Stumbled home on Friday
evening to find my roommate sprawled on the couch, drinking beer and watching
on video–and with a debatable degree of moral seriousness–American
History X, the movie from a few years back in which Ed Norton plays a neo-Nazi
skinhead from the Southern California poor-white sticks. I stood in the darkened
room for several minutes, disburdening myself, and watched in fascination as
the particular scene into which I had stumbled unfolded. Since I viewed the
scene out of context, I don’t know at what point in the film it occurs.
But it depicted the shorn-headed Norton seducing–with corny rhetoric that
was unlikely in its pandering obviousness and broadness–a rabble of politically
uncommitted poor-white teen suburban mutants; organizing them, craftily winning
them over to the side of whiteness, like a muscled suburban Hitler dragged out
from Munich’s hillbilly beerhalls and teletransported to some dusty hellhole
in Ventura County, or wherever the film takes place, at century’s end.
Politically inverted social realism: slackjawed deviants snapping to, grinding
out their joints and pouring out their malt liquor as Norton–a negative
image of the union organizer who emerges from the woodwork to holler The Truth
at the groaning Joads–brings the neo-Nazi gospel Unto Them.
Or else Norton would say
something like: Perhaps the corporations, the government and the military
are not 100 percent to be trusted! Let’s lynch niggers!
Brushing my teeth, I remembered
that the good Atlanta-based punk band the Anti-Heros were suing New Line Cinema
for placing an Anti-Heros tattoo on the body of one of American History X’s
more noxious white-supremacist thugs.
And I remembered the moving
opening verses to the Anti-Heros’ song "I’m True," in which
the band’s singer, Mark, expresses a tension between homebound lower-middle-class
nostalgia and the necessity to light out for the territory that’s
almost heartbreaking: "I want to sit on the back steps again/I want to
drink Boonesfarm and gin/I want to wipe the dirt from my eyes/I want to rise
above all the lies/Sink into the shadows of society/Punch my hand through the
walls that enslave me/Feel the spring wind on my face/Break right out of this
A whole novel’s compressed
into those verses–the story of the countless kids on countless peeling
porches in countless small towns, conscious on some level that they’re
restrained by the bounds of what might ultimately be a sort of low-rent and
sweetly worn-in paradise. A ramshackle timelessness.
Retired to my room muttering
imprecations against our political culture; read Dreiser for a while; went to
from Ukraine catch my eye. So, reading the newspaper a few weeks ago, I noticed
a report that a number of Ukrainians, near Kiev, had been poisoned by mushrooms
they’d harvested. Like a lot of Ukrainians, they were amateur mushroom-hunters.
The tragedy suggested itself to me at first as a cruel, facile metaphor for
the basket case that is post-Soviet Ukraine–you let a Ukrainian do it himself,
he’ll poison himself; never hand a Ukrainian the keys to the family car,
dear; make sure there’s a designated driver–but then the idea of mushroom-gathering
grew on me in its metaphorical and nostalgic force.
For one thing, I was reminded
that my late grandfather was a mushroom-gatherer. As a kid I used to walk with
him on and around his land in the Catskills. During these walks he’d occasionally
stoop–in those piney second-growth glens–pluck a couple of mushrooms
and stick them in the pocket of his coat for later consumption. (Note: My grandfather
eventually died of an entirely un-mushroom-related heart attack.) To an American,
the idea of mushroom-gathering seems a bit queer, something that bucktoothed,
grinning English weirdos in shorts do when they’re not eating suet or collecting
unusual sucker-candies, but it was just something that my grandfather, a tough
old guy, had picked up in the old country in his capacity as a woodsman and
For another thing, it occurred
to me, there’s the way in which mushrooms figure, in their own moist, humble
way, in a whole thematics of personal transformation. Most obviously, there’s
the idea of the mushroom’s hallucinatory, mind-expanding powers. You–or
else the aborigine, or else the besandaled resident of Boulder, or else Alice–eat
the mushroom and whooooooosh, you’re off, rocketing through the
heights of the psychic/noumemal troposphere.
But more to the point, if
you happen to be progressing in your dissatisfaction with your own beastliness–this
dissatisfaction, and the frustratingly incremental self-renovation that it stimulates,
representing the central emotional project of your mid- to late-20s–and
if you happen to be reading Anna Karenina, you might be interested in
a more literal deployment of the mushroom/
transformation thematic pairing. Consider the scene in Anna Karenina in
which protagonist Levin’s older half-brother Koznyshev, the famous and
rather self-important and rather sterile–but still likable–intellectual,
surprises everybody by offering to accompany a group of mushroom-gatherers,
one of whom is Mademoiselle Varenka, the wan, parentless girl who’s spent
her youth caring for a selfish aristocratic widow. Varenka, like Sonya from
War and Peace, is a dried-out flower, an aging girl whom either circumstance
or her own weaknesses have prevented from bursting into bloom. But when Koznyshev
finds himself alone in the woods with Varenka–do it! you want to
yell at him–he can’t pull it off. He can’t force himself to propose
to her; can’t effect the necessary self-transformation, can’t break
through to a new level of humanity. And so he doesn’t propose, even
though everybody–including the anxiously shuddering girl–expects him
to. There follows a scene that’s painful to read in its horrible comedy:
look, her blush, her downcast eyes–betrayed painful expectation. He saw
it and was sorry for her. He even felt that to say nothing now would be to offend
her… He repeated to himself the words with which he had intended to propose;
but instead of those words some unexpected thought caused him to say:
"What difference is
there between the white boleti and the birch-tree variety?"
Varenka’s lips trembled
with emotion when she replied:
"There is hardly any
difference in the tops, but only in the stems."
So Koznyshev returns to
his bachelor life as a famous intellectual, and Varenka… Actually, I don’t
think we hear much about her for the rest of the novel. But it’s a wonderfully
inverted situation: Tolstoy sending his characters out into the fairy-tale woods,
full of transformative toadstools, this arena of natural rejuvenation and metamorphosis,
and then perversely contriving it so that precisely nothing happens, and Koznyshev
just goes on in the depressing courage of his limitations. So the mushroom,
one of the outdoor enthusiasms of my grandfather (in his own way, and fundamentally–this
underlaid his good points like a bed of granite–a difficult, unyielding
old bastard), is this week’s little icon of the moral horror of stasis,
of persisting in your stupidity and the comfort of your dysfunctionality.
by the Manhattan Bistro in Soho one night last week, and encountered there the
pleasing reality that you can walk into that place on any given night, even
now, even in midsummer and–with little of the emotional effort (the costumes,
the Europeans, the devoutly skinny girls, the reservations, the subsequently
confirmed reservations, the self-consciousness that comes from participating
in an overdetermined cultural event, which is what eating at a smart downtown
restaurant can be) that other Soho restaurants necessitate from you–eat
roast quail, birds that have enough of the exotic and gamy about them to make
eating them an extraordinary thing.
So there it was. Manhattan
Bistro’s been a Spring St. mainstay for a long time, and it’s a Soho
second-stringer. The girls there are just girls, with lumps and fathers
and noticeable disproportions; there are mothers on the premises, too, which
isn’t apparently the case at, say, Mercer Kitchen–and some of the
mothers double as tourists, at least while they’re here in New York. Manhattan
Bistro’s not even listed in the 2000 Zagat. The place isn’t
always full, even on a Friday night, even when it’s not the middle of the
summer; a slack, comfortable feeling informs the restaurant, and it’s not
as expensive as the other Soho places you might be tempted to patronize (it’s
considerably cheaper than Raoul’s). There’s little social energy.
The few landed Old Soho people I know, artists who bought into the neighborhood
back in the 60s and 70s, eat and drink there all the time. So do I. College
girls hang out at the bar and act cool and drink cosmopolitans and it’s
all kind of nice.
Anyway, you can just go
in there and order a big white plate of quail: two of them, whole, their limbs
outstretched and arranged in a funny way over the mound of greens that dominates
the plate: their legs touching across the dish, so that they look like two bleached
frogs high-fiving each other…or…or…flying trapeze artists clasping wrists
in a seedy tent-top…or…two plucked chickens sharing a yogic sexual exertion…or…
They’re not great;
they haven’t been great on either of the two times I’ve eaten them.
You get the sense that they’re farm-raised (are there quail farms?). They’re
flabby and not as lean and gamy as you’d like them to be, and as they can
be in the fall, when you get them in some restaurants and come across tiny bits
of shot. In this textural blandness they resemble run-of-the-mill supermarket
chickens, pumped full of ’roids and whatnot to fatten them up and make
them easy on the tastebuds of the Great American Middle.
On the other hand, they’re
good enough, and on both occasions the skin was properly crispy-chewy and wonderfully
salted and seasoned. The menu describes the birds as accompanied by figs. The
first time around, they actually were. There’s little that’s as satisfying–"succulent"
is, unfortunately, the appropriate word here–as the intersection of game
birds, figs and red wine. The second night I ordered them, however, orange slices
had been substituted for the figs, which was disappointing, but I persevered
and enjoyed the dish anyway, despite its liabilities. Doing so necessitated
an act of moral will, a willingness to approve; it was good for me, good practice.
Anyway, ask before you order.
I ordered some lame crabcakes
and a beer and the check came to only $36.25. I walked out of the place, past
the kind bartender chatting up the girls with their voices and their cosmopolitans
and thought, wow, that was out of the blue–I just ate quail.