Shroomin' Stumbled home on Friday evening to find my roommate sprawled on the couch, drinking beer and watching on video?and with a debatable degree of moral seriousness?American History X, the movie from a few years back in which Ed Norton plays a neo-Nazi skinhead from the Southern California poor-white sticks. I stood in the darkened room for several minutes, disburdening myself, and watched in fascination as the particular scene into which I had stumbled unfolded. Since I viewed the scene out of context, I don't know at what point in the film it occurs. But it depicted the shorn-headed Norton seducing?with corny rhetoric that was unlikely in its pandering obviousness and broadness?a rabble of politically uncommitted poor-white teen suburban mutants; organizing them, craftily winning them over to the side of whiteness, like a muscled suburban Hitler dragged out from Munich's hillbilly beerhalls and teletransported to some dusty hellhole in Ventura County, or wherever the film takes place, at century's end. Politically inverted social realism: slackjawed deviants snapping to, grinding out their joints and pouring out their malt liquor as Norton?a negative image of the union organizer who emerges from the woodwork to holler The Truth at the groaning Joads?brings the neo-Nazi gospel Unto Them.
Or else Norton would say something like: Perhaps the corporations, the government and the military are not 100 percent to be trusted! Let's lynch niggers!
Brushing my teeth, I remembered that the good Atlanta-based punk band the Anti-Heros were suing New Line Cinema for placing an Anti-Heros tattoo on the body of one of American History X's more noxious white-supremacist thugs.
And I remembered the moving opening verses to the Anti-Heros' song "I'm True," in which the band's singer, Mark, expresses a tension between homebound lower-middle-class nostalgia and the necessity to light out for the territory that's almost heartbreaking: "I want to sit on the back steps again/I want to drink Boonesfarm and gin/I want to wipe the dirt from my eyes/I want to rise above all the lies/Sink into the shadows of society/Punch my hand through the walls that enslave me/Feel the spring wind on my face/Break right out of this empty space."
A whole novel's compressed into those verses?the story of the countless kids on countless peeling porches in countless small towns, conscious on some level that they're restrained by the bounds of what might ultimately be a sort of low-rent and sweetly worn-in paradise. A ramshackle timelessness.
Retired to my room muttering imprecations against our political culture; read Dreiser for a while; went to sleep.
News reports from Ukraine catch my eye. So, reading the newspaper a few weeks ago, I noticed a report that a number of Ukrainians, near Kiev, had been poisoned by mushrooms they'd harvested. Like a lot of Ukrainians, they were amateur mushroom-hunters. The tragedy suggested itself to me at first as a cruel, facile metaphor for the basket case that is post-Soviet Ukraine?you let a Ukrainian do it himself, he'll poison himself; never hand a Ukrainian the keys to the family car, dear; make sure there's a designated driver?but then the idea of mushroom-gathering grew on me in its metaphorical and nostalgic force.
For one thing, I was reminded that my late grandfather was a mushroom-gatherer. As a kid I used to walk with him on and around his land in the Catskills. During these walks he'd occasionally stoop?in those piney second-growth glens?pluck a couple of mushrooms and stick them in the pocket of his coat for later consumption. (Note: My grandfather eventually died of an entirely un-mushroom-related heart attack.) To an American, the idea of mushroom-gathering seems a bit queer, something that bucktoothed, grinning English weirdos in shorts do when they're not eating suet or collecting unusual sucker-candies, but it was just something that my grandfather, a tough old guy, had picked up in the old country in his capacity as a woodsman and a peasant.
For another thing, it occurred to me, there's the way in which mushrooms figure, in their own moist, humble way, in a whole thematics of personal transformation. Most obviously, there's the idea of the mushroom's hallucinatory, mind-expanding powers. You?or else the aborigine, or else the besandaled resident of Boulder, or else Alice?eat the mushroom and whooooooosh, you're off, rocketing through the heights of the psychic/noumemal troposphere.
But more to the point, if you happen to be progressing in your dissatisfaction with your own beastliness?this dissatisfaction, and the frustratingly incremental self-renovation that it stimulates, representing the central emotional project of your mid- to late-20s?and if you happen to be reading Anna Karenina, you might be interested in a more literal deployment of the mushroom/ transformation thematic pairing. Consider the scene in Anna Karenina in which protagonist Levin's older half-brother Koznyshev, the famous and rather self-important and rather sterile?but still likable?intellectual, surprises everybody by offering to accompany a group of mushroom-gatherers, one of whom is Mademoiselle Varenka, the wan, parentless girl who's spent her youth caring for a selfish aristocratic widow. Varenka, like Sonya from War and Peace, is a dried-out flower, an aging girl whom either circumstance or her own weaknesses have prevented from bursting into bloom. But when Koznyshev finds himself alone in the woods with Varenka?do it! you want to yell at him?he can't pull it off. He can't force himself to propose to her; can't effect the necessary self-transformation, can't break through to a new level of humanity. And so he doesn't propose, even though everybody?including the anxiously shuddering girl?expects him to. There follows a scene that's painful to read in its horrible comedy:
Everything?Varenka's look, her blush, her downcast eyes?betrayed painful expectation. He saw it and was sorry for her. He even felt that to say nothing now would be to offend her... He repeated to himself the words with which he had intended to propose; but instead of those words some unexpected thought caused him to say:
"What difference is there between the white boleti and the birch-tree variety?"
Varenka's lips trembled with emotion when she replied:
"There is hardly any difference in the tops, but only in the stems."
So Koznyshev returns to his bachelor life as a famous intellectual, and Varenka... Actually, I don't think we hear much about her for the rest of the novel. But it's a wonderfully inverted situation: Tolstoy sending his characters out into the fairy-tale woods, full of transformative toadstools, this arena of natural rejuvenation and metamorphosis, and then perversely contriving it so that precisely nothing happens, and Koznyshev just goes on in the depressing courage of his limitations. So the mushroom, one of the outdoor enthusiasms of my grandfather (in his own way, and fundamentally?this underlaid his good points like a bed of granite?a difficult, unyielding old bastard), is this week's little icon of the moral horror of stasis, of persisting in your stupidity and the comfort of your dysfunctionality.
Stopped by the Manhattan Bistro in Soho one night last week, and encountered there the pleasing reality that you can walk into that place on any given night, even now, even in midsummer and?with little of the emotional effort (the costumes, the Europeans, the devoutly skinny girls, the reservations, the subsequently confirmed reservations, the self-consciousness that comes from participating in an overdetermined cultural event, which is what eating at a smart downtown restaurant can be) that other Soho restaurants necessitate from you?eat roast quail, birds that have enough of the exotic and gamy about them to make eating them an extraordinary thing.
So there it was. Manhattan Bistro's been a Spring St. mainstay for a long time, and it's a Soho second-stringer. The girls there are just girls, with lumps and fathers and noticeable disproportions; there are mothers on the premises, too, which isn't apparently the case at, say, Mercer Kitchen?and some of the mothers double as tourists, at least while they're here in New York. Manhattan Bistro's not even listed in the 2000 Zagat. The place isn't always full, even on a Friday night, even when it's not the middle of the summer; a slack, comfortable feeling informs the restaurant, and it's not as expensive as the other Soho places you might be tempted to patronize (it's considerably cheaper than Raoul's). There's little social energy. The few landed Old Soho people I know, artists who bought into the neighborhood back in the 60s and 70s, eat and drink there all the time. So do I. College girls hang out at the bar and act cool and drink cosmopolitans and it's all kind of nice.
Anyway, you can just go in there and order a big white plate of quail: two of them, whole, their limbs outstretched and arranged in a funny way over the mound of greens that dominates the plate: their legs touching across the dish, so that they look like two bleached frogs high-fiving each other...or...or...flying trapeze artists clasping wrists in a seedy tent-top...or...two plucked chickens sharing a yogic sexual exertion...or...
They're not great; they haven't been great on either of the two times I've eaten them. You get the sense that they're farm-raised (are there quail farms?). They're flabby and not as lean and gamy as you'd like them to be, and as they can be in the fall, when you get them in some restaurants and come across tiny bits of shot. In this textural blandness they resemble run-of-the-mill supermarket chickens, pumped full of 'roids and whatnot to fatten them up and make them easy on the tastebuds of the Great American Middle.
On the other hand, they're good enough, and on both occasions the skin was properly crispy-chewy and wonderfully salted and seasoned. The menu describes the birds as accompanied by figs. The first time around, they actually were. There's little that's as satisfying?"succulent" is, unfortunately, the appropriate word here?as the intersection of game birds, figs and red wine. The second night I ordered them, however, orange slices had been substituted for the figs, which was disappointing, but I persevered and enjoyed the dish anyway, despite its liabilities. Doing so necessitated an act of moral will, a willingness to approve; it was good for me, good practice. Anyway, ask before you order.
I ordered some lame crabcakes and a beer and the check came to only $36.25. I walked out of the place, past the kind bartender chatting up the girls with their voices and their cosmopolitans and thought, wow, that was out of the blue?I just ate quail.