Miami, Miami!

Miami … what a place! And the people that live here … they are so affluent. This is the impression I get as I sit in a cafe on the opulent Ocean Drive sipping on a pina colada no less, and watching an impeccably dressed middle-aged man stroll towards me, the picture of material success in his Armani suit and Prada loafers, a big cigar hanging from his mouth that you can bet is not Cuban!  He carries a big smile across his face, the consummate look of self-satisfaction and personal success. And let us not forget the sassy lady on his arm, who, in spite of her relative youth, has still deemed it necessary to cosmetically and surgically enhance herself with peroxide hair, fake tan, silicone tits, liposucked arse, collagen lips – all those uniquely American characteristics of bought beauty. She looks at her man adoringly, as they stop beside me to admire the clothes hanging in the neighbouring shop window.

This man has made it in the land of the free. Through his acquisition of wealth and beauty – albeit artificial beauty – he has achieved status and respect in his country. Chasing the dollar remains, it seems, the most important human endeavour in America, more important than attaining knowledge or helping others. Obama’s socialism – this is how the Republicans perceive his social conscience – has had little impact, both on America’s love affair with money, and her conviction that the dollar, above all else, will bring ultimate happiness.

I look away from the man now, over towards another middle-aged man, this one rather different. He wears ripped blue jeans and a grubby T-shirt, and on his feet an old pair of sneakers, one of the soles hanging loose. It’s true that we tend to look down at people’s feet when trying to make an assessment of them and their life circumstances. It’s a rather crude and imperfect means of judgment, but one that I nevertheless make recourse to. He’s likely homeless, I conclude, and at this moment he paces manically across the street, heading straight for me. He looks at me wild-eyed, his intense demeanour heightened by his hair that stands on end like Einstein’s and his goatee that is coiffed into a Daliesque knife-edge of facial hair, albeit far more imperfectly than Salvador’s. In fact, this part of his appearance is the only bit of him that seems to possess any semblance of order, the rest utterly chaotic. “Hey, lemme show you something,” he demands, these words flying out of his mouth, fast end edgy.

He pulls a deck of cards from his back pocket. “Think of a card, remember it,” he goes on, as he begins to shuffle through the pack.

The Queen of Aces comes to me. This will be my card, I decide.

“You know, if there’s one card I like in this deck, it’s this one,” he says, stopping at a particular card, removing it from the pack and flicking it onto the street. It lands face down. “So tell me, which card d’you choose?” he asks.

He reveals the deck to me, thumbing through different cards. “No, I don’t think it’s that one. Nope, not that one either. You look like an Ace kind of guy,” he continues, clearly realising that flattery will get him everywhere. “You’d normally go for Jack, but this time, you’ve gone Queen. You must be in touch with your feminine side today,” he quips.

“And what’s really strange,” he goes on, “is that the card you’ve picked, the one in your head … well, it ain’t in the deck. It’s the one I got rid of at the start, the one that’s lying there in the middle of the street.”

He points to the stray card, then bounds over and picks it up. “Look, isn’t that the strangest thing?’” he announces, holding the card aloft, and there in his hand I see my card, the Queen of Aces.

I hand him a couple of dollars. “You’re a gentleman, a true gentleman. The last guy I had called me a fuckin’ bum and told me to leave him alone. How else am I gonna be able to maintain my luxurious wardrobe?” he gestures down his body with a wry, sarcastic smile.

As he makes to leave, he bumps into the other middle-aged man – let us call him ‘the cigar millionaire’ – and his big-bosomed companion. They continue to window shop.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re fucking going?” he barks at the homeless magician, raising his fat cigar in the air as if it were some kind of lethal weapon.

“You again…” the homeless magician stutters, it immediately clear that this is ‘the last guy’ he just referred to, the one who called him ‘a fuckin’ bum.’ “Look, it was an accident. I’m sorry, okay,” and he scurries nervously away, off down the sidewalk.

The cigar millionaire turns to me and says, “He been bugging you as well? Damn welfare case. All he should do is stop drinking, lazy bastard.”

I don’t bother to suggest that it’s care, rather than judgment, that he most needs.

The cigar millionaire swaggers off, his blonde in tow.

The disparity between rich and poor in America remains shocking, even under Obama’s watch. His health care reforms were seen by many as one step too far, a clear attempt to redistribute wealth. The poor are seen by the wealthy as the tough medicine that goes with democracy and individualism. For are there not always going to be some people who fail to meet the mark, who aren’t tough enough to meet the rigours of a capitalist system? We cannot help everyone, the Republicans maintain. There have to be some losers. And so there are two distinct groups: those who have made it – fulfilled the American dream of self-promotion and personal success, that is – and those who have not. The latter continue to wander the streets aimlessly, like lost souls. They are not in pursuit of the dollar but rather seem to be searching for something that their country does not offer them. Perhaps this something is another way of life? America might be the land of the free according to the ruling class and those that have made it, but it is a prison to others, and this reality must be acknowledged rather than glossed over with euphemism and rhetoric.

It is one of the great ironies that a country founded on immigrants, a melting pot – to use Walt Whitman’s famous analogy – of different peoples, creeds and cultures can at one and the same time be so insular, simplistic and conformist in its thinking. The Oath of Allegiance demands absolute loyalty and devotion to the American way. Every citizen is encouraged to strive for the fulfilment of the American dream. However, success is limited to a few in the American capitalist system. Many must be exploited so just a few can prosper. The innumerable valets in Miami are testament to this fact.

Here in Miami, I’m not far from Castro’s Cuba (it remains his, just about), which in ideological and theoretical terms at least is the antithesis of the American way. There, everyone is supposed to be equal. No one is greedy, proud and self-important like the cigar millionaire I just encountered. No one is weak, belittled and helpless like the homeless magician.  The state is there to serve the nation, to look after the welfare of its citizens. And all its inhabitants are meant to happily work for one another, for the sake of the common good, the socialist goal.

And yet it is not like this in reality. Like people in the rest of the world, Cubans have different ideas, wishes, beliefs and personalities. They do not all share the same ones. Many of them disagree with one another, and object to the state telling them what they should want and expect from life. It is indeed very difficult to impose a new value system on a certain person, group, country or race that already has its own set of beliefs. Castro and Bin Laden would find the cigar millionaire’s opulence, materialism and greed unacceptable, and would seek to change him, by force if necessary. Though I also found the cigar millionaire to be rather smug, unpleasant and ostentatious, my opinion of him was a product of my own subjective value system. Ultimately, I had no right to tell him how objectionable I found him, and no right to force him to relinquish his current lifestyle, adopt my beliefs and immediately commence living like me.

America, on the other hand, no longer even attempts to provide for the welfare of all its citizens. The state’s public services do make some provision, but it is desperately lacking. America remains driven by market forces, this its government’s guiding principle. The power of the state is used to secure “the scope for as many individuals as possible (though inevitably not all) to make use of the opportunities the market has to offer.”[1] This policy is unwilling to accommodate human frailty and weakness. It leaves little room for doubt and indecision. If you don’t possess the skills to use the opportunities available, then you become one of the have-nots. And this rather ruthless governing system is all-too-ready to dismiss any kind of criticism levelled at it as socialist froth or poor man’s envy. The poor man might believe in a different way of life, money might not be as important to him and he might want to promote a viable alternative, but he’ll be written off as a dissenter and a failure. If a particular citizen cannot maximise the opportunities given to him by the state, well… then fuck him.

The cigar millionaire has been strong, effective and decisive, hence has been rewarded. The homeless magician, it would seem, has been weak and indecisive, so has been punished. Perhaps he had his own ideas about life and these were not compatible with the state’s. It is possible – though unlikely – that the homeless magician has consciously chosen to live his life on the fringes of society. Maybe he refuses to buy into a society in which “self-interest [is] hailed as the highest value, reinforced by vast industries that are devoted to implanting and reinforcing [this ethos].”[2] I can only speculate. The only thing that is clear is that one man has significantly more wealth and happiness than the other.

To those people in power and those who are prosperous, the suggestion of a different economic system, an alternative form of government or another cultural value system is considered preposterous, even dangerous. God forbid they lose some of their power and some of that enormous fortune they’ve amassed. And so the system as it is must be maintained at all costs. Change is bad. New ideas are dangerous. In America, there are huge systems of private power – the big multinational companies – and they remain unaccountable. For them, “Capital has priority – people are incidental.”[3] Sadly, they only become partly accountable when they collapse, as some did a few years ago. And so the democratic motto goes, ‘Let the people speak feely, but if they don’t agree with you, then don’t give any consideration to what they are saying.’

As I continue to sit in Miami’s South Beach, my pina colada finished now, I can understand why much of the world remains angry with America, why some people find it hard to accept her way of life, why some even wish her harm. And these people are not solely confined to Islamic fundamentalist groups. They can also be found among liberal-minded European politicians in Brussels, student bodies in China, women’s groups in Pakistan, the American intellectual elite, the poor sections of American society and anti-globalisation protesters not only in the poor southern hemisphere but also in the major sectors of rich industrial countries in the north.

Just as the separation between rich and poor increases in America, so it does in the rest of the world as well. The poor and desperate now fight to get into the rich enclaves of North America and Western Europe, who respond by fortifying their barriers and toughening their laws to keep them out. An elite group of less than one billion, 15% of the world’s population, currently takes more than 80% of the world’s wealth. When will we accept that western capitalism – the free market and free trade – does have negative consequences. It is an aggressive economic system. Its practitioners must compete against one another for dominance. They push to acquire more capital by any means necessary and use it for more production, which in turn produces more capital. America has been extraordinarily effective in her practice of it. She has exploited resources, created markets, increased production and gained capital all over the world. But she has done so at the expense of other peoples and nations, at the expense of the poor.

And so it is now that under Obama growing sections of American society are starting to wake up, to confront this truth. These people are starting to look deep into their own hearts, and the heart of their nation, in an attempt to understand why such violence was committed against them ten years ago. These people are starting to feel guilty for all the wealth their country has, and have begun to wonder whether there could be a viable alternative to the American way, which still only serves the interests of a powerful minority. They are in search of a new system of sustainable development that cares for the welfare not only of poor Americans, but poor people throughout the world.

[1] Runciman, David. The Garden, the Park and the Meadow, in London Review of Books, vol. 24, no.11, (2002), p.7.

[2] Chomsky, Noam. September 11th and Its Aftermath: Where is the World Heading?”, an excerpt from a public lecture he gave in Chennai, India on 10 November 2001, presented by Frontline magazine and the Media Development Foundation.

[3] Moore, Michael. White Frights (ed. Extracts from Stupid White Men) in The Guardian Weekend on 30 March 2002, p.22

Don Don, Chapter 1

There was me at my table in Bucci’s, new Italian on Lexington up near the Chrysler Building, been there about a year and I liked it a lot. Got tired of that place on Sixth and Sullivan, great fuckin Bruschette but not much else, with one of those third generation Italians who thought he was straight out of fuckin Tuscany but had probably never even been there.

Was wearing a white Brioni tux and black bow tie, just been to the theater and my shoes were shined up like great big black jewels. Face felt a little bloated, cheeks red, like I’d eaten too much friggin cheese. Turned and looked at my reflection in the mirror. In the low light, features looked hard and threatening, but that was okay with me, always looked that way.

Smiled as I brought my hand to my mouth and the lump of gold on my finger shined. Put the Cohiba to my lips – they let me smoke in there, had a special table for me under the skylight, because I spent so much friggin money – chomped and sucked on its bit, savored that un-burnt taste, so clean and fresh, then drew on it long and hard, it flared orange as it burned, and as I exhaled the orange became ash, a kind of dull gray.

My fifth wife sat next to me. Jamie, twenty years younger than me, uptown, sensitive and beautiful. But that night she looked sad and depressed. Watched two waiters scurry back and forth, one serving us food, the other wine, a Screaming Eagle, second bottle of the night, and Jamie wasn’t drinking, just sipping on friggin water. And then I started shouting…

View the book Don Don

Don Don, a review

“I read Don Don. I thought it was wonderful. You have such a beautiful way of writing. It’s like music. I believe you may make it into a movie. I think it would be fabulous.”

Arena – Don Don

Arena, 2007

When I set about writing my second novel I realized I had to get deep into the hearts and minds of two very different men – one, a brash and bullish American millionaire with a formidable appetite for self-gratification and excess; the other, a wise and noble Thai Buddhist monk who lives a life of compassion and restraint – and that in order to do this I had to, quite literally, become them. Imagination, though a critical tool for the writer, has its limitations: it does not enable him to get inside the bellies of his characters. For this, actual experience is required. The writer must attempt to transform himself, to live his characters’ lives, in order to capture the labyrinth complexity of their innermost natures.

I began in New York, in a beat-up, grimy hotel, a throwback to the New York of old, when it was ruled by vice rather than virtue, when it possessed a brutal intensity rather than a superficial gentrification: Giuliani, for all his work on law and order, might have robbed the city of its soul. This is where my American millionaire, Don Holmes, was born and brought up, where he was driven to brawl and hustle in the shadows of this city, in its dirt and disorder, to escape his poverty, in frantic and determined pursuit of the American Dream and the utopia it promises.

Landing in JFK at midnight, I jumped in a cab and asked the driver, a gruff and moody bearded Russian, to take me downtown. ‘I want somewhere cheap and dirty,’ was all I said, and he knew exactly where to go, mumbling, quite simply, ‘Okay’. The place he chose was perfect. I threw my bags in the room and took to the streets.

I must have walked for about three hours that first night, moving, seamlessly it appeared, between good and bad block, the former showing itself as I watched a beautiful coiffured couple step from their Bentley, hand the keys to a valet, then enter a luxurious brownstone apartment block; the latter, as I saw an ageing Indian vendor, rugged and exhausted, haul his street cart back to its lock-up for the night. Don had made it to the good block, and yet he’d had to fight a dirty game in order to get there.

Back in the hotel at four a.m., I wrote through till midday, unable to sleep, thoughts ablaze, body jittery, drinking bourbon one minute (Don’s drink) and coffee the next, getting inside my character’s head, trying to feel what it was like for him, what drove him to strive for all that he had. And when I was unable to find any words I simply stared at the cigarette-stained ceiling, a yellow brown; the peeling floral wallpaper from the 70s; the old hole-ridden bedding. I managed, eventually, to fall asleep.

I woke in the early evening with the definite feeling that Don was all about desire – the desire for wealth, for power, for sex – these intense, fundamental urges which can now be fought and paid for in the West – and so I took myself to a swanky restaurant, the place an opulent haze of hallucinogenic colours, shapes and lights, and gorged myself, along with all the other beautiful people there, on Ossobuco and fine Italian wine, then got talking to a Wall Street banker who wore only Brioni and had a penthouse in Tribeca and a holiday home in the Hamptons. ‘Give me a call when you’re next in town,’ he demanded, and handed me a business card, his power etched in its striking gold-embossed letters and matt black background. And finally, I staggered back to my hotel and picked up the phone to a call girl: she knew the hotel, quite how grotty it was, but came all the same.

From hereon I continued to lead a paradoxical life of poverty and hedonism, fluctuating between the material hardship of my hotel room, Don’s youth, and the flamboyant excesses of the city, Don’s adulthood. And when I eventually left New York, it was with the sure sense that I had, at least in part, lived my character’s life, an immortal rapacious one.

And then to Thailand, but not to Bangkok or one of the paradisiacal islands, but rather to Isaan, the remote northeast of the country, where I had now to get inside the belly of my other character, the monk Ajahn Dohn, a man who thought that happiness could not be found in the fulfilment of desire but rather in its eradication. A Buddhist, he believes that our cravings can never be satiated, and that if the purpose of life is indeed the acquisition of peace and happiness, then this is best found in a simple, virtuous and disciplined life, contrary to the one I had just led in New York.

The monastery was situated high up in dense forest, looking out over a striking vista of paddy fields and low hills. I embarked on a retreat. My accommodation was a kuti, a tiny hut made of wood on stilts some eight to ten feet above the ground, with a low narrow bed, a hard mattress, a straight-backed chair, a little table and some shelving for books. I was given a list of precepts to follow: refrain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and taking intoxicants. There were also four additional rules of abstinence: eat just one meal a day, have no entertainment, remain silent, and sit and sleep on low, hard surfaces.

I did not sleep well that first night and when the bell sounded at three-thirty a.m. to call everyone to morning chanting and meditation I felt as if I were simply in the midst of a bad dream. I dragged myself to my feet, put on the white shirt and trousers I had been given, and made my clumsy, somnolent way in total darkness up the path that led to the uposatha hall, the main temple building.

Inside I found twenty men and women all seated in perfect upright cross-legged postures, as if puppets’ strings ran all the way from the bases of their spines to the tops of their heads and these were being pulled gently. I, on the other hand, sat slouched on the floor like Jabba the Hut, hunch-backed, bloated and uncomfortable as the abbot commenced the meditation.

All I had to do, he instructed, was focus on my breath in my abdomen, its rising and falling, and yet even this I was unable to do, my mind leaping like a monkey with ADHD from one thought and emotion to the next. I had come here to attain the calm and equanimity of Ajahn Dohn, and yet what I was actually experiencing was more akin to the frustration of a prisoner in solitary confinement going out of his fucking mind.

But once I stopped fighting, once I was able to let go, I had a brief glimpse of the exquisite beauty and simplicity of my other character’s life. The rational, hard-nosed sceptic in me who was all too willing to dismiss eastern spiritual practices as no more than impractical, escapist and delusional had to concede that there was something in them after all.

And so for the next three days I meditated for some ten hours a day, and slowly the thick mud in my mind began to clear and all the striving and craving began to dwindle, and with this came the sense that perhaps I could be happy without indulging myself, without the acquisition of wealth or power.

Back in London, the novel now written, I am still not sure whether I would rather be ablaze with desire like Don or equanimous in mind like Ajahn Dohn. But I am grateful to both of them for showing me their ways.

Don Don, a review by L. Honour

“Loved this book! It’s really poignant, and you feel like you’re with the characters as they find themselves hurled into an emotional and spiritual journey – their last journey in fact. I didn’t really know much about Buddhism or meditation before I read Don Don, but following the story of the monk and cityboy and how they react to the news of their death really makes you think about how you approach life yourself. The brash NY character Don makes you both laugh and cry. Really thought-provoking stuff – would highly recommend if you like your books to be intelligent and to stay with you after you put them down.” L. Honour

Don Don, a review by K. McMahon

Don Don is the best book I have read in a long while. The story is very touching and extremely funny. It follows two men both named Don who live on different sides of the world in every sense. I had people staring at me on the train as I laughed out aloud. The story brings out the devil in you and then delivers a harsh reality on the true values of life. A brilliant book by a sharp and observant writer – highly recommended.” K. McMahon

Don Don, a review

“Reading Don Don and loving it! Best book I have read for a long time. I bought it in a little shop in Spain. Went in to get some hotcross buns, and got the book instead.”