Hot and Cold: The Works of Richard Hell, by Richard Hell. New York: PowerHouse. 256 pages. $29.95. BUY NOW

Reviewed by JERRY STAHL

     
 

"You must understand that my brand of love is botulism and it's not my fault that it's toxic to humans."
óRichard Hell, Untitled, 1969

By way of lesser fallout from the Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, a bevy of professional "risk assessors" has cropped up on TV and radio like toadstools after a summer rain. And it's difficult, poring through the work and life of the great Richard Hell, not to imagine what a risk-and-consequence pro would have made of Hell's own chances of surviving to the ripe old age of fifty-oneólet alone continuing to blast out the same brand of tortured, unrepentant, viciously honest, and occasionally hysterical work that slapped him onto the map in the first place.

If anything, Hell's status as the quintessential New York junkie, punk, and unregenerate fuck-you-if-I-want-to-die rocker icon has probably undercut his status as a writer. In postmillennial America, those who dictate such things like their geniuses to suffer in button-down shirts and horn rims, preferably with earplugs and Ivy League pedigrees. This relegates a scribe like Hell, whose well-documented life has played out far beyond the borders of Quality Lit land, to a kind of outsider, sideshow status. Which is Quality Lit's loss.

"And then it came to me," Hell writes, in a 1999 essay about an AA meeting for people diagnosed with psychiatric as well as drug and alcohol problems, "the feeling that death was the truth, that this state of being alive was a sour chord played in death . . . that being alive was a lie, a kind of grotesque misuse of materialólike a sculpture made of foodóand that to be truthful I'd have to die . . . I felt the dishonesty of fumbling around, trying to operate without the equipment here in life."

Forget the fact that the above was inspired by an AA meeting. (Can we even begin to fathom the immutable eloquence of that?) The peculiar blend of heartbreak, cynicism, insight, and loonily spot-on imagery in this snippet exactly captures what makes Hot and Cold such a wondrous and weirdly inspiring compendium.

Beyond the ragged edges and hipster cred, the one constant in evidence after a jaunt through the world of Mister Hell is a kind of Lower East Side spiritual yearningóso that, oddly enough, the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll emerge as less fascinating than the psyche of the initially smack-addled, eventually clean-and-sober seeker pursuing them. Along with fellow punk giants Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine, Hell was a Rimbaud fan, so it's hardly surprising that he sought the sublime in the most squalid of circumstances. What's truly startling, by the time you get to the end of this book, is that he has actually found it. Like the suicidally transcendent E.M. Cioranówhose aphorism from On the Heights of Despair, "Normal people have nothing to forget," could well serve as this book's epigraphóHell, as poet and essayist, has gone so deep into his own pain, he's come out the other side. Writing-wise, Hell starts out as a kind of Everyjunkie and (no doubt to his own surprise as much as ours) ends up as an Everyman.

 
     
     
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