My friend Warren was killed in a car accident a few weeks ago in Spain. He was leaving the World Cup games in a rented car, and he wasn’t driving. When I heard he was killed in a car I presumed he had been driving — since he had been smashing the front and back end of his and his friends’ cars for years. He would drink a lot and then he would drive — the accident was just the last part of an equation. When you’re drinking, even a car looks friendly. It’s not, though; it’s worse than cancer, at least at Warren’s age.
No categories really work for Warren. Because I can’t place him I am driven to write this piece which might enable me to touch on his complexity. He went against all the rules, certainly all the rules of character and appreciation. Who was he? I don’t know. Ask fifty people in town and you will get answers which couldn’t describe the same person. For instance, strangers usually disliked him when he was drinking, which was a lot of the time, because he wasn’t serene: he rolled around town with a raucous energy, his eyes on fire for some kind of hooray, his tongue constantly testing out accents from weird countries. His life would pour out of his stunning sea-green eyes and out of his red, red face, and trying to save everything which had piled up inside all at once, he would sputter, hold his head in his hands, and whirl around in circles. He was never cool. He was quiet sometimes, hurt, under control, but never cool. Strangers found him obnoxious in bars.
And these are some of the things he couldn’t do: hold a job for any length of time, sit still, watch the sun go down and dress for the concert, remain in America that long (someone told me he was heading for Timbuktu when he was killed), show up for a final exam, quit drinking or even drink moderately, accept compliments, pay for a telephone call, keep his legs and arms and wrists and knees unsprained, forgive himself for not making use of his talents, act cowardly, miss Clockwork Orange when it came around, gossip, take advantage of any situation which would benefit him, watch television, eat a balanced diet, walk like a Frenchman, look neat, sit quietly on the sidelines, or worry about his spiritual welfare. Like my friend Jean Morrison whom he loved to be with, Warren figured that if God was really all-powerful and not sickly, then the last thing he needed from men was humility.
He didn’t do very well with responsibility. But this is what I mean by the categories not working. If he needed liquor then other people need something else: the nipple of security, money in the bank, status, respect (what can you do with it? he might ask), the illusion of power, another frying pan or wok. We say society works with these compensations, but not with booze. Screw society. It’s not working no matter what we say. The rich are still in charge and the slaves settle for less. Warren was a pain in the ass but he was evidence that we exist. You couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t there the way we pretend most things aren’t there.
Years ago people tried to rehabilitate Warren, to get him to stop drinking. I tried it once. It made sense: drinking so much depressed him, he felt he was trapped by booze. Delicate parts of himself were getting damaged — a secret and likeable dream of being an intellectual, his wit, writing skills which surfaced only in journals. In fact, it was only bad luck that he wasn’t a writer since he would have been a good one. Life was bursting out of him all the time and writing would have been a structure to contain it. But the combinations were wrong — some early influence that should have been there wasn’t, someone to see through the jumpiness and acceleration. But when you think about it, who could have been there for him? College teachers need tenure and Warren’s life was without tenure. He frightened those people, as well he should. It’s only good fortune anyway when the almost uncontrollable spirit of people like Warren can be tuned down to the finer and less ebullient schemes of art.
But aside from that, after awhile you stopped trying to set him straight — for it was not only hindsight which says he was never going to quit drinking. He wasn’t, at least not until something slowed down in his handsome bulky body, something which those who wanted him to quit didn’t have — an eruptive force of being, a tumult of self. You just had to admit that there wasn’t a cure for everything, that’s all.
But when you figured that out, what did you do with Warren? Dismiss him? Feel sorry for him? Call him a drunk and avoid him? This is what he taught you if you were brave enough for the lesson: that unrehabilitated and to some extent hopeless, he was as good as anybody you knew; I mean, he was even great. The fact is, those who condemned him, those who held their liquor, those who woke up in their own bed all the time, were simply not his match. In the ways that count I am certain that he was an immensely substantial person, as fine, as dignified (ah, the digno!), as important as any solid citizen I ever met, and certainly more than those who put him down.
You see, he never went for votes, telling you anything he didn’t know, or made any kind of deal that would cleverly trick you out of something. He was as incapable of manipulation as a flower. What you saw, you got. If he didn’t like you or his feelings were hurt, he would sit quietly, without smiling; he wouldn’t talk about you from a corner of the room. Never. He despised gossip and psychology as being the same thing. Perhaps he had been too easily used by soft-core doctors who sat in front of him with their little ordered lives and wrote negative reports about his past and possibilities. He knew he was fodder for a particular type of person, but he didn’t mind because, truly, they weren’t really there for him: in his mind, a desk person with only words hasn’t yet come fully alive, and tied as he was, miserably and handsomely, to his own life, he wasn’t about to get angry at their mere income-earning words. He knew he could always run from them and he was very fast, very fast.
Warren’s honesty was himself. At his memorial service in Chapel Hill his good friend Tom spoke nicely of Warren’s honesty, but I want to say a little more about it. You see, unless he was drinking, he was without a shell. He was one of those rare breed of people who face you always with themselves brimming over the edge of their eyes. Too tender by far, he sometimes made me feel uncomfortable because over the years I have become used to the sort of defenses most people put up in front of themselves, their skills and ironies. Meeting Warren on Franklin Street was different. He would always greet you in the role of some continuing joke between yourselves (“My good sir!” he would burble out like a dithering lord in his London club), but immediately it would drop away and there would be only his green eyes darting deep looks into your eyes. If you were sunny, fine, he would be sunny too; providing he wasn’t on crutches (which he sometimes was) he would make himself completely available to you, go anywhere with you, go to Paris, to a bar, or just stand there talking about Mel Brooks’ latest movie. If you were dark, though, he would cloud up so quickly that you felt he had accidentally taken some of your darkness into himself, which I believe he did. Nothing ever vanished so quickly as Warren’s veneer of jocularity when he was in the presence of your sorrow. Oh this friend who was so different from everybody else! Not having a shell he was not only there for you precisely, but he was also too much there for the general winds of camaraderie. A gang of friends could easily get Warren to dive through windows at midnight, and then, ordering a last drink, forget him on the ground outside. Drunk, of course Warren found his shell, like everybody else, and so probably he was all right.
He really wasn’t symbolical enough. Metaphors didn’t satisfy him in the way they satisfy me and most of the people I know. He had to have it all — Australia and Burma, the existentialists, Wordsworth, the galleries and rugby fields of the world, Donleavy, Vivaldi, kegs of beer.
There is something to be said about a drinker like Warren, that is, a man trapped between two opposing gestures and unable to get free. On the one hand, for Warren drinking was a princely act, a leap into everything which can be called the unexpected. Warren was not a morose drinker for whom liquor means the appearance of guilt. It was to dissolve the spirit of encumbrance that he drank. Liquor was to him a large leap into freedom. Drinking, feeling good, watching an always surprised and happy self rise through the doldrums of the afternoon meant that he would come face to face with his own possibilities — and they were immense. Would he write someday? Would he yet manage a clear and perfect moment on the rugby field? He hoped so. Others had tried to name him, to fix him, but now that he was drinking he had gotten away from them and their dull judgments. Drinking provided that slight shift in perspective by which all the work which one has failed to do becomes merely the work which one hasn’t done; the intention suffices for the deed; and the past, which in sober moments is dark throb, becomes the bright transparent future.
On the other hand there is the next morning when one realizes that, having drunk again the night before, one has been named by history. The infinite promise of the previous evening gives way to the sense of having been caught in a repetition, a banality; the prince abdicating to the slave. It is this sense of encumbrance which will have to be dissipated later. The bright morning is the drinker’s darkest hour for here he sees clearly the real nature of all those illusions which seemed so substantial the night before. All Warren’s friends would testify to these huge loopings of personality — from the wild raging evening boy to the sorrowful man in the morning, not repentant and ashamed, but puzzled by a continuous inability to take advantage of his talents. This was hell for a man as sharp as Warren.
Yet I don’t want to take anything away from my friend as I try to understand him, now that his death makes that an obligation. He was confused, but so are we. He traded in a lot of possibilities for good times but almost everyone else trades in the good times for possibilities which to Warren were unimaginable. And the things he kept were wonderful — his spirit, his insistence that boredom was the enemy, his refusal to be false or dishonest. He was a fool indeed but he was God’s fool, here to show us the limits of pomposity and the chill in our households. The wonder of Warren — as well as his tragedy — was that he never settled for a stunted version of life, and especially not the most recent reduction which has us dominated by the chickenshit myths of pop psychology, obsessed with our health and money markets, in awe of our own self-absorption, all the glory of our language reduced to the babble of computerized discourse, all life down to a plea. One might as easily expect a four-year-old to obey hospital rules as to find Warren using words like “input” or “parenting,” or describing the method of his thoughts (he, a man of epiphany!) as “processing.” His intolerable vividness came from the fact that the terrible things we take for granted, he didn’t.
There are some small memories I can’t get out of my mind because they are so specific to Warren:
I remember staying briefly in an apartment in Paris on the Rue Dalou when Warren came in from Germany, his face wild and bruised from a fight with Germans who had insulted the lovely Skinny, his great pal. His shoes were in his hand. He was very disappointed in himself because he had tried to walk across the Alps, but had given up when it got too cold. Later that evening he was to dance down the Rue de Vaugirard, elated at having just seen Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, a movie whose optimism very much resembled his own.
I remember chasing a cat through the streets of New York one morning around three. We had just arrived. Warren had stepped out of the car into a pile of dogshit at the exact moment this woman’s cat had escaped from an apartment building. “Please catch her for me,” the woman cried, and off we went, barrelling through the empty streets after a cat who was probably having serious second thoughts. I don’t know how we caught the cat, just that we did.
I remember when I went to fetch him out of the Alpha unit at Butner (on my own recognizance!) where he had voluntarily committed himself for a few days — how he came down the hall, unshaved, abject, still a boy among the sad. And how we sat in my car for awhile saying nothing until Warren sighed and said, “You know, this is not a good place to hang out on weekdays.”
And I remember that once, while we were walking down Franklin Street, Warren suddenly dived on the hood of a parked car. It was unexplainable of course. He was filled with something, joy and frustration perhaps, and the only way to express his feelings at that moment was to dive on the car. I recall how he looked flying through the air, and how at the last moment he spun around so he ended up bouncing on the hood in a sitting position, and there he lolled for awhile, as puzzled and delighted by himself as I was.
He was the only friend I had who would dive on the hood of a car. What does that mean? Look around you and you will see it meant a lot.