Set in New York’s now-fabled 1980s downtown bohemia, Gary Indiana’s Horse Crazy (1989) traces a woefully lopsided love affair. The 30-something narrator, a writer and the art critic at an alternative weekly, pursues Gregory Burgess, a beautiful would-be artist in his late 20s. A seething mass of resentment and destructiveness, Gregory both exploits his admirer’s comparative success in the city’s art world and punishes him for it. Claiming psychic fragility, Gregory rules out sex with the narrator, while perhaps having it with others. A liar, bully, and possible heroin addict, Gregory foments one exhausting emotional drama after another. Flattened by Gregory’s boundless manipulativeness and mean-spiritedness, the narrator comes to see him as a “full-blown psychopath.” Yet he remains hopelessly under the spell of Gregory’s sexual charisma, automatically showing up for the next round of abuse.
Like many novels of erotic obsession, Horse Crazy has a grippingly aimless and repetitive narrative structure. It’s in the tradition established by Proust in Swann in Love (1913) and The Captive (1923). Elizabeth Harrower’s The Catherine Wheel (1960) and Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977) are notable successors. In these novels, as in Horse Crazy, conventional narrative momentum is supplanted by the ebb and flow of hope and despair about the object of obsession. Horse Crazy closes with its narrator stating that “this story, if it is one, deserves the close of a suicide, perhaps even the magisterial finality of what is usually called a novel.” Instead, it sputters out in a “feeling of indeterminacy and the obdurate inconclusiveness of passing time.”
Disaster is both imminent and ambient, both apocalyptic and manifested in everyday ordinariness.
That inconclusiveness, paradoxically, is a big part of what makes the novel so persuasive. Horse Crazy conveys with wrenching immediacy the way sexual fixation can feel at once all-consuming and pointless. Indiana is aware not everyone wants to read this kind of story. “I’m so obsessed with [Gregory] it’s making me sick,” the narrator says to a friend, “and it must be incredibly boring for you to hear every little twist and turn.” Before Gregory even appears, the narrator tells us, “I haven’t the heart to tell my story, and keep looking for less convoluted fictions.”
Reflexive moments like these might now seem very 1980s postmodern, but they aptly summarize the way in which the novel courts tedium, claustrophobia, self-canceling futility. Personally, I find Indiana’s convolutions irresistible. He alternates gorgeously precise description, dialogue that snaps, and hypnotic stream of consciousness. And the novel is laced with lethal humor. Horse Crazy eschews conclusiveness, but it does have a great punchline. It’s the story of an attempted pickup in a bar, and I know of no more devastating account of the sad comedy of sexual desire.
Born Gary Hoisington in Derry, New Hampshire, in 1950, Indiana was a key figure in the downtown scene his novel depicts. The Village Voice’s art critic from 1985 to 1988, Indiana is also a playwright, an actor, and an author of numerous works of criticism alongside his eight novels. His work, mostly confined to the small presses and little magazines associated with the downtown scene, has appeared from time to time with major publishers. Yet he remains an enthusiasm of the few. Probably his unsparingly scathing worldview has something to do with this.
Focused on a romance, Horse Crazy also has a lot to say about the society in which that romance takes place. Indiana is keenly aware of the inextricability of our private lives from the economic dispensation under which those lives are lived. Reflecting on his vocation, in one of those maddening yet engrossing passages of reported thought, the narrator writes:
Anything I do simply adds to the general ruin, despite my intention to do otherwise. If I write and publish my writing, I end up selling out my inner life in order to remain alive, everything that lives within me becomes something for sale, therefore the more I write the less existence I have, consequently my freedom diminishes the more I produce and expands if I write less, the less I write the freer I become, but in order to remain free it’s necessary to sell my writing, and so, the less free I am, the freer I appear to be.
Indiana is unafraid to make sweeping statements about late capitalism (“the general ruin”), but the detail of his mise-en-scène gives those statements affective punch. The lives of Indiana’s New Yorkers are disenchanted, atomized, and unmoored from any kind of collective narrative: “Nothing happens to us except dinner parties and visits to the dentist and work, our lives have the generic flavor of deferred pleasure and sublimation until we fall in love or die.”
If the affair with Gregory is shot through with “an expectation of disaster,” that dire foreboding spreads to the city, the nation, the world. For Indiana, disaster is both imminent and ambient, both apocalyptic and manifested in everyday ordinariness. In Do Everything in the Dark (2003), a sort-of sequel to Horse Crazy (pointedly set in the months leading up to 9/11—and pointedly never mentioning it), the narrator states, in an unspecified present-day moment, “I’m writing these notes from the depths of the fait accompli. … I hardly need to tell you that the worst has already happened, is happening now, will happen tomorrow, and next month, and a year from Sunday.” The 9/11 attacks might be the fait accompli here, but the referential imprecision suggests that disaster, while it takes on particular forms at particular times, is always already here.
The concrete form that disaster takes in Horse Crazy is AIDS. While the narrator’s relationship with Gregory distracts him from “the sudden omnipresence of death,” AIDS is a constant, background source of nagging dread. In line with Indiana’s notion of the banality of catastrophe, however, AIDS is not an opportunity for revelation, let alone redemption. Hearing of the illness of a friend with whom he’s fallen out, the narrator assures himself that “I did not want him to die, but drew a weird satisfaction from the fact that I knew he was going to. … I wondered why if death is such a conqueror it has no effect on pettiness.” Elsewhere he tells us: “Even though people were beginning to drop like flies, we all acted as if we were going to live forever. The weeks were littered with unreturned phone messages, stupid feuds were sustained endlessly for no good reason, and very often the slight effort needed to maintain a sense of connectedness proved altogether beyond one’s strength or willingness.”
The novel makes the ghastliness of Gregory’s behavior central, but it doesn’t spare the narrator or his friends from excoriation. Conceptually, Indiana hybridizes Freud and Marx. On the one hand, he unflinchingly pinpoints the selfishness and self-destructiveness that course through our most exalted emotional states—fellow feeling and love. On the other, he leaves no doubt our historical situation exacerbates this unhappy reality. And viscerally? Indiana is in a world of his own.
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.