by Harold Jaffe
Raw Dog Screaming Press, April 2008
Reviewed by Larry Fondation
Questions of Resistance
At a time when Republican rallies resemble mob scenes, at a time when Wall Street greed is crushing Main Street, the metaphorical asphalt pavement and concrete sidewalks buckling as if struck by an earthquake or a bomb, it is certainly timely and right to question the official versions of events and probe the assumed common definition of terms.
After all, as recently as mid-September, John McCain proclaimed the economy “fundamentally sound.”
It is also timely and right to look for pockets of resistance and acts of rebellion, of which there seem to be chillingly few.
While McCain flirts with fascism at public events, playing to jeering, Jacobin crowds, “progressives” – an especially docile and vanishing species in these times – remain predictably quiescent. Even labor unions seem curiously silent.
In one arena or another, we need to pull away from the official leash.
Harold Jaffe is not a docile writer, not at any time. Especially not now.
In 2005, Jaffe’s docufiction collection, Terror-Dot-Gov, questioned – in brief, powerful texts – the official outrage at illicit terrorism, e.g. suicide bombings, alongside the easy acceptance of “official terrorism,” e.g. dropping bombs from planes and “extraordinary rendition.”
Historically, if we stop to consider the Vietnamese dead, Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial would have to be an order of magnitude larger than it is. This observation is mine, but it is the kind of reconsideration that a careful reading of Jaffe pushes one to do.
Jaffe is a needle-sharp epistemological writer, constantly finding new ways to ask what we know and how we know it. He deconstructs what Gramsci called the “ideological hegemony” of the established view, as simplistically swallowed in the 21st century as well as in Gramsci’s own.
In his latest work, a docunovel called Jesus Coyote, Jaffe takes on the Manson myth; the novel is, on its surface, a fictionalized re-telling of the infamous killings of Sharon Tate and six others in Los Angeles in 1969.
Jaffe fashions his narrative from fragments -- newsflashes, transcripts from police reports and district attorneys’ memos, tales from the grave told by the murdered victims – and from multiple points of view. Everybody gets their say. And that is part of his point. The mainstream lurid and sensationalized accounts of the Manson “family” and their murder spree, then and now (family member Susan Atkins was recently denied parole again for the 17th time, despite a diagnosis of terminal cancer), fail to tell the whole story.
Manson was no run-of-the-mill serial killer. Unlike John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer, Manson had a politics. To be certain, his politics (combining race war and science fiction) were almost as paranoid and twisted as his private views (women as sexual acolytes, devoted to him). But what Jaffe’s complex narrative exposes is the fact that – especially startling in our terminally privatized moment (Britney Spears, Paris Hilton) -- Manson was a charismatic political leader as well as a murderer. The book resurrects a side of Manson buried in the official story.
It doesn’t change what Manson did, but it does change the story, and it does agitate and upset us in the way that good art should.
Jaffe renames Manson carefully, invoking both Jesus and the shape-shifting coyote trickster of Native American myth and lore. He is interested in Manson’s magnetism and appeal, both then and now.
From prison, one of his followers, nicknamed “Head Games,” (real name: Hedda Hayman, modeled after Lynnette Fromme who later tried to shoot President Ford) says: “The vast majority of the correspondence I get is less interested in me than in Jesus Coyote, and I understand that. I’m more interested in Jesus Coyote than I am in Hedda Hayman.”
Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter remains the bestselling “true-crime” book of all time. Marilyn Manson did not pick Bundy or Speck or Wournos for a stage name.
Fundamentally, however, Jaffe is trying to explore and excavate Manson as a resistance figure.
By conducting this exploration in a panoramic narrative, Jaffe is able to point the reader to both how little and how much has changed since the 1960s.
In the opening section of the book, a pastiche of police and prosecutors’ documents, Jaffe writes: “The favored theory [for investigators] centered around illicit drugs.” The war on drugs, now as then.
Among the murdered, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski (Naomi Self and Jaroslav Hora in the novel) received far more media attention than grocer Leno La Bianca and his wife Rosemary. Jaffe handles the self-absorption of, and fascination with, celebrity and Hollywood quite deftly. Hora’s “people” fence with the police while he is off in Europe. Snootily and patronizingly, Hora talks about feeling “well-disposed to the counterculture,” i.e. fond of hedonism and inclined towards “slumming it.”
Jump the clock 25 years. According to the Los Angeles coroner’s office, four other people were murdered in LA on the same day as Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were killed in 1994. Nobody knows their names.
But Manson, in addition to his megalomania, was also trying to incite riot and revolution. His actions went beyond twisted private fetish. This public side of the man fascinates Jaffe. He devotes long passages to Manson’s crazy and paranoid, but undeniably, “political” vision. The point is not to adopt it, but to consider it rather than ignore it. Ted Kaczynski is the closest we have to a political “crazy” man in our times, and even the Unabomber began his spree in 1975, ancient history in our anaesthetized Prozac nation.
In his exploration of Manson, Jaffe is reasserting the necessity of righteous rebellion. And, as in all his latest work, Jaffe is probing a central question for our time: how do we so easily condemn the violence of the powerless while we either ignore or embrace the violence of the powerful?
One can quarrel with Jaffe’s choice of protagonist. Manson clearly murdered people. Sarah Palin might perversely argue that former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers would make a better subject. But Jesus Coyote, for all its quick-trigger subject matter, is a complex text. One must avoid simplistic readings. To depict is not to condone. (True documentation has true value. Walker Evans did not augur sharecropper poverty; he photographed it. NWA did not invent gang violence; they rapped about it.) To ask good questions is not to provide definitive answers. But to exhume is to reconsider. Exhumation is-- literally and figuratively –to turn the body over for new clues. But my metaphor is self-consciously strained. Manson is not dead. Jaffe gives him props for that, the Appalachian bastard child. Manson is a survivor – that now bastardized label – for good and for bad.
Manson makes me shiver. But so do the daily headlines. When pondering official and illicit violence, I can scan the papers, look for stories. I can Google Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson and other members of the family. At the time, Bugliosi was a political opportunist, looking to build a career. He sought the death penalty for all involved, even those not connected directly to the murders. He wrote Helter Skelter and made lots of money. And, I can find no evidence that he protested forcefully against the Vietnam War – setting of the most egregious acts of official violence of his time. But Bugliosi has a new book out; it is entitled The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder. I would guess that Bugliosi knows what he is talking about when it comes to trying murder cases. Now he is looking at officially sanctioned violence. Better late than never. I make a note to buy, or borrow, the book.
Meanwhile, I look at my morning newspaper and read that the Dow has fallen by another 700 points. Then I flip through Jesus Coyote again, skimming the section titles – “Real Toads in Imaginary Gardens,” “Leveling the Karma of the Rich.”
Go ahead and swallow your medicine. And read Jesus Coyote.
Harold Jaffe is the author of 14 books, including nine fiction/docufiction collections, one nonfiction/docufiction collection, and four novels. His novels and stories have been translated into German, Japanese, Spanish, French, Dutch, Czech, and Serbo-Croatian. Harold Jaffe has won two NEA grants in fiction, a New York CAPS grant, a California Arts Council fellowship in fiction, and a San Diego fellowship (COMBO) in fiction. Jaffe teaches literature at San Diego State University (San Diego, California) and is editor of Fiction International.
Raw Dog Screaming Press