Tom Maremaa

Notebooks

Some random notes, blog posts, memories and reflections

Black Humor and the Sixties

If you've read any of the scribblings in my various blog postings, you'll know that the roots of my writing go back to the 1960s when I came of age. It was a bizarre period in American life, unlike anything before or since. Some characterized it as the Second Civil War, a time of violence and civil disobedience, of protest and resistance. Whole families were torn apart; men of my generation fled to Canada to avoid the draft, others were less fortunate and got sent to Vietnam (for what purpose, nobody really knew - - something about fighting communism and bringing the Vietnamese democracy). The music was revolutionary. College campuses, like Harvard, Berkeley and Michigan, were hotbeds of radical activity, drugs, life-changing experiences. I wrote about this in my novel Grok, long riffs on Berkeley in the Sixties, what it meant and how I saw it through the eyes of my main character. I tried to capture the madness of that time, the black humor of it all, if you will.

Black humor, as expressed in the writings of Nabokov, Pynchon, Heller, Kesey, Donleavy, Vonnegut, and others, was the only way to get a handle on the period, to see it for what it was: America gone bonkers. Being in California was being on the frenetic edge, as Pynchon wrote in The Crying of Lot 49, with a cast of cartoon characters making up the action of the story. I remember walking around proudly with a well-worn copy of Lot 49, digging the book, eating it up, even though I heard Pynchon himself had had misgivings about its publication and even wanted it pulled. Now when I look at Lot 49, cruising through its pages, I find it still holds my attention, the language is brilliant, the descriptions of the California scene absolutely hysterical and riveting. Yet I know how much it belongs to that time and place. (The book is a classic put-on, and needs to be understood in that context.) Same goes for other black humorists from the 1950s and 1960s. Occasionally I'll pick up on passages of Nabokov's Lolita, which, in its capturing of Humbert Humbert's cross-country journey with his beloved Lo in tow, stands the test of time. The book is a feast of language; every beginning writer will get stone drunk on its words and mind-bending phrases. There is nothing like it.

I'm thinking that we don't see many novels these days that somehow push the envelope, that deal with the absurd, that take on the American landscape in all its monster beauty and equally monster tackiness, its simultaneous embrace of the future, and absolute disdain for any change that would make that future a better place. When I started working on my own fiction, my editor at Morrow, a wise man, indeed, cautioned me about doing anything that was too humorous, too embracing of the comic side of American life -- in short, too damn funny. Now that was enough to throw cold water onto my face and the keys of my trusted IBM Selectric typewriter, as I'd come out of the social and political upheavals of the Sixties breathing fire from the impassioned writings of the Black Humorists. 

Years later, I've charted a different course as a writer: my work deals more realistically now with the issues of the day, with moral choices, with conflicts of character and action. I'm not sure Black Humor has any place it, one way or another. This is either good or bad. (Maybe my editor was right, after all.) Nabokov, Pynchon, Kesey, among others, belong to their time in American history, when they captured it with great power and insight. Maybe America hasn't really changed at all, fundamentally, so the task of the writer is the same: to write the history of the current time, as he or she sees it, reflects it, embraces it.

Tom Maremaa