I didn’t know Cort very well. Or at least not nearly as well as I would have liked. In fact, the first I heard that anything was wrong, a mutual friend emailed me to ask me if I could confirm an unspecified rumor about him, and the first thing I thought was, oh shit, who’d Cort beat up?
What I did know about him can be partially inferred from my reaction. Because, you never really knew. Cort was many things, and among them was a pure fucking brawler, a literary madman. We had conversations about Herman Melville where I swore he was gonna rip a table out of the wall and throw it through a window. Discussing books in public with him was an invitation to pursed lips at best, and possibly a fistfight. Making a point, he’d jump up, pace and flail, bumping into everyone near him. All the while cussing and using words that people don’t use much about literature anymore. Words like truth and courage.
In the face of one of his beautiful onslaughts, he’d make you believe that burning up your life for literature, well, it was the only rational thing you could do. He was a fighter, a pugilist. But he was also one of the most sensitive men I’ve ever known. You could watch the emotions pour over him as he read aloud from a passage he knew you needed to hear.
Once, while he was holding court with several writers in a downtown bar, I showed him something I’d just found, the secret foreword to A Moveable Feast: “This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.” He understood exactly what that must have meant to Hemingway, and I watched him, there in a crowded bar, have to turn away to compose himself. Just before, of course, he pounded it in to every person within earshot.
He was, in other words, the kind of writer that made you want to be writer in the first place. The only kind of writer worth being.
Conversations with him were like trying to inhale a hurricane. We hooked up not too long ago on St. Patrick’s Day and he had plans for us to visit a Halliburton man-camp for research, to spend a writing weekend at the Hi-You Inn in Commerce City, to make it up to Leadville to run through every archive we could find, and, possibly, to track down Somali pirates. And that was in about a half an hour. A good portion of the rest of the time he was calling me a fucking coward because I was scared I was in over my head on the projects I was working on. Which was exactly what I needed, and he knew it.
I did know him well enough to get to know his generosity. You couldn’t miss it. The last time I heard from him was about a week ago. It was a text received in the middle of the night that read:
Joel Hazelbaker, conductor for Chicago & Alton RR wounded by Frank James in robber sep 7 1881 . . . he was famous for letting any hobo ride cars who cud outbox him . . . only two ever did . . . One was called Baltimore Ned and the other was a swede farmhand
That was the kind of gem that I learned to expect from Cort. He knew I was working on a hobo novel, and he knew it was exactly the kind of thing that’d make my night. Just as he knew my nights had been pretty rough lately. I just wish I’d been paying better attention to his.
All I can say is I was incredibly fortunate to know him as well as I did. To get to experience his generosity and vitality. I can’t wait to hear the stories that are going to come out from his many friends, all of them affirming the same. He was not only one of the best writers working – far better than me, which he was kind enough to never point out – but an irreplaceable soul.
Cort and I saw Charlie Parr last year. We talked after the show about a word that he’d heard, “ainos.” I don’t remember it all perfectly, but he explained it as that feeling two men get when they spot each other across a room, and even without knowing each other, they know that they’re talking in a language that others won’t understand. Which, in the case of writers, as he pointed out, wasn’t always a good thing.
I’ve been thinking about that word, “ainos,” a lot. He was the kind of writer and man that made you remember what matters and why. And who always had courage to lend when you weren’t up to facing it anymore. I hate that I didn’t have a chance to return that favor.
I don’t know him nearly well enough to speculate as to why he did what he did. I know some about what he was wrestling with, but I sure as hell won’t justify it or condemn it. I’ll just say that the world is a far thinner and cheaper place without him.
I did know him well enough to know how much he loved his family. Everybody who ever talked to him knew that. All my heart goes out to his wife and children.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I could possibly say. And there’s very little. But one of the reasons we hit it off was that both of our favorite author was Herman Melville. So this:
For by how much more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye for ever go thankless! Would that I could clear out Hampton Court and the Tuileries for ye! But gulp down your tears and hie aloft to the royal-mast with your hearts; for your friends who have gone before are clearing out the seven-storied heavens, and making refugees of long pampered Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael, against your coming. Here ye strike but splintered hearts together—there, ye shall strike unsplinterable glasses!
That, and I’ll miss you, brother. When you were in the room, we all played second fiddle. I was looking forward to playing it for a lifetime.