“Up close, Bill Clinton looks like he’s covered in fresh fetal tissue.” So begins Gary Indiana’s report on the 1992 New Hampshire primaries. Right away an aspect of Indiana’s genius is present: the phrase, profane yet precise, that transforms an oversaturated image, the face of an all-too-familiar figure, and remains burned in your mind for good. Then the overtones: the abortion debate, the notion of an experimental Frankenstein politics mixing Right and Left, and the overgrown baby who was soon to be elevated to the White House. We know how that turned out and that there was worse to come. This is what Clinton sounded like at the time:
The platitudinous verbal droppings, more like noises one makes to stimulate horses than actual thoughts, also resemble bromides from a soothing commercial for Preparation H: the proctologist, on close examination, has ruled against radical surgery in favor of something smooth and greasy and easy to disresolve in the collective rectum.
The recourse to the scatological, to find the disgust in a political style that runs cover for corporate greed, jet-set plundering, and the heartland immiserations of globalization. It still holds in the Democratic Party today. What are the words of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg but balms against their obviously hemorrhoidal GOP opponents?
Political assassinations, witch trials, episodes of torture, videotaped police beatings, bloody foreign invasions, crudely administered if humane assisted suicides, seedy crimes of passion and revenge — these are some of the forms of violence that are the backdrop of Fire Season: Selected Essays 1984–2021. A cliché much repeated these days is that “the end of history” was reached with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and that Clinton presided over a temporal interzone that was either an affluent coma or simply a long party accompanied by blackout, until history resumed with the attacks of 9/11 or the financial crash of 2008 or the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. That was never true — it never seemed true at the time — and the essays in this volume prove it. Gary Indiana was born in 1950 in Derry, New Hampshire. He had lived a dozen lives already, in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and New York City, writing poems, stories, and plays, and acting in films around the world, before he published his first novel, Horse Crazy, in 1988. His work connects the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries in ways readers and critics are only beginning to apprehend.
The essays in Fire Season span from 1985 to 2020, four decades. Their geographic reach is roughly from Moscow (the meager wonders of cooking in Soviet times; the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya under the Vladimir Putin kleptocracy) to Los Angeles (the murder of the Black Dahlia; the trial of the cops who thrashed Rodney King). Psychically, Fire Season’s center of gravity might be the 1960s. A trio of essays take up its rippling hangovers: there is the John F. Kennedy assassination, which Indiana identifies as ground zero of America’s “violated innocence” and therefore its subsequent apparent derangement; there is Branson, Missouri, a landlocked resort where he inspects washed-up refugees from the Lawrence Welk Show who dance and sing to make a few dollars before their date with the embalmer; and there is Andy Warhol, subject of the latest essay collected here, from 2020, a virtuoso exercise in correcting a biographer’s philistine misremembering performed by an eyewitness.
Indiana is often associated in the popular mind or the minds of magazine editors with the “Downtown” Manhattan of the 1980s, and while this is not wrong — he was living as he does still, some of the time, in the East Village, was present at the Mudd Club, and so on — it is not enough. The vision of his novels, especially his true crime trilogy (Resentment, Three Month Fever, Depraved Indifference) spans the whole of America, and his literary sensibility is rooted in Europe. He was art critic for the Village Voice from 1985 to 1988 (those columns are collected in the recent volume Vile Days), and the criticism that has followed, much of which is in this book, demonstrates a corollary to Renata Adler’s judgment that regular critics usually go “shrill” or “stale” or “shrill and stale” and become “hacks” after prolonged exposure to reviewing works that are neither masterpieces nor atrocities but merely the stuff that’s around in a given week when the deadline comes: the risk of hackdom (Indiana quit the art critic job out of boredom) is a necessary one for the serious critic to become great.
Most of the writers, artists, and filmmakers Indiana scrutinizes in these pages are geniuses, and his criticism meets them at their level. From the fictions of Paul Scheerbart to the paintings of the young artist Sam McKinniss, through Samuel Beckett, Unica Zürn, Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Louise Bourgeois, Adler herself, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Barbet Schroeder, Barbara Kruger, Tracey Emin, Roni Horn, and so on — Indiana’s subjects, yoked together, take on the quality of a personal canon. Not entirely alternate (there’s a Nobel winner in there) but far from obvious, their grouping here, an act of haphazard curation on Indiana’s part, is a welcome tonic in an age when the concept of the lasting has been evacuated in favor of the metrics of hype. Our only hope in such a world is a critic as sophisticated and independent as Indiana to inform our own judgments and reactions. There is acid in everything Indiana writes, but it is of the sort that acts as a purifying agent, eliminating adulterants, euphemisms, phony received wisdom. His essays are humane to the core.
Like the Clintons, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Bruce Springsteen, Gary Indiana is a member of the baby boom generation. But as he writes of Pasolini, he is “unique in his degree of loathing” of the corporate culture his cohort have fostered, of the political cowardice they’ve perpetuated, and of the degradations the American language has suffered on the way from the typewriter to Twitter. There are notes of political despair in Fire Season — how could there not be? Of the Tsarnaev brothers and the Boston Marathon bombing: “Why did they do it? How could they? In the world we live in now, the better questions are: Why not? Why wouldn’t they?” Perhaps we do live in a fallen world, one of darkness, violence, and superficiality — that much is obvious to anyone with a television or a cellphone. In these essays Gary Indiana shows us over and over that the fallen world can’t be the only one.