel, say, and by accumulation turning it into something that has value.

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