The subtitle of Art Garfunkel’s new memoir, “ Notes From an Underground Man,” echoes Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From Underground” and Richard Wright’s story “The Man Who Lived Underground” — both serious works of literature.“What Is It All but Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man,” by Art Garfunkel (Knopf)
Garfunkel’s book, however, is a splattering of 30-plus years of handwritten thoughts, lists, travel notes, bad poetry, confessions, snarky digs, platitudes and prayers gussied up for publication in different fonts and sizes.
Reading it is like rummaging through a huge junk drawer of the mind. You might find something useful. Garfunkel himself seems doubtful of his endeavor: “Maybe my unusual book does communicate.” Or maybe it doesn’t, which is sad because Garfunkel, the angel-voiced half of Simon and Garfunkel, and a successful solo act, is a talented, educated and seemingly loving man. Unfortunately, the singer — who at 75 continues to tour — is more successful behind the microphone than he is on the page.
Rock memoirs are often full of sex and snark. Garfunkel’s is no exception. “Paul [Simon] won the writer’s royalties. I got the girls . . . Fabulous foxes, slim-hipped, B-cup, little Natalie Woods.” His boasting is matched by innuendo. When he and Simon were younger, “We showed each other our versions of masturbations . . . (mine used a hand).” Imagine that! When Garfunkel was in George Harrison’s “castle . . . the space in the turret was tight. George and I were very close. Disturbing? Thrilling?” What are we to make of such declarations?
The book is also filled with such gnomic statements as: “You can’t discover fuchsia twice.” “Morality played to win is a/plate of tin.” “My poetry bits are organs. What is the least connective tissue that sets them in a body?”
Whether as poetry, or as lines popping up willy-nilly to fill empty space or to display another typeface, sentences like these appear with aggravating frequency. Unfortunately, some of Garfunkel’s longer passages are also aggravating. In a poem to his wife, Kathryn, he calls himself her “love pest,” the “fungus underneath her nail,” “her old bed linen” and “her underwear.” Later, in prose, he is “moved to speak of Janice Zwail, the colonics queen. A Chelsea chick, she cleans your colon for cash or check.” Here, you might be begging for the sound of silence.Art Garfunkel with his son James in 2002. (Art Garfunkel)
Garfunkel’s writing isn’t all bad, though it hardly follows a chronology. Dates are often vague or nonexistent. Sometimes his use of pronouns is confusing, and we never get one sustained take on his decades-long and wavering relationship with Simon, though one running joke seems to concern who will speak at the other’s funeral, so even dying is a competition. An avid walker, Garfunkel’s descriptions of his travels through the United States and abroad sometimes give readers a sense of place, both geographic and psychological.
We’re moved as he sporadically recollects the difficulties of losing and regaining his voice. In an undated poem, he writes that “These days I sing ‘Bridge Over Troubled/Water’/for a full arena with fear of hernia.”
Readers might get a better sense of Garfunkel through his long and varied reading lists, which include Montaigne, Edith Wharton and E.L. James. Garfunkel has given several candid media interviews about his struggles with vocal cord damage and made controversial comments about Simon, but here he addresses those subjects fleetingly, obliquely — or not at all.
Finally, what can one say of a man who announces that first he was Achilles and now he’s Odysseus? For a fan, this might be a forthright assessment. For someone else, it’s one more silly pronouncement from a man who’s anything but underground.
Sibbie O’Sullivan, a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, has recently completed a memoir on how the Beatles have influenced her life.
At 7 p.m. on Oct. 2, Art Garfunkel will be appearing at St. Paul’s Church, 4900 Connecticut Ave. NW. This is a ticketed event.
By Art Garfunkel
Knopf. 256 pp. $27.95