Nick will be reading from his novel, Don Don, at Literary Death Match on Wednesday 17th August 2011: http://www.literarydeathmatch.com/
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
“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.”
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.
“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 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
“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.”
Zembla, No. 9, Winter 2005
The obscure book I’d like to tell you about is Eduard Limonov’s autobiographical work, It’s me, Eddie (or, in Russian, Eto ia – Edichka). Limonov was the enfant terrible of Russian letters in the late ’70s and ’80s, an identity he openly welcomed. His purposeful, vigorous and flamboyant assault both on Mother Russia’s sacrosanct literary canon and her moral consensus makes even Michel Houellebecq seem rather tame, even – would you believe – conservative.
His rebellious attitude was unequivocal: ‘I think vicious thoughts about the whole of my loathsome native Russian literature, which has been largely responsible for my life. Dull green bastards, Chekhov languishing in boredom, his eternal students, people who don’t know how to get themselves going, who vegetate through this life, they lurk in these pages like diaphanous husks…’ And though I might be a great admirer of Chekhov, I must confess, it is this spirit of fiery, precocious rebellion – Limonov’s desire to shake things up – which so fascinated me when I first picked up It’s me, Eddie.
Too much literature, it seems, is driven by compromise, earnestness and decency, and sometimes a figure like Limonov is needed to produce a book which (in the words of Kafka) acts as ‘an ice-ax to break the sea frozen within us’. Eddie is at the point of despair, living in a filthy, cheap room in a squalid New York hotel and working as a busboy in The Hilton, where he has to serve ‘grey-haired and middle-aged’ bureacrats in suits ‘who had arrived from the provinces for a trade convention’ and who command more respect and authority than a man of words, feelings and reflections (like a poet such as himself). He also despairs with his wife Elena, a ‘tear-stained’ , ‘provincial’ and ‘typical Russian, throwing herself headlong into the very thick of life without reflection’ who has succumbed to the ‘marijuana, underworld, jargon, cocaine, the constant “fuckin’ mother” after every word, the bars, the sex accessories of New York and America’. Here is a man who wears his loneliness and deprivation on his sleeve – he is perhaps a typical Russian anti-hero in this repect – and is not afraid to tell his readers exactly how he feels. Thus, one minute he tells them he aspires to ‘love selflessly … extraordinarily, powerfully’; the next he tells them, ‘Fuck you, you cocksucking bastards! You can all go straight to hell!’
Love and hate can co-exist for Limonov, and his writing is a powerful act of self-affirmation. He must be admired for this, for battling against accepted standards of taste. His staunch nationalism is perhaps less admirable, but Limonov is not so much a destructive political figure as a constructively rebellious literary one.