It was dark when I arrived in Portland. For the last two and a half months I’d been living in the Virgin Islands, beneath the glare of perpetual tropical sun, and when I returned to my hometown afterwards, in the middle of November, the first thing – the main thing – that struck me was the darkness. The sun rose late, after I boarded the bus for work, and gave only a few hours of sickly light before sinking at five o’clock in the afternoon. The dark of Portland struck me with a kind of numbness, within which simple survival felt like the most I could hope for. This was the state of my head when I picked up Screaming at a Wall and began to read.
Billed as a fictionalized autobiography, Screaming at a Wall follows the misspent youth of its author, Greg Everett. Growing up in a middle-class California neighborhood, Greg’s story is one of frustration and rage and inarticulate desire. Bored with his surroundings and rejecting the complacent existence of his peers, Greg turns to a life of self-obliteration, falling into a world of continual drug use, parties, and empty interactions. In other words, a post-punk coming-of-age-in-suburbia story like so many others, a story that’s been told so many times it hardly seems worth mentioning.
But in the Portland darkness, something about this story struck me as different. It wasn’t anything that the story did particularly well – as far as conventional literature goes, it seemed to do most things badly. Everett’s writing style is sparse and blunt, his psychological insights almost non-existent, his characters flat and often designated only by the epithets which Greg assigns them: Bitch, Hippie, Cop, Nameless Girl. Instead, what struck me was what Screaming at a Wall didn’t try to do. It didn’t try to glamorize anything, to hide the naked desolation and triviality of the events which it told: the endless days of purposeless highs and shallow conversations, the lack of focus and self-hatred. And because of this, it managed to capture something that other, similar stories had not.
Reading it, I felt at first like I had found something that I desperately needed, an intensity that would sustain me through the Portland winter. This is real, I thought, like Henry Miller’s writing without the surrealist excesses, like Bukowski without ambition at age seventeen. This is what I felt at first.
But Everett had other plans. Although Screaming starts off by conveying the self-destructive thrill of the chemical-solutions-to-emotional-problems lifestyle, Everett is too honest and too much a man with a mission to let the reader off so easily. Around page 200, with 248 pages of the book still to go, a sense of futility began to pervade my reading, increasing with each short chapter. As the endless succession of parties and short-lived friendships continued to unfold with no real progression or end in sight, I started to wonder: where can this be going, what can possibly come out of this that will make these interminable episodes worthwhile? Almost, again and again, I decided to stop reading. Sitting alone at night, clutching a cigarette, tired and brittle, I read:
I told myself I would be clean…
Turns out I’m still a liar.
It didn’t even last a month. I was right back to it all, losing myself in the blur, the pulsing swarm of slurred words and forgotten nights. It’s like struggling to climb a hill of sand, sliding with every crawling step. Sometimes you stop sliding and think you’re safe again. But the moment you take a breath the sand gives way and you’re scratching at the ground trying desperately to slow your fall….
It owns you. It stops giving what you wanted and starts taking everything away. You don’t feel anything anymore but an untouchable, tearing need, a frozen burning in your trembling hands and your empty chest. It brings you to your knees and makes you crawl. It steals the thoughts from your mind and breaks your will. You find yourself on the floor, scratching at the glass, crumbling with the weight of your own weakness. You breath the glittering trails of need and roll your head back to pull it in deeper. It puts lies in your mouth and fear in your dreams. It rapes your life and leaves you alone and bleeding in a stream of dirty black rainwater, dissolving everything you know as it trickles through the empty cement gutter.
I decided to stop reading and, like the protagonist of Screaming, found myself returning to it against my better judgment, an itch I had to scratch. It was not fun, but Everett is not about fun. He doesn’t just want you to understand (in fact, he doesn’t care if you understand – almost nothing in the book is explained): he wants you to feel the story that he is telling.
Then, around page 300, something finally happens to break up this monotony. Greg graduates from high school and moves away from his hometown to go to college, first in Arizona, then in California. As he bounces between academic programs, he begins to write down his experiences and in the process of doing so finds a productive means of channeling his anger and discontent. He stops using drugs and starts a publishing company – Grundle Ink Press, the real-life publisher of the book. Suddenly pieces began to fall into place for me, the disconnected episodes of the story falling into place and taking on a new significance.
In his essay on intellectual history, the historiographer Hayden White wrote: “the classic text seems to command our attention… because it gives us insight into a process that is universal and definitive of human species-being in general, the process of meaning production.” White also wrote that “narrative strains for the effect of having filled in all the gaps, of having put an image of continuity, coherency, and meaning in place of the fantasies of emptiness, need, and frustrated desire that inhabit our nightmares about the destructive power of time.”
On an immediate level, we often pick up books because we are looking for amusement and diversion. More fundamentally however, we need stories because they help us understand our own lives and offer us tools for creating meaning out of the clutter of details that fills our days, and it is this need that Screaming at a Wall demonstrates par excellence.
By writing down his experiences and turning them into a narrative, Greg finds a way of transforming the wreckage of his past into something worthwhile and significant. The progression of apparently disconnected episodes that came before this point are no longer disconnected or trivial: they are the necessary basis of the book’s very existence. And as a reader of the book, I realized that I was participating in this affirmation of the power of narrative to re-shape the world around us.
Setting aside Everett’s book after finishing the last page, I felt at once tired and cheated and elated. The journey that he took me on was not an easy one, and it left me with both more and less than I’d expected. As far as the normal satisfactions of reading go, he’d given me almost nothing that I wanted. But he had also given me a sense of the possibilities in my own life: not a promise that they would be easy, but an affirmation nonetheless for those willing to fight for their heart’s desire. And although the Portland winter didn’t seem any less cold or dark, it seemed – maybe – a little easier to bear.
Mr. Everett’s book is available for purchase at
About the author:
Matthew Flaming is affordable, biodegradable, non-toxic in most applications, and comes in a variety of convenient flavors and packages including new Literary Purple. More information can be found at www.matthewflaming.com.