“All killer no filler” – Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller

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The title is a metaphor for being lost in a swamp at night, as author Cookie Mueller and a friend once were, after the friend so irritated the people they were hitch-hiking with that they were put out of the car. But this act of unkindness was unusual in Ms Mueller’s experience. She was a person so excited by life and so eager to explore its every corner that most often she was received with warmth and kindness. Not everywhere – home was troubled, her son Max’s father was not in the picture, friendships came and went, not all her choices were good ones, and sometimes there was violence – but for the most part the world was an oyster, and Cookie Mueller was its pearl.

She died in 1989, and a previous version of her collected works, published by Semiotext(e) in 1990 with the same title, focused on her adventures after leaving home in the late 1960s. (Semiotext(e) is also the American publisher of this new edition.) These involve accidentally smuggling drugs into West Germany, a day in San Francisco which began by randomly sharing breakfast with the Manson Family and ended with a group of strangers avenging a rape by force-feeding the rapist acid, a fire in a remote farmhouse, how to become a go-go dancer in New Jersey, a friend overdosing on heroin at his birthday party before being restored to life by a panicked hotshot, and life on the set of John Waters movies. But this new edition (published in the UK by Canongate), with an introduction by Olivia Laing, contains at least triple the work, and unsurprisingly, it’s all killer no filler, including autobiographical essays, short fictions, art criticism and advice columns. Each single essay contains enough adventure to fill a quieter lifetime, but you absolutely have the sense with Ms Mueller that she’s not even touching the sides of the adventures she enjoyed throughout her singular life.

“Everybody wanted tattoos that summer. I worked on shoulders, ankles, backs, breasts. Thighs, asses, and foreheads. I tried to talk people out of having tattoos of Mickey Mouse or Huey, Dewey and Louie ducks, or their girlfriends’ names. People on LSD or mushrooms wanted stars or third eyes in the middle of their foreheads, but I told them to come back when they felt a little more grounded, less far-out.

“You might regret it someday,” I’d say. “Suppose you wanted to become a film actor someday. How many movie roles do you think people with face tattoos might get? Put the third eye on your ass instead.” 

If she felt like visiting a friend in Jamaica, or spending the summer in Italy, she picked up her son and got on a plane, with the confidence that it would all work out, which it usually did. Her knack for quick thinking and an open-mindedness based on curiosity instead of contempt (which remains unusual), not only saved her skin more than once. It also built her reputation to the point that she was able to leave behind the dancing and live off her acting and writing, whether she was in Naples or the Lower East Side. The third section contains some very short stories about moments in women’s lives – some of Ms Mueller’s fictional writing – and the fourth is more about her journalism, the advice columns and the art criticism. But this new edition ends with the same essay as 1990 version, which is an essay about a friend dying of AIDS who wrote Ms Mueller a letter, which is quoted in full. So in both cases, the last words in her book do not belong to her, even if they were given to her as a gift. It is the book’s only misstep – Ms Mueller deserved to have her own last word.

These dispatches are two generations old, but describe a world so different to the present moment that they may as well be pre-historic. The people were taken as they came, the drugs were shared, negative experiences were shrugged off, the conversation was all-encompassing and immediate, and adventures were there within arm’s-reach – though few people have had Ms Mueller’s gift for experience, whether scoring heroin in a devastated New York City, or begging help from a faith healer in New Orleans to recover from a broken heart. It’s obvious from reading this how much the world has changed since these adventures from 1966-1998 or so. The world being wherever you happened to be when you woke up each morning instead of held inside your phone for an audience of strangers. In Ms Mueller’s time the living was the performance, the audience was whoever was right there in front of you, and the impact things had was less on how you were perceived, but on how you felt about them. It’s a different kind of authenticity, a more internal one – although it met with just as much violent rejection and dismay as any. But the reaction was met with a sense of fun, instead of anxiety. Her positivity is infectious; it absolutely leaves you, as she always seemed to, hoping for the best. Ms Laing dwells on the societal changes maybe a little too much in her introduction; Ms Mueller’s world is so immediate and visceral that the differences are palpable. But that’s a minor quibble. In Ms Mueller’s philosophy, consequences are tomorrow’s problem, and if you are depressed about something there’s always something you can snort, admire, or go visit in order to cheer yourself up. The book is 425 pages long and not one of them’s a bore.

Any Cop?: For a delightful romp in a lost time as told by someone with one of the clearest eyes we’ve ever known, treat yourself.

Sarah Manvel

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