Dragon Thunder
My Life with Chögyam Trungpa
Diana J. Mukpo
The Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa married Diana Judith Pybus when she was sixteen years old. The day after the wedding, a friend called to ask him who she was. Trungpa turned to her and said, "Excuse me, sweetheart, but what's your name?"

Shortly after, when Diana caught him in an embrace with another student, he told her "it was only because he had such trust in our relationship that he felt it would be possible for him to have these other relationships."

Reading about him puts one in mind of a heady mix of Win Big With People in Business and in Life, The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova and Under the Volcano. Rinproche seemed to have an enormous capacity for work and organization, but an even greater capacity for fiddling around and for heavy drink. Mukpo believes the latter probably killed him.

When drunk, Trungpa could turn quite fearsome: once, in a snit at his long-time associate Akong, he destroyed his shrine with his walking stick and then "urinated all over the top of the stairwell, after which he lay down and passed out." Diana comes off as what the AA people refer to as an enabler, telling us that getting pissed was all part of his holy prankster nature.

Despite his diabetes, he favored tomato and Spam sandwiches on french bread. When he lived in Boulder, Colorado, his blood pressure was such that he had to take medication every night. He would swallow the pill in front of his students, then writhe about, fall on the floor, roll up his eyes, and pretend to have died. Diana says it was very funny to watch.

The poet W. S. Merwin appeared at a seminar Rinproche gave in Snowmass, Colorado. The guru told everyone to get nekkid. Merwin didn't want to, and so he went back to his hotel room with his girlfriend. Rinproche's students went up and dragged them down to the ballroom where they were forced to strip. It was all in good fun, but Merwin didn't quite get the humor of it, bleeding badly from the broken glass where the students had stormed his room.

§     §     §

There's a hell of a lot of preening going on in Dragon Thunder. The Naropa institute started out as a simple operation, but after a few years, Rinproche demanded that the students get fancy. There were butlers and ladies-in-waiting, cocktail dresses and high heels. The master and Diana spent a great deal of time flying around the country or taking vacations. Their children --- one who had a learning disability, another suffering from autism --- got passed around to others when it came time to take off for Nice or the Bahamas.

For fans of Tibetan Buddhism, there is no end of detail here on the Bodhidharma, meditation, Shambhala, tulkus, and abhishekas. But there is also too much drinking, too many scandals, and too much silk. Diana gets her claws into quite a few people on her way to the top of the dharma ladder, including her mother. Her passion for something called dressage can get tedious unless you are into horses doing a formal dance.

The most interesting parts of Dragon Thunder turn up in the first hundred pages, the details of her first meetings with Rinproche and the pain of high-class English education. In one school, they simply stuck the kids in bed at 6 P.M. That was it for the day. At another, Benenden, she was encouraged to do sports: "I managed to do an over pass and hit the teacher on the head with a lacross stick."

Once, in the midst of what one might think of as a sordid life together, Rinproche called her "a punk." She got right back at him. "I said, 'I may be a punk, but I'm not drunk.' With that, he tried to hit me, but he missed."

She won out at the end, though. He was having "severe blood-clotting problems" in the hospital. As he lay dying, "I went down to New York to attend a trade fair because I was opening a children's clothing store in Halifax."

--- Lolita Lark

Natural Shocks
Richard Stern
Northwestern University)
Wursup is the journalist you and I want to be. Everyone has read his critique of the United States, Down the American Drain. He writes for the New York Times Magazine, Atlantic, Harper's. He gets interviewed on David Frost (this is 1973). A friend says,

    The key to Wursup's reporting is the sympathy Keats called "negative capability..." Wursup has the inner calm which lets himself give way to an almost total sympathy with others.

Stern has negative capability down so good that we could feel cheated. Why did we have to wait so long to discover him and his writings? He has the ability to unite Goethe, Tolstoy, Dr. Johnson, Sandy Koufax and the Sage of Vienna on the same page: "Freud himself was said to have one of history's worst cases of death terror, Todangst. In fact, the most vital people were the greatest death-fearers and death-dodgers."

And Koufax?

    They were examples of what Wursup called his Koufax Theorem. The famous pitcher had said that his terrible arm pain derived from the same calcium deposit which gave him extra throwing power. So death torture gripped the libido of the world's most living livers; they exposed themselves to it again and again. The hope was to inoculate themselves.

Aristotle wanted catharsis. Joyce, a moment of stasis. Me? I want someone to irritate, shock, bedevil, amuse, and confound me on the page. And all the while, I want a story. Dostoevsky, Henry Roth, Hubert Selby, Jr., Hemingway fill the bill. And now Stern.

Journalist Wursup's mother has been salted away (Alzheimer's). At the same time, he's called upon to deal with a double suicide: his father and his father's girlfriend, Mona. "There were glacial rifts in Wursup, times when he was as unfeeling as the chemicals which made him. A year would go by without his writing Poppa a card. And his mother --- whom he'd once loved so much he couldn't bear to think of her now, for other reasons. What a mystery it was. All these currents, hot and cold, running out of a person's arctic and tropic gulfs."

    "I became a mystery to myself." That was Augustine at nineteen, but by thirty he'd worked things out. It was simple if you were what Malraux called a "demon of the absolute." And Poppa? Had he ever solved himself? Someone said suicide was the most philosophical human act. Had Poppa figured something out at last?"

Poppa. I suspect he is one of the great major minor characters in American fiction. He worked forty-six years for People's Gas. Now that they had put mother away in a nursing home, he lives with Mona, "great-bottomed and beagle nosed, was bewigged like the Sun King."

Poppa the Poet. They give him a stereo for his retirement, despite the fact that he's tone deaf. "He traded the stereo for an electric typewriter. So he doesn't have to think, just type."

    He's written more poetry in two years than Homer. If they gave Nobels for literary tonnage, there'd be no contest.

§     §     §

Natural Shocks came out in 2004. Stern should've gotten the Pulitzer for it. If it weren't so late, I'd write and offer it to him. (I found out many years ago --- don't tell anyone --- that anyone can nominate anyone for the Pulitzer.)

With Stern, you'll learn about NATO officials who quote Philip Larkin, the thousands of toilet bowls that littered the blast site at Nagasaki, glittering in the sun, and the teenager, your teenager, who listens to rock: "He wasn't listening to the music but his inner racket."

And this on listening to Beethoven's Opus 135, the last quartet, the one in F-major. Wursup heard it one evening, alone on the coast of Maine: "Notes the dropsical, bilious deaf man had inked a century and a half ago on score paper were stroked on catgut by four men, agitated the air, made electric pulsings, scratches on oiled platters."

    And how many other losings and findings till the contents of that ear-blocked, in-turned head in Austria became the inside of another one on this land dribble of the American coast.

Every now and then we regret we do not have a more flexible scoring system in our General Index for books good, great, excellent, wonderful, sublimely stupendous, o wow light my fire.

If we did, we would give this one the biggest Olympic Flame.

--- A. W. Allworthy

Red Parrot
Wooden Leg

Gregorio Kohon
It's a picaresque: two young men from Buenos Aires, loose in Rio de Janeiro in 1966, going through the usual things young men go through when they leave home ... getting laid, smoking dope, reading (good) poetry, writing (bad) poetry, getting robbed, getting roughed up, getting kicked out.

Trouble is, for this reader, Red Parrot, Wooden Leg seems to be all amble, all ramble. We want our characters to not just get drunk and stoned and laid, we want things to jump off the page, bite us on the ass, make us happy or sad.

Unless we are reading Proust, Joyce or Javier Marías, we want things to happen. But all Daniel is able to come up with are memories of Argentina, words that he likes, abacaxí, candomblé, peaches, plums, watermelon, and bits of poems,

    The earth is blue like an orange
    Never a mistake words don't lie...
    (Paul Eluard)
Kohon, we learn from the facts laid out on the inside back cover, is a psychoanalyst and poet in London. Alberto Manguel thinks he's a whiz. He even may have had something to say further down the line, but lazy us! --- we never got there.

--- R. Saunders
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