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Beatnik SF Writer

[My blog posts these days are largely drawn from my current writing project, the first draft of my memoir: Nested Scrolls.]

1960 was my brother Embry’s last summer at home before college. To be further from my parents’ scrutiny, he’d moved his dwelling into the basement of our house. He had shelves of hot-rod magazines, copies of Dig magazine, a set of bongo drums, and dozens of back issues of Evergreen Review. My friend Niles and I began spending time in Embry’s lair, even when he was there.

Niles thought the hot-rod magazines were absurd. “Look at this ramshackle jalopy,” he said, dismissively tapping the picture of a championship dragster. “What a piece of crap.”

“That car goes a hundred and sixty miles an hour,” Embry testily responded.

“Sure,” jeered Niles. “Off a cliff.”

When I realized that the Evergreen Review magazines had curse words in them, I began combing through them when I was home alone—looking for pornography. But that wasn’t exactly what I found. Instead I found a career.

One particular excerpt of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch utterly blew my mind, it was about junkies and hangings and weird sex, written in a hilariously in-your-face dead-pan tone, utterly contemptuous of any notion of bourgeois propriety. Burroughs was a banner to salute, an anthem to march to, a master to emulate.

Embry’s Evergreen Review stash was a treasure trove—I found poems by Allen Ginsberg, writings by Kerouac and, somehow the most heartening, story after story by beat unknowns. Men and women writing about their daily routines as if life itself were strange and ecstatic.

Niles and I found an anthology in the library called The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, and this was where we first saw Ginsberg’s Howl. We read that amazing poem out loud to each other, reveling in the bad language and bad attitude, staggered by the sense of liberation.

And from here it was a short hop to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. This book spoke to me like none I’d read before. To be out in the world, free as a bird, drinking, smoking, meeting women and yakking all night about God—yes!

At the same time, Niles found a book on Zen Buddhism by Allan Watts and, in a slightly different vein, he discovered Edwin Abbott’s Flatland.

“It’s this weird flat world where the people are lines and triangles and other shapes. The main character is this guy called A Square.”

“How does it rain?”

“The rain is like a band of water that slides across the world. Never mind that. The neat part is that A Square travels up into our space. And then he comes back and tries to teach the Flatlanders about the mysterious third dimension, and the High Priest throws him in jail.”

I didn’t see how to fit all my new literary influences together until, when I was in the hospital after rupturing my spleen, my mother brought me a paperback copy of Untouched By Human Hands, a collection of science-fiction tales by Robert Sheckley.

Somewhere Vladimir Nabokov writes about the “initial push that sets the heavy ball rolling down the corridors of years,” and for me the push was Sheckley’s book. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Not only was Sheckley’s work masterful in terms of plot and form, and it had a jokey edge that—to my mind—set it above the more straightforward work of the other SF writers. There was something about his style that gave me a sense that I could do it myself. He wrote like I thought.

From then on, I knew in my heart of hearts that my greatest ambition was to become a beatnik science fiction writer.

5 Responses to “Beatnik SF Writer”

  1. geebert Says:

    good ol mom! she really helped you get going. literary artist that she was…

  2. Jonathan Trainham Says:

    Man got into some great writers, yeah I picked up Flatlanders but haven’t read it yet for 25 cents and got the Zen Buddhism book by Allan Watts for 10 cents at my library and just picked up Sheckley book for a quater at my local thrift store, I got into William S. Burroughs and than the beats through Kurt Cobain. I liked his style his rawness of life. POlus getting into punk culture I found out about per-zines, which are xeroxed zines written like diary or journal entries, my favorite was Strapped With A Back Pack, amazing zine, can’t wait to read more of the memoirs. What about Theodore Sturgeon?? Do you like him?? He writes in an abstract way, especially his The [Widget], The [Wadget], and Boff story.


  3. Darryl Parker Says:

    I read Sheckley’s book of short stories at your turning point recommendation. It was a great escape and I have recommended to several friends.

  4. Gamma Says:

    Theodore Sturgeon cover on Astounding was it Mowgli’s Jet – i thought Watts was Alan anyway Kilgore Trout then it is or Finnegan – Mike Moorcock did a nice obit fer Barrington Bayley

  5. jamma Says:

    this website isn’t of any help to me on my report. lol. 🙂

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