The short life and extraordinary work of revolutionary writer Gerry Reith explored.
Picture Sheridan Wyoming. Your first impression.
Start with Big Horn peaks set against vast horizons. A crystal-blue firmament, or if you prefer, the star-dusted canopy of night. Nested within the lazy sprawl of cattle ranches and postcard vistas, the town itself offers such rudiments of civilization – a grocery outlet, some barbecue restaurants, dim-lit taverns, shops showcasing western memorabilia – that suffice to satisfy the needs of a small population as well as the slow stream of tourists, many (not all) of whom will look forward to Rodeo Week and attendant festivities. Local charm, local colour. You know.
Daylight now. Nod hello to passersby as you stroll down Main Street. They are a friendly lot and their eyes won’t be fixed on the screens of mobile devices because the year, I neglected to mention, is 1984. This is important; go ahead and revise Your Own Personal Sheridan accordingly. The automobiles should be backdated and decorated at your discretion with legible signifiers. Maybe some Reagan/Bush bumper stickers? That Starbucks will have to go. Otherwise, not much will have changed.
Continuing on your mind’s eye ramble, you come to a community bulletin board outside the small, nondescript Post Office. Look at those flyers. All in all, it’s a familiar collage. Tourist that you are, you first notice the ones that advertise local farm and ranch services. It’s mildly exotic, yes? But there are others that might be found in any American city or town. Lost pets. Babysitting services. Guitar lessons. Et cetera. Do you find this comforting?
Displayed among the random patchwork of community ephemera, there are… oddities. Being a punk sophisticate from the future, you may recognize the hand of a subversive poster artist, Xerox as medium.
“TRUTH IS LIES” shouts one banner that lassos your attention.
Another asks: “WHO IS GERRY REITH?”
High weirdness resides in the fine print. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
How, you might rather wonder, in the heart of Cold War Reagan country, might the locals have received such provocative broadsides, such cryptic expressions of obliquely dissident satire that, for a time, blotted their dogpatch town-centre pastiche? Were they mystified? Amused? Bemused? Were they—some of them —given to a moment’s reflection?
More likely, they took it in stride. Some kid’s idea of a joke.
Still, you wonder. Perhaps your borrowed understanding of the Markov Chain comes to mind. A state change in the system. A disruption. You fix on the idea of a white current rippling through a multi-hued sensory order, a neural rift that bleeds between minds and forward through time, disturbing equilibria.
It is best, for now, not to dwell in such idle speculation. For present purposes, there is more to see.
Mosey your way into the lobby of the Post Office proper and imagine what voices might have carried on a particular day—let’s say April 23rd, a Monday, and my fourteenth birthday—as you sidle up to the counter where one postal clerk can be overheard chatting up another.
You don’t catch all of it, but certain words ring clear. Something about a backlog of weird mail for that lanky dude who until recently arrived like clockwork. And perhaps another clerk calls in answer:
You mean Gerry, right?
Something is amiss.
The postal clerks will soon receive the news and the plastic tub of unclaimed mail – weird mail – will be stamped and returned as dictated by protocol. “Recipient deceased: Return to Sender.” Inquiries may follow from official channels on high, but the ground-level postal employees will receive little information about such intrigues. Rumours will circulate, soon to be forgotten.
As to the curious flyers outside, they will be removed in time, or just as likely tacked over with more quotidian fare. “Rodeo Lessons: Best Rates Guaranteed!!!”
This is how I choose to imagine it. Yet we still need to close the scene – if only for the benefit of those who have only recently arrived.
Shall we make it a movie, then? Go like this.
From the postal lobby, start with a slow reverse tracking shot back out into the sunlit exterior. Flash-dissolve to a crane shot and rocket up in a vertiginous sweep to settle into a long bird’s eye panoramic view of the town centre. Slower now, let’s float over the quaint metro-western townscape until we fix on some certain near-enough dwelling below. It might be a room in the Veteran’s Center. Or a bungalow.
Now coast then arc into a sharply accelerated descent, perhaps with an acrobatic tilt and glide to and through a keyhole for maximal CGI-enhanced cinematic effect.
You can devise the trappings of the interior scene thus disclosed (books and strewn paper will surely be part of it—and a mid-game chessboard, please), but the centrepiece, best revealed through a creeping Steadicam crawl like what you vaguely remember from the opening sequence in Pink Floyd: The Wall, will be … The Body.
It is slumped over a typewriter (not a word processor) at a writing desk (not a table).
Somewhere next to the body – or clutched in hand – will be The Gun. Go with a revolver, I insist.
Such is the core of our marginal legend. Certain canonical details must be observed.
The rest will be determined by your tolerance for gore. What remains crucial – per the canon – is that we zoom in on the sheet of paper that, at some point prior to blowing his brains out, the writer-cum-body had fed into the typewriter. The words – the writer’s final words – on this page cannot be made out. They are obscured under a stain of blood. Or viscera, brains, gloop. As you like it.
End of sequence.
Maybe it was a word processor.
Maybe it wasn’t a revolver.
Maybe the words were legible. Was there even a note? It is my understanding there was a note.
By all reliable accounts, it was indeed a suicide.
On April 7 1984, in the small city of Sheridan Wyoming, Gerard Bennet Reith died at his writing desk of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. He was 25.
The catalyst for Reith’s suicide may have been a ludicrous (but apparently real) FBI inquiry into his voluminous mail correspondence with radical elements. Or it may have been, as I am more inclined to believe, an acute passage of unrequited love. One story has it that Reith compiled a ledger to weigh the pros and cons of existence, ending the exercise with the fateful flip of a coin.
While the details of Reith’s act of self-deliverance remain hazy and subject to apocryphal embellishment, the work he produced during his apogee as a writer for a raft of underground publications left an indelible impression in the minds of those who discovered it. Consorting at the bleeding edges of what has since been described as the “marginals milieu” of the pre-Internet era, he traded arts and letters with a motley coterie of avant-garde outsiders – neo-dadaists, libertarians, anarchists, egoists, situationists, primitivists, nihilists, Xerox pamphleteers, conspiratologists, SubGenius pranksters, and sundry anti-authoritarian shit-stirrers of polymorphous pedigree – whose only real alliance distilled to a spirit of freewheeling creative rebellion.
Athwart and among these misfits who inhabited and cultivated the mail-order demimonde that preceded Anonymous and the chans and cryptocurrencies and 3D-printed guns and Less Wrong logomachy and neo-reactionary jabberwocky and incel manifestos and such other manifestations of digital mindfood and mindfuck that would later complicate the Spectacle, Gerry Reith produced essays and criticism, poetry and prosody, broadsides and collages, but most notably short stories and metafictions. And his work – especially the stories – invariably stood out. Reith’s best writing was marked by mordant wit and controlled experimentation, but the cumulative gravamen of his variegated literary and epistolary endeavours was to interrogate and celebrate the prospect of freedom in a universe governed by venal agendas and brute entropy.
Though Reith’s literary output spanned a range of literary and visual forms, he is perhaps best remembered – to the extent that he is remembered at all – for his works of short and sharply honed allegorical fiction, many of which found their way into the pages of the first Neither/Nor Press edition of Neutron Gun, a posthumously published collection that presented Reith’s often violent parables alongside the work of a few kindred spirits.
I first read Neutron Gun when I was a teenager. Like so many formative book-centred experiences of my aimless youth, the slim volume came to my attention through the back pages of the Loompanics Unlimited book catalogue. If I tell you now that I recall being mildly disappointed by the total package, I will in the next breath emphasize that I would return to those pages – and later to Reith’s other writings, which have been dutifully archived by his friend Bob Black on the Inspiracy website – time and time again in the years and decades that followed.
True, there was a roughness at the edges, a zine-like presentation that fell short of the post-punk aesthetic that I sensed as aspiration. And yes, the central propulsive force of Reith’s signature prose seemed awkwardly juxtaposed against the voices of other contributors. But if the barker’s pitch (“more than just a book, this is a concussion device…”) initially struck me as being a mite overwrought for what was, on first and later impression, a collection of stories, I had to admit that it was no ordinary writers’ workshop assemblage.
To Rust Unburnished was a sort of Russian doll meditation on societal entanglement and mortality salience, where you get shot dead by a clown and the show goes on. Foreign Policy presented a parodic account of an intimate struggle session, a pas de trois of dialectical upmanship that reveals the grimly hierarchical precepts that govern political – and sexual – discourse. In Fraud, Cheat, Lie, Thrill, the staid environs of a used bookshop become the epicentre of anarchic revelry, culminating in the ambivalent promise of creative destruction. Twilight to Authority was a cryptically intoned cautionary tale of dormant idylls brought to a reckoning, and Kings of Orient, Dresden, DC could be read as a kind of pre-Matrix red-pill allegory, casting the plight of the individual against the rapacious sprawl of the managerial state. Perhaps with a sly wink toward William S. Burroughs (as well as, explicitly, John Zerzan), John’s Adventure limned a memorably violent (and gorily comic) spectacle to expose and lampoon the primitive impulse festering beneath and within the veneer of civilized rat-race ritual. And Cost/Benefit Equations was a hardboiled tale of insurrectionary bloodwork, seen and unseen.
No, these were not MFA scraps. Reith’s stories had a pulse. They added up to something. He wrote with preternatural urgency and control, fusing metaphor with action. He dealt in lean, high-impact, rapid-fire shock-and-awe. Eschewing prolix and pretence, the interconnected parables Reith signed for Neutron Gun were resonant with wild energy yet anchored by beat narration and breezy erudition. His stories – or fictions – converged upon a comic-nightmare vision of social distress and upheaval and inexorable collapse. In mood if not specificity, he tapped into the quickening pulse of “peak everything” derangement that social critic James Kunstler would later describe as The Long Emergency,” a condition now realized in the riotous mediagenic reel of post-pandemic global fear and loathing. Yet more relevant to our present predicament, Reith anticipated the catastrophic groove – if not the Baudrillardian verbiage – that now ramifies in the memetic churn of accelerationist discourse. Decades before Nick Land would wax obscure about the “hyperstitional dynamics” attending crisis-mode late capitalism, Reith’s parables captured the essence of what was coming, festering, waiting. He saw it like an elegant chess sequence, plotting the moves.
In shades prescient and perilous, Gerry Reith inscribed a world on fire (“What fire? There isn’t any goddam fire,” says the drunk; “Fires aren’t dangerous” says the Captain), and with ironic implications that would flare yet brighter in the long afterburn. If he has claim to a posthumous legacy, it is oracular; with his ear to the Wyoming ground, he divined apocalyptic rumblings that have only grown louder.
It would be easy enough to stop at this. As a safely impressionistic retrospective drive-by exegesis, we could do little worse than to acknowledge that the kid was ahead of his time and leave the heap for contemporary perusal. Yet there is a counterbalance to Reith’s infernal tableau, both literary and implicitly dialectical, that 21st-century readers would be remiss to ignore. Within the texts of Neutron Gun, the sleight is suggested in a countermanding spirit of gleefully insurrectionary exhortation – in tales of factional strife and internecine assassination plots where human relations encode a trenchant revision of Sartre’s hell. If the prospect of meaningful liberation stands a chance against a faceless instrumentality, the ties that bind – i.e. our fraught connections with “other people” – are what remain. “We’re all painfully self-conscious Hamlets,” he wrote, “yearning after the kind of closeness only achieved in Conspiracy, love, or war.” A rope is not always a noose, comrade.
Reith’s prick-kicking gambit comes into sharper relief as we stray further from the reservation, to take in the longer view that comes through an appraisal of his formative range as a writer and thinker. While the core of a vaguely remembered gallery showing in the pages of the only short book that heretofore bore his posthumous byline – the concussion device, as it was sold – retains a certain sub terra mystique as our central attraction, the young man had far more to say, often in a different key. What’s on the other side of the Gun?
I was tempted, as you would be, to cordon off the densely imbricated storyscape that comprised Reith’s driving presence in Neutron Gun, to preserve and present the late scribe’s singular curatorial arrangement as a matter of precious archival posterity. As postmodern conventions permit, we might even retro-conceptualize it as a novel, right? I suppose that option remains for future archaeologists, but I feared it would be a hairsbreadth shy of treacly nostalgia.
Worse, it would fail as tribute. From this temporal distance, I believe a finer degree of postmortem appreciation is achieved by considering Reith’s broader body of writing – his more enigmatic allegories and tales, his Carveresque lowlife vignettes, even some essays and poetry – within and against the grain of the Neutron Gun exhibition. This disjecta membra, as fate has determined, now serves to illuminate the once-thriving potential of a literary career that was, I’m sorry, just getting started.
The broader terrain is marked by prose-poetic flourishes and spiritual residue, by kitchen-sink realism and bold experimentation, by mirth and myth and mayhem and mystery. And there is a commanding insight that stretches across forms; whether he is deconstructing the façade of Western masculinity or weaving an entrancing fable about a vanishing secret order of monks who guard the world from suffering and sorrow, Reith’s footing is sure and his human portraiture, even in caricature, is seldom off the mark.
I am especially fond of The Devil’s Day Off (a sort of subversive Faustian shaggy dog story depicting the Dark Prince as a beleaguered worldly rambler in search of a kindness), but the germinal promise of Reith’s protean literary peregrinations can be located not only in counter-mythical tales and cyphers but in autobiographically situated sketches that drew upon his workaday experience, respectively as a motel clerk and as a slumming denizen of a run-down veterans’ outpatient rooming house. Such vignettes cast the narrator as a kind of in-field observer of embattled humanity, where Reith’s pneumatically attenuated anti-authoritarianism slyly merges with the Sartrean ploy to break a lance against “the bureaucratization of all social relations.”
A banged-up morality propels the disparate experiments and threads. Alone at his writing desk, Reith fought an invisible war; he saw the tanks approaching even as he cavorted among those who claimed not to know about the tanks. And like the errant Don Quixote, he tilted. “In the end,” he wrote, “we are all Quixote; what we forget too often is that we are also Cervantes.” Smuggled within that preciously descried duality, I believe, is a shimmering paradox. As our best dreams are sullied in the grime of shared humanity, corruption brings us closer. Another chess sequence, perhaps. And yet, like the imprisoned Cervantes, we must answer to the gaoler. For now.
Had that fabled coin flip gone the other way, Gerry Reith might have gone on to create greater things. But what he left behind is what we have. We don’t get to call it juvenilia. And that’s alright, because it sings.
Help support The Reprobate: