If more writers could write like Richard Hell, I’d be a happier man.
Hell doesn’t write very much, or very often. He’ll give us one new book of poetry or a slim paperback novel every few years. Godlike, his first novel since 1997’s superb Go Now, is an absolute pleasure and a perfect distillation of this unique author’s talents.
Godlike purports to be the scribblings of a middle-aged poet named Paul Vaughn who sits in a mental hospital reminiscing about a younger poet named R. T. Wode, but it becomes quickly apparent that Hell is basing the story on the real-life relationship between two 19th Century French poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. He tells the tale with a light, glancing touch. Imagine if Jim Jarmusch made a movie about Verlaine and Rimbaud, and you get the idea. The Vaughn/Verlaine character also resembles Richard Hell himself, and the story is updated to Lower East Side New York City circa 1971.
But enough about the plot, because when Hell writes I only care about the sentences. I couldn’t get through half a page without pausing for a big smile or a grateful sigh of recognition. Hell’s writing is pointed, sharp, like a junkyard of broken glass. Surprising connections abound, celebrating random oddness, reaching for beauty or truth:
To give offense was his mission, his meaning … People say James Dean was the same way, mean and arrogant and competitive. And I remember having this revelation watching Bette Davis on-screen one time. That everything that was magnificent about her in the movie would be impossibly obnoxious in the same room with you …
Nixon the opposite of Dylan, right? Does that make them creators of each other? What would you do with that? Was there anywhere to go with that? Dylan’s name looked like Dylan too … They both have hanging noses and tense mouths. Richard Nixon — cross-eyed, his tight downturned lips where the spit leaks out at the corners. What if you switched their names?
Why are soap containers so beautiful? The packaging, I mean. Brillo, Ivory, Tide, Comet. It can’t be a coincidence. But the thing I really love to see, that gladdens my heart, is a thick stand of empty two-liter generic soda bottles pressed against each other on the floor. The soft gleanings, the complexity of the light, the humility, the blue labels, the uniform bottle shape in the random blob of the clustering …
Snot is white blood cells that’ve died fighting germs.
Some writers are dull at heart, and mask their dullness with literary complexity and intellectual obscurity. I don’t like writers like that. Hell is my kind of writer; his sentences are rational, direct, clear as water. It’s the ideas behind the words that stand surreal and gather poetic mystery.
Like Paul Verlaine himself, Richard Hell suffuses his writings with images of filth and depravity but expresses, through it all, a surprisingly affirmative and affectionate view of life. As the pages of Godlike progress, we know that Vaughn will have to shoot Wode (without seriously injuring him), that Vaughn will go to prison and that Wode will disappear, reemerge and die. After this all plays out, Vaughn tells us the difference between Wode and himself, which is the difference between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine:
He looked at emotions as a scientist, but there are things I know more about than he did. I know that love is real.”
I think this is also the difference between hundreds of mediocre writers and Richard Hell, a great modern transgressive poet and author who writes about nothing but the joy of our world, and of life.