Monday, March 25, 2019

Betrayal takes one: Richard Hell


Time and time again I knew what I was doing and
Time and time again I just made things worse.
—Richard Hell, "Time"
For a lot of people in who have been in a band, it's because there came a moment when they realized "Hey—I could do that!" For Richard Meyers that moment came in 1972 when he went to see Patti Smith open for the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center in Greenwich Village.

Meyers had come to New York at the end of 1966. At that time he was a high school student with dreams of being a poet. He had taken a bus to New York with $100 in his pocket to join a group of classmates who were visiting the city for the holidays; when they left to go back to school, Meyers stayed. He took odd jobs as a shelf stocker, mail sorter, office temp, and laborer to scrape together a few weeks' rent. In his autobiography I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp (Ecco, 2014), he writes,
I quit jobs and changed apartments continuously. Both were so plentiful there was no reason to keep a job if I'd saved enough to go for two weeks without working. (p. 52)
From the perspective of the present this seems incredible. But between 1950 and 1980 Manhattan's population declined by more than half a million, or by nearly 30%. [1] The emptying out of Manhattan was a boon to artists, writers, performers, and misfits of all kinds. Rents were cheap: Meyers reports paying $16 a week for a room in an SRO hotel on "the most genteel block in the East Village." Vast abandoned industrial lofts and under-attended churches were transformed into art, music and performance spaces. It was possible to eke out a living on the margins as you pursued your chosen art.

For Meyers that art was initially writing, and he started printing his own poetry magazine. He was soon joined by his school friend and fellow writer Tom Miller, who hung out with him in the Lower East Side poetry scene. Miller was with Meyers that night in 1972 at the Mercer Arts Center. They had both gone to see Patti Smith perform (she didn't yet have a band); they already knew that she was "frighteningly new and good. . .electrifying, rock-and-roll level poetry" (p. 109).

But for Meyers the revelation that night was the Dolls: "Their music, though simple and sloppy, was physically thrilling. Their gigs were unlike any I'd ever experienced. They were parties, they were physical orgies, without much distinction between the crowd and the band" (p. 110).

The available New York Dolls footage seems either to have smudgy images and sludgy sound, or to show them performing in front of bemused, uncomprehending audiences. An example of the latter: their performance of "Personality Crisis" for the German TV show Musikladen (Music Shop) on 4 December 1973:




After seeing the Dolls, Meyers and Miller decided to form a group, even though Meyers had never played an instrument before. But for the kind of band he wanted to be in, technical proficiency was almost beside the point. As he writes, "Mere competence is always boring" (p. 248).

Another problem: their names were "hopelessly banal." So they adopted new ones: Meyers dubbed himself Richard Hell, possibly in homage to Arthur Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer, while Miller chose Rimbaud's partner in crime Verlaine.

Finally, one of the compelling things about the Dolls was their style: gutter glam and drag. Hell decided that his new group needed their own signature look. He hacked off his shoulder-length curls leaving jagged, spiky clumps. He wore thrift-store suits, straight-leg black jeans, and T-shirts torn to pieces and then put back together with safety pins. And the style that would later be called punk was born:


Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell ca. 1974. 

Some possible models for Hell's haircut:


Left: Arthur Rimbaud; right: Antonin Artaud

Verlaine found Hell a cheap bass guitar and taught him how to play. Their band's first, short-lived incarnation was as the Neon Boys, with drummer Billy Ficca (who had been in a band with Verlaine in high school). They recorded a handful of songs, some of which you can find on YouTube:



The Neon Boys wore their early Kinks, Count Five, and electric Dylan influences on their sleeves. And Verlaine's trebly guitar tone made them sound thin. They needed a second guitarist to fill out the sound, but no one they auditioned seemed right (Doug Colvin, later Dee Dee Ramone, and Chris Stein, later of Blondie, were among those who didn't make the cut).

A few months later, having found guitarist Richard Lloyd, they tried again, this time calling themselves Television. The name was suggested by Hell, and he says he only noticed much later that Tom Verlaine's initials were TV. It was symbolic: Verlaine saw the band as his vehicle, and as the charismatic Hell began to capture more attention and write more songs the tensions between them would mount.

But for the time being there was the exhilaration of playing in a band:
It was like being born. It was everything one wants from so-called God. . .It was like making emotions and thought physical. . .it was fresh and every moment had that surging astonishment and pleasure—even if in the service of anger and disgust, as it often was—of anything being possible to make happen. It was like creating the world, and the feeling could never quite happen that way again, or be sustained, anyway, because familiarity and habit take the edge off. (pp. 128-129)
The desire to maintain the edge, that sense of "surging astonishment and pleasure," would soon lead Hell into some very dark places.

The band decided that they needed to find a place where they could play regularly, the way the Dolls had played Tuesday nights at the Mercer Arts Center. They found a club on the Bowery call CBGB (for "Country, Bluegrass and Blues") which was beginning to book rock bands. The owner, Hilly Kristal, agreed to let them play on Sundays for whatever they could take in at the door. Television was followed a few months later by the Ramones, Blondie, and (once she had formed a full backing band) Patti Smith. Soon CBGB became a scene:
We had conjured into existence, out of imagination, this reality. . .Where we were the positive standards of being, rather than examples of failure, depravity, criminality, and ugliness. . .The traits and signs of what came to be called punk were the ways that we'd systematically invented or discovered as means for displaying on the outside what was inside us. That's the origin of the funny, lyrical, angry music styles, the haircuts, the clothes, the names, and everything else that identified us. What defined the club was that it was where we were completely ourselves. And what could be better than that? (p. 150)
Television live at CBGB performing Hell's "Blank Generation":



But as the scene they had created was flourishing, Television was coming apart. Hell's more spontaneous approach frequently clashed with Verlaine's vision of highly composed songs that showcased his guitar lines. Hell preferred a sound that was rawer, less polished, more visceral.
It's true that the band sounded ragged. But this was something that had also been said of the early gigs (and often the later ones) of the New York Dolls and the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. It was something that I positively liked in a band. . .But that's not what Tom was interested in anymore. (p. 135)
The tensions came to a head in the spring of 1975. After a series of shows in early March where Television opened for the Dolls, the group that had inspired them, Hell left the band. The Dolls were also fragmenting due to lack of commercial success and disagreements with the ideas of their new manager, expatriate Brit Malcolm McLaren (in an attempt to generate outrage he had them dress in red patent leather and perform in front of a giant hammer and sickle banner). The Dolls' lead guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan split off to form their own group, the Heartbreakers. They invited Hell to play bass and write songs with them, later adding Walter Lure as a second guitarist. [2]

By this time Hell had become a regular heroin user. Although he claims not to have (yet) become addicted, it's a distinction without a difference. Thunders and Nolan were already full-blown junkies. Hell added some lyrics to a Dee Dee Ramone song about scoring heroin and the Heartbreakers had their anthem, "Chinese Rocks":


https://youtu.be/vYDOJ3veMAQ?t=487 ("Chinese Rocks" ends at 11:00)

Some of the lyrics:
Somebody calls me on the phone
They say, 'Hey, is Dee Dee home?
Well you wanna take a walk? You wanna go cop?
You wanna go get some Chinese Rocks?'

I'm living on a Chinese Rock
All my best things are in hock
I'm living on a Chinese Rock
Everything is in the pawn shop (it is!)
Given the rampant drug use and the presence of two strong personalities in the band, it's not surprising that this version of the Heartbreakers lasted less than a year. There are varying accounts of why the band split up, but ultimately, as with Television, it came down to incompatible visions of what the band should be:
My leaving the band was really about ambition level. For them the band was basically a party, or, when not, it was the ride to the party. I loved the way they played, and I loved Johnny's song-making instincts and rock and roll style altogether, and I liked the party, but I wanted the songs to talk about things other than "going steady" and "pirate love" [two Thunders-written songs]. I also wanted to try some new ways of playing. . .If I was going to do those things it would have to be in a band with which I shared certain other aims and one that I led unequivocally.  (pp. 180-181)
That band was the Voidoids, which featured Robert Quine on guitar. Hell had met Quine through Cinemabilia, a movie-memorabilia bookstore where they had both worked. Quine was not your average guitar hero: he was already in his thirties, bald, and dressed like an accountant. But his appearance was deceptive. Despite his buttoned-down facade Quine could wrest splintered shards of sound from his guitar; Hell calls his playing "violently sublime" (p. 177). Comparing the Voidoids' version of "Blank Generation" to Television's, it's clear that Quine's intensity brings the song to a different level:



Unfortunately Hell (like many musicians) didn't get legal advice before signing an exploitative management deal that he didn't fully understand. While it provided him and his bandmates with regular salaries and paid for the recording of a demo, everything they received was an advance against their share of future royalties—of which the management company was taking nearly half off the top. Hell suspected that the deal was one-sided, but didn't really care. The contracts "covered only the first few records and I figured I'd bring out a new record every year indefinitely. The important thing was to get started" (p. 193). You have to wonder if his heroin habit was doing the thinking for him.

Relations with their record company, Sire, were also very strained. After delays in the release of the Blank Generation album, the band scored an ironic coup by being asked to join the fall 1977 tour of The Clash. The originator of punk style was now opening for a band that (like most of the UK punk bands) had borrowed elements of his look. But conditions on the tour were spartan and the album wasn't released in England until the tour was over. Disgusted by Sire's treatment, Hell was able to get out of his contract a few months later, but that meant that the label had no incentive to continue to promote his record.


Richard Hell ca. 1977. Photo: Kate Simon

The Voidoids wound up in a limbo that was partly due to their lack of a recording contract, partly due to Hell's involvement in several movies (Rachid Kerdouche's Final Reward (1978), Ulli Lommel's Blank Generation (1980) and Susan Seidelman's Smithereens (1982)), and partly due to his drug dependencies.
Addiction is lonely. It starts as pure pleasure, and the degeneration, in a few quick years, into a form of monumental compulsive-obsessive condition is actually more psychological than physical. Once the drug use has replaced everything else, life becomes purely a lie, since in order to keep any self-respect, the junkie has to delude himself that use is by choice. That's the worst loneliness—the isolation, even from oneself, in that lie. In the meantime the original physical pleasure becomes merely dull relief from the threat of withdrawal, from the horror of real life. (pp. 251-252)
Over the next few years Hell brought the Voidoids together to play live only when he needed drug money. He wasn't writing many songs or testing out much new material; it was, in multiple senses, wasted time.

Finally, at the urging of his manager Hell went back into the studio with a revamped version of the Voidoids to record their second album Destiny Street. But he only had seven original songs, and even they weren't all fully finished. Hell writes that "I did then and do now consider the material on Destiny Street to be superior to the set on Blank Generation" (p. 272). That's not an opinion shared by many, but it's also clear that (in a nicely circular feedback loop) his exposure to The Clash and UK punk was influencing his approach. "Lowest Common Dominator" from Destiny Street:



I saw Richard Hell and the Voidoids in Chicago in July 1982, about a month before Destiny Street was finally released, in a venue that used to be a church. I don't think Robert Quine was with them. The opening band was Ivan Julian and the Outsets; when Richard Hell came out, the Outsets became the Voidoids. Hell writes that at this time he had a full-blown heroin habit, and that "I hawked in music clubs my distracted imitation of my original self" (p. 275).

I remember being able to tell that he was pretty stoned; his eyes seemed quite bloodshot. But the concert was great. The songs I recognized were better live than on record, the band was loose but not sloppy, and Hell's "I really don't give a fuck" attitude just added to the charged anarchic energy. The personal toll that drugs were taking on him wasn't evident, and I had no idea that our enjoyment was a product of his pain.

But Destiny Street failed to redeem the Voidoids' fortunes, and a year or so later Hell attended his first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Shortly afterwards, he writes, "I stopped playing music and stopped using drugs," although that wasn't quite true in either case (p. 282).

Like his music, Hell's I Dreamed offers mixed pleasures. It is not always polished, but it is vivid and immediate. If you had, or have, bohemian dreams, Hell's story is both inspiring and cautionary. And if punk rock (especially in its New York varieties) is or was at all important to you, he played a formative role in its creation.

But he stops writing just when things are about to get really difficult. Sex and drugs and rock and roll is a compelling story—to a point; what happens when you want, need, or have to move past that point? After 1984 Hell married, became a father, divorced, turned forty and more, published novels and wrote a lot of essays and reviews. What did it feel like to go from the King of CBGB to someone who was once sort of famous? Perhaps we'll have to wait for the sequel to know.

One of the liberating things about punk was its utter willingness to speak impolite truths. As Hell writes of The Sex Pistols, "Johnny Rotten said and did things the kids hadn't even known they'd felt, much less that it was possible to say" (p. 228). But when Hell's disdain is turned on others it can feel like he's still smarting from some old wounds. When he writes of Patti Smith that "she was more charismatic than me and a better performer and drew bigger crowds, but she was also full of shit in many ways, and a hypocritical, pandering diva, and her band was generic and mediocre" (p. 203), whatever the degree of truth in his remarks he just sounds jealous of her success.

In fairness, he can also be unsparing with himself. During coke binges, "in emergencies I would crawl around the floor, spastically, my nervous system jerking back and forth in the scary gap between one and zero, trying to identify any little white specks as stray flecks of coke" (p. 270). The image of Hell snorting carpet fluff in desperate bid to satisfy his craving is one I won't soon forget. So much for junkie glamour.

Some of the best writing in the book is about his complicated relationship with Tom Verlaine, the way they pushed and supported one another creatively, but ultimately frustrated and blocked one another as well. Early in the book Hell writes, perhaps thinking of the first years of their friendship, "You needed someone to conspire with, someone to help you maintain the nerve to carry out your ideas. Someone to know what you were thinking (otherwise your thinking didn't really exist). Someone who had qualities you wanted, maybe, too, and that you could acquire to some degree by association" (p. 9). It's fitting that the book ends with a chance encounter between the two in 2011. As one of Hell's songs from Blank Generation puts it, betrayal takes two; perhaps they were not only too different to be able to work together, but too alike.



Hell, of course, not only betrayed (and was betrayed by) others, but in the years of wasted time and squandered talent, himself. Betrayal takes two, except when it only takes one.

The greatest-looking thing in the room, apart from my shoes

This is already a long post, but there's another aspect of Hell's I Dreamed that's unavoidable: his descriptions of the bodies of the women he slept with, or wanted to sleep with, are not only reductive and diminishing, they feature his most impoverished vocabulary and worst writing. Dismaying examples follow, so if you don't want to read them, skip to the final paragraph.

Of Patty Oldenburg, the older woman who introduced the 19-year-old Hell to the New York art and poetry worlds: "She was a firecracker. . .with a pretty little hard ass" (p. 78). Of Roberta Bayley, the photographer who documented the CBGB scene, shot album covers for the Heartbreakers, Voidoids and Ramones, and was crucial in promoting Hell's image: "She had the prettiest breasts I'd ever seen" (p. 152). Of a girlfriend named Carol: "breasts that lifted as if they were scenting the air, an athlete's high butt. . .soft lush see-through blond pubic hair" (p. 154).  ("Breasts that lifted as if scenting the air"?)

Of Paula Yates, encountered on the Clash tour: "the greatest-looking thing in the room, apart from my shoes. She had. . .quite large breasts, fully worthy of their braless, near-full visibility through her wispy blouse" (p. 236). Of actress, model, and writer Cookie Mueller: "the most muscular ass of any woman I'd ever known" (p. 255). Of Patti Smith: "a natural-born sex waif and a pretty-assed comedienne. . .begging to be fucked, skinny as a rod, massive tits deceptively draped in her threadbare overlarge Triumph T-shirt" (p. 109). (Odd that if she was begging to be fucked she never wound up in bed with Hell, to his evident chagrin.)

Yes, it goes on. A Dutch girlfriend named Livia had "a mental age of about nine" and was "temporarily working as a call girl. She had. . .luscious luscious large snow-white tits and blond pubic hair" (again with the blond pubic hair?). One of the most wrenching moments in the book occurs when Livia returns from an encounter with a john, weeping and with a bruised face. She'd been beaten: "We lay in bed together and it was like breathing sadness, like being cut open. On the other hand, we had some money now and I could get drugs for another day" (pp. 274-276).

His girlfriend around the time of Destiny Street "was a coke dealer. . .She'd recently come to New York from San Francisco, where she'd been working as an escort. . .She was stick-skinny, though she had a perfectly ample ass, and her breasts were minuscule and she was embarrassed and self-conscious about that" (pp. 269-270). Hell includes enough information in his description of this woman to make her readily identifiable; I wonder how she feels about being named as a former escort and coke dealer. He also includes a topless photo of another girlfriend, the singer Lizzy Mercier, who died in 2004; obviously, we can't know how she would have felt about that.

It's creepy for a man in his mid-60s (at the time I Dreamed was published) to be gloating over the women who were generous enough to share their bodies with him forty years ago. It also reveals how limited and self-centered his view of them still is. It deeply mars what's otherwise an often thoughtful, and at times harrowing, reckoning with his past.


  1. Table 33. New York - Race and Hispanic Origin for Selected Large Cities and Other Places: Earliest Census to 1990. Retrieved March 8, 2019, from https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0076/NYtab.pdf
  2. After the disintegration of the Dolls, Malcolm McLaren would return to England and become the manager of The Sex Pistols. Similarities between the Pistols' spiky hair, torn T-shirts and safety pins and the look that Hell pioneered at CBGB are probably not coincidental.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

It's not okay: Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite

Watching the recent films Mary Queen of Scots (2018, screenplay by Beau Willimon, directed by Josie Rourke) and The Favourite (2018, screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos) we noticed something odd.

Mary (Saoirse Ronan) speaking to her infant son James in Mary Queen of Scots:




Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, speaking to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in The Favourite:


To quote one of our favorite lines from Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come, 2003): "It's not okay. It. Is. Not. O. K."

Mary Queen of Scots portrays the deadly struggle for the Scottish throne in the 1560s; The Favourite is about the no-holds-barred contest between Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) for political and personal influence in the court of Queen Anne in the early 1700s. "Okay" is American slang that first appeared in the mid-19th century, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Why single out this particular blunder? After all, both films are filled with historical inaccuracies, fanciful scenes, and (often deliberate) anachronisms.

In Mary Queen of Scots there is a final confrontation between Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and Mary, when in reality the royal cousins never met. (The Elizabeth-Mary scene is also the dramatic climax of Donizetti's 1835 opera Maria Stuarda, which was based on Friedrich Schiller's 1800 play Maria Stuart.) Mary Queen of Scots also takes a highly indulgent view of Mary's ruthlessness, plus in Lord Darnley it features the kind of despicable gay villain that I thought had been banished from movies around 1980.

In The Favourite, Sarah dances provocatively with Masham (Joe Alwyn) in front of the queen, and as the scene progresses their moves grow more and more outrageous.



The idea is to make their breaches of decorum as shocking to us as they might have been in the 18th century, without having to provide a lot of exposition about the permissible bounds of behavior at court in 1705. But such deliberate anachronisms put invisible quotation marks around the action, and the consequent irony distances us from the characters' dilemmas rather than making them more vivid. I think it's more powerful to try to draw us into the world of the characters, rather than to bring them so obviously into ours, but for some reason the filmmakers neglected to consult me.

But the use of "okay" in both films is something different. It's not intended to shock or surprise us, or make the characters seem our contemporaries, or provide a shorthand explanation of antiquated social conventions. It's simply a mistake. In both films the characters could have said "It's all right" with no loss of meaning and a much higher degree of historical verisimilitude. Perhaps next time the filmmakers should ask a librarian.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Typing isn't writing: Eduardo Halfon


Eduardo Halfon (photo: Adriana Bianchedi)

In discussing his beginnings as a writer, Eduardo Halfon has stated,
I wanted to write a story before I could write one good sentence. I didn’t yet understand that typing isn’t writing. . . [1]
Halfon may or may not have recognized that he was echoing a famous remark by Truman Capote about Jack Kerouac and other Beat authors: "They're not writers. They're typists." Capote was being dismissive of writers that he thought of as "nonstylists." But as Capote himself recognized, non-style is actually a highly self-conscious style. [2]

Non-stylists write books that commonly feature:
  • narrators or other characters who share biographical details, and sometimes a name, with the writer 
  • action that often takes place in cafés, bars, all-night diners, and other writers' hangouts
  • road trips, travel to unfamiliar places, voluntary or involuntary exile—situations which highlight the main character's sense of alienation, rootlessness, difference or nonconformity
  • A succession of quotidian details intended to provide a sense of gritty, unfiltered realism
  • prose that imitates the rhythms and diction of speech, which is intended to give the impression of being spontaneous and unrevised.
It's a style that is in international literary vogue at the moment. Its contemporary resurgence may be credited in part to the rise to prominence two decades ago of Latin American writer Roberto Bolaño. Other recent non-stylists include Augustín Fernández Mallo, César Aira, and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Despite (perhaps unintentionally) aligning himself with Capote's attack on non-stylists, Eduardo Halfon belongs in their company. His collection of interlinked short stories El boxeador polaco (The Polish Boxer, Bellevue Literary Press, 2012) has an epigram from non-stylist Henry Miller, and features a narrator named Eduardo Halfon who, like his creator, is a professor of literature.


In The Polish Boxer Halfon has a characteristic move: his narrator will assert something, then immediately undercut or contradict the assertion. A paradigmatic instance occurs in the opening of the fourth story, "White Smoke," which is worth quoting because it is so typical of Halfon's style:
When I met her in a Scottish bar, after I don't know how many beers and almost an entire pack of unfiltered Camels, she told me that she liked it when men bit her nipples, and hard.

It wasn't actually a Scottish bar, just some old bar in Antigua, Guatemala, that only served beer and was called (or was referred to as) the Scottish bar. [3]
Within a few paragraphs the uncertainties multiply:
Her hair was dark brown and she had emerald blue eyes, if emerald blue even exists.
I greeted her [friend] while they spoke in Hebrew, laughing, and I thought I heard them mention the number seven at one point, but I'm not sure why.
Without knowing why, I felt a bit guilty.
I hugged her tightly, feeling something that couldn't be named. . . [4]
If you're feeling generous, you can accept that the narrator's recurring uncertainties reflect the way the stories we tell ourselves shift over time, and the ultimate impossibility of knowing the truth about ourselves and others. And this is, indeed, one of the explicit subjects of The Polish Boxer. In "White Smoke" the narrator finds himself thinking about his Polish grandfather, "about the five green digits tattooed on his forearm, which for all my childhood I thought were there, as he used to tell me himself, so that he could remember his telephone number." Our understanding changes, and so pinning down a perception or a feeling in precise language (in this view) falsifies our experience.

As Halfon writes in "A Speech at Póvoa,"
Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a sorcerer might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing. . .Or perhaps literature, as my old friend from Brooklyn used to argue, is no more than the precipitate, zigzagging, rambling discourse of a stutterer. . .As we write, we know that there is something very important to be said about reality, that we have this something within reach, just there, so close, on the tip of our tongue, and that we mustn't forget it. But we always do. [5]
If you're feeling less generous, you may think that it's precisely the writer's task to create the evocative image, to bring out the telling detail, to examine and articulate inchoate feelings, to observe and remember. When Halfon presents an image—"emerald blue eyes"—he immediately forestalls our imaginative engagement by adding the dismissive "if emerald blue even exists." Doesn't the act of writing the phrase bring the idea of "emerald blue" into existence? But this is the kind of writerliness that Halfon refuses, or (since he does offer us the phrase before undercutting it) half-refuses.

Like other non-stylists, Halfon's primary goal is not to write well-crafted sentences. Instead his focus is on identity, and how it is commixed, unrooted and changeable—even for those of us for whom it seems settled. The first story in the collection, "Distant," tells of a gifted student in one of the narrator's literature classes who, when his father dies, must leave school and return to the altiplano to work his family's farm. By the final story, "Sunsets," the former student may have left the farm to become a tour guide at the Mayan ruins of Tikal, and an artist. Several stories in The Polish Boxer recount the narrator's fruitless pursuit of a restlessly wandering pianist who may (or may not) be a Serbian Gypsy. Both the pianist himself and his identity are elusive.

Identity may be Halfon's central concern because his own is extraordinarily multifarious. He has Lebanese and Polish ancestry, was born in Guatemala, lived in the United States between the age of 10 and his graduation with a degree in industrial engineering from NC State, returned to Guatemala as an adult, and now lives once again in the United States. However, in The Polish Boxer it is not national but religious identity that is the most troubling. The narrator of "White Smoke" outrages the Israeli tourist he's just met: "I'm not Jewish anymore, I said, smiling at her, I retired." [6] The book ends with the narrator fleeing the bedroom of his deceased grandfather and throwing his white skullcap into a trash can. We wonder if this extreme gesture may indicate the narrator's dawning recognition that perhaps some aspects of our identities are not so easily discarded.

Two more books by Halfon have been translated into English: Monasterio (Monastery, Bellevue Literary Press, 2014) and Signor Hoffman (Mourning, Bellevue Literary Press, 2018). For more information, see: Bellevue Literary Press: Eduardo Halfon


  1. Eduardo Halfon, "Better not say too much: Eduardo Halfon on literature, paranoia and leaving Guatemala." The Guardian, 4 November 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/books/the-writing-life-around-the-world-by-electric-literature/2015/nov/04/better-not-say-too-much-eduardo-halfon-on-literature-paranoia-and-leaving-guatemala
  2. Pati Hill. "The Art of Fiction XVII: Truman Capote." Paris Review. Issue 16, Spring/Summer 1957, pp. 35-51.  
  3. Eduardo Halfon, "White Smoke," The Polish Boxer, Bellevue Press, 2012, p. 72.
  4. Halfon, pp. 73, 76, 77.
  5. Halfon, pp. 176-177.
  6. Halfon, p. 72.