When he first came back to New York, and that would be twenty years ago now, my brother Jack was in a kind of stupor, for it was shortly after the death of his daughter Peg. What can you say about the death of a child? She was sixteen when it happened, and the impact on all of us, Jack of course in particular, was devastating. When I glimpsed the extent of his grief, after the first shock wore off, and he awoke to the grim slog of flat, empty days that yawned before him—all meaning, hope and pleasure drained from life—I called out to him from across what seemed a chasm, and got back only the faintest of answers, which might have been no more than an echo; I mean I did not know what to say to him to bring him back into living contact with the world, and more immediately with myself, his sister. I don’t suppose there’s very much you can say.
I never feared for his sanity, however. I never feared that he would attempt to do harm to himself, and for this reason: he had his work. And with the first, weary, reluctant attempt to pull himself together came a return to the studio, a loft I had rented for him in an old warehouse building on Crosby Street. I remember watching him silently building stretchers, the very mindlessness of this familiar activity giving palpable relief to a soul in pain. I sat in that loft drinking tea and trying to make conversation as he nodded and grunted and nailed his stretchers, and the next day he cut canvas, and began to staple it to the stretchers, and again I was the one who sat there with him, talking or silent, whichever he seemed to prefer, simply a familiar body in the same bleak space during those slow wretched days. I was also there when he mixed paint in a bucket, Indian-red and black pigment, and thinned it with turpentine to the consistency of soup, and I remember how he turned the brushes over in his fingers, running the fibers across his palm. He had discovered second-hand paintbrushes in a hardware store a couple of blocks east, in Chinatown, big floppy decorators’ brushes softened by long use by working men.
And as I watched him I saw what the years in Port Mungo had done to his hands. Jack’s hands were once like mine, our best feature, I used to think: thin, and long, with slender tapering fingers, elegant white bones intricately assembled for fine work with the violin, perhaps, or the fountain pen. Mine were as white as ever, Jack’s by contrast had become purely functional entities, and like any tools put to daily work they showed the marks of use: scarred and chipped, horny-nailed, the skin burnt brown, old paint baked into the beds of the nails, and the backs matted with bristles pale as straw. And as he nodded and grunted I began to see that the cast and temper of the man were similarly coarsened and scarred, and it struck me that he had spent too many years working in the harsh sunlight of that shabby town.
Then one day quite without warning he told me he didn’t want me to come to the loft any more. He said I was suffocating him—me suffocating him! I was wounded by the abruptness of this rejection, also by his lack of gratitude, though not entirely surprised. For it confirmed that the years in Port Mungo had done nothing to civilize him, in fact I had the distinct impression that he’d deliberately destroyed in himself all remaining traces of a social decorum learned as a child in a country he no longer called home. It wasn’t until six weeks later, and with no word from him in the meantime, that he called me up and suggested we have a drink.
We met in a bar on Lafayette Street, and I have to say I was dismayed at the state of him. In six weeks the man had turned into a husk, no flesh on his bones at all. I subdued the gust of irritation his appearance provoked in me, and aroused the familiar dull wave of rising concern. We sat at an obscure table at the back of the bar, he took off his glasses and I saw in his eyes what I can only call an extinction of the spirit; and I strongly suspected it had to do with something other than grief. I waited for him to speak. He played with his cigarette. There was a trembling in the yellowed fingers as he lifted his drink to his lips. He tipped back the vodka in one movement.
—What’s the problem, Jack?
He said something about not being able to eat, or sleep, or work, or think properly any more.
He flung a look at me, then turned his head away. I knew the gesture well. He’d mastered it years ago, it was meant to suggest depths of torment no average mortal could be expected to comprehend, such sentiment being reserved for a certain few select noble souls. It had intimidated me once.
—You’re not using needles, are you?
For a moment it looked as though he’d rise from his chair in a towering rage and sweep out into the night to do more damage to himself because nobody understood him. He was nearly forty years old! But he hadn’t the juice in him to make such an exit. A bit of a sigh, sardonic and private, and he rubbed his face. I wondered if he wanted money, if that’s what this was all about. I paid his rent and gave him an allowance—this we had organized immediately on his return to the city—but perhaps he had a habit and his habit had outrun it.
—No, Gin, I’m grieving.
Then it all came out, how lonely he was without his girls, for not only had he lost Peg, but his younger daughter, Anna, had been taken away from him and was now living in England with our brother, Gerald. He said he felt utterly friendless and bereft in New York, it was too much for him, he couldn’t stand to be by himself in the loft any more—could he come live with me for a while? I had thought this might be what he was after. I wanted to say yes but something prevented me, and I think it was connected to this intuition, or intimation, rather, that he had drifted far from civilization’s ambit down in Port Mungo, and had much to conceal from me. But it broke my heart, him coming to me in need, and me prepared to give much, but not everything, no, I had to keep some distance from him, and I said this. I’d sort him out if he wanted me to, but I couldn’t have him in the house.
—You can’t have me in the house.
The way he said it, I might have been speaking to a dog.
He nodded, he accepted it without argument. I think he heard it in my tone, and understood that I was not the compliant adoring uncomplaining sister I had been once, and he said yes, that was just what he needed, a good sorting out, and he grinned at me, which created such creasing and cleaving in the taut flesh of his bony head that I realized he hadn’t grinned at anyone in quite some time. It warmed me to see it, and I grinned back, and there we were, Jack and Gin, just like old times.
We got drunk and talked about Peg, also about Vera—Vera Savage, the painter, the mother of his girls. He wept a little, and I did my best to comfort him. The depth of his emotion impressed me, but he had squandered much of his strength and had few resources left with which to cope with his grief. We parted warmly, and with various resolutions made. I told him to go straight home, no drifting about in the night. He said he would. I didn’t altogether trust him. Jack’s will, once roused, was fierce, but he was weak, and he was drunk, and drink undoes the will like nothing else. But when I got to Crosby Street the next morning he was clear-eyed and alert, having slept, so he told me, better than he had in months. I was gratified to know I had some influence over him still. Nobody else could have turned him from the trajectory he was on, even if I did apparently suffocate him. So we got the loft organized, we put his work table in some sort of order, and talked about what he wanted to do. All rather dark and bleak, his ideas, but this was not the point. Work itself was what he needed, and if his brief season in what he regarded as hell was the engine of fresh creativity, then so be it. I left guardedly confident that he was once more on course. I visited him again the next day, and for several days after that, and I saw him steadily resuming his old habits, the long hours of daily work, I mean, the deepening immersion. A corner had been turned, and having begun to work he never again sank quite so low as he had in those first weeks. Of course he never properly recovered. To the end of his life there was a chord in Jack’s character, softened with the years to a kind of melancholy drone, but once a howl of misery: Peg’s death created it, and Peg’s death sustained it. But Peg’s death did not stop him working, and working, for Jack, generated a kind of stamina which dissipated the worst of the grief.
As to what he was painting, it was disturbing because so strongly pervaded by what I understood to be the emotional residue of loss. Tones and values were heavy, laid thick on splintered armatures of black brushstrokes, and the dominant impression was of heat, sickness, darkness, decay—he referred to them as his “malarial” paintings, and certainly they aroused in the viewer ideas of dank swamps steaming with disease and such. To me they lacked the force of the paintings done in Port Mungo, being sombre where the others were vivid, but of course I did not say this.
When he stopped work, and came away from the canvas, and flung himself onto the couch, he would talk about Port Mungo, and his thoughts emerged so disjointed and fractured I would have thought him psychotic had I not understood the state that the act of painting put him in. I remember him talking about the night when Vera in her rage seized a kitchen knife and attacked not Jack but their bed, tearing and slashing at the mosquito netting, stabbing the mattress and ripping the sheets to shreds, this insanity not exhausting her fury but inflaming it, rather, and then she went for his canvases, and he had to disarm her, and this, he said, was not the first time she had attacked his work, far from it. Peg was woken by the noise, she was screaming, it was all about alcohol, of course—I was appalled, I wanted to know what happened next. He had to throw her out of the house, he said. For an hour she hammered at the locked door, but he was so angry he refused to let her back in, so she went off somewhere else, to her lover, most likely—
I believe it was matter like this, drawn from events still raw in his mind, which fuelled the passion evident at least to me in the dark pictures he painted that spring: his tempestuous relationship with Vera, and of course the death of their daughter. And I think he was punishing himself, for more than once, late at night, when drink had cleared the way for honest thought to come through, he hinted as much, and I tried to tell him that he’d done all he could, no man could have done more, though in fact I had no evi- dence that this was so; and given the mystery that still seemed to enshroud the girl’s death, I admit I did occasionally imagine other scenarios, though I took none of them seriously.
A year later he was ready to show the canvases from Port Mungo, as well as several from Crosby Street, the so-called malarial paintings. Dealers visited the loft, and the following autumn he had his show at Paula Cooper. It sold out. It was a critical success. How proud I was. Jack Rathbone was on the map, and if he allowed his star to fade in later years then that, as he himself said, was his choice. In fact it was always his choice, everything he did, though I seem to be the only one who remembers that now. This was not a man who ever lost his moral compass, as Vera seems to believe—and certainly not a man who would take his own life! It’s unthinkable. It makes a mockery of everything.
One last incident from this period, which for me expresses the pathos of their failure perhaps more vividly than any other—Jack and Vera’s, I mean, and the culmination of that breakdown in the tragedy of Peg’s death—came in the stifling summer of 1982. In those days if you lived in Soho you had to go to Chinatown for your supplies, and Jack had acquired a large black bicycle with a basket on the front and a pair of saddlebags behind. His build- ing had a steep set of iron steps, and one day that August, as he came wobbling along the cobblestones with his groceries, he saw a woman sitting beside a suitcase on the top step energetically fanning herself with a newspaper.
Poor Vera, Port Mungo had not been kind to her. The tropi- cal sun had destroyed what had once been a porcelain complex- ion, and she had been struggling for some time with alcoholism. But Jack later told me that she had kept alive the flame he first glimpsed in London when he was a youth of seventeen, and herself a woman of thirty, and this, he said, despite the fact or possibly, perversely, because of the fact that she had been so thoroughly battered by life. Listening to this, I knew the sexual charge between them was far from dead, it was not even dormant! Down the steps she came and then she was in his arms, and the bicycle went clattering into the street and groceries spilled everywhere—broken eggs, spilt milk, apples rolling along the gutter, and the eggs, he told me, actually starting to fry on the sidewalk, that’s how hot it was.
They climbed seven floors in dusty gloom to reach Jack’s place, twenty-five hundred square feet of high-ceilinged, brick-wall loft with large windows over the narrow street below. Vera made no effort to conceal her curiosity, she was at once sniffing about, one painter in another painter’s space, an animal event, a canine activity. She was envious, and what painter wouldn’t be? It was a good studio. I’d found it for him, I knew what he needed. He wasn’t short of wall space, or of light. A little later they were settled under the fan in what passed for Jack’s living area, which comprised a smelly mattress and an old couch dragged up from the street. She told him she was living up the Hudson now but was on her way to London, where someone had given her a show.
—But I think I’ll move in here instead, she said.
—Like fuck you will.
That got him a flash of the old Vera, the old trouper who’d got him out of England and taught him how to be a painter. The mother of his girls.
—I’ll give you three nights on the couch.
—You call that a couch?
It was a good time, a sweet time, but it was outside of time, Jack said later, outside of everything, a cocoon in which they gave themselves over to a reunion that could not be sustained or even prolonged beyond those five days and nights. Time turned torpid, tropical, sluggish as the Mississippi River—they slept till noon and stayed up till five because it was cooler in the small hours. The city sweltered and stank, there was a heavy, humid stillness, a silence in which they seemed the only living souls. People say that Manhattan breaks down the separation of inside and outside but it was not true of Jack’s experience, I think because he was an artist. When his door closed he was not in New York he was in his own head, or in his own guts, he would say, and the joy of it, when he was a younger man, was in leaving his work and opening the door and stepping back out into roaring humanity. He had two standing fans on either side of the mattress. They ate, slept, had frequent sex on that mattress, leaving the building at midnight to sit in some bar and drink beer. Mostly they talked about Peg, and after weeping alone so often for his dead daughter, how good it was to weep in Vera’s arms. They talked about Port Mungo, and about Anna, Peg’s little sister, who was now eight. For three years she had been living with Gerald’s family—he and his wife had three children, all older than Anna—and Vera planned to visit them. This was how the time passed; and in that still, quiet interval Jack’s hectic creative momentum slowed to a standstill and briefly, through Vera, he made spiritual if not actual contact with the family he had lost.
Her proposal came the night before she was to leave for London. I think she knew it was hopeless, but it had to be done. That was Vera all right: if a possibility occurred to her she was not the one to suppress it, the fact of its occurrence demanded at least an attempt upon it; she is the same today. So she told him they were going to rebuild a life together, not as it used to be but in a new way, a better way. They would buy a barn upstate and make two big studios, each with a view of the river—Mungo-on-Hudson—what about it?
—But I don’t want to live up the Hudson!
—Then we’ll live in New York. We’ll live here.
He regarded her fondly. He didn’t say, you’re only after my loft. She was serious, and at the same time she knew it was hopeless.
—No, darling, he said, and sweet Jesus it cost him—he would have been angry with her for putting him through it, but he’d known she would, she had to, he’d known it the moment he told her she could sleep on his couch. He didn’t go out to Kennedy with her, she wouldn’t let him. They hadn’t slept. He went out onto the fire escape and watched her emerge from the building. She looked up at him, shielding her eyes from the early-morning sun. She stood in the middle of the street and gave him just a little of the flowery bow he’d first seen on the Charing Cross Road when he was seventeen, sweeping her Panama down close to the sidewalk—a quotation, yes, from the Book of Better Days. She made him sad. Off she tottered up the street with her suitcase, shabby woman in a tight skirt, over fifty now, quite alone, penniless, to catch a bus to the airport to go to a show in a nothing gallery in London. Jack thought: Her promise is all behind her and her talent all burnt up. What is to become of her? What happens to painters who run out of talent—spent painters? He stood on the fire escape watching her up the street. She had lost everything, all except her eye. She still had her eye, and when he had hauled out his canvases, the work he had done since coming back to New York, how generously she had spoken of his accomplishment. There was much of her in them, it’s true, but he who had recently come to the city and was just starting to know success, at Vera’s praise he had swelled and glowed as he had swelled and glowed for no other. Reflecting on this later I realized he painted for her, he painted only for her, hers was the judgement, hers the approval that counted.
Ten years ago Jack left the Crosby Street loft and came to live with me on West 11th Street, this at my suggestion. I saw him change during his last years in New York, but the changes were superficial. A certain wild shyness, that famously farouche quality—it became more tempered—he began to guard his fire, hold his best energies for the studio. He stopped going out and his appearance grew distinctly odd, as he came to resemble a kind of urban Apache, with his hair turned silver and bound up in black headscarves, and the baggy clothes flapping about his lanky frame, all dark blues and blacks, and his long bony face, burnt and weathered from the tropics, ever more scraped and taut and hawklike. He restricted himself to wine, apart from the one cocktail at six, and managed to give up cigarettes. Superficial changes, as I say; what remained constant was the discipline of work, the daily return to the studio, the finality of the closing door. . . .
In his later years, then, my brother lived like a recluse and towards the world sustained a posture of indifference and even outright hostility. By day he painted, and I did not disturb him. His studio was at the top of the house, with a window from which he could look down into the garden, one of those narrow city gardens condemned to perpetual gloom because sandwiched between taller buildings which hogged the light. I let it grow wild, rather like a Russian garden, though on a smaller scale of course. I thought of it as pasture. But Jack was high enough to get good light from the north, and he also had a view of the street, and when he closed the door behind him no telephone rang, no voice spoke unless it was his own; here he could think. I remember saying this to him once, and—“think?” he said—“no, not thinking, Gin”—I can still hear the bite in his tone, that hint of the fang—“Sinking, rather, into regions of the mind”—and here he paused, I remember, and made a steeple of his fingers, and set his chin there, frowning, as he uttered this solemnity—“where I submit to imperatives alien to all worlds but art.”
They hung trembling in the air a few seconds, those portentous words, and then with a bark of laughter he scattered them to the winds. He was not a pompous man.
But a large part of my brother’s life was spent in creating precisely the conditions in which this “sinking” could occur. And he did this despite the demands of other people—I mean the clam- our of domestic responsibility and the claims of intimacy. I now believe he paid a terrible price for this daily turning away, but I also know it was as necessary for him as oxygen. Deprived of it too long, he became a nightmare. He needed to sink, he said—to immerse—so as to grope towards some primitive understanding of what he was about. What was he about? Impossible to say, exactly, but Jack once told me he believed art to be primarily a vehicle for the externalization of psychic injury. Certainly a great part of his own activity was the attempt to master the disorder aroused by the emotional turmoil he had come through—loss and pain, guilt, failure, rage—master all that, yes, and in the process find a little truth. Which I suppose is what I am after too.
As for the pattern of our days, at six we would meet downstairs and talk. That’s what we did of an evening, Jack and I, when he’d finished in his studio, and I’d mixed us a nice cocktail, we would sit in the big sitting room and talk, largely about the past. I say the past, I should say Jack’s past, for his life was a good deal more eventful than mine, in fact the most remarkable event of my life has been Jack himself! He travelled more than I did, he accomplished more, and he certainly suffered more—in short, he had more memories than me. Almost all his stories I had heard rather often but I mustered an interest every time, and occasionally I even made him see himself afresh, which provoked in him a kind of affectionate sarcasm. He liked to say that he’d known a number of women like me, bohemian kinds of women, dilettantes, he’d say, dabblers, wary of experience but at the same time curious about life: women who would rather think about life than go to the trouble of actually living it.
This stung, but I did not argue with him: there was a grain of truth in it. I am a tall, thin, untidy Englishwoman, I drink too much and yes, I suppose I am rather—oh, detached—distant, aloof—snobbish, even, I have been called all these things, also cold, stiff and untouchable, though those who think me untouchable never saw me when I was perfectly touchable indeed! I should also say that I have an independent income, which has been quite adequate for my own needs and also, I should add, for Jack’s. Which is why it always impressed me that until the very end he continued to work. Not with the fervour of his youth, of course, or with the sustained intensity of his middle years, but he worked, he worked every day, and I took a close interest, inasmuch as he would let me. I admit this was partly out of concern for his health. He was plagued by arthritis, and while through will-power alone he could usually ignore the steady grumbling ache of it, and the sporadic stabs of pain, the restriction of movement in his knuckles was a sore trial. At times it was debilitating. We were told the cause was uncertain, but that it might have been a sustained allergic reaction to his own tissue, which was ironic, to say the least. Curiously his old malaria medicine from Port Mungo would control the inflammation when it got too bad.
I have perfectly healthy hands, in fact my hands are my best thing. I used to say to Jack that if there were some way of making a hand exchange, I would do it at once.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath. Copyright © 2004 by Patrick McGrath. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.