But I find myself with a problem. I want to be complimentary. In fact more than complimentary: I want to demonstrate that this is a book that I admire enormously. But the simple fact is that the language of praise and enthusiasm has been so cheapened and coarsened by years of overuse at the hands of publicists that the words no longer mean anything. Worse than that: they evoke a contemptuous curl of the lip.
Suppose I were to say: brilliant, wonderful, moving. The trouble is, you've heard it all before. And the last time you read a book with that sort of endorsement on the cover, you weren't too impressed.
So, let's skip the shorthand compliments. I will just say that this is a remarkable book. I enjoyed reading it, and I recommend it unreservedly. Those most likely to enjoy it will be, I suspect, those who were around in the 1960s; but younger readers might be surprised to discover that they did not invent sex and drugs and rock and roll.
Let's begin with the physical object: the (paperback) book itself. For as long as I can remember, American book design has seemed to me to be superior to British, and this is a good example. The publisher is Monkfish, of Rhinebeck, New York, and the designer was Georgia Dent. The cover is not, perhaps, the most inspiring you have ever seen, but at least it is related to the text, which is more than some are. And while there are occasional peculiarities in the printing (some curly apostrophes, and some straight ones, for example) they are not enough to be disturbing.
Next, the author. If you have never heard the name Gerard Jones, then it is high time you did. Gerard is one of the true stars of the web -- one of those people who early on recognised that the internet could be used in a wholly new way, to do wholly new things, and he seized the opportunity.
Gerard is the creator of Everyone Who's Anyone, and if you are not familiar with that web site you should take a long look at it soon. And you don't have to read Everyone for very long to discover that Gerard is a writer who worked for years and years to get his book published. In fact he claims the world record for the number of times his book was rejected, and I am not about to dispute that claim. But eventually he made it; the book was published in 2004.
The saga of Gerard's search for a publisher is a long one. When he first appeared on the web, reproducing the rejection letters that he had received from agents and publishers, Gerard could easily have been mistaken for one of those wacko eccentrics, the true obsessives who write to the Queen, the Prime Minister, and the Lord Chancellor, and blame everybody but themselves for their problems. But make no mistake. Gerard Jones is not a crackpot. He is saner than most of us. And he is a really talented writer. He is a great success, in the sense that, in this memoir, he has accomplished exactly what he set out to do. And if you and I could write half as well as Gerard we would have cause to feel pretty pleased with ourselves.
Ginny Good is described on the title page as 'A Mostly True Story', and I don't doubt that. If there are parts of it that Gerard made up, or embroidered a little, then all I can say is that he is an even better writer than I already take him to be.
Gerard was born in 1942, grew up in Michigan, and moved to California in 1960. In particular, he lived and loved in San Francisco (even on Haight Street) at the height of the hippie movement. The book tells the story of his long love affair with Virginia Good, aka Ginny.
Chapter One begins with the following words:
I'm using everyone's real name. They can all sue me. I hope they do. I could use the excitement. It gets kind of boring living up here with my eighty-year-old mother in Ashland, Oregon.And already, you see, we hear the authentic voice of the Gerard we know and love from his web site. A combative, fairly aggressive, sort of fuck-em-all attitude. Gerard is his own man. He says what he thinks, and he writes in a most remarkably free and yet controlled manner.
Gerard's writing reminds me, in its looseness and lack of inhibition, of the art of moving freely on stage. In the whole of my life I have only ever seen three people who, to my mind, moved with true freedom and grace on stage. One was the great Mickey Rooney; another was an obscure dancer and choreographer called Flick Colby; and the third was a boy in the chorus line of a pantomime that I saw many years ago in Norwich.
And that's the way Gerard writes: he writes the way Mickey Rooney moved. And it is not, in my opinion, a gift. It is something that derives, in part, from an attitude of mind, but it is an acquired skill which requires endless work to develop. The result is all too easy to take for granted: to the reader it looks easy; it looks as if anyone could do it; but then, I guess, that's the way it should be.
The majority of the story that Gerard has to tell relates, naturally, to the girl who provides his title and inspiration. And it has to be said that Ginny Good, though a sensitive, educated, and thoughtful person, was pretty much doomed from the start.
From well before her relationship with Gerard, Ginny suffered from psychiatric problems of one kind or another; Christmas was a particularly difficult period for her, and she usually ended up in hospital. These underlying problems were often exacerbated by drink and drugs. So the story is not always a happy one. In fact, it is a sad story, even upsetting at times. But it is never depressing.
Perhaps this is the place to confess that it took me a long time to get around to buying and reading this book. I have known about it for years, because its existence was hardly a secret. But even when it was published I did not rush to buy a copy.
Why? Well, because I feared that it wouldn't be any good. And you know how painful and embarrassing it can be when a friend gives you something of theirs to read, and you really want to like it, and you know you ought to be polite and positive, but... dear God, the bloody thing is awful.
Such fears can be set aside. Ginny Good is... and once again I grope for a phrase which is not soiled. The book is a genuine work of art, in the sense that it is the product of a thoughtful, sensitive man, who has laboured long to record a passage of his life for our entertainment and instruction, and has succeeded to a greater degree than anyone has any reasonable right to expect. He is a remarkably observant person, deeply interested in life, and not just as an observer but as a participant. (That last part is something that young writers often forget.)
By page 30, we already have a picture of the young (and old) Gerard which is very different from the image which is conjured up by his web site. On Everyone Who's Anyone, Gerard comes across as a cantankerous, difficult, cynical, and perhaps bitter person. But the true Gerard is not like that. He is something altogether more admirable.
Gerard as a young man was also, I have to say, a considerable success with the ladies, many of who are named here, and many of whom, given the free and easy life of California in the 1960s, probably never had names, or, if they did, have long since been forgotten.
One of Gerard's conquests was Donna McKechnie, who later starred in A Chorus Line, and is now a star with her own web site, God help us all. At one point, Donna thought she was pregnant by Gerard, and then it turned out that she wasn't. By such accidents of fate are our lives determined.
Since this blog is about writing and publishing, it is worth noting at this point that Gerard showed some interest in writing from an early age. And at one point he was tutored (for money) by one Gordon Lish. Lish seems to have been one of those nitwits who believe in 'serious literature'; he has, as Gerard observes, made a whole heap of money out of going round preaching that serious literature should not make money. Gerard wasn't any too impressed with Gordon Lish, and neither am I.
As I read this book, I made notes on some of the things that struck me -- because it's all too easy to forget these things afterwards. And Chapter Ten strikes me as remarkable writing by any standards. It's an account of one of Gerard's early encounters with Ginny. Now -- either Gerard has an unusually good memory, or else he made up what we have here; either way, he knows just what to tell us, and just what to leave out.
Chapter Fourteen, by the way, reveals that Ginny Good was the first hippie. Or so Gerard claims. The first time that word was used was in a caption to a photograph of her which appeared in her school paper in 1963. I am not about to argue.
I have the feeling that somewhere -- and I can't put my finger on it -- Gerard tells us that Ginny Good was rewritten and reworked a number of times. Well, maybe so. But if it was, it retains a a high degree of spontaneity; it reads as if he was just in the room, chatting to us. And that, I think, is probably a measure of the book's quality. It feels fresh and brand new, but it has actually been polished, considered, rearranged, and planned. That is something which requires lots of talent.
This is a book which is occasionally funny, and usually fairly easy to read. But it is, ultimately, a story about various ruined lives; and if not ruined, damaged. And since it is an autobiography, it reveals things about the author's life which are not easy to be frank about; and, even if you're prepared to be frank, they are painful. Thus in Chapter Eighteen we find that Ginny, pregnant with Gerard's child, has an abortion.
Now I don't want to get into popular psychology. But it did seem to me, as I read this passage, that it is little wonder that Gerard sometimes comes across as an angry man. There is no doubt that he loved Ginny Good. Little doubt in my mind, either, that he wanted a family. He seems to have known that Ginny was not remotely suitable for motherhood; but even so, the abortion episode hurt him.
On the question of how he feels about the abortion, Gerard is unusually silent; a circumstance which in itself tells us much. Ginny Good was destroying herself -- or, more accurately, being destroyed, by factors which were outside her control; and outside Gerard's too.
Because we are dealing with California in the 1960s, drugs were freely available, and were freely taken. To no one's great advantage, as far as I can see. But if you want a graphic account of what it is like to have sex under the influence of LSD, Gerard provides one.
It was, I think, pages 223 to 225 which convinced me that Gerard is a master of prose writing. In barely two complete pages, he tells us the following story. Exceptionally foul-mouthed man (and I am tolerant in this regard) gets his girlfriend pregnant; wants her to have an abortion; she refuses; he leaves her; gets himself on the cover of Rolling Stone; then gets killed in a drug deal; his girl friend keeps the baby and ends up working as a dental hygienist in Tallahassee, Florida.
By any conceivable standards, those two pages constitute a master class in writing. They reveal character, and they create emotion. You see, if you have the talent and the skill, you don't need 500 pages; you can do it in 2.
One of the noteworthy aspects of this book is the way in which Gerard deals with Ginny's inevitable death. He does it by telling us that, in a sense, he doesn't care.
I don't like dead people. I've never liked dead people. Dead people piss me off. Dead people can go fuck themselves.But of course in telling us this he merely reveals how painful it was to lose someone he loved -- and it still is painful, even after all these years.
Almost immediately, Gerard moves away from Ginny's death and tells us about the death of his father; and in so doing he succeeded in making me laugh.
After Ginny, Gerard found himself another girl. Melanie. Who is one of nature's most fragile creations. A simple girl, it seems to me (and that is far from an insult), easily damaged and not easily repaired. Melanie is still around, Gerard tells us. They don't live together any more, but through Melanie Gerard has acquired a family, of sorts.
The process of writing Ginny Good appears to have had a beneficial effect on Gerard. He describes it as follows:
It's the feeling you get when you've done things you thought you'd never do and have had your heart desiccated and ground down to around the consistency of talcum powder and suddenly it somehow gets itself, like, reconstituted or some damn thing. You like people again.The final page reminds me somewhat of the ending of John Rechy's City of Night. Not perhaps the most suitable coda to choose, one feels. But hey -- who are we to argue with the author?
Gerard Jones's Ginny Good is one of the most impressive books that I have read for a long time. I'm glad I finally made the effort to get hold of a copy, and even more glad that it didn't disappoint me. This is a book that I shall read again. And I don't say that often.