can be an evil mistress. She can love you tender and she
can love you raunchy, and she can rip your guts apart.
When you put that last stroke on your canvas and you
know you've done it right, and you step back to look at
what you've done, a deep sigh comes all the way up from
your loins and you say “Yes! Yes, by God, I did it.”
But it can also be like a cramp in the pit of your
stomach that wrenches your intestines and won't let go;
because to make a painting you have to reach deep down
inside and pull it out, and when it doesn't come it's like
the dry heaves. And the loneliness of it! The loneliness
is unbearable. You're all alone in a huge loft and you're
slinging paint with concentration so intense it's
exhausting, and when you finally set your paint bucket
down and step back to see what you've done there is not a
soul to share that moment with, be it ecstasy or be it
loathing; because you've experienced a rape or a battle or
the most tender of caresses, and it was all between you
and that goddamn canvas; and suddenly you get this memory
flash from back when you were in art school and your
professors ripped your work apart, and you look at your
painting and you can't even see it. You haven't the
slightest idea whether it's art or crap. So you grab the
freight elevator down to the street and you walk to the
corner bar and get gloriously drunk.
Warner wrote those words. He wrote them in that bold
scrawl of his. He wrote them in his journal not long after
his final exhibition and that now-famous party that ended
with a scream and a mad rush of fleeing bodies, and Red
Warner slumped on the floor in a pool of blood like the
day's washing from a slaughterhouse.
He also wrote
in that hallucinatory journal:
After that I went
berserk, raving around town with Cassie at my heels trying
valiantly to hold me back.
Time now expands and
contracts. Memory and dreams and imaginings all become
twisted like taffy in the hands of a madman. I'm sitting
in a green aluminum boat on the bayou, recuperating. A
dirty bandage. Warm beer, the taste of bile in my mouth.
Confused memories. Brother Barnes in his black suit worn
silver at the elbows, and wearing a white shirt and skinny
black tie that cuts into his puffy, red neck like wire on
a post, shouting, “Oh you vile generation of fornicators
and blasphemers!” And I'm racing around the loft, swinging
a butcher knife, and blood is gushing like gooey cadmium
red squeezed from a tube, and the ceiling beams are
swelling as if pumped with helium and they're swirling and
swirling in a slow motion pool of crimson and black.
My comings and goings are like debris in a tornado all
whirling and blowing and converging like the eye of the
storm in a single moment and a single place. And Redneck
Red Warner is the “I” of the storm when some two hundred
or so idiots crowd into my loft. Whores and pimps off the
avenue and leather boys from the West Side bars and a slew
of artsy hangers-on, and some dame named Dianna wearing
black lace undies and spike heels and nothing else.
Couples of both sexes groping each other. Air dense with
the smell of marijuana and cigarette smoke. Something
snaps in my mind again, and again and again, and suddenly
I'm standing on top of a table in the kitchen area,
shouting words from the Book of Job in the Bible — words
that I never remember reading. I'm standing in the pulpit,
calling them sinners to repentance, shouting with a
righteous rhythm and providing the A-mens my own self.
If in bed I say,
When shall I arise?
I am filled with restlessness...
Filled with it, filled
I am filled with restlessness until the dawn.
My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle; they come to
an end without hope. Remember that my life — My life,
sweet Jesus — it is like the wind; I shall not see
I jump off the table and grab a
butcher knife from the counter and start weaving through
the crowd, swinging the blade like a sword and screaming,
“Scabs on humanity! Your days are numbered. Fornicators
and liars, sucking off my fame and my talent.”
rip my shirt off and fling it away.
applaud. They started ripping their own shirts. Tattered
garments in the air.
“I rend my garments!” I
scream, “I'm a weird, wacko, washed up fool who can't even
put his queer shoulder to the wheel (borrowing from
Ginsberg). I used to be a simple country boy from
Mississippi, but my pecker got me in a mess of trouble.”
... And I raise the knife high over my head and
I slammed the journal pages
shut. I could not read the next sentence. I did not have
to read any more to find out the next chapter in Red
Warner's story, because I was there with him. One way or
another I'd been with him all along.
I knew him
when he was a kid, before he took the name Red, back when
he was plain ol’ Travis Earl Warner. We grew up together.
We were close. I was with him from the first time he
played hooky back in Church Street Elementary School until
he graduated from Tupelo High and went off to study art at
the Memphis Art Academy. But I was not with him when he
was the only witness in a murder case and had to give
testimony that would send one or another friend to prison,
and I was not with him when he fled Tupelo in shame.
Later, when he became famous, I followed him from a
distance, keeping up with his shenanigans through the art
magazines and the stylish gossip rags. Finally, when he
vanished after that last show and everyone was wondering
whether he was dead or alive, I took it upon myself to
find him — traveling to Tupelo to put the pieces together,
talking to Mama Marybelle, trying to figure out what
turned Travis Earl Warner into Red Warner, trying to
figure out what made him freak out the way he did, and
trying to figure out if he was still among the living
(which I never really doubted) and if so, where he might
To tell his story right, I need to tell
it the way I told it to Jimmy on that long drive from New
York to Tupelo. I've got to start back before Travis and I
were even born. I've got to tell about his grandfather,
Rudy Sullivan and his mother, Marybelle, and the Warner
family who more or less adopted Marybelle when she was
carrying Travis in her womb.