Follow Here To Purchase The Empty Chair: Two Novellas

Author: Bruce Wagner

Publisher: Plume (The Penguin Group), 2014

ISBN: 978-0-399-16588-7

ISBN: 978-0-14-218123-2

These two novellas are presented as faithfully transcribed, oral history narratives, recorded in 2005 and 2010. As the interviewer, Bruce Wagner first introduces us to “Charley,” a 50-year-old, bisexual, name-dropping, Big Sur hanger-on who lives with his library in a trailer he rents from a monastery. Later we meet “Queenie,” a former “wild child” who has traded her father’s penthouse on Central Park to live (with servants) in a tent on the New Mexico desert, a well-traveled and well-heeled “gypsy.” Their lengthy and rambling stories reprise 1970s’ pop-psych, “tripping,” and pilgrimages to India as nouveau Buddhists -- and the aftermath. Both recapture the language and “essences” of those chaotic and transformative years, and express all the emotions of searching and finding and losing someone, something to believe in.

The title of the book refers to a technique used by gestalt therapists of that era to get a client to come to terms with people, things or ideas influencing their behavior and attitudes and usually hampering their progress in living. (The client would talk to the image in the empty chair in the counselor’s office.) Charley and Queenie reveal more particular meanings of the empty chair as objects pivotal in their stories. If you think of oral history as the responses to a set of questions about historical events, please be advised: this is anthropology. The subjects control the directions of their “conversations,” a bit challenging to the reader at times. Unless one was present in the so-called New Age, one might wish to be near an encyclopedia to identify the concepts and personalities alluded to.

Charley and his wife Kelly believed in open marriage and in striving (without desiring) to become whole and authentic, worthy of their idols, elusive as they may be. His story is largely about her journey as a California disciple of Buddhism, translating precepts to children and prisoners, until something horrible happens to make her regret having preached “Impermanence Rocks” to their young son. Charley also reveals his sexual perversion by Catholic priests. He is living on his settlement from the Santa Ana Diocese. Queenie was born very rich. She was a heroin addict at age 16 when she met her “savior,” a mysteriously kind but murderous drug lord. She followed him to Bombay where he became a supplicant to eastern religion. Queenie’s story alternately focuses on those seven early years with Kura and their brief reunion three decades later, when, out of the blue, he asks her to accompany him to find his runaway guru.

Charley is the more poetic storyteller, even in his rage, and Queenie is no-holds-barred in her stoned expression of her darkest fears. Both narrators hold nothing back; the images they share are often shocking. I was mesmerized by the moment-to-moment recollections of their unique and amazing lives, and felt “authentically” a part of them by recognizing the jargon of this desperate period of self-examination. While most critics laud Wagner for his wry and witty – I would say “clever” – send-ups of American “types,” I found these two embarrassingly familiar; they are relatively thick on the ground here in the sunny and welcoming Southwest. Critics also say he has something serious to impart with his piercing humor, that he is sympathetic to our yearning for enlightenment. I think it is enough that he is a keen observer and recorder of his contemporaries. But it leaves me feeling rather sad.