“My first clear memory is of my father being booed,” writes Tin House magazine co-founder Rob Spillman at the beginning of this convivial, page-turning memoir. From there, the levels of critical appraisal and occasional humiliation only get deeper, as Spillman repeatedly throws himself into the abyss. Which abyss? Propelled by restlessness and a genuinely heroic amount of absinthe, he might say any abyss will do.
“All Tomorrow’s Parties” recounts two timelines of intense travel. In his childhood, he bounces between Berlin and the United States, the locales of his divorced parents, while trying to piece together the mysteries of identity — his own and his father’s. In the second, he and his wife, writer Elissa Schappell, tumble through the ruins and artistic potential of post-wall, pre-unification East Berlin. Each story is about the roller-coaster ride of attempting that hardest of artistic challenges: to experience something, to belong somewhere and to bring back an account like a trophy hunter.
He opens each chapter with a quotation, generally about the artistic impulse, and a “soundtrack” song that is supposed to illuminate the text. In this way, Spillman lays down a gauntlet for himself, as the life had better live up to the statements by Paul Bowles and Rimbaud and the music of Johnny Cash and Sonic Youth. For the most part, it does. That booing sound occurs in Berlin, in 1969, which even a 4-year-old recognizes as a creative mecca “punctuated by guard towers with machine-gun turrets.” Passing through Checkpoint Charlie, and the attendant fear, makes him grow up as an adrenaline junkie. He leans into harm’s way so often that the multiple car crashes toward the end of the narrative are cathartic in a way that only J.G. Ballard might comprehend.
Much of this made an eerie read for me, as his education as an artist is weirdly similar to my own (long-distance flights as an “unaccompanied minor”; slam-dancing as a sign of full commitment; discovering the Paris Review Writers at Work series; a bookstore job at a crucial moment). He worries just as much as I did why he was “cursed to be born at the wrong time and place” and invokes the familiar cringe-worthy hope that everything he and his friends do together “glowed with importance.” He has those postcards of Ginsberg and Burroughs and Bowles, and at a hopeful moment a friend says, “I wonder what the postcards of us will look like.” Ouch. I wondered, too.
But Spillman also struggles with something darker here. Watching the audience and the cast react joyously to the music of “The Magic Flute,” he feels nothing and plummets into worrying that he has no soul. The authentic experience he craves seems to be just out of reach. Thus Berlin calls him back: “If I could get ‘it’ right,” he says, “I would return to being a Berliner, which would define me and make me real, not some nebulous amalgam of other people’s histories and creations.” At times, this citing of literary forebears became actually dangerous. In search of the punk/artist/squatter life, Spillman takes a terrifying walk into a den of soldiers and almost gets himself and his wife killed. But he doesn’t register that. “Would Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac, or Ken Kesey turn back?” he asks. “I don’t think so.”
It’s an endearing thing, that self-doubt wrapped in the desire to be legendary. Ironically, it might be the least legendary moments that most bring his travels to life. When he and Schappell go to Pamplona, the real danger occurs not with the running of the bulls but later, when an intimidating man asks her to dance. One of the best set pieces involves Spillman attempting to get a laundromat to do his laundry in the ruins of East Berlin. With the enthusiasm of a romantic finally in the right place at the right time, he realizes that when capitalism comes, if these guys haven’t figured out how to do laundry the way the West does it, they’re doomed. Alas, even this tiny quest is quixotic, the dryers spin like windmills, and Spillman learns a hard lesson about how little valiant intent matters when faced with intractable mind-sets.
Need I add that this scene tips us casually to Spillman launching himself as the editor of a literary magazine?
Now, about those quotations and songs. I’m not fond of them as they accrue. I begin to understand that phrase “the anxiety of influence.” Spillman begins one chapter with this: “Put down the pen someone else gave you. No one ever drafted a life worth living on borrowed ink” — Jack Kerouac. Great quotation, and its use is sly, a Möbius strip of implications that Spillman doesn’t need.
I want to assure him, as I’ve assured myself: Worrying about having the experience is the experience. It just happens that life is fabulously anxious. Writers are not the ones invited to the dance. We’re the ones with our noses to the window, wondering about the people who seem to be having such a good time. Spillman’s life is a good one to read, and when people start to quote from it, the dance will continue.
Glen David Gold is the author of the novels “Carter Beats the Devil” and “Sunnyside.”
Ron Charles will be back next week.
By Rob Spillman
Grove. 344 pp. $25