Sunday Pages: "Great Jones Street"

Don DeLillo meditates on fame.

Dear Reader,

I am back from my writer’s retreat/vacation, spent in a cozy second-floor apartment on the main street of a small town in Columbia County, New York. While I managed mostly to avoid the hue and cry of Twitter, I could not fully escape from Donald John Trump. MAGA signs were everywhere in this tiny town, one dumb slogan after another.

NO MORE BULLSHIT, for example, played just fine four years ago, when change was on the menu, but festooned beneath TRUMP 2020, may as well be a white flag of surrender—at least in the mind of a rational human. A bumper sticker proudly proclaimed that SOCIALISM SUCKS, but it’s like, dude, no one’s arguing that with you; we just want everyone to have affordable healthcare. The FUCK CUOMO decal on the back window of the tricked-out Ford F-150, meanwhile, was preposterous to anyone able to understand the national covid-19 numbers, where the evidence indicates, incontrovertibly, that our governor’s bold leadership during the pandemic saved many thousands of lives. The truck may as well have sported a FUCK FAUCI sticker…but I believe the MAGA stores sell those, too. What’s next? SALK SUCKS?

Some subversive soul did carefully ink—in Sharpie, significantly—the words FUCK TRUMP on the inside of the gazebo near the river walk. Otherwise, I felt very exposed there, with my quarantine-long hair and the triumphant Biden-Harris sticker on my car.

Perhaps because I was going to be holed up in a strange apartment, I had the urge to re-read Great Jones Street, Don DeLillo’s finest, if most underappreciated, novel. It begins with this meditation on fame:

Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. I mean long journeys across gray space. I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic. Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation. Even if half-mad he is absorbed into the public’s total madness; even if fully rational, a bureaucrat in hell, a secret genius of survival, he is sure to be destroyed by the public’s contempt for survivors. Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counselors of lesser men would consider bad publicity—hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs.

If you knew nothing of the plot, or the pub date, you might think that this was the first paragraph of a new novel about a rogue president similar to Donald John Trump. I mean, terror to the dreams of the republic? Feeds itself on outrage? Bad publicity? Bizarre litigation and treachery and drugs? That’s our despotic, megalomaniacal, sue-happy, seditious Adderall addict, surely?

But no. Great Jones Street came out in 1973, and is about a rock star, the wonderfully named Bucky Wunderlick, who vanishes at the peak of his powers and popularity. I first read it in 2002 or thereabouts, after buying a used copy in a Salvation Army in Astoria. Devouring it, I marveled at how DeLillo, writing when Nixon was in office, could somehow produce a prescient novel about Kurt Cobain.

In fact, the character is loosely based on Bob Dylan, who took refuge in a house near Woodstock, not far from where I sit typing this, when the fame became too much. Thing is, Bucky Wunderlick is cooler than Bob Dylan, and way cooler than the terminally unhip Trump.

Oh, and I left out the last line of that rousing opening paragraph, which summons images of the late Nirvana front-man:

Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide.

Trump is, without question, and with apologies to the Kardashians, the most famous person alive. Has he achieved the “true fame” that DeLillo describes, and if so, does that “natural law” apply to him?

The election is over. Trump has lost—in the popular vote, in the electoral college, in the streets of America, in the eyes of the world. His future prospects are bleak. He is massively in the red—he would have to generate something like $200 million a year just to service his enormous debt. Deutsche Bank is going to foreclose on his properties. He is under investigation by the State of New York, from whose long legal arms a Pence pardon cannot save him. As soon as he is no longer the president, he will have to turn over his finances, and his DNA, to the authorities. He is going to spend the rest of his life in court, in prison, or in misery (or, perhaps, in a foreign country without an extradition treaty, like the UAE).

As the humiliation of the defeat sinks in, as he struggles vainly to control a narrative he will never regain, the malignant narcissist in the White House is at risk for self harm. There is an outbreak of covid-19 in the ranks of the Secret Service; the very man they are sworn to protect has made them all sick. Even so, one hopes that their mission to keep Trump away from individuals who seek to harm him includes the president himself.

We have never had a president die by his own hand. Let’s hope this isn’t another tradition that Trump bucks.


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Photo credit: Yours Truly.