Train to Pokipse
(Underground Editions, 2012)
I met Rami Shamir when working for Barney Rosset at Evergreen Review, and so I welcome Rami’s novel Train to Pokipse, which he kept talking about writing and now finally has. Rami and Barney became good friends and, oddly enough, this novel helped me to understand why.
Those familiar with Rosset’s relation to Beckett, as detailed in Conjunctions 53, know that in part their bond was formed over having both lost first loves. As Rosset writes, in a heart-to-heart with Beckett he learned the Irishman had fallen in love with Peggy Sinclair at age twenty-three. Beckett’s “feeling for Peggy Sinclair, and the memory of their being together, survived her engagement to another man and her death in 1933 [five years after they met].” Rosset continues, “The story struck an incredibly strong chord in me. It reopened my suffering of the loss of a young love, my Nancy Ashenhurst. I still grieve for Nancy, and have dreams about her.” (Incidentally, Ashenhurst married Rosset’s best friend and high school love rival, Haskell Wexler. Wexler grew up to become a director and Oscar-winning cinematographer.)
The connection I noticed between this and Shamir was that Train to Pokipse also hinges on a tragic youthful romance. If I can speculate that the book draws on Shamir’s personal experience, I imagine Rosset and Shamir formed something of a mutual commiseration society, with lamentations over early loves gone astray.
Be that as it may, Train to Pokipse is postmodern enough to eschew a straight “I-loved-and-I-lost” narrative, beginning, after brief opening reminiscences, with the depiction of the life of an oversexed club kid, looking for action and dope in all the wrong after-hours joints. Though the unnamed narrator is nursing a broken heart, he’s not so lovelorn he’ll pass up a gay tryst in a nightclub bathroom or anywhere else convenient. It’s sex and drugs every night, but never the first in the absence of the second. In a typical scene, he states,
I took a cab to his place. … When I got there, I said, ‘Hello,’ then went to the kitchen table where a half full vial was sitting by some lines. … ‘Is this all we have?’
‘Yeah, baby,’ he says coming up to me. He starts unbuttoning my jeans. ‘Should we get more?’
‘Yeah, we should,’ I say, pulling away. ‘I’ll call my dealer.’
Don’t get the idea, though, that the book is another Less Than Zero describing the antics of the decadent rich. The hero, at least, is one of the decadent poor. At one juncture, he reports, “Tonight I made two hundred dollars [waiting tables], already spent one-fifty on coke.”
His downward spiral lands him in Coney Island Hospital. As he explains in a deadpan manner, “I had tried to kill myself, and everyone made it out to be this really big deal.” His stay at the psych ward helps him come to grips with his failings, leading him to make a highly ironic pact with himself. It’s as if he says, “I will not commit suicide until I have thought through, confronted, and solved my love and sex issues. Then I can off myself.”
In the second part of the book, the hero’s gaze falls on his first love, though by now his romantic outlook is jaundiced. This is where the book becomes a tour de force, with the author displaying his skill by balancing a touching evocation of adolescent lust, and all its joys and tears, with a cool sense of its approaching doom. The prose mixes lyricism and hardheadedness in equal measure.
Without giving too much away, I can say that the dissolution of the hero’s budding love depends as much on financial as on emotional considerations. Just as, in the book’s present, the hero is running with (while not economically belonging to) a group of wealthy club-hoppers, so, in the past, when he was enrolled at a swanky college, he was a scholarship boy passing himself off as a trust funder. It is a masquerade that can’t help but backfire in a way that will damage both his studies and his infatuation.
Given the book’s complex structure (worked out with Rosset, who acted as Shamir’s editor), excitingly lurid depictions of two-man drug and sex orgies, devastatingly accurate portraits of wasted clubsters, and a vivid depiction of college heartbreak, Train to Pokipse is something of a gem which might well glitter on your bookshelf among such other literary jewels of youthful folly as Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Wedekind’s Spring Awakening.