RIDING SHOTGUN ON THE CRAZY TRAIN
Review by Joseph Clifford
We’ve all known a Dwaine Fitzgibbon, the stark raving muse in Peter Selgin’s Life Goes to the Movies, which although called a novel reads much more like a memoir. Dwaine is that out-there, outspoken friend we apologize for before even introducing. We usually meet him in our early 20s, just as our world is opening up and we’re trying to assimilate. He is dangerous, bad news, and thoroughly captivating. The kind of guy the women want to fuck, and the guys want to be, until each gets to know him a little better, at which point, they strap on the running shoes and start looking for higher ground.
When Nigel, on the cusp of his twentieth birthday, first encounters Dwaine in a stodgy figure drawing class in 1977, he discovers more than simply a kindred spirit; Dwaine is everything Nigel wishes he could be. Fearless, dashing and handsome, a filmmaker from the fringe who quits jobs by pissing on employer tables, he is the living embodiment of Tennyson’s battle call to drink life to the lees. Whereas Nigel is meek and reserved, a doormat of a man, Dwaine is a thrill-ride a minute. And in exchange for this newfound excitement in his life, Nigel willingly overlooks his new friend’s one fatal flaw: Dwaine is bat-shit crazy.
Traipsing over New York City with a handheld camcorder, Vietnam vet Dwaine and his protégé Nigel make short homemade movies, dubbing themselves “Proto Realists,” even if neither is entirely sure what the term means, before setting off for adventures across America, like an updated Sal and Dean, drawn to life on the road in pursuit of fame on film.
While there is plenty of action propelling the novel, mostly through the ongoing series of wacky predicaments Dwaine’s lunacy invites, Life Goes to the Movies is, at its heart, a love story between two men, even if that relationship is never fully consummated. Complicating matters, both are in love with Venus Dwiggins, a sultry, cool albino who is part of Dwaine’s raconteur entourage. A cynic might say Nigel and Dwaine compete for Venus’s affection because they are too repressed to act on their own sexual impulses for one another. But that would be a copout. Each truly loves Venus (or rather Dwaine loves her as much as he can love anyone not constantly pandering to his mammoth ego). Yet she can only offer them so much in return. Even if Nigel and Dwaine’s feelings for one another transcend the purely carnal, their bond is impenetrable, and intimidating to outsiders.
Following her failed marriage to Dwaine and subsequent affair with Nigel, Venus expresses her frustration and resignation in a letter, explaining why she can’t be with either of them. “You and Dwaine love each other,” she tells Nigel, “and no one is ever going to change that. Even if I could, I don’t think I’d want to.”
If the love angle is its heart, celluloid escapism is LGTTM’s body. Both Nigel and Dwaine live in a fantasy world, the former because, like Jack Kerouac, he is unable to completely shake off the strict confines of his cultural roots to go all in, and the latter because it is a coping mechanism, a way to escape the horror he’s seen. And, boy, has Dwaine seen some horror.
Part of the fun of Life Goes to the Movies is trying to figure out what in his past is authentic. Hardly forthright, Dwaine sprinkles in clues about what drives his art only when it is most self-serving. As readers, we wane between accepting him at face value and thinking he is full of shit. We’re not alone. Following the discovery of yet another historical inaccuracy, Nigel tells us, “I sat…wondering if everything Dwaine had ever told me about himself is a lie, if I had been nothing more for him than a repository for his cinematic fictions.” Which of course is the danger of life with the artist. Where does real life let off and the fiction of creation begin? In a few sentences, Nigel answers his own question: “Then I wondered: does it matter? So what if Dwaine’s past is nothing more than a series of hyper-gritty movie scenes? Does that make it any less frightening, or real?”
Nigel’s fear runs deeper than Dwaine’s tour as a medic in Vietnam or his supposed time on the frontlines as a terrorist in the IRA. What Nigel is actually scared of is his attraction to Dwaine, and, again, we’re going way beyond the sexual. Nigel is infatuated with Dwaine the moment he pulls him out of that art class and lets him star in his low-budget, micro features. Once the initial thrill wears off, most in Nigel’s situation would take off sprinting. Dwaine reveals his unstable and destructive tendencies fairly early on, and in this regard he is actually less responsible for the ruin that comes about than is Nigel, who knows Dwaine is trouble, and yet still allows himself to be sucked down that rabbit hole. For Nigel, acting in Dwaine’s dramas, even when relegated to a supporting player, beats fuckall of his staid life in the Connecticut suburbs (trust me, I grew up in the CT ’burbs; it does).
One of Dwaine’s greatest attributes—OK, the only thing he really has going for him—is that he is the real deal; what you see is what you get. This may sound like a contradiction, since it was just pointed out that Dwaine might be completely full of shit. But it’s all there on the page. Like any great mystery, after the detective makes the Big Discovery and the reader returns to add up the pieces, he will find the clues were there all along. Dwaine is nothing if not a model of consistency. He may as well have nailed a giant sign to that oversized forehead of his that reads “Do Not Touch.” Not that that would’ve deterred Nigel.
As a culture we love witnessing train wrecks and meltdowns. What’s not to love from a safe, removed distance? That Nigel gladly signs up to sit shotgun next to Dwaine on a fantasy-fueled flight that ultimately ends in a VA mental hospital says much more about passenger than it does pilot. Dwaine, driven by his desire to circumvent the rules that apply to everyone else, wishes to create his own reality, because, simply put, he has no chance of success as the rules are currently constructed. Nigel does have a chance, though when he eventually takes it, trading the uncertainty of film for the security of advertising, he feels like a sellout. Even if we know it is the right call.
“I used to believe him when he said he wanted movies to live up to reality,” Nigel tells us of why he splits from Dwaine. “But it’s not true. He wants reality to live up to the movies.” Which is a surefire recipe to be letdown.
Movies, as an art form, work so well because they provide an escape. Two hours where real-life problems and expectations fade into the background. Fade, not disappear; and delaying the inevitable only means you’re going to have more work waiting for you when you eventually return. Some don’t return. Some find a way to treat life like a permanent vacation, however frivolous or tortured or burdensome to others. There is something refreshing about being around someone like that; someone like Dwaine who champions thumbing his nose at convention and revels in thwarting cherished moral codes. For a while. But it isn’t a very practical way to live. And it gets exhausting.
Life Goes to the Movies is the intense intersection of these divergent paths, one man’s growing up, and another’s going to great lengths to never have to.
And therein lies its appeal. In short, the push and pull inside all of us.
Joe Clifford is the editor of The Flash Fiction Offensive and producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA. His short story collection, Choice Cuts, and noir novel, Wake the Undertaker, will be published by Snubnose Press, 2012. The rest of Joe’s writing can be found at www.joeclifford.com.