Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics
Montreal
Archive
 

***

PUBLIC FIGURES

***

By John Wenke

***

The Montréal Review, August 2014

***

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (1907)

***

Before Amanda Bynes went loopy, we had never heard of her.  Maybe we missed her on Oprah.  Now that we think of it, she probably never went on Oprah.  Normally, Oprah wouldn’t bother with a former Nickelodeon child-star unless she was on the rebound, unless she was on the road back from drugs, booze, or legal snafus.  It’s no accident that Oprah did that long interview with Lindsay Lohan, the up-and-down, in-and-out girl, who’s always almost laughing.  A few of us cried when they hugged and got serious.  Got real.  One day, Amanda Bynes may get real.  She may get serious and real and go on Oprah.  For now, Amanda Bynes is on a different road, a long way from getting there.

When we first read about her on the internet news, Amanda Bynes showed up for court in a crazy, flowing aqua wig with long bangs.  She was wearing big, black shades that covered most of her face except for her mouth, which had that Lindsay look of barely repressed hilarity.  When we saw her pictured in the crazy wig, we had to read on.  Amanda Bynes was going to court for throwing a bong out of a Manhattan window while the police were at the door.  Throwing the bong led to the citation, the citation led to the summons, and the summons led to street theater, a sidewalk carnival of scampering newshounds and manic paparazzi—the buzzing birds who stake out scene after scene and catch Public Figures in outrageous situations.  There’s Britney Spears getting out of a limo without wearing underpants; Alec Baldwin laying back before punching out a paparazzo. When Public Figures venture into public, someone is always watching.  If you are a Public Figure, don’t pick your nose or scratch that itchy hemorrhoid.  Don’t lick wet ear wax from your left little finger.  If you do, we will see you. You can do anything you want in the privacy of your large, dark walk-in closet, but never outdoors, never in the open.  Unless, that is, you want to be seen licking earwax.  Unless you know very well that you are not wearing underpants and have a taste for this sort of exposure.

As a general rule, we favor outré moments, Public Figures doing those bizarre things we might like to do, like getting out of a limo without underpants, or smashing an offending driver’s hood with a golf club.  Most of us have no choice but to restrain ourselves.  We have too much to lose. We don’t need more problems.  We have no money for a team of lawyers. We also like to see Public Figures vexed by the commonplace annoyances of what it means to be merely human, of what it means to be like us.  We feel vindicated when Public Figures look terrible without make up, pleased when one of them has a pimple on the chin that keeps coming back. We relate when we hear that one or more of them feels depressed and empty, lost and abandoned, marooned at the crowded crossroads of everydayness—energy sapped, coffee and other drugs won’t work, abstracted, discontented.  Not that we feel good about suicide.  We hate suicide.  Committing suicide—which is not to be confused with dying from an accidental overdose—means going too far.  Without question we prefer Public Figure comedy to Public Figure tragedy.  Amanda Bynes tossing a bong out the window is standard Public Figure comedy.  Such a scene grabs us, takes our minds off things—like our debt burden or our teenage kids slogging through substance abuse programs in the Juvenile Justice system.  As we read, we can see the bong twisting through the air and we laugh.  Maybe it was a publicity stunt designed to jump start a stalled career.  We’ve never seen her act, but it’s not likely she has much talent.  TV acting is not like real acting, anyway.  Child TV stars tend to be robotic, like marionettes pulled by strings, jerking through a limited range of pithy one-liners, with cheery or pouting expressions, rigged adlibs and smirking wisecracks.  Think Miley Cyrus not in her twerking mode, but back when she was chirpy Hannah Montana.  Maybe it was time for Amanda Bynes to get back in the public eye.  Maybe the Bong Toss was nothing more than the calculating work of her handlers.  Maybe and maybe not.  In fact, in the days and weeks that followed, some details got downright troubling.  For one thing, she hated ugly people. Ugly people were one of her obsessions and she couldn’t stop tweeting on the subject.  Ugly people—most of us, we’re afraid, might be considered “ugly people”—were an affront to her.  What did she want to do with us?  Where did she want us to go?  She took human ugliness personally and it wasn’t very funny.

It got worse.  It got a whole lot less funny.  Not long after her day in court, she wound up in a neighbor’s driveway in Thousand Oaks, California burning a gasoline canister.  After lighting herself on fire, she was seen clutching her lapdog before tearing off her pants and running into a convenience store.  There were no paparazzi around, only some perplexed eyewitnesses and the clunky, grainy lens of the store’s video surveillance camera. This event did not seem like a publicity stunt.  The judge put Amanda Bynes away for psychiatric evaluation, put her away involuntarily, and very wisely, we thought.  Her concerned parents petitioned the court for conservatorship.  Amanda Bynes is twenty-six or twenty-seven, no child star, but throughout the series of outré sequences, she had been spending money at an alarming rate.  How alarming?  Sixty thousand in a week.  To us, this sum is mind-boggling, beyond outré.   If we had sixty thousand to blow, we wouldn’t have to worry about rising milk prices. If we had that kind of money, we could leave the a/c running without considering the frenzied spinning of the electric meter disk.  The parents didn’t want the money, they said.  They wanted their daughter to be well and thought it would be a good idea if the court put them in charge of Amanda Bynes and her money.  The court thought it was a good idea and put the parents in charge, even though, we realize, they were the ones who allowed Amanda Bynes to become a child star in the first place.

***

Public Figures do not only shine under klieg lights in congressional halls or preen on the Red Carpet.  They do not only dazzle in mega-stadiums as they hit for the cycle, throw down a triple double, break loose for a hat trick, or rush for two hundred yards.  Public Figures can also be found not far from where we live, maybe across town, maybe six blocks away or even around the corner. We are thinking of the big-mouth lawyer who squawks and bellows daily about injuries and asbestos during a thirty second spot on the late local news.  He is a Public Figure, and so are the news readers, weather persons, and sports anchors.  With camera crew in tow, they routinely show up at our schools to preach the wonders of the free press or teach our children about hurricanes, tornados or wild fires.  The police chief, the Roman Catholic archbishop, the evangelical Methodist pastor, the county commissioner, the sheriff, the university president, the home town coaches, players and retired sports legends, even the First Selectwoman of an out of the way place like Windham County, Connecticut—they are all local Public Figures. Local Public Figures possess a conditional gravitas that most of us do not have, something we instinctually feel until two of us turn from Wal-Mart’s cat food aisle and bump into the big mouth lawyer.  Instead of his shiny black suit he is wearing a mauve golf shirt and plaid shorts.  He wears cheap cologne and hasn’t bathed lately.  His presence in our humdrum world startles us, creates a momentary sense of displacement—why isn’t he squawking and bellowing?—until we realize that his conditional gravitas only prevails if he’s enacting a commercial interruption.  Out of costume, no longer televised, he descends into our murky sameness. Many of us wear cheap cologne.  Some of us stink.  It’s a relief to realize that he belongs with us. We relax and go about our business, content with the knowledge that he is no star.  We might look twice, but not a third time.

The Public Figures we pay most attention to will never come into our Wal-Mart.  They are not local.  They are national.  Some are global.  We are happy to think of them as stars.  Rock stars. Rap stars. Movie stars. TV stars. Sports stars.  Legislative and judicial stars.  Even in light of steadily decreasing approval ratings, the President—any president—remains a big star.  These stars are sometimes known as personalities, VIPs, notables, dignitaries, luminaries, although these rubrics are not necessarily interchangeable.  Jay Leno is a TV personality, a celebrity, but not a dignitary.  Hillary Clinton is a luminary and a dignitary, more luminary than dignitary, but we do not think of her as a star.  Except for Stephen King, Salman Rushdie and J. K. Rowling, there are no writers who are stars, none who are Public Figures. Norman Mailer and Truman Capote used to be stars, even luminaries, but now they are black holes, the media equivalent of anti-matter.  Those few of us who still read are quite aware that the late John Updike could have walked through our mall at Christmas time and no one would have recognized him.  Justin Bieber’s sudden appearance in the same mall at the same time would have incited a riot.  John Updike would be there, back pressing the wall, locked in deep concentration, recording the Justin Bieber riot with his omnivorous eye, taking it all in so he could write about it later—the melee, the crushing bodies, the fat mall security cop forcing his way into the roiling center, the jewelry kiosk imploding, screams, laughter, the eventual sounds of sirens.  Blissfully anonymous, rapt by this carnival of chaos, John Updike would be a fly on the wall, an owl hidden among the trees.

Like writers, radio talk show hosts are rarely stars, almost never Public Figures, unless we are forced to consider crossover types like Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh.  Even though Howard Stern looks like he should be washing dishes in a roadhouse dive and Rush Limbaugh resembles a pompous courtroom bailiff, both are wealthy, highly visible celebrities. Both are stars, though neither is a dignitary. Nevertheless, Howard Stern’s sex-talk and Rush Limbaugh’s tirades entertain, if not enlighten, many of us, often on a daily basis.  Neither seems to possess much talent, nothing more than verbal agility asserted in the cause of a “schtick.” Even so, Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh remain highly successful Public Figures virtually immune to negative fallout from scandals.  Is it any surprise that Howard Stern had a nasty marital blow-up, especially given the cavalcade of bare-chesting porn stars that populate his guest list?  We were surprised, however, by Rush Limbaugh’s prescription pill issue.  For a while, the most dedicated Rush Limbaugh fans among us festered in Denial.  The rest of us simply had trouble taking him seriously as a moral bellwether. Fortunately, Rush Limbaugh cleaned up and got back to being a moral bellwether. It wasn’t long before his substance abuse scandal became old news.  It never takes long for our attention to be diverted.  Suddenly, a Public Figure is getting arrested for sneaking a gun through airport security.  Another is running drunk and naked along an open country road not far from a popular all night diner.  The crazy celebrity parade never stops flowing.  Amanda Bynes.  Lindsay Lohan.  Britney Spears.  Tom Cruise.  Alec Baldwin.  Miley Cyrus.  Somewhere in the back of our minds we think—Jack Nicholson. Jack Nicholson is a very big star. When he attends a Lakers game, he even has the look of a dignitary.  Now that we think of it, we wonder if he was the one who smashed some driver’s hood with a golf club.  It’s been a while, so we can’t be sure. So many stars have done so many outré things as part of the crazy celebrity parade that we can’t remember everything and wouldn’t want to, anyway.

***

Many of us do crazy things, too, and some of us have reason to be grateful that we are not Public Figures.  Like Jack Nicholson, if it were Jack Nicholson, a number of us—maybe most of us—have experienced Road Rage, at least inwardly, in thought if not in deed.  But once in a while, when conditions conspire, some of us can’t resist.  Not long ago, many of us sat stewing for over two hours in three lanes of a sweltering July traffic jam.  We had two options.  We could run out of gas while blasting the air conditioning or we could turn off the engine and risk heat stroke.  We were understandably outraged when those punk kids with the loud music came thumping and jolting along the pocked shoulder, trying to get past us without waiting like decent people should.  After a few of us honked our horns and shouted, one of the punks gave us the finger with a sweeping metronomic motion.  Hunched forward, eyes glazed, Charlie R------ snapped.  He wrenched the wheel of his Ford SUV, skidded on to the shoulder, put the pedal to the metal and rammed the decrepit GEO Prism.  We found out later that two or three of the punks got whiplash. But while gasoline poured from the ruptured tank, one of them—the driver we think—got out all woozy and made like he wanted to fight.  Charlie grabbed a fistful of the green and red Mohawk with his left hand and rhythmically punched the punk’s left jaw with his crushing right fist.   An off-duty cop raced over and slammed Charlie to the ground, right into pooling gasoline. The twisting, flailing Charlie didn’t settle down till the off-duty cop cracked the back of his skull on the gouged blacktop.  When the gasoline splashed, we got nervous, expecting the GEO Prism to explode and who could tell what might blow up with it?  Soon, Charlie was flat on his stomach and the off-duty cop had one knee boring into his back.

Charlie made the local news, of course, but his spree did not go national or viral for the simple reason that Charlie is not a Public Figure.  He is not some famous country singer running naked down the highway.  Instead, Charley manages a rental equipment company.  He is nothing more than a regular guy who lost it.  He now has legal bills, Haz-Mat cleanup bills, and monthly probation bills. He has lawsuit problems that won’t go away for years, but he more or less has his privacy.  He was not much of a story.

Some of us can even get over-the-top crazy in public places and experience few, if any, negative outcomes.

One day early last May, Marv B---- made the mistake of going to a Kentucky Derby party at a co-worker’s home.  Marv is an insurance adjuster for a large company that has a number of fancy initials.  He went to the Kentucky Derby party, even though he knew his ex-wife was going to be there.  She was going to be there with the doofus, who didn’t exactly break them up, but who did his best to move matters along.  He played the related roles of Advice Giver and Crying Towel.  He was a guy who saw Marv’s ex-wife and her income as vulnerable marks. Those of us who know her realize she was—and is—a fragile soul freighted with long term hang-ups. Marv didn’t exactly still love, or even like, his ex-wife, but he certainly had some ambivalent feelings that he never thought about for too long.  But no doubt he hated the doofus.

Marv had a donut for breakfast and no lunch.  He figured there’d be real food after the two-minute horse race he didn’t give a damn about.  By the time his ex-wife took him by the hand and dragged him into a room where a lot of people were dancing, Marv had consumed three mint juleps.  When Marv put his drink down he was pleased to see the doofus glowering from a place where two walls met.  After his ex-wife grabbed Marv by both hands, they shifted back and forth to some mind-numbing rap incantation.  She kept getting close and banging her chest into his.  Between dances they guzzled their drinks.  Their host came by and filled their glasses from a pitcher.  Soon, Marv found himself talking and laughing with his ex-wife as though she were a person he was just getting to know.  At the time, buzzed though he was, Marv realized the whole thing was nuts, but he allowed the movie to play.  When the real food was ready, Marv didn’t bother eating.  By then, he and his ex-wife were in the backyard, sitting on a swinging love seat, talking and holding hands, getting into ridiculous what-might-have-been-but-still-may-be scenarios.  Although pretty well twisted, Marv realized he didn’t mean a thing he was saying.  Some mad hijacker in the bottom of his brain had grabbed the controls. The real Marv was glad to be done with his ex-wife and would never go back with her.  In fact, the real Marv believed he might be in love with the real Annie Q----, a warm, caring, delightfully low maintenance E. R. nurse, who had wound up working a double shift at the hospital, which was why Marv had thought, “What the hell!” and had gone to the Kentucky Derby party he had sworn he was not going to go to.  Fueled by more drinks and dancing, the mad hijacker took Marv into a spinning, wobbling world.  The walls were bending and faces were squeezing into globs of twisting flesh.

The next thing he knew, he came to—that is, he achieved a borderline state of conscious discernment—and found himself seated  in a topless joint called Uncle Herm’s that was literally under the  interstate overpass.  Marv looked to his left and saw his friend Jack W---- holding a beer bottle and staring blankly in the direction of the black ceiling.  Marv found out later that Jack had dragged him away from the Kentucky Derby party after he had swung and missed hitting the drunk, trash-talking doofus.  Marv remembered none of it, but Jack told us and we told Marv how Jack had snatched Marv’s car keys and hauled him out the door.  Jack’s simple plan was to lock Marv down.  At a stoplight, however, Marv jumped out of the car, dashed through traffic and plunged through the door of Uncle Herm’s. We are relieved that Jack was a good enough friend to park his car and go after Marv.  Many of us would not have bothered.  By the time Jack got inside, Marv was already seated at the wide bar that doubled as a dancing ramp.  He had a bottle of Miller Lite in his hand and a pile of crumpled bills splayed before him.  By now, Marv was trying to process what seemed unintelligible. When he looked up he was surprised to find that a dancer, lured, perhaps, by the pile of crumpled bills, gyrated her fanny not six inches from his face.  She kept squatting and popping up.  Fives, tens and twenties hung like wide ribbons from the elastic belt of her G-string.  Marv told us that he had simply wanted the dancer to go away.  He didn’t like her getting in his face.  He was also annoyed that Jack was still staring at the ceiling.  Marv was under the impression that Jack had brought him there.  As a way to make the gyrating dancer leave, Marv rolled up a five dollar bill into a cigarette-sized tube and staccato-tapped the rippled cellulite of her wiggling left buttock.

***

A cacophony erupted with the dancer screaming, pointing, cursing and kicking.  As bouncers converged, the mad hijacker in Marv’s brain made an astonishing return.  Marv pushed away four or five bouncer hands and proclaimed that he was a lawyer.

“If anybody touches me, I’ll own this place and garnished your wages for the next thirty years.”

The shocked bouncers pulled their hands away as if Marv’s clothes were toxic.  Jack grabbed Marv’s pile of bills, hooked his elbow and yanked him toward the door.  But the mad hijacker reminded Marv that he had paid good money for that beer.  He reached back, speared the bottle and continued toward the door, threatening the bouncers with legal Armageddon, insisting that they let him leave with his beer.  They blocked the doorway, however, and refused to let him leave with his beer, although as a compromise, they did allow him to finish it as he straddled the doorway.  When he handed the bottle to a bouncer, some of the patrons applauded.  Marv’s chutzpah didn’t get him beaten up or arrested.  As Marv’s zookeeper led him away, some patrons followed them to the sidewalk.  They were still applauding and one of them whistled.  They were happy.  The holes in their souls seemed temporarily filled.  They had a good story to tell—the crazy lawyer with the rolled-up five, who defied the bouncers.  However stressed, Jack also had a good story to tell.  It was a story that had no real consequences other than Marv’s two-day hangover.  In the sanitized version prepared for the E. R. nurse, Marv said he had left the Kentucky Derby party feeling sick.  Deeply concerned over Marv’s flu-like symptoms, Annie became genuinely motherly.  On Monday she called Marv in sick and spent the day bustling around his apartment, making him soup, answering the phone, straightening things up.

If Marv had been James Franco or Danny DeVito, if Marv had been any kind of Public Figure instead of what he was—not a star but a dot—he would have been photogged from here to the moon and back.  The Twitter-verse would have gone spastic.  Smart phone video clips would have gone viral.  He would have been arrested for Disorderly Conduct, Assault, Public Intoxication, Sexual Battery, and who knows what else.  The dancer would have sued.  People magazine would have leaped on the story.  TMZ would have sent a crew to Uncle Herm’s and the dancer would have achieved fourteen minutes of fame—enough time to get her noticed by porn talent scouts but not enough time to turn her into a Public Figure.

***

We are certain that the parade of Public Figure mayhem will never end.  Something is always bound to happen.  If it’s not a movie star or politician sexting or tweeting into trouble, then it’s likely to be a country singer falling off the wagon or a NASCAR driver annulling that eight-minute marriage.  Or maybe Hugh Grant gets nabbed with another hooker.  Or one of the Royals goes on a wilding.
For a few days, Prince Harry of England became a Royal Family embarrassment and tabloid bonanza.  He was pictured nude in an expensive Vegas hotel suite after a session of strip pool.  As befits the decent guy he seems very likely to be, Prince Harry was properly chastened and properly annoyed.  He admitted to the world that playing strip pool amounted to conduct unbecoming a prince, but some of us felt he was quite within bounds when complaining that his rights had been violated.  After all, he was not playing strip pool in the back room of a local bar and grill.  Instead, he played strip pool in the privacy of his hotel suite. Others among us disagreed:  Prince Harry’s right to privacy, while ideally as sacrosanct as ours, must always remain illusory, since real life is as it is.  His practical claim to privacy does not extend much beyond whatever happens within the perimeter of his large, darkened walk-in closet. Playing strip pool in the company of guests—all of whom have smart phones—can’t help but guarantee trouble for Prince Harry’s grandmother and father, though we can quite easily see his mother laughing about it.

Many of us feel sympathy for Prince Harry and other bloodline Royals because none of them asked to be Public Figures.  Amanda Bynes asked for it. Lindsay Lohan asked for it.  Alec Baldwin asked for it.  Barry Bonds, Bill Clinton, Paris Hilton, Jack Nicholson and all of the Kardashians asked for it.  Once upon a time, even Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes and J. D. Salinger asked for it.  England’s very young Prince George-with-all-the-names certainly did not ask to be a Public Figure.  Right now, he enjoys whatever degree of social consciousness a one-year-old enjoys.  At any given moment he is staggering around the palace, scattering newspapers and magazines.  He is losing or breaking any remote control device he can get his hands on.  He flings and clatters the pots, pans and lids.  He pulls out books from the bottom shelf and rips random pages.  We can see it all happening.  It’s what our children do.  Perhaps in time he will become a Terrible Two.  At some point, however, he will cease to be one of us.  He will realize he is different.  Those body guards, that legion of servants, his parents’ busy-body handlers, various sycophantic entourages, those large screaming crowds, the flocking paparazzi—all that and more will lead him to realize that he is a Public Figure. The history buffs among us might point out in their know-it-all way that King Charles of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire got fed up with being a Public Figure.  In 1557, he abdicated his throne and fled to a monastery.  Though he tried to stop being a Public Figure, he nevertheless remained one.  More than four centuries later, he is still a Public Figure.  Like Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes and J. D. Salinger, he became famous for not wanting to be famous.  Salinger did everything he could to stop being a Public Figure.  He even tried writing badly.  Had he occasionally gone on Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas or Johnny Carson, had he occasionally done a talk show and pretended to be dull, we would have forgotten all about him.  If Jack, Merv, Mike or Johnny asked him what he was doing, he could have said, “I’m keeping track of local real estate transactions.” He could have devised bi-annual handouts analyzing local real estate transactions in Hanover, New Hampshire.  The New Yorker would have published the first handout but not the second.  A few literary critics would have decoded the handouts.  Eventually, Salinger would have been left alone, gone and nearly forgotten.  He would have stopped being a Public Figure and become just another stone tossed into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  We might remember the splash, but we certainly aren’t going to look for the stone.

Nevertheless, Alec Baldwin remains at large, looking highly offended, and one of the Kardashians is heading back to court.  We recently heard that Amanda Bynes got released to the custody of her parents and is rumored to be mulling offers.  Perhaps she will get a cable food show to fill the void left by Paula Deen and her “N-word” fiasco.  Maybe Amanda Bynes will become a game show host, with or without the crazy, flowing aqua wig.  With her finances under control, she should be feeling better and we are glad.  Amanda Bynes may even be planning to visit Oprah, who is waiting out there on The Comeback Trail, arms open and ready.

***

John Wenke is author of "Melville's Muse: Literary Creation and the Forms of Philosophical Fiction" and "J.D. Salinger: A study of the Short Fiction". He won an Individual Artist Award in Fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council and published numerous scholarly essays, chapters and reviews. John Wenke currently teaches American literature and literary writing at Salisbury University.

***

 
 

Subscribe
Submissions Guide
Letters to the Editor
pdf
RSS
 
 
home | past issues | world & politics | essays | art and style | fiction and poetry | links | newsletter
The Montréal Review © 2009 - 2013 T.S. Tsonchev Publishing & Design, Canada. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911
about | contact us | copyright | user agreement | privacy policy