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The Lesser Evil

by Gary Amdahl


The simple-hearted and the sincere never do more than half-deceive themselves. —Joseph Joubert, Pensées

Many years ago, I published a collection of short stories called Ostrogoth. It sold very poorly—forty-eight copies to libraries whose procurers were not paying close attention and thought it was a work of late Roman Empire history; thirteen copies to family, friends, and a couple of my students; and five to people I didn’t know at all. If you can bear to go online and read customer reviews, you will be amused, I think, as a handful of the librarians struggle to understand what they perceived as either an outright swindle or postmodern nonsense. They give my book zero stars, unanimously, while my students brazenly kiss my ass. “He is our next Lolita,” one of them declared, confusing, as he often did, protagonist and author, just as he often confused characters on television and the actors who played them. I, of course, was attached to my stories: they were like my children, and if, for example, we were hosting a cocktail or dinner party, I would bring them out before their bedtime and have them do card tricks, sing songs, perform somersaults, sit up and beg, and so on. I was also very fond of my characters, so fond that I could not ridicule my former student. During the earliest years of my writing, I was all but psychotically convinced that I would meet one of them walking down the street, a particular character in whom I had invested a great deal of my own secret yearnings and beliefs—along with some not-so-secret personality traits and nervous tics, like actually staggering when someone tells me something that is “hard to believe,” or hopping up and down when I am happy, or blinking excessively when my social footing is uncertain, when I am crossing the no man’s land between my life and the lives of others. But as more and more of my characters came to resemble me, either in pathetic Walter Mitty disguises or even more pathetic confessional hair shirts, I saw that the effect had grown too diffuse: all that psychological bravado seemed to depend on a laugh track that you couldn’t really hear. Eventually the thought of another me became sickening. The artist can sit in his cell looking at a skull for years, abandon his family, lose his friends, and remain as powerless and confused as the day he began his spiritual exercises: the origin of other people, the source of the continuous production of new life, the means of the extinction and creation of souls . . . must involve— mustn’t it?—the imaginations of (for lack of a better phrase) highly trained sorcerers. and by extension, artists. We artists must, I mean to say, be the visible end of that spectrum. We must have something to do with the creation of something out of nothing and therefore ought not to be driven from town for thinking, for suspecting, that we can make another self. But in the end there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t prove it’s possible, much less produce the goods—or the bads, as the case may be, the evils—and you have to give it up and learn to enjoy the simple things in life. Literature is a weedy meadow made soft and lumpy with the graves of doppelgangers, with “secret sharers” and dream narrators who can be no one else but ourselves, with men coming back to life to claim lost identities or feigning death to slough off unwanted selves—Jekylls, Hydes, princes, paupers, nature stomping the shit out of nurture—and I was immersed in this literature. Hawthorne and Poe and Stevenson and Conrad, Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (the BBC production from the early Eighties with Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltrey, whenever I needed a break and a laugh), and at the same time, just after Kirkus Reviews gave Ostrogoth a starred review, I got letters, five of them, from the five people I didn’t know who’d bought the book. One asked, “are you the Gary Amdahl who lived in Rochester in the late Sixties and dated my sister Karen for a while?” I had lived in Rochester in the late Sixties, but I had no memory of a Karen, and in any case had been too young for dating in those days. The second asked if I had lived in Saint Paul in the late Eighties and early Nineties and played guitar in a blues band called Ceremony in Lone Tree: yes to the former, and no, I wish, to the latter. The third wondered if I had lived in Rhode Island (no mention of dates) and was heir to the Amdahl Computer fortune. again: yes, then no. The fourth: had I been to a party in northwestern Connecticut where I’d met arthur Miller and refused to shake Henry Kissinger’s hand? Met arthur Miller, yes indeed, a great moment, told him I’d played Biff and Hap on alternating nights, but no idea Kissinger had been there. The fifth was from an address in Madrid. I had just finished reading a pile of Spanish, Latin american, and Portuguese writers, concluding with José Saramago’s O homem duplicado, but this last letter was from a writer, a rather famous and important one, with whose work I had yet to acquaint myself: Javier Marías. It was a large but not bulky envelope, hand-addressed, and the letter was formal but very friendly in tone, written on a typewriter: was I this Gary Amdahl? He referred me to the enclosed, beautifully produced chapbook, an early story of his called “El Noruego.” The Norwegian in the story is named Gary Amdahl and works in the Barcelona office of a US company, in whose Madrid office works another Gary Amdahl. They are alike in every way, down to the most minute details and urges, and the very short story describes the struggle of the narrator Gary to become different from the other Gary. The letter said Señor Marías had come across the strange name in the phonebook of Palma, Mallorca, where my father, whose middle name is Garrison, had indeed once lived for a few months while trying to straighten out what was in effect an extortion deal in the setting-up of a “legal entity” in Spain for the beverage-dispensing company he worked for. But he had lived in a hotel, and didn’t in any case ever go by “Gary.” You can search the antiquarian internet for days, weeks; you can google the hell out of my name + Javier Marías + Noruego and find absolutely nothing. I apparently have the only copy, and Señor Marías no longer replies to my letters, which, I admit, may have become a little oppressive.

~

Eventually, of course—no surprise here, the world being what it is—I met the other Gary Amdahl. He looked exactly like me, according to our families anyway; we were unwilling to accept the shortness of our legs and how bowed they were—you could have driven a truck between his—the immensity of our foreheads, the tinyness of our eyes, or the featureless tomatoes we became when we blushed, which was often and easily. I said I would grow a beard, which made him shudder with distaste, and he offered to try contact lenses, which you couldn’t pay me to wear. The differences in our personalities, however, were appalling. It’s not too strong a word. I am not a believer in the infallibility of first impressions, but I do know what it’s like to meet someone you almost instantaneously dislike. We all do. It’s instinctive. These people alarm us. Well, the other Gary Amdahl alarmed me. My instinct was to nod and smile and move on. He set my teeth on edge. He evidently had a bad temper, would raise his voice or give menacing looks in public, and had a terrible gift for sarcasm, which he would use with full commedia dell’arte gestures as if a mechanism connecting his mouth and arms had been engaged. If people were being witty, he became desperate to top everything off with a devastating satire of the entire mise-en-scène. He laughed too much, explosively, nervously, preemptively, and at his own jokes. He was extremely, pathologically sensitive to criticism, very defensive, and even though he had lots of money, he always let other people pay. He tailgated at a hundred miles an hour, simultaneously laying on the horn and flipping the bird, hated crowds, was very impatient in lines, and had the table manners of a starving dog. It was repulsive, almost sad, to watch him eat. Finally, he had a way with women that I thought was transparently disingenuous but which seemed to work very well for him. He was married, his wife was beautiful, and she appeared to suffer him gladly, but I saw her once, much later, swing a big heavy sack of potato peelings at him and hit him smack in the side of the neck—almost knocked him off his feet, and you could tell he was seeing stars. On the plus side, he had a fine singing voice, was a real guitar slinger, and had a great job (Amdahl Corp.), with the kind of responsibility and authority that not just any asshole can get, or hold onto, for very long. He loved his dogs and cats and was very gentle and sweet with them.

As for his observations and analyses of my character . . . ! He said, “I’ll make this brief. You are a misanthropic artist manqué. You are lazy and cowardly. You make a big show of being a lone wolf, with only your principles and vision for company, but I have never met anyone more thoroughly dependent on the goodness of other people. You have sacrificed everything that makes life worth living: hearth, home, the love of a good woman, the hopes of your family, the esteem of your fellows . . . self-esteem. You want to canonize Chekhov, but he would never have gone in for your kind of self-deceit.”

“Say what you like,” I said serenely. “But I am a maker. I am a creator. I am probably, though I can’t prove it, responsible for your existence. Everything you think you know about me, you know because I want you to know. Require you to know, so as to employ you in my creations.”

One of us laughed. I think it was him, given his predisposition to it.

“You didn’t create me, you fucking dimwit.”

“How do you know that I did not create you?”

“I don’t know that.”

“Very good. I do know. I did create you. That’s what I do.”

“Fine. You created me. If that’s your story—stick to it, buddy.”

“Given for the sake of argument that I’m right—what does that make you?”

It was a ridiculous question, and I knew it. I was angry and wanted to humiliate him. We went back and forth for a while trying to come to an understanding of what sort of answer I was looking for. He paused and appeared to be giving serious, even troubled, thought to it. “If you made me, what does that make me?” he asked sincerely.

“Yes,” I said.

He took pity and exacted his revenge at the same time. “The lesser evil,” he said, “just for starters.”

And I say yes, yes, yes, easy for him to say, but where is he now? Better still: where am I? No, no, Samuel Beckett said it best when, on hearing voices in or near his head, he demanded to know who was speaking and who was listening. And refused to go on until he got it sorted out. Certainly there can be another man in the world named Gary Amdahl who looks a lot like me. Just as I can imagine, I can create, a Gary Amdahl who is all the things I am not. Sure, I admit it, it’s easy, it’s almost a part of human nature to imagine ourselves as decent, attractive, accomplished, when we are mean-spirited, ugly, paralyzed by anxiety. Or maybe I am thinking of Rimbaud: “Je est un autre.” I is another. I am not me. Me is someone else. Me is someone else. Me is someone else. That makes sense, doesn’t it? I think it does. Me is someone else. Thank god.

 

Gary Amdahl is the author of Visigoth (stories) and I Am Death (novellas). A novel, The Daredevils, and another collection, The Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts, are due out in 2009. He has won a Pushcart Prize and, as a playwright, a Jerome Fellowship. (10/2008)


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