Tuesday, June 01, 2010

My Fix Takes Another Twist: A Review Of Stephen Kessler’s The Mental Traveler

My Fix Takes Another Twist: A Review Of Stephen Kessler’s The Mental Traveler

By John Flynn

Poet, translator, essayist and Redwood Coast Review editor Stephen Kessler in his first novel has penned an honest, articulate and arresting auto-biographical nightmare odyssey of 23-year-old UC Santa Cruz dropout Stephen the K. Starting with Love Creek Lodge in Central California, and getting high with the older loving maternal Nona, Stephen’s Kafkaesque journey takes him, ultimately, to an understanding that “the world was the poem.”

Stephen abandons graduate studies in English for a confused trek into all his fathers. My favorite part of the novel was the description of the Altamont Speedway Festival of 1969, where Stephen’s day peaks with a spontaneous friendship with a fellow named Norm. The memory of that day stays with Stephen as his spiritual trek lands him in treatment at San Francisco General Hospital, to consoling friends in Benedict Canyon, to maverick eccentric profs at UC Santa Cruz, and to City Prison where Stephen becomes a bard behind bars and admits “A pattern was emerging. Each time it seemed my ordeal was about to end, something went wrong and my fix would take another twist.”

Stephen’s fix is rendered in a frank disciplined telling, a torturous soul-searching identity quest that exemplifies the youth-to-age anguish of his generation at that time. Thorazine, hitchhiking, the Zodiac Killer, acid trips, hashish, instant poems, earthy pot-smoking friends, the experimental psychiatric wing of Franciscan Santa Cruz Hospital, talk of Nixonian politics and the Vietnam war, a move to Beverly Hills and St. James Hospital in Santa Monica “because the revolution would have to include Hollywood.”

Spiraling out of control, Stephen cloys to the LA shrink El Silver Man, to street philosophers, Dylan songs, poems, fellow inmates, ward residents, a casual-sex girlfriend with a split personality. He escapes more than once from his various nuthouses. More than once he willingly returns. He rambles along certain of his purpose if only he can discover it, “the gods of the revolution secretly directing my trip.”

In the end, he returns to Santa Cruz County General Hospital, not bereft of hope, but in despair, addled on Thorazine, lost and growing aware of patron saints of lost causes, the art of obedience, choosing to “play it straight” if only to avoid electroshock therapy and a lobotomy, “deeper into despair of ever escaping…the drama of my so-called psychosis had ceased to be entertaining.”
Unable to write, he continued to read poetry, particularly Robert Bly. He then began “working on another life.”

There’s no miraculous coming of age here. No pat answer, quirky minimalism or self-indulgent dream sequences. It’s about the story, plainly told. For readers like me from the East Coast who were children during the Vietnam War era, this novel offers a close, uncompromising look at a specific time and place, and a universal examination of one artist’s sojourn into fragile self-awareness.

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