I Can Give You Anything But Love opens with the author’s return to Cuba after a seven-year hiatus. Gary Indiana succinctly notes the shifts in the club scene, the drugs, the multiplying predatory jineteros. We don’t see the Cuba we know from photos: the old cars, fin-backed and polished, abuelas shelling peas on their stoops, or wiry boys playing baseball in the potholed streets. Rather, this Cuba is all about movement and search: which dance hall, which bar, which beach. Abdul, a former companion and hustler of the more benign sort, turns up without invitation at Indiana’s door.
Abdul isn’t old enough to find the continued existence of another person uncanny, I thought. One has to lose quite a few people before that happens. Maybe he senses something encouraging in the fact that I’m not dead by now, but he isn’t surprised. It surprises me, but that’s another story.
It’s in moments like these that Indiana has so much to offer. He has lived through just about everything, and is still here to tell it, but what of that? Surviving is a temporary state—a thing Indiana makes clear. “At some bend in the river,” he writes, “you suddenly realize that questions that have pressed against your skull since the age of reason don’t have any answers. None you’re ever going to know, anyway.”
Indiana declines to tell us much about his childhood, which is fine by me. I’ve always been more interested in seeing how a person moves in the world, what they’ve done with their experiences, rather than a (possibly faulty) rehash.
I can’t recall that faraway period in any fine detail, much less what I thought about what happened to me. When people refer to “the benefit of hindsight” they forget that hindsight is the back end of a firearm, not some elevated wisdom they’ve acquired from their childhood nightmares.
Indiana reveals as much as we need to know, as well as he remembers, in a compressed form: his family, a “psychological mess … tainted by alcohol”; being jumped, hogtied and left floating on a raft by his swimming instructors; training to be a jockey, then growing too tall to race. He wedges short passages about realizing, then acting upon his attraction to other boys, the encounters dispensed with as matter-of-factly as an anecdote about a second cousin. I suspect this brevity serves to take some weight off of childhood, advice that could be of use to a number of memoirists. What if we could look at our youth in terms of what we make of ourselves going forward, rather than privileging the things that happened to us?
After his exodus from New Hampshire, Indiana made his way to northern California. He attended and then dropped out of Berkeley, lived in a commune, was a sidekick to a porn-production power couple of sorts. He migrated to The Haight, Los Angeles, New York. The patterns introduced in the Cuba sections are repeated, but on a larger scale. Indiana writes of a continued sense that the “best” was eluding him, but only just.
Some of my favorite writing in the book is about his time in Los Angeles in the 1970s pre-punk haze. Working for a law firm in Watts, as well as at a once-luxe-but-now-crumbling movie theater in Westwood, Indiana self-medicated his way through the days and nights, a sort of human tumbleweed. When Indiana does choose to reflect on his life, it is with brevity and impact, a sort of swift jab to the head instead of the slow tear of a hangnail that many memoirs mimic.
I felt barely in the world at all, as the world of other people was fractured into drastically different quadrants: the punks I knew from the clubs, the middle-class lawyers and their families and friends I knew from work, and the gays in pickup bars. I wasn’t particularly close to anybody… I spent an absurd amount of time alone, in the car, driving nowhere in particular, driving because being on the road felt less horrifying than sitting alone in a room.
Presenting one harrowing scene after another, Indiana’s emotions are practically flatlined, allowing us to what-the-fuck our way through the book. “Hanging out with dealers is never much of an idea. Drop the wrong word, state a contrary opinion, reject their advances, or decline to read their poetry, and you can kiss your drug supply good-bye,” he writes.
Careening through a series of near-misses, Indiana bounced from one unrequited, misguided obsession to another, survived a rather spectacular car crash, and did all the drugs. His lack of self-reflection, hinted at by the book’s title, is itself a stance, one of refusal or perhaps self-preservation. Where Indiana does admit emotional involvement, it’s later in life, but still colored by fatalistic objectivism.
Hysterical realism might seem a good fit with which to show the decaying social landscape of Cuba, the time spent with his friends Carol and Ferd, the producers of “narrative porn” (The Straight Banana), and the pickup-saturated years in LA. Instead, Indiana wisely steps back. I would argue that this isn’t so much an act of withholding, as the title suggests, so much as showing us that this is how he does life: from a distance, as an observer. He resolves nothing, a stance I find exhilarating. One who has lived a life like this has no need for histrionics.
Indiana, a well-regarded visual artist, writer, and critic, is adept at both observing and detailing. While this precision may at first come off as stoicism, I’d argue that he’s curated a sampling of the life he’s lived, and then stepped back to let us assess the evidence. He doesn’t talk much about his achievements in artistic and literary venues, a stance that shows that he is fully in control of the parameters of this book.
Since he is so well established across so many genres and mediums, he needn’t unveil grudges, yet he does. While his anger is an understandable response to these perceived professional injustices, it seems somewhat out of balance with the way he chooses to present his earlier life, given the number of undeniably awful events. When he’s not griping, he’s quite adept at pointing out, by use of neutral observation, the great fact of our mortality. This is the author’s great strength, to curate the defining instances, at times allowing us in so close that we think we can know him, then he retreats, just shy of an epiphany. Such a relief.