Let It Come Down
Druggies are everywhere I go these days: from the stoners puffing a spliff in the sunshine, to down-and-out zombies that grunt and limp around the Public Library. A middle-aged woman wanted to sell me drugs yesterday at Victory Park: Pot or Speed, she said. Her blonde hair was shorn in a kind of homemade haircut, and her crooked teeth were turning gray. I sell, she told me, and I nodded. Everyone in the park seemed high. Nobody in the park was reading but me.
I was leafing through an old copy of Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles, a kif smoker and ex-pat for life. Paul Bowles left New York City in 1955 as a composer and musical prodigy, only to hide out for the next thirty years in Morocco, a serious writer. His friends William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg brought him attention, mostly because of their own taste in narcotics. But more than for drugs, Bowles was known for some of the best ex-pat writing about Africa—The Sheltering Sky and Let It Come Down are both gorgeously detailed novels about men swimming through their detached, if somewhat doped-up lives.
It isn’t easy to write convincingly about drugs. So often in a Bowles novel, a character gets lost in the labyrinth medina, or gets too drunk and bawls about something the other characters don’t care about. And so often, a character meets a serious, heart-breaking climactic moment with a cool, terrifying calm. A stoned calm. This is the kind of drug-prose that I am learning from, passages like this, from the hallucinogenic climax of Let it Come Down:
“Dyer shut his eyes. A terrible motor had started to throb at the back of his head. It was not painful; it frightened him. With his eyes shut he had the impression that he was lying on his back, that if he opened them he would see the ceiling. It was not necessary to open them—he could see it anyway, because his lids had become transparent. It was a gigantic screen against which images were beginning to be projected—tiny swarms of colored glass beads arranged themselves obligingly into patterns, swimming together and apart, forming mosaics that dissolved as soon as they were made. Feathers, snow-crystals, lace and church windows crowded onto the screen, and the projecting light grew increasingly powerful. Soon the edges of the screen would begin to burn, and the fire would be on each side of his head. “God, this is going to blind me,” he said suddenly; he opened his eyes and realized he had said nothing.”
Above all of the hype and drug talk, Bowles teaches me to write about place. He wrote poignantly and honestly about North Africa– its camel caravans, its markets and consulate parties, its Kasbahs and cool water springs. This is the way I want to write about Victory Square, about the old blonde junkie and her graying teeth. His command over detail is what makes his prose so fucking brilliant. Paul Bowles had the lightest touch of anyone, anywhere, like this passage from his debut novel, The Sheltering Sky:
“During the middle of the day it was no longer the sun alone that persecuted from above — the entire sky was like a metal dome grown white with heat. The merciless light pushed down from all directions; the sun was the whole sky. They took to traveling only at night, setting out shortly after twilight and halting at the first sign of the rising sun. The sand had been left far behind, and so had the great dead stony plains. Now there was a gray, insectlike vegetation everywhere, a tortured scrub of hard shells and stiff hairy spines that covered the earth like an excrescence of hatred.”
This is his charm: Bowles’ writing seems to float along, unaware of the great peril that surrounds it, independent of everything, of everyone. I suppose that is what it is like to live in Africa for so many years, an outsider. I suppose that is what it is like to live your life, just a little bit high.