Swimming in My Own Reality
I never heard his name mentioned in a classroom. Or on TV. Or by anyone I ever met. It’s possible I came across his name in Playboy in the early 1970s where he was treated like a worldly sage.
The first time I picked up a book by Henry Miller was soon after I started working at the Co-op Bookstore in Tallahassee, Fla. It was a drizzly Friday evening when I asked the manager about volunteering and, after showing me how to work the cash register and lock the front door, she happily gathered her things and left me in the store alone.
The bookstore was a quiet outpost of hippiedom. By 1975, it was five years past its prime, or so people told me. Sometimes my fellow freshmen from Florida State University, its leafy campus just across the street, wandered in thinking it was the official campus bookstore until, that is, they saw the faded Che and Mao posters, and shelves dedicated to Marx and Lenin. Then they would usually scoot out.
I liked being alone with the books, which I mostly was, and soon became a proud member of that breed of bookstore clerks who sighs every time he’s interrupted by a customer.
I don’t remember which of the unpainted, handmade bookshelves included Miller’s classics Tropic of Cancer, Sexus, Nexus, and so on. Autobiography? Fiction? Erotica alongside Anaïs Nin? Miller defied easy classification. The censors had declared his books off-limits in the U.S. until 1961. So he built up a cult following of expats, French intellectuals, and Beat writers before the sixties folks dusted him off and reclaimed him.
No doubt I started reading him for the smut, then stayed around for the rest. This included enough heroic binge drinking that would make a frat guy blanch but, in Miller’s hands, seemed to lead to deeper insights about the nature of the universe and mankind’s puny place inside it. All this expressed in a stream of consciousness that was the verbal equivalent of a Charlie Parker solo. Half the time I had no idea what he was saying, but the way he said it was mesmerizing.
Gradually I realized the sex and booze were merely window dressing for the real thing that Miller offered—the voice of an average Joe shouting to the rooftops that he fucking deserved to be heard. By his account, he was a failure as a businessman, husband and father. He thought Americans were crass and only interested in seeing how much stuff they could pile up (this was in the 1930s before Americans really showed their ass to the world). He was practically bald by the age of thirty. Despite all this or because of it, he found reasons to celebrate the mysteries of life and love as best he could. And it was all the more powerful because I never heard it dissected in a classroom.
I know I took Miller too literally at the time—it was many years later that I learned how much he embellished his seemingly autobiographical self. But after I graduated with what seemed like an unemployable degree in philosophy in the depths of the 1980 recession, my career plan involved living like Miller in Europe for as long as I could. I bought a one-way ticket for my first flight, re-read Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn while crossing the dark ocean, then worked and hitchhiked around Germany, France, Spain and Portugal for the next eighteen months. I walked his Parisian streets at night, alone, full of wine and self-pity. I spent a week in Pamplona during the running of the bulls, and spent the whole time partying with a group of Spaniards and Swedes without ever seeing a bull or matador. Miller thought Hemingway was a macho blowhard, and so did I. After a summer of camping out with a group of hard-living, hard-drinking young Europeans on a bluff near Albufeira, Portugal, I floundered. I had drifted too far away from where I needed to be. I got violently homesick while watching Coal Miner’s Daughter in a Lisbon movie theater.
Back in Tallahassee, I felt fortunate to land a job as a hotel desk clerk, midnight shift. When I returned to the bookstore, it was as a customer who coveted a set of Time-Life books about famous painters.
About a year later I met the person I would spend the next three decades with and raise a family. When it came time to write our marriage vows, we included a short passage from Miller that seemed quite literally true.
It was about a young man with his wife at a restaurant, and they were celebrating their first anniversary. He wanted everyone in the room, all strangers, to know how happy he was. He said that if more people talked about how happy they were, the world would be a better place.
This essay appeared in A Cozy Infinity: 25 (Mostly) Atlanta Writers on the Never-Ending Allure of Books and Bookstores, Editor, Tony Paris, 2014, everthemore books.