Posthumous journal collection is patchy but endearing
The Journals of Spalding GrayEdited by Nell Casey
(Knopf · hardcover · $28.95)
Spalding Gray was an asshole who liked to write about himself.
I can totally relate.
To many, he was a giant of the self-effacing monologue. To me, he was the guy who shows up in small but memorable roles in the movies. He plays Ben Affleck's father in Glory Daze, an angry WASP who scoffs at his tortured son's choice to get an art degree. It's a role that is doubly funny after having read The Journals of Spalding Gray, a compendium of previously unpublished musings edited by Nell Casey (known for editing the acclaimed anthology Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression). Who would have thought a silly movie like Glory Daze would possess a literary subtext?
Then there’s Gray’s role as a stuffy newspaper editor in The Paper. He is present for the best part of the film when he goads Michael Keaton into a (transcendentally funny) profanity-laced tirade about how he “doesn't live in the fucking world,” he lives in New York City.
Spalding Gray is, sadly, dead. It's always a tough decision whether to read posthumously released collections of writing. If the author didn't expressly state his or her desires regarding that trunk of notebooks, then it's anyone's guess what he or she wanted. Unearthing such secret material gives pause to keepers of personal journals. That transient gay thought you had one day in the 10th grade may one day be added to the permanent record of the human race.
According to the editor of this collection of journal entries, Gray seems to have not given any expressed approval to publish his journals, but then again, he did like talking about himself. So he probably wouldn't have minded.
Bearing that in mind, The Journals of Spalding Gray offers a glimpse into the mind of a man who rose to fame in theater and then—it would appear—threw himself off the Staten Island Ferry after seeing a sad movie (Big Fish). The writing here is not polished like theater pieces such as Gray's Anatomy. That play, also available in book form, is a hilarious, quick read that finds Gray hanging with white folks at a sweat lodge and an Elvis-impersonating, psychic surgeon in the Philippines—all in an ultimately futile attempt to avoid minor eye surgery.
Gray's journal entries are sometimes reminiscent of Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries in that there is a lot of illicit sex going on that the writer doesn't seem entirely comfortable with. He has a way of walking down the street one minute and segueing into a gay bath house the next, or going home to “masturbate with no feeling.” He comes across as the typical tortured artist type, or as he puts it, a “kind of unhappy Christ figure—a Woody Allen Wasp that cannot love and cannot make a lot of money.”
Casey combed through thousands of handwritten pages kept by Gray. There are lengthy passages written by Casey in italics that are very tempting to pass over. Reading long blocks of text in italics makes my eyes twitch, like sniffing keyboard cleaner in a dark room. Skipping forward, unfortunately, will leave you completely lost.
A high point of the book is Gray's description of his time working on the day-wrecking film The Killing Fields, which his most enduring work—the monologue-turned-film Swimming to Cambodia—is based upon. The journal entries concerning the theater piece are patchy, but the ones describing his time on location are very Heart of Darkness, and compellingly so.
True to its name, Journals is mostly a tangle of notes written in stream of consciousness. If you aren't hip to the New York theater scene of yesteryear, or just a rabid Spalding Gray fan, it’s easy to get lost here.
Taking the editorial notes as a necessary evil, I read the book less like nonfiction and more like an unfinished novel about a moody, self-absorbed yet ultimately endearing stage actor having one decades-long nervous breakdown. Gray was neurotic, mean to those who love him and possibly insane. In spite of all this, he was not without his charm, and that breathes life into the patchwork body of Journals.