I do this a lot, these long drives late at night, inching my way from the Atlanta airport to my warm bed in Athens, GA. After the glitter of the Atlanta skylines—yes, there’s more than one—and the shimmer-sheen of cars sliding through the downtown light buzz, there’s suddenly a aural drop-off just northeast of town. As soon as I turn off of I-85 and onto Georgia Highway 316, the darkness envelops my car like a shroud. Other than the occasional pair of headlights cutting through the blackness on my left, or the angry red taillights blinking as I pass them, the nighttime is complete. It’s a lonely highway, punctuated by a few stoplights and overpasses. Buildings are visible mostly through the outlines caused by the light they give off—the flying-saucer glow of a gas station in the distance; the eerie frizz of a strip mall, only the facades and windows visible as if they were emerging from a swamp; a billboard lit from below, asking JESUS: IS HE IN YOU? I have to guess at looming shapes from the shadows created by starlight and moonglow. At some point, I always end up thinking about a Kevin Huizenga drawing I own, and about how art both illuminates and anticipates life.
I bought that drawing, the first original work of art that I ever bought and one of the few that I’ve ever bought directly from the artist, because I couldn’t get what I really wanted. On the back cover of Drawn & Quarterly Showcase #1, which features Huizenga’s comics, there’s a thin-lined, scratchy color drawing of a car driving through the night, lit only by restaurant signs and billboards and streetlights. The aurora commercialis drowns out the stars. In that sense, and so many others, the image feels right. Even though it’s hardly photorealistic, it understands and illuminates what it’s like to experience driving at night on an American road. In those dial-up connection days, it took some doing to find Huizenga’s contact info but I did. (He’s more prominent now.) I emailed him, asking if a print of that back-cover illustration could be purchased. Nope, he responded, but for 75 bucks he could draw a new version. I hemmed and hawed—75 dollars was a lot of money for me then—for a solid twenty seconds, before realizing that a cartoonist whose work I loved was offering a commissioned piece to me for less than it could cost me to buy a print of a cartoonist whose work I hated. Huizenga got the check that week; I got the drawing a week after that.
With the unopened package trembling in my hands, I realized that I didn’t really know what it would look like. I was as in the dark as I was driving late at night, when what’s ahead of me trembles with mystery and possibility. Would the piece be a tracing of that back cover? Would it be a half-assed pencil sketch? Would it be in color? No, no, and no, it turned out. Squarish instead of rectangular like a comics page, glossy black-ink sheen gleaming off of hard white paper stock, Fuji, Etc. was better than I could have expected. The stark contrast, lack of colors, and lack of crosshatching or shading meant that I had to fill in its gaps. To complete the nighttime, I must enter the drawing, and unfold those layers of black upon black. Tilting the paper to and fro, I glimpsed those bedsheets of ink, the muted grays outlining Huizenga’s clouds where the ink overlaps the pencil lines. As compelling as his night sky is, though, the car interests just as much, because it’s so separate from that nightscape. The car rests on white space, only the top half of the vehicle entering into the night frame. It’s in and out of the night all at once. The first time I laid with a woman, that weird and luscious drive into night smells on her skin and night touches on the fingertips, it felt just as dark, just as betwixt and between. Maybe it always does, that first time with a new person. Maybe the journey from “fucking” to “making love” is the closing of that gap between night and illumination, so that the stars and headlights brighten as one being.
Writing, lately, feels like a long and lonely drive into a mysterious night. The metaphor’s not mine—I think E.L. Doctorow got there first—but I’ll take it. I’m on the tail end of a manuscript, turning it in to my publisher (how odd to write that, and to mean it) in mid-June. The light is dim. I squint to see a few feet ahead. Deer’s eyes and the underbellies of clouds blink out at mine, both caressed by the moon and my headlights. I try to trust that I knew how to drive but am so afraid of wrecking that I can barely get on to the road. I’ve got a map, I have a general sense of where I’m headed, but midnight is settling in and I’m getting exhausted.
When the drive gets weary, I remember that, even in solitude, I have passengers that I can turn to. With the book, I have a co-writer, thank God. I couldn’t make this long road trip without him. We call each other late at night—he lives on the West Coast; I live in Eastern Standard Time; we’re always three hours apart—and check in on our progress. When phone calls won’t do, there’s always the comforting rasp of Marc Maron’s voice, or the CDs I keep stocked in my glove compartment, or staticky AM radio stuttering out country music and diatribes and the odd occasional Sun Ra blast into the cosmos.
Through it all, I flash to Huizenga’s Fuji, Etc. I think of how it will feel to turn the backdoor key, glide into my house, feel the cat purr rub against my leg before I turn on the lights to see her, and that I’ll round the hallway corner, and there my drawing will be, clarifying the mystery of my drive and my drive but letting that mystery stay present, too.
For whatever reason, it doesn’t feel like I’m truly home until I see that drawing.
Addendum: One of my favorite late-night driving songs.