in a Rainbow “I”
A sixties survivor goes on a
psychedelic voyage of dazzlement and discovery
The fundamental truth on which Joel Agee
constructs his psychologically breathtaking, linguistically lush,
and intermittently hallucinatory memoir, In The House
Of My Fear (Shoemaker & Hoard), is that his life
has been a long, strange trip through some essential problem,
that the problem has been himself, and that knowledge of himself
has been the thing he most feared. His quest has been to get past
his fear, to break through a wall of resistance and ignorance.
are memoirists of event and memoirists of sensibility: people
whose lives are interesting because of what they’ve done
and others who are interesting because what they’ve thought.
Agee is both. He is the son of legendary American writer James
Agee, though he hardly knew his biological father; he was far
closer to his stepfather, an East German writer named Bodo Uhse.
He was raised in Mexico and East Germany, and his early adult
life, which dominates here, takes him from these places to New
York City in the early sixties, to Cuba and Ibiza and the European
mainland and back to New York.
a young (and largely unproductive) filmmaker, writer, and halfhearted
socialist at a moment of profound social change, he frequently
ended up in oddball historical situations. He was interrogated
by the East German secret police and was involved in a pickup
baseball game with Fidel and Raul Castro (the Castro boys were
notoriously good ballplayers). His heart was broken at the Gaslight
Café in the Village while Bob Dylan sang and played guitar
and harmonica in the background. He got shot and survived; he
did a ton of acid and other drugs and survived; he inherited a
little money, spent it in Europe, and survived; he failed in his
own eyes, fell in love and became a father, continued to fail
(with reckless abandon), and survived. He lost his father, his
stepfather, and his brother, to madness and to sadness, and he
survived. He lost his own mind, following his brother into madness,
as if on a rescue mission, and survived. He never really belonged
anywhere, least of all inside his own skin, but he worked decades
to understand this, and he survived the terror of the confrontation.
book is the crazy and brilliantly written map of his survival.
Like his life, it is nonlinear, which is a polite way of saying
it is all over the place, but it is also daring, beautiful, and
deeply satisfying, as when we find ourselves in the presence of
someone who tells the absolute truth, with exuberance, style,
courage, and wisdom.
Passaro, “O” Magazine
Capturing the Spirit of the 60s
They say about the Sixties, "if you remember them you weren't there," but that isn't exactly accurate. What people mean to say is that some of the experiences they had then were indescribable. It is possible, for instance, to remember becoming a cauldron of emotions or a quiver full of thoughts that ended up piercing you in every soft part of your body during an acid trip, or the texture of a day spent yammering with your brilliant pals in a crash pad plastered with psychedelic posters, or the bracing feeling of being hit on the head with a nightstick by a mounted policeman at an anti-war demonstration, but it's impossible to describe those things vividly enough for anyone who wasn't there. Writers of my generation have always bemoaned the lack of a single book capable of capturing the decade significantly. There are many books that can give veterans flashbacks, such as Tom Wolfe's book on Ken Kesey, or Kesey's own novels, Tom Robbins' magical mushroom sentences, Richard Brautigan's peter-pannish heroes, Ed Sannders' reports from Hades, or Lenore Kandel's patchouli-suffused orgy chants, but there is no single book that, like the Bible, contains both veteran flashback inducement and novice immersion.
Now here is a book that comes close: "In the House of my Fear" by Joel Agee. Joel Agee, the son of the famed Depression-era writer James Agee, was raised in East Germany by his mother and stepfather, a well-known East German writer. Joel's half-brother Stefan was a precocious schizophrenic genius who committed suicide at the height of the hippie age, after searching unsuccessfully for spiritual illumination from gurus and teachers. Joel followed his brother's search for enlightenment with an intensity made possible only by the zeitgeist of a crazy time when psychedelics had created a huge thirst for God in young people. The miserable war-waging society of dull squares that fought the young in the Sixties made the whole God-seeking enterprise heroic. In Joel Agee's case, it certainly was. Determined to live in a communal household of people powered by spiritual principles, Joel runs through innumerable quasi-tragic when not comic trials along the nomad trails of the Sixties. At some point in London, abandoned by his sensible but devoted wife and his beloved daughter, Joel becomes God. Given this weighty job, he stays awake for months for fear that if he falls asleep the world will crumble. How he eventually pulls out from the depths of the abyss, without forgetting what Henri Michaux called "the miserable miracle" of the journey, is the subject of this magnificent story. Written from the shore of sanity, the book dives fearlessly back into the Rimbaudlian hells and the Blakean ecstasies and brings back what is almost the account of the Sixties we so long bemoaned the lack of.
I say "almost" because the Sixties were as unique as fingerprints when you fail to describe them, but as communal as a sauna when you recall. Agee writes uniquely, succeeds communally, and leaves the mystery still calling.
Andrei Codrescu, Syndicated column
Click here to listen to the review as it was aired on "All Things