Monday, April 30, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #120: The Abominable Mr. Seabrook by Joe Ollmann

We can't choose our obsessions. (What would the world be like, if we could?)

Joe Ollmann couldn't -- that's why he's been collecting, reading, and thinking about minor interwar travel writer William Buehler Seabrook for the past decade. And Seabrook couldn't: Ollmann's retelling of his life shows clearly how he was engulfed by his alcoholism and sexual kinks, in an era where he couldn't be helped definitively for the one and couldn't openly enjoy the latter.

Their obsessions came together in Ollmann's 2017 book The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, an exhaustive, obsessively-researched portrait of a deeply obsessive man. It's three hundred pages of dense nine-panel grid comics, crammed full of words and Ollmann's very human (and very lumpy) people, all washed in blue tone.

Ollmann points out early that the historical verdict on Seabrook comes down to four words -- cannibal, sadist, alcoholic, suicide -- and his book explains the stories behind those words but admits they are what defines Seabrook. Sure, he was only a cannibal once, but it was in pursuit of verisimilitude for his third book Jungle Ways, where he was trying to follow the pattern of his first two books and really get into the society he was investigating. And, obviously, suicide only happens once.

But the other two words defined him for his entire adult life. He was an alcoholic, even after a "cure" that left him thinking (as so many do) that he could go back to drinking in moderation. And his particular kink, around women in chains, would have been vastly more manageable and reasonable two generations later. As it was, drinking was something men did, and he couldn't stop. His sexual desires were "perverted" and finding women who actually shared them -- as opposed to the succession of "research assistants" of his later years, who were willing to go along, for a little while, for pay -- was almost impossible. (There is one woman Seabrook met early on who Ollmann shows as being a good match for him sexually -- but her real name isn't known to posterity and she seems to have disappeared from his life entirely after not too long.)

Seabrook was also tormented as a writer: he was the kind who at first wrote fairly easily, and then found it got harder and harder to write prose at the level he wanted -- particularly as he drank more and more. And so the work is worse from the drinking, which leads to more drinking, which leads to slower and worse work, and so on.

Seabrook managed to produce nearly a dozen books from 1927 through 1944, the years Ollmann most focuses on. (Seabrook was born in 1884 and died by an overdose in 1944.) It sounds like even the best of them are minor, but all readers have huge enthusiasms for "minor" writers. I'm glad Ollmann's huge enthusiasm got him a major book out of it himself.

Ollmann's Seabrook is a sweaty, jowly, blubbery mess of a man, lurching through his own life uncontrolled, with momentary highs and years-long lows. He's a cautionary tale, a "but for the grace of God" figure, a bad example, an icon of despair -- but never a joke. He lived his own life, pretty badly as it turned out, but he did what he could where he was, given all he'd been saddled with, and got ten books, three wives, a decent living for a long time, and occasional happiness out of it. Ollmann shows us that's not all that bad, even for a cannibal sadist alcoholic suicide.

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