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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Year of Endless Sorrows

Adam Rapp stole my life story. Well, maybe not the whole thing, but the basic outline. I came to realize this last Spring when my sister presented me with my graduation present which consisted of a couple plays including Rapp’s acclaimed Red Light Winter. She actually bought the play for me twice, at a time when I can say that my mental and spiritual health were less than sufficient. I passed the second copy onto a friend who confirmed that there was an uncanny similarity to the depressed protagonist of the story (who Rapp has affirmed was based on him in the preface of the play), a Tom Waits and Henry Miller fanatic, and the journey that unfolded in the three act work. Despite my sister’s good intentions but bad timing I enjoyed the play thoroughly and found myself looking up what else Rapp had done. One day while searching through Bookmans in Orange, I was confronted by a novel: The Year of Endless Sorrows.

As soon as I looked at the title, I knew that Rapp’s self-deprecating humor and attention to detail, two of our many similarities, would make this a great read. The story is simple: an all-American Midwesterner fresh from college ventures into New York’s East Village and tries to carve out a living while writing a novel and participating in sporadic sexual encounters. The plot is simple, but it is Rapp’s language and honesty that brings the book to life. He describes every moment of his (based on the earlier play, I assume the narrator of the novel is also him) harrowing, arduous journey with humor and complete transparency; unwilling and unaware of an ability to hide anything. A list of sorrows, some trivial and some real, bares witness to his unflinching resolve to truth or at least the creation of what seems truthful: jealousy over the size of his brother’s penis, a non-homosexual kiss with a man, his girlfriend’s leftover abortion fluids on the floor of an elevator, feelings of financial and educational inadequacy, his scant and pathetic goatee, and the list goes on.

Like Henry Miller, one of his heroes, it is impossible to know what is fact and what is fiction, but there is too much authenticity within the four hundred page novel for it to not contain a modicum of his actual life. My own personal connections feed my want for the text to be autobiographical. Aside from the similarities I mentioned earlier, both Rapp and I played basketball in college (junior college for me), both raised religious in small towns, both were in a form of scouts during our youth, and more importantly for me as of now, we both are trying to “figure it out” after college and find what it takes to write. Twenty years after this story takes place, I am the recent college graduate living in a big city during a recession, hoping that I figure out how to write whatever it is I have to “say.” Rapp certainly figured out how to say it. The book almost serves as a coming of age story, even though it covers only a year. In one year, Rapp is stripped of any Midwest delusion still floating around in his mind and he is acquainted, rather harshly, with the trials and tribulations of the East Village.

Rapp and his roommate, The Owl, make a pact not to return to their hometowns. Of course The Owl is the first to crack, but he doesn’t head home, opting instead to travel cross-country via Volkswagen bus. Feick, Rapp’s brother, is next. Even The Loach, Rapp’s nemesis, eventually leaves the apartment in which the four had been squatting. Rapp is left alone to deal with his complicated romance with the heart-swelling Polish actress Basha. Basha is the only light in Rapp’s dark world; a world that is never melodramatic thanks to Rapp’s humor and self-awareness. Rapp is stripped of his allies; ragged and hungry, he finally admits defeat and boards the Greyhound back to Dubuque, Iowa. Earlier in the novel, Rapp recants a lesson from a writing professor in college who told him that if the reader expects something bad to happen they will not be able to stop reading. In a book of perpetual agony the reader is wondering when Rapp’s narrator will board the bus. When he does, the reader feels empty; a loss that was suffered and shared by both author and reader.

Rapp’s presumable first year excursion into the artistic Mecca that is New York is a guidepost for the unsure, insecure and honest writer, artist or human. Rapp’s honesty comes across effortlessly; no grandeur, no illusions or tricks, just straightforward truth and storytelling. Like his plays, the language is the key, bringing to life the 1990’s East Village and the sorrows felt there. The moments of happiness make the story bearable, just as they make life bearable, but we can’t be too happy when we know sorrow will invariably follow. As Rapp says after another exhilarating encounter with Basha, “…I looked forward to her company with a quality I can describe only as acute joy-terror. Joy for obvious reasons. Terror because there was so much joy, and this exultant happiness often ends with a profound absence of itself, which, in turn, can only be replaced by its darker, more depressing converse.” The sorrow never ends.

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