D. Foy’s Absolutely Golden
(Stalking Horse Press, 2017)
An essay I return to often is Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” a piece renowned for its central image: the Angel of History, witnessing the past not as a series of separate events, but as a chaotic singularity—an infinite trainwreck piled atop itself, unto the end of the world. Paralyzed by this storm we call “progress,” the Angel is driven blindly into the future while gazing with ambivalence on the wreckage of the past. I feel as if D. Foy’s latest novel, Absolutely Golden, were to encounter the Angel of History, it might suggest something like, “Why do you allow the storm to restrain you, dude? You're an angel, after all. Why don't you fly?”
Absolutely Golden is a charming, wreckage-strewn reverie set at a Humboldt nudist colony in 1973, back when Reagan was more than an actor and less than a President, when the Summer of Love had turned to autumn (if not winter), and when the gulf between Greek gods at a bacchanal and desperate misfits at a naked cookout lay purely in the eye of the beholder. It is a novel of conflicting mythologies and contradictory personas, of classical music colliding with bebop, of suburban comfort mingling with ‘60s counterculture—a nonjudgmental lunge for ecstasy and enlightenment across a landscape of shish kabobs, mind-altering drugs, fondue parties, and copious amounts of asscrack.
The golden-haired witness at its center is Rachel Hill, a widowed schoolteacher and spare-time herpetologist who is convinced by Jack, her mediocre hippie boyfriend, to visit Camp Freedom Lake (along with his last-minute invite, “cousin” Jenny the Ecdysiast, a striptease artist whose presence seemingly relegates Rachel to third wheel). Before departing, Rachel dyes her hair blonde (at “Earl’s Odyssey of Hair,” an appropriate launching point for such a mythic journey) and goes on to make a tremendous splash at the nudist equivalent of her debutante ball. Here, she meets a rogue’s gallery of “righteous cats”: the child preacher-turned-naturist Jomar Links (a thinly-veiled portrait of Marjoe Gortner); Merle Frizzel, a sensitive Donald Duck-enthusiast; and the Hollanders, Wolfgang and Usch, aging Dutch swingers (who possibly allude to the comically oversexed persona of Xaviera Hollander in The Happy Hooker). We even meet a nude jazz musician named Derrick Rolphy with an album called Trout for Brunch (á la Out to Lunch) and bandmates named Teddy Fubbard and Robbie Kutcherson (á la Freddie Hubbard and Bobby Hutcherson), in case a mere Eric Dolphy reference was insufficient.
However, Rachel's adventures in open-air extroversion are not without consequence: she soon finds herself the victim of a debilitating sunburn, fit for Icarus. Scorched but not cowed, she begins to navigate the path to her own rebirth (“Once I was a woman at a grave. Now I was a circus, and a girl, real”), and it is a path replete with mythical imagery, of snakes (dicks flopping like propellers, shed skin and molted clothing, pet constrictors and feathered boas, Hydra-like gatekeepers, and coiled sins), of gold (the sun’s rays, the Midas Touch, hair revered like a fabled Fleece, of pots at the end of rainbows), and of mysticism (palmistry, tarot, and astrology, and even a Hand of Glory, which appears amid a gruesomely Gothic interlude, perhaps the most vivid of the novel). Among the wreckage of the old world and the new (even the novel’s epigraph is written in 20th Century mock-Latin) there are many forking paths to transcendence, and perhaps there can be prizes for winners and losers, both.
Foy unfolds his work with a dreamlike mania, as the wreckage of myth and sex and pop culture piles atop itself, building to a tempestuous spin of the kaleidoscope, and in looking through it, we see a colorful but fractured mess of performance and spontaneity, the divide between our masks and our true selves. It's a breathlessly rendered work, delirious, like a wild rush through a meadow or a ride on a runaway carousel. It possesses a kind of indulgent sincerity and heightened gonzo comedy (a character refers to his dick as a "trippindicular club of horniness," for instance) that recalls the mad poetry and giddy philosophizing of counterculture writers like Tom Robbins or Ken Kesey. It's a symphony of easy listening, and Wagner, and avant-garde jazz; a portrait of dancing priestesses and ecstatic buffoons and weeping dark gods. In gazing upon it in its entirety, I think even the Angel of History might crack a smile.
Sean Gill is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.