Gary Indiana Writes Like a Bad Boy Moralist

The writer’s new collection of essays repositions Indiana as a prescient analyst of US art and politics

BY Daniel Felsenthal in Books , Opinion | 31 MAR 22

One peril of being a ‘bad boy’ writer is the possibility of becoming a parody of yourself. The very label renders danger into cuteness and threat into spectacle. European and Latin American authors still play the part, prompting kerfuffles among their publics. Yet, in the US, where dangerous prose might induce a cut in federal arts funding but rarely anything less punitive, Gary Indiana is one of our few surviving provocateurs.

Born Gary Hoisington in New Hampshire in 1950 before renaming himself after a Midwestern steel town, the novelist, playwright, actor and critic knows how he comes off. Countless writers play versions of themselves on the page; Indiana inhabits his role with fangs on. His famously antagonistic addresses to the reader during his tenure covering visual art for The Village Voice between 1985 and 1988 – like his stories of amphetamines and booze in his 2015 memoir I Can Give You Anything But Love – are as calculated as a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film: nothing is truly raw, disdain for bourgeois values is inbuilt and every depiction feels art-directed with decadent grime in mind.

This self-consciousness protects Indiana from feeling wooed by his own persona, as do the stresses of writing seriously in an economically precarious time. Unlike his forebear Truman Capote, Indiana recognized early on that being the toast of the downtown New York intelligentsia wouldn’t pay the rent, so he has laboured over books and articles at his little East 11th Street apartment in Manhattan for decades, mining the many dimensions of his emotive, often cutting voice. The 71-year-old’s latest volume, Fire Season: Selected Essays 1984–2021 (2022), highlights a relatively workmanlike aspect of his practice, at least compared to the rants and drug-addled grotesqueries that stand out in the collective imagination of his oeuvre. While hardly temperate (in the hilarious ‘Disneyland Burns’ (1994), Indiana travels to the titular theme park, loaded on cognac), Fire Season highlights his dogged reportage and erudite analysis far more than his shock value.

Gary Indiana, Fire Season: Selected Essays 1984–2021, cover image. Courtesy: Seven Stories Press

The collection encompasses essays about writers he admires (Renata Adler, Samuel Beckett), filmmakers whose politics he likes (Barbet Schroeder, Pier Paolo Pasolini), those he doesn’t (Jean Cocteau), artists in his social sphere (Barbara Kruger, Sam McKinniss) and zeitgeisty events of the past 30-odd years (presidential primaries, the Rodney King trial and the 2013 Boston marathon bombings). Politics are at the fore, and Indiana presents them with a disarming earnestness. He writes in ‘Romanian Notes’ (2013), a travelogue that uses repressive regimes abroad as a window into the American police state: ‘How different the US might be […] if every school child were taught the actual history of the country instead of being stuffed with platitudes glorifying the supreme greatness and goodness of the place where he or she happened to be born.’ Macabre realities reveal themselves beneath the gauze of privileged American perception. In the same work, Indiana renders a couple in the immigration line of the Bucharest airport as ‘postcoitally blowsy, absorbed in their own sleepy dithering’, before revealing that they had been teargassed in Istanbul’s Taksim Square the previous night.

About a third of the book’s 39 essays have been printed previously in similar collections, Let It Bleed (1996) and Utopia’s Debris (2008), so this latest release is less a surprise than a rich record of overlapping eras of history – ones coloured both by Indiana’s prophetic mind and the dread we bring to historical events in retrospect. In ‘Northern Exposure’(1992), an excellent piece about the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic caucus, Indiana gives some wise advice to candidate Bob Kerrey, whose name he confusingly – yet illuminatingly – misspells like that of a more famous presidential loser, John Kerry: ‘I would ditch the undertaker’s overcoat, change the tie, do a nice even rinse on the hair, and try to get him to stop doing that thing with his mouth where he looks like he’s sucking a Fisherman’s Friend.’

Such ad hominem attacks befit an era when voters were increasingly ignoring political content for television’s asinine first impressions. Early on, Indiana compares former US president Bill Clinton’s voice to Preparation H – you can imagine an advertisement for the haemorrhoid ointment airing on CNN during the network’s election coverage. Yet, Indiana ends his essay with a reminder of why content is paramount, lambasting Senator Tom Harkin for not calling out an antisemitic comment at his local campaign HQ. ‘[A]t the risk of sounding idealistic’, he writes, ‘I think any presidential candidate stumping through this backward but maybe not entirely hopeless state has some moral duty to offer a corrective example, to show some high-mindedness.’

Fire Season is nothing if not high-minded. In a panegyric about Kruger, Indiana riffs: ‘This is the subtext: the conviction that empathy can, in fact, change the world.’ He lauds Beckett for his participation in the French resistance and his ‘appealing generosity and kindness’. Discussing Schroeder’s film Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978), Indiana commends the director’s ‘fastidious neutrality’ in relation to his subject, ‘his aversion to pat moralisms’. Idealism, too, can turn an artist into a self-parody. As much a moralist as a bad boy, Indiana understands that the two positions enable each other, that they provide balance and nuance to what might be mutually thin shticks. This is, and has always been, his subtext: he raves like a wigged-out drunk so he can impart a message of compassion and progressivism, and the need for this acrobatic balance is an indictment of society at large.

Main Image: Gary Indiana, author photo. Photo: Hedi El Kholti; courtesy: Seven Stories Press

Daniel Felsenthal is a fiction writer, critic, essayist and poet whose work has been published in ArtforumThe BafflerBelieverBombThe Kenyon ReviewLos Angeles Review of BooksPitchfork and The Village Voice, among other publications.