Owen Barfield once said that there are two basic kinds of writer: the kind who writes a different book every time, and the kind who writes the same book again and again. I am definitely the latter kind, and Paradise Fever, while on the surface a memoir designed (rather unsuccessfully) to capitalize on the confessional memoir craze inaugurated by Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, is, beneath that surface, just another book about the same old subjects that concerned me the first time around – subjects that I’d been continuing to think about ever since the early eighties when people like Bly, Hillman, and Campbell had taught me how to do so.
The first third of the book documents the heady years of the early seventies when my father, in the wake of the success of his two biggest books, Secrets of the Great Pyramid and The Secret Life of Plants, took his mistress, Betty Vreeland, into our house to live with him, my mother, and me. The middle part focuses on his search for Atlantis in the waters of the Bahamas near where I went on my psychic treasure hunt just a decade or so later. The final third of the book reads like a memoir of recovery by and large, but there, as in the rest of the book, the surface action – in this case my rather unoriginal adventures with alcohol and drugs – really plays second fiddle to the book’s real subject — the spiritual world, and our current problematic relationship to it.
Everyone knows the modern world is getting smaller: that there are too many people, not enough resources, not enough space. But it’s getting smaller in another way too – at least to my way of thinking. It’s getting smaller in the way that the shell on an insect or crustacean is getting smaller when it’s time for it to break out of it. It’s getting smaller the way Alice’s house was in Alice in Wonderland, when she suddenly found her head and limbs sticking through the doors and windows. We live in a universe of change and evolution – of (largely) forward movement, and it seems to me that both for groups and for individuals, to stop in one’s tracks and refuse to grow and move forward is to court disaster.
There’s a scene in Night of the Living Dead – George Romero’s 1968 version – that sums up all of this perfectly for me. The main characters have been locked up in the farmhouse for several hours, with the cannibalistic zombies milling around outside, truing to figure out how to get in. Finally, after a lot of arguing, the leaders of the group determine that they’re going to try to escape. One character – the tiresome and argumentative Mr. Cooper – throws Molotov cocktails from the roof to back the zombies off a bit. Then two other characters, Ben and Tom, open the front door and rush down to the truck parked in front of the house to start it.
All looks to be going well, when suddenly, just as Mr. Cooper has come back downstairs to board up the door again, Judy, Tom’s girlfriend, appears in the doorway. She steps out onto the porch – the place beyond the warmth, light, and shelter of the inside of the house, the realm of the unknown, and of death – and pauses. Should she go back inside? Or should she run down to the truck instead?
Ben, the group’s leader, who’s down at the truck already, shouts something to Judy, and what he says has long seemed to me to sum up all kinds of things, both about me as an individual, and about the strange, just-about-to-turn-into-something world in which we live.
“Well if you’re coming come on!”
To look out on the material world and see it as a place that holds no anchor for our interior selves, our inner sense of identity or me-ness, is to place oneself in the position of the people in the abandoned farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead. Stuck in their lonely, fragile farmhouse with its multiple windows tentatively boarded up against the sea of zombies outside, the modern individual is like a perpetually besieged center, hopelessly fending off a big, dark world that is constantly threatening to flood in and drown it. What is its solution? The answer, both obvious and impossibly hard at the same time, is to turn into something else.
So Paradise Fever, set in a time when people were extremely excited about the potential of personal growth, societal transformation, and so forth, is about two people – my father and me – who can’t grow. Or won’t. Even though both of us want to. In one of the last scenes, I’m out behind my father’s new barn in West Virginia, sitting in a lawn chair, throwing empty beer bottles into the woods around me. It’s a comic scene obviously, but the basic position I’m in is one that’s repeated in different ways in a lot of my books: the image of a person or a people (the Aztecs in This Tree, for example) hemmed in by an environment that seems to be closing in on him or them, demanding that he or they change, that he or they move forward… or die.
I’ve long thought that substances like drugs and alcohol can be useful and beneficial because they make us able to directly – if all too often haphazardly and briefly – recover a feeling for the fact that we exist within a larger, non-physical environment. An environment that can see us even if we can’t see it, and which is just waiting for us to… do something. That at least has been my own experience, and why I felt that my rather run-of-the-mill drug and alcohol adventures were worth writing about in Paradise Fever. Drugs can open a person up – for a time – to his or her membership in this larger world. Then they stop working, and the cold black water of ordinary, spiritually ambiguous existence rushes back in. But for a moment we saw, and in that glimpse we got a hint, perhaps, as to why it is we have to keep living, to keep trying. Not because putting up with the boring daily garbage of life has value in itself – though who knows, maybe it does. But because we are all, in fact, going somewhere. A somewhere that is even better than where we came from, and worth, in the end, all the misery we undergo in the course of getting there.
In other words: the paradise myth again, this time not only written about, but acted out.