Yes, yes, you will note that a central character is named ‘Victor Pross’ and one might think that this is egoism unbounded, if not down-right self-absorption. Not at all.
Actually, I talked to my rep at the publishing house and he suggested that I name this specific character after myself. Why? The Hungry Artist will feature over 40 pictures of my current drawings and paintings— painting by Victor Pross, and one of the characters in the story is a caricature artist. So if I gave him some fictional name---Joe Edwards or whatever—this might prove to be a little confusing because, after all, this is a book that will be lush with paintings bearing my name.
So it was suggested to name the character after the author--me! But it must be kept in mind that “Vic Pross”—in this chapter---is a character, no matter how similar he is to…um…me. In this spirit, I have also named other characters using names of people I know. It's fun. Hmmm, I wonder if I should Michael Stewart Kelly. I like that name. It sounds cool.
Hungry in Nothingville: Chapter One.
“GOD ISN’T DEAD,” Victor Pross said, stabbing his finger down on the restaurant table for emphasis. “He never existed. Not in the way most people imagine. The artist is God. The artist created God in his image. The artist is the supreme creator. That’s exactly what I said and I mean it.”
The reporter clumsily scribbled his notes down, trying to conceal the fact that he was taken aback, his lips were drawn down resolutely as if at any moment they might quiver.
“God isn’t dead. He never existed. The artist is God.”
The words sounded defiant, radical and righteous all at once. It was an attitude that upset the townspeople, becoming an irritating boil on the buttocks of all the sensibilities of people who have ever been weaned on the idea of God the Father. What made Victor’s remark even more offensive to the townspeople was the occasion where it was said: a gallery opening celebrating artistic creation as a gift from God.
A societal art patron complimented Victor on his “God-given talent” and she attempted to draw Victor out of his shell, cajoling him to please take the podium to offer a few words to the small gallery gathering. Feebly, Victor mounted the small platform and took hold of the microphone as if brandishing a weapon. He leveled a fixed look and delivered his answer:
“God gave me zilch, ladies and gentlemen. Embracing the idea of God is what has hampered progress in nearly every area of human development--except for the carnival barker’s cry that submitting your will and earthly goods is moral. Look where that has gotten us! I say that people should live for themselves. Here’s the choice: live for yourself or for the Lord. You can’t have it both ways. Live life to the fullest and live it for your own sake. This is what should be shouted passionately above the cacophony of church bells.”
Audible gasps and snickers could be heard throughout the gallery, and members of the press jotted the remarks down. Victor’s annotations caused an immediate stir of controversy the very next day. The gallery’s curator was particularly upset by this kind of publicity, considering he was a Born Again Christian. It was only last week that he excitedly signed Victor Pross up to show his work at his gallery. “Today more artists are getting involved in the local church,” the curator declared a week before the event. “God is using artists to bring creativity to the ministry.” But now he was eating his words. Victor was asked to apologize. He refused. “God has nothing to do with people’s abilities,” Victor insisted.
The local newspaper Town Crier contacted Victor requesting an interview. The editor was fascinated by this brash young artist and discharged one of his reporters to conduct a full interview. The artist and the writer agreed to meet at the town’s local diner.
Eddie Lightfoot, the reporter who conducted the interview, was taken aback by the degree of intensity the artist displayed. He would ask a question about art and Victor answered it as if were an act of Congress.
“I don’t attribute my ability to draw and paint to my upbringing or divine providence,” Victor said, continuing to stab his finger on the restaurant table. “I worked hard and honed my own skills through sheer practice and diligence. Like I said, the artist is God.”
Victor snapped his fingers trying to catch the attention of the waitress pointing to his empty coffee mug.
Victor’s dismissal of religion was so casual and indifferent that Eddie marveled at the artist’s inability to imagine the effect his words were having on him. All Victor cared for at the moment was his next caffeine fix.
“Exactly, what do you mean when you say…the artist is God?” Eddie asked, trying to maintain his professional composure, trying to pretend his own religious sensibilities were not shaken.
“Artists are creative individuals. The whole idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It takes a great deal of creativity to conceive a being like that, and a great deal of creativity to attribute all these fantastically bizarre fables to him. Creative people created God; so the artist is God.”
Eddie lowered his chin and wrote Victor’s thoughts down. “I never thought of God as a starving artist.” Eddie joked, gingerly sipping his coffee.
Victor took a long meditative drag from his cigarette, flicking off the excess ash with a tap of the finger.
“It’s the artist that has the spark of divinity in him, metaphorically speaking,” Victor responded, measuring his words carefully. “I’m not a starving artist. It’s such a cliché and it unnecessarily exaggerates my situation. I’m merely poor and struggling, but I receive all the benefits of living in an industrial civilization. There’s a different kind of dearth here: a poverty of the imagination and the erosion of a creative spirit.”
“How would you then describe your self then?” Eddie asked.
“I’m a hungry artist.”
During the interview, Victor, either nervous or wired from the coffee, smoked continuously and his left leg never stopped jittering. The man was a bouncing ball of energy. Victor was all over the booth, slouching on one end, and then animated sliding across to the other side. Eddie’s pencil moved across his notepad trying to keep up with the hyper artist.
Finally, the waitress came to the table and Victor sat straight up like an adroit student at his desk. A cigarette clutched between straight white teeth, Victor smiled and winked at the pretty waitress who refilled his coffee.
The waitress winked back. “Hello.”
Eddie contemplated Victor’s appearance making notes for his article, happy for the interruption. Victor didn’t look like an artist, Eddie thought. He wore a tight t-shirt, faded jeans and kick ass boots, it’s true, and yet he sometimes spoke like a Harvard Collegiate. This man doesn’t look the imagined image of an artist. He looks like a youthful drug store lout, sipping a bottle of coke from a 1950s flick. Nothing about Victor Pross seemed to make sense. He was a circle in a world of square pegs.
The waitress spun on her heels looking over her shoulder at Victor. Sipping at his third coffee for the day, Victor now plunged in speaking acutely of his love for the arts, for cinema, for music, for painting. The artist inserted words like “exultation” and “celestial” in his conversation trying to communicate what the artistic process meant to him. Strange, Eddie thought, here is an atheist artist who speaks with a religious argot.
Victor sat under a small pool of light with curling smoke occasionally obscuring his features, but one didn’t need clear air to know that the attribute of a sizzling energy was manifest as if it were a visible force. Eddie couldn’t take his eyes off the artist.
In turn, Victor wondered about Eddie Lightfoot. Eddie was a fresh pimply-faced graduate from the school of Journalism. He was eager to make good for the newspaper that is known to hire hungry students. As chance would have it, his first assignment was Victor Pross and he was now determined to take a deep dive into the mind of the strangest artist this dull little town has ever produced. Victor saw the eager hunger in the student journalist and respected him for it.
The towns’ people were split in their response to the art of Victor Pross. When people said he was “one of a kind” it was said either derogatorily or as a compliment. Eddie suspended judgment and conducted the interview with unwavering objectivity. Still, Eddie couldn’t help but think that the world of the artist as a time honored bastion of eccentricity; a kind of private club where lesser mortals are not allowed. Very few people have “it”. Those who don’t have it—a group that comprises over ninety-nine percent of humanity—have mixed feelings about those who do have it. Admiration, Eddie concluded, somewhat sadly, is sometimes tinged with envy and hatred because artistic creativity is a very rare gift.
Eddie then looked down at the restaurant table. Sprawled across the length of table were prints of Victor’s art: strangely morphed caricatures of celebrities and skewered social stereotypes that exaggerated classes of people from all walks of live.
Victor had abandoned the landscapes and still life objects he displayed at the local gallery, feeling that he had sold out. He vowed that he would never create a painting that did not reflect a part of him.
The paintings could very well be summed up as “offensive” but they also impressed upon the viewer as being very true to life. In his harvest of densely rendered satirical prints, Victor made fun of clothing, expressions, facial features and body language, but mostly he made fun of social types, stupidity and corruption.
“What was your attraction to caricature art?” Eddie asked, arching a pencil across his chin.
Victor cleared his throat, breathed deeply, blinked his eyes, smiled wanly at the ceiling, and began speaking slowly, with a certain solemnity.
“As a kid, I saw a Da Vinci drawing called five caricature heads. I didn’t know it was a Da Vinci drawing, but I did love those ink drawings of his. I was amazed to discover that Da Vinci experimented with caricature, an art form usually delegated as childish cartoons.”
“That’s all? There are no other reasons why?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Victor’s voice suddenly fell flat and he became withdrawn as he slumped in the corner of the booth, his fingers beating a slow rotation against the surface of the table. The men fell into silence. Eddie continued to jot down notes and Victor sat still, his face a mask of passivity.
During this moment of respite, Victor turned to his immediate right to spot Mr. Ferguson sitting at the next table with his wife. Mr. Ferguson, a war veteran who lost his right arm in combat, was a rather lively and animated individual. He had the habit of punctuating his sentences with his stump arm—while his left arm remained still by his side. Victor couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of the stump: it looked like a lobbed-off pink sausage with a cleft chin gesticulating about.
Eddie picked up one of the art prints to examine it more closely. “Would you say that your art is a reflection of your own personality?” He asked, drawing Victor’s attention back to the interview.
Victor hulled himself halfway up from his slump. He took a drag from his cigarette and with squinted eyes, contemplated the question. Eddie sipped his coffee awaiting an answer.
“Every work of art is an act of psychological self-discloser. In a work of art, an artist declares to the world: ‘this is what I think is important—important for me to protect and for others to understand. By the same token, one’s response to a work or art, negatively or positively, is also psychological self-closer.”
“If that’s so,” Eddie countered, “don’t you have a certain amount of…I don’t know…trepidation about exposing yourself for everyone to see?”
“I don’t have anything to hide. I have too much to show.”
“Why did you decide to become a caricaturist?”
Victor extinguished his cigarette taking pleasure in the rotation. He looked Eddie straight in the eye and answered evenly:
“I’m not a caricaturist. I’m an artist who can draw caricatures.”
Feeling pleased with the answer, Eddie smiled and jotted the commit down, knowing it would make a good quote.
Eddie couldn’t help but think that if a man had chosen to paint caricatures that are calculatingly cutting, the last thing one would want to do is to examine the inner self. But he held his tongue and asked his next question: “What’s important for you to reflect and for others to understand?”
“Well, it’s like…I can’t figure people out. I mean, I try to understand people by painting them in caricature. Caricature is not about distortion, you know. Distortion attempts to lie and deceive. I’m for the truth, and I exaggerate the truth.”
“What is art?” Eddie asked, affixing a more philosophical gape. “I mean, do you have a definition of it?”
Victor shrugged. “No. I’m still struggling with that.”
“Are you prepared for the struggle involved in trying to launch a career in art, Victor?”
“Everybody struggles at first regardless of what career they choose. I’m no different. Look, I love art. I love to paint. That’s what I want to do. I think there is a far greater struggle going through this life doing something you don’t enjoy.”
There was a moment of silence and coffee sipping.
“How old are you, Victor?”
“What do you do now to pay the bills?”
“I work in a factory.”
“Did you attend art school?”
“Yeah, but I taught myself how to draw and paint.”
“Art school didn’t help?”
“Instead of learning to improve my drawing, I was compelled to concentrate on abstract—an aesthetic that holds no interest for me. In painting class there was no training as to method, for fear of hampering creative impulses.”
“You got nothing out of school?”
“There was a girl there you did help me.”
“Who was that?”
Victor smiled. “Her name was…Amber Fox.”
“Did you graduate?”
“No. I failed.”
Eddie’s pencil stopped in mid motion, he looked up incredulously. “What? Are you serious?”
Victor smiled, holding back from laughing at Eddie’s puzzled gawk.
“I can’t even draw a stick man.” Eddie mused, trying to maintain the momentum of the interview as he made his notes.
“Well, there are a lot of people who can’t draw,” Victor laughed, but this was followed up with a grimace: “But that doesn’t seem to prevent them from calling themselves artists.”
“Of all of your paintings, which is your favorite?”
Victor laughed. “The next one.”
Eddie paused and sipped the last of his coffee, making a slurp sound. Victor stretched his arms and cast his eyes towards the restaurant door. “Let’s get out of here, man. This place is bringing me down.”
The reporter and the artist continued the interview as they walked down a stretch of road that was lit ablaze with green, yellow, orange, and red leafs, almost all the colors of an artist’s palette. Victor kicked at street pebbles as he spoke, speaking in a pensive and almost inaudible tone. He gave the impression as if he were alone on an afternoon stroll and was simply speaking his thoughts out loud.
At one point Victor lifted his head up and stopped. “That’s where I was raised,” he said, his voice coming back to life as he pointed to a house. Victor now looked reminiscent, his shoulders hunched against the chill of the air.
Eddie almost burst out laughing the moment he set eyes on the abode. Can this prim little home really have been the home of Victor Pross? It’s a sight straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
A pleasure that Victor enjoyed was the poignant experience of nostalgia. Though revisiting the scenes of one’s childhood is a satisfaction sought by the elderly, at the age of twenty-two, Victor was absorbed in contemplating his origins. He spoke quietly of the experiences and emotions associated with the house of his childhood, recalling visits from his grandfather and having friends over to play in the backyard.
Standing there in the leafy street, the reporter wondered what could have gone on behind those walls to produce so extraordinary creature like Victor Pross? Then Eddie thought of the abrasive art. Then he looked at the house again and the melancholy artist. It all seemed so wildly incongruent.
He thought of Victor as someone who wouldn’t hesitate to punch a guy in the face for merely for looking at him the wrong way, but the reality of the spectacle before him was something else. Despite the tough façade, Eddie was glad to discover that Victor was hardly immune to sentimentality. And then Eddie thought again about Victor’s harsh paintings and controversial remarks.
“Some people would say you’re a real shit disturber,” Eddie said audaciously, impelled by the rebel image of the artist and wanting to generate a memorable line to rap up his article.
Victor did not disappoint: “I believe that shit needs to be disturbed.”
Eddie laughed and wrote the line down in his notebook. There seemed to be nothing much else to discuss and the two men went their separate ways.
Eddie Lightfoot left with a greater respect for the artist but with an elusive knowledge of what made him tick. But he surmised this much: Victor Pross is both a pleasant enough and impassioned man, a sometimes caustic Socrates who answers questions by spinning off a pun or beguiling quip—and this mix of personality traits is evident in the art itself. The paintings are playful as they are biting.
Eddie Lightfoot wrote a respectful and intelligent article about his subject, which was entitled “The Soul of a Satirist in the Body of a Fine Art Painter.” Part of the article read:
“Victor Pross paints caricatures of recognizable archetypes and stereotypes, small town eccentrics out of Sinclair Lewis, often Midwestern but just as likely to be Southern or Southern California, New Englander or New Yorker. A keen observer of character types, he punches and pulls the divine human form into Silly Putty shapes, a form he figures is more appropriate to what God designed, a being he does not grant the virtue of existence. Pross does more than observe characters—he searches them out and eggs them on in conversation, as a kind of research project.
He aims his brand of caricaturing at the cerebrum; he peppers his shocking imaginary with visual clues revealing more traits of his subject’s personality—all this to amuse the intelligentsia. Pross will lampoon everything he deems ludicrous in American culture. He has a crazed affection for pop culture, an acute eye for the irreverent and a tilted view of life that sees the world through a cracked bottle of seltzer.
He is the confrontational artist. But for all of his radical exaggerations and darkly subversive caricaturing, his work is essentially grounded in the real world. His grotesque caricatures do not necessarily harp on physical imperfections. They are a study of spiritual imperfections and intellectual maladies. Pross’ art is an outraged moral idealism.”
Victor read the article alone, sitting at the same booth where the interview was conducted. Copies of the article lay about the restaurant, including the waitress station at a nearby table where Victor sat. The pretty waitress that Victor had flirted with was now somewhat hesitate and distant when serving him. Victor wondered if she was uneasy toward him fearing she would be immortalized in caricature.
Victor shrugged off the thought and returned to the article reading again the one section that jumped out at him as being particularly astute: “Pross’ art is an outraged moral idealism.” Victor let out a mirthless chuckle, shaking his head.
He gulped the rest of his coffee and slipped out from the booth. A few scattered dirty looks from the restaurant patrons chased after him. It was apparent that they had read the article. The nerves of many were still raw from the God remarks, but now they felt vulnerable to Victor’s probing eye and rotating paint brush.
Paying his bill, Victor chose to appear oblivious to the gawks that fell upon him and walked out the front door with his head held high.
The waitress went to clear the table to find that Victor had left a flattering sketch of her. It was an image of her portrayed as an angel on roller skates rolling from one table to the next. Jubilant, she rushed over to a window to catch Victor. There he was on the street, waving good-bye to her. She enthusiastically waved back.
Victor ambled down the street, walking swiftly with a lose dexterity of motion as if he were a man without a care in the world, his dark hair disheveled in the wind. He looked at the people passing him in the street and beamed at them. His smile, set off to one side, slightly crooked, was warm and friendly. The people either smiled back weakly or averted their attention.
People rarely looked Victor straight in the eye. His dark blue eyes conveyed an openness and perceptiveness that always saw below the surface of their masks. It was almost as if people knew this of him. It left them feeling naked as if under a florescent light.
Arriving at the two bedroom apartment that he shared with his girlfriend, Victor opened up the door yelling her name. There was no answer. He sighed and tossed his keys onto the coffee table. Turning sharply to the left, Victor flipped the light on in the spare room that had been converted into a studio. He walked in the room as if entering a shrine and he looked about it as if it were the first time he saw it. But this room had long ago become his sanctuary, a retreat from the world. The room is stocked with art equipment, books and hundreds of LPs massed on ten foot shelves. There are dozens of sketches and paintings strewn about. It is the only room that is a complete mess in an otherwise tactfully decorated abode.
He removed his shirt and ran his fingers through his hair. Turning to leave, he caught himself by the large mirror that hung on the wall. He walked closer to his reflected image. Looking into the mirror Victor tried to decide if his inner life was visible in appearance. His face stared back at him, as if challenging him to define himself by the reflected image alone. Victor thought, what is a self? While so many others seek to escape their inner world, Victor Pross obsessed over the state of the inner workings of his mind. He knew he had demons to contend with. He fought to conquer them in his art.
With Eddie Lightfoot’s article in circulation, Victor enjoyed minimal success as an artist, but he hardly made enough to support himself. A few out-of-town commissions trickled in, but nothing big. The conservative town where he lived was not the right demographic, let alone the state of mind for his freewheeling art. There was something in a Pross rendering that cut beneath the flesh hitting the bones of their cherished prejudices and self doubts. The people preferred to be left alone with their hypocrisy. Although the community was a typical American town exploding with fireworks on the Forth of July and quite as a church on Thanksgiving, it wasn’t a pretty picture beneath the surface of its postcard veneer.
The town’s hypocrisy was something Victor Pross and his friend, Barry McConnell, often joked about. Victor and Barry sat slummed on the couch before a silent television, its flickering light a radiant shade of blue that illuminated the dark basement room. Barry sat near an open window where the night sky was framed beyond, the chill of the open window blowing his straight blonde hair about. The flat lighting gave everything an underdeveloped look. An ashtray rested on a coffee table filled with empty beer bottles and an empty pizza box.
The two men were inseparable. They took their first drinks together at the age of thirteen, sneaking gin from Barry’s father’s bottle and replacing it with water. They spent long summer hours in air-conditioned movie houses. They had lost their virginity to the same girl at the age of fifteen. But they were older now, and Barry still felt as if he had to sneak about when it came to booze and women. He lived with his religiously devoted mother who would have surely disapproved of both. Frustrated by his mother’s restrictive ways, Barry vented his misgivings by cracking jokes at her expense.
Barry McConnell was the town crack up, a funny man who was a treasure trove of dark jokes and twisted impressions. He had a demented affection for dark humor, a keen eye and ear for parody, and a slanted view of life that the saw the world through a cracked bottle of seltzer. If Victor’s paintings could jump from the flat service of the canvas and walk and talk, it would take the form of Barry’s witty words and hilarious physical expressions. Barry was to comedy what Dali was to painting or what Busby Berkeley was to choreography.
Barry was a small man. But it was his lively personality and comic abilities that made up for his lack of height, and these traits made him memorable in the minds of people who met him only once. He had suffered from tuberculosis as a child, and he was still not strong. The shadows across his face were those of a man who did not sleep well. Humor was Barry’s way of confronting and deflecting life’s grim realities. But Barry was in lively spirits tonight. Victor always brought that out in him.
Victor’s art inspired Barry too. He developed a special appreciation for the wicked wit of his friend and wanted to translate that type of drollness into a visual language. In turn, Barry tried to take the visual imagery of Victor’s art and translate it into performance comedy.
Whenever Barry’s mother left for a day or two, he and Victor always made it a point to catch up. They never tired of drinking together, cracking each other up and just generally shooting the shit. Light jazz music filled the background and Victor and Barry’s lively conversation drowned out the jazz rifts.
“What am I doing here, man?” Victor said, sucking back his beer. “There’s no life for me here in this shit town.”
This had become Victor’s sorrowful theme song recently and it was only expressed when he drank with Barry. Drinking brought out both a playful and pensive side to Victor. “There is so much bullshit in this town and it has more whitewash on it than Huck Finn’s fence.”
“Yeah,” Barry nodded. “There’s a parade of circus freaks and gene pool skimming that would give Fellini nightmares.”
“Yeah, they’re the ones who decide to have children.” Victor added.
The two friends laughed and clicked their beer bottles, cheering each other in their shared contempt for a town they both had come to loathe. They continued to drink and smoked pot for the next hour, taking stock of the town’s dirty laundry and hypocrisy.
Victor would laugh freely at Barry’s mimicry of the locals as he imitated their mannerism and dialect. Barry was able to caricature them in such a manner that would rival the most gifted performer at the actor’s Workshop. He always found an applicative audience in Victor. Barry would then satirize the town’s lip service to “family values” and “tradition.”
After the laughter and jokes died down, Barry suddenly became pensive.
“You know, that would make an interesting idea for a painting.”
Victor tapped on the end of a pack to produce a cigarette.
“You should paint a picture that really reflects the hypocrisy of this town. Man, all this bullshit family values façade.”
“Gimme an example,” Victor demanded, lighting his cigarette.
Barry stood up and switched on an extra light and started to pace the room, as was characteristic of him when comedic ideas came to surface.
“Everybody I know has some serious, fucked up emotional baggage—thanks to their so-called American pie Godly upbringing horseshit,” Barry said with increasing excitement. “And yet we keep on hearing this family values shit as if it really meant something! Really, everybody in this town is a fucking basket-case neurotic, in varying degrees—and all thanks to their upbringing. And I’m sure there’s a secret compartment in their little minds that is filled with an insidious hatred and loathing—hatred directed at their parents. Oh, man, they’re just waiting for their folks to die ‘Yeah, yeah, mom and dad, I love you so much. Now fuck off and die! Thanks for fucking with my psyche! I’ll just take that inheritance money as compensation for lifetime of psychoanalysis!’
Barry’s character portrayals were realistic people riddled with angst. He presented himself as a comic performer, making faces and employing a wide array of voices, body language, and acting techniques in semi-dramatic scenes that always concluded in gut-busting hilarity.
With the conclusion of Barry’s snap-on comic impression, Victor was doubled over with laughter, trying to catch his breath.
Barry became more excitable, fired up with comic elation. “Poke a hole in the whole goddamn family-tradition-hypocrisy credo, Victor! Get that Eddie guy to publish it. An image is worth a thousand words, right?”
The two friends talked over the idea, attempting to outdo each other in making the other laugh. They continued to drink and smoke as the night wore on.
Victor Pross and Barry McConnell never took anything too seriously, except for their art. Each man dedicated his life to retaining the spirit of a child, a life of creativity and play. Life was a prolonged recess.
The sun was shinning through the window and the chirping of the crickets brought the party to an end. The two friends—who now appeared utterly disheveled in the harsh morning light—woke to greet the morning with head splitting hangovers. Victor’s leg had turned numb, his neck was stiff and his skull felt as if a basketball had been using his head for a game.
Victor got up and tumbled in the kitchen and managed to somehow make two cups of coffee for himself and Barry. The two friends chatted for a while longer and Victor left a good hour before Barry’s mother was to return.
Passing derelict houses where no lights showed, Victor wondered about the people who lived in those houses. He was encouraged by his friend’s suggestion and set his mind to paint a portrait of a supposedly happy American family. He envisioned both a creepy and comical painting, a denotative visual image of the uglier--but hidden side--of Americana.
A week later, Victor completed the truthful picture of a garden-variety family, a portrait that spun Norman Rockwell on his head. He rushed over to Barry to show him the completed work. Victor dramatically uncovered the painting like a magician flourishing his cape revealing a trick. Barry’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. “I love it!” he exclaimed, enthralled by the image of the all American family disorder.
The painting was a study of the macabre pathology of a generic family: father, mother, son and daughter stand frozen as if posing for a photograph. The parents are all smiles, but their dysfunction is nevertheless visible--as they are manifested physically. The mother is a steely eyed iron maiden, whose plastic smile looks as though it took considerable effort to achieve. The father is a yellow faced block-head, literally. His smile is more genuine, but inane. The children look insolent and sullen and they, too, are grotesque caricatures of their emotional damage. At first glance, one would tend to conclude that some hideous accident had befallen the family, their faces discolored and deformed. But if one examines the portrait more closely, it becomes clear that the only real deformity present is not physical—it is psychological and philosophical. The abstract mental states were communicated visually: the mother is wearing a crucifix. The father is a yellow block-head. The son is wearing an Earth First t-shirt and the daughter adorns various Nazi symbols.
Victor entitled the painting Family Values. It was published in The Town Crier along side a short editorial. As was expected, the painting was the center of controversy. Victor had struck again.
During the interview with Eddie Lightfoot, Victor explained the idea behind the painting: “Like a scar in the flesh, the generic code--the fusion of prejudice, neurosis and psychosis--is transmitted from one generation to the next. The parents give it to the children and they in turn will give it to their children, so that eventually the whole genealogy is patterned with infected souls.
Eddie shuttered. “But aren’t you speaking of a minority of the people from dysfunctional homes,” Eddie said, his voice rising to a protest. “What if the children are raised properly in a Christian home?”
Victor scowled and furrowed his brow. “Oh, man! Are you serious?” He laughed, shaking his head. “Show me a real fuck-up, the guy who lives next door mowing his lawn and then bangs and kills your seven-year-old—and I’ll show you a guy who’s had a good religious upbringing.”
Victor’s statement felt like a punch on the jaw. Eddie paused, scratching his collar. The whole thought was unsettling and the painting struck him as disturbing, morbid, sick…and true.
Finding his tongue, Eddie pressed on with the interview: “What family did you have in mind when you painted this?”
“You miss the point, Eddie. No one particular family represents this painting. The people in it are lower or middle class—take your pick. No specific social class has been singled out. They are nobody in particular and everybody in general. These caricatures are a social stereotype of a very real phenomenon, a splinter of a wide social illness. It’s not a painting of any specific family or class. But the individual who recognizes themselves in it are free to contemplate it closer. The bastards know who they are.”
The bastards did not who they were. Both Victor’s explanation and the painting caught wind from the larger papers and the hot water the artist now found himself in boiled over. Victor Pross became a local celebrity whose claim to fame was notoriety.
The towns’ people mocked and jeered Victor every time he appeared in public. It didn’t matter if he was walking down the street or popped into the local variety store for a pack of smokes, they taunted him. He would be passing houses on the street and people sitting on the porch either ignored him or shouted out an insult.
One time Victor was eating his lunch at the diner and suddenly he found himself accosted. “You’re one sick puppy, buddy boy.” Victor turned to face the speaker and found a portly middle-age man browbeating him. His name was Chuck Elliot. His father use to beat him, propelled by the biblical injunction that to “spare the rod is to spoil the child.” His bitterness and anger was etched in each crevasse of his face, a face that had aged beyond its fifty years. Victor turned back to his meal.
A second voice chimed in: “His mother must have dropped him on his head when he was a baby.” It was the voice of Phil Bucker—whose own mother and father fit the bill of the stereotypes that Victor captured with such deadly accuracy that it almost felt as if they had personally posed for the caricaturist.
Victor said nothing. He went right on eating his corn beef sandwich, as if nothing of consequence were transpiring in his presence. Finishing his lunch, he casually walked out onto the street. Nonchalantly, he lit up a cigarette, a trace of a grin upon his angular mug.
As Victor strolled down the street he passed houses and spotted furniture on the front porch that was once the living room furniture. All along the roads were people with little stands where they sold produce they produce they produced in their gardens. These were old-timers who proudly traced their families back to the age of the Republic. It was a conservative town and the male population wore short-sleeved white shirts. The women knew their place and were happy for it. The dreary municipality offered little: a school, a courthouse, a Holy Roller church, a malt-shop, a library and grungy bar. The municipality lived in a fifties time warp. Victor coined a phrase that summed up the essence of the town and he stung the civic sensibilities of its people: he called his hometown Nothingville.
Jody Price was the pretty twenty-three old auburn haired girl from the affluent side of town. She was the epitome of middle-class respectability while Victor exhibited all the traits of a bohemian. Jody was a girl who had previously dated university men and venture capitalists and was bored with them. At first sight, she seemed like the least likely partner for the trouble making artist, and everybody made it a point to commit on it. No doubt, Jody Price and Victor Pross were on separate sides of the tracks and it was as if a white line had been painted along the ground separating one section of the town from the other leaving the young lovers on opposing sides.
Jody had a strict upbringing with her older sister, Cindy. The sisters originally came from Boston, but given their father’s portable career Jody had spent her childhood living from one city to the next. “I became isolated and closed off growing up,” she confided to Victor on their second date. “I found it difficult to make friends. My parents either didn’t approve of them or I found myself moving to another city.”
Jody’s parents were not happy with the likes of Victor Pross. They envisioned their youngest daughter with a financially secure man or who at least has realistic prospects. Cindy, on the other hand, exceeded her parent’s expectations when she started dating Chad Warwick, a twenty-nine year old management consultant who, despite having degrees from Harvard and Stanford, revealed himself as a lug-head whose favorite adjectives were “awesome” and “totally cool.”
Victor was not as educated as Chad Warwick, but he was just as ambitious, if not more. Actually, the desire to be an artist burned brighter in Victor and Chad’s flame for his career was but a flicker compared to Victor’s fiery passion. But Chad was successful and Victor was not. His frustration increased with each passing day when his efforts to secure commissions came to nothing. It was Jody who bore the brunt of his aggravation. It left her feeling emotionally depleted.
One morning, Victor sat at the kitchen table brooding over the breakfast Jody prepared for him. She sat next to him, watching him run his fork over the food. During protracted periods of non-creativity, his temper often flared. She could sense the vibrations when he was angry. When Victor was livid, it was like the roar of thunder. No one could challenge his biting words. It was best to let the storm pass. As angry as Victor could become, he never demonstrated it physically. But Jody nevertheless dreaded these dark moments.
“What is the matter with you, honey?” Jody asked, knowing full well her boyfriend’s proclivity for dour morning moods.
“Nothing,” Victor snapped. “Everything is hunky-dorky.”
“Will you eat your breakfast before it gets cold? You need to get ready for work.”
“Do you call that working in a shout house a job?”
“There are other things you could do, sweet.”
Victor let a moment pass before he murmured his response:
“I could be an artist.”
Jody stabbed her fork into a piece of bacon. “Let’s get back to reality for a moment. Being an artist is great---as a hobby. Let’s try to be realistic. I think you should take my father’s offer seriously.”
“Just like Chad did?” Victor asked, with a note of suspicion.
“Yes,” Jody answered matter-of-factly. “Look what he did for Chad. He could help you. Be realistic.”
Victor bristled. “Being an office dick is realistic?”
“It’s a well paying job.”
“I don’t want to work with those people.”
“What’s wrong with the people my father works with?”
A beat passed while Victor continued to play with his food. “They’re lower than whale shit.”
“Why do you have to be so different?” Jody snapped.
“I’m who I am, Jody.”
Jody tossed her fork onto the plate, pushing her unfinished breakfast away from her. “What’s so wrong with fitting in?”
Victor said nothing. He merely extinguished his cigarette out in the soft sunny side-up yellow of his eggs. He jumped up from his seat grabbing his jacket and stormed out the front door.
The hours at the factory seemed long, every minute seeming like ten. Victor’s job increasingly came to feel like a jail sentence. He would arrive home in the evenings exhausted, leaving little energy to paint. But the desire was always present. He would eat his dinner with Jody, and then find himself staring at a blank canvas. Jody always managed to distract him with conversation or with task to complete before going to bed. Or else she caught him in some melodrama with the force of a high-powered vacuum. Without his art, he felt like a man without purpose or meaning.
Victor dreaded holiday dinners at Jody’s parent’s home. It didn’t matter if it was Thanksgiving, Easter or Christmas. He hated it all from the bottom of his soul. They were events that took him away from his paintings.
The gathering of the Price clan always consisted of twenty parents, uncles, aunts, great-uncles, great aunts, nieces and nephews and a total stranger someone brought. Everybody always spoke at once, ideas on every subject imaginable circling the table with a great deal of laugher and hidden hostility. The evenings ended with everybody in a state of exhaustion and satiation whereby everybody had progressed through all the family dynamics that can be squeezed into one day: everybody had been informed, eulogized, lectured, enlightened, insulted, and appreciated. Fifty-two weeks’ worth of “family quality time” had been achieved with lighting speed. Victor felt as if he had entered a chamber of horrors.
Finally, after a dry period, Victor found commissions in his dustbowl town. He was hired to paint a picture of a hamburger and fries on a sandwich board for a new diner. Because of his caricaturing abilities, Victor was also hired to draw children at a birthday party.
“Those jobs are beneath you!” Barry admonished his friend. Victor replied that he was happy to be hired as an artist in whatever capacity, and until such time he was in a position to pick and choose his commissions, he’ll take whatever is offered. Proud words, but privately Victor was embarrassed by the commissions. It was hard for him to do a good drawing unless he was excited by the idea or passionate about the subject. The boredom showed in his work.
Happily, a more challenging commission came in. It was Eddie Lightfoot’s newspaper that took a fancy to Victor’s particular brand of caricaturing and they hired the iconoclastic artist to illustrate a story involving a local judge with political aspirations. Victor eagerly accepted the job.
Judge Lionel F. Wilkins was a Sunday school Bible teacher who came under the limelight. There was the case of three teenage girls who were caught shoplifting that caught a lot of local attention. Having found them guilty as charged, Judge Wilkins sentenced them to serve time at the cinema. They were confined for three hours in a local Retro theatre for a court ordered movie reviewing of The Ten Commandments. They were also required to write an essay on the moral lessons to be drawn from the movie.
The judge’s sentence drew severe criticism from the editorial pages, most especially by Eddie’s Town Crier. Along side an editorial by Eddie was a derisive caricature of Judge Wilkins clad in holy grab and sandals, his toes pointed upward, brandishing a gavel as if it were a sword. Within the body of the art, a caption read: “Judge Lionel Wilkins demands that two misdemeanants sit through a film filled with adultery, violence, murder, plundering, lust and orgies so as to learn about morality!”
The rendering had Victor’s fingers prints all over it: his distinct style of drawing as clear as a litigable signature. Oddly, it was the artist and not the publication that incurred the judge’s wrath. “You’re a man with an unsettling sense of humor,” the judge bellowed to the press, knowing his message would reach the artist. “Whatever jolly nimbus you convey in your art, you have a disturbing hostility towards the world and religion. You are a disgrace to this community!” Victor replied, in kind, through the press: “I regard being forced to sit through that movie as cruel and unusual punishment. You really ought to tend to the business of administering justice—instead of taking your backward upbringing out on three young girls.”
That remark set the bomb off.
The town seethed and heaved like the proverbial sea before the storm. They usually lashed out against that which did not conform to the constricting cannons of “normalcy”--according to the standards of a most abnormal town, but Victor’s recent stunt was beyond the pale. Unlike before, Victor was now assailed by a chorus of writers, pulpit preachers, high school teachers and local politicians. Not content to merely attack Victor verbally, some of his critics demanded that action be taken to either prohibit Victor from showing his work or to run him out of town. The most verbose was, of course, Judge Lionel Wilkins.
Again, nothing came of the controversy and after weeks of the usual white heat the town’s people cooled off.
The judge’s political aspirations never came to fruition and many attributed it to Victor’s caricature. Outraged, Victor’s detractors vehemently denied such a supposition, not wanting to think that a mere caricature artist could possibly command such an influence.
The controversy of Victor’s rendering eventually subsided. The town’s people returned to their routine apathy and drudgery, having squeezed all the life out of an episode that provided them, for a day or a week, food for conversation around water coolers, restaurants, backyard parties and church.
Fleeing Nothingville on the weekend, Victor drove to the city looking for further work as an artist. The hip cafes displayed his paintings and he sold a few of them to patrons who frequented the café. Wayne Simmons, a fifty-three year old magazine art director, ate at the cafes where Victor’s paintings hung. He admired the work and hired the young artist to illustrate articles and short stories. Victor was contracted as a cartoonist for Simmons’s underground magazine Generation X. It was a task Victor was imminently suited for.
Victor produced a series of paintings receiving a tidy little sum for his efforts. Simmons was impressed with Victor. Pleased that his work was appreciated, Victor was eager and compliant. “I can draw anything you want,” Victor said in a brawny voice. “And I’ll meet any dead-lines.” Simmons commissioned Victor whenever he could but the painter’s hunger was greater than what Simmons could offer.
In the next few weeks, more commissions came in keeping Victor employed. But the well eventually dried up. Victor felt agonized while artistically idle. Actually, waiting for a commission was like a long, protracted death. It encompasses agony with periods of deluded hope and remission.
Simmons felt bad for Victor. “You should really hit the bigger cities,” he advised the eager artist. Victor nodded in agreement only to return the following weekend. Simmons was reminded of Oliver Twist asking for more. Generation X had become an artistic oasis for Victor, a look into the future as a professional artist. He didn’t want to believe that his services were no longer in demand.
One morning Simmons saw Victor standing at the entrance of the Generation X building. “Victor, what are you doing here so early in the morning?” a puzzled Simmons asked. “I just happen to be in the city and I thought I would just drop by,” Victor lied. Of course, Simmons knew better.
Victor conveyed an impression of longing, of neediness that seemed incongruent to his usual hard and caviler manner. It became clear to the art director: Victor’s ambition was much larger than what he, or this dustbowl town, was able to ever satisfy. Simmons invited the artist up to his office to soothingly explain that the magazine’s budget didn’t allow him to commission any more illustrators. Victor’s shoulders slumped and his head dropped. He thanked Simmons and walked out of the office onto the street.
Victor stood on the street, a slight cool wind on his face, and an objectless ire coursing through him. He wanted to shout to anybody, to reach them even if he had to pull them down. He wanted to run into apartments, taverns, laundry mats and hotels to yell out the emotions he was experiencing now. But it was his art that he had always counted on to do his communicating.
Feeling deflected, Victor dropped by the bookstores perusing the magazine section. He skimmed the various magazines where his work appeared and savored seeing his artistry in print. It was exciting to know that the circulation of Generation X stretched the country. He moved onto the art magazines taking an interest in the more intellectually stimulating articles. Victor longed to see his own work published in these high profile publications.
One magazine in particular caught Victor’s attention. It was a magazine pompously entitled In The Know, a new art journal that offered a philosophy of art that could serve as an ancillary to religion. One article spoke of art as “frozen metaphysics that expresses the life of a culture.” It was written by a Miss A. Cappelli, an art historian. She wrote with such a compelling logic and lucidness. The cogency of her arguments reminded him of his art school friend, Amber Fox. The styles were eerily similar. Another article by her concluded that art is a “spiritual force that offers happiness not possible within the physical world.” The magazine declared that In The Know will “wage a philosophical revolution in the arts” and that this philosophy of art will be “the vanguard of tomorrow.” Victor learned that In The Know captured a readership beyond art students and collectors. It attracted a demographic that thirsted for answers to the larger questions of the cosmos.
Victor saw himself submitting his own art for publication. But even though the magazine boasted itself of great philosophic importance, it featured only postmodernist art—minimalism, abstract painting and installation art. Victor felt a small stab of disappointment, but nevertheless he slapped down his money with the magazine under arm and walked out of the store.
Sitting at a bar stool Victor tried to comprehend the magazine’s more ponderous content. He read lengthy articles about the philosophical aspects of postmodernist art and of the driving ideas behind this movement. There were a few “ism” in the articles that required further reading. Victor went to the city library.
Huddled at a table surrounded by books, Victor read about modernism and postmodernism, art movements that were popular at the school he attended. He sat rapt, eagerly turning the pages. He signed out a bundle of books carrying them out to his car. It was an incongruent sight because he hardly looked the role of a bookworm.
The hour was waning and night was falling. Victor returned to Nothingville driving down a stretch of desolate road, feeling as if the grey cotton like cloud above were following him, its formation similar to that of a malicious grin.
Victor stepped out of the car to find Miss Minielly raking her front lawn. Her plump little white hands clutched the neck of the rake as if she were strangling a snake.
Miss Minielly was the biggest gossip in town. After she made her daily rounds collecting the news at the beauty shop and church, she would tell her friends--always starting with “wait till you hear this…”--all about the unfounded rumors about anybody other than the person she was speaking to. She was the town’s acrimony crier and rumor monger. She was always looking for dirt on someone. Victor Pross seemed a most worthy target.
“I don’t understand you,” she barked. “You’re such a nice looking young man. Too bad I can’t say the same for your art!” She spat the words out as if they were daggers. Victor merely stood still, saying nothing. He leaned up against the car and lit a cigarette. His eyes fixed on Miss Minielly. It was as if he were studying her. She scowled, shaking her head. “Why waste that God-given talent?” Victor shrugged, taking a long contemplative drag from his cigarette. Miss Missielly was disappointed to see Victor emotionally unaffected, and so she gave up and continued raking. Victor started for the front door.
“What does your girlfriend think of that stuff you paint?” Miss Minielly shouted, employing a different tactic. This time she got to Victor. The subject of his relationship was a raw nerve nowadays. But Victor merely waved good-bye to Miss Minielly as he unlocked the door of his apartment retreating within its confines. All he heard was Miss Minielly’s final discharge: “You should stop taking advantage of that poor girl and marry her!”
Miss Minielly’s remark followed Victor inside. It was true that Jody’s eyes were shellacked with the gloss of marriage and Victor had developed the art of subterfuge whenever Jody hinted at the subject. And the more her parents pushed Jody to dumped the wayward artist, the more determined she was to lasso him. She waited for Victor to pop the question. He never did.
Jody Price had a predilection for structure and order. It was the way she was raised. And Jody Price seldom questioned the wisdom of her upbringing. Possessing an artistic temperament, Victor loathed any semblance of routine, preferring to eat, sleep, or work when the he happened to feel hungry, tired, or inspired.
“Where have you been?” Jody asked, curled up on the couch reading a celebrity magazine.
“In the city…reading…thinking.”
“I thought we were going to spend the weekend together.”
“It’s still the weekend, babe.”
Victor felt the chill of Jody’s irritability. He felt the pin prick of his own irritability at Jody’s impatience with him. He walked over to her and embraced her.
He put his face into her hair and caressed her timorously with his hands, allowing one to slide down to her buttocks. She lay passively in the embrace, not helping at all. Victor went on stroking her as if endeavoring to squeeze something out of her body. Her reluctance ebbed away under his hands, and gradually they slid, from emotional fatigue, into sex.
It was at this moment that Victor thought of Amber.
Victor couldn’t understand why Amber consumed his thoughts. True, they grew very close in the short time they attended school together, but that now seemed like a long time ago. At first, Amber and Victor stayed in contact when he left school. But eventually the phone calls and letters grew less frequent. During their final correspondence they spoke philosophically of male and female relationships. Victor told Amber about the ups and downs of his relationship with Jody and she told him about this guy she had started to date. It was here that Victor stopped writing.
Amber continued to write. There was no answer and she wrote again asking for a reply—almost demanding a reply. Victor did reply. They spoke of the energy and time it takes to maintain a relationship, of the demands that their respective partners placed on them, and of their suspicious jealousies. With that, and the great distance that separated them, the friendship faded.
“I still consider her a close friend,” he told Barry one time. “I think of her often.”
“Too often,” Barry replied.
Victor now felt a deadened impassiveness and a sense of being trapped. There were times when he could speak happily of his feelings for Jody and of domestic life and there were times when he couldn’t speak at all. That night they lay in bed after making love. They were silent for a long while and Jody turned to Victor with veiled eyes that were mysteriously remote when usually so warmly affectionate. She took his hand and pressed it feeling the warmth from his body. “I love you,” Jody whispered.
Jody recalled the times when Victor was the most affectionate person she had ever known. He was constantly kissing and hugging her. He liked holding her from behind as they dozed off to sleep. Jody concluded that the personality that the town knew—the hard, wisecracking, sarcastic artist was a defense against the world. Jody was always grateful for the reversion to sweetness where she was involved. She continued to hope that that her boyfriend would finally shed the rebel image of the bohemian artist taking on the world with a paintbrush as his sword. She would do everything in her power to guide Victor in making more practical decisions in regards to their future. There was no reason why he shouldn’t work for her father. They will have a future together and be counted in the community. People change all the time, Jody thought.
As Victor lay by her side in the dark, he thought of how he could make his relationship with Jody work. He wanted to make it work. He told himself that he loved her. But how will he get her to accept the fact that she had taken up with an artist. This is the only kind of work that he wants to do. And if she were to remain with him, she would have to accept him. He is an artist.
Edited by Victor Pross, 27 August 2006 - 04:30 PM.