to be an artist was above all else to be someone... who submitted himself to mysterious, unpredictable messages... (that) committed you in an imperious and categorical manner, without leaving the slightest possibility of escape...
-Michel Houellebecq. The Map and the Territory
The archaeologists, in pith helmets and multi-pocketed khaki shorts, stood around the dig, decrying the spoilage of the earth represented by the clutch of rusted hub caps – Ford and Chevy mostly – they had unearthed.
“But how do you know,” Goshkin asked, “they aren’t meant to be here and, if left undisturbed, might not metamorphosize into something that will reward future generations enormously?”
The crew regarded him skeptically.
“Is it any more unlikely,” he said, “than some cell or piece of cell, arising on a ball of fire in the cosmos, leading to us standing here now?”
Or so Goshkin dreamed the night after Charles Williams’s Cosmic Giggles arrived for his review.
Day residue, he presumed. Not a visitation.
Biographical detail on Williams was sketchy.
He seemed to have never been interviewed. He seemed to have provided an “autobiographical statement” to Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, by the writer/collector William S. Arnett in the 1990s. One friend of Williams seemed to have given one reporter one interview, and the reporter seemed to have conducted no other interviews or done any independent research into archives or employment or governmental or medical records; and the information from this statement and this interview was all anyone else had relied upon when writing about Williams or his work.
So Goshkin learned that Williams had been born in 1942 in Blue Diamond, Kentucky, an unincorporated community, a thousand feet above sea level. Blue Diamond was a segregated coal “camp,” founded in 1916. Its population had peaked at about 2000 in the 1930s and, with the mines’ closure, it had been virtually abandoned by century’s end. The company provided housing, a commissary, and, for 15-cents admission, a place to watch serials and feature films: Superman, Captain Marvel, Dick Tracy, Jungle Jim, Lash LaRue, Red Ryder, the Cisco Kid.
Goshkin learned that the men in Williams’ family worked in the mines but nothing specifically about his father. He learned that Williams was raised by his grandparents, but not if they were maternal or paternal. He learned that, except for time in Chicago with his mother and great-uncle, about whom he learned nothing else, Williams spent his entire life in Kentucky. He began drawing at age seven, copying superheroes from comic books. He made his first sculptures, heads of mud, while playing with girls in Blue Diamond. It did not appear that he or his grandparents placed any value on these drawings or heads. It went unreported how anyone reacted to his playing with girls.
Williams never completed high school, but, in his mid-20s, he joined the Job Corps. It sent him to its center in Morgantown, a “home rule” city in central Kentucky, whose population of 1300 was almost entirely white, and which was noteworthy only for being one of two American cities to host monuments to native sons who had died fighting for both the Union and the Confederacy. What training Williams received is unreported, but he did page lay-outs, took photographs, and conducted interviews for the center’s weekly paper, The Breckinridge Bugle. He also drew a comic strip, “J.C. of the Job Corps,” featuring a young black man who, depending upon the article describing it, either urges “young men to join the Job Corps as an alternative to getting in trouble,” or leads teenagers already in the Corps against monsters, mummies, “and the nefarious Dr Killpatient.”
Williams completed his training in 1967. The only job he could find was as a janitor for IBM in Lexington. What he had done between dropping out of high school and joining the Job Corps and for how long he worked for IBM is unmentioned. About the only other biographical information Goshkin could find was that Williams died from AIDS and starvation in 1998.
Why, Goshkin asked himself, should the paucity of information about Williams matter?. Why, in fact, did you need you know anything about any artist in order to respond to his work? But if you mention a “mother,” why not a name, an age, an occupation, a fate? Why not a “father”? Was the mud sculpture mentioned because Williams would go on to create “art”? Was playing with girls mentioned because Williams would go on to live as a gay man? Are we to take the mud and the girls for starting points of direct, unbroken lines in Williams’ life, despite all that is unreported, until his dismal end? And was his end recorded only because he was an artist and, thus, worthy of attention, and was the “starvation” called out for attention as remonstrance against society’s treatment of artists or homosexuals or outcasts in general?
Why not omit the biographical and stick to the art? Could it be that how you received the art depended on your knowing these limited facts: poor; abandoned; ill-schooled; marginally employed; homosexual; doomed?
Goshkin walked up the hill toward the reservoir, as he did each morning, pushing his 78-year-old, much operated upon heart toward an effort that would benefit it, while remaining shy of dropping him to his knees, racing wailing sirens toward him. The sky lay pillowed grey from fires that ravaged counties to the north. The sun burned through, red-orange like a charcoal briquet on ash. If one was prone to the dystopian, signs of calamity abounded, from pings in the earthbound chest, to celestial colors.
Williams said of his art that he wanted “to do something... that I hadn’t heard of no other person doing.” Whether he had known it at the time or came to recognize it later, this “do”-ing had begun when he noticed that machines at IBM exuded melted plastic blobs that hardened into shapes he believed resembled “brains.” He collected hundreds, into which he drilled holes, applied paint, feathers, flags, light bulbs, toys, whatever caught his fancy, and sold as pen and pencil holders. Did this reflect, Goshkin wondered, Williams’ belief that “holes” had been drilled into his own brain? That it had been as eccentrically festooned?
Williams splattered the exterior of his house with paint and hung propellers from it. He painted his trees and secured brightly painted, artificial leaves and flowers, and plywood cut-outs of Superman and Mighty Mouse to their branches. (“A yard show,” he said of his creation.) He brought home discarded lamps, mirrors, and lengths of pipe, which he wired and/or welded together in fanciful, non-specific assemblages He converted a chair into a Fantasy Automobile, on wheels, with canopy overhead, and train flowing behind like a bridal gown.
This art came to the attention of Arnett, the Souls editor, who featured it in an exhibition he mounted in connection with the 1996 Atlanta summer Olympics. It was Williams’ first – and only public show – in his lifetime. His last work, made while he was dying, was to embed bottle caps, circuit boards, bicycle reflectors, vodka bottles into melted tar – Darkness, thought Goshkin, darkness – enclosed within frames, like “match flames... when you’ve run out of signal flares,” wrote the artist/poet Bianca Spriggs, a final expression “from the deep end of the human condition...”
This was work, Goshkin thought, which commanded attention and respect regardless of its maker’s race or training or income level or sexual orientation. It would not have mattered if its creator had been a hedge fund-managing, Skull and Crossbones Yalie. It compelled the mind to take it in and make it out. WHY and WHAT, it shrieked.
Had he been character within cartoon, his derby would have popped off his head and his eyeballs spooled out on springs.
But he had not been asked to address it.
Goshkin’s desk faced a bulletin board on which, most visible, were a diagram labeled “Myocardial Perfusion Defects” and a snapshot of him, glum or frightened, at a birthday party in, oh, 1946. At 2:30 a.m., he had been awakened by hooting owls. When he turned to Google to learn of what they were omens, he read a choice of “Death” or “Wisdom.”
Cosmic Giggles contained 83 single-page. 8 ½-inch-by-11-inch, black/white/grey cartoons. In the lower lefthand corner of the otherwise blank page that faced each cartoon was an all-caps gag-line, originally penciled by Williams on the back of the cartoon, or the notation “UNTITLED.” The cartoons had been ordered according to “theme and visual qualities” by Phillip March Jones who, along with Daniel Fuller, had curated a 2020 exhibit of Williams’ work at Atlanta Contemporary, in connection with which this book had been published by Institute 193. Photocopy markings and “cultural references” had led Jones to believe the cartoons created between 1975 and 1983.
Much emptiness, sky and space, filled the pages. The drawings were neither highly detailed nor richly imagined. The aliens had long, pointy ears; two seemingly non-functional stalks protruded from their foreheads; occasionally they possessed tails. But they were proportioned like – and otherwise resembled – humans. (Goshkin, recalling mind jolts of his youth from Wally Wood and Al Williamson, yawned.) They often dressed in nothing more exotic than what might pass for leisure wear, pool-side, at Mar-a-Laga. Fishnet stockings and platform shoes were practically de riguer for females of the species.
The basic conceit of the collection was that visitors from Mars (or, sometimes, Venus or Saturn) have come in contact with Earth. Williams had written what served as the book’s epigraph:
A COSMIC CARTOON COLLECTION OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL BEINGS VISITING THE EARTH, AND WITH THE POLLUTION PROBLEMS, GAS SHORTAGE, BAD WEATHER AND WITH THE RENT GOING UP, THE MARTIANS CAN’T AFFORT TO STAY THERE SO THERE WOUN’T BE ANY
“WAR OF THE WORLDS” (sic)
But it was unclear if he had written this before he began his cartoons, or after he had completed a few as a directional guide to where he might go, or at its end, as a pitch to a potential publisher; and while other writers about the cartoons swallowed this statement like it was eucharist, Goshkin, feeling much the unbeliever, coughed it up.
Only one cartoon, in which an alien who has come upon a wino asks his partner, “Now do you still want to invade this planet?” suggested anyone had conquest in mind. In fact, aside from the superiority of the aliens’ means of transportation, Earth seemed to compare favorably with wherever they were from. They were fans of Johnny Carson, comic books, and Farah Fawcett Majors. Their addiction to “Hill Street Blues,” “Kojak,” and “Twilight Zone,” while ignoring everything on PBS, suggested their own TV-equivalent was an even vaster wasteland than ours. Their eagerness to snap up unemployment benefits and food stamps implied a meagerness to the social safety net awaiting them back home. And the females’ flat-out testimonial that Earth men were “great lovers,” and the males’ mesmerization by our massage parlors, hookers, and X-rated movies, conveyed an upbringing in which the Moral Majority would have felt at ease.
A RED FLAG FIRE WARNING blasted through his morning e-mail’s Subject Lines like a howitzer shell. Put a Go-Bag by the door. Point your car out from its garage. Once-in-a-century winds, combustible trees and bushes, with no rain for months made every second matter. Any spark could do it.
Goshkin considered the bright side. He would no longer have to worry about what to do about his books or papers or photo albums. “A torture,” Large Victor had once called them, “passed down from one generation to another. ‘Is that Aunt Frieda?’ ‘Did my hair really look like that?’” He was pleased by how far along the path to detachment he had trod. One black leather jacket would do. The others could join the conflagration.
Worst of all, he had not laughed.
Weren’t cartoons supposed to be funny? Ever since Professor Herrenstein had responded with a “C-“ to his Hum 2 dismissal of Tartuffe because Moliere had not cracked him up as much as Sergeant Bilko, Goshkin had recognized that a laff-o-meter might not be the best measure of literary worth. Still he could not avoid suspecting that the regard in which Cosmic Giggles was held was like that for the dancing bear in the Russian proverb. It was not a matter of it being done well, but of its being done at all. He suspected that if Williams had not been Black and/or gay and/or from the backwoods, his cartoons would not have caught a curator’s eye.
Fuller and Jones asserted that Williams had “explore(d) the twisted roots of white America’s aimless incompetence with humor, flair, and damning criticism.” Goshkin granted him points for addressing issues of his day: pollution, the energy crisis, sexually transmitted diseases, women’s lib, fall-out shelters (Were they even still a thing?), Black Power, and the KKK; but the sharpness of his pen, the acid in his ink did not seem up to the level of a MAD comic of the ‘50s, let alone a Hustler of Williams’ working years. The wit on display felt like a high school humor mag’s.
Williams had kept holstered the fire-power with which his personal circumstances would have been expected to arm him. While Cosmic Giggles was occasionally, mildly Afro-centric, its only gay references were a couple leaden “fag” jokes; and there was no blitz-the-rich class resentment cracking through. Goshkin thought the humor faint, the flair modest, the criticism more “Darn” than “Damn.” There was none of the break-the-mold, engagingly demented, WTF individuality which compelled attention to Williams’ sculpture and assemblages. There was no cognition-jogging transformation equivalent to painted, hand-decorated trees, There was no infusion of plastic blobs with talismanic suggestion. These creations draw the cartoons along in their wake. They were the tar of mad creative genius in which the cartoons lodged, additional feathers to be puzzled over.
Though evacuation was only recommended and not mandatory, Goshkin booked two nights in the boutique hotel which housed his favorite café. Maid service. Free coffee. Convenient shops and restaurants. Colorful townsfolk, most of whom spoke English. Maybe management would cut him a deal, long-term. He would keep his house, of course, for its premium channels, washer/dryer, and flex-bike.
In the 1970s, Goshkin would ask people what The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth had in common. No one knew. When he told them Walter Tevis had written both, no one had heard of him. Tevis had published The Hustler in 1959 and The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1963. He did not publish another novel 17 years.
Following the publication of this third novel, Tevis gave a reading at Cody’s Books. At its conclusion, Goshkin asked – not in those exact words – why he had followed nitty-gritty, sub-culture realism with outer space, sci-fi hooey. Tevis answered that he was an alcoholic, an illness made worse by the success of his first book, and that the humanoid in his second expressed what his life had felt like – that of a Martian on this planet. If that was how Tevis felt in New York and Los Angeles, Goshkin now thought, imagine how Williams felt in Kentucky.
Mars was 40 million miles from Earth. That sounded in the ballpark for Williams from Mr. and Mrs. IBM Lexington. With that in mind, his representation of his Martians made more sense to Goshkin. Williams wanted them seen as “us” and us as “them.” There was, he hoped to make clear, no “other” to be feared. So he placed his aliens upon the page to amuse and please and to whom his readers might even feel superior. They were not about to be blasted with death rays – or enslaved. Cosmic Giggles was a paean to the brotherhood of man, a hope and wish.
Bianca Spriggs had written of Williams’ “compulsive... attempts at communication.” The sculpture/constructs were of one type, weird and puzzling and risen from the depths. The cartoons sauntered forward, hoping for a hug. Like Bukowski calling himself “Chinaski” or Celline “Bardamu,” the conceit, in their cases, allowing the creator to stand outside the straight-jacket of the self and more easily/proudly confess humiliating behavior or pontificate obscene beliefs, Williams’ delivery of a message through pointy-eared, forehead-stalked, “cute” stand-ins allowed an otherwise “serious” creator to fix a twinkle in the eye and have a warming bemusement take stock of the world around him.
Not a bad idea, Goshkin thought. Maybe I should try it.
Before he slept, he wondered about his right he had to judge. The question was as new to the air he breathed as the fires’ ash.
Joe Biden’s biographer had recently written, “To be born in America in 1942 as a white, heterosexual male was, generally speaking, to win a cosmic lottery.” Goshkin had played high school football against Joe Biden. He had graduated college with the biographer’s father. He and Joe and Dad had checked all those boxes. Charles Williams had checked two – and the ones he missed were held by some to leave chasms Goshkin ought not dare to bridge.
He was reading Suttree for the third time and Absalom, Absalom for the second. He had read the new Anne Tyler, which had been like reading an old Anne Tyler. Writers, he thought, were people of their time, no one else’s, writing from their pasts, no one else’s, writing for... For...? Was he moving forward or backward or sideways? Was he scratching glyphs upon a cave’s wall?