Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Bitter compassion

Posted By on Wed, Mar 5, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Imagine artists — singers, authors, painters — who bring an intense, delinquent mystique to their craft. For me, the ones whose character escapes explanation always come to mind. Cats like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Prince were the self-contained shadows lurking in the public pop of Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. While the work of their contemporaries spoke numbers, the delinquents spoke volumes.

Consider Marc Nesbitt, recipient of a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan, a late literary newcomer to this small fraternity. Nesbitt writes like a man who sits in a dark, unfurnished room at an old table with a bare bulb hanging over him. And he’s banging on a typewriter. His debut collection of short stories, Gigantic, is an exercise in streams of consciousness.

These stories are free verses on acid. Lucid and personal, Nesbitt creates his characters — and then becomes them. Nesbitt seems to walk a mile in their shoes, in his head, before committing their stories to paper. While he adapts to the personalities of each character, his clever use of simile becomes the constant stylistic thread between each tale.

Reading Gigantic is like watching the movie Memento. Your senses are challenged to stay focused and involved. Perusing a paragraph, as opposed to reading it carefully, may cause you to miss important links in Nesbitt’s thought train. “The Ones Who May Kill You In the Morning” is a young black man’s tale of being employed as a live lawn jockey for a rich Southern racist’s soiree. Somewhere between smoking with his partner jockey Captain Earl and listening to Fatsby’s (the racist) disfest on everyone from blacks and Asians to gays, Nesbitt slides the story into a clandestine tree-stump schtup session between the lead character and Fatsby’s privileged, buck-lovin’ daughter.

The impressive aspect of Nesbitt’s train of thought is that, even though he’s writing short stories, he has a knack for consistency that is difficult for most writers to maintain. Gigantic is equal parts fun, studious and intense because Nesbitt pays close attention to style and wordplay. In “Polly Here Somewhere,” the author tells of his imaginary friend who grows with him from childhood and becomes his girlfriend, until he finally cheats on her.

“I try adultery at ten,” Nesbitt writes, “because you can’t touch what you imagine … Hope doesn’t really taste like anything. That night I still feel her thighs on my face, but even having touched someone inside I’ll never be closer to anyone than Polly. Lying next to her in the black, she speaks on my throat: ‘Every time you breathe, I can smell something wrong with you. Wherever you are I’m in your head.’”

Nesbitt’s a lunatic when in character. Yet, it’s interesting to watch the continuing emergence of young authors who have grown up immersed in hip-hop culture (even if they’re not always of it), aware of ongoing social events and privy to the greatest glut of information the world has seen via technology. Among these phenomena, writers like Nesbitt endeavor to construct the character of a hip-hop artistic movement. And in the tradition of contemporary hip-hop’s self-serving modus operandi, he does it by becoming the main character in much of his work.

Nesbitt also likes to deal with the underdogs in life. The live lawn jockeys, the social deviants, the drunks (“What Good Is You Anyway?”), even the man who works in the University Thrift Zoo (“Gigantic”), where bats thought to be asleep fall dead on hay-covered floors and rhesus monkeys throw each other through tires and attempt to rip off their own ears. The story of the underdog is one of life’s most intriguing sagas, and Nesbitt’s tells it with a rare, raw authenticity.

Nesbitt helps us realize that we meet hundreds of underdogs each week. With this kind of style and attentiveness, he could develop a following fast. As long as that proverbial light bulb stays on, there will be plenty of room for him to continue weaving macabre thoughts into great stories.

Khary Kimani Turner writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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