Twilight of the West:A Review of Boyd Rice’s Twilight ManWill Franklin
Czech translation here
Heartworm Press, 2011
Boyd Rice’s latest novel/memoir is more than just a funny account of his adventures working as an alarm agent in San Francisco in the 1980s — it’s an account of his formative years, and goes a long way in explaining the dark, misanthropic, “fascist” persona we have come to know and love.
In a way, Twilight Man might be compared to the recent article by Boyd’s old associate Jim Goad, “The Day I Left the Left.” For Rice, though, “It was not a single incident . . . it was a whole lot of little things. . . . The scum of the Earth. Crack whores and crack heads, pimps and hookers. Day in and day out, the same old shit. The homeless, the witless, the rabble. The intellectuals that are far more stupid than borderline retards.”
Rice has always had more than a bit of Travis Bickle in him, though he’s far more intelligent. He also seems far too in control of himself to ever snap the way Travis does — unless, as he says in his poem “Shit List,”
If ever I catch me a deadly disease,
I’ll declare open season on my enemies,
And I’ll hunt them down, and I’ll make them pay,
For the wretched things that they do and they say.
To clarify, Rice was never on “the Left,” and it could also be said that he’s never really been on “the Right” either. He’s a complex artist who deliberately revels in obscurity and controversy, and I doubt he takes labels of any kind very seriously. So his metaphorical leaving the Left is not a matter of forfeiting a CPUSA membership or Democratic Party registration, but rather a kind of awakening to reality leading to a change in values and ethos.
Winston Churchill famously remarked that anyone who isn’t a liberal at twenty has no heart, and anyone who isn’t conservative at forty has no brain. I’ve always loved this quote, and even as a twenty-something lefty when I first heard it, I knew somehow instinctively that it was true. The leftist response to this assertion is that people become greedy and corrupted when they get a little wealth, and no longer care about others. In the case of someone who merely shifts allegiance from Democrats to Republicans, there may well be some truth to that.
But the rightist explanation of why people become more right-wing with age is deeper, and simpler. As Jonathan Bowden succinctly put it: “Reality approaches! They can’t live with these deluded, nonsensical views about human life.” You simply cannot spend time in the world among real people and real situations and continue to entertain the kinds of fantasy theories that the Left produces — not unless you are such an ideologue that you are functionally and willfully blind to reality, like a perverse distortion of a Platonic philosopher who sees only ideas and not the world.
You cannot spend time among poor and working class people and seriously believe that they are any more righteous for their poverty, or that they are going to rise up in a grand proletarian revolution, suddenly and miraculously trading their ingrained racial and sexual prejudices for the class prejudice which leftist propaganda tries so hard to instill in them. You cannot spend time among different races and cultures crammed into the same crowded city and believe that utopia is “multi-cultural.” You cannot actually be a man or woman and yet believe that it doesn’t matter which one you are and that they’re the same and interchangeable.
The growth from views based on abstract theories to views based on experiential reality is perfectly illustrated in chapter 6, “Survival of the Fittest.” Rice explains that when he first took the job as an alarm agent — someone who drives around at night responding to burglar alarms that go off — he had a great deal of sympathy for the homeless, believing them all to be merely victims of Reagan’s de-institutionalization policies. But his co-worker Bill espouses a different view of the situation.
Bill dismissively categorized them all as “assholes” or “the scum of the earth.” … “What I’ve had to ask myself about the homeless is: how big an asshole would you have to be to find yourself in a position in which not a single soul on earth would move a finger to help you? So I have to imagine these folks are major assholes, because they’ve obviously alienated every last friend and relative they have. They’ve used up all of their options and now they’re on the street and on their own.”
Rice says that his co-worker’s words “shocked me somewhat. But they also rang true.” Now of course there may be plenty of exceptions or other explanations for a particular homeless person’s misfortune. But as a resident of a big city myself, when I think of the homeless people who have asked (or accosted) me for spare change, Bill’s words ring true for me too. If it acts like an asshole, and smells like an asshole . . .
The picture Boyd Rice paints of San Francisco in the 80s is not pretty. Crime is omnipresent, not least of all because working as an alarm agent third-shift puts him in especially close proximity to it. But it isn’t just the break-ins and attempted robberies he must respond to on duty — it’s also the men stabbing each other on the staircase of his apartment building, and the pimp beating up a prostitute on the street below, and his friend who’s raped by a black intruder who convinced her to let him into her apartment by playing the race card. It’s the homeless man projectile-vomiting outside the donut shop as Boyd tries to enjoy his caffeine and sugar fix. All of it adds up to a human-created hell, right in the middle of sunny paradisal California.
Speaking of hell, Rice’s longtime friend and mentor Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, makes several appearances in the book, as a character called The Old Man, which is apparently how LaVey liked to refer to himself. He is one of a cast of many in a series of 29 chapters of character sketches, anecdotes, and reminiscences which amount to Boyd Rice’s personal memoir of the decline of Western civilization.
In the hands of almost anyone else, this material would be either depressing, or tinged with some kind of moral agenda. But as recounted by Boyd Rice, with his icy cold detachment and dark sense of humor, it becomes thoroughly enjoyable, and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Indeed, Rice says that these years in dirty San Francisco in the 1980s were the best of his life, in spite (but perhaps also because) of being the ugliest. He’s a living example of someone who has ridden the tiger of modernity — one of his friends describes him as having the soul of an ancient warrior-poet — and seemingly gotten the best of it, managing to have a damned good time while the world burns. If you see Boyd Rice around, be sure to buy him a drink.
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