Shoplift Lit: You Are What You Steal

So I’m in this car with Dennis Hopper and Sean Penn, two generations of Hollywood Bad Boys. Hopper’s driving, Penn’s in the back. This is maybe a dozen years ago when Sean was still with Madonna, and Hopper had just come off his comeback succès de scandale as the raving psycho in Blue Velvet . I was hanging out with Hopper for a Vanity Fair piece, and Sean was hanging out with Dennis because they’d bonded over being Bad.

Anyway, we’re cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard, I think, heading for the Paramount lot, when the subject of Charles Bukowski comes up.

See, Sean and Dennis had this whole tangled history with the Bukowski film project Barfly . As I recall it, Hopper was dying to direct the film, and Sean was dying to star in it as the Bukowski figure, the Bad-Boy, alcoholic, skid-row poet and novelist, but there was a big hitch: Barbet Schroeder had bought the rights from Bukowski to produce the film, and he wanted Sean Penn to star, but he didn’t want Hopper to direct. So he was thinking of directing it himself, but Sean was being loyal to his buddy Den and wasn’t going to do the picture unless Den directed. But then Den lost it one night and yelled at Barbet Schroeder, “You direct? You can’t fuckin’ direct traffic , man.” Or something like that; the details are a little hazy, but you get the general idea. As it ended up, Schroeder went ahead and did Barfly with Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, and it was way terrible–a lot of clichéd alcoholic romanticism (although Schroeder completely redeemed himself in my eyes with the brilliant Reversal of Fortune ). It’s one of those movies where Mickey Rourke wanders around looking like he’s got his smirk surgically implanted, completely obliterating the one genuinely charming aspect of Bukowski’s persona: the good-natured self-deprecation beneath the boozy braggadocio.

But in any case what I remember most about the car ride with Sean and Den was this quiet moment after they told me the “You can’t direct traffic” story. This moment when Penn quietly and reverentially murmured, “Bukowski, man.” And Hopper quietly and reverentially replied, “Yeah, Bukowski, man.”

Bukowski, man, or rather Bukowski Man : what stayed with me was not just the tone in which the phrase “Bukowski, man” was uttered, but the idea that there was a kind of entity, Bukowski Man, sort of like our anthropological forebears Peking Man or Piltdown Man, almost a special subspecies of human.

You’ve probably run into Bukowski Man in one form or another. He’s like, you know, a rebel, he’s not into conventional literature, man. Because it doesn’t tell the truth. The man can’t handle The Truth, which of course is all about (and only about) getting drunk and pissing and shitting and puking and fucking and passing out, not necessarily in that order, sometimes virtually simultaneously.

What else do we know about Bukowski Man? He’s probably a suburban white boy who’s never been more down and out than a collect call to his parents. Usually there’s a surfboard or a skateboard or a Frisbee involved. His dog wears a red bandanna around its neck. Oh, and yes, he’s likely to be a shoplifter.

Which brings me to the real subject of this column: Shoplifting Lit. It was a concept that first began to dawn on me a couple of years ago when I was thinking of writing something about the killer B’s: Bukowski and William Burroughs and the notion of Bukowski Man (who often “graduates” to believing that the other big B, Burroughs, is the B-all and end-all of literature).

But when I called up a Barnes & Noble to see if they had a couple of Bukowski titles I was looking for, one of the clerks told me that in order to check I’d have to call one of the cashiers, because all of the Bukowskis had been removed from the open shelves and were kept on a shelf behind the cashier’s desks–out of reach, in other words, of shoplifters.

And guess what? So were all the Burroughs. And then a couple of months ago I wanted to reread The Information , the scabrous Martin Amis comedy of the writing life, but when I went to that same Barnes & Noble Union Square superstore I found that Amis, too, was quarantined with the cashiers. Then a few weeks ago I was looking for a couple of Raymond Chandler novels I wanted to give to my friends Sarah and Nicole. Sarah’s a private investigator who likes Chandler but hadn’t yet read Trouble Is My Business , the terrific collection of his novella-length fictions, including “Red Wind,” which opens with the famous line about the (literally) edgy effect of the Santa Ana wind on the uneasy psyches of the City of Angels. “On nights like that … meek little wives feel the edge of the curving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”

And Nicole hadn’t read The Long Goodbye , which is my favorite, Chandler’s last and best novel. But when I got to the C’s in the vast fiction and literature shelves on the fourth floor of the Union Square store, where the Chandlers should have been, there was a little glass bookend with a neatly typed sign that said: “Please ask at the first-floor registers for titles by Raymond Chandler.” Then a week or so ago I read a James Wolcott Vanity Fair column on Jack Kerouac in which he reports he had to go to the Shoplift Lit section of the same store to find On the Road . And it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to try to find out just who else was on the Barnes & Noble Five-Finger-Discount Best Seller List, the Shoplift Lit Wall of Fame, or Shame, depending on your point of view. If I could get that list, then perhaps an analysis of it would reveal something about culture and anti-culture, about noble and sleazy visions of liberation, about the evolving tastes of Bukowski Man.

I think what got me into it was my initial mixture of delight and mistrust at finding an artist like Chandler on the same list as Bukowski, delight that people still care about Chandler, distrust that it’s for all the wrong Bukowski Man reasons. Not that I think Bukowski is without talent, although I think his poorly read fans get him completely wrong: What makes him marginally interesting as a writer is not the shit, piss and misogyny they think is so daring, but some pure storytelling and story-shaping talent–along with the self-deprecation that Bukowski Man is too self-absorbed to get.

I guess maybe I can see how some Bukowski fans could be misled by Chandler’s hard-boiled reputation, or the wisecracking wise guy persona Humphrey Bogart made famous in the film of The Big Sleep . But it’s typical of Bukowski Man’s pathetic literalness, his ignorant nihilism: They can make out the words, but they can’t read . If you really read Chandler, you know that beneath the tough-guy facade the author is an esthete, a genuinely cerebral writer. And beneath the hard-boiled surface his private eye Philip Marlowe is a romantic visionary with a code of honor that is genuinely antinomian and subversive, but one which would look with contempt and disdain upon the petty, small-time, sleazy kind of transgression shoplifting represents. A code of honor that reflects the wisdom in the Bob Dylan line about would-be outlaws: “When you live outside the law you must be honest.”

Getting the list proved to be easier than I thought. I told a helpful clerk at the Union Square store that I’d heard Bukowski was on a special shelf for most-shoplifted writers and asked him who else was there. He quickly reeled them off in alphabetical order. In addition to Bukowski there were:

Martin Amis

Paul Auster

Georges Bataille

William Burroughs

Italo Calvino

Raymond Chandler

Michel Foucault

Dashiell Hammett

Jack Kerouac

Jeanette Winterson.

What do we make of this list? To me the big surprise was the two Frenchies. But in a way it shouldn’t have been a surprise. They’re what Bukowski Man reads when he goes to N.Y.U. or when he slings Frisbees in Washington Square with N.Y.U. types. Bataille and Foucault: darlings of that espresso-bongo downtown deconstructionist sensibility. Foucault, a pessimistic post-Nietzschean, believing all is power, would probably think that a petty transgression like shoplifting was a blow against the internal hegemony of the power structure–just as he somehow may have convinced himself that not telling his lovers he was H.I.V.-positive was a truly liberating act.

And Bataille– Story of the Eye is, like, so surreal, man! It’s porno but it’s like pomo porno, so, to Bukowski Man, the rape and mutilation stuff is, you know, way cool.

So you could say that petty and debased ideas of liberation could explain the presence of Bukowski, Burroughs, Kerouac, Bataille and Foucault on the list. And ignorant misreading of Chandler and Hammett, even Amis, might explain their appeal to petty-theft types. But what about Calvino? It is true that when I was in college there were certain unscrupulous guys (present company excepted, of course) who felt that reading Calvino aloud to Sarah Lawrence women was, well, a short cut to intimacy, to demonstrating what a sensitive poetic soul one was. So there’s that. Perhaps a similar desperate romanticism can account for shoplifters’ lust for Ms. Winterson and Mr. Auster.

Still, with some exceptions, it’s a fairly insipid list, one that does the literary taste of New York shoplifters no particular credit. The only two authors on the list I could imagine wanting to shoplift were Chandler and Hammett (the latter mainly for Red Harvest ). But it did set me thinking. I’m morally opposed to shoplifting books (it’s not the same as a hungry person lifting some food for his starving family). Bookstores are shrines to me, and I suspect most of those who shoplift books are not broke but just lazy and stupid slackers. Still, what if we think of a shoplifting list not as a literary guide to theft, but as a measure of most desperately wanted books, books for which one has a near criminal passion, books for which you’d risk arrest?

What books would make my list? I decided not to think about it in the abstract but to head down to the Union Square Barnes & Noble, to cruise the fourth-floor fiction and literature shelves and see just what I’d really crave, what books I’d hypothetically risk arrest to read. This is not, I should emphasize, a comprehensive list of my all-time-favorite works of literature (nor should it be construed in any way as a recommendation to lift them–as Detective Andy Sipowicz says in the taxi cab tapes, try that and “I will find you.”) It’s just a record of what I saw there and what I would most crave if I somehow became homeless and bookless.

So here it is, in alphabetical order:

Persuasion , Jane Austen. Her most romantic and most real-world novel. I’ve argued in this space that Persuasion people are a different breed from other Austen-ites, and I’m proud to count myself as one of them.

The Sot-Weed Factor , John Barth. By far his best. Endless wickedly comic reading pleasure in mock-historical-memoir form.

Labyrinths , Jorge Luis Borges. I know there are newer translations, but I love the New Directions paperback in which I first discovered Borges. The killer opening lineup of stories–”Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”–make the world irrevocably strange.

The Heart of a Dog , or The Master and Margarita , Mikhail Bulgakov. I can’t decide because I can’t do without either of them.

The Wapshot Scandal , John Cheever. It’s that or Bullet Park , but I think Scandal , because there was a moment in my youth when reading it suddenly initiated me into a deeper, more complex kind of sadness.

Bleak House , Charles Dickens. Not merely a novel–a universe, whose furthest reaches are yet to be fully explored, as John Sutherland demonstrates in his brilliant new collection of essays, Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? .

Libra , Don Delillo. Still his best, I think. The secret language of America in the inner monologue of Lee Harvey Oswald.

The Dick Gibson Show , Stanley Elkin. The 100-page middle section–the all-night supranatural possession of Dick Gibson’s talk show by Dr. Behr-Bleibtreau–is one of the great tour de force comic performances in recent American literature.

Invisible Man , Ralph Ellison. Coming upon this in high school was a transformative experience, as it has been every time I’ve reread it.

The Heart of the Matter , Graham Greene. A classic of spiritualized self-pity and bitter no-hope romanticism of the sort I sometimes need to wallow in.

Pale Fire , Vladimir Nabokov. I’ve written four columns so far on the narrator question alone (And that just begins to scratch the surface, and Brian Boyd is coming out with a whole book on it.) The great American-Russian novel.

The Dog of the South , Charles Portis. I’ve written almost as many columns about this unbelievably brilliant comic masterpiece.

The Crying of Lot 49 , Thomas Pynchon. Still his best, I think, the classic vision of American paranoia as high art.

Shadows on the Hudson , Isaac Bashevis Singer. Reading it was an electrifying experience. See my three-part serialized essay on this originally serialized novel of post-Holocaust theodicy (March 23, 1998; March 30, 1998; April 6, 1998).

Tristram Shandy , Laurence Sterne. The 18th-century comic anti-novel that both anticipates and refutes all postmodernism.

Dog Soldiers , Robert Stone. More icily crystalline a reflection of male self-destructiveness than anything Hemingway could imagine, but still somehow genuinely stirring.

The Eustace Diamonds , Anthony Trollope. An incredibly riveting 900-page read about a daring woman and the cruel web that enmeshes her.

The Custom of the Country , Edith Wharton. A thrilling, racy book that’s more raw and bitter than most of her novels, just as Undine Spragg is more raw and bitter than most of her heroines.

Remember, this is a guide for buying, not shoplifting, a list of theoretically criminal passions. Every one of them is worth every last cent you have to spend.