American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light

Iain Sinclair

Faber and Faber

Eleanor Roosevelt seems like she was generally pretty cool. But that famous, perhaps apocryphal sentence "Great minds discuss ideas, mediocre minds discuss events, small minds discuss people" attributed to her seems stupid and misguided. Ideas are meaningful only as the products of the human activity of thinking. The further an idea is abstracted from the person who thought it, the more likely it is to be taken as a truth or a law. Once a thought is taken as a truth, it cannot accept the anomalous. And the erratic, infinitely unpredictable individual is always anomalous. The more universal the truth and the more the anomalous the individual, the more likely it is that someone will kill that individual for the sake of that idea.

Iain Sinclair would also likely disagree with Roosevelt. His new book, American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light (Faber and Faber), abounds with people-specifically, American writers in the second half of the 20th century-the interactions or events they shared and the thoughts they had, and it revels in their idiosyncrasies.

John Updike called criticism a "higher gossip" and by that standard, Sinclair's strange book is a work of criticism. It is also a book of reportage-following, rather slipshod, two different trips the author made to the United States in order to visit Beat writers.

But the structure is wildly associative, to the point of being dissociative, cramming so many references into sentences that they end up feeling like crazed Coltrane solos from his most far-out period. When Sinclair writes about one writer, others keep invading the space in fragmentary references-like ghosts of ghosts clamoring to the party-so that this book, ostensibly about Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Kerouac, Burroughs, Malcolm Lowry, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder, is constantly invaded by other names, other references, other anecdotes, all functioning by way of what Sinclair quoting Rodrigo Fresán (introduced only as friend of Roberto Bolano) quoting Chesterton calls "spiritual puns." Some of the spiritual puns aren't quite evident, and we find ourselves barely following Sinclair as he goes on for pages about a poet before really telling us that he is a poet, always hinting, never introducing, as if he is certain we know each of the poets or actresses or actresses' secretaries that he discusses, as if we all hung in the same social circles and introductions are thereby deemed superfluous. Take this for instance:

Dylan Thomas wasn't the only Welshman Lowry saw in Vancouver. The saturnine figure of Charles Stansfeld Jones, a census-taker for voter registration, turned up at the shack door like a refugee from John Cowper Powys's A Glastonbury Romance. Jones was an adept. Lowry dabbled in Swedenborg and Bohme, in Blake, and systems of correspondences. But this accountant and minor council official was Frater Achad; cabbalist, magician; a former initiate of the Golden Dawn and Ordo Templi Orientis.

Got it? That's the poet Dylan Thomas; the alcoholic author of Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry; an occultist census-taker; the British novelist Powys; the mystics Swedenborg and Bohme; the poet William Blake; and the mystic order founded by Aleister Crowley.

Or this:

Ginsberg had perfected a repertoire of standard anecdotes, a constantly revised history-with a hot fix of recent, excited, all-night conversations with Olson, Burroughs, Panna Grady. To which he now added the sight and odour and touch of those master manipulators, the millionaire rocks stars with their willingly seduced multitudes. He huddles with McCartney; he tries to teach Mick Jagger how to breathe. Celebrity feeds on celebrity in a cannibalizing ring fuck. Morning interviews, squatting on the grass, hold up the party. Ginsberg is a vampire for fame, immortality.

Sinclair packs more people into a sentence than anyone going-without ever getting abstract. He does not believe in collective nouns. And the result is ultimately charming-if sometimes frustrating, like taking a long walk with a long-winded friend. And American Smoke is structured like a walk. Sinclair is famous as part of the psychogeography movement, which arch-situationist Guy Debord described as " the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals."

Much of the work of the psychogeographers is based on the idea of the dérive, the rambling, aimless or accidental walk. Sinclair, who has previously written about walking the highway around London in London Orbital, here brings his passion for walking directly into the automotive reaches of the U.S. 20th century. It turns out to be a brilliant move. During both trips to America-taken decades apart-Sinclair turns out to have difficult traveling companions. In one case, it is a friend, Pavel Coen, who is incapable of reading maps, and in the second, recent trip, Sinclair's wife falls and is injured for much of the trip, struggling with pain as they drive.

Indeed, this "journey to the end of the light" about previous journeys to the end of the light and the edge of America turns out to be a meditation on the bad journey, the failed or constantly failing trip. "Like Kerouac in 1947, and Gary Snyder in 1957, Burroughs saw himself trudging impossible miles on nightmare journeys through real but transposed continents. Nazi coins, made into blind spectacles, badged him through sinister frontiers. 'I have walked across Siberia. It took two months. I had to kill 5 people. New York is gone.'"

And like the journeys of the ghosts he chases, Sinclair's bad journeys and higher gossip and spiritual puns bring us not only to the end of the light but to the wild edges of beauty, leaving the reader a bit exhausted and with a mad gleam in the eye, perhaps, but more attuned and aware to the world around us.