Friday, May 3, 2013

Excerpt from “Beneath the Underground” by Bob Black

Gerry Reith (1959-1984) was not the typical marginal, since there isn’t one, but he might have been the quintessential one. He grew up on a farm in Connecticut. In his teens he was placed in a mental hospital, I don’t know why, an experience from which he never fully recovered. Soon afterwards he became a Bakuninist/Kropotkinist anarchist and got busted for anti-nuclear activism at Seabrook in New Hampshire. The anti-nuclear left of the late ’70s wasn’t enough to satiate his hunger for freedom, and he became a (laissez-faire) libertarian, influenced by popularizations of the Austrian-school economics of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises which seemed to offer a self-regulating market system of social freedom. Over the years in which he absorbed and engaged other, avant garde influences — dada, surrealism, situationism — he never completely sundered his ties to the Libertarians. In fact he was, at his death, the Vice Chairman and newsletter editor of the minuscule Wyoming Libertarian Party, although he had announced his withdrawal from its (electorally oriented) activities.

He then went west for college (unfinished, I believe) and passed the last six years of his life in Sheridan, Wyoming — the second largest city in the state but, with 18,000 people, no cosmopolis. Working the night shift as a motel desk clerk, he saw a different world than his neighbors did. They liked him anyway, in spite of his ideas which, at every stage in his rapid intellectual evolution, were unusual. Around 1981 he started sending out feelers by mail, and he found his own kind. His small disposable income went for postage, books, magazine subscriptions and photocopying (well, also for liquor and methedrine, if the truth be known). In those days he resided in a flophouse with Veterans Hospital outpatients and other down-and-outs whom he befriended (reading aloud to them from Don Quixote, for instance). He halfheartedly practiced with Sheridan’s only, abortive rock band, but he spent more time with such leftists and libertarians as the town contained. With one of the latter, who as “Sun Tzu” later contributed to Reith’s book Neutron Gun, he commenced his first original political project: the Word of Truth Ministry.

Sharing a Menckenesque hatred of small-town piety, the two produced a series of short pamphlets which, taking the Bible deadpan, at face value, proved that the answer to questions like “Did God Ordain the Holocaust?” and “Was Satan Behind the American Revolution?” was “yes.” Sun Tzu, a preacher’s kid, did the actual writing, but Reith as corresponding secretary had to answer for them as the faithful wrote in to complain. They may have done their work too well, since a group of neo-Nazis in Georgia reportedly reprinted the Holocaust pamphlet. The person to complain of this, a punk teen named Carly Sommerstein, ended up as a Neutron Gun contributor, so the joke was perhaps on the Nazis. But the point is, from Day One, Reith was playing with fire.

Soon Reith was writing — every sort of thing, to everyone: posters, hundreds of letters, political tracts, fictions, parables, murky Burroughsian narratives, book reviews, a few poems. First letters, later articles and tales went to apas, fanzines, and to the unorthodox, abuser-friendly fringes of the anarchist and libertarian movements whom he did much to connect in a larger anti-authoritarian dialog. He had surprising success smuggling his ideas into the local dailies which seem to have tolerated him as a Wild West individualist eccentric, which of course he was. The police were less receptive, though, to his glue-and-poster rampages down Main Street, and they even arrested him once for throwing snowballs at the Dairy Queen. Plain-clothes surveillance of an April 15 antitax picket thrown up by the Libertarian Party roused his paranoid fears, although not to the pitch they reached when he once complained his boss was using “Masonic mind-control techniques” on him!

Kooks are an acquired taste not shared by many, but if Reith and other marginals are in some respects crackpots, there is more to them than that. Reith’s honesty and his rapidly developing literary prowess earned him a central place in the transcontinental postal salon which brought together wayward poets, bare-knuckle artists and meta-leftist radicals in the early ’80s. A voracious reader, Reith became a teacher; he brokered Mishima and Pynchon to the politicos, workers’ councils to the libertarian right, and irreligion to the general public. Not all his syntheses came off, but the conventional wisdom was such obvious folly that Reith looked elsewhere, anywhere, for pieces to the puzzle. It came down to this. How could the cause of freedom, which (in any of the many formulations familiar to him) had few adherents, triumph except as the imposition of an enlightened elite and, in victory, defeat itself? An unpublished Reith story describes a Political Science class project — a successful social revolution which, without infringing any property rights, parleys gift-giving into competitive advantage until the Fortune 500 and their ally the state are bought out. Reith’s Neutron Gunstories are maybe more realistic in regarding a few fortunately situated terrorists and assassins as the catalysts of a cleansing cataclysm, but Reith’s nonfiction opinion was that such efforts — by the anarchist Direct Action bombers in Canada, for instance — were counter-productive. What did that leave?

Education, just what he’d been doing for two or three years, with no pay-off in sight. His students, unlike those of his fictitious Poli-Sci professor, had their own pre-emptive problems, and they were scattered far and wide. Reith never met most of his closest friends. The very sophistication and systematic tenacity of his scrutiny of would-be-world-savers was a source of despair. He figured, reasonably enough, that if there was a viable strategy for social change, he would have gotten wind of it. A late text, “Note on the Impossibility of Reading Your Way to Liberty,” says that he used to enthuse over a mailbox-ful of anarchism, but now it bored and bothered him. For someone like Reith, an article like this amounted to a suicide note, although the one he finally did write was more succinct. His enlarged ability to interpret the world in no way increased his power to change it.

A failed love affair deepened his depression. His book Neutron Gun seemed endlessly delayed by the publisher’s financial and other problems, and didn’t appear till a year after his death. Finally, the post office which had been his life-line to another world, albeit only a world of ideas, became the instrument of his destruction. A correspondent’s letter was “accidentally” misdelivered to the local police, then turned over to the FBI, which questioned Reith’s neighbors. Apparently the casual use of words like “anarchism” was enough to activate the G-Men of the High Plains. Reith called the FBI which refused to hand over the mail and added that “we know all about you.” It was a bunch of bull and Reith, in his last letters, said so, but he’d been driven to the brink. He left a note that said, “I have to get out, or die.” In the event, he died, he shot himself. Reportedly he’d toted up the pros and cons of life and death, and finding them evenly balanced, he flipped a coin.

From Goethe’s fictional Werther to the not much more realistic punk bad boy Sid Vicious, the suicide of alienated youths has become a cliché. (It’s also claiming the lives of more and more American teenagers.) Reith is representative of the marginals not by the way he went out (I know of only one other suicide in the marginals milieu) but rather in the range and intensity of his interests. His writing, though at times tendentious, at its best is crisp and vigorous, without wasted words. He saw the universe as essentially disorderly and depicted it through vignettes of stylized confrontation. The strain of humor which infuses much; marginals work is, in his case, mordant rather than manic. Reith’s writing is by no means all downbeat or doctrinaire, either. On topics further away from the gut issues of freedom and truth he could relax and be charming. A good example is his — book review? operator’s manual? — “Quixote: How to Use,” which appears in John Bennett’s anthology A Good Day to Die. But for his book Neutron Gun — half of it by Reith, half by his pen-pal partisans — Reith deliberately chose stories which directly forced political questions into the open. He wanted to settle accounts with modernism, liberalism, religion, consumer society, Marxism, et. al., because they stood in the way of what he wanted from life. Maybe he hoped his book would be the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the ’80s. He’d tried everything else, after all.

Jack Saunders says that, while no great book goes unpublished, many great books go unwritten. Reith may be the author of some of those books. The book he did assemble is a promise of more to come and an unsettling ensemble of portents. As an anthology it introduces the American equivalent of the samizdat press. It discloses a level of discontent which is deeper than that of the issue-oriented ’60s (with all due respect); there is more water under the bridge. But what is its capacity for action? That was the question that stumped Gerry Reith.

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