I had never heard of Cookie Mueller until I saw this book. I had never heard of this book, or of Semiotext(e) (a trendy Californian publishing house) until I saw this book. But I saw it, I read the blurb, I read the first page and I knew that I had to have it. I’m not certain I have ever regretted an impulse book purchase less, because Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black is one of the most enjoyable prose works I have encountered in a long time. To be blunt, I fucking loved it.
Cookie Mueller’s book is loaded, hipster, prose. Mueller was an actor in cult movies (she worked a lot with John Waters, a man who I had never consciously heard of before reading this book, though have now encountered multiple times in the last few days), a trendy agony aunt and a literary writer of some renown. She died, aged 40, from complications resulting from AIDS, very soon after her husband died of the same cause. In her short life, however, she experienced a lot, and this book is a memoiry trip through some of the darker, the more dangerous and – sometimes the more outrageous – parts of her life.
The opening chapter explores teenage sexuality and includes a graphic description of fucking a man while he’s in hospital with hepatitis… we then ping to Haight-Ashbury in the late 1960s where Mueller wanders from party to party, briefly meeting Charles Manson’s cult while he was off grocery-shopping, she then reminisces on fucking Jimi Hendrix, chatting to Janis Joplin over the stairwell in her block of flats, then – after helping package some LSD her housemate is dealing (and ingesting it through the skin of her hands) – she wanders off to the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge for an attempted satanic ritual that she is pretty certain might have summoned something. Obviously, she doesn’t stick around to find out, and heads back into town to carry on the party.
We then read about a road trip down the East Coast of the US, seeking an alleged coke-filled mansion in Orlando that (inevitably) doesn’t exist… There is the harrowing reminiscence of an attempted rape in some backwoods (only really averted due to the attempted rapist’s impotence), there is a story about briefly living on a pig farm, about making films with John Waters, about curing a friend who’s ODing on heroin by injecting him with saline, about smuggling drugs across the Atlantic to the 1981 Berlin Film Festival, about childhood, about a housefire, about giving birth, about a holiday with a lover in Sicily, about working as a stripper, about a botched attempt to sail from Long Island to Jamaica, and a moving, final, piece about the enveloping AIDS crisis and the impact that it was having on her, on society, and on culture more generally.
Her writing is deep, but uncomplex, it is accessible but human. Stylistically, it owes a bit to the Beat generation, but in its focus on physicality and the barriers and limits of the human body it is perhaps a more mature piece than something Kerouac would have written. The description of giving birth is particularly evocative (though I am commenting as someone who will definitely never do that), and the way in which Mueller describes landscapes and buildings and scenes is fucking riveting.
Mueller’s prose is unpretentious, despite often writing about very pretentious people and very pretentious things. The art and the films and the friends that she has are performing, performative, and the book as a whole ends with this rather direct declaration that the AIDS crisis, and the way it was encountered and engaged with by society, was a direct assault on “counterculture”. The people who died of complications related to AIDS were not politicians or bankers or upper echelon business types, it was artists and musicians and painters and writers and and and and-
People who felt, people who existed and didn’t feel pressured into living in the tiny little gaps that society leaves for self-expression. People who flouted convention, be that through drug use or through non-monogamous, non-heterosexual relationships, people who allowed their thoughts and desires to dictate their behaviour, rather than dull convention.
If the AIDS crisis happened now, I would know people who were dying.
If the AIDS crisis happened now, people I love and care about deeply would be dying.
I suppose it is something that I’ve never really thought about before, that reality, that truth, that idea. The famous people whose deaths were AIDS-related were people who made art and music that I have always enjoyed, many of the people I am aware of whose deaths were AIDS-related were significant cultural figures, not just to me. I’m not going to list any other celebrity AIDS victims here (other than Cookie Mueller), but think about it yourself, think about who those people are and what they meant to culture in the 1980s and 1990s. Culturally, it made a big difference, and it took a long time for anything significant to be done about the AIDS crisis, long enough for many, many, people to lose their lives. I, and many of the people I am friends with, are exactly the kind of people who – had it not been for the public health campaigns that proceeded our adolescence – probably would have been sharing needles and fucking everyone bareback on the first date.
What did we lose in the AIDS crisis? We lost Cookie Mueller, for example, and we lost her at just 40. The writing in Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black is immediate and affecting, it is powerful and intelligent and deeply, deeply, engaging. It is evocative, life lived as powerful literature, it is direct description and boom boom boom boom boom emotion and wit and humour and horror and fear and growing up and having fun and having good times and having bad times and finding out what the level between those things is, where it is we should be, should be, should be.
This is a fucking gorgeous book. I HIGHLY recommend.