I had no idea what to do next.
For fifteen years, while practicing law in Berkeley, I had been writing about cartoonists for The Comics Journal. It had become apparent early on that the more off-beat the cartoonist was in his life or art, the more I would be drawn to him. Once my bias had become clear, someone at the Journal would have another cartoonist for me: a schizophrenic and an alcoholic and a speed freak and a suicide and a misanthrope and one fellow whose career off-tracked when he became a woman. Their work was often grotesquely violent, often bizarrely sexual. If there was an envelope to push, it was shoved with both hands. If there was a toe to step on, it was stomped with both boots. (Often these hands were bloody and these boots hobnailed.) I championed such work. I cheered such excesses. My point — laced with my own inappropriate humor and over-the-top effronteries — became that it was not the peculiarity of the personality that mattered but the value of the art and that this value heightened when the vision that produced it was extreme.
The attraction to me of espousing this belief, I suspected, lay in the stature I derived, at least in my own eyes, from connecting to the outlaw. I lived a life of modesty. The same wife for thirty-five years, the same house for thirty, the same car for twenty-five, the same office for twenty. I did not drink. I took a hit from the passing joint, maybe, once a year. Double espressos, I liked to say, were my last remaining vice. I required something more to set me apart from a culture that seemed as lethally seductive as flypaper, from a society that blithely returned to office those who seemed determined to bomb and pollute their way across the twenty-first century. I admired the way these voices said, “We are not you. You are not us.”
“You have never seen anything like it,” I had said to Robert the K, a glass artist and critic whose idea of a good time was attending four operas and three museums during a week in New York City. We were on our weekly walk, coming down a steep hill under grey skies in Tilden Park. Overhead, a solitary turkey buzzard hovered on the breeze. The “it” to which I referred was the scene the previous Sunday in Deadwood in which Al Swearengen, the saloon-and-brothel owner, bloody from his beating by the marshal, wracked with the pain of his inflamed prostate, declaims his acerbic view of the world while being fellated by a whore.
“Is that a true ground for artistic measure?” Robert said.
“Absolutely,” I said. “That’s the job of art. Show things that have never been seen. Say things that have never been heard. Explode people’s heads.”
“Do you ever feel a disconnect,” he said, “between yourself and these people and activities you write about? You are such a gentleman in other areas. It’s a question I often ask myself.”
It was a question I did not. But in early 2005, following the completion of a piece on Vaughn Bodé, I was stuck. Bodé, a successful and influential cartoonist of the early 1970s, had been a bisexual, sadomasochistic transvestite who believed he was the Messiah, and had died of autoerotic strangulation. It had been a wonderful and thrilling article to write. But it wasn’t like I could now write about a cartoonist who was only a bisexual sadomasochist. My job — my aesthetic position — required the continual breaking of new ground.
Then, Eric Reynolds, publicity director for Fantagraphics, the company that publishes the Journal, e-mailed me: “I think I’ve found your next subject, Bob.” Attached was a two-year-old Internet posting commemorating the third anniversary of the death of Dwaine Tinsley, a cartoonist for Hustler magazine, whose major creation had been “Chester the Molester,” a monthly jest steeped in pedophilia, which had been nipped in mid-flowering when the cartoonist had been accused by his oldest daughter of several years of sexual abuse.
“Whoa!” I thought. “Are you sure you want to go there?” I could see the angry villagers, led by Andrew Vachss and Bill O’Reilly, marching on my castle, brandishing their torches and pitchforks.
Then I thought, “If you believe what you have been writing, you have to write this story. This is absolutely your next step. This is what you have been put on earth to do.”
A few weeks later, Gary Groth, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, called. “What are you working on?” he said.
I told him I had been thinking about Tinsley.
“I met his widow at a convention recently. She wanted me to do a collection of his cartoons. Really vile stuff. Want her number?”
I carried it around in my wallet for a few weeks. Once I checked the area code and saw it was Louisiana. “Great,” I thought. “The cost of interviewing her will be more than the Journal will pay. Besides, she probably won’t want to revisit the subject.”
Then, late one afternoon, I called.
Three weeks after that, my wife Adele and I arrived in New Orleans. Our first night, we ate at a restaurant where several adjoining tables had been covered with sheets of newspaper. When the last of about two dozen young men had been seated — in town, it turned out, for a bachelor party — for a bachelor party for a wedding to be held in Minneapolis — the waiters dumped bins of crayfish on the table. Then they dumped shrimp on the crayfish. Then they dumped crab on the shrimp. Being from the Bay Area, the way of life in other cities does not often impress us. But New Orleans kicked our ass. There was the cultural mix: French and Spanish; Caribbean and African. There was the music roaring from the bars — bars already open at 7:00 A.M., when we left our hotel in pursuit of egg-white omelets. There were the cemeteries roosting their dead above ground, more firmly planting them in sight and mind than did their more customary billeting. There was the Mississippi — Huck Finn’s Mississippi — the Mississippi that brought Chicago jazz — that utterly myth-resonant Mississippi, wide and dark, rushing past and vanishing into the gulf. Turn the corner and there was a bluegrass band or an illusionist or a hip-hop acrobatic troupe or a man or a woman, motionless, mute, made up to replicate a Greek god or plantation lady, to be observed or posed beside for a (hoped-for) donation. Each act was so skilled you might have been strolling through a fresh air Talk of the Town. Each was so startling — if a shade shabby, if the illusionist’s cuffs were somewhat frayed, if the silver paint on Hermes did not quite erase the desperation that froze him on his corner — that they seemed a civic planner’s slap into satori, designed to rouse one from fixation on the common into the richness and unpredictability of life. (“And in Berkeley,” Adele said, “they expect a quarter if they say, ‘Nice hat.’”) One night, in an occult shop off Rue Chartres, I purchased an African clawed frog — gigantic, hideous — pickled in formaldehyde. “Not to be taken internally,” the pierced-and-tattooed salesman said. “May cause hallucinations, convulsions and death.”