No More Sell-Outs

What's the devil to do? Back in the day, there were deals to be made. We all know the mythic version of the story: Faust wants all the knowledge in the world, signs on the dotted line with Mephisto

Nov 15, 2006 at 2:06 pm

What's the devil to do?

Back in the day, there were deals to be made. We all know the mythic version of the story: Faust wants all the knowledge in the world, signs on the dotted line with Mephistopheles and gains it all for the mere price of his soul.

That simple gentlemen's agreement actually has been remade countless times throughout history. It could be said that some of the specific contracts have provided civilization with truly astounding cultural advances mainly because the parties involved had ambition and vision.

Supposedly Robert Johnson was a so-so guitar picker before his fateful trip to the Crossroads. When he emerged, after a brief absence from the scene, he played like a man with extra hands and one of those fancy gimmick guitars you used to see in 1980s Cheap Trick videos, the ones with three or four necks — but Johnson was doing it all on one rickety wood frame.

Of course, the hellhounds nipping at his butt while he was shooting off multiple rounds of fiery licks might have had a little something to do with things.

In his segment for the BMW short film series The Hire, director Tony Scott (Domino, the upcoming Deja Vu) revisited and updated this classic folktale with none other than James Brown. Back in mid-1950s, Brown had a rendezvous at a fork in the road and became the hardest working man in the business.

In the film he finds himself "unable to scare the kids" because he "can't do the splits no more," so he makes a pilgrimage to Las Vegas — Sin City, where else? — to renegotiate his deal with the Prince of Darkness (Gary Oldman looking more like Nosferatu). He proposes a race along the Sunset Strip at dawn for an extension with his driver (Clive Owen) versus the Prince and his manservant (a perfectly cast Danny Trejo).

It's all just foolish talk, Brown tells his driver before they hit the Strip, but when all is said and done — and of course the BMW roadster has helped him "trade a sunrise for a sunset" — James Brown reclaims his destiny and the ability to do those impossible splits like nobody else.

I've been thinking, though, that maybe those old school deals are passé and Mephistopheles is getting off cheap now. Our fast-paced world — coupled with the attitude that we need and want everything right here right now while we live in the moment without a care for the future — means that we're selling ourselves short in these new contracts for fame and fortune or whatever it is we want. We lack imagination and a sense of the big picture.

As a good Catholic boy, I know this might sound blasphemous, but I've been contemplating my own trip to haggle with old horn head. You see, every writer dreams of the big prize, the Great American Novel. Or at least writers used to have their eyes on that prize.

The Great American Novel of old is now more about claiming the No. 1 spot on The New York Times Bestseller List. Or maybe now it's landing atop the Amazon list.

I'm sensing that I'm a bit of a throwback likely to throw a wrinkle in the negotiations. I don't want to sell a gazillion copies, because I figure people read reviews, run out to bookstores (or place orders online from the comfort of their homes) and stare at the pretty dust covers until it's time to pick up the remote control and surf through the endless stream of reality shows.

That's not to say there aren't readers out there. But let's be honest: Most members of the book-buying public (if the stats are accurate) are focused on Dr. Phil's latest relationship guide or the adventures of smart, quippy-quoteable single women played by Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie in the movie adaptations. Who actually reads books anymore?

I can't remember the last time I talked to someone who actually read anything longer than a magazine article, and I'm not referring to features in Utne Reader or The New Yorker.

If I were going to sell my soul, well, it would be for a theme or an ideal — something with a shelf life longer than a carton of milk or the latest Prada accessory the Devil might be sporting. And I'm not sure it's worth the price if no one's actually going to take the time to read the words I've committed to the page.

I want to be read and remembered beyond my place and time. I would rather be read by a few hundred people willing to treasure and pass me along like a precious secret than be pre-ordered by the thousands or tens of thousands and then collected in remainder bins waiting to be recycled by a big name publisher. That's not living.

To paraphrase Ralph Ellison, "I am (not) an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind."

That's an opening paragraph worth trading your soul for, if you ask me. If the price and the stakes are that high, you better make sure the lesson you're providing for those that will follow you — and there will be others ready to take their best shot — is instructive.

I admit I'm guilty of allowing the flowing rapids to nearly drown me rather than finding a branch and a book to drift along for a moment or two. But when I take the time to read, I relish the thought that writers like Paul Auster, John Edgar Wideman, Michael Ondaatje, Toni Cade Bambara and Sandra Cisneros will survive and inspire future generations of writing apprentices. I wouldn't mind joining that Hallelujah chorus.

Hey, Meph, let's make a deal.

CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: [email protected]. His column appears here in the third issue of each month.