This story first appeared in Tammy, fall 2014.

The Wastrel and the Sharper
Excerpts from the novel The Bottom of the Top

My new job, if you distilled it, was to scare up people for a marketing/PR machine to chew up and spit out. In this respect contemporary art was becoming more like the mass ones. We weren’t exactly happy with the situation, most of us anyway, but there didn’t seem to be much to do about it. You wanted to get ahead, you wanted your friends to get ahead, maybe you also wanted to be adored. And success could be tasteful, in some cases. The remarkable thing was that things of value still issued from an increasingly crass and corrupt system, just as they had when the Borgias had been paying for it.

My first date was with Dean. I had been waiting to hear he had died, actually, from the little I had seen and more I had heard, both when away and in the short time I’d been back in town. On an early pass through the gallery district I’d spied him in an expensive suit over what looked like a white Hanes T-shirt, V-neck. It was a bad outfit and an odd one for a Saturday afternoon. He circled a sculpture made of bright green plastic and inch-diameter extruded metal tubing like a disassembled Bauhaus chair—and, sure enough, the next assemblage on the floor, a careful, proportionate distance away, was of narrower tubing and leather straps, not S&M but Modernism deconstructed, which was the point I supposed. He appeared to be concentrating, and lightly sweating.

Before I could say hello, two people emerged from the gallery’s back office and circled around either side, an older man and a woman somewhat less old, her in fur and him in an expensive sweater and trousers, a bulbous watch weighting his wrist. Watches had become like SUVs lately, distended to unnatural dimensions yet considered more desirable for it. Tits also. It wasn’t something you liked to see, an artist shepherding around collectors, but they felt obliged sometimes, it happened, it was a step on the road to the guest house in Santorini.

Home dogg, he said suddenly, eyeing me and walking over, and the tableau of fur, metal, plastic, leather, flesh, Swiss gearwork, Italian fabrics, broke up into real-world motion. We embraced clumsily. I did my best not to embarrass him, plugging my employer to everyone and getting on my way.

A week later I walked into his studio, a big space divided into two rooms. In the first room you squeezed through a short hall of coat racks and canvases leaning against the walls and emerged into a kitchenette, with the rest of it stretching to great, dirty windows. He had set things up here as a kind of parody of a business office. A table edged up against one wall supported a fax machine, a rotary phone whose cord dangled uselessly, and a stack of soft-core magazines with sliced-out cutouts piled next to them. No computer. Within arm’s reach an office-supply-store corkboard hung, bearing a few scraps held with comically long wire pins, and paper items were stacked adjacent in a desktop hanging-file box. On the garbage can’s rim a miniature basketball goal perched. On the desk was a pink message pad whose header said WHILE YOU WERE FUCKING OFF.

A mattress lay far away in the corner, a closed laptop, and a bottle of tequila. I had just ordered some of those pins from an office-supply catalogue. Having our office assistant fill out the forms had been my first editorial act.

Through a wide arch into the other, larger room was a stack of bricks. Organization seemed to be camouflaging itself as disorder, for some reason. Dean appeared in the doorway, looking a little better. He advanced, we hugged. He offered me water, which came out of an oversize plastic bottle.

Too good for the mayor’s water? I said.

The tap water’s shit out here, he said. It was unclear whether he meant the East Coast—he was from California—or this peripheral neighborhood. He had vague paranoias about toxins and cancers. Given his indifference to other risk factors, it seemed ironic. But perhaps time will prove him right.

You can always do what they do in Mexico, I said, and gestured with my chin. Just drink tequila.

Yeah, let’s, he said, smiled. I am more a conspirator than corrupter, and you develop a talent for spotting your fellows. His mini-fridge had a functional freezer cabinet, surprisingly, and a half-full ice tray.

We caught up about our respective situations, not bad in either case. He was getting some traction—new galleries here and in Europe. As for myself, I was hopeful, if I could use such a word as “hope.” We postured a bit, but uncompetitively, and not enough to irritate each other. Then we chatted about people, exhibitions, the small talk that you use to begin a visit to an artist’s studio, if you’re of a certain school, and if you have nothing in particular to offer anyone. If you’re putting together a show, or visiting for a specific piece of journalism, you can cut to the chase—in that situation only a sensitive type would object to an air of business. But in the amorphous precincts of possible advantage, possible gain, mixed with a few grains of friendship and a desire of at least one party to charm, well, these things could go on for hours. He asked me about my return to the city, how it felt. I was flattered. He smoked, after asking if it was OK. He looked not so terminal, just a little more weathered, like everyone.

We went into the other room. He had purchased a bunch of small prestretched canvases at an art-supply store, a move verboten according to conventional logics of high art, though one approved at its intellectual fringes, which were, in the nature of things, becoming its new center. It was this and related commentaries on the refractions of late capitalism that my job called on me to document. On the underrefined linen he had painted circles, some seeming almost illusionistically to sink, some raised up, encrusted like cold little asteroids. Maybe eight or ten hung at eye level, that many or more leaned in a couple stacks against the wall.

What are you, I said, some kind of nihilist?

He laughed.

Bataille came up, and Stephen Hawking. Holes, black holes, wormholes, rabbitholes, assholes; expulsion and ingestion. These weren’t really artworks, he said, he never showed these paintings; he just made them to think. It was a great surprise to imagine him engaged in this kind of meditation, dabbing around a paint brush in circles while generating ideas for collages or silkscreens or conceptual art. Possibly it was a handover therapy. On their own, the works were going nowhere, it seemed to me, and he had been wise not to exhibit them. The holes were sketches for all the rest, in a way.

Here, I want you to take a look at this, he said suddenly. He walked over to a rug rolled up in the corner. As he unfurled it he revealed it to be in fact a rectangular banner in velvety nylon: a flag, covered with circles, dots, Xs, holes. It was black and white and silver, with trompe l’oeil effects juxtaposed with the air of the lowest-end digital design.

So what are you saying, we’re part of a dead culture?

Dude, you have got to stop asking these Socratic questions. You’re just supposed to, like, come over and say, I love it, that’s awesome, or whatever.

Is that what people usually do on studio visits with you?

He didn’t respond, and it occurred to me quickly that I may have hurt his feelings. He was a bit of a darling. But he was my darling too, so I went back to flattering his intelligence.

So you do you think we’re part of a dead culture, period not question mark.

He smiled.

It’s up to you. You’re the philosopher.

No, I’m a critic. A critic is a philosopher manqué.

Whatever. It’s your job to interpret. I’m just doing my thing.

Right, right. I’ve heard you talk. Where are you going with this line?


And soon thereafter came the time when flags came into fashion in the art world. It lasted about eighteen months, like all these phases: it was the calendar denomination by which art cycles turn out to be divisible. This led on to the rise of work that was all black, before the return of heroic painting in the guise of fake heroism, after the rise of simultaneously jokey and heroic conceptual projects, before the return to crisp political conceptual art, which remarkably often took a thirty-year-old display format, text printed on 8 1/2 x 11 sheets pinned in grids to gallery walls. I’m not giving Dean credit for the flag trend, just suggesting that he had, here as ever, an ability to be in tune with the times. To cite another example, he was wearing the right shoes, the gray Vans slip-ons that I had been seeing on discerning feet since I had gotten back in town.

This is just a test flag, he said, and he looked at it for a moment, tearing a piece of dry skin off his lower lip. Then he began plucking bricks off the pile and dropping them onto the fabric one by one. They clunked against the concrete floor. It made a lot of sense to me. At the same time I felt like he was performing, for my sole benefit, a burlesque of the famous film of Jackson Pollock working on a canvas on the ground. Part of that had been shot from underneath, through a glass with Pollock splashing about directly on it. The legend goes that this transformation of his labor into theater, away from the “real,” private matter of how he made his paintings, had destroyed him—driven him heavy into alcohol, depression, the final crackup. Was it an unconscious allusion, a coincidence, a parody, or something more complicated? I had always felt that with Dean the performance had become laminated to the person rather early—he was still so young as it was—and that he was admitting this to me, here, obliquely. The wastrel was there to counterpoint the sharper, who might have risked coming across too strong. To a certain way of thinking, perhaps one that’s a bit clichéd but seemingly undying, you could make it look like you tried hard so long as you partied hard as well. Otherwise you might be exiled to the land of 8 1/2 x 11 sheets.

(I met the lady in Pollock’s death car once. Seventy years old if she was a day but still a little tramp.)

When we were winding down, he excused himself to take a quick phone call. I picked up a brick off those still left in the pile. My biceps were weak, the muscle running up the front of my forearm a trembling strand.

I went back to refill my glass. At the foot of the mattress in the corner of the other room I noticed a laundry bag, at its head a splayed book and a half-full ashtray. When Dean returned, I offered him some of his own tequila, which he accepted, and asked:
Are you actually living here?

Yeah, just for a little while. It was kind of stupid but I let the lease on my old place lapse. I’m not sure what I was thinking. But it’s cool. I’m traveling a lot anyways.


Yeah. And when I’m here I crash at Hannah’s place when she’s out of town. Or Chloe’s place.

Hannah was one of his rotating cast of friends, none of whom were ever particularly friendly to me. Chloe was his girlfriend of late, a fashion designer.

Do you ever talk to Ev? I asked. His gaze steeled for a second, looking away. It was a macho kind of wincing.

Yeah, we keep in touch. She’s doing great, just great. She’s started with Médecins sans Frontières.

She’s amazing, I continued, horribly. I should drop her a line.

You should, then added, I’m sure she’d love to hear from you. It was a nonsensical phrase, meaningless, something you said to fill dead air.

We knew each other through Evelyn. She and I had worked together. After lancing through the art world, she left it for the humanitarian. She and Dean had been a golden couple the likes of which I had not seen, though I realized later that these pairs of prodigies, briefly allied, come around regularly. While it lasted they cut across the tiny niches of the art world to be popular in all of them. The art world has been described as high school with money; they were prom king and queen, taking an innocent and easy pleasure in it: the success, the partying, the endless celebration life seemed to be, and how gracefully things came to them. They worked hard, but they liked to work, and you had the sense that they had never once experienced a setback. You might loathe them if not for their absolute charm. Like true politicians, when you spent time with them, they made you feel as if you were their good friends, even if you barely knew them. I was not a good friend but a close acquaintance—I try to remain undeluded about these things. It all lasted a season, about as long as the reign of gray Vans slip-on shoes.

I had been aware that Ev was considering going back to school. One night a while before I left, I ran into her at an opening. She looked a little stricken. I asked what was wrong and she told me: she and Dean had broken up. I said the first thing that came to mind.

Well, it had to happen.

She looked at me as if I had slapped her pretty face. Then she laughed. You bastard, she said. She was English, and so her accent on “bastard” was indelible.

In the few years since, Dean’s art had grown. It had also grown narrower, manneristic, a bit lazy—too quick a progression for someone not yet thirty. His face looked swollen when I saw him. I had the sense that he remained unfrustrated except in the loss of a sense of possibility. Hard as it might be to believe, I had asked after Ev not out of envy, or pure sadism. I was interested in how long it takes people to heal.

You couldn’t let these visits go on too long; we weren’t kids any more, had to keep to our schedules or give the impression of having them to keep. We said our goodbyes: yeah, this was really great, we should hang out more; I would try to get him into the magazine at some point. It was gauche to tell him as much, and uncharacteristic for me. We were both surprised, as if by a sudden kiss. And our seeing each other surprised added an extra charge, like a kid who falls, looks, sees bloody knees, and then understands he’s supposed to cry.


Rheya had made her living room her bedroom and her bedroom her living room while I was away, another disorientating difference in the version of the city I had returned to. It was comparable to her ability to turn herself inside out, the charming and sweet becoming the cold, lazy, indifferent, nearly inhuman.

The room held a small dresser, a drafting table, a wooden folding chair, a futon on the floor under the window. The spareness soothed her, kept overstimulation at bay. But for me the new bedroom had the air of a stage set: unfinished, a sketch. And fake. It was not her real room, since the real one could only be defined by our having borne our fits of love and hate.

It was a hot June. We wanted to start over, to meet as if we’d never met before. That was impossible, of course, but we were going through the motions. It was the only chance, and I knew it was doomed because in fact, despite my professions to the contrary, I did not want to get back together with her. I wanted things to persist in a situation most advantageous to myself, whereby she and I were bound by incorruptibly strong ties and could torture each other to keep from worrying about the rest of our lives and make psychotically intense love, all with her being full of regrets. I wanted everything I’d ever had, plus the upper hand.

And also, to be fair to myself, I did love her.

And she had perfect tits. One needs to be honest all around: all experience plots onto the same plane.

The afternoon slipped into the evening, then night and early sleep, then early morning as the sun from the airshaft pierced the dim room. I do not recall which one of us said it out loud: I wish we could just start over, I wish it was as if we’d just met. But soon we were staging our meeting on a beach. The crude lamp, a little metal cap and a glaring bulb on a rod, was our sun; the futon was the sand; the to and fro of the traffic outside was the surf; and the summer heat was the summer heat, with the occasional gust through the window lifting it up for a moment like a wet sheet lofted into the air and allowed to drift slowly down back into place. We were playful and yet deadly serious. Sweat beaded on her nose, like it always did. I was a beachcomber, she a sunbather in a quiet cove.

The conversation in these scenarios is always embarrassing to report; it furrows quickly from the rote to the childish to the vulgar. She was a friendly sunbather, however, surprisingly so to a stranger who was funny and frank but simmered with a slight violence, the cause of which could not be ascertained.

What’re you reading? he asked.

William James, she said, and pulled down her sunglasses for a better look. She lay on her stomach. Tan back, small waist: he admired her and she was receptive. The lamp bore down on them, an eye, a cold wisdom. And they thought those old modern times broke hearts.

William James? We should be fucking practically any second now.

Pragmatically any second

Soon we were making love. That was an expression I hated. It was slow and intense, the heat and the light severed from one another. She liked just to lie there, be manipulated; I was forever removing her jeans, and I can still see the first peek of bush, black and untrimmed. I have naked pictures somewhere, but she always photographed poorly, even doggy style, which flatters almost every woman. Better I relate this little story in the dying art of words.

Afterwards in our minds the couple went swimming, and one of them built a bonfire. In the real world I went to the kitchen for a glass of water from the faucet that had gone unfixed for years. It would still not stop dripping, no matter how much you wrenched its knob.

In the morning before I left I checked the walls and the floor, the ceiling and the furniture. Our old selves were nowhere there at all.


New beginnings, new pastimes. With this excuse I got Roland to take me on one of his trips to the beach.

Roland was the one person for whom I had found no substitute. He made art, living off some kind of computer work I didn’t understand. Otherwise, he surfed. At the right times of year he cleared his schedule three times a week to drive his shitty battered Corolla to the far reaches of our locality, where the rocks we built on met the ocean. For the Atlantic it was pretty good, and for an urban area. When he had the time he got further away. I was familiar with surfing mostly from a sports show on broadcast television when I was a child, the one whose credits included the skier plunging violently down a mountain through gate after gate after gate.

I called in sick to work, which, what, was anyone going to say anything? I rolled a couple joints and packed a bathing suit. It was summer. I felt like a teenager cutting school, something in fact I did only once. The Grateful Dead were involved, and a Volkswagen Beetle. I had been too young to tell patchouli from marijuana.

Are you ever going to go straight? I asked Roland.

I dunno. Marry, I’m not opposed to it actively. I don’t worry about the rest so much.

You’re from the West Coast. No one is straight out there.

It’s true, pretty much, everywhere north of Orange County at least. My high school principal grew weed. We did gym class to Neil Young.

I wanted to ask Roland: But how are you going to live? But this would invoke the idea of his failure as an artist, which I did not want to do. So instead I lit the joint, passed it over. When he took it, I was surprised but said nothing until the second pass-back.

You’re smoking more these days.

Nah, not really. Just a drag and it’s good for surfing.

I have heard that they are a winning combination.

Sure. It feels great, the surface of the water looks great, the horizon, he said. The way the sound fills your head. You get even more absorbed in the mental aspects of it. You soak up the infinity. Whatever that means. Then he laughed. I surfed on acid once. Some guy we were tripping with was like, You’re not gonna surf! Hell yes I was, he said. As he handed the joint back again, he said: Pretty amazing. It was hard keeping all three of my legs on the board.

I took another drag. There was a horizon out there up ahead, but the world rolling along toward it seemed a little sad. Hell yes I’m going to surf. And that’s it pretty much. End of story.

We were quiet.

So now what do we do? I said. Talk about death?

I guess so. There are some bad surfing accidents.

When I went to Hawaii I was terrified to go swimming. Every beach has these signs—riptide, jellyfish, do not dive, strong surf. It’s like, fuck. I got in the water twice in a week. It was pathetic.

All that stuff is exaggerated.

In a national park on the north coast of Oahu my girlfriend and I at the time—Kate, not sure if you met her—

The Canadian. Yeah, she was cute.

Yeah . . .

My mind wandered dreamily for a few moments.

She’s married now, I said. Married the next boyfriend after me.

Weird when that happens.

Anyway, we went on this epic hike that everyone insisted we had to take. You ascend these cliffs to get amazing views of the Pacific, then descend to this secluded cove beach. It was rated hard, and that was only the first section. After that it became, like, extreme, and after that it went overnight—triathlete-type shit. Really crazy. We were climbing up and down these steep rock faces, it would rain for a few minutes every once in a while so everything was slick—there were pits of muck. I almost lost my shoe in one. And of course I had nothing like the right shoes, right backpack, amount of water, any of it. In the sun it was baking and in the shade it was like being in a cave—damp, chilly. Every once in a while we’d stop and clean the mud out of the treads on our tennis shoes with sticks or leaves. I remember it dried really fast, made this thin, thin brown crust on your hands that you could rub off.

We’re here, Roland announced. The car sat between two white lines in a small parking lot. I had stopped noticing the drive. We got out and stepped into the sun. It was summertime, no wetsuit, which disappointed me, so far as the surfing experience went. He stretched then changed into a bathing suit in the car while I did the same, both of us averting our eyes a bit absurdly.

It was clear there was neither time for nor interest in the conclusion of my story.

You coming in? Roland said. He held the board at his side, propped on its tip.

I’ll ease into it.

What about your lesson?

I might need to hold off til next time. That weed is making me high. I mean, yeah, obviously high.

But edgy, just a little bit. It’s no big deal.

That’s cool. And the waves might be a little rough today anyway—could be a bad day to learn. Take it easy. Lie on the sand for a while.

And so I did. As I stared up at the sun, or glanced anxiously at Roland bobbing with some anonymous man on the surf some twenty yards distant, I finished the Hawaii story to myself, in my head.

The whole time of the hike I was thinking, how are we going to get out of here? We reached a promontory where the wind whipped; I almost lost my hat. You could fall so easily. Clouds threatened. If it rained on the way back, the ascents would be like rocky waterslides chucking you into brush that would slice you open as it broke your fall. We’d have to crawl back, with the German and Indian and Californian tourists all laughing at us. It was embarrassing but I kept asking people coming the opposite direction, How much further is it to the beach? Not far; fifteen minutes maybe; and so on. This estimate would be updated by an identical one by a tourist of a different nationality fifteen minutes later. I was heartened to see they’d made it there and back without apparent injury, though with their shins and occasionally cheeks smeared with brown crust.

I looked up. Roland slid along the surface of a small wave, bobbing slightly, almost hopping along the roll of water as it petered out far from shore. He flung himself goofily off the back, a little melodramatic display of disappointment. If he had been younger, he might have cut a very plain backflip.

On the cliffs we began, finally, an unequivocal descent. We reached a stream you had to cross; I became very excited to have a practical use for the word “ford.” It was about ten yards across, no deeper than the knees, brisk of flow and temperature. A white cord like a clothesline had been hung across a likely crossing point, so we followed it hand over hand, though I saw two California girls hop like goats from rock to rock then mount the steepest point of the bank, riding their slender thighs. I became very afraid that a jovial young man with a cast on one arm, talking about his favorite energy drinks, would slip and shatter something else.

After the fording the woods closed in again, then opened suddenly: a circular excision in the scrub replaced with black rocks and beach. We were there. A German family lay sleeping on the sand. I worried about them too. What if the tide came in? Everyone was out of their element.

We ate a couple of boiled eggs, an orange, a banana, some leftover tonkatsu in a Styrofoam box that I had insisted on buying at a place in a strip mall. The mayo worried. I wanted to start back soon to beat any more rain. That girlfriend, Kate, who always thought I was a bit of a coward, sneered but agreed. I had hoped there would be some private salt-sprayed hollow in the black cliffs where I could pull down her shorts and fuck her; she was at her best in those sorts of circumstances. But too many tourists were having their own variously memorable experiences, snapping pictures. We broke up and she went to Italy pretty soon after that, married some fucking Italian.

As we were leaving, briefly restored, we paused at a tree with a number of notches cut in it, in the classic four-scores-and-a-diagonal method. Above it, carved with surprising fineness of line, was the legend TOURISTS KILLED SWIMMING.

Someone walked over and plopped on the sand. My eyes were closed. I heard Roland’s voice, mingled with the sun’s warmth on my face.

The total number of cuts was fifty-seven. With all one forgets, it’s funny the details you remember.