A schizophrenic black prisoner doing time for raping a seven-year-old draws pictures of demons with blue and red pencils to keep them from eating his soul. The son of a Cuban voodoo priestess, overcome by despairing sadness at her death, builds a magical shrine to her in her own house, which eventually consumes him.
These are the men and women you see on the street, if they venture out at all, bearing crosses that soar to the heavens. They might appear insane, but to them insanity is whatever doesn’t make sense—and nothing about life in 20th century America seems to make much sense. Their art, on the other hand, is all-meaningful, and hence all-consuming. It is simultaneously a psychological chainmail neurally connected to their ability to cope with the world, and a ritual they perform every day to recreate the world. Like the cosmogenic rites of the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians or Greeks. Without it, the Earth and their place on Earth would cease to exist.
That’s the gist of Greg Bottoms’ Spiritual American Trash, a book that tries to come to terms with the art-making impulse of the outsider artist. Concretely, each of these ten or so spare but profound vignettes is a life reconstruction floating around the outer edges of the marginalized soul. Bottoms’ gift is the ability to look within, and transcribe what he sees.
And, as with Pitiful Criminals, a previous book, each vignette is a work of art. Voice, pitch, intensity—everything is in perfect alignment in Bottoms’ writing. Not one superfluous word. Which is why I think I claim again that there is no better writing, fiction or non-fiction, being done today.