The Empire of the Dead
(Johns Hopkins University)Wally Bern, who appears in five of the stories here, is a lonely, history-loving, frustrated, bored, sex-sad, Dante-loving, all-questioning, not-so-very-merry fifty-year-old. Like some of us, every time he lights on a woman who could be his passion-pot, he overdoes it. One, Lisa, finally has to tell him, "No sex between us, okay, Wally? It's not an age deal, or anything . . . It's just that, what with Gary" --- her man --- "I need a friend,"
There are a total of seven stories here, but you are forewarned to stay away from the ones that don't treat with Wally. One, "The Magnitudes" should be stripped out and left to die by the wayside. It put me to sleep. An don't ask me why. I was sleeping, remember?
During the course of the Wally stories we get to wander around New York City, and I submit if The Empire of the Dead doesn't make it in all respects, it is dandy as a walking guide to Manhattan, including appropriate smells and sights and accompanists.
The approach to Brooklyn Bridge always confused him: a maze of chain-link fences blocking pedestrian paths from winding streets and the sprawling, trash-strewn parking lots of nearby government compounds. He made his way past weedy patches of grass (garbage bags, abandoned tires) and stone façades. A dumping ground at the base of a national monument. Well, welcome to New York. Bern thought. A smell of wood and earth.
"Long ago," he observes, "the bridge's underside used to house printing shops, grocers' supply stores, and ship chandleries. A buzzing hive." The theme of this book is thus established: extreme loneliness (Bern's) coupled with an extreme longing for the past, the past in architecture, the past in culture, the past in the way we once built our cities . . . and preserved them. The entire cityscape turns us (in places) into victims, and (in other places) into people with lives, places to go, things to buy, see, hear, smell. "Bren had forgotten how much of Lower Manhattan was marked for detention. Public plazas, federal buildings, the dead zone around City Hall."
It was always a relief to walk up Centre Street, past the official buildings and into the clamor of Chinatown and Little Italy . . . and then over to the Bowery, teeming with kitchen supplies.
"It was like stepping out of the Empire of the Dead, back into colorful life." Thus the title of the book.
Besides being a worry wart, Bern has other loves that tell us he is still sentient. He has a thing for jazz, even though he mostly remembers the jazz greats who are now dead, with the exception of Paul Motian who appears on these pages: "Wiry. Bald. Wearing shades . . . the corners of the drummer's mouth curled down . . . " (It turns out that he, too, died --- November 22, 2011.)
When Wally goes for a check up on his heart, he sees, "there on the screen, the interior of his heart, an intricate, tidy design."
The arteries resembled cascading streams --- Fallingwater, Bern thought. God bless Frank Lloyd Wright. "Left main," someone remarked. "Eighty, eighty-five percent blockage."
Anyone who can view his own pericardium and, at the same time, think of the works of a revolutionary architect can't be all that bad.
By the end, Bern (finally) makes it over to the Cloisters, that hunk of Sant Miquel de Cuixà stolen from France, brought over by Rockefeller to Fort Tryon, what one might call Medieval Gaudy, filled as it is with "Gothic balustrades. Vestibules. Archways from monastery windows in the hills of ancient Paris." He thinks he might "rethink his relationship to religion." Oh, OK: another impossible task (for him and for us).
But then he sees the City below, it turns into a revelation that starts him to thinking about what Boethius (or was it St. Augustine?) said, that it was like "the sensation of having complete and perfect possession of unlimited life at a single moment."
. . . as Dante put it, finding that spot where "every where and every when is brought to a point."
§ § §
This Bern, if he would just stop thinking. Let go. Do feelings for a change. (Maybe even stop putting himself down: "Why did he go on so, hiding behind his moldy old facts? To protect his thin and shabby inner life?"). Maybe he should get out of that scruffy architect's office and that drab room, working as a flunky, surrounded by sick and dying colleagues, lorded over by these new young punks from MIT. We should ring up Daugherty now, tell him to start Bern doing walking tours, talking people up about the good and the beautiful in the City. He'd be great at it --- insights that are eminently quotable. This on the new "Freedom Tower," The prismatic glass panels planned for its base couldn't hide the flinch in its frame.
Or: when some goop in his office wants to plant some Art in the middle of a project, Bern tells him,
Let's say I'm an old woman trying to catch the A train --- how are your sculptures going to teach me anything? I certainly don't have time to contemplate their 'lessons.' Besides that, they're blocking my way.
Let's get this guy another job, get him out on the street with megaphone and cap, one that says OFFICIAL GUIDE, so that other people like you and me can start falling in love with New York too. No wonder women don't want him: they know he's already hitched. To the City, and its subtle shades.--- Pamela Wylie