Left Hooked

Henry Kissinger trumps the Hell's Angels when it comes to evil, or so the thinking goes at Left Bank Books

In the middle of the 1980s, the Reagan economic boom years, Wallace Shawn wrote a play called Aunt Dan and Lemon. Shawn is known as a character actor who plays peevish little men (in Woody Allen's Manhattan, he's a scholar visiting New York City for a conference on linguistics) but is better known for playing himself in the art-house movie hit (back when there were still exclusive art-house movie theaters) My Dinner with André. He's also the son of William Shawn, a former editor of the New Yorker.

Lemon, a young invalid without many years to live, relates the most significant events of her brief life in England. She talks about her mother and father; their friends; the wild, swinging, hypersexual '60s -- in which she observes more than participates -- and her parents' best friend, Aunt Dan. Aunt Dan is a woman whose gender and sexual identity are more ambivalent than ambiguous, but it's her moral definitions that are of greatest interest to Shawn. Aunt Dan tells the susceptible Lemon the story of Mindy, a woman "who would do almost anything ... to get hold of money." Mindy once coaxed an American tourist, played by Shawn in the original production, who had won 100,000 pounds in the casinos to pay her 60,000 to have sex with her. Mindy also tells Aunt Dan, in a scene re-enacted on the stage, of how she once got a man to bed, and then murdered him, for money. It's a revelation that drives Aunt Dan into lust for Mindy on the spot.

Shawn wrote an appendix to the play, explaining the ideas and experiences from which it emerged. Shawn expresses his conflict with the notion of comfort, describing how when people become predominantly concerned about their comfort, their moral sense diminishes, inevitably.

Left Bank Books says no to Henry and yes to Sonny. Is the difference based on the economy of scale?
Jennifer Silverberg
Left Bank Books says no to Henry and yes to Sonny. Is the difference based on the economy of scale?

He writes about a woman he meets at a dinner party, who tells him that she dates gangsters: "She describes in detail the techniques they use in getting other people to do what they want -- bribery, violence. I'm shocked and repelled by the stories she tells. A few months later I run into her again at another party and I hear more stories, and this time I don't feel shocked. I'm no longer so aware of the sufferings of those whom the gangsters confront. I'm more impressed by the high style and shrewdness of the gangsters themselves. I begin to understand how difficult it is to be a successful gangster and what extraordinary skill is in fact required to climb to the top of a gangster empire. I find myself listening with a certain enjoyment."

It is that feeling of enjoyment that alarms Shawn in the middle of the 1980s, with Manhattan on powerdrive and the struggles of the underclass viewed with indifference and disdain by the warriors of the Reagan Revolution. He sees around him friends who have given up the moral convictions they once held in order to fully enjoy and rejoice in their privilege. He sees how likable these people are, how "they begin to blossom, to flower." They exude self-confidence, no longer made graceless by whipping themselves "by morality's lash." They are "truly comfortable."

However, because Shawn isn't one of the comfortable, whenever he thinks of self-confident people, he reflects on "the marvelous self-confidence of Hitler."

Shawn's play and essay, the relationship between comfort and morality, the booming '80s, dates with gangsters -- these all nag at the mind not long after the Hell's Angels rode into the Central West End for the signing of leader Sonny Barger's autobiography Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club at Left Bank Books. It was a perverse affair, with plenty of choice photo-ops ("Angel Eyes," RFT, May 31). The Memorial Day late-afternoon crowd at Duff's nibbled at their quiche and sipped their Chardonnay with a mixture of fear and exhilaration as the chic Angels, in their regalia of faded jeans, windburned faces and tattoos applied to hard muscles, smoked cigarettes and drank beer -- courtesy of Left Bank, the result of a miscommunication between club members and Left Bank co-owner Lisa Greening -- but then, who was going to explain this to them and cut them off?

The Angels were on best behavior. Nobody got stomped. None of their women got slapped or even called "bitch." No Nazi swastika tattoos were exposed, a fashion statement the Angels made de rigueur in select circles back in the '60s. Their bikes were noisy but beautiful, shining in the soft light of a spring day. There was a good turnout for the "bookstore with a soul" as Left Bank is sometimes called. There were those who came to gawk, to thrill at the pleasure of being close to real outlaws, drawn to the allure of evil. And there were those there to honor one of the most violent and feared "clubs" -- as they insist on being called -- in America, to pay 23 bucks for the book and shake Sonny's hand.

Left Bank prides itself on its adherence to the ideology from which the store emerged when it began some 30 years ago in the midst of '60s activism: social justice, racial equality, feminism, gay rights, a repudiation of corporate and militaristic hegemony, a mission to "serve the people" -- a phrase that actually appeared on their complimentary bookmarks. "We often represent the silenced people of this country," says co-owner Kris Kleindienst, but then, she herself has a hard time explaining what that particular liberal slogan has to do with the Hell's Angels. "I guess you could question if the Hell's Angels are really silenced," she defers, "but they don't really use written media."

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