Every Mention of Boiled Leather in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire


A Game of Thrones


“He wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather.”

“Her son was dressed in boiled leather and ringmail, she saw, and a sword hung at his waist.”

“His armor was iron-grey chainmail over layers of boiled leather, plain and unadorned, and it spoke of age and hard use.”

“Under black wool, boiled leather, and mail, sweat trickled icily down Jon’s chest as he pressed the attack.”

Robb was seated in Father’s high seat, wearing ringmail and boiled leather and the stern face of Robb the Lord.

“It was soon revealed that the new recruit had brought his own armor with him; padded doublet, boiled leather, mail and plate and helm, even a great wood-and-leather shield blazoned with the same striding huntsman he wore on his surcoat.”

“There were no heralds, no banners, no horns nor drums, only the twang of bowstrings as Morrec and Lharys let fly, and suddenly the clansmen came thundering out of the dawn, lean dark men in boiled leather and mismatched armor, faces hidden behind barred halfhelms.”

“A round scarred face and a stubble of dark beard showed under his steel cap, and he wore mail over boiled leather, and a dirk and shortsword at his belt.”

“How well would boiled leather jerkins and mailed shirts protect them when the arrows fall like rain?”

“He wore only a shirt of black oiled ringmail over boiled leather, a round steel halfhelm with a noseguard, and a mail coif.”

“The red cloaks wore mail shirts over boiled leather and steel caps with lion crests.”


A Clash of Kings


“They were clad in shabby skins and boiled leather, with long hair and fierce beards.”

“A scarred face and a stubble of dark beard showed under his spiked steel cap, and he wore mail over boiled leather, dirk and shortsword at his belt.”

“The prospect of food brought other men out of the houses, near all of them wearing bits of mail or boiled leather.”

“’My brothers are long dead, and my sister . . . well, they say Asha’s favorite gown is a chain-mail hauberk that hangs down past her knees, with boiled leather smallclothes beneath.'”

“‘I wonder if I still have that chain-mail gown I like to wear over my boiled leather smallclothes?”

“‘You have fewer than four hundred horse, my scouts tell me—freeriders in boiled leather who will not stand an instant against armored lances.'”

“Like Davos, the king was plainly garbed in wool and boiled leather, though the circlet of red gold about his temples lent him a certain grandeur.”

“Catelyn had ordered garments sewn to her measure, handsome gowns to suit her birth and sex, yet still she preferred to dress in oddments of mail and boiled leather, a swordbelt cinched around her waist.”

“A jerkin of boiled leather and a pot-helm at his feet were his only armor.”

“The men stood in their mail and fur and boiled leather, as still as if they were made of stone.”

“Beneath his black surcoat and golden mantle was a shirt of well-oiled ringmail, and under that a layer of stiff boiled leather.”

“About half of them hid their faces behind crude helms of wood and boiled leather.”

“The rider’s helm was made from the broken skull of a giant, and all up and down his arms bearclaws had been sewn to his boiled leather.”


A Storm of Swords


“Chett felt it too, biting through his layers of black wool and boiled leather.”

“Jon took their measure with a glance: eight riders, men and women both, clad in fur and boiled leather, with here and there a helm or bit of mail.”

“Elsewhere two bearded youths in boiled leather were sparring with staffs, leaping at each other over the flames, grunting each time one landed a blow.”

“With his own eyes Jon had beheld the Hornfoot men trotting along in column on bare soles as hard as boiled leather.”

“Ygritte slammed the heel of her hand into his chest, so hard it stung even through his layers of wool, mail, and boiled leather.”

“No shield, no breastplate, no chainmail, not even boiled leather, only pink satin and Myrish lace.”

“And under the roughspun was boiled leather and oiled mail, Arya knew.”

“Satin, they called him, even in the wool and mail and boiled leather of the Night’s Watch; the name he’d gotten in the brothel where he’d been born and raised.”

“The Thenns carried shields of black boiled leather with bronze rims and bosses, but theirs were plain and unadorned.”

“Almost every wagon had its guards; men-at-arms wearing the badges of small lordlings, sellswords in mail and boiled leather, sometimes only a pink-cheeked farmer’s son clutching a homemade spear with a fire-hardened point.”

“Beneath the trees were all the wildlings in the world; raiders and giants, wargs and skinchangers, mountain men, salt sea sailors, ice river cannibals, cave dwellers with dyed faces, dog chariots from the Frozen Shore, Hornfoot men with their soles like boiled leather, all the queer wild folk Mance had gathered to break the Wall.”

“On either side of the giants came a wave of horsemen in boiled leather harness with fire-hardened lances, a mass of running archers, hundreds of foot with spears, slings, clubs, and leathern shields.”

“Beneath that would be boiled leather and a layer of quilting.”

“The point punched through mail and boiled leather.”

“He wasn’t wearing mail or even boiled leather, so it went right in, the same way Needle had when she killed the stableboy at King’s Landing.”

“When he turned, they were all around him; an ill-favored gaggle of leathery old men and smooth-cheeked lads younger than Petyr Pimple, the lot of them clad in roughspun rags, boiled leather, and bits of dead men’s armor.”


A Feast for Crows


“Tarly wore mail and boiled leather, and a breastplate of grey steel.”

“Even in mail and boiled leather, she felt naked.”

“His ringmail was old and rusted, worn over a stained jack of boiled leather.”

“Payne seemed as comfortable in his silence as in his rusted ringmail and boiled leather.”

“They wore mail and boiled leather, with here and there a bit of dinted plate.”

“His armor was a studded brigandine and a cap of boiled leather.”

“Underneath his steel and wool and boiled leather Jaime Lannister was a tapestry of cuts and scabs and bruises.”

“This one still has her maidenhead, I’ll wager, Cersei thought, though by now it’s hard and stiff as boiled leather.”

“’Armed men in mail and boiled leather, and yet the beasts had no fear of them.’”


A Dance with Dragons


“Jon could feel her heat, even through his wool and boiled leather.”

“The rest of him was wrapped in layers of wool and boiled leather and ringmail, his features shadowed by his hooded cloak and a black woolen scarf about the lower half of his face.”

“The other had a stiff roof of boiled leather to keep the wind off.”

“Next came Rattleshirt in clattering armor made of bones and boiled leather, his helm a giant’s skull.”

“Ser Rolly shrugged into his mail and boiled leather.”

“’Boiled leather will suffice,’ said Ser Godry.”

“Both were clad in boiled leather and mottled cloaks of brown and green and black, with branches, leaves, and brush sewn about their heads and shoulders.”

“She pushed her dirk into a northman’s chest through fur and wool and boiled leather.”

“The wildling wore a sleeveless jerkin of boiled leather dotted with bronze studs beneath a worn cloak mottled in shades of green and brown.”

“Obara, rusted nails and boiled leather, with her angry, close-set eyes and rat-brown hair.”

“Before them marched the clansmen from the hills; chiefs and champions astride shaggy garrons, their hirsute fighters trotting beside them, clad in furs and boiled leather and old mail.”

“Even in sleep she wore ringmail under her furs, boiled leather under that, and an old sheepskin under the leather, turned inside out for warmth.”

“Wooden clubs, stone axes, mauls, spears with fire-hardened points, knives of bone and stone and dragonglass, wicker shields, bone armor, boiled leather.”

“Some dressed in fine soft furs, some in boiled leather and oddments of armor, more in wool and sealskins, a few in rags.”

“Across their backs they bore round wicker shields covered with hides and boiled leather, displaying painted images of snakes and spiders, severed heads, bloody hammers, broken skulls, and demons.”

“For all her layers of wool and fur and boiled leather, Asha felt naked standing there.”



If you decide to buy the A Song of Ice and Fire books on the strength of this post, please consider purchasing them from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.

28 Separate Impulses


Haven’t read much this week, but I’m on the verge of finishing Suldrun’s Garden. I have just under 100 pages left; once I get under the 100 page demarcation, the next time I pick up the book I almost always commit to reading to the end in one go.

Naturally, I’m going to read The Green Pearl next. But there’s been an oversight: I thought I had a copy of it already, thought I picked it up in my first rush of enthusiasm for Jack Vance back in – it might’ve been as far back as 2010 or 2011. I was buying any Vance books I could find and a copy of Madouc, the third volume, has been sitting on shelf since then. One of my strange book-hunting peccadilloes is that I won’t usually buy volumes out of order, even if find volume 4 before volume 2; so I assumed that because I had Madouc, I must also have The Green Pearl.

But I don’t have The Green Pearl, so when I finish Suldrun’s Garden there’s going to be a short but tantalizing mercenary time frame wherein I can’t read what I intend to be reading next, and so can read anything while I wait.

These little lacunae are intoxicating, but also daunting and almost always ultimately futile, because they mean my mind will be buffeted by the thousand contrary winds of moment-to-moment reading impulses, like a sad pennant in a strong storm. In the short span of time since I became aware of this impending gap, I’ve had to watch an endless parade of desires to read this book, this book, no this book, wait this book…..

I want to read Imperial by William T. Vollmann, and I want to read his climate change book Carbon Ideologies. Basically I want to start reading Vollmann generally, and refuse to start doing so on any but the grandest scale.

And I want to read The Path to Power by Robert Caro, while simultaneously not feeling obligated to immediately continue with the volumes that follow it.

Desperately I want to read Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley. Finding this book was the golden moment of my recent book-rich excursion to Charlotte, and I really am getting late summer/early fall vibes from this one, so I want to fit it in after Lyonesse and before October when I switch over to a meat, blood, and shadow diet of horror novels.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t, also, want to read those horror novels now: I was so happy to get a copy of The Fisherman by John Langan, and I’ve been slowly accumulating interest in The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. I couldn’t finish Disappearance at Devil’s Rock but A Head Full of Ghosts is still the scariest book I’ve ever read. Also I paid for $15 fucking dollars for a pleasantly soft and worn mass market paperback copy of The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein. That’s not the book’s fault, and I’d do it again, but it was the first thing that came to mind after I remembered I want to read it too.

Silence by Shusaku Endo was one of the best books I read in 2018; I want to read two of Endo’s other works in particular: The Samurai and Deep River.

Listening to the audiobook of The Stand by Stephen King has replanted an interest in post-apocalyptic fiction in me. So I want to return to an indelible classic, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, and also finally check out Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. My interest in the post-apocalypse comes and goes like an eclipse so I feel an especial drive take care of this one while the innate enthusiasm is there.

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kiš. Found this recently in Coventry in a cover so bland and nondescript that it borders on deeply charismatic.

Peru by Gordon Lish. Don’t know much about Lish other than that he was Carver’s (controversial?) editor; but I’ve read only one Carver story (a fight, a baby) so that fact doesn’t move me one way or the other. I did read the opening paragraph of this one and loved it so I’m intrigued.

My Struggle Vol. 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I’d seen the spine of this book many times – it’s a definite regular in second-hand shops, the same way you always saw copies of Mark of Kri in used game stores – before I dug any deeper, read anything about what, precisely, it is. And now that I have, it seems like something I’d be very interested in, but I’d have to pick this one up being demiready to commit to the whole six-book sequence.

Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. I group Lethem with Franzen, Eggers, and Chabon, whether right or wrong – and I suspect it’s wrong, although I also don’t entirely know what this grouping indicates about any of them, or who it’s bad or good for. I just want to read this book at some point.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the Haymarket Books edition with excellent notes and commentary by Phil Gasper. I’ve been dipping into this in an ambient and rambling fashion, and want to do a minor extended study of it.

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson. I’ve actually been reading this one for a bit now, dipping in when I need to be cheered up. There’s something intensely therapeutic, almost supernaturally serene and calming, about these stories. There’s definitely, eventually, going to be a full-length piece on Callahan’s from me because it deserves it.

A-and I still want to read Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima.

And The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.

A Dark Night’s Passing by Naoya Shiga.

Buddha by Osamu Tezuka. Phoenix by same.

Berg by Ann Quin.

I was supposed to read Crime and Punishment last winter. And The Magic Mountain in the spring.

I absolutely have to reread The Tunnel this year. And read Omensetter’s Luck for the first time. I lent it to you, and you read it in that industrious focused way you had, that way I always admired. You read my copy of Anna Karenina in the same way.

Which I also want to read…


Image Credit: The Green Pearl by Jack Vance. Cover art by Thomas Canty.


If you decide to buy any book on the strength of this post, please consider purchasing it from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.

A Visit to the Bird King of Pomperol: From Suldrun’s Garden by Jack Vance


“The days passed; landfalls were made and departures taken. Later Aillas recalled the events of the voyage as a collage of sounds, voices, music; faces and forms; helmets, armor, hats and garments; reeks, perfumes and airs; personalities and postures; ports, piers, anchorages and roadsteads. There were receptions, audiences; banquets and balls.

Aillas could not gauge the effect of their visits. They made, so he felt, a good impression; the integrity and strength of Sir Famet could not be mistaken, and Trewan, for the most part, held his tongue.


King Deuel’s madness was harmless enough; he felt an excessive partiality for birds, and indulged himself with absurd fancies, some of which, by virtue of his power, he was able to make real. He dubbed his ministers with such titles as Lord Goldfinch, Lord Snipe, Lord Peewit, Lord Bobolink, Lord Tanager. His dukes were Duke Bluejay, Duke Curlew, Duke Black Crested Tern, Duke Nightingale. His edicts proscribed the eating of eggs, as a ‘cruel and murderous delinquency, subject to punishment dire and stern.’

Alcantade, the summer palace, had appeared to King Deuel in a dream. Upon awakening he called his architects and ordained the substance of his vision. As might be conjectured, Alcantade was an unusual structure, but nonetheless a place of curious charm: light, fragile, painted in gay colors, with tall roofs at various levels.

Arriving at Alcantade, Sir Famet, Aillas and Trewan discovered King Deuel resting aboard his swan-headed barge, which a dozen young girls clad in white feathers propelled slowly across the lake.

In due course King Deuel stepped ashore: a small sallow man of middle years. He greeted the envoys with cordiality. ‘Welcome, welcome! A pleasure to meet citizens of Troicinet, a land of which I have heard great things. The broad-billed grebe nests along the rocky shores in profusion, and the nuthatch dines to satiety upon the acorns of your splendid oaks. The great Troice horned owls are renowned everywhere for their majesty. I confess to a partiality for birds; they delight me with their grace and courage. But enough of my enthusiasms. What brings you to Alcantade?’

‘Your majesty, we are the envoys of King Granice and we bear his earnest message. When you are so disposed I will speak it out before you.’

‘What better time than now? Steward, bring us refreshment! We will sit at yonder table. Speak now your message.’

Sir Famet looked right and left at the courtiers who stood in polite proximity. ‘Sir, might you not prefer to hear me in private?’

‘Not at all!’ declared King Deuel. ‘At Alcantade we have no secrets. We are like birds in an orchard of ripe fruit, where everyone trills his happiest song. Speak on, Sir Famet.’

‘Very well, sir. I will cite certain events which disquiet King Granice of Troicinet.’

Sir Famet spoke; King Deuel listened carefully, with head cocked to one side. Sir Famet fnished his exposition. ‘These, sir, are the dangers which menace us all – in the not too distant future.’

King Deuel grimaced. ‘Dangers, everywhere dangers! I am beset on all hands, so that often I hardly take rest of nights.’ King Deuel’s voice became nasal and he twitched in his chair as he spoke. ‘Daily I hear a dozen pitiful cries for protection. We guard our entire north borders against the cats, stoats and weasels employed by King Audry. The Godelians are also a menace, even though their roosts lie a hundred leagues distant. They breed and train the cannibal falcons, each a traitor to his kind. To the west is an even more baleful threat, and I allude to the Duke Faude Carfilhiot, who breathes green air. Like the Godelians he hunts with falcons, using bird against bird.’

Sir Famet protested in a strained voice. ‘Still, you need fear no actual assault! Tintzin Fyral stands far beyond the forest!’

King Deuel shrugged. ‘It is admittedly a long day’s flight. But we must face reality. I have named Carfilhiot a dastard; and he dared not retort, for fear of my mighty talons. Now he skulks in his toad-wallow planning the worst kind of mischief.’

Prince Trewan, ignoring Sir Famet’s cold blue side-glance, spoke out briskly: ‘Why not place the strength of those same talons beside those of your fellow birds? Our flock shares your view in regard to Carfilhiot and his ally King Casmir. Together we can rebuff their attacks with great blows of talon and beak!’

‘True. Someday we shall see the formation of just such a mighty force. In the meantime each must contribute where he can. I have cowed the squamous Carfilhiot and defied the Godelians; nor do I spare mercy upon Audry’s bird-killers. You are thereby liberated to aid us against the Ska and sweep them from the sea. Each does his part: I through the air, you on the ocean wave.'”

Image: Air by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1566

My Favorite Chapter of Moby-Dick


Today is Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. Melville, of course, wrote Moby-Dick, which is probably the best single piece of American art ever created, and quite possibly the best novel ever written in English. In the years since I read it, nothing else has quite approached its sweep, its lambent strangeness, the bright white cosmic godlike fingers of its prose, grasping and bringing up the deep-down viscera of reality like fistfuls of fat gold coins.

I remember lots of favorite passages from books, but I don’t remember where I was when I read most of them; I do remember where I was when I read chapter 96 of Moby-Dick, “The Try-Works.” It was in Johnson Hall at KSU, on the upper floor lounge between Johnson and Stopher. The lounge had big windows looking down on the hill that slopes gently towards the edge of campus and Main Street. I wasn’t an Honors student and didn’t live in Johnson, but my then-girlfriend did, and I was waiting for her to get back from something, I don’t remember what. It was dark and when I looked up from Moby-Dick toward the windows, what I mostly saw was the reflection of the brightly-lit room behind me, laid on the glass like a silkscreen: a second, wavering, diaphanous,  not correct counterimage, interposing.

I was laying on the couch, reading Moby-Dick, mostly oblivious to the comings-and-goings of the Honors students in transit to evening plans, friends’ dorms, to their cars for weekends at home, because I was galvanized by Melville’s book in that sheer, full-body way that only happens a handful of times in your life if you’re lucky; it was like something blue and electric and lancelike was pinning me to the couch, right through a secret heart I was only dimly aware I had.

That memory might be incorrect. For sure, I read Moby-Dick in that lounge that night, but it may have been another chapter that moved me. The book is full of incomparable stuff. It’s a briny trove. But the “Try-Works” has always been my favorite chapter and that night has always been my strongest recollection of reading Moby-Dick, and these two figments have been welded together in my head for years, and it’s a memory now whether or not it ever happened exactly so.

Here’s the chapter in full, thanks to Gutenberg:

Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly distinguished by her try-works. She presents the curious anomaly of the most solid masonry joining with oak and hemp in constituting the completed ship. It is as if from the open field a brick-kiln were transported to her planks.

The try-works are planted between the foremast and mainmast, the most roomy part of the deck. The timbers beneath are of a peculiar strength, fitted to sustain the weight of an almost solid mass of brick and mortar, some ten feet by eight square, and five in height. The foundation does not penetrate the deck, but the masonry is firmly secured to the surface by ponderous knees of iron bracing it on all sides, and screwing it down to the timbers. On the flanks it is cased with wood, and at top completely covered by a large, sloping, battened hatchway. Removing this hatch we expose the great try-pots, two in number, and each of several barrels’ capacity. When not in use, they are kept remarkably clean. Sometimes they are polished with soapstone and sand, till they shine within like silver punch-bowls. During the night-watches some cynical old sailors will crawl into them and coil themselves away there for a nap. While employed in polishing them—one man in each pot, side by side—many confidential communications are carried on, over the iron lips. It is a place also for profound mathematical meditation. It was in the left hand try-pot of the Pequod, with the soapstone diligently circling round me, that I was first indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that in geometry all bodies gliding along the cycloid, my soapstone for example, will descend from any point in precisely the same time.

Removing the fire-board from the front of the try-works, the bare masonry of that side is exposed, penetrated by the two iron mouths of the furnaces, directly underneath the pots. These mouths are fitted with heavy doors of iron. The intense heat of the fire is prevented from communicating itself to the deck, by means of a shallow reservoir extending under the entire inclosed surface of the works. By a tunnel inserted at the rear, this reservoir is kept replenished with water as fast as it evaporates. There are no external chimneys; they open direct from the rear wall. And here let us go back for a moment.

It was about nine o’clock at night that the Pequod’s try-works were first started on this present voyage. It belonged to Stubb to oversee the business.

“All ready there? Off hatch, then, and start her. You cook, fire the works.” This was an easy thing, for the carpenter had been thrusting his shavings into the furnace throughout the passage. Here be it said that in a whaling voyage the first fire in the try-works has to be fed for a time with wood. After that no wood is used, except as a means of quick ignition to the staple fuel. In a word, after being tried out, the crisp, shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters, still contains considerable of its unctuous properties. These fritters feed the flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in it for the time. It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.

By midnight the works were in full operation. We were clear from the carcase; sail had been made; the wind was freshening; the wild ocean darkness was intense. But that darkness was licked up by the fierce flames, which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues, and illuminated every lofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire. The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed. So the pitch and sulphur-freighted brigs of the bold Hydriote, Canaris, issuing from their midnight harbors, with broad sheets of flame for sails, bore down upon the Turkish frigates, and folded them in conflagrations.

The hatch, removed from the top of the works, now afforded a wide hearth in front of them. Standing on this were the Tartarean shapes of the pagan harpooneers, always the whale-ship’s stokers. With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces. Opposite the mouth of the works, on the further side of the wide wooden hearth, was the windlass. This served for a sea-sofa. Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

So seemed it to me, as I stood at her helm, and for long hours silently guided the way of this fire-ship on the sea. Wrapped, for that interval, in darkness myself, I but the better saw the redness, the madness, the ghastliness of others. The continual sight of the fiend shapes before me, capering half in smoke and half in fire, these at last begat kindred visions in my soul, so soon as I began to yield to that unaccountable drowsiness which ever would come over me at a midnight helm.

But that night, in particular, a strange (and ever since inexplicable) thing occurred to me. Starting from a brief standing sleep, I was horribly conscious of something fatally wrong. The jaw-bone tiller smote my side, which leaned against it; in my ears was the low hum of sails, just beginning to shake in the wind; I thought my eyes were open; I was half conscious of putting my fingers to the lids and mechanically stretching them still further apart. But, spite of all this, I could see no compass before me to steer by; though it seemed but a minute since I had been watching the card, by the steady binnacle lamp illuminating it. Nothing seemed before me but a jet gloom, now and then made ghastly by flashes of redness. Uppermost was the impression, that whatever swift, rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern. A stark, bewildered feeling, as of death, came over me. Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way, inverted. My God! what is the matter with me? thought I. Lo! in my brief sleep I had turned myself about, and was fronting the ship’s stern, with my back to her prow and the compass. In an instant I faced back, just in time to prevent the vessel from flying up into the wind, and very probably capsizing her. How glad and how grateful the relief from this unnatural hallucination of the night, and the fatal contingency of being brought by the lee!

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp—all others but liars!

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp, nor Rome’s accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity.” ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly;—not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.

But even Solomon, he says, “the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain” (i.e., even while living) “in the congregation of the dead.” Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

If you decide to buy Moby-Dick on the strength of this post, please consider purchasing it from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.

Happy Birthday William T. Vollmann


Today is the birthday of William T. Vollmann, one of the primal demiurges of contemporary American literature.

I haven’t read much at all of Vollmann’s work. Not more than few pages. For a long time he occupied the margins of my awareness, a name that always came up alongside others that I was reading: Pynchon, Gaddis, etc. I’ve been thinking a lot more directly about Vollmann this year. I admire him, or at least I admire my conjured perception of him; admire the things that everybody admires about him; I’d like to hang out with him sometime and talk about The Tale of Genji. I’ve semi-committed myself to reading Imperial this year and if I hadn’t been unsuspectingly pulled into reading the entire Lyonesse trilogy I would be starting it today, as originally planned.

Here are a few selections from the very beginning of Imperial that I liked. I’d bet it’s a more relevant book than ever, in these hellacious times.


Now we arrived at a little shrine to the Virgin and a cross. Someone had died, perhaps a solo [defined by WTV as “A person who attempts to cross the border illegally and alone”]. Juan read the inscription. Yes, he said, the man had drowned trying to cross into America, where everything was wider, cleaner, safer, more expensive, more controlled and more homogeneous. And by this shrine we parked the car and ascended the levee of crumbling mud-dust to gaze at the United States, where of the three of us only I could legally go. It was hot and thorny and dry on the Mexican side with all those American fields appearing so cruelly green like Paradise, because the water belongs to America, as Juan put it. Beside us, a skinny horse browsed in garbage.

Alpha and Beta

In the clipped lingo of the Border Patrol, American sentinels were called Alpha, while their Mexican counterparts were Beta. Accurate as they undoubtedly were in their depiction of the power relation between the two nations, those designations scarcely overwhelmed with their tact. Alpha pursued Beta’s nationals whenever, like Carlos, they tried to breach Northside [the United States]; Alpha’s nationals swaggered around Southside [Mexico] like lords.

The Fence

Yes, they slithered up and down the fence with ominous grace, like the floor-show girl in her summer dress who flew around the catpole at the Miau-Miau Club on the Mexican side, spreading her legs to show each sector of her audience in turn that she wore no underwear; she did pull-ups, flashing her bottom in the red rotisserie-light that turned her into meat; then she somersaulted naked up the pole and descended it upside down, her hands outstretched, gripping it between her thighs solely, until her long hair was sweeping the floor and the men shrieked in triumphant admiration. And the aspirants flowed paley up and down that metal fence in strange and elegant ways which should have elicited equal applause; but they were men who mopped their forehead with bandannas and who stank of swaet which is our humanity; maybe they’d earn a hundred dollars somewhere before Border Patrol caught them. They became bodies.

Review: Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch 1

I bought a copy of Naked Lunch at the most excellent Book Lady in Charlotte, NC, and read it over the course of a few days.

It was sweltering mad hot as I read Naked Lunch; the nightmare of Ohio’s high midwestern summer spun itself out in days of bright, flat light and soaked air, the white sun unwinking in skies cloud-washed and bleared, like half-finished Renaissance paintings; stupid, cruel, brutal days that came one after another, seemingly endlessly, like a fractal growing out…

Naked Lunch, Burroughs says, is not a novel, which is a helpful fib. The book definitely shambles into view with a much different physiognomy than your average novel. A series of episodes are related, concerning a number of umbrageous characters; episodes sometimes stand in coherent or incoherent isolation, sometimes continue stories that have begun elsewhere in the book, and/or elaborate on ideas or concepts introduced before or after in the text.

The plot with which Naked Lunch begins and ends is the narrative of an addict named Lee as he tries to escape a city full of cops, agents, and other squares. The Lee story quickly fractures beyond repair as episodes begin digressing, snaking in characters, locations, and scenes with no direct connection to Lee’s story other than being informed by the same controlling aesthetic and its metaphors, preoccupations, concerns.

None of this is helpful, none of it gives you the slightest idea what Naked Lunch really is; some excerpts, then. Burroughs intended Naked Lunch to be readable in any order you choose: front to back, back to front, scattershot at random. “You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point…I have written many prefaces,” he writes near the end of the book; and then later, even nearer the end:

The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement. This book spill off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and streets noises, farts and riot yips and the slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos and screams plain pathic, copulating cats and outraged squawk of the displaced bullhead, prophetic mutterings of brujo in nutmeg trance, snapping necks and screaming mandrakes, sigh of orgasm, heroin silent as dawn in the thirsty cells, Radio Cairo screaming like a berserk tobacco auction, and flutes of Ramadan fanning the sick junky like a gentle lush worker in the grey subway dawn feeling with delicate fingers for the green folding crackle…

Burroughs’s prose style: elastic, omnivorous, digestive, panglossal, striking out with a thousand tongues, slipping into different registers at a highwire clip.

Look at that dragontail first sentence, which:

1) Starts with a biblical tang (“The Word”) that 

2) segues into an almost-affectless instructional tone to talk about the book it is a part of (“divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken”) with just a hint of offness in its grammar (“be all in one piece,” “the pieces can be had in any order”), then 

3) flows into a sonic near-free association (“back and forth in and out fore and aft”) before

4) deflating itself with the slangy, lewd, lowbrow (and also still with the torqued grammar) simile of “an innaresting sex arrangement.”

(Note: Burroughs is also capable of straightforward beauty too, plain accessible great writing: “heroin silent as dawn in the thirsty cells” is frightening, coldly gorgeous; it wouldn’t be out of place in a story from Jesus’ Son)

Naked Lunch is not really a ‘drug book.’ 

But it’s also the ultimate drug book. Characters in it do heroin and cocaine et al., but Naked Lunch shows us drugs and highs that transcend even the degradation of the hardest of ‘real’ drugs; and everybody is an addict of something. Early on there is the case of Bradley the Buyer, a narc so anonymous-grey he can buy from any pusher without suspicion; but eventually Bradley develops strange addictions of his own:

Well the Buyer comes to look more and more like a junky. He can’t drink. He can’t get it up. His teeth fall out. (Like pregnant women lose their teeth feeding the stranger, junkies lose their yellow fangs feeding the monkey.) He is all the time sucking on a candy bar. Baby Ruths he digs special. “It really disgust you to see the Buyer sucking on them candy bars so nasty,” a cop says.

The Buyer takes on an ominous grey-green color. Fact is his body is making its own junk or equivalent. The Buyer has a steady connection. A Man Within, you might say. Or so he thinks. “I’ll just set in my room,” he says. “Fuck ‘em all. Squares on both sides. I am the only complete man in the industry.”

But a yen comes on him like a great black wind through the bones. So the Buyer hunts up a young junky and gives him a paper to make it.

“Oh all right,” the boy says. “So what you want to make?”

“I just want to rub against you and get fixed.”

“Ugh…well all right…But why cancha just get physical like a human?”

Later the boy is sitting in a Waldorf with two colleagues dunking pound cake. “Most distasteful thing I ever stand still for,” he says. “Some way he make himself all soft like a blob of jelly and surround me so nasty. Then he gets wet all over like with green slime. So I guess he come to some kinda awful climax…I come near wigging with that green stuff all over me, and he stink like a rotten old cantaloupe.”

Characters like Bradley are always transforming, mutating, growing orifices, emitting strange liquids in response to their addictions and secret needs – like fucked up renditions of myths, corrupted fables warning against corrupting yourself,  against submitting to the Control that bloods the heart of any addiction big or small.

The plot, the real plot of Naked Lunch is a catalog of horrors. Its aesthetic payload detonates and opens up collapsed shafts in our hearts, ones we’d hoped to keep closed, forgotten or at least ignored. Naked Lunch is a spelunking expedition into depravity and unhappiness; the heightened, hellish scenes of disgusting, demeaning, dehumanizing acts are exaggerations, but still proof of the shuddering dereliction inherent in our sick human souls as we progress through the days, succumbing to addictions more or less quotidian.

Drug addiction is, of course, its own separate thing, an illness onto itself. In some of the ancillary material appended to the text Burroughs makes that clear. But the junky in Naked Lunch is also an everyman, hearkening to the demands of his inexplicable sickness like we all do. I don’t know why I’ll spend an evening paralyzed on the couch, rereading articles I’ve already read on my phone, for hours – but I do it anyway.

Burroughs also highlights the very troubling fact that, when it comes to our secret susceptibility to Control, pleasure and pain are really the same thing.

“I deplore brutality,” [Doctor Benway] said. “It’s not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skillfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt. A few rules or rather guiding principles are to be borne in mind. The subject must not realize that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct.”

See Proverbs for Paranoids 3: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” See your own sick heart.

So the ugliness on display is not a shocky, shlocky thing in Naked Lunch. It’s central metaphor, both narrative and textual, for our spiritual sickness. Here’s the central image of a heroin addict Burroughs refers to again and again:

I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction. I never cleaned or dusted the room. Empty ampule boxes and garbage piled to the ceiling. Light and water long since turned off for non-payment. I did absolutely nothing. I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours. I was only roused to action when the hourglass of junk ran out. If a friend came to visit – and they rarely did since who or what was left to visit – I sat there not caring that he had entered my field of vision – a grey screen always blanker and fainter – and not caring when he walked out of it. If he had died on the spot I would have sat there looking at my shoe waiting to go through his pockets. Wouldn’t you?

Yes, you would.

Naked Lunch is about putting things in front of you. Like all great books, it makes you see – which sounds facile but is both true and profound. The ugliness in the plot of Naked Lunch is a metaphor, but its aesthetic ugliness is a drill, the ice pick for breaking up our own frozen seas, a scourge for finding better ways, a disruption pattern from the last free radio tower.

In no direct way is Naked Lunch a depiction of any hopeful aspect of life or reality, but its total commitment to drilling deep, to being unafraid of ugliness in what it says or how it says it, is vital and hopeful. It’s plausible – likely – possibly certain – in the world we live in, to unremember that life can be more than a series of nonconsequential transactions; it’s even easier to forget that this unremembering is, itself, an addiction.

Naked Lunch, bedraggled subway sage, teaches that the only escape from the bullshit is to jump right at it and show expose it, to impale it on the end of a fork. “The way OUT is the way IN…” As always, Art is the only eyes we’ll ever have.


A note on the text: I read the “Restored Text” of Naked Lunch, which purports to make many textual corrections and also includes a pretty sizable annex of outtakes and other material. I read the three postscripts but none of the outtakes; I generally want to hew as close as possible to the text as originally released unless there are obvious reasons why that original text is not optimal.

If you decide to buy Naked Lunch on the strength of this review, please consider purchasing it from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.

Mermaids: From Suldrun’s Garden

“She moved down through the garden. Just so must a dryad feel, thought Suldrun; just so must it move, in just such a hush, with no sound but the sigh of the wind in the leaves.

She halted in the shade of the solitary old lime tree, then continued down to the beach to see what the waves had brought in. When the wind blew from the southwest, as was often the case, the currents swung around the headland and curled into her little cove, bringing all manner of stuff to the beach until the next high tide, when the same current lifted the articles and took them away once more. Today the beach was clean. Suldrun ran back and forth, skirting the surf as it moved along the coarse sand. She halted to scrutinize a rock fifty yards out under the headland, where she once had discovered a pair of young mermaids. They had seen her and called out, but they used a slow strange language Suldrun could not understand. Their olive-green hair hung about their pale shoulders; their lips and the nipples of their breasts were also pale green. One waved and Suldrun saw the webbing between her fingers. Both turned and looked offshore to where a bearded merman reared from the waves. He called out in a hoarse windy voice; the mermaids slipped from the rocks and disappeared.”

– from Suldrun’s Garden, by Jack Vance