Late at night, the empty highways of central North Carolina achieve an oceanic placidity. Padded by vast swaths of pine forests and illuminated by the diffuse glow of light pollution from the sprawl, a kind of privacy, a stillness descends on the landscape. A strip mall parking lot, a pharmaceutical campus in the woods, the lights of the big stores glowing after the employees have gone home for the night, squares of illuminated blues, pinks, yellows, like a Mondrian painting. The road is empty, punctuated only by the occasional headlights of another car, the driver turning to stare as they glide past, both of you alone in the pines. A thick matte of kudzu engulfs the power lines. Civilization and nature come together like an old married couple, slowly approximating each other’s natures.
North Carolina has long been wedged between competing spheres of influence, almost like a Eurasian country in the way it is trapped between the South and the North, trying to plod some middle path. In keeping, the North Carolinians of my generation exhibit a certain bipolarity, an ambivalence and discontent, somehow always geographically and culturally in-between, always seeking and never satisfied. Of course, some stuck around, had kids and bought houses. And some moved away and never came back. But the vast majority of people I have known have boomeranged back and forth, moving away to Baltimore, DC, to New York to Portland then coming back to Raleigh, returning, always returning exhausted to catch their breath, to recover their finances, to reconnect with some aspect of themselves that they felt was neglected in other places.
I think of my old friend Doug back in Raleigh saying, “Every time you come back home to visit I realize how badly I need to get out of here.” I think of Katherine, moving back to Durham from Asheville to attend grad school saying, “It’s so different here now.” I think of my old friend Little Bear, moving back into the split-level house to take care of her dad, making chain mail jewelry on the faded carpet of her childhood bedroom, and riding her bike with the little blinking red light alone down those empty streets at night. Even those who you thought had experienced some degree of success and made a new life elsewhere sometimes surprise you. Like my old friend Walt, who after a couple of beers one night on some yellow bulb-lit front porch said, one day maybe, in that nebulous future when all is settled, then he would move back. I think of the lyrics to his haunting accordion song: I drove up in May…all the roads were clear…and my eyes seem so aware…The buildings they change, like they always change, but only enough to make me feel not quite at home.
The prodigal’s malady, I think, springs from a kind of Goldilocks syndrome. As anybody will tell you, North Carolina is a kind and decent place. You can make a perfectly good living there. Go anywhere in America and tell people you’re from North Carolina and they’ll tell you about all the great things they’ve heard, how they have a cousin in Charlotte or Durham, how they’d love to retire there one day. Your extended family will constantly remind you that it has the mountains and the beach.
So you come home for a while to live cheap and repair your broken heart, heal your spirit, to help out your family, to wonder what it is that you’ve been out there seeking. Time moves at its proper pace, in rhythm with nature, and boredom can be settled into like a worn old blanket. You don’t have to put on airs for anyone.
But eventually a discontent starts to grow, a feeling of being stifled by the provincial and familiar landscape of the past. So, you move to another city in North Carolina, from Chapel Hill to Wilmington, from Raleigh to Carrboro, from Winston to Asheville. You hear it’s better there. You can move between them fluidly, comparing their idiosyncrasies and advantages, until the walls start to close in again.
The cities are a bit too small and spread out, balkanized outcroppings in a vast forest. In each little metropolis, people are telling each other that their town is just on the brink of blowing up, of becoming something great. But city and country are becoming indistinct, smudging and blending together into a hybrid sprawl. Once a sleepy little industrial city, Raleigh increasingly resembles Washington, DC, a kind of Southern annex to the mid-Atlantic corridor. The infrastructure strains under rapid growth and development. The traffic is as bad as DC and the public transport barely functional. You get tired of being in cars all the time. You feel hemmed in, stuck between agrarian South and industrial North, getting the worst of both worlds. After a while, a couple of years or couple of months, you find yourself longing to spring back into the wide world, ready to make another go of it with renewed vigor.
Southerners have long ventured to the prosperous and intellectual urban centers of the North for education and self-advancement. But, as Edward Said wrote, “the achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.” On a flight up to New York to begin my Harper’s internship, I sat next to an Anna Wintour-like fashion executive.
“Oh, to be young in the city! So exciting! The bridges, the parties! Where will you be living?” she gushed.
“Brooklyn,” I said. Her enthusiasm visibly dimmed.
“Oh, that will be… affordable!” she said, adding quickly, “You’re going to have a great life there.” As the plane careened above LaGuardia through a gray storm, my seatmate grabbed me by the arm and gave me a memorable piece of advice: “Give up the pridefulness. Give up the roadblocks—do whatever you have to do to get into the ballpark that you want to be in.”
As I began my initial descent into the first circles of publishing, I felt like Augustine in Carthage. I re-read Confessions and understood what he meant when he, “longed to be satisfied with worldly things” and saw “stage-plays, many stage-plays,” but inside “I felt nothing but spiritual famine.” Late at night, I looked out the big plate glass windows at the street life around 666 Broadway, and had a distinct feeling that the city was Moloch. My parents had raised me not trust Northerners. They said Northerners had come down to pillage and ruin and speculate on the South. Cary, my hometown, they laughed, stood for “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.” I had come to the North to get the money and the connections I needed and get out. I conceived of my life there how I imagine a Takfiri might conceive of their life in Europe, as an undercover mission in enemy territory. I couldn’t help but resent my peers with Ivy League educations, from liberal and culturally minded families. This commando approach to New York doesn’t work out so well in the long run.
There is a great piece of advice buried in Raymond Chandler’s first movie, The Blue Dahlia: “Just don’t get too complicated, Eddie. When a man gets too complicated, he’s unhappy. And when he’s unhappy, his luck runs out.” On the surface of things, it would seem that Joseph Mitchell’s life was relatively uncomplicated. He left his hometown of Fairmont, North Carolina, at 21 to seek his fortune in New York, eventually landing at The New Yorker—a job he held for the rest of his life. In the final twenty years of his career, he continued to go to the office every morning, but stopped writing pieces. He was preoccupied with an autobiographical manuscript he was working on about North Carolina:
“Several years ago, however, I began to be oppressed by a feeling that New York City had gone past me and that I didn’t belong here anymore. I sometimes went on from that to a feeling that I never had belonged here, and that could be especially painful. At first, these feelings were vague and sporadic, but they gradually became more definite and quite frequent. Ever since I came to New York City, I have been going back to North Carolina for a visit once or twice a year, and now I began going back more often and staying longer. At one point, after a visit of a month and a half, I had about made up my mind to stay down there for good, and then I began to be oppressed by a feeling that things had gone past me in North Carolina also, and that I didn’t belong down there anymore, either. I began to feel painfully out of place wherever I was. When I was in New York City, I was often homesick for North Carolina; when I was in North Carolina, I was often homesick for New York City. Then, one Saturday afternoon, while I was walking around in the ruins of Washington Market, something happened to me that led me, step by step, out of my depression. A change took place in me. And that is what I want to tell about.”
This feeling—homesick for New York City, homesick for North Carolina, a persistent restlessness between invisible meridians—has been a recurring theme for many Southern writers. Allan Gurganus wrote about it, as did Peter Taylor in A Summons to Memphis. A different variation on it can be seen in the life and work of North Carolina’s most prodigal son, Thomas Wolfe. As a precocious young playwright at UNC, he left the spiritually suffused but stultifying red clay of his native Asheville to make his way in New York. By many accounts, he was an enfant terrible in the city. A big, mercurial, impassioned graphomaniac, he wrote best while hunkered down on long, solitary transatlantic ocean crossings, or using the top of his refrigerator as a desk, masturbating without reaching climax to carry him through marathon twelve-hour writing sessions, at the end singing, “I wrote 10,000 words today, I wrote 10,000 words today!” to whoever was around.
He published his first novel, Look, Homeward Angel, a tragedy of his Appalachian family and childhood, at the age of 29 and was lauded as the Great American Novelist. At home, the book was perceived as an exposure of the townspeople and family members that he had depicted within it. His best-remembered work, You Can’t Go Home Again, was a bildungsroman of his attempt to return to Asheville after having recently published a book about his hometown. He spent the rest of his fierce, messy life wandering in tragic exile, dying from unexpected tuberculosis at 38, a harsh penalty for singing the true song of his life.
The South does not take kindly to those who write about it from the North. The most respected Southern writers have always stayed put in their little corners. The criticism of Wolfe’s work was ruthless, particularly from the Southern Agrarians in Tennessee, who argued that Wolfe wasn’t “really” Southern. Today, he is known but barely read in North Carolina, and half-known and often confused for the journalist Tom Wolfe in the Northeast. A change in literary fashion towards stripped down Carver-fiction has left his work feeling dated. Wolfe-ian prose today would be unlikely to survive the first year of an MFA program.
“My life, more than that of anyone I know, has been spent in solitude and wandering,” he began his forgotten essay God’s Lonely Man. “Why this is true, or how it happened, I cannot say.” Like the mist-shrouded Colossus in that Goya painting, I saw him in some vanquished time on his peripatetic nighttime tromps across Brooklyn, these wanderings that he wrote of with such beauty that it must be quoted at length:
“Sometimes it is nothing but a shadow passing on the sun; sometimes nothing but the torrid milky light of August, or the naked sprawling ugliness and squalid decencies of streets in Brooklyn fading in the weary vistas of that milky light and evoking the intolerable misery of countless drab and nameless lives. Sometimes it is just the barren horror of raw concrete, or the heat blazing on a million beetles of machinery darting through the torrid streets, or the cindered weariness of parking spaces, or the slamming smash and racket of the El, or the driven manswarm of the earth, thrusting on forever in exacerbated fury, going nowhere in a hurry.”
Only in death could Wolfe return back home—he was buried with his family at the top of Riverside Cemetery, overlooking the little mountain town that shaped him. As always happens, the town that disowned him celebrates his name and now operates a little museum in his honor. I have often stopped in front of a terrible piece of sterile corporate art dedicated to Wolfe in the Raleigh-Durham airport baggage claim—an aluminum dead tree, with a little bird, emblazoned with his mantra-like phrase, “a stone, a leaf, an unfound door.”
In a dream, I found myself back home. Everything was coated in a thin layer of ash, like a light frosting—from the mall parking lot, to the little miniature downtown with quaint streetlights, to the water tower across from the high school. Children wandered the sidewalks bundled up, and stooped down to roll it up into little balls—little girls lay down in the street and made ash-angels. Walking down the sidewalk past the chain Mexican restaurant and the Barnes and Noble, I would run into someone from high school, a teacher, an old girlfriend, their eyes swirling, “Is that you? Where have you been? We’ve needed you!” their voices tinkling like broken glass. I opened my mouth to try to explain but only dust came out, like a vacuum cleaner backfiring. Coffins opened up and Petsmarts in strip malls popped out, shrilling with the electronic shrieks of mall Halloween novelties, that fine smelling foggy mist that hisses out of hidden vents on Disney World rides. “You were gone for so long! We missed you!” I croaked and tried to speak but I didn’t remember what I had done with my life, my lips moving out of sync with my words, like a badly dubbed movie. I woke up with a strange feeling that all along back home there had been a portal, some door hidden back in the copse of forest behind the shopping malls, and I was overwhelmed with a need to go back and ‘do the right thing’ But I had no idea why, or what that thing was.
Eventually, we all end up settling somewhere. Like a cakewalk, when the music stops, you rush to find a seat. I resolved to stay put in New York. But once I got the full-time job and signed a lease on an apartment, I found myself traveling back to North Carolina more and more frequently. When a Chinatown bus route opened between the strip-mall Asian supermarket in my hometown and New York’s Chinatown, it was a kind of revelation, as if a wormhole had been opened in space-time.
New York, the place to get things done and be in the world and North Carolina, the place to shade and recover oneself in the pines, were now linked. There was something extremely comforting to know that on any given night, twitchy, amphetamine-fed Chinese drivers were ferrying souls up and down the darkened I-95 corridor. The first time I climbed aboard the repurposed Foxwoods casino bus as it barreled down the pitch-black NC highways, I peered out the foggy window and saw rural Virginia turning to Petersburg, Manassas, Richmond; the white marble of the floodlit Pentagon and monuments of DC, the silos and insect industry of the Baltimore harbor. Somewhere after the Delaware Memorial Bridge, one gets the feeling that one has entered the stonyhearted fortress of the Northeast—there is brick and soot and a subtle hum of human will in the air. The entire East Coast corridor passed like a flickering dream.
The crack-up is always a long time in the making, as if baked into the batter. The afflicted person makes a string of seemingly rational choices in real time, but is unable to see the blind spots in their perception and logic. This is how battles and wars are lost, how people go off the rails. I had been in New York many years. I had a job as a senior editor at a magazine, but was growing increasingly skeptical that publishing and narrative journalism had any substantive positive impact in the world than maintaining the lives and gilding the egos of those involved. Tolstoy’s assessment of the urbane, cultured literary set of his time still seemed spot on:
“At the time we were all convinced that we must talk and write and publish as quickly as possible, and as much as possible, and that this was all necessary for the good of mankind. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, published and wrote with the aim of teaching others… Our genuine, sincere concern was over how to gain as much money and fame as possible.”
At a distance, it is easy to cultivate the illusion that real life is happening somewhere else. I had long harbored a secret belief that my “real life” was in North Carolina, and that I had been living a fake, vapid life in New York. So I gave notice at my good job and made arrangements to give up my rent-stabilized apartment. “Why don’t you just stick around and try freelancing for a while?” concerned-looking friends asked. The day in January came to go pick up the U-Haul to move my stuff. A historic ice storm bore down New York, delaying the move for three days. It was hard not to see it as a sign. I sat in my apartment among my boxed-up belongings, eating take-out, feeling impossibly sad but unable to put my finger on why.
I rented a cheap house in Raleigh with a white picket fence and a porch swing. The night I arrived I stood in the backyard at 5 AM smoking, feeling like the king of the castle, so sure of myself. My new office was a creaky old house in Raleigh’s Glenwood neighborhood. Every morning on my way into work, I would go past the funeral home where my dad was cremated and I picked up the tiny box of dust and bone shards, thinking back to those days with a shiver. At night, I would trudge home down Hillsborough Street, past all the new condos and development, the bright-eyed college kids and young hipsters who felt like this was their town, their moment. I felt like Marty McFly in Back to the Future II, returning to an unrecognizably dystopian Mill Valley. I wandered around town aimlessly, every corner holding a memory from the past. I had once felt so alive and full of hope on those streets—what had happened? To fill the void, I adopted a dog, but after four months of training and teething and him attacking children, I took him back to the shelter.
I labored as if under a curse. One night I awoke from a horribly realistic nightmare and saw a shadow melting down my bedroom wall and began to feel like I actually had been cursed. A huge new condo was going up across the street, and the sound of the pneumatic drill pounded in my house from dawn until dusk, occasionally shorting out the electricity. My car got stuck in mud pits constantly. My mom picked me up to go to the beach and arguing over directions, we immediately got into a bad car wreck. My co-workers and local journalists asked me why I had left my former job, how I could leave it, if I could give them contacts. I was frequently mistaken for a Yankee and told I didn’t belong in the region by people who were not even from the region but had been there long enough to feel like natives. I began to get very depressed and think of, if not suicide exactly, walking into a forest and never being found.
Thinking it was a problem with Raleigh and not me, I moved fifteen miles down the road to Durham, which had a stronger artisanal foodie scene and plenty of young relocated hipsters driving Priuses, but no sidewalks in the neighborhoods. Wasn’t it so romantic to be back home, the thing I had always dreamed of? In the mornings, I walked up the shoulder of a highway to get a coffee. I started going to therapy, but my therapist gently had to dump me because she was having a baby. I found solace in the Bible, Tolstoy’s Confession, and reading and re-reading sections of Joseph Mitchell’s memoir: “I began to be oppressed by a feeling that things had gone past me in North Carolina also, and that I didn’t belong down there anymore, either. I began to feel painfully out of place wherever I was.”
After about a year back home, I took the Chinatown bus up to the city to visit some friends. The secret had gotten out, the bus had changed, it was completely packed. The overhead lights didn’t work and the seats shook violently and liquid seeped from the bathroom down the aisle. Eventually the sun rose in the sky as it tends to do and I awoke in the burning pre-dawn in Northern Jersey, as we passed the smokestacks and spindly machinery of Elizabeth, ports filled with shipping containers bound for mysterious destinations that read MAERSK, EVERGREEN, DAEWOO. The sudden density of so many other human beings, of commerce and great buildings and bridges hewn out of concrete had an amphetamine effect. The other passengers rose from their disturbed slumber and perked up as they saw the Manhattan skyline in the distance—it was as if they had been rumpled and self-doubting through the sulfurous East Coast night, but now they were approaching New York City on a bright clean morning and wanted to put their best selves forward. The golden mirage shimmered in the distance and they said to themselves, This time…this time around… I’m going to win. Rumbling through the Holland Tunnel, it felt like we were all being given another chance to do things right.
New York is at its best in the morning, when the city is filled with hope and a Protestant work ethic, and at dawn people come out onto the streets to start their day with friends and cigarettes and a bodega coffee in a paper cup, regular, pale white from too much sugar and cream. New York is at its most malignant at night— thousands of people skittering around the islands, spending money to get drunk, rushing from bar to bar, looking for love or companionship, stuffing their faces in nice restaurants. The background radiation of New York’s nocturnal sin can penetrate even the thickest party walls and can ruin a sober nights work or the inward-facing coziness of a couple trying to watch a movie on their couch—just on the other side of the wall are ever-present options, other people to spend time with, other activities than the one being done, other lives to be led, and this slow gas leak robs all experiences and relations of a certain fatal commitment to the present that is necessary for human beings to form cohesive bonds.
My visit was spent having long, perambulatory conversations with friends, wandering across the expanse of Brooklyn from park to bar. The void was temporarily edged out. For a minute, I could forget there was one. But when I headed back down the Bowery late at night and got settled in the half-empty bus heading South, I pressed my cheek up against the icy window and breathed a sigh of relief to no longer have to be social, to return again to the womb-like forest and once again be nothing and no one.