Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jeff Sharlet's "Sweet Heaven When I Die"

Jeff Sharlet, a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine and Rolling Stone, is the bestselling author of The Family, C Street, and, with Peter Manseau, Killing the Buddha. He's Dartmouth College's first tenure track professor of creative nonfiction.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between, and reported the following:
Sweet Heaven When I Die is a collection of portraits of people who walk a tightrope between despair and desire, a cross-section of self-invented men and women -- prophets, promoters, revolutionaries, and other restless souls. I like p. 99 because it's right in the middle of the story of Brad Will, a man who was a little bit of each.

I first learned of Brad the night he died. I was in a bar with friends when we noticed first one person, then another crying, until soon the whole bar was in open mourning. Brad had a lot of friends. He'd been on the anarchist activist scene for years, but he'd recently found a kind of groove as a video journalist. He was covering an uprising in Oaxaca, Mexico, when he was killed: He filmed a policeman taking aim, then -- bang, Brad falls down. You can see it on Youtube, a few brutal moments that made Brad a kind of martyr, a folk hero.

I'm interested in folk heroes, but I want to know who they really are. I spent months talking to Brad's friends and family and traveling to some of the important places in his life. Page 99 shows us Brad some 15 years before his death, studying poetry at the Naropa Institute in Boulder. It begins with one of his teachers there, the anarchist poet Hakim Bey, best known for his idea of "Temporary Autonomous Zones," little personal pirate islands of absolute liberty. Brad loved that and decided to live it.
Brad stopped paying rent. “My crazy poet roomies fled the scene,” he later wrote of his accidental introduction to squatting. “I stayed and didn’t even have the phone number of the landlord.” That suited Brad—cash, he was beginning to believe, was a kind of conspiracy, a form of control he was leaving behind. He became a dumpster diver, a moocher, a liberator of vegetables. He wanted to write poems, but even more he wanted to become one, a messy, ecstatic, angry, sprawling embodiment of Bey’s Autonomous Zone.
That he managed to do, through a life of increasingly grand political theater, a performance that ultimately led to his murder. But such tragedies are not the inevitable result of walking that tightrope between desire -- personal, political, spiritual -- and despair. I wrote the stories in Sweet Heaven When I Die during the ten years I spent on my last two books, The Family and C Street, both about politicized Christian fundamentalism. They're the stories that kept me sane, stories of holy fools and almost-saints who took great leaps of faith, even knowing they might fall.
Learn more about the book and author at Jeff Sharlet's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue