High Life & Mad English

by John Strausbaugh

A book lover could spend a lot of time at the Brooklyn Heights home of book dealer, private librarian and now author Kurt Thometz. It’s not that he has a zillion books. He has a lot, all over the house; even the kitchen is lined with scores of his wife’s cookbooks. But I know people with bigger libraries. The thing about Thometz’s is that every book he shows you is one you’d want to read. His library reflects intelligence, idiosyncratic taste and curiosity more than acquisitiveness. It’s the difference between a person who loves books and someone who just loves having them.

It’s not that Thometz, who earns his living helping the filthy rich build and organize their collections, doesn’t feel the temptation to do some acquiring for himself. He has a philosophy about it. "Dealing books is like dealing dope," he smiles. "If you’re gonna deal, you can’t use." The things he acquires for himself are like the little tastes a volume dope dealer allows himself. "My little nickel bags," Thometz says fondly.

Thometz, who’s in his late 40s, grew up in a small town outside Minneapolis. He was working in a bookstore out there when he met a poet from New York who told him he needed to move here. Since the poet was Patti Smith, he decided to heed her advice. He arrived in 1973 and immediately dove into the then still-thriving world of the 4th Ave. booksellers and antiquarians. He skipped college in transit: "My education was on 4th Avenue," he tells me. He also made some notable downtown friends like Fran Lebowitz, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He would go on to organize sections of the Strand and work as a salesman and book scout at the ritzy uptown Madison Avenue Bookshop for 17 years.

Trading as "The Private Library" (connoisseurweb.com/books/privatelibrary/honorary.html) since 1980, Thometz has curated collections for what sounds like the entire 10021, including Diana Vreeland, Calvin Klein, Mrs. Vincent Astor (generations’ worth of the Astors’ books had never been catalogued), the Lauders, Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, Steven Ross, Felix Rohatyn, S.I. Newhouse, Leslie Wexner of Victoria’s Secret and Diane von Furstenberg. He credits his friend Vreeland, whom he describes as a much more literate and erudite bibliophile than one might have guessed, with starting him on this career as librarian to the zillionaires.

"I was making it all up on the spot," he admits, noting that he never studied library science. He simply organized these collections in ways that made the best sense to him. "I’m German," he explains. "I make order, damn it."

Meanwhile, some of those "nickel bags" Thometz was acquiring for himself were gradually turning into a book of his own. It started in the legendary, and infamously scruffy, University Place Bookshop, run by one of the lions of Book Row, William French. French was "the cliched rare bookman who’d buy a book before a pair of shoes," a Pall Mall-devouring "wild-ass Irishman" who scared off all but the most courageous customers with his bag-person looks, his gruff demeanor and the squalid clutter of his shop.

He was also one of the country’s earliest and preeminent bibliographers of African-American and African literature. His Yellow Pages ad claimed he carried Everything to do with the Negro. "Everybody had to go to Bill to get their Africana," Thometz recalls. In French’s shop, from the late 70s into the 80s, Thometz discovered and became obsessed with a fabulous strain of African publishing that erupted in Nigeria from just after World War II and thrived until just after the tragic fiasco of the Biafra war.

It’s called "market literature," named for the bustling Eastern Nigeria market town of Onitsha where it flourished. After centuries of colonial and slave-trade influence from the British, the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria in the postwar years were just developing their own literature in the borrowed English language. Cranked out in cheap pamphlets ("They cost the equivalent of a bottle of beer"), written exclusively by men who had other careers–as High Life musicians, pugilists–and had names like Speedy Eric and Strong Man of the Pen, it was an entirely new literature, written by Africans for Africans, at a time when both author and reader were only just learning to read and write in English. Market literature captures an ages-old culture at the very moment it was emerging from the bush and stepping into the vortex of modern urbanity–as Thometz puts it, a culture "on the cusp of orality and literacy... These are Africa’s incunabula."

And what a vibrant, sexy, crazy-quilt literature it is. Like Elizabethan pamphleteers who operated under very similar conditions–and not unlike Thometz himself at the dawn of his curatorial career–the Onitsha writers and publishers were making it up as they went. Publishers mixed typefaces and graphic designs with zestful abandon–a drawing by a local artist here, a photo of Pat Boone ripped from an American magazine there. Typos abound. The authors were similarly loose with grammar and syntax, often using commas and quotation marks more as decoration than punctuation, being freely creative with spelling, mixing metaphors and inventing words. It often reads like surrealist writing, or like unknowing cousins of Finnegans Wake–and can demand just as much full-immersion commitment from the reader accustomed to more standardized usage. Thometz dubs it "Mad English."

The authors were often forthrightly imitating their favorite kinds of Western books–trash, for the most part. There are bodice-rippers about sex-craved nymphettes (Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away), there are noir and crime stories (Rosemary and the Taxi Driver) and overheated romance, and there’s how-to advice for the Igbo man in the big city, with magnificently sage titles like Why Harlots Hate Married Men and Love Bachelors, How to Avoid Corner Corner Love and Win Good Love from Girls and the eminently wise Money Hard to Get But Easy to Spend. All of it filtered through and sometimes mangled by a peculiarly Igbo worldview.

When Thometz stumbled across French’s stash of these pamphlets in the 70s, Onitsha market literature was little known and little studied in the West (the two best scholarly guides being Emmanuel Obiechina’s Onitsha Market Literature and An African Popular Literature). In ’95 he made a modest contribution to this scholarship with a little pamphlet of his own cataloguing his collection, giving it the wryly suitable name The Important Book of Nigerian Market Literature.

More recently, he built a similarly pamphletlike proposal for Eroll McDonald at Pantheon, which sold the editor on a book of market lit Thometz selected and introduces: Life Turns Man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English (356 pages, $26.95).

It’s a mesmerizing book–if sometimes a little confusing. (Thometz quips that market lit and Finnegans Wake are the only forms of literature he knows where it helps to be "really, really stoned" while reading them.) Here’s the opening passage of Rosemary and the Taxi Driver, a lusty tale of love and juke joints and thievery:

"If there was a prize to be awarded for falling in love at first blush, Rosemary should be given the richest golden medal," She has been chasing around the romantic seaport of Lagos, with her flareful flush of romance. Her violet gown with vibrant colours and heavenly patterns vested below her knees. She wore a dazzling gold necklace, shiny ear rings and a botanical veil, stained all over with jet colours.

It was in the month of April, while the dry season was nearly over. "The season that sparks off love, kisses and romance. Wasn’t it wonderful? The long carefree days had gone." It was time for love to roar on the air, and equally, the time for Rosemary to travel on a journey from Lagos to the East.

The sun flickered over her canonball head, with the hairs on her forehead, heightened like onboard type of shaving. She resoluted to follow the train at the earliest declining hour of the day. At down, She got ready to march with all the guts of the times, besides her romantic love. She sang many love poems to them, while they twist, wiggle waggle and utter many love incantations, worthy of marring all the lively zests of any woman folk.

The kind of aleatoric Joyceanism found in that passage pops its weird and wonderful head out all over Life Turns Man Up and Down. The book is a riot of poetry that’s as sublime as it is often accidental. "They felt like cavalries, led into an Indian hotel, where beauty sparks itself, amidst kindness." "It was a total below me down, as he didn’t feel his hands cold, before he caught him in the tough position of life." "Startled were the leaves around, mourning under the roary wind." Of a young man in the throes of sexual abandon: "I wish my brains were good enough to allow me give you a full and fitting description of his wildness. His entire frame was dancing like jelly-fish; to see his eyes, you would swear that he had been drinking alcoholics for the past four hours."

That last citation is from one of my (and Thometz’s) favorites, Mabel, the story of a sweet young virgin in the big city who knows what she wants–to become sexually active–and gets it in a big way. It’s unusual in the literature in that it features a heroine who is fully sympathetic and self-actualizing, albeit a bad girl. As heated as sexual fancies like Rosemary and Mabel are, they’re no wilder than when Igbo authors turned their minds to modern history. The strangest entry in Life is a brief play, The Statements of Hitler Before the World War, by Sunday Okenwa Olisah. Some avant-garde theater must produce this play:

Hitler: It must interest you to hear that we have two wonderful military weapons specially manufactured for this live or die war, the first weapon is called AUTOMATIC EXECUTOR (applause.) This travels ten thousand miles when fired and no human being, tree, animal, could be alive again where it passes (applause) As far as war is concerned, Germany commands the "technical know-how."

Crowd: Hit Hitler! Hit Hitler! Fire Hitler! Fire Hitler. The strong man of Germany. Your name terrifies the Britishman as tiger terrifies an ordinary man.

A moment later, Hitler informs the crowd:

Absolutely cock-sure, most Germans have not realized that their Hitler (he points to himself) is partly a HUMAN BEING and partly an ANIMAL. (Wonderful! Wonderful! shouts the crowd)

My mother is a human being but my father is an animal. It was a very strong animal called–Gorilla who conceived my mother.

(Wonderful, Wonderful, Wonderful! shouts the crowd again.)

So my blood is mixed up–human blood and animal blood and that is why I am very very strong and could kill and elephant with a single blow. (applause)

Befitting the work of a rare bookman, Life Turns Man Up and Down is as fun to hold as it is to read. At Thometz’s insistence, it evokes and reproduces the look and even a bit of the feel of the original pamphlets, the jumbled typefaces and darling illustrations and off-color paper stock. It’s a beautiful production.

The era of market literature may have passed, but in a sense it lives on in a new form. Thometz tells me that Onitsha today is the center of a prolific film industry, cranking out low-budget potboilers for African audiences. He shows me some videos he’s picked up in African shops around New York, and they look exactly like Rosemary or Mabel adapted for film. (The video box for Izaga, The Story of My Life bears the legend, "She was an evil temptress who must not fall in love.") This, of course, has given him an idea. He’s hoping to get Onitsha filmmakers to adapt some of his pamphlets. Then he wants to take a crew there himself and film the filmmakers filming, to make a documentary. He’ll play Les Blank to their Werner Herzog.

Thometz also has ideas for turning more of his library into new books. With a former wife he lived for some time in Egypt, "kind of in the 7th Century," in a house in the Valley of the Kings. They befriended a local sheik who was accountable for any antiquities dug up in his area, "forgeries of the same" and the local drug trade. That got Thometz researching the history of dope in Egypt, which was all news to me. It’s pure Eric Ambler. Apparently the Brits brought dope to Egypt, just as they had to China. He shows me amazing documents published by Egypt’s Central Narcotics Intelligence Bureau in the late 1920s, detailing the arrests of heroin smugglers, hashish dealers and the like. It was Egyptian sailors, Thometz says, who first brought heroin to the Lower East Side. That book is now churning around in his head.

He’s got a collection of the great Black Orpheus magazines that he’d like to compile in another book. And a stack of hilarious pornographic comics, like Tijuana Bibles, produced and furtively distributed in Brazil in the 1960s. Call it bossa nova porn. He’s done the research and could produce a compilation of those as well.

I sincerely hope he gets to do all of them. In the meantime, I plan to quit my job, take a bedroll over to his house and camp out there, spending the next few decades reading all the originals in this guy’s fascinating collection. I hope his wife doesn’t mind.


SOURCE: Strausbaugh, John. "High Life & Mad English", New York Press, Volume 14, Issue 48, Nov. 28-Dec. 4, 2001.

(c) 2001 New York Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Review re-published on The Autodidact Project site by special permission of John Strausbaugh & New York Press.

See also Pantheon Books description of Life Turns Man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English and sample illustrations.


"Bill French & Onitsha Market Literature" by Kurt Thometz

A Memorial Tribute to Bill French

The Bill French Center
An information center for the documentation
of bookseller Bill French and the University Place Bookshop,
co-sponsored by The C.L.R. James Institute



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