I was born in Kentucky in 1974. I lived and worked there for twenty-seven years before moving to Boston. My immediate forebears were a mechanic, a schoolteacher, a butcher, a factory hand, a tenant farmer, and a seamstress. In Kentucky, I was an exterminator. I was a janitor. I parked cars. Now I write handbooks for the molecular biology department at Harvard.
How did this come to pass?
“I’ve heard some very interesting things about you, Von Doom! It’s taken me months to find you! But after seeing some of your inventions, it was well worth it! I’m prepared to offer you a scholarship at my university!”—from The Fantastic Four Annual #2, “The Fantastic Origin of Doctor Doom,” by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Chic Stone, and S. Rosen.
Muhammad Ali was born in Kentucky, too—in Louisville, my hometown. I knew a wino back there who didn’t care that Sonny Liston had taken a dive to Ali in the “phantom punch” fight of 1965.
His real name was Cassius Clay, the wino said. And Muhammad Ali Boulevard’s name used to be Chestnut Street. Reality doesn’t matter much to me. Ali is a symbol. He’s the greatest. Myth is truer than fact.
That’s nice, I said. You should run for Pope.
Is this kid giving you a hard time? somebody said.
I moved to Boston to attend a writing program. It’s still unclear what I learned there. I spent most of my time getting drunk and getting divorced.
It would be a lie and hurtful to my friends back home if I said I’d never met a real writer before. I had—several, with real books from real publishers. But I had also spent eons enduring the poetasters I’d encountered during the years I’d supported myself as a session musician and sideman, playing in bar after bar. The bars are full of thwarted talents large and small, mostly small. Even now, there’s a reading series touting itself in The Louisville Courier-Journal as “the place where voices are tinged with bourbon and Pabst Blue Ribbon”—prole-chic brand-naming, but very little poetry. Where I was from, poetry was books nobody checked out of the library and schizoid bums yowling about their aluminum-foil hats.
How about those other writers in the program? Princeton. Stanford. San Francisco. Philadelphia. Boston. New Jersey. Salt Lake City. Hollywood. South Africa. New York City. And here I was: self-conscious, defensive, angry, and weird, making the guy from Hollywood blush and cough because he’d called Pennsylvania “Pennsyltucky.”
In Boston, my wife was crying, thwarted, cheated—but the man behind the bar was always glad to see me and my big dumb wallet. Bostonian manners are quite different from Southern manners, or Midwestern manners, or what is normally meant by the word “manners,” and I got thrown out of a couple of bars before I found anything resembling a fit.
We sat at a long table in the corner. Undergraduates and junior faculty alike took turns hitting on the few women among us. There was a dartboard near the single bathroom. Soon came the dreaded thrill of shop talk. One of the guys in the program couldn’t get his act together. He’d turned everything in late all the first semester. By now he was skipping whole assignments. At first he’d been ashamed, but his crippledom had made him aloof.
Didn’t I find I had trouble writing? he wanted to know. It struck him as the most difficult, painful thing in the world. People at universities are always finding things like that. Or being struck by them.
No, I said, telling the necessary lie: maybe it would come true. It was hard work, I said, but I loved it, and I was glad to be some kind of writer in the big city. He sneered. He was a great sneerer, that one. I thought you’d read your Thomas Mann, he said. A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people, he said.
It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations, I said. Churchill, I said. See? I read them too. Let’s have another round.
I was a nervous drunk with a chip on my shoulder. No one seemed to know what to make of me. People told jokes about my Fordson Tractor belt buckle. People told jokes about Kentucky Fried Chicken. People told jokes about Deliverance.
Deliverance takes place in Georgia.
I can’t make them understand it. A political science professor at a dinner party earlier this year, trying to make a merlot-fueled connection between Southernness, lack of privilege, oratorical gifts, drive, and upward mobility, asked me: Wasn’t President Clinton white trash?
Nope. Last September my cousin R. J. strangled his mother and broke her neck while the two of them were high on my Uncle Stevie’s morphine. That’s white trash.
Here it is in Charlton’s The Writer’s Quotation Book, bought by my mother at the Okolona Public Library discard sale in 1992: “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.—Thomas Mann.” I was suspicious then of the intended comfort, and six years later I discovered the complete quotation in its context of Mann’s short story “Tristan”:
“Dear sir,” it said. “I am addressing the following lines to you because I have no choice, because what I have to tell you fills me, torments me, and makes me tremble, because the words come flooding toward me so vehemently that I would choke on them if I could not unburden myself of them in this letter. . . .”
To give truth its due, that “flooding” was not quite the case, and God only knew the vain reasons why Herr Spinell asserted it. In no wise did the words seem to be flooding toward him; for someone whose stated profession was writing, he was woefully sluggish about getting started, and anybody watching him would have had to conclude that a writer is a man who has a more difficult time writing than anyone else. [Emphasis mine. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel]
Being a writer is a drag. Mann was about half gay, and married with children, and he won the Nobel Prize in 1899, when he was just forty-four years old. That can’t have helped. But he was a hard worker. He felt his creativity was a kind of disease, a crime, a sin calling for repentance, and only rough, businesslike discipline might absolve him. If someone had tried to tell Thomas Mann that “a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” would he have deigned to respond? Or would he have begun to roar, Writing? Writing?
From my notebook: “Sat 10 July 1948—Klaus Mann slits wr, takes pills, tr to gas self in apt Santa Monica. Sun 22 May 1949—Klaus kills self w/ sl tablets fr NY pharmacy. Dies in Cannes hospital.”
In an earlier draft of this essay, I wrote—or should I say, I lied—“The morning his son, Klaus, tried to commit suicide in the hallway in front of his father’s office door, Mann finished his daily allotment of words before he went to see how things were going.”
I’ve been thinking about the meaning of this little invention all day.
I taught for a while at a private college in New England. They paid me piles of money to talk about stories. I tried to give my students the gift of a close reading, saying, at the barest remove, what we all long to hear: I spent last night thinking about you.
And when the occasional student had real talent, I put my head on the table and wept. Poor boys! Poor girls! The mouths of Hell gaped wide before them. Where to choose?
What my undergraduates seemed to need more than false comfort, more than an acquired facility with literary-aesthetic jibber-jabber, was a welcome into adulthood, someone at the front of a college classroom who wasn’t itching to smack them down and shut them up. I don’t pretend I understood it. I am power-mad in my private life. I shout and shake and sweat. Behind that podium, though, I was sweetness and light.
I’m not so sure an undergraduate creative writing class is worth getting angry about. Let them try it on. If you want to be a yogi, you don’t take a yoga class: you move to India and you sit in the dirt for forty years.
At the graduate school level? Now you’re getting into real money; now you’re fucking with people’s lives. Who dares disembowel Thomas Mann in order to hold up a lone kidney stone, slick with gore—a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people—that sly truncation, that simpered lullaby?
On the subject of rough, businesslike discipline:
By the age of thirty-five, Mann’s father, Thomas Johann Heinrich Mann, was the head of a firm importing forty-four million pounds of grain every year. He was elected to the Senate at thirty-six. Biographer Ronald Hayman writes: “[Mann’s father] put himself under constant strain, sitting on committees and taking the chair at meetings. It was his duty to keep up appearances: His concern about the grandeur of the house, his clothes, his coiffure, and his mustache (which was waxed and perfumed) were inseparable from his responsibilities to the business and the city. [. . .] All over Lübeck, people raised their hats to him in the streets, and many addressed him as ‘Your Excellency.’”
These are forces we should acknowledge and strive to comprehend.
My mother was the fifth of seven children: Donald Irvin, Thelma, Billy Joe, Charles Edward, Sarah Linnell, Tim-Tom, and Jerry—also called Stads, Sis, B. J., Li’l Terrapin, Baby Doll, Pea Soup, and Bowzer. During just the years she was in high school, the family moved to and worked for the Tommy Miller farm out Tonieville Road, the Boss Huggins farm, the Edd Reed farm, and the Red Ballinger farm on Stiles Ford, but she stayed on at Larue County High, where her mother had sewn dresses for the school counselor and had once taught the librarian’s Sunday school class. These favors, combined with my mother’s good grades, brought her to the attention of a scholarship committee. They sent her to Midway College free of charge, where she earned a dual associate’s degree in religion and biology—religion was a snap, and biology offered four-hour credits, ensuring that her degree was finished in a hurry. She earned room and board there by waiting tables at the Claudia Sanders restaurant before it burned, then at an insurance office in Shelbyville. Afterward the University of Kentucky paid for her B.A. while she made the rent measuring suit-buyers at Montgomery Ward in Lexington. She says checking the inseam made her blush.
My mother and I were the first in our family to get any higher learning. The Southern Baptist Seminary, I am sorry to say, does not count.
And my father was a military policeman in Da Nang from 1964 to 1965. After that he drove a laundry truck. He fixed air-conditioners. He sold used cars. He sold farm equipment. He customized vans. He repaired tractor-trailers. He mowed lawns.
He wasn’t drafted. He joined because he was broke and needed something to eat. He hated the forces and he warned me not to enlist. My Uncle Don did. My Uncle Charles did. My Uncle Bowzer did. My cousin Jeremy did, but they threw him out. My cousin Justin did. My cousin Scotty did, but they threw him out, too.
When I was fifteen and all I wanted to do was get high and cut school, my father took me down to the trailer plant to work in the touch-up shop all summer with Orville and Tommy and Silent Andrew the forklift driver, right next to the garage where Ricky and his crew slapped on the undercoating. I had my boots and hat and a tool belt and a set of cover-alls. I got up at four a.m., still drunk and stoned or even still sort of tripping, and my dad and I bought coffee at the White Lightning and drove into town together in his truck.
Straighten up, dummy, he said. When you mess with the baker, you get a bun. You never seen the look on your mother’s face when I had to quit a job and start all over again. And get paid squat. Don’t be like me.
This was, of course, the only thing I’d ever wanted. It is what boys want. But I gave it up for him: I won a scholarship and went to a state college, and they threw me out. I spent seven or eight months in the decal shop, slapping giant vinyl potato chips onto the sides of Frito-Lay trailers, and then my college threw me back in again, and so on.
I dreamt last night that I was fixing breakfast. My father slapped me, spilling two kinds of cereal, then began to yell at me for making a mess. “You always ruin my cereal!” I shouted, kicking at him, and I woke that way: on my back in bed, kicking my legs in the air, an infant in his crib.
I used my undergraduate skills in Elizabethan cryptoversification first to manage the reshelving department of a library, then to fly a desk for the U.S. government at a dusty warehouse in Indiana. When I finished a master’s degree in “creative writing”—loathsome, lifeless phrase—I could think of nothing better to do with it than to unload produce trucks for a year in atonement. Now I have two master’s degrees. You can borrow one if you want.
I wonder how my father would have felt if he’d been there when I applied for a promotion from my census clerkship at the Department of Agriculture. The interviewer held my résumé near the bulb of her desk lamp as if to read a secret message in lemon juice. “Degree in English?” she said, half-smiling. “That’s about as useful as teats on a boar hog”—something I hadn’t realized people still said.
Then, too, there was the snotty, horsey girl at a party in a crumbling house in Old Louisville who was surprised to learn I had attended college. “English?” she said. “I see. You speak it very well.”
That girl was just slumming. She wanted some gritty, down-home excitement. She wanted a teensy taste of how the other half lived. And then? Back to equestrian medicine! But she wound up married to the wino who believed in Muhammad Ali.
I was surprised to discover, when I was grown, that my mother’s life is the boringest story in the world: rough, businesslike discipline. Who cares if it works? There’s too much Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist der Kapitalismus and a shortage of self-destructive Romantic excess—plenty of difficulty, to be sure, but not nearly enough inexorable fate.
A great deal of moving, well-made drama is about inexorable fate. Comic books and crappy action movies, on the other hand, tend to be about taking your destiny by its throat and shaking it until it coughs up its lunch money.
“We never told him that his mother was a mystic sorceress!! And her blood runs in his own veins! I pray he never learns of his dark heritage! [. . .] What have I found . . . hidden here beneath these heirlooms! A strange chest! That name! Can it be? It belonged to . . . my mother! Magic potions!! Strange scientific secrets! Why did I never suspect?? My mother was a witch! And now I can learn her secrets!!”—The Fantastic Origin of Doctor Doom, ibid.
Economic mobility took its toll on my mother. The air is thinner up there. She has mellowed, but thirty years ago she was pretty nervous. Our medicine cabinet was full of orange pill bottles. I often woke to the sound of her dry-heaving.
When I was in elementary school, she ran into my bedroom a couple of nights a week, sobbing, shrieking: Oh my God, Johnny, wake up. I had the most horrible nightmare. They kidnapped you and they wanted to torture you. I wouldn’t let them. So they tortured me instead. They hurt me until I lost my mind and I said it was all right, now they could have you. They put out your eyes and they cut out your tongue and they broke your fingers. They cut off your feet. They cut off your penis. Blood everywhere. Oh Jesus. Oh Christ. But you’re okay? Okay. Thank goodness. It was only a dream. Well, good night, sweetheart.
Most Sunday afternoons when I was a little boy, before evening services, my mother and I looked for yard sales in Fern Creek. Elderly couples waved from folding chairs in their front yards as I sorted through vast stacks of used comic books.
One day I found Fantastic Four #200, the double-length special in which Reed Richards tore off his enemy’s mask “and in the heart of the great solartron complex Doctor Doom was driven into madness by the multiplied images of his own destroyed face!” A pristine copy of this particular issue is worth a lot of money now. Mine has its resale price written in magic marker in the upper right-hand corner.
I paid my dime. I leaned against our storm door and I read my new comic book twenty times. Then I went inside and asked my mother for a favor. Because her penmanship was better, she wrote my name in blue ink under the title—The Fantastic Four by Johnny Daniels—to show me how it was done.
All right, I said. Now let me try.
J. D. Daniels is the 2013 recipient of The Paris Review‘s Terry Southern Prize. His “Letter from Majorca” appears in Best American Essays 2013. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, AGNI, n+1, The Oxford American, and elsewhere. (updated 1/2015)