I’m down on heroes at the moment. And by “heroes,” I’m not referring to those genuinely heroic people who rush into burning buildings to save children or dogs. I’m considering my own heroes, some of whom I considered as role models and strove to emulate.
If someone crafts a particularly nice piece of writing or a plays a stunning solo or is publicly witty at lunch, one may fix one’s admiration on such a person. One identifies with that idol’s image. One may adopt affectations associated with that person. And of course one will seek out biographical material on that luminary.
That’s a big mistake. And these are, by necessity, those who have passed on. The living we admire are still generating material for their biographers, and if we stand too close we might get a whiff of the rough draft. (Such an action may also result in a restraining order, or worse.) But reading up on the safely dead has its own shocks and hazards.
It seems that a great many if not most of the now-underground writers and musicians I wanted to be when I grew up are people I wouldn’t want to be now that I’ve grown up. Some had marinated their livers until they were nearly bullet-proof. Some were fond of cruel and even violent practical jokes well into adulthood. Some wrote or said things that I once found witty and insightful that now, on revisiting them, make me wince. (Even some things I wrote fifteen years ago make me wince.)
There’s a specific danger in idolizing those who thrived in the Jazz Age. I never wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald, thank heaven—I’d have died by now. (Aside from his liquid hobby, it has lately been revealed that he took his wife Zelda’s writing and passed it off as his own.) But it’s relatively safe to revere Robert Benchley and I did so as a youngster. I still regard him highly, but being nearly the age he was when he stepped off the planet I realize I wouldn’t want to be him. He was a wonderful man. He was also more than handy with a flask and a tumbler, and it did him in.
I am in awe of Mencken—and he would have finished this paper by now. On a typewriter. And answered all his correspondence. He said some excellent things that still ring true—and a great many things I wouldn’t have the heart to say in 2017. I’d be the Villain of the Internet if I did so.
Regarding musicians: who doesn’t worship Bix, Fats, and Big T? Who actually wants to be them? It’s a fatal proposition. I’m also despondent that I’ve outlived Art Tatum and I’ll never play as brilliantly as he did. And there’s Eddie Lang—who died due to medical malpractice. I’ve survived my own brush with medical ineptitude—and I’ll still never sound like him.
Having abandoned living and once-living persons as my lodestars, there are always fictional characters to consider for that office. That approach demands that one has read somewhat widely. When my mother read A Confederacy of Dunces she handed me the book and said, “That’s you.” It was a fair assessment, to a degree. If I’d come of age in NOLA and was sexually disoriented, Ignatius Reilly and I would have been twins. I was big, arrogant, mischievous, and used a lot of hard words.
But who would Ignatius be when he grew up? I’m afraid I’m drifting more into Nero Wolfe territory these days. Substitute shellac records for rare orchids and it would be a near match, except for the whole crime-solving thing. (Plus, I could really use an assistant.)
One Wolfean trait I will own up to is that I really hate to travel, or even leave the house. That makes the public aspect of this job more difficult. Occasionally I deal with my distaste for hotel rooms and car rides enough to show up places. And once I do so, I navigate. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s not so much a matter of agoraphobia as Stuck-Home Syndrome. But that also means as editor and publisher, I’m missing all those festivals and concerts that I should by all means attend. Dare I continue to be the Reclusive Concertgoer? The Festival Hermit? The Man Who Wasn’t There?
I have never been to California, or even really west of the Mississippi. My wife has been threatening to drag me by main force through this Great Land of Ours until I’ve seen all the mesas I can possibly handle. I have no idea if it’s going to be a transformative experience or just make me appreciate my own kitchen, bathroom, and pillows more. (It’s not going to happen until my own “Archie Goodwin” shows up to mind the store, so it doesn’t impend.)
But I do know that prying myself loose from my moorings for more than a day or two is going to take a heroic effort. It would really be quite a gag if I turned out to be the hero I was looking for all along.