FEBRUARY 16, 2020
What a question. Why the hell not? That would be the impression one gets when reading the work of Mark Sargent, and even more so when speaking with him.
I went to see Mark at his home in Laconia, in the south of Greece. The sun had just set over the mountains staggered around us. It was winter, so Mark stoked the fire, rubbing his hands together with a glee in his eyes. For his next trick, he produced a bowl filled with freshly pressed olive oil, so green you could practically taste the color, and thick with floating icebergs of feta and the best black olives I’d ever eaten.
Sargent is one of those writers whose life is almost inseparable from his writing, and for better or worse, vice versa. The kind of person who writes, it seems, because they have no choice. I think many of us with the writing bug are like that. Every word he writes has something of the memoir about it, even in his poetry.
That’s neither a critique nor is it necessarily unusual. The biographic is always somewhere in writing, and here I will sprinkle in some details about the poet in question, though not much more than you’ll find in his novel Fool on the Hill (Fast Books, 2019). I hope that, as we go, there will be a collaborative sense of confusion as to which is which, similar to getting to know him and reading his work side-by-side. With a writer like Sargent, it’s probably the only way.
One of the first things that I asked him on my recent visit was why he didn’t engage with the literary “establishment.” It was a well-meant question; I just thought that his work deserves to be read by a larger audience. That’s no slight on the good work done by small, independent publishers.
Sargent’s reply to my question was a crow’s cackle, as though I’d just asked the most puerile question on the list. And maybe I had, who knows? He went on to mouth something — in between a few olives — to the effect of not wanting to be involved in networking, always working for the next book, and oh, why should he be read rather than anyone else? And after all, mainstream publishers might be less given to publish a book about a self-ridiculing shaman fully conscious of being a wise fraud, by an American from the West Coast living in the mountains of Southern Greece. Doesn’t necessarily fit current trends.
I didn’t believe a word of it. There’s something else there. A thought floated in, that perhaps he’s hoping for fame after death. But at the same time, I can’t imagine this being true.
Much like his poetry, Fool on the Hill has a kind of a snappy, spoken feel to it. When I suggested to Sargent that his work has something of a Beat Generation feel to it, he told me that he studied under Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldmann when they taught at the Naropa Institute in Colorado, back in the day, years before I was born.
Now, I know the whole Beat thing might seem a little twee to some, my fellow millennials in particular. Kerouac especially tends to inspire exasperated sighs at those snobby little bookish gatherings you might sometimes find yourself attending. Nevertheless, the Beat Generation played a very important role in the development of style and sentiment in 20th-century literature. It’s the kind of thing I always trot out to critics of Joyce, but it works just as well here; they opened the ground for us, and sometimes did shit so we don’t have to. There’s a very definite value to that, and a well-established aesthetic that is palpable throughout Sargent’s work, a quippy, ironic hovering above the importance of things.
That irony hovers, much like the crow, Langston, who is very much a character in the book, cawing at those of us who would seek to take ourselves, writing, or indeed his writing, too seriously. And while that places me decidedly in the tricky territory, writing an article on the stuff, I believe there’s value in that, too. Perhaps that will redeem me, or perhaps I’m as insightful as the jolly donkey Gurdjieff, another character in the novel who is occasionally useful, but as often as not must be pushed around to get anywhere.
But, as a reader and occasional visitor, I can’t overlook the nuggets of wisdom that one often stumbles upon in Mark’s company as in his work. When I asked Sargent why he hasn’t written a memoir, but a novel that is, from one point of view, a series of minor deviations from his actual life, he evades the question. He claims he didn’t want to write straight-up memoir because he “didn’t want to hide behind the pretense of memory.”
Fool on the Hill follows the story of Max, a self-declared shaman, holy fool, and all-around wise-guy, who, though born on the West Coast of the United States, has ended up in the very same mountains that Sargent inhabits. You see how one might get confused.
Living alone, Max decides to ever-so-tentatively put word out that he “had gotten into the shaman game.” Characteristically tongue-in-cheek, we’re given to understand that the narrator doesn’t take this idea particularly seriously, mocking it gently, and doing it not for any particular spiritual reason, but because why the hell not?
It’s not a book that gives us a particular sense of having a mission, and I mean that in a good way. It’s not that plot is absent — an arc forms around the increasingly serious issues our would-be faux-shaman is confronted with — but the essence of the book is in its mini-plots, and within Max’s character. This is particularly clear in the latter episodes, where he pieces together a plausible explanation for a seemingly inexplicable death, and helps a friend escape Bulgarian hit men by trekking across the mountains with him. His gentleness, humor, and benevolence come through from the beginning, though. Each episode could be read with pleasure as a stand-alone piece, with each imparting its own wry wisdom.
We’re eased into the book, real easy, with an almost flippant case of German travelers wandering by; they wander out just as nonchalantly as they entered, and the scene is set. Word has gotten around through an informal network of friends both near and far that Max is in the Shaman game and open for business. This is described with tangy wit: “Yes sir, we have you signed up for ‘The Full Shaman.’ You know, for another fifty bucks we’ll enlightenize all the windows on the first floor.”
Italics are the author’s.
The narrator freely admits that he “had no desire to bullshit anyone, though of course that was inevitable.” It’s just this kind of self-mocking humility that quickly becomes one of the engines of the book. If, for even a moment, the narrator would start taking himself seriously, he would disappear up his own ass and never return. Thankfully, though, Fool on the Hill avoids this — “Faux Shaman up ahead. Leave your expectations here.” The result is that we are rewarded by moments of wry insight, such as when Monique comes his way, troubled by love, fate, and its intrinsic unknowability. The faux-shamanic narrator cuts through the crap around love, urging Monique not to obsess about it. When asked if he believes in love, he responds, “I suppose you’re talking about romantic love. Let me ask you another question, and really I ask this of myself. Do you need to believe in something to experience it?” He then admits to having loved several times through his life, and leaves us with the impression that the transitory nature of love and life are neither things to obsess over, nor to worry about necessarily. His feet move lightly over a lot of ground.
As I said, though, there is a gradual, if not steady, increase in the seriousness of the issues his acolytes and visitors face. When Max’s friend, Stavros, asks him to visit his wife, who is consumed by depression, our narrator agrees out of affection for his friend but without any great hope for effecting any positive change. It’s this lack of pretension that turns the visit into a valuable moment of observation, both of the narrator’s inner life, and of the very specific feeling of helplessness that is felt when you confront depression in someone you care about without being able to help them in the slightest. This, too, Max confronts with his characteristic wry humility. He tells us, “I pulled out a handful of sage from my bag and threw it on the fire. It gave the room a brief heady scent. And, I have to admit, that was about all the faux shaman had to offer. Penelope barely moved. Within that room I could feel all the prayers being said on her behalf. They hadn’t helped a lick. You couldn’t even burn them.”
And really, when confronted with someone alive but already “looking beyond this mortal coil,” what else can you do? Only a charlatan or a priest would suggest there was some heavenly quick-fix to a drowning by life’s burdens, and it’s good to be reminded of this, smack sharp in the face.
Even in the face of the flippant problems of the local young men, First World issues of motivation and opportunity, the narrator has something to share. At moments, the faux-shamanic wisdom feels a little like what you’d read in a Paulo Coelho novel or a self-help book, but the difference is that we feel hard-earned experience behind it, and it’s always accompanied by a brutal self-awareness that saves the narrator from hubris, the chief sin in the world of Greek mythology. For example, when the protagonist tells a washed-up millennial man to try to “do something for someone else every day for the next month. It doesn’t have to be much, but do it consciously. Don’t expect to be rewarded, and try not to feel self-righteous about it. You will,” the author allows the character to respond to the narrator: “That’s it? Be a Boy Scout or something?” It is this humorous interplay between characters that keeps the book back from the chasm of easy feel-good wisdom à la Coelho. As ever, humor is the antidote to hubris.
This willingness to endure criticism is what keeps the narrator grounded. This is articulated in all kinds of ways, including full-on confrontation with Richard, an ex-Marine suffering from PTSD, who somehow finds his way to the Fool on the Hill, without, it seems, having read the sign about leaving expectations at the door. When Richard attacks him for having given an ambiguous answer, the following interaction occurs:
“You’re so full of shit.”
“Yeah, I suppose so. You win.”
“Well then, what the fuck are you doing up here?
“Then what the fuck am I…” He stopped.
I smiled. “Your expectations are yours and you can do with them what you want, but I can’t do anything with them. I don’t even have access. And tomorrow they’ll be different.”
Now, quotations out of context always lack their proper potency, but if at this moment the reader of this text is tempted to ask herself, “Then why the fuck am I reading this?,” the answer is that Fool on the Hill is that elusive thing that pops up once in a while in literature. It acts as a mirror for your own foolish heart, inviting you to look at it with proper humility. As T. S. Elliot put it, “[H]umility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself.” In that sense, Fool on the Hill can be thought of as a particularly disarming aid to doing so, or at least to overdoing it. Perhaps, in an age which is often decried as being particularly narcissistic and self-obsessed, books like Fool in the Hill are precisely the antidotes we need to the other kinds of self-obsessed mirrors or likes, followers, and “friends.”
This humility is also located in the narrator’s capacity to actually help people, such as Jasmine, who is struggling with cancer. Using light-hearted yet stone-cold rationalism, he manages to comfort a dying woman, telling her to embrace every moment of life she has because:
This existence isn’t a fucking game show. You don’t win. Everybody loses. You can make the argument that life is not fair, but fair is a funny concept, generally applied by people who are not getting what they want. It comes to us from the English, fair play on the sporting field and all that. But if you think about it, why wouldn’t someone cheat if winning was important, brought some desirable result? It’s all bullshit. Life is, finally, fair. We all die, nobody gets off. So you can let go of whether it matters or not.
Though the narrator acknowledges that he is primarily dealing with the world of first-world problems, and that Syrian refugees are not coming to see him on their journey west, death does have a certain universalizing quality to it. And he is more that willing to admit that often he’s as much just talking to his own vanity as anyone else. But unlike so many books which end up as self-obsessed reflections about the author coming to terms with their own ego, Sargent puts his right on display before you, laughing righteously at life’s joys, miseries, and complications, with the very same merry glint in his eye with which Sargent poured me Scotch in Sparta.
The other major engine in the book seems to be a search for community, or rather the struggle, the effort to create a sense of connection in a context in which, when discussing a squat for Syrian refugees in Athens, a character asks the question, “How do you organize a community when the majority of possible members (not citizens) intend to leave?” Whether he is dealing with death, emigration from the “skeletal remains of the Greek economy,” tourists, or visiting friends, this seems to be the protagonist’s major preoccupation. And it’s here that he “finds himself.”
This becomes crystallized in the final chapter, a departure from the preceding chapters in its length and intensity. Ragnar, Max’s old friend and old-time partner in poetry arrives at page 145 of a 212-page book and proceeds to rupture what you had hitherto thought was an established routine of people popping into and quickly leaving Max’s life. A vivid character, we are led to believe that perhaps Ragnar is here to shake Max to his senses, to bring him back to the “real world,” so to speak. But we soon learn that the aptly named Ragnar is carrying with him baggage from his recent misadventures on the shores of the Black Sea in Bulgaria. It would seem that Ragnar vastly underestimated the determination of the Bulgarian mafia, so when they come knocking at Max’s door, pistols in hand, it’s a true test of their friendship. Max could throw Ragnar to the proverbial dogs, and by any standards of safe middle-class morality he wouldn’t be blamed for it, not least since he’s seen two of his own dogs shot. Instead, he chooses the hard road over the mountains and an uncertain fate with his old friend. It’s at this moment that we see Max’s network come alive. Friends risk run-ins with the pair of thugs to bring them food, and they find a safe house with another Fool on the Hill, a more hermetic sort of pseudo-shaman peddling a slightly different wisdom.
Throughout their journey, we feel Max’s palpable connection with the landscape. We can’t see the mountains as such, but we do feel our footsteps over them as we go. Accompanied throughout by Gurdjieff the donkey, Langston the crow, and the two surviving dogs, Stein and O’Keeffe, Max and Ragnar make their way to safety over the mountains, and we feel the entire landscape conspire to keep them safe. Max’s character has endowed him with the resources, both psychological and social, to keep him going throughout this test. And in the end, we see that his ephemeral community functions as well as any static one.
Fool on the Hill is not a book that is trying, at least outwardly, to be innovative or interesting from the standpoint of language or voice, which retain a naturalistic feel throughout. Thankfully, despite the fact that Sargent got into writing when he wrote a free-verse poem as a response to All Quiet on the Western Front as his final paper for high school English class, he stays away from being poetic in his prose. Like mixing whiskey and beer as we did that night, the results can be quite questionable. Still, there are interesting moments when the poet pivots from first person to second, quipping that “if you didn’t see this coming I would suggest you don’t leave the house without a chaperone or a well-trained dog.” And it’s fair enough, because you need to be on your guard to catch lines like that, smuggled as they are into the narration.
It’s also a book that tells a story of self-imposed exile, another First World luxury. The only Americans that visit are the most foreign-seeming characters in the novel, and I don’t say that only as a European. The narrator has fully embraced things that I see as integral to the contemporary European experience; a wry sensibility shot through with ironic humor, a long rational hangover, and deep skepticism. When the narrator says that you don’t hear people in Europe talking about unconditional love, he’s quite right. Neither that, nor religion, not seriously, or any grand project for that matter. Faith in absolutes has been fundamentally shaken, so much so that to talk about it is tantamount to declaring your idiocy. It’s not a position beyond reproach, but there are certain virtues to it, and I believe it is something that the author no doubt feels when confronted by certain manifestations of American life and culture.
Sargent told me that he feels “at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears,” qualifying this enviable line as a quote from a letter by Rosa Luxemburg. One of his (real) cats is named Rosa. Like his fictional dogs Voltaire and (Gertrude) Stein, his familiars are named for writers and thinkers, perhaps a kind of ploy to keep genius swirling at his feet. Very much as in the book, his home is a kind of meeting place of visitors, animals in need of shelter, food, and the odd word of wisdom.
But something tells me that despite his ready stock of quotations and cosmopolitan quips, like his character Max, Sargent is more rooted in Laconia than anywhere else. Time will do that to a person, certainly, but it’s more than that. It’s the connection to the landscape; the ephemeral community that he has built around him; his familiar animals; his dead wife’s ashes scattered on a mountain top overlooking his house. In all this, I sense a hope for a decent life not taken too seriously, but at ease with others and the world around.
Luke Cassidy is a writer from Ireland. His debut novel, Iron Annie, is currently out on submission; he is represented in New York by The Fischer-Harbage agency and in Ireland by Storyline Literary Agency. He loves discovering new stories and looking at old ones in odd ways.