William Bluthe

Gary did not wait to hear back from William Bluthe. He was pleased, however, that, despite their mutual acrimony, they were still on terms to ask favors.

He’d met Bluthe on the aforementioned trip to Thailand, a peculiar enterprise that was advertised both in the gay and the straight porno trade. The two groups of respondents eyed each other warily, each one expecting the other to begin ranting, but nothing of the kind emerged. In fact, they found a certain unexpected camaraderie in the pathos of meeting the prostitutes, the squalor, the “wink-wink” of buying something for money that becomes so empty of emotion that you can feel the last vestige of emotion drain from you — once the initial excitement of the forbidden is addressed.

One night, when he was to have been enjoying the fruits of a too young Thai girl, Gary found himself next to Bluthe at the bar. The latter confessed that he had no desire to sleep with any of the prostitutes and was just conducting research. (Not that he stuck to his guns, so to speak, but the impression was still made.) After a few drinks, Gary started asking about his research. Bluthe was a specialist in what he called “the morally untouchable,” by which he meant here the johns who enabled the international sex trade.

He had just finished a book on “accidental killers” — people on the other side of the “there but for the grace of God” line. He told Gary about a young girl, now a fully grown woman, who accidentally drove over a trove of bicyclists, while she leaned over to find a CD in her bag in the back seat. And he told the tale of an elderly gentleman, a driver for a childcare center, who left a sleeping charge in a van during a blazing summer day. In both cases, Bluthe did his best to find out what it was about their personalities — in Freudian and Lacanian terms — that contributed to their accidents. But mostly, he was interested in how they reacted to their fates. Anger? Guilt? Obsession? Repression? In dozens of these interviews, he explained to Gary in a slurred and world-weary voice, he heard again and again: ‘Sure, I’m guilty, but I’m not that person.’ ‘It’s not me, just a momentary lapse.’

“Just a momentary lapse, do you hear,” he said looking Gary right in the eye. “They would sit there and expect compassion from me. Of course, that was only once I put them at ease that I wasn’t going to accuse them of anything, that I was really and truly interested in their lives. Jesus, man, they would open up and let a torrent of excuses and laments over me like you wouldn’t believe.”

“I suppose I understand that,” said Gary.

“You understand that?!” shouted the barely understandable Bluthe. “You fucking understand that?! Jesus H Christ, man, we’re all at best 80 years of momentary lapses. How could you not understand that?”

“So you feel for your subjects?”

“Fuck no. They’re all selfish bastards, with no self-reflection and no self- respect. But contempt doesn’t necessarily erase empathy.” He grinned and, in one of the moments that, under other circumstances, he might have had occasion to write about, his eyes rolled up into his sockets, his muscles loosened in an instant, and he fell off his stool. As he collapsed, his head fell forward and his forehead planted itself right on top of his shot glass. It made a bruise and an impression on his skin that he never completely lost.

Later Gary had another occasion to run across Bluthe, who once again had effected a shift in his research agenda. In fact, his agenda was an ever-changing set of questions, for which he never felt he had really hit the right analysis — and for which his colleagues at SCS had only the lowest of opinions.

They had hired him some years earlier because they thought they needed someone to do this new theory stuff, which none of them understood or cared to understand. Still, the department needed to seem current when trying to appeal to students, so they took one of their traditionalist positions — Shakespeare or Milton, later no one was so sure what position, since they all taught more or less what they cared to — and they turned it into a cultural theory position, with all the requisite feminist, post-colonialist, and post-Freudian overtones.

What they didn’t anticipate was that everyone else wanted a theorist, too. They found themselves scrambling for one of the theory bottomfeeders, a perennial adjunct like Bluthe — one of a multitude that talked the talk and walked the walk, but whose idiosyncratic interests overshot the underdog sensibility of the primary theorists and moved into the realm of the morbid — accidental murderers, alien abductees, abandoned comatose bodies, and the psychotic visions of the elderly.

This last interest, the shortest lived of Bluthe’s projects, led him back to Gary. During one of their extended drinking binges — which occurred back in the US but before Gary had to return to his home — Gary told the tale of his grandmother’s dementia. It rankled on Bluthe’s sense of perversity over a matter of weeks, so much so that one day he jumped on a plane and landed at the airport without even a word of warning to Gary. When Gary answered the knock with a barrage of curses ready, he let them loose in a wholly different spirit: anger, joy and a giant load of suspicion.

Later that spring, they met again in Los Angeles and paid a series of visits to Gary’s grandmother, in between drinking binges and tours of a variety of voyeuristic haunts. Bluthe never published anything based on the transcripts of those visits — by the end of the interviews he had already decided that abduction was a more fruitful form of apocalyptic vision — but he did later publish a fictionalization of Mrs. Kellogg’s ontology in an ephemeral literary magazine. I happen to have a copy of that, and may let it occupy you all for a few days when I have other obligations.