The Doctor and the Heretic by Andy Nowicki
published by Hopeless Books, copyright 2014
a review by James J. O'Meara
“'If this is grace,' he muttered through clenched teeth, 'then why does it feel like Hell?'” ～ “Tears of the Damned: A Counterfactual Tale”
“Turning a page in Huxley you say, ‘There but for the grace of God…’ — and suddenly you wonder whether Divine Grace has intervened in time.” ～ Charles J. Rolo, The World of Aldous Huxley, “Introduction”
No sooner has the world had the chance to digest The Columbine Pilgrim (fat chance, that) than Andy Nowicki, like a demented TV cooking contestant, pops up with this poisonous little amuse-bouche.
The reader coming from the Pilgrim and wanting more of the same might be well advised to turn to the middle of the book and the second tale, “Tears of the Damned: A Counterfactual Tale.” With a protagonist who boldly announces himself as “Dylan Klebold,” we are now in sci-fi fantasy territory, where Nowicki addresses his Columbine demons with an intriguing premise: an alternative timeline in which the two teens become not mass murderers but solid, even heroic, citizens, their crimes appearing only in obsessive dreams. Or are these dreams? They seem much more real than their “real” lives. In a twist worthy of the old Twilight Zone, it seems that crime can be sidestepped, but not guilt and punishment—an interesting explanation for our general despair.
Speaking of crime and punishment, the next tale returns to what I identified in my review of Columbine as cockroach territory. “Autobiography of a Violent Soul” gives us a vivid specimen, motionless on his filthy mattress, one who has reacted to the vicissitudes of life by seemingly taking Noel Coward’s advice to “rise above it” but actually storing up a detailed inventory of grudges so extensive that only God could take the blame.
He’s the sort of life of the party who, when the first girl he has the courage to call hangs up on him, launches into a meditation on “the Fall”:
Summer was over. Summer is always over before you know it, slain by the ubiquitous, unstoppable tyrant known as autumn, that ruthless season fo death, always on the march, which captures and devours its prey in one murderous lunge. The air turns chill, the leaves shrivel and die, and their corpses fall from their branches and litter the ground. Summer is the illusion—fall the reality. Life is the ephemera, death the essence.
The Fall, get it, hypocrite lecteur?
Indeed, when it comes to erudite whining he gives Beckett’s equally mattress-bound schizophrenic Malone a run for his money:
Through existing, I’ve gotten attached to existence. Bit by bit, I’ve been initiated into one after another successive degradations of being, and following each degradation, my soul has been further debased, reduced, polluted, and corrupted. After first suffering the misfortune of conception, I was born and proceeded through a mostly happy childhood… I have complaints about my parents, of course. Who doesn’t? I’m sure they had complaints about me too. But they loved me, fed me, sheltered me, clothed me, and kept me safe from harm, and I was happy…I don’t blame them for what has become of me, far from perfection as they might have been. I don’t blame my mother and father, who in a sense were my “makers,” but only biologically speaking. Rather, I blame my Maker; I blame the One who created me from scratch, ex nihilo, the one who gave me flesh and bone, and put me here to suffer, bleed, and die. It’s He I indict. I am alone to blame for my mistakes, but He alone is to blame for the mistake of forcing my life upon me, of making me who I am and causing me to be who I have become.Yes, I blame God!
I shall be neutral and inert. No difficulty there. Throes are the only trouble, I must be on my guard against throes. But I am less given to them now, since coming here. Of course I still have my little fits of impatience, from time to time, I must be on my guard against them, for the next fortnight or three weeks. Without exaggeration to be sure, quietly crying and laughing, without working myself up into a state. Yes, I shall be natural at last, I shall suffer more, then less, without drawing any conclusions, I shall pay less heed to myself, I shall be neither cold nor hot any more, I shall be tepid, I shall die tepid, without enthusiasm. I shall not watch myself die, that would spoil everything. Have I watched myself live?Let me say before I go that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life and then the fires and ice of hell and in the execrable generations to come an honoured name. (p. 165)
Perhaps Beckett’s decrepit protagonist has lived long enough with his ramblings to become more succinct, but the same spirit, composed of squalor and Gnosticism, is there, as well as in his final act of supposedly “poetic” violence—or would be, if only he could find a reason to get up off the mattress.
And speaking of getting off [sorry, too long an acquaintance with the cockroach does tend to coarsen one’s sensibilities] the title story of this collection represents a change in polarity, taking us into the inner life of Dr. Carol Golden, an attractive, professionally successful but sexually unfulfilled widow, right down to her various fantasies, fleshly folds, and fluids.
The fluids are inspired by a Penthouse-style letter from an anonymous patient, demanding that she
Wear a skirt, my love. Wear it, if you wish, during our session, but more importantly, wear it in your life! Let the spirit of life rush between your legs and buoy you up in grand ecstasy—be free from grief and pain.
She quickly identifies this as the work of Fenton Balonsky, who, in the midst of 21st century America, is still Slavic enough to have seen and even dwelt briefly, in Hell, and can smell “degeneracy and despair” even in his colleagues at the seminary he thought would provide refuge. He uses the Church to “ride the tiger” [Evola’s phrase is quoted] until blossoming [like a man-eating plant] into another Ramen-eating, manifesto-writing Gnostic with an urge to tell all to a psychiatrist before killing himself.
This being Nowicki-land, one dreads their inevitable encounter, expecting either a humiliating mistake to be brooded on for years or an axe-murder, but doctor and heretic find they have more in common than they, or the reader, may have suspected, and Nowicki manages to contrive an ending that, for him, is almost worthy of a Hollywood rom-com, but without entirely betraying his dour weltanschauung. Bravo!
Nowicki seems to be shaping up as the Alternative Right’s Aldous Huxley, who also blended an obsessive focus on the physical grotesquerie of ordinary existence (although even Nowicki has yet to top Huxley’s lovers inundated with the exploded guts of a dog dropped from an airplane) with deep—or lofty, if you prefer—spiritual intimations, in the hope that by intensifying the one the other may be conjured into existence.