The Empty Chair
Two Novellas
Bruce Wagner
(Blue Rider/Penguin)
Ryder is everyone's dream of a son. Bright, smart, funny, inquisitive, sensitive --- every parent's best child in all the world. And when he is twelve years old he takes the family's lovely wooden antique chair, gets up on it, and --- rope tied to beam across ceiling --- kicks it (the chair, his life) away. His father finds him completely naked, tongue out, stiff, gone.

This story comes via narrative from his father, Charley. He is supposed to be telling the story to Bruce Wagner, the author. Wagner tells us that he had originally intended to do a series of interviews à la Studs Terkel. But two of the people he was interviewing so fascinated him that he dropped the idea of a universe and concentrated on a binary. First with Charley, father to Ryder, with his live-in lady, Kelly who teaches Buddhism in a public school. (To avoid charges of religion-in-the-school, she disguises it as a class in relaxation for the very young, what they call training sessions for "the Ritalin Beasts.")

§   §   §

That's story #1, and it's a good for a couple of hours ... once you get beyond Charley's rambles. Like most dopers, he can be a big dullard, but then, when he gets on a stoned rant, Chair begins to come to life:

    "To every season, turn turn turn" turning and turning in the widening gyre ... to every season in Hell --- every saison en enfer. You know about the Ouroboros, don't you? The serpent that devours its own tail? Right before you die, the sign of Death comes --- your mouth forms a great O, those droll doctors call it "the O Sign." The mouth O-pens (and o-pines its last) and your eyes begin to flutter as they do in REM sleep --- RAM! sleep --- all roads lead to Rama, don't you know ... that's what Gandhi said when he was shot, said "Rama" in his final exhalation.

Story #2 is narrated by "Queenie," née Cassiopeia. Who is enamored of drugs and sex and the Beats and talking to the author (Bruce Wagner). She's also besotted with a rascal from Chicago by the name of Kura.

Theft and violence and rape and blackmail and drugs and stuff have been good to Kura; he is rich beyond all our dreams. He also has a monkey on his back. No, not something as easy as that ... although drugs do come and go in his life. His monkey appears the form of a guru, the guru of gurus, operating out of a tobacco shop in Bombay. He's known merely as the Great Guru, and he gives satsang in a seedy quarter there in Mogul Lane.

Kura has never met him, but he decides that owning a crew of dealers and operatives and ladies of the night and paid killers and private jets just isn't enough: he has to get to the master. He and his old squeeze Queenie --- our narrator's narrator --- jet off to India and go to Mogul Lane and if you've ever been to India you'll recognize it instantly... one of the great events of a lifetime; that is, making your way through an Indian city center,

    On the other side of my window there was some kind of full-tilt Halloween/Carnaval goin' on: a blurry burlesque of the undead, hands outstretched for flesh and candy. Whenever we stopped to make our way around some road-blocking cow -- the latter were apparently the only living thing the municipality gave shit about --- the zombies pressed against the glass anew like bacteria multiplying in a Petri dish. Kura compulsively checked his Patek, the perfect way to remain oblivious to our motorized rampage. I'll admit my mordant fascination with the hairs-breadth escapes of those on the street whom the driver seemed determined to kill caused me to drap the ball on consulting the map the concierge had painstakingly notated. In a short time, we were lost.

§   §   §

The Empty Chair is an odd duck. Here we have twin narratives from two individuals that I suspect Philip Dick could have made up. Both are besotted with the language and the magic forces out of the East. I write "besotted," but we also have here the author's disciplined trip through the universe of gurus and masters --- the East come to the West, the West to the East --- complete with the intermix of casual heavy drug sexed American enlightenment, spiritual self-destroying Kirkegaardian neo-Zen all-out neo-Beat paradox-of-life self-mediated wisdom --- with a taste of murder love zonk-out enlightenment life struggle death whew.

You'll find yourself bored to tears with some of the intermissions: Kelly on her friend Carolyn Cassidy, Charley establishing his credits at the very beginning, and most of all, Queenie's alcoholic rant at the tail-end. She wants author Wagner to give us his narrative, but her's is a drunken babble you can get at any watering hole, and it turns a queer, sometimes gripping novel into a drab end-rave. It is, we know, a fine ironic twist that we are being offered even more narrative after we've just gone through 300 pages of authorial cream. But this final riff should have been left on the cutting-room floor.

Here and there in The Empty Chair we can find passages straight out of the authorial gods. After the boy hangs himself, there's a wrenching quote from the Vulgate, the Book of Esdras:

    And it happened that my son went to his room, fell down, and died; and my neighbors came and rose up to comfort me. Then took I my rest. It was the second night and all the neighbors rested so they could wake up and comfort me some more, and I rose up by night and fled and am come to this field --- hither to this field --- as you see --- and will not go back, but will remain here ... and neither eat nor drink, but rather to conventionally mourn and fast till I die.

For all the occasional missteps that pepper the text of Chair, there are the jewels: the grief-stories of Kelly sleeping on a futon in the dead son's room because "she wanted to breathe the same air our son had ... and who was to say his effluence wasn't present, that some of his microbes weren't still in the room." The two of them mourning with the improbable rush of a "postmortem honeymoon period" where "we couldn't stop talking ... real chatterboxes ... like being back in college taking speed to cram for exams..." Or, having a

    cooked dinner at 4 a.m. in formal dress ... [we] told forgotten, complicated jokes and recited the first and last names of ancient homeroom geeks

and then "got erotic. And that was ... sad. For awhile anyway and then it got funny again. Really funny."

    We were in a frenzy that we had no desire to name or explain. Just we happy two. And we had these --- we experienced these moments of supreme, supernatural, grief-free giddiness.

Ryder's death was improbable, as is the madness that follows it. Why would, why did, the perfect loving child hang himself; why would he leave a note that says,


It does capture a death in the family as mad as it should or could be. As do the later vistas from Bombay give us a cryptic, perhaps fake guru, surrounded by adepts looking like they were in "a Bollywood musical," their "bejeweled, bedizened egos on parade" for the daily morning audience with the master.

What will he be looking like when he appears for the satsang? Cassiopeia tells us,

    The Great Guru never wore anything but a threadbare kuta --- at least he didn't wear a nappy, which definitely would not have been okay! ... Not a big fan of the Gandhi look.

--- Richard Saturday
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