Bradley Smith, RIP

Published: 2016-02-23

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There’s no chance I’ll get this right. To begin with, I keep getting stuck on the thought of Barney Rosset reading Henry Miller for the first time. That’s a bad start. I know just how it sounds.

Next, I think of such times when I’ve been asked about my favorite writers and how easily I’ve withheld the truth. It always seemed like too much to explain. Why cast a pall, when I can namecheck the usual suspects and move on? I might tell myself Henry Miller cuts near enough to the spirit of a friendly barstool chat. At least then we can talk, once again, about the trials – an easier conversation. Because I know there was a bookseller in California who stood up to illiberal forces even back then. His case is footnoted in the standard legal history, because Tropic of Cancer was a watershed in the law of obscenity in the United States. There were winners and losers, mostly forgotten, and then there was the change that came. The bookseller I have in mind – a Korean war veteran and a struggling writer himself – was one of the losers. He was prosecuted and convicted for selling a book. He lost everything in the court battles that followed. It hurt him. In time, he brushed it off. He got on with the work, the writing, the life.

Only it wouldn’t be as simple as that, because this simple writer (the bookshop is closed) refused to stand down when the thought cops shifted their focus. When Norman Mailer was defending Henry Miller against the feminists, Bradley Smith stopped paying taxes to protest the bomb. And long after Miller’s dirty books had been elevated to the modern canon, my recently departed friend held a Faurisson pamphlet in trembling hands. Such being the quotidian manner of fateful events, the writer would follow his muse into the outer darkness of a strange new enlightenment. We can argue endlessly about motives – just as we can meditate recursively on such questions that concern freedom and choice. Did Bradley have a choice? I don’t know. I do know that his oft-revisited account of this life-changing moment belongs to the literature of abject humanity. Anyone who reads Bradley’s words should know this much: his true subject was never the Holocaust, or even the gas chambers; his true subject was human understanding, or “right relationship,” or “great question of belief.”

The truth I withhold when I am asked a simple question is that I loved this man from the moment I read his first self-published memoir. I was in my early twenties then. I ordered Confessions of a Holocaust Revisionist on a lark after reading about it in a Whole Earth publication devoted to “fringe” ideas. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was soon captivated. After all these years, I still remember the feeling of pixilated intensity that carried over into my daily life routine. The book had an afterburn. I felt an almost desperate need to talk about it. It seemed important in a way I could scarcely begin to articulate. I was aware of how ridiculous this was, but I couldn’t shake it. I felt as though I were guarding a terrible secret.

Given the emotive weight of the Holocaust story, it did occur to me that I might have fallen for a trick. I came to know better as I read more of Bradley’s work over the years. I read his stories about the Mexican bull arena and the Korean battlefield. I read his stories about old lovers and old friends and childhood memories and dreams and visions and searing personal tragedy. I discovered prose animated by a relaxed buoyancy, an easy and intimate drift and pitch that perfectly captured the familiar thrum of the inner life. Yes, there are echoes of other voices in the early work. But Bradley soon found his own. The maddening irony is that when he dispatched that distinctive voice to narrate his confrontation with an implacable subject, Bradley gave up any chance of being taken seriously as the writer he was.

Never meet your heroes, said a fool. It was more than a decade ago that I contacted Bradley with the idea of publishing his work under my then fledgling imprint, Nine-Banded Books. He was only ever generous and gracious and he seemed genuinely – disarmingly – flattered by the attention. In time 9BB would release two of Bradley’s books. The first was a novelization of his one-act play, The Man Who Saw His Own Liver. I like that one very much, though it is marred by the inclusion of my fatuous introduction. The second was Bradley’s long-archived patchwork memoir, A Personal History of Moral Decay. It’s one of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers. I suggest reading it against Henry Miller, just for kicks.

I met Bradley in person only once. I was with my wife in San Diego for a night and Bradley arranged to drive up from “the other side.” We got on like old friends. He gave me an inscribed copy of the original playbook for The Man Who Saw His Own Liver. After a round of beers at the hotel, the three of us made our way out into the drizzling rain and ducked into the first dark-lit restaurant we could find. I vaguely remember shop talk and small gossip. At some point I must have said something that prompted Bradley to tell a story about the time he had dinner with the writer Hubert Selby, Jr. It was a good story. There was a cadence in his telling that reminded me of his writing. At one point, he made a grand gesture and knocked over his nearly full glass of beer. The waitress met the scene with good humor. We laughed it off. I wish I could remember more.

My friend Bradley Reed Smith was a man of instinctive principle and uncommon decency. He was an adventurer, a raconteur, a tilter at windmills, a Zen aspirant, a dreamer, a lover, a worker, a soldier, a father, a husband, a prose poet, a romantic, a libertarian, a bullfighter, a fool. He was a great writer. The next time I’m asked that silly question, I’ll know what to say.

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Author(s): Chip Smith
Title: Bradley Smith, RIP
Published: 2016-02-23
First posted on CODOH: Feb. 23, 2016, 1:30 p.m.
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