Nine-and-a-Half Americas

Context N°15

by Max Frai

1. My first America is an imaginary one. It does not exist at all, and never did. As a child, it seemed that grown-ups had invented America. But what for? They knew what they were doing. They had invented bogeymen to keep children from climbing into the attic. They had invented Young Pioneer heroes who died horribly to coerce children into following the rules and studying hard. They had even invented vitamins to force children into eating tasteless, slimy boiled onions, spectral petals that swim mindlessly in every bowl of soup. So they had invented America in order to inspire fear. As I grew older, the formula became more precise: they had invented it for propaganda. To keep the Soviet people from relaxing in the absence of an external enemy. But I was happily oblivious to words like these as a child.

And then from time to time we saw pictures of American life on television—the way you can see aliens from outer space in the movies—they seemed pretty much the same thing to me then. But Vovka down the block said that there were no aliens in outer space, just our own cosmonauts. Vovka was big, in the sixth grade, he probably knew what he was talking about.

Still later, I was childishly confident that America had been invented by mean-spirited grown-ups as the setting for innumerable jokes and shaggy-dog stories that were wildly popular in my circle of acquaintances and friends. They provided various funny explanations: where American things came from, and where people really go when they say they’ve gone to America on business or as tourists: whether they’ve been hypnotized into thinking they’ve been on a marvelous journey, or simply cowed by blackmail or violence into corroborating the existence of an imagined country beyond the ocean. We enjoyed ourselves immensely. But in February 1994, when a rented microbus conducted us from Kennedy Airport, and the black silhouettes of the Manhattan skyline reared up ahead against the fiery background and lily-white smudge of an early winter dawn, my heart nearly stopped in terror. We were about to penetrate the two-dimensional space of a glossy postcard, to pass into an imagined, illusory reality. The obvious question then was, and even now I sometimes ask myself, where the hell were we?

2. My second America is related to the first, in the sense that it really is imaginary. This America derives from popular movies, the basis of a beautiful life in all its manifestations: from the heroic confrontations of cowboys and Indians to Audrey Hepburn, who has to have breakfast at Tiffany’s, of course, and supper who knows where. The America of Coppola and Tarantino, of gangsters and cops, of clandestine parties of bootleggers and the happy, orange-headed pumpkiny horror of Halloween. Philip Marlow shoots back at scoundrels without letting go of his glass of straight whiskey, Jack London’s Smoke and Shorty swim on golden sand, Mickey Mouse wolfs down a hamburger with a cold Coca-Cola, and Marilyn Monroe sings like a nightingale, twirling her appetizing backside to the joy of all the other human children. Beyond our wildest dreams, ah.

3. My third America might as well be the Land of the Dead, the place where my acquaintances and friends, in their own good time, went off to forever. To the West, to the sunset, to the dying sun, in full correspondence with ancient myths. In earlier times it was reckoned that from there, from America, there was no return. As for those of us who stayed behind, we never expected to go there. Therefore we said goodbye forever, saw living people off as if they had died, kissed their brows, and froze to the spot with grief.

Fortunately, this version of my America has long since grown old.

4. And there it is, my fourth America, the America of literature, the patrimony of the people of the Word, which, as we all know, precedes the act (and I am not fully certain that there ever has been a succeeding act). No need to list my favorite writers: the list is too long, a good hundred names well known to the world. I’ll just note that a book by Thornton Wilder, The Eighth Day, fell into my hands in a library in the Ural village Tavatui during the winter of 1984, and if it didn’t exactly save my life, it certainly saved my mind.

In particular, the structure of this very essay, the account of nine-and-a-half Americas instead of a single integral picture, is in its own way a tribute to the memory of the celebrated Theophilus North, who explained to me, along with everything else, that each city is Nine Cities, “some superimposed, some having very little relation with the others—variously beautiful, impressive, absurd, commonplace . . .”

5. I’d consider my fourth America the crown of creation if not for the fifth—the America of mysteries and miracles.

It’s clear that my fourth and fifth Americas are not simply woven together, but bound up into several sailors’ knots—it’s impossible to unravel them. And there’s nothing to unravel.

The map of my fifth America is a map of deserts, forests, and putrid swamps, dappled with ancient Indian curses, tattered by the thorns of hallucinatory cacti and fouled with the excrement of rabid lizards. In the skies of my fifth America kites are swooping, and down on its earth unwashed shamans walk, and the sound track to this idyll is provided, of course, by Jim Morrison, who else?

6. And so we get to Jim Morrison. My sixth America, if not the motherland of current art, is still The Promised Land. Andy Warhol’s Factory works nonstop, the boss has locked himself up in his bedroom with his “wifetape-recorder,” he treats himself to chocolatecovered cherries, for three hours he flutters around the telephone with his best girlfriend. Other things, people and events revolve around this eternal child like planets around the sun. This is an extremely harmonious and self-sustaining world. I like it very much.

7. The seventh America is deeply repulsive to me. This is the America of informers, hypocrites, bureaucrats, and lawyers. The America of legal wrangling and civil suits, in the course of which irresponsible idiots are awarded huge amounts of money from companies that don’t provide special, useful instructions about their products for irresponsible idiots. An America of spurious, deceitfully interpreted political correctness, offensive to all participants in the process of human society. This is the America where passersby will not even think of offering help to a person who is dying in the street because they are afraid of being sued. I won’t go on: it’s boring and obnoxious to go through it all.

8. The eighth America is one I happen to have visited. Strictly speaking, this is not even America, but a single city, New York.

I flew into New York with a friend in February of 1994 and stayed there until about March 10th. We had an exhibition at the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts gallery; we thought this was really, really terrific. We lived in a vast loft on Green Street in SoHo; the resident parrot took care of us, and we fed it in return. The elevator opened right into the apartment, and this detail drove us crazy, made us feel like heroes of a fantasy film, more utopian than anti-. . . .

Every morning we went to the gallery on Mercer Street and set up this damned exhibit. We labored for twelve hours running, returned home, ordered takeout from a Chinese restaurant, then wandered around SoHo, stopped by bars, tried unfamiliar cocktails, listened to unfamiliar music, looked at unfamiliar faces, tried to get our fill of a completely different, incomprehensible, but entrancing life: just in case.

Bar 88, which took its name from the number of keys on a piano and is located somewhere in Greenwich Village, is the only one whose name I will never forget. I’ll definitely look for the entrance again when I get the chance, but I have to confess it will be more by instinct than by memory.

A pianist played there in the evenings, most of the clientele were of indeterminate sex, a lady with the appearance of a professor took my coat in the coatroom—in the deepest part of my understanding I knew this had to be the ideal bar!

A lady dressed in a dark leather man’s suit behind the bar sang stupendous blues, successfully mixing cocktails and dumping cigarette stubs out of identical white ashtrays at the same time. I especially liked the cocktail she made called the Breeze: how many gallons of that liquid—pale pink, deceitfully sweetish, but in essence fiery enough to blow my head off—did I consume during those amazing evenings—God only knows.

The Feldmans—Frayda and Ronald—treated us gently, as if we were country cousins. They filled our pockets with money and good advice, took us to eat in an Italian restaurant, urged us to drink only decaffeinated coffee (advice we hardly ever follow, better to cut out coffee completely). Ron entertained us with stories about his own childhood; Frayda tactfully took care of all the details. Her colleague in the gallery, marvelous Peggy Kaplan, invited us to visit and for several hours nonstop photographed us for some album of hers. We have never been so inhumanly handsome as we were in Peggy’s photographs, and, it must be understood, we hardly expect to be again. Chuck, the chief installer at the gallery, waved an English-Russian phrasebook in front of our noses and painstakingly pronounced his favorite sentence: “I have a back ack.” He did not bother to learn any other Russian sentence. Obviously, he had decided that you couldn’t ask anything of someone with a “back ack.”

In New York we were very young (you always become a few years younger in a foreign country than you are at home, a strange effect) and, apparently, inexcusably happy. So passersby smiled at us, sidewalk vendors waved at us and threw us compliments. This became clear, by the way, only much later: it took us at least a week to understand the English you hear on the streets of New York.

And I still keep in my closet a pair of dark glasses with multicolored frames, which I bought for eight dollars from one of the involuntary witnesses of that happiness. It’s impossible for me to wear them anymore, but my hand refuses to throw them out, although I usually discard old things with pleasure.

9. The ninth America is that one through which I will travel someday. I want to cross it in a rented car, from the northwest to the southeast, and then, along the other diagonal, from northeast to southwest. I usually enjoy the roads I ride on—I see no reason why American roads should not be a real pleasure for me.

It would be good to go everywhere in America, look into every godforsaken corner, flirt with the winds, get lost on the streets of a big city—let’s say, L.A.—and then discover myself in a highway motel, somewhere on the far side of this imaginary land. To fall asleep in a field, sprout like dejected grass, wake up in the morning and, as if nothing had ever happened, keep going farther on. To eat tasteless cherry pie in a roadside diner, close my eyes, swallow bitter ocean water, come to the surface again and lie for a long time on the sand, wiggle my fingers and my toes: I’m alive!

One day all this, of course, will happen to me. Sooner or later, one way or another, it will happen, for sure.

I know.

9 1/2. And then there is America in the subjunctive mood, that America which never was and never will be real for me. The America where I might have been born into an American family, lived an American life, eaten American food, drunk American drinks, slept with American boys and girls, raised new American children, and with difficulty imagined that some people get born in foreign countries.

From the anthology Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States

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