Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A Conniption Fit

On occasion I've found that I have a talent for wielding a poison pen.

Having once discovered the joys of writing a letter to the editor, the missives poured out, complaining about record reviews, Republican administrations, and bad grammar. Once in a while one would get printed, which would always make my day. There was even the one time that I was apparently so brutal that the critic in question actually mailed a reply back to my home address. That put me off them for a time. He made me feel as if I'd strangled his kitten. But I was never out of action for long and my penchant for sarcasm has gotten me into trouble more than once.

After that initial piece appeared in the Philadelphia Doorbell, I'd call David Derricks up from time to time with a proposal for an article. He didn't always say yes, but he was enthusiastic often enough that my by-line began to look familiar. There was a piece about the films of the 1970's, one about my experiences in college radio, and another that tried to connect the dots between Pac-Man, Bart Simpson and Johnny Rotten that even I couldn't follow. Still, everyone seemed happy enough with them.

All the while, though, Jim Conniption's Blind Spot continued to appear on a weekly basis, exposing the base motives of Humanity for what they truly were. We were all in the mud together, while Hope and Love and Altruism were the sad illusions that kept us from committing the suicides that were deservedly ours and which we would one day reap. For all of its tough-guy veneer, though, there was a strange vein of self-pity that ran through these columns, as if Conniption desperately wanted you to feel sorry for him. A narrative about another tough, lonely, alcoholic weekend would peter out into a pathetic cry for help, as if he wanted it both ways. Yes, he was just an old softie, he seemed to say, but Life had forced this hardboiled armor upon him that he could not breach. See? he seemed to say. You can't blame me for this stuff. I'm just another one of the walking wounded.

Love me.

He was also fond of answering angry letters by implying that the reader hadn't "gotten the joke." It was a neat trick: it meant never having to take responsibility for any of his most vicious invective. If it upset you, you simply weren't hip or "outside" enough to read his column.

Now a couple of things started to happen around this time. I started to wonder whether or not my distaste for Conniption's prose had anything to do with jealousy. After all, his was the face of the paper; I was the freelancer whose pieces never seemed to garner a single reply on the letters page. And didn't we both have a fondness for Bukowski and the underside of the American Dream? Was it possible that we were closer than I knew and my real problem with him was that he had wrapped himself in that persona before I'd had a chance to? I literally used to dress in a Stetson hat and trench coat (cigar optional), as if I were Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, only with coke bottle lenses.

God. Had I merely been jealous all this time? Did I want to be Conniption?

At the same time, strange rumors began to surface about him, rumors about him suffering from a disease that had him slowly going blind and stories about brain lesions that would cause him to break out into erratic behavior. It all seemed like so much urban legend stuff, things you could attribute to the name of the column and his fearsome reputation.

But then the rumors were made credible by the column, which began to make clear that the stories were, indeed, true. Conniption was suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, an irreversible and degenerative eye disease that would probably lead to blindness, as well as lesions of the brain.

The mawkishness that always lay just beneath the surface of the column now leapt to the fore, as Conniption painted himself as the ultimate outsider, ravaged by the insanity of the world and, now, by these double scourges of disease. Now he was immune to criticism, a victim of the modern age whose bloody-minded opinions might actually be the result of brain lesions. It was the perfect alibi.

After one particularly irritating column that celebrated the willingness of neo-Nazis to voice an unpopular opinion in such a straightlaced, lemming-like culture as ours, I'd had enough. Regardless of what it meant to my relationship to the paper, I wrote a letter to the editor.

"I never realized that everything was the opposite of what it was until I read Conniption," I began. "It's about time someone told us the truth about the cuddly Nazis, instead of those nasty ones that get all the publicity."

I can't remember what else it said, but I might have said something about Conniption putting the "pig" in "pigmentosa."

They printed it, so I was a little leery of making my next phone call to David Derricks as I knew him to be tight with Conniption. When we next spoke David seemed fine about it, but in the middle of the conversation, I could hear someone grab the phone away from him. There was a pause during which I could hear Derricks asking someone to give the phone back, after which someone whose voice I'd never heard before began to unleash a torrent of obscenities at me. It sounded garbled and robotic, this string of gibberish invective and threats.

Eventually Derricks got control of the phone back. "That's just Jim," he said. "He gets like that sometimes."

Had I just been on the receiving end of a brain lesion attack? Or was this just Conniption's usual reaction to criticism?

I did, however, begin to rule out jealousy as a motivation for my behavior.

Conclusion: Twilight Of The Clods


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