Top image: Detail of photograph in the Railway Hotel, Hua Hin, Thailand; the old reception area renamed for the film ‘The Killing Fields’, with the cast, 1983. Image: the author, 2011.
Spalding and me
(Remembering Spalding Gray)
I read Swimming to Cambodia squinting through sunglasses on a beach in Thailand sometime in 1992. Was it on Ko Samui or in Hua Hin? I’m thinking it was the latter, where, coincidentally, the opening scenes of the story unfolded. I’ll try and explain why this book (and writer) changed my life. Is it a great American novel? No, because it wasn’t written as a novel. Did it make me laugh and cry? Yes. Did it make me think about my own life, death, longings and vulnerabilities? Yes.
Writer, actor and performance artist Spalding Gray, developed and wrote Swimming to Cambodia over two years from 1983 to ’85, but his work’s origins were not in published writing, but in performing what famously became known, in the 80s, as his ‘monologues’. These began as notes, a remembered life, extensive diary-like entries, edited words and events from a web of complexity. They evolved and were presented with an actor’s consummate delivery — with perfectly timed dramatic pauses and deep breaths — to art-house audiences. Early on he was told he had ‘excellent timing’, and ‘timing’s everything isn’t it?’, he later said ironically. ‘Like all genius things’, wrote theatre director Mark Russell, Gray’s autobiographical monologue was ‘a simple idea turned on its axis to become absolutely fresh and radical’. He was using himself to play himself.
Before I really knew who he was I saw Gray perform at the 1986 Adelaide Festival. My first monologue experience was Sex and Death to Age 14, and I was hooked, I was in and wanted more. I went back to as many readings as I could get tickets for — four others I think, including Swimming to Cambodia parts one and two and probably Booze, Cars and College Girls, as well as Interviewing the Audience. Like thousands before me, I became an immediate fan, intoxicated with the man’s ability to so aptly lay himself bare. It seemed that this was the perfect time for me to experience Gray. After one of these monologues my American girlfriend briefly chatted with him and, later that week, at one of the many post Festival event parties Spalding approached my GF from behind, playfully cupping his hands over her eyes. We were a little flirty with him, exchanging a few words and bobbing and dancing a bit, until his attention was taken by young blonde twins. ‘Damn’, I remember thinking, ‘Where did they come from?’.
Swimming was Gray’s personal recollections of a modest role he played as the US Consul in Roland Joffé’s film The Killing Fields, made mostly in Hua Hin, Phuket and Bangkok in 1983. Gray’s story covers the intense and tragic circumstances of the movie and the USA’s questionable political machinations in Cambodia are ably backgrounded. He described this writing as a kind of ‘poetic journalism’. But the story’s more about Gray’s off-camera experiences which includes several hilarious and vulnerable situations he found himself in on his first visit to Thailand. In one scene at night he talked about being persuaded by a member of the film-team to share a cannabis joint (because ‘it’s the best Spalding man’ or words to that effect) and, a little later, on a stunning beach, ‘an overwhelming wave of anxiety came over me’, he said. Gray described kneeling down and being very sick over and over, repeatedly covering his vomit with sand which formed a kind of castle. Hell in Paradise; I’ve so been there.
Several other monologues were also developed into books, and I read a couple, but Swimming, for me, was the best. (I also read Impossible Vacation, his only real novel. The story is narrated by Brewster North, a funny, complex everyman, who persistently seeks both enlightenment and a ‘perfect moment’ even as he is incapable of finding either. What we see in Brewster is a version of Spalding as well as parts of ourselves, including aspects we’d probably prefer not to reveal.)
Gray and I are of similar age and from similar cultures. There’s an ordinariness, a commonality in his words and stories and he spoke of, and responded to, things I knew about. Our mothers were both quite religious; my first travel in Thailand (in 1979) was to Bangkok, Hua Hin and Phuket. We’d had similar experiences it seemed. He spoke in eloquent and humorous ways using finely crafted language that manipulated the truth as it went, all delivered with an intensity bordering on, as someone said, ‘a quiet mania’. But he always eased back from fateful overstatement. This was how I wanted to say things. His presentation style was often conspiratorial, speaking at times in a half-whisper, as if we were in the know. And we were, it was just between him and us, or him and me even. And Spalding knew we knew, and we knew he knew. I felt I knew him. I’d danced with him and I’d stayed in the old Hua Hin Railway Hotel (south of Bangkok on the gulf) where the film people had added the temporary letters ‘Hotel Le Phnom Penh’ for The Killing Fields and had photographed the cast. I searched in vain for Spalding among the scores of faces. I went over the photo again and found a buoyant looking Graham Kennedy and, to the right of him, John Malkovich. But why wasn’t he there?
I got over my Gray infatuation, or at least other writers and events took over, but he was always there in the background. On occasions I’d think: ‘I wonder what Spalding’s doing right now? How’s he taking his age? (‘I’m struggling with mine’, I’d say to myself.) Where is he? (Once I even conjured Spalding himself, devil in my ear, saying, ‘It’s OK, everything is fine’.) So it took my breath away when, in February 2004, I heard that he was missing, presumed dead, as a result of suicide; an apparent jump into a freezing New York harbour from the Staten Island ferry on a January night. ‘Is Spalding Gray finally swimming to Cambodia?’ fellow writer and friend, John Barlow asked a few days after he went missing. ‘I see him swan-diving from the rail . . . late Saturday night, rounding Sandy Hook by dawn, and turning south . . . He’d be well past the mouth of the Delaware by now, strong swimmer that he was. What a great monologue this is going to make. Or not.’
Gentle tears suddenly flowed at a restaurant in Brisbane sometime in March 2004 when a colleague from NYC mentioned that Gray’s body had just been found in the East River. He’d been missing for almost two months. My visitor was enthusiastic about his work and said she’d met him at a dinner party some years previous. We reminisced.
So he really was vulnerable after all. Of course he was, and the power of his art was that in ‘talking about himself, with candor, humour, imagination and the unfailingly bizarre image’, (as Washington Post reviewer David Richards put it), he ended up talking about all of us, our insecurities, flaws and humility. We are left with all those deeply personal and seemingly cathartic stories about finding a ‘perfect moment’ on an ‘impossible vacation’, images in my mind (and 1000s of others no doubt) of him bobbing, bobbing beyond the breakers of that Phuket beach. Did scenes such as this pre-empt, as some have said, what was to come? His perfect and darkest moment was planned; all the writing, all the stories, insufficient to reverse it. He was more troubled than I had ever imagined. How could I have missed all of that? I didn’t know him at all.
[Ian Were, 2004/13. First drafted in one of Heather Wearne’s critical writing seminars at the Queensland Art Gallery, 2004.]