Popsicle #9: Gravity and the Dog by Jackson Cassady

15-The-Only-Road-Out-There-12.20.06-COThe Hardest Line – 12.20.06, CO by Jackson Cassady

My plan for this week’s assignment was to write about Jim Gavin’s much praised collection of short stories, Middle Men. The connected theme of these stories, ordinary men failing to string together some good luck in Southern California, seemed right up my middle-aged alley. The first few stories were entertaining enough, but then I made the mistake of watching an episode of Louie. After 20 minutes of my favorite TV shlump, I didn’t feel like reading four more bleakly humorous stories about men eating alone at Del Taco.

Instead of finishing Middle Men, I poked around online and found David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction. Written in 1990, the essay is a great trip down TV memory lane. Wallace talks about the way programming of the time (Moonlighting, Murphy Brown) had co-opted the ironic coolness of contemporary fiction. Midway through the essay, Wallace unleashes his thesis:

I want to convince you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features in contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fictionists they pose terrifically vexing problems.

Reading Middle Men twenty-three years after this essay was published, it doesn’t seem much has changed. If anything, the brilliance of a show like Louie leaves a lot of contemporary fiction in the dust.

Don’t get me wrong. I like cynical humor as much as the next guy in line at Pump-N-Munch. But a little bit goes a long way. A few Patton Oswalt tweets is just about perfect. But hours and hours of self-conscious guffaws can start to make you, or the world around you, sick.

At the end of Wallace’s essay, he writes something about the future of fiction that might just become my new mission statement:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic, Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “How banal.” Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity.

Over the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time traveling around the US. I’ve encountered plenty of ironic humor, of course, but over and over again I’ve been touched by the stories of real people trying hard to make their way through real lives.

One recent example was the project I worked on for the New York Times Magazine in the oil fields of North Dakota. The experience of visiting this place was profound. But there was something about it that also felt old fashioned. Looking at the pictures in print, it didn’t seem that different from something you might see in a 50’s edition of Life Magazine. It certainly wasn’t cool. I wondered if the media savvy Times readership would roll their eyes.

I’m still not really sure. But shortly after publication I got an amazing email from a fellow named Jackson Cassady. For eight years Cassady worked in the oil fields. Just days before sending me his email he’d given up the good paycheck to pursue his creative ambitions.

The other day Cassady sent me a link to his blog, Gravity and the Dog. I couldn’t help but wonder if Cassady might just be one of David Foster Wallace’s anti-rebels. All I know is that reading his blog gave me a lot more pleasure than reading ironic fiction:

There is an oilfield term POOH – Pull Out Of Hole. I’ve jotted it hundreds of times in countless tally books.

On a rig there are only two reasons to ever POOH. The first and only good reason is getting to TD, or the Total Depth. In this case POOH typically means my job’s done, and I can go home. As a directional driller I have rarely worked a set schedule. I’m on the job to TD, however long drilling to TD takes. Walking out of my house to a job without return in sight is a tough thing. Coming home knowing another call might come at any minute is infinitely worse. Still, every time I got to scribble POOH in my book because we had TD’d the well, it felt as if I were signing my own parole release. The other kind of POOH sucks…

A few weeks ago I was on a rig outside of Lisbon, OH…In the wind it was around 20 below. I sat just off location in my rental sipping plastic vodka toward an easy blur. I surveyed and projected my current path.

I called a friend of mine who is a company man in the Williston Basin. Chris is there working as I type. He’s helped pull me and my family out of the fire a few times. I love and respect him like few people I have ever. He knows me, my personal trials, my solitude. He understood and felt exactly where I was, wholly in that hole.

And he says to me –

The hardest place to be in this world is a freckle away from as far as you can go.

On February 4th I walked away from the oilfield in the middle of a well where lateral leaves curve. I’ve always finished the job. I’ve never missed a target. I’ve been paid stupid money to do simple shit a monkey could master, but I haven’t been making any progress. I wasn’t going to be able to turn this one around. There could be no more drilling ahead on this line, and in staying at it any longer, I was just gonna keep tearing-up my world, myself, literally and otherwise. When tools come apart down-hole on a rig, they call in the fishing crews. I didn’t want to end up dead or broken and having to be fished out of my hole. So I called it. I POOH, sacked my gear, and came home to figure out how I am going to get back on course before I cross my hard line.

Follow Jackson Cassady at Gravity and the Dog.

9 Replies to “Popsicle #9: Gravity and the Dog by Jackson Cassady”

  1. I see two trends colliding…

    1.) the meta, post-ironic visual mash ups of K-Hole (the funniest thing I have read in a long time). http://www.fastcoexist.com/1681417/trendcasting-reinvented-as-conceptual-art-about-the-power-of-consumerism#1

    2.) the 20-something guys I overheard at my local (Northern California) food co-op, sharing their recipes for home-brewed mead. One was planning his wedding, sounding “girlish” about all the home-made details. The other told him about a friend who had recently married and had knit his own mead cozies from his grandmother’s sweater. The first guy loved the idea because all the memories and essences and generations would come together. I am a Generation X-er. I waited for them to mock each other. Then, I checked to see if I was being Punked. They were totally sincere. It was shocking. And I felt cynical… and hopeful.

    Thank you for the tip about Cassady’s “dog blog.”

  2. Mid-age notwithstanding, I don’t quite understand your fascination with “ordinary men failing to string together some good luck”. After all you’re undoubtedly one of the most accomplished photographers of our time. More like real life Louis CK, and less like TV Louie.

    It seems to me that the backlash against irony and cynicism has been a long time coming (as the article from 1990 goes to show). Such articles as “How to live without irony” by Wampole in the NYT almost seem obsolete by now. Weren’t your projects “Sleeping by the Mississippi” and “Niagara” already full of genuine, unironic sentimentality? To me that is one of the qualities that make them so good.

    But I wonder, shouldn’t we be cautious not to replace one vice with another? Isn’t there something highly problematic about this reverie for some lifestyle that is supposedly more authentic that our own? In these irony-saturated times we might find ourselves intrigued by the story of the real, everyday man/woman but I think one has to be careful not to turn this into just another type of fascination with the exotic.
    If irony is one way of avoiding risk, of refusing to take responsibility by taking a stance, than so is deliberate naivety. The real risk, IMO, lies not in confronting the rolled-eyes, the irony of others. I can just brush that off as them being fake and me ‘keeping it real’. For me it lies in confronting the irony I have towards myself, in accepting that maybe there is no authentic way of being. There’s only the constant struggle to find a balance between the removed stance of irony and the unreflected immersion in naive sentimentality.

    1. Hey J, not sure why I need to defend my fascination with “ordinary men failing to string together some good luck,” any more than I need to defend my fascination with, say, stand up comedians or Ryan Gosling. I wouldn’t consider myself anything like either (unfortunately). That said, my wife is similarly annoyed by having a married guy with two kids publishing something called ‘Lonely Boy Magazine.’

      I appreciate your comments about not banning irony. God knows DFW didn’t do this. Nor have I (see Lonely Boy Magazine).

      As I said, I like irony in small doses. This isn’t any different than the way I felt when I published Sleeping by the Mississippi and Niagara.

      1. Hi Alec
        Sorry, I didn’t mean imply that you have to defend any of your fascinations, one of which I very much share (stand-up comedians, not necessarily Gosling although I appreciate his work). I thought I read an implication of similarity and just wanted to mention that I do not agree at all on the failure part. (Which I realize now was a bit of a poor attempt at a compliment.)

        In any case, I didn’t understand neither your nor DFW’s statement as a ban on irony. What I meant was that while I agree on the comments regarding irony, there also seems to be a counter-trend of fetishizing authenticity (see Moira McLaughlin’s post), which, again, I don’t think you were saying at all. I just thought it relevant to the topic.

        I do find that both your works Mississippi and Niagara very eloquently combine both genuine sentimentality and funny irony (funny as opposed to mocking). That’s the balancing act I think is so hard to achieve (and it is probably why those two bodies of work have had by far the most profound effect on me of any photographic work I can think of).
        And as far as I understand Broken Manual deals with how this yearning for an authentic, unadulterated life can only ever be a fantasy. (At least that’s what I get from the pictures on the website. I have been trying to get my hands on a copy of the book for ages. Is the second trade edition coming out anytime soon? The date keeps getting pushed back on the Steidl website.)
        Anyways, in my opinion your work has dealt with all of these issues for a long time which I think partially what set it apart from so much of what is out there.

        Lonely Boy Magazine was great and I always wondered why there was no third issue. Maybe if you just change the title to ‘Love Being Me’ and keep the content the same? Too much irony?

        1. No worries J. Actually happy to have someone stirring the pot a bit. And your comment about ‘accepting that maybe there is no authentic way of being’ really made me think. It is something I wrestle with (just as I did with Broken Manual – insightful of you to notice). I wonder if Ryan Gosling worries about this too.

          As for Lonely Boy, my groin heart is just in a different place right now.

          Thanks for your comments. Glad to have you here.

  3. What a delight to see a familiar face when reading the LBM email update this morning. When I first saw it I thought to myself, “wtf is Gravity’s Dog doing in LBM?”. I made the acquaintance of Jackson Cassady some years back via a web forum dedicated to motorcycle travel, something he and I share a passion for. Not sure whether he is an anti-rebel but he is a genuine and passionate fellow and quite able to turn a good phrase. I was unaware of his blog until your post so I appreciate that you gave him the plug and look forward to catching up with his recent writing.

    BTW, I photographed the Bakken oil fields in 2008 on a magazine assignment. Your photographs and the Sweet Crude Man Camp video exquisitely tell that story. I hope you continue to tell stories of the struggles and triumphs of everyday folks.

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