Every time I feel fascination
I just can’t stand still.
—David Bowie, “Fascination”
Born on Christmas Eve, 1952, in a hamlet on Long Island, Kevin Killian began his first novel, Shy, in June 1974, after he graduated from Fordham Lincoln Center, a small liberal arts college in Midtown Manhattan. It wasn’t released for another fifteen years, until the Crossing Press—based in Freedom, California—published a small edition in 1989. That same year also saw the publication of Killian’s first memoir, Bedrooms Have Windows. “Freedom,” George Michael crooned a few months later. “I think there’s something you should know.” What? Didn’t everything happen in 1989? The year the world began and the year it ended, too. Where had Killian been in those intervening fifteen years? Both books place him near his hometown: “I lived in the upstairs flat of a summer bungalow on the North Shore of Long Island,” Shy opens. It concludes with a place and a date, what might even be read as a declaration: “San Francisco, September 18, 1988.” “I grew up in Smithtown,” he begins in Bedrooms, “a suburb of New York, a town so invidious that I still speak of it in Proustian terms—or Miltonic terms, a kind of paradise I feel evicted from.”
By the beginning of 1991, Killian was living at the edge of the Mission District on Minna Street. He was a poet. He was married to the writer Dodie Bellamy. A friend and collaborator of many artists, writers, and actors in the city, he helped found the New Narrative movement—a loose arrangement of poets and novelists centered around Robert Glück’s writing workshops at Small Press Traffic. New Narrative, with its emphasis on critical theory and identity politics, offered a fiction and poetry that took itself apart in order to make its inner and outer workings—and worker—transparent: a writing about the writer who’s doing the writing, a kind of authorial heroism, the splaying of the self. (Derrida was a touchstone.) In a conversation with Bruce Boone, the Language poet Charles Bernstein noted that Boone, like his counterparts, foregrounded the author through repeated interventions of a writerly interest in text qua text: “It would be as if Stephen King made [some of the] comments … that you’re making to me, within the novel, and talked about its links with the high and the low European [literature], to French philosophy, and so on.” If the author died in the late sixties, New Narrative attempted to account for the causes of their demise in order to resurrect the corpse in a poetry and prose of flesh and blood—stitched together and electroshocked back to life. The poet Cole Swensen once said that Killian’s work is about the “palpability of being alive.” One lives with it.
Fascination: Memoirs brings together Killian’s two early memoirs: Bedrooms Have Windows, a choppy autobiographical story about an aspiring writer named Kevin Killian who endeavors to find his place in the sexed-up, boozy worlds of Long Island and New York in the seventies and eighties, before and in the midst of the AIDS crisis, and its planned but ultimately unpublished sequel, Bachelors Get Lonely, sections of which Killian included in subsequent fiction collections (1996’s Little Men and 2001’s I Cry like a Baby). Fascination concludes with Triangles in the Sand, a new, previously unpublished memoir of Killian’s brief affair in the seventies with the composer Arthur Russell. Used or remaindered, Killian’s early writing—including Shy and his little-known novella Desiree (1986)—has long been difficult to find in the wild (the wild, not the Web, being its rightful place, really) and has since accrued an almost cult status among readers of experimental and gay prose writing, like that of the early works of Killian’s peers: Steve Abbott, Dennis Cooper, Dodie Bellamy, Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, and others. Cooper once described Shy as “mind-bending, trashy, and Dickensian.” The novel “drove me wild.” James Purdy, who Killian has long cited as an influence, called it “a book of sparklers.” Boone wrote that Bedrooms would cement Killian’s place as one of “the brightest stars in the sex/experimental writing firmament.” Holding this two-part volume of such writing, a new reader, perhaps one more familiar with Killian’s poetry (of which he has published four volumes, two in recent years), might wonder how exactly his nonfiction plots along the axis Boone describes.
In “Sex Writing and the New Narrative,” a 1990 essay that alternates between a love scene with two men and an analysis of “language, narration, and representation,” Killian writes that “all narrative is corrupt insofar as it attempts to ape the realities of our lives … Corruption of the body, of the text, of the story.” Killian argues that words are both insufficient in their effort to “formulate a representation of life” and irresistible, too. They are gamely partners in a cruise-or-be-cruised world, their corruption suggestive and tantalizing:
“Sex writing” … differs from other forms of representation in that it has some kind of chemical effect on the reader. I get hard, I can’t contain myself. A fugue results, between the closed system of language and the complex system of molecules that holds my body together a real communication begins. Obedience … These include the disjunctions, strangenesses and confusions of sexual gender we live with.
I read this as a distinctly queer, even specifically gay, update of Lyn Hejinian’s well-known essay “The Rejection of Closure” (1983), in which she establishes a handy binary of “closed” and “open” texts. In the latter, “all the elements of the work are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) argument that they have taken into the dimension of the work.” Killian is likewise interested in the excitability of language—so much so that it gets him hard. What about us, its readers?
Hejinian argues that the difference between the world and the word produces a gap, or let’s say a hole, that most of us need to fill, prod, tongue. That’s poetry, and that’s sex writing. It prompts a feeling, a physical sensation. You put the book down. You walk around. You text a friend. You can hardly keep still. You grow pleasantly bored, filled with enough plot or verse for the day, and snoop for porn. Am I being too literal? Hejinian incorporates Umberto Eco’s idea of “inferential walks”—those instances where “the reader has to ‘walk,’ so to speak, outside the text, in order to gather intertextual support,” Eco writes—into her more general idea that language “is productive of activity.” She notes that words appear to us as “attractive, magnetic to meaning.” Flirtatious, Killian might add. We chase them, since they are the means to an immanent poetry or prose—that is, a forward-looking writing concerned with itself, with its own mechanics and the mechanic him- or herself. The open (or New Narrative) text develops as an evocative experience of reading rather than a mere recording of experience. In a later poem, “Helium,” Killian puts it simply: “The balloon that once blown up assumes a shape and an ending. / Pop, then, deflates your sentence / into life.” Pop.
Both Bedrooms and Bachelors concern Killian’s “real life,” though neither dwells on the provable connections between the living writer and his protagonist so much as they attempt, in their corrupt desire to ape and supplant reality with their own exigencies, to stand in place of private memory as a public document, as this book you hold in hand: the realer deal than whatever was once real. Scenes splurge, come and go, elaborate in nonsequential tellings and retellings of Killian’s late teens to adulthood. Self-exiled from the gates of suburban Eden (anyone can be normal if he wants to be, right?), Killian makes regular, restless visits to New York’s profane streets, finding himself occasionally employed, frequently lost, “sealed in with the dismal frightened figures of subway America.” In Bedrooms, while hitching in Smithtown, he meets Carey Denham, a man old enough to be his father, with whom he begins an affair:
“Take me to New York,” I said.
“Show me where it is on the map,” Carey said. His right hand touched my cock. The names of the roads on the map blurred before my eyes like a turning kaleidoscope. That’s the night I fell in love for the first time.
Throughout both memoirs, Killian analyzes this poise of innocence as it becomes increasingly complicated by his growing awareness of it as a poise, as even a sexual politics—specifically through a friendship with George Grey, “the unclaimed son of Gypsy Rose Lee,” who rouses Killian to a hunger for the broad belt of the wider world, for whatever the American mainland holds. (Funny to remember that Long Island, with its postwar fantasy of cookie-cutter America, is just that: an island.) Innocence, he realizes, holds the key to personality—lie around long enough and eventually someone will tell you what to do.
I’m not sure if Kevin in Bedrooms or Bachelors could find New York on a map—not because he’s unaware of his Northeastern geography but because he’s simply too distracted and too turned on to really get there. Men lead him along, and it is the appearance of new faces and bodies—new names, new words—that pushes him from A to B and back again:
There has to be a person inside the story, I wonder why … But when a person came into my story I stood there and felt conscious of everything, like it was all new, like everything in my life was all new, and I wonder why; if our souls are so constituted, or if there’s something sexual about it I don’t comprehend.
Innocence is punctured by Killian’s increasing alcoholism, by fear of AIDS, by depressive episodes of writerly self-deprecation (“At the end of my days, when I’m borne to my grave a hoary corpse, they will carve no hopeful verse upon my tombstone, for my dying hours were gloom”), and the progression from Smithtown to Minna Street is marked by the violence of sex and depravity of desire. Each crisis of timing or catastrophe of personality arrives as its own Sword of Damocles hanging in the air above him, ever ready to rend fragile happiness.
In Bachelors, Killian’s need for booze becomes a dominant motivating force, both compounding and accounting for a desire increasingly complicated by the looming threat of AIDS in the years before protease inhibitors, when most anyone who developed the disease died from it. And everyone was dying from it. He scurries down the Long Island Expressway in summer, a scene-in-miniature of some of the fears that compel the narrative forward: “My little car vibrated under me, as though its engine were announcing exciting plans to fall apart, but I didn’t pay much attention. Tears were drying on my face.” The world is not whole; he is most grateful for the bottle between his legs. Life does fall apart: a boyfriend is impaled by a shard of mirror during a kinky shower session. Blood darkens the running water. The guy manages to orgasm but slumps over when he’s finished. Killian can only imagine toasting their sex with Glenlivet:
Was he sleeping? Unconscious? His blond hair matted red, brown, black; his smile gave no clue, his big lips slack, happy, purple and gray as the petals of a sterling silver rose. I nudged him with the Glenlivet. He didn’t seem to want a drink, again I’m like—????? Then I dressed, found my keys, left the motel. I guess.
Throughout these two books, Killian is content with memory’s ambivalences, its ambiguities, its moment of “I guess,” when the distinction between fact and fiction dissolves. In situating themselves in memory’s drift, its blur, Killian’s memoirs remain as vibrant now as they did in the late eighties, palpably alive with sex and politics, music and poetry. Killian’s past is strange, drunken, a little lost, but it belongs to our present as a handy record for those of us who need a reminder that sometimes a direction can be found in the reckoning.
Move along the velvet rope, run your shaky fingers past the lacquered zigzag Keith Haring graffito: “You did not live in our time! Be sorry!”
Andrew Durbin lives in New York. He is the author of Mature Themes (Nightboat, 2014) and MacArthur Park (Nightboat, 2017), which was a finalist for the 2018 Believer Book Award in fiction.
Andrew Durbin’s introduction to Fascination: Memoirs, by Kevin Killian, published by Semiotext(e).