Sleep When I’m Dead: Gary Indiana Might Be Out of Print, But He’s Still Going Strong

Gary Indiana. (Courtesy Patrick McMullan)

Gary Indiana. (Courtesy Patrick McMullan)

On a recent Friday afternoon, I was sitting with Gary Indiana in the empty East Village sports bar around the corner from the apartment he’s lived in for about 35 years. I smiled politely while he told me that he “didn’t get fucked in the ass until age 19.” The Counting Crows were on the radio, gently mocking the whole exchange with a ludicrous cover of “Friend of the Devil.” I thought he looked imposing sitting there sipping coffee. His actual physical stature was revealed only when he got up from the table to light the first in a long chain of Camel Filters. He is around 5-foot-5 with a compact, almost frail frame. He is, I think, one of the most woefully under appreciated writers of the last 30 years. I really expected him to be bigger.

Mr. Indiana—a novelist, playwright, critic, essayist and filmmaker, among other things—has inspired intermittent bursts of interest from the literary establishment. His novels—seven of them—are too stylized or too erudite or just too weird to ever fully break free of the so-called “transgressive” ghetto. Most of his books are out of print. He’s regularly given assignments from reputable publications, but a sizable portion of his criticism is uncollected.

His presence in the 2014 Whitney Biennial is unexpected because he’d more or less ducked out of the art world since quitting his job as the Village Voice’s chief art critic in 1987. He did so with a multi-part series explaining why he was leaving the job, which by all appearances was a great, powerful position; the Voice was the only other paper in the city other than The New York Times that reviewed gallery exhibitions while they were still on view, and Mr. Indiana found himself feared and beloved in equal measure. But his public entry as a visual artist had been quiet. There was one exhibition at the now shuttered American Fine Arts that came and went in 2002, and last year a series of videos presented at Participant Inc. He was only an art critic for less than three years anyway, but his reputation as a toxic downtown savant became so entrenched that people in 2014 still expect that Mr. Indiana will offer a strenuous denouncement of the Whitney Biennial in print, rather than serve as an artist in the show.

His contribution is an LED screen that projects a video he made of the Presidio Modelo, a prison on the Isla de la Juventud off the coast of Cuba. Constructed between 1926-28, and closed for good in 1967, it was the home of many a political prisoner–including, at one point, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul–and is perhaps the most literal and perfect example of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon design in history. The footage of the decaying prison, with its rotted cells all arranged in a circle around an ominous guard tower, is spliced with excerpts from A Touch of Evil, The Shanghai Gesture (from which Mr. Indiana’s most recent novel takes its name) and images of swimming jellyfish. The original intent was to construct a small aquarium and have a live jellyfish in the museum, but it turns out jellyfish are extremely volatile in captivity. As Anthony Elms, the Biennial curator who invited Mr. Indiana to participate in the show, told me, “You want to do what the artist wants, but you don’t want to go down in the books as the jellyfish killer.” Included alongside the video is a series of photographs of Cuban men in various states of undress. The jellyfish are Mr. Indiana’s metaphor for the surveillance state, “an organism with no brain and a thousand poisonous tentacles collecting what you could call data.” The photographs include a selection of “five men who have fucked me in the last year,” as he put it to me. In a bit of text included with the photographs, he writes, “When a new boyfriend looks at me, when I look at him, we’re both looking past each other at a camera, trying to guess if someone’s watching both of us.”

Mr. Indiana has been going to Cuba for 17 years, and now spends about four months out of the year there. He has a boyfriend on the island that he’s trying to marry through the Swedish embassy, but it’s a logistical nightmare. He made the film, though, for Werner Schroeter, the German film director, who died in 2010. They met at a bar in Munich when Mr. Indiana spotted Schroeter from across the room, and feeling sufficiently tipsy decided to introduce himself. He was, in fact, tipsy enough to fall onto the table, unleashing its contents onto the floor, at which point, rolling around among the spilled drinks, Mr. Indiana looked up and said, “You’re Werner Schroeter.” He responded, “Well, I was.” As Mr. Indiana said Schroeter was “the great love of my life.”

 

He was born Gary Hoisington in Derry, N.H., in 1950. His mother was the town clerk. His father was the “part owner of a lumber company” and, Mr. Indiana added grimly, “a gambler.” He has two brothers, one of which he barely knows, the other, he said, flew Air Force Two through three presidential administrations. Different paths. Mr. Indiana left home at 16 and attended the University of California, Berkeley. He wanted to become a revolutionary. Instead he moved to Boston for a brief spat, then Los Angeles, where he worked as a paralegal in Watts by day and sold popcorn at a movie theater at night. On the side, he dated a pornography director and wrote scripts to help out on set.

It was around this time that he changed his name to Indiana. He had written an essay for an obscure film journal but was worried about “scandalizing” his parents. He hates the name he came up with, an artifact of the “immense naïveté” of a kid from the backwoods of Southern New Hampshire. “I had to take so much shit over the years, like ‘is that really your name?’ Well. It is now.”

In L.A,. he wrecked his car and he wasn’t about to take the bus to work (“Sorry, I ain’t gonna do it”), so after a stop in Tucson, in 1978 he moved to New York. He didn’t have any money at the time. “I figured out a way to survive by helping rich people pretend they were making a movie, helping rich people pretend they were writing a film score, helping rich people become one thing or another. I helped a lot of pretenders like that. There’s always people pretending.”

He’d stage performances at the Mudd Club, or in the backyard of his friend Bill Rice’s building on East 3rd Street. His friend Jeff Weinstein was promoted from food critic to arts editor at the Village Voice and offered him the art critic job. He turned it down more than once before he finally relented.

There’s a phrase scribbled in his handwriting in his notes for a planned review that sums up the tone of the column: “be bitchy.” He was both repulsed and fascinated by what artist Barbara Kruger, a longtime friend of Mr. Indiana’s, explained to me as “the crazy complexity of this insane wacky world we live in. And when I say ‘world,’ I’m talking about the world, not just some dumb art thing. I’m talking about the heady ironies of having to wake up everyday.” The column, which is all but unavailable outside of the Fales Library at New York University, has a lot in common with a diary. Often times it’s just about a gay, thirty-something man living in Lower Manhattan and trying to quit smoking.

No art writer today is quite so unforgiving. A Warhol Mao was reminiscent “of a gold American Express card being brandished at Zabar’s to pay for three bagels.” One review of a Julian Schnabel show was just a series of quotes culled from fashion magazines about Mr. Schnabel’s house and clothes, interspersed with reports of terrorist attacks and Stockholm Syndrome. It concludes with the Webster’s definition of angst (“a feeling of anxiety, apprehension or insecurity”). One week, he simply listed the names of a few shows that were on view in the last paragraph and spent the rest of the time discussing the political right’s blanket suppression of the AIDS epidemic, which was killing a lot of his friends. But better still was when his own psychological torment commingled with his subject: “It looks like a lot,” he wrote of the art world in 1985, “and there are plenty of interesting things, but what’s mainly going on is the endless recycling of 30 proper names.” His writing remains filled with so much venomous aggression that it is almost easier to ignore the flood of compassion bubbling up beneath it. Somehow he landed every piece, and he still does.

“It seems like the three most brilliant critics writing in America today are James Wood, Jim Wolcott and Gary,” Christian Lorentzen, an editor at the London Review of Books who has published Mr. Indiana, told me. “James Wood represents classical sensibility; Wolcott is an idiosyncratic autodidact; and Gary is the radical one. And there’s no one else like that. Gary might be the first to tell you that being a critic is one of his least talents.”

 

He began his first novel, Horse Crazy, at the Voice. Of all of Mr. Indiana’s works that remain officially unavailable to the public, Horse Crazy is the biggest loss. It should be handed out to any inchoate New Yorker who moves below 14th Street or I suppose Bushwick the moment they get off the subway. In certain ways, it’s a historical relic of a time when the streets of Lower Manhattan were mostly empty and the clock on the Carl Fischer building in Astor Place still worked, albeit deficiently. Mr. Indiana’s narrator is a gay art critic with a romantic obsession with Gregory, a sociopathic photographer and a recovering heroin addict who just might not actually be in recovery. The dread and paranoia of the Reagan era and the Culture Wars is reflected in the fact that the narrator and Gregory never seem to consummate their relationship. In one brilliant passage, Mr. Indiana’s nameless narrator, who is like a slightly more sinister version of the real Mr. Indiana, considers the statistical possibility of having contracted AIDS based on the incubation periods of his former lovers:

Until now Mike has been the only person I know I’ve slept with who later died from it and I used to think that because I recovered from the typhoid shot, which I got after I slept with him, that meant I hadn’t caught it from him, and I also rationalized that maybe Mike caught it in California or Hawaii and then gave it to Perkins when he moved back to New York, in which case Perkins’ incubation period may have only been a year or two, or rather four years, I keep getting dates mixed up, I went to Thailand in ’81 and I think I’d already stopped sleeping with Paul, so if I didn’t get it from Mike possibly I didn’t get it from Paul either.

There’s a sense reading the book that the whole world was confined between 14th Street and Worth and that it was going to end very soon. “Fortune handed me a boyfriend who was a junky,” Mr. Indiana told me.

Grove Press published Horse Crazy in 1989 and sent Mr. Indiana on tour with Dennis Cooper, who was promoting his novel Closer. Mr. Cooper would simply read from his book. Mr. Indiana would put on a wig and perform. Mr. Indiana, Mr. Cooper told me, “kept getting stopped by airport security because of this giant dildo.”

Ira Silverberg, Grove’s publicist at the time who helped organize the tour, explained this for me. “Dennis and Gary were traveling together. Dennis called me and said, ‘This is beginning to be a problem traveling with him. Every time we travel together, and he passes through the x-ray, they find his dildo and make him take it out.’ And it was this huge black dildo. I’m sure there was pride in the color and size of it.”

Mr. Silverberg went on to publish Mr. Indiana’s Rent Boy for the launch of his imprint at the defunct U.S. arm of Serpent’s Tail, called High Risk Books, which also published Mr. Indiana’s essay collection, Let It Bleed, and one more novel—Gone Tomorrow, partly based on Mr. Indiana’s experience as a bit player in European art house movies. Mr. Indiana developed something of a following. His novel Resentment set in motion his trilogy of books about murder and American decline. He began it one day by imagining that resentment was the only existing emotion, and tried thinking about the things he resented about his brother. He quickly filled a whole notebook.

The next book in the trilogy, Three Month Fever, about Andrew Cunanan, the man famous for killing Gianni Versace, was published by HarperCollins in 1998. He received a $250,000 advance. Three Month Fever is the pinnacle of a career spent examining the narcissism of a country that hides its insecurities under the false pretense of God’s blessing. The book was confusingly marketed by HarperCollins as nonfiction. Mr. Indiana fabricates freely, getting into the head of Andrew Cunanan, imagining his dinner conversation and his dreams. Calling Three Month Fever nonfiction is a little like calling Robert Coover’s The Public Burning a work of investigative reporting. The book assumes that anyone is capable of murder, under the right circumstances, and that Cunanan simply snapped one day, went on a killing spree across America that included a few former boyfriends, culminating in the random and mostly unremarkable murder of Versace. He became a media icon. The book is a heavily reported “pastiche,” as Mr. Indiana labeled it, about Cunanan’s life before and during the killings. But a better way to think of it is as a modern re-telling of 120 Days of Sodom. After Cunanan bursts open the skull of his first victim with a hammer, he says to his soon-to-be second victim, Why don’t you love me, why why why don’t you love me.

 

Three Month Fever should have been Mr. Indiana’s popular breakthrough. It wasn’t unsuccessful, but critics didn’t exactly know what to make of it. The Times dismissed it in about 200 words, concluding that he should have focused more on the “media cycle of irresponsible titillation.” Others lumped it in with another book about Cunanan, Maureen Orth’s Vulgar Favors, a misguided attempt at the true crime genre that Mr. Indiana was deliberately satirizing.

By this time, High Risk Books had closed, and Mr. Indiana’s earlier work started to disappear. So-called midlist writers like Mr. Indiana—that is, ones who aren’t bestsellers—often fall out of print without a familial relationship with a publisher. It’s partly a systemic problem stemming from the Supreme Court case Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which prevented companies from doing write-downs on warehouse inventory if the inventory was not being sold. Before the days of e-books, this led to a great deal of remaindering.

“There’s a more general art politic problem,” Lynne Tillman told me. “Gary’s work is unusual. It’s very smart and biting. It takes no prisoners. And he doesn’t operate through the normal channels. If The New York Times were publishing his essays, then everyone would be reading them. I once had the experience of writing an article for The Times’ City section and was told by the editor it went over the head of the average Times reader. There’s a repetition in culture: Call it the mainstream. The pundits and reviewers, they’re all saying the same things. Sadly, it’s not unusual to go out of print.”

Chris Kraus, the author of I Love Dick and an editor at the small press Semiotext(e), which is incidentally also featured in the Whitney Biennial, is hoping to re-release work by Mr. Indiana. She said there simply isn’t space in the mainstream for people like him. “Writers that work in a purely literary tradition that used to be read by the mainstream are now mostly read by the art world,” she said.

Mr. Indiana didn’t exactly help himself by failing to stick with an agent. Mr. Silverberg said, “He went through agents the way I go through T-shirts.” He would burn bridges, maybe the wrong bridges.

“I remember a Bomb magazine benefit,” said Mr. Silverberg. “Eric Goode’s place on the corner of Bowery. Gary was sitting in a booth with [Bomb’s publisher] Betsy Sussler, if not also with Lynne Tillman. And Gary in a somewhat psychotic fashion proceeded to ball me out. He told me that I was a shit, that I was not there for him, that I only care about other people, that I fucked him over. Which of course really hurt. I had been there for him.” They haven’t spoken since that night. Asked about this, Mr. Indiana told me, “Listen, Ira’s not the devil, OK? We had a little fracas about 20 years ago and he’s someone who really holds a grudge.”

Mr. Indiana, for better or worse—better usually for his audience, whoever that may be, perhaps worse for him—always said what was on his mind.

“He does kind of have a little chip on his shoulder,” Richard Hell, one of his admirers, told me. “Because he’s had to fight his way up.”

 

In the sports bar, he’d had another cigarette and told me about the memoir he’s trying finish. Half of it takes place in Cuba and the other half is made up of flashbacks. There isn’t much about New York, he said. I asked him, after his stint of being so harshly critical to other artists, if he feels vulnerable being an artist in the Whitney Biennial.

“OK, I mean, if I were going to feel vulnerable, it wouldn’t be vulnerable by what some art critic writes,” he said. “I don’t give a shit. No I don’t feel vulnerable at all. In fact, that’s kind of one of the very few perks of getting old. I’m totally indifferent to what people think. I don’t feel vulnerable in any way about anything I do anymore. I feel vulnerable–like I’m going to turn 64 this year. I’ve been smoking since I was practically two years old. I live in a six-floor walk-up and I can really feel that now. That’s what I feel vulnerable about. Friends dying of cancer. The stuff we do, even though we love it and even though it’s important to us, it doesn’t matter in the end to anything. Time erases everything.”

mmiller@observer.com

Sleep When I’m Dead: Gary Indiana Might Be Out of Print, But He’s Still Going Strong