Thursday September 24th, 2009

Sartre Comes to Baytown


(Editor’s Note: The following essay is taken from City Secrets Books: The Essential Insider’s Guide edited by Robert Kahn and Mark Strand, a beautifully designed compendium of personal essays recommending little-known or under-appreciated books, published by Fang Duff Kahn. The collection’s 158 contributors include Jane Smiley, Calvin Trillin, C.K. Williams, Deborah Eisenberg and Scott Simon. A portion of the book’s proceeds will be donated to First Book, a national organization that gives children from low-income families the opportunity to read their first new books. This is the first of four essays from the book that will appear on The Second Pass.)

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
New Directions, 192 pp., $13.95

When I told a friend that my subject for this essay was Jean-Paul Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, he made a noise of disgust — a quick, sharp exhale through his teeth — and said, “Nausea. The very essence of pretension.” Then (get this) he said he’d never even read it, and asked me what it was about.

I told him it was about my hometown.

To be clear, I did not grow up in Bouville, the fictional coastal town where Sartre sets Nausea, nor did I grow up in Le Havre, the town on the English Channel in northwest France where Sartre was teaching when he wrote the novel, and I certainly didn’t grow up in Paris, where Sartre lived the rest of the time. I grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast, in a flyspeck of a redneck town called Highlands. And I went to high school and then a junior college named after Robert E. Lee in the nearby industrial town of Baytown, where Exxon operates one of the largest-capacity oil refineries in the world.

Wherever you are in Baytown, you can look up and see a refinery in just about any direction. Discharge torches ten stories high burn off excess chemicals from the refining processes, and storage tanks, like giant hatboxes, are strewn across the land as far as the eye can see. A sign with a giant Exxon tiger counts the days since the last fatal accident. As I grew up, the Plant, as it is simply known, dominated life in that town, and say what you will about particulate pollutants released into the atmosphere, those chemicals do make for dazzling sunsets. The novelist Paul Auster once washed up in Baytown as a merchant marine and would later describe a “sad and crumbling little place.”

And mister, you don’t know anything about the very essence of pretension until you’ve sold cable TV door-to-door in a Baytown, Texas, summer.

I guess you could say my heart wasn’t really in cable sales. But my schedule was otherwise fairly free at the time, this being the summer of 1980. I was seventeen and had almost no sense of the future and no idea of the outside world, just a gnawing, vague, deep unhappiness.

And then one ordinary day I found this book.

There was this guy in a beat-up white van who would come to pick me up every evening and drop me off with my list of names and addresses in the sad hope of selling folks on cable and earning a meager commission. Name was Ben Webber. He’d leave me in a different neighborhood every day. I hated selling, and to tell the truth, I actually just liked driving around with Ben, who was interesting to talk with, sort of a stranger in a strange land. By Baytown standards, Ben and his brother Will and father Barney made for a truly weird family. That they all seemed to speak a bunch of languages and took in Amir, an Iranian student who somehow found himself studying at Lee College, definitely marked the Webbers as something unusual. We had a small going-away party when Carter deported all those students during the hostage crisis. Fearing he’d be killed if he returned to Iran, Amir was headed to Madrid, and seemed to be relieved to be getting out of Baytown. I remember being envious.

So Ben and I were driving around one day before my shift, past pawn shops and gun shops and ice houses, on a road that took us right through the heart of the Plant, and I absentmindedly popped open the glove box, pulled out a paperback, and started reading:

Something has happened to me, I can’t doubt it any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything evident. It came cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little put out, that’s all . . . And now it’s blossoming . . .

For instance, there is something new about my hands, a certain way of picking up my pipe or fork. Or else it’s the fork which now has a certain way of having itself picked up, I don’t know . . .

From then on I was hooked. I slipped the book into my bag — stole it, actually (sorry, Ben, that’s where your book went) — went home that night and read until I had finished the entire saga of Antoine Roquentin, who in diary form was recording the dissolution of his mind. He called it a “sweetish sickness,” this nausea that came over him in waves as he became increasingly and acutely aware of his existence, and of the ominous indifference of the physical world, and as the regular things — objects, routines, women — that he had once clung to for meaning began to fail him.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I felt hopped up on this new discovery, and was aware that this was something very special, a bulletin from the wide world telling me I was not crazy, I was not alone. Its effect was almost narcotic. A book – a book! – shot me through with a joy so pure. I would read for a while, mispronouncing all the French words, and then stop and just look at the physical book, turning it over in my hands, make a pot of coffee, read some more. This guy Sartre knew what he was talking about. Surely he had been to Baytown.

I did not know what existentialism was; I had never heard the word, and I couldn’t even pronounce it. I had no school of thought, nor the vocabulary, to explain why this book mattered to me, why it moved me. It just did. It jangled something that I already had inside, put words to a feeling that comes with discouraging regularity, whether you’re in coastal France or coastal Texas. Or, you know, all the places in between.

It is not exaggerating in the slightest to say that this book changed my entire outlook on life and how to live it. I would read Nausea every summer for about fifteen years, the same torn and ragged paperback. The purloined copy is the only copy I have ever owned, and it occupies a special place on my shelf. I still pick it up every now and again, still mispronouncing all of the French. But now when I read it, I visualize Roquentin not at a café or boarding house in Bouville, Le Havre, or Paris. Instead, he lingers at the Waffle House, loiters at the half-empty mall, and in the evenings retreats back to a trailer parked in a cow pasture.

It feels somehow more accurate.

Mark Warren is the executive editor at Esquire. He is the author, most recently, of The Good Fight: Hard Lessons from Searchlight to Washington, with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada.

Mentioned in this review: