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Military Madness Meets the Counterculture: a Personal Tale

Eugene and I share overlapping experiences. We both are scions of military families. My father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, Eugene’s was a Sergeant in the Air Force. We both attended the Department of Defense high school in Frankfurt, West Germany, (Frankfurt American High School FAHS), at the height of the cold war. I graduated from FAHS, while Eugene departed from Frankfurt abruptly and graduated elsewhere. Eugene is several years younger than I and our paths did not intersect, although he remembers me as a vague presence in his high school life. This is because Eugene befriended my younger brother James and hung out with him extensively.

Eugene and I were immersed in a military culture that was separate and distinct from the civilian world. This was compounded by our presence in a foreign country. We lived in military islands of Americanness surrounded by Europeans who did not share our culture or language. We lived in a society in which class hierarchy is not suppressed but is evident and all-pervasive. The military is divided between the officer corps (middle class) and the enlisted men (working class). Elites do not join the military, as there is no money in it. In our hyper-capitalist and hyper-materialist society, eliteness is defined by money. Only the rich are successful.

Both Eugene and I choose to consciously reject this rigid class hierarchy by latching on to the counterculture. When growing up, we were expected to mimic our parents and respect the rigid class divide of the military and not fraternize. As aspiring hippies, we rejected these assumed prejudices and freely associated with anyone and everyone we pleased, showing no interest in the military world around us. We succeeded in not only crossing and to some extent obliterating class barriers, while forming close ties with disparate people based on intense shared experiences.

Jiggling: a Gradual Release is a coming of age novel depicting Eugene’s struggle to find his own identity, grow into manhood, and make his independent way in the world. All of us must go through this process, but it is much more difficult for some than for others. Eugene’s struggle was defined by a series of undeserved negatives that placed unassailable obstacles in his path. In this regard, Jiggling reflects JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Like Vance, Eugene is a son of the South. A Florida native, Eugene shares Vance’s working class roots. This class identity takes on weighted meaning in the South, where class divides are more rigid and pronounced than elsewhere and class divides more difficult to overcome. Like Vance, Eugene did not arrive in this world with loads of privilege, but rather lots of negative baggage. Eugene amply documents that he is from the school of hard knocks, inheriting many negatives through the accident of birth.

Eugene’s nemesis throughout the book is the “dive bomber.” His story really starts taking off when his mother marries this character, the Air Force Sergeant, following her divorce from Eugene’s biological father. Eugene vividly describes his alcoholic stepfather, his many glaring faults, and the unending abuse the dive bomber dishes out. The dive bomber methodically denigrates Eugene, tearing down his self-esteem at precisely the point where Eugene is most vulnerable. Not only must Eugene cope with all the pain and embarrassment associated with adolescence in our culture, he must contend with a total lack of class privilege and unending torture and abuse dished out by the dive bomber.

The influence of Jack Kerouac is evident throughout the work. Like most of Jack’s output, Jiggling is a thinly disguised novelization and is almost totally autobiographical. As a novel, Eugene is free to take liberties, embellish and obfuscate. The reader will never be able to differentiate between the two. Jiggling is a work of art, not a dry narrative. However, Jiggling does not slavishly mirror Kerouac’s On the Road or Dharma Bums. These works deal with Jack’s post-Columbia adult life, when his personality is fully formed in most regards. Jiggling is primarily a work about adolescence, and is this regard, is closer to Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, one of Kerouac’s lesser-known novels that is hardly read today.

This is where the similarities end, however. Jack Kerouac grew up in one place within the confines of Lowell, Massachusetts. He had a sedentary existence, immersed in his French Canadian, and Roman Catholic culture. Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy is therefore a bittersweet work about the loss of innocence, and regret for the loss of a first love. Eugene tries mightily to lose his innocence throughout much of the novel. He wants desperately to lose his virginity, but there is no bittersweet quality to Eugene’s experience of first love. Instead, it seems Eugene is doomed to experience repeated and seemingly permanent frustration. While he succeeds in losing his virginity, (in one of the most painful and embarrassing episodes in the book), and goes on to experience a rich series of sexual encounters, it is clear that Eugene is longing for the love his life was sorely lacking, and this always seems to elude him.

Because of his familial situation, Eugene spends much of his Frankfurt High School years sleeping on sofas at the homes of his friends, and on some occasions, roughing it in the park. I have firsthand experience of this phenomena. My high school friend Larry was kicked out of the house by Sergeant dad and lived by his wits all over Frankfurt and environs, while barely managing to escape arrest. I wonder how many children of this milieu and this era shared similar experiences. The military was masterful at presenting a positive and deceptive face to the world and covering up unpleasantness. Problematic children were often shipped back to the states, thus removing them and their problems from the picture.

The genius of Jiggling is that Eugene is not consumed by the negativity that envelopes him. He could easily have embraced anger and bitterness, but consciously refrains. He tries numerous coping mechanisms and cultivates a set of survival skills. Some work better than others. The LSD experiments are of little help, and when Eugene turns to a psychiatrist, it proves to be a lesson in futility. Eugene instead discovers his own unique way of dealing, namely an embrace of the basic absurdity life and the cultivation of an often self-deprecating wit. His healthy embrace of the absurd becomes an essential survival tool. He manages to find humor in the most grim of situations, and exhibit kindness even when he receives none in return.

Jiggling is Eugene’s first work. His manuscript has been an organic work that he nursed for 25 years and now like a mushroom emerging from the dark, is seeing the light of day. Eugene’s is a powerful story chock full of experiences. He consciously molds his life as a Kerouacian odyssey and fills it with sensation, positive and negative, but always powerful. The novel ends abruptly when Eugene’s short-lived Army enlistment comes to an end, and he finds himself on his own and at wit’s end yet again. The reader wants to know what will happen next. I eagerly await the next chapter in this saga. Like Kerouac, Eugene could spin his tale into a series of successive literary works. I want to see genuine development with each successive work. Eugene has provided me some narration regarding his subsequent adventures and I can assure you that his readers would not be disappointed.

I hope that Eugene’s sophomore work will show progress as his writing style develops. Eugene needs to learn another essential lesson from Kerouac, his literary mentor. This first try suffered from an abundance of editing and rewrites, which may actually have detracted from the essential spontaneity of the work. Kerouac believed in getting the story down on paper as quickly as possible and preserving its inherent truthfulness. Such an approach calls for the preservation of essential originality. Eugene’s literary voice needs to speak with as little alteration as possible. The first take is often the best take. It is like the blues bands that go into the studio and record their albums in one take with no overdubs.

Jon P. Dorschner, a native of Tucson,  currently teaches at the University of Arizona. His numerous publications include a two part “spiritual memoir,” In the Clear Light of Day.

 

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