by Rudolph Wurlitzer
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
Is Rudolph Wurlitzer's 1968 novel Nog a cult book, hippie curio, or counterculture classic? Can it not be all three with equal vigor and pride?
Wurlitzer is a writer who has plied his trade in the margins of mainstream acceptance. Almost anything he's been associated with -- be they novels or screenplays to films, such as Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Walker (1987) -- has been festooned with the appellation cult, which is just as well. If a film like Two-Lane Blacktop had the kind of popularity enjoyed by folks like Dan Brown (meaning, I'd have to endure hearing my parents telling me how great it is), snobbish as it sounds, I'd find less to enjoy in it.
There's no need to worry about hearing my parents regaling me about the virtues of Wurlitzer's debut novel Nog. Originally published by Random House in 1968, Nog has had a spasmodic history, coming in and out of print unpredictably. The latest publisher to embrace this novel is a small press called Two Dollar Radio: a literal mom-and-pop outfit run by people born at least (I'm guessing here) a decade after the fiasco at Altamont hammered the final nails into the coffin of hippie counterculture.
Without a doubt, Nog is a product of its time, featuring such painful-in-retrospect images as the narrator's wardrobe (at one point described as "white seersucker pants, white paisley shirt and finely-woven linen shoes"), and a fellow playing "Stars and Stripes Forever" on an autoharp. However, running concurrently with such imagery is a representation of a generation's search for inner truth amongst the detritus of modern life.
Wurlitzer's narrator (it's never clear if Nog is in fact his name) is introduced to the reader as a man whose contemplations have just been interrupted by a woman who has strayed into his line of sight and thus "touch[es] some spot [he] had forgotten to smother." Stirred into following her, the narrator begins his journey to San Francisco and beyond. Along the way, he encounters rampant consumerism, random gunfire, and the strings that are sometimes attached to free love.
Nog's journey is languid and unfocused, as he's willingly buoyed along by external events and people he doesn't always seem to understand. However, Nog is a very unreliable narrator who is constantly preparing and reshaping the three memories he's willing to share with others. His memory and identity are protean and slippery, and he is often contradictory in his own beliefs. At one point, he says that he wants to "forget more than he remembers," only to express later that memories can be "vast and delicious."
Reading Nog is akin to reading other counterculture books of the era, particularly the works of Richard Brautigan. Both writers have (or in Brautigan's case had) a gift for finding the mundane rapturous and for exploring the human condition in the simplest terms possible, free from highbrow language, but rich with nuance. Also the two writers have a gift for composing a world that is at once recognizable, yet somehow estranged from reality. Wurlitzer burnishes the details of everyday life that are often overlooked, giving them a heightened sense of importance and impact.
In Wurlitzer's novel, his hero (anti-hero perhaps) is an ennui-ridden cartographer, charting the sense of metaphysical dislocation that every generation claims as its own. What makes Nog the cult novel it is lies in the fact that the journey Wurlitzer depicts is one that never arrives at a conclusion either geographical or spiritual, and there will always be a new generation of readers seeking a guide for such a trip. That Nog continues to endure is a sign that the novel transcends its existence as a cultural artifact to emerge as a work of continuing resonance.