I first became aware of Jack Eidt’s writing ten years ago. Even then, other writers spoke in hushed tones: “Have you heard Jack’s latest piece?” Since that time, Eidt has won the best fiction award twice at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.
Some readers have compared his writing to Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. I saw a bit of Paul Theroux and early Hunter S. Thompson—during his stint as the weirdest travel magazine writer ever. Eidt’s novel chapters detailed protagonists in South America and Mexico during personal crises and dark nights of the soul. Eidt proved especially good at runaway train imagery: clause after clause of precise description on the smells, sounds, and sights of the cities and jungles.
As strong as that stuff was/is, Eidt has made another leap forward in his new novel in progress. He has mixed together his interest in the spiritual, the pagan, and the celestial, along with his cynicism over corporate boardroom mentality, and injected his storytelling with a new humor–that was far less evident in the past. There is a feeling that everything matters and is very serious, but is also absurd and perhaps just a cosmic joke.
I’d like to take credit for improving this excerpt through careful editing, but I barely touched it. My main editorial triumph was turning down Eidt’s whimsical, satirical poetry and holding out for the good stuff. His recent fiction.
NOWHERE BECKONS Excerpt: The Blue Basement
By Jack Eidt
T. stepped into the blue basement, and all the animals were there. “She’s beautiful,” his friend William spoke up, looking like so many black birds, dapper in a vintage suit, a deep-lined smile across his black face. It was black-hair/blond-hair Marla, across the blue basement, crowded shoulder to shoulder, under blue lights, loud music, smoke in the air. “She’s also a schizophrenic, but I guess therein lies her charm. Have a blue drink.” William handed him a blue beverage and cackled. Next to him was a slightly drunken woman of mid-forties in a tight raven-tinted short dress, her hair a deep red, lips, redder.
“Terpsichore, you know Dez, don’t you?”
“Dez?” T. put his hand out, and she slapped it, laughing.
“Why do you call him that?”
“We are all about dance and delight here in the blue basement.”
She hung all over William, and he swung her around him, her dress pulling up to mid-bottom. T. said, “Thanks for getting me in here, but what is all this?”
Dez regarded him with suspicion. “What, not enjoying yourself, Terpsichore?”
T. shrugged, getting that they were testing him, and passing would be necessary if he ever wanted to work with William and his film crew. “Who doesn’t love the blue basement?” He sipped the blue drink. Poison.
William laughed. “Dez has invited me to stay in her house. I can’t go back to my apartment, as you know the old lady is waiting to ambush me. Dez and I are getting in touch with our second chakra.”
“I’m sure.” T. eyed Marla as she held court with three friendly brothers dressed in black leather chaps. He would approach her, but later, without the hangers-on. “What’s the second chakra?”
“The most vital place on the body,” said Dez, giggling, hanging all over William.
“It’s the center of the human universe, my boy.”
“Why don’t you go over and say ‘Hi’?”
“Who is she?” asked Dez.
“She’s the most beautiful woman in the world, for Terpsichore, that is.”
“The most beautiful woman in the world? What is it with you men, you treat women like they’re glass dolls.”
William cackled again. “And you women treat us like work-horses. Make us get on top and do all the work. And if it gets to be too much you say, ‘It’s okay, a lot of guys have the same problem.’”
“Well, William,” she pulled him close, “after tonight, maybe getting in touch with your second chakra will break through your little hang-up.”
“Let’s hope so, darling. Going upstairs, Terpsichore?”
T. looked around at the blue basement, the people, the music, the pounding, laughing, blue light – all blurring.
“I’ll leave you to her, pal.” William and Dez walked away as Marla disappeared through a doorway, leaving T. alone in the crowd. Voices, a hundred and three whispers broadcasted into his head from a celestial radio transmission, spoke up through the chatting, smoking, drinking, dancing. The lights hypnotically spun like a blue-popping chain, flicker, speed and move – you can’t follow them. The people impelled to the light and sound, blending into the experiential. He listened to the voices…
“Nirvana signifies extinction,” a tall man said to no one in particular, sitting on the corner ledge, seeming mesmerized by the popping lights. “It’s like a lamp extinguished through lack of fuel, the flame of passion is exhausted, with no more chance for rebirth…into nothing.”
“You are friends with William?” T. turned and it was a woman, two, in fact. The first wore a pelt of an ocelot, fake, her hair silver, like straw, a wig. Her eyes were sunken, complexion sallow, but her outfit suggested an assumed radiance. He knew her from William’s cadre of scene-enthusiasts, and remembered the curious fate of her ex-boyfriend, an artist named Rafa, who died of something no one could explain. Maybe an ocelot attack?
“Yes,” he answered, looking through her toward the crowd.
“We haven’t seen you around,” she said as a sort of invitation. “William mentioned your corporate job.” Her companion was dark, an angular thin nose dominated. Dark foundation brush-work with powder-lightened cheek lines, white-penciled eyebrows and combed lashes. Women, man, somewhere in between, she was beautiful, stunning. What was real was what you chose to relate with.
“Yes,” T. answered, catching sight of Marla, who appeared again in the blue basement. “I’ve been locked away. Or maybe I’m going away. Frankly, I’m not sure where I’m going.”
“Who is this mysterious man?” her companion spoke up in an English accent and a touch of man-tone or was it a womanly lilt? “You know, none of us are really here, darling.”
“Yes,” continued the first, not looking dangerous, per se, but who knew about the feral mystery behind the facade. “I’m continually visiting my dead relatives in Prague. I see them in dreams, catch site of them in dark corners. It is so nice to remain in between worlds. If you stay overly-conscious long enough, you forget the beauty waiting in unconsciousness, in death. I keep my mind open.”
“I think I’m forgetting, I mean, remembering,” T. said, still distracted, as Marla hugged a tall black man in a black leather jacket, her eyes alight, laughing conspicuously.
“Your hair is getting long, darling,” said the English accent. “You look like David; doesn’t he look a bit like David?”
“David who?” T. glanced away.
“Michelangelo’s,” added the silver-hair. “William also said you’re the Greek Muse. We’ve been waiting for you. You look…different. Like you can see. Like you have been somewhere.” She stepped closer. “I’m having a dinner party at my house next weekend.”
“You know, Terpsichore,” the English accented trans touched T.’s arm, “there’s lots of entertainment coming later. Do you know the red room?”
“I find red a positively inglorious color,” the silver-haired ocelot skin answered.
“That’s because you’re not sensual.”
“It’s not a sensual color.”
“I find it a sickening color,” T. added.
The wo-man gazed at him. “Why did you say that?”
“The eyes. The eyes of a condor are red.”
The English accent laughed, and said, “The eyes are quite defective. And the mind is the most defective of all.”
“I’m not a condor,” T. said, not necessarily to either of them.
“Sure, you’re not. Does your mind reflect the unitary perfection of the One? Are you of the Divine Mind?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the entrance to our little club. It’s a Neoplatonic revival, of sorts. You do look like David, by the way. People say I remind them of Politian.”
“He was a poet, just like you, no?” asked the silver-haired Czech.
“He was Lorenzo de Medici’s lover,” the English accent answered smoothly, and moved closer to T. “He had a profound influence on Michelangelo.”
“Ah yes, more Neoplatonists…” the Czech nodded.
“…of the Divine Mind.”
T. devised a plan of escape from the blue basement, he would ask Marla to cut out of here. Only a matter of time.
“Terpsichore,” the Czech smiled, “God didn’t create the world, but rather it emerged through emanations which flow from the center of existence, from the One, where all perfection is concentrated. The Divine Mind is our living intelligence, our access to the perfect. Below the mind is the World Soul, which connects the intellectual and material worlds.”
The other chimed in: “If you are of the Mind, you will become part of the perfection of the One. But the farther your mind is from the One, darling, the more lost. Maybe you’re going in the wrong direction – toward sin?”
T. looked around for a departure point. “I took a day off from work just to look for the Perfect Place.”
“Well, aren’t you an adventurous soul.” The English accent put her arm around him.
“You’ll go back tomorrow. You know what the Gnostics say?”
“The world is ruled by evil archons, or more currently, world deities like your Chairman of the Board, who hold captive the spirit of man.” She drank the blue liquid glowing from the refracted blinking lights. “A savior is sent for all of us from the heavens, to restore the lost knowledge of man’s divine origins. Only the Gnostics held the secret formulas to free them at death from the evil archons. Until now…”
“Just quit this life,” said the Czech, and T. again thought about how Rafa “just quit.” “Perfection is inside and external forces take you away. In the end, it is only you…and me.”
“Don’t forget me, darling,” the English crooned.
“I’ll never forget you, Janie.”
“Mr. Terpsichore,” said the English Janie, eyes on fire, “get out of your mind. Kill your mind. Unification with the One is only possible when the ecstatic soul loses the restraint of the body. This is to know God…”
T. shrugged and the silver-haired Czech almost fell into his arms without warning. “I want to talk to you further about where you have been,” she said glamorously, parting the ocelot coat to reveal a pall of white that was her neck, her chest. “I want you to come to my house alone tomorrow.”
“I’m busy tomorrow.”
“Come with me.” She grabbed T.’s hand, and they walked across the open floor of the blue basement. Everyone looked sick in the blue light with blue drinks and pounding music. The lights connect in their chain, people spinning to the pendulum of percussion that zapped like a plucked violin string, bass ricochet, shoulders grazing shoulders, hips bouncing back. The silver hair led T. around to the back door, her bony wrist turning knob to escape the heavy smoked basement. Her soft fleshless arms betrayed her forty years of overcoming all the wholesome tradition she left behind in the old country. She led him out of the basement, up a flight of stairs, a rusting firetrap of metal and wood, carrying aged and leaden feet out. Beyond was a castle courtyard, the open air. Dark night illuminated with candles, and all T. could think of was burning as she tried to grab him.
She lit a cigarette and blew the smoke right in his face. “You don’t mind?”
“I guess I don’t have much choice.”
“What are you, one of those health fanatics?” She put her arms around and pulled him closer.
“Can I touch you? I feel like…being naughty.” She laughed in the face of his knowing about Rafa, and the danger of urban ocelots, and as she attacked he pulled her wig off. Beyond the ocelot coat she seemed frail, but the danger was not physical, a mechanical seduction, an a visit from the dark otherworld. He blocked her determined advances.
“What do you want?” Trying to pull back, he thought he heard a droning.
He was sure. Some sort of violent churning, a strange vibrational hum, like a clicking or chewing – he heard it. She kissed him with her smoky wet mouth, pushing him against the wall. “Now, just a second,” he tried to take a breath. “What is that sound, Adele?”
“It’s music. I always sound that way when…”
Grinding, yes, grinding. He heard it from below the pelt. Somewhere in the darkness from her midsection. T. tried to pull away.
“Come closer and shut up,” she said quietly, in desperation. “It is supposed to be this way.”
Loud, louder. From her body emanated an uncontrollable grind, like blades of a sawmill spinning. “I…” he stuttered.
“What?” She kissed his neck, his face, his chest. “Don’t talk.”
The menacing vibration lay in wait. “I…I gotta go.” He pushed her away.
“No!” she grabbed for him, but he departed with haste from the castle courtyard.
T. returned to the blue basement. Which way was out? The voices again sang into his aural recesses, bellowing and pounding to the bass, lights entrancing. A woman’s voice asked:
“What did Einstein say?”
“He tried to understand,” a man answered, “the physical properties of the so called aether. He figured he could gauge its transmittal of characteristic waves of billions of oscillations per second at a speed of over 300,000 kilometers per second. But it did not register.”
“Of course not.”
“He found that the aether is not matter – it does not exist of itself. He thought of it as a field, with space around it dominated by the influence of a particle of mass; like a flame that illuminates a field. Its influence diminishes at a distance, yet it never reaches zero, since, in theory, the field, however faint, is infinite…”
“Yes,” the woman’s voice answered dreamily, “the flame is the mind.”
The only place where one could escape the din was in the line to the bathroom, so everyone congregated. T. encountered a college-age white woman with a suburban flare, not the usual sort found in the blue basement.
“Hi,” she said in a perky voice, then narrowed her eyes.
He turned to her, tongue-tied, and managed a “Hello.” Her uncomplicated demeanor had him confused as to how she gained entrance to this place.
“You don’t look so good,” she said. “Stop drinking the blue drinks.”
“Yeah, what do you know about them?” He paced with impatience, hoping the bathroom line would disappear, and the door would open to the great mountainside, the tall trees, and the sad crick of the night cricket.
“This is a great club,” she gestured, eyes sparkling, “but if you keep drinking the blue drinks, you will be taken down. The goal is to persist until sunrise. If you don’t make it, you don’t…make it.”
“I will make it,” T. mumbled, looking down, across, away, in her eyes that sparkled blue with a power to open the pathway on the journey to the end of the night. “How will you make it?”
“I honestly have no idea how I will make it out of here. Most of us probably will not. Just remember that. The blue basement is the anteroom to the end. Don’t let them get you.”
“I’m not sure anyone here wants to leave.”
She laughed at him, kept laughing, then took her turn into the bathroom.
T. wondered if he should wait for her, but knew he had to escape on his own. He stepped away from the bathroom line, pushing through bodies and rising humidity, entering a black door and up the stairs, the ringing of metal played off the vibrating bass. They called this room the night niche.
He looked up, strange painted figures adorned the stone walls, and people clustered under the black haze to engage in a secret ritual. Etched in sandstone maybe a hundred, thousand, million years ago, the withered rocks had withstood time. Splashed across the walls in bluish tones, red-ochre and brown, black markings and white, was a representation of the Upperworld, the Abode of the Creator, illustrated by ancient hands as concentric bands emanating from the sun. From where all life came, its rays of energy radiate as electromagnetic waves carried by photons blasting through vacuous space at 186,000 miles per second. The circumpolar constellations comprised the first band, following the line connecting Beta and Alpha of Ursa Major, the pointers of the Big Dipper, through the space of the galaxy to Polaris, the guiding North Star, changing its brilliance every fourth day (is it a companion star?); Draco, the dragon constellation, curved between the dippers, swinging around and doubling back, the head staring its evil face into shining Vega, the stars that the Egyptians oriented their pyramids by.
The Milky Way was the next concentric band, a huge, irregular circle of stars, planetary and diffuse nebulae, 200 billion or more of them, white dwarf, red giants, distant extragalactic nebulae, star clusters and novae, set among dark clouds of obscuring matter, 30,000 light years away; the Galaxy would rotate around the Milky Way on a perpendicular axis for a period of 200 million years, or more.
The outer concentric bands made up the stars below the galactic equator.
The other pictographs were animals, supernatural brutes and evil monsters, fantastic bug-like creatures with multiple legs, pinwheel heads, and tails spinning like flames. The bird-like creatures, condor-like, were everywhere in the night niche. The giant condor, once ruler of the sky, laid in his deathbed and T. stood mesmerized in this cave.
But the voices, he could not escape them: “Astrology is bullshit,” said a man, long dark hair, with Asian lines and a brightly colored shirt. “A foolhardy projection of animal and human valuations onto the infinite depths of the universe. Stupidity is what it is.”
“And what do you know?” asked a 30ish Latin woman drinking a blue beverage.
“There’s nothing to know. If you think like all the humans, using an inexact version of perceived astral geometry, you divide the zodiacal bands across the sky, as well as all the people, into lovers and haters, sympathies and antipathies, allies and adversaries. Can’t you see that this is another absurd foray into pseudo-divined ignorance? Don’t you know there’s no difference between dark and light?”
T. sped up the steps of the night niche and out the back door, into the castle courtyard again. The footsteps gave way to candles, quiet groups, and the distant hum of the city.
“Well, hello there, David,” said a deep lilting voice, a touch of English country air. And hands were on him from behind.
“Hey,” he called out, held firmly at the midsection. The smell was another animal musk, deep bush on a sweaty night. “What is this?”
“You know what it is.”
“I…I don’t think I’m your type.”
(S)he held him strong, and turned him around. “You must relent…cast your preconceptions away. Maybe there is a paradise out there.”
“I’m sure there is…” T. separated himself, but the dark hair, whitened lines, and red lipstick followed him to the castle rail. The office towers, detailed in neon and bank insignias twinkled down to him, the rail marking the boundary between us and them, one that no one drew, but they say not to step. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.
The deep black eyes of the English accent had the look of the end of the night – half trickster, half transformer. “What are you afraid of?” She moved to kiss him. “Maybe that you’ll…like it?”
“Maybe you’re right.” He ducked. He ducked out.
Q and A
Luna: I’ve known you since 2007 and you were already an accomplished writer. When did you begin writing fiction?
Jack Eidt: As a Western Mass. high school student, I wrote a satire on LA: “It Never Rains in Southern California,” not yet having stepped foot in California, title appropriated, and thus appeared a teller of tales. I took undergraduate fiction classes, and later quit my job at Disney to spend a year in Latin America figuring out what it meant to write about people and places. Then I wrote a novel where I reconstructed the Mayan creation myth the Popol Vuh, which, had it been published, probably would have resulted in a Mayan curse. Remember what happened to Mel Gibson after Apocalypto. Learning to write is a process.
LR: You’ve done stories, or chapters from novels, on American characters traveling through Mexico and South America. Did you just fictionalize your own journeys through those regions, or should we assume the polluted, sometimes diseased protagonists are basically you?
JE: Imagination is king. Of course, my travels and illnesses have inspired and informed gringo characters and stories of navigating the Mesoamerican wilderness, making and losing connections with indigenous, Afro-Carib, and Ladino societies. The non-fiction versions, however, give reason to the adage that truth is stranger than fiction, and remain untellable. People don’t want to read about how an unknown twentysomething would-be-writer talked himself onto river cargo boats and along for hunting expeditions, just to find a forest farthest from roads and electricity where he could sit in a hut and write disjointed sentences in a moldy notebook.
LR: Do you have any writing rituals that help connect with the creative flow? Thomas McGuane spoke of writing immediately upon waking so he still felt partially in a dream state.
JE: I generally write about place, and people’s response to their environment: culture. That’s why I attempt to capture first drafts surrounded/entranced by my setting. If I’m writing about the Guatemala highlands, then I save some money, get on a bus, find a hotel in a village, and hide out until the credit card gets rejected. When I get into the larger push to synthesize a first draft into a full novel, I need to put as many days together in a relatively quiet place so as not to break up that so-called dream state. For a long time, I did nothing except write from Friday through Monday, alienating romantic partners and a few friends along the way.
LR: Though I’ve enjoyed your south of the border writings, the two excerpts that I’ve heard from your new novel intrigue me more because they seem, surreal, magical, and dream-like, while still being connected to the real world. Were you describing something you saw or felt in current Los Angeles, or does it even matter where this novel takes place beyond it being a major city?
JE: Well, surrealism or supernaturalism in art and literature is an urban construct, some credit to French Dadaists after World War I. But for me, a massive influence is mythology and folklore, particularly from animistic, pre-industrial societies that existed long before, where nature is alive, the animals assume human form, and the rocks, the caves, the forests are the highest beings, the essential truth tellers. I see our urban crisis today relates with separation from nature, from the wild spirits, so my antidote is to blend the two together to promote healing.
LR: I want to stress that my excitement for what you’re doing now is dependent on the protagonist not coming out of a coma in a hospital, or worse, waking from a dream.
JE: Now, that’s funny. I think we shall wake from our collective dream some call “reality” quite soon, and it won’t be pretty. I think an abstract Messiaen piano composition or Marvin Swallow’s peyote-inspired sacred artworks in the Lakota tradition, can spark people’s minds out of the mundane dream of getting to work on time. Wanda Coleman’s LA street poetry and the literary magic of Borges: Time moves imperceptibly, and we sense the immortality of it all. That’s the state of mind I never want to wake from.
LR: As you know, I have no problem with satire, with criticism of societal idiocy or political buffoonery, as long as I don’t feel like I’m being lectured to. You’re pretty deft at jabbing needles into corporate culture with humor. Is there a point where the author’s opinions become too overwhelming, and can you reel that in yourself?
JE: We are all political beings, even those who say: “I’m not political.” Being apolitical is a political statement, that may make some more comfortable, but how do we make sense of Greenland melting so South Beach Miami condomania must build levees to hold Cumbia dance lessons in their ballroom? Democratic Socialists have sold Ecuadorean primeval rainforests, home to as-yet-uncontacted peoples, to oil companies to service Chinese debt, the funding of a Great Society. Hunters in Montana can shoot grizzlies while they sleep on their backs, near parks where people elbow each other to get a shot, a photo of one of them. Novelists can help envision a way forward, but reading is entertainment. So, it must be fun, thrilling, surprising, whatever…
LR: Who are five of your favorite writers? And books that have transformed and maybe mutated you?
JE: Ugh, this question.
LR: Yeah, I’m just phoning it in today.
JE: Since I stumbled on a bearded Stephen King signing books in his wife’s Bar Harbor bookstore, I wrote my own 14-year old’s version of The Stand, where people were psychically drawn to Fort Dodge, Iowa, instead of Boulder; books inspire us, but we must always move on. I grew up in Emily Dickinson’s hometown, where we used to gather at her grave site after school. Kafka’s The Trial, B. Traven’s The Bridge in the Jungle, Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Did I mention Thoreau? Oh, that’s six…
LR: Do you have any book reading rituals? Half-hour at night, a couple hours on weekends?
JE: We are in a crisis of reading, a dearth of creativity in the information age, where docu-video and presidential-140-character-tweets monopolize our collective psyche. I don’t have a TV, but am of course glued to my computer because I operate a website and manage multiple social media channels. Thus, a requirement to unplug with a book becomes imagination-therapy. I might have to enter a twelve-step to really recover the incredulity of discovering Nabokov’s butterflies or a hidden Sylvia Plath poem. I read wherever and whenever I can.
Jack among fiends and fanatics