The May 15 issue of Rolling Stone features a six-page spread on America’s “gutterpunk” population. It’s a term that seems befitting of glamorous rockstardom or even a blue-haired kid’s AOL screen name, not the harried realties of street life. As it turns out, “gutterpunk” refers to the numbers of young drifters, hitchhikers, runaways, and train hoppers from across the nation, wandering from city to town to freight train. RS writer Mike Guy reports on a half-dozen of these scruffy nomads, some young and some older, as they navigate the streets, rail yards, and bars of New Orleans. But something’s missing from Guy’s short conversations with his subjects, something the glossy page doesn’t illuminate. Where’s the full story behind these kids? If a gutterpunk were to storm Rolling Stone, kick Mike Guy out with the toe of her combat boot and write the story herself, what would she say?
Ariel Gore answers that in her new novel Atlas of the Human Heart. Gore, the creator-editor-publisher of the parenting magazine Hip Mama, author of two parenting books and mother of a young teenager, somehow manages to squeeze in a gutterpunk existence from a past life. As a sixteen-year-old, and after a particularly dull and numbing day in her hometown of Palo Alto, Calif., Gore realized, “I had a choice: I could stay home and die young—keep on dying—or I could fly away to someplace completely foreign where I knew no one and where maybe I could figure out what was me and what was geography, what was me and what was circumstance.” Not alien thoughts for many sixteen-year-olds, but Gore distinguished herself from the angst-y hordes by actually following through.
She followed through all the way to Hong Kong, landing in the airport with nothing but a small carry-on, a healthy dose of teenage naïveté, plenty of freedom in the air to suck in, and nowhere in particular to go. And so Ariel the gutterpunk was born.
Human Heart does more than fill in the gaps for Mike Guy and Rolling Stone. Gore shows us her choices, what led up to them and where they took her. She shows us the places she went and the people she found there. Maybe most significantly, she tells a story of emerging from the pits of teen-dom to become a thoughtful, imaginative person in a world that’s more than a little overwhelming. Gore doesn’t claim to have done it gracefully. She claims to have done it her way.
And what a way that was. We listen attentively as Gore spins us tales of a mysterious and simmering post-war China, where she learned to play mahjong in an underground cafe full of Beijing punks, befriended a Parisian TV producer-turned-Buddhist in Lhasa, scratched a Sanskrit symbol into her chest with a safety pin and ink in colorful and busy Kathmandu, and smuggled clothes and jewels and gold over Asian borders. She ends up in Amsterdam, then London, then the Spanish coast, then Italy, drinking too much, staying with the wrong people, losing track of the right people, finding herself pregnant at eighteen and giving birth to a baby girl at nineteen.
Gore leaves glamour by the wayside somewhere around Amsterdam. Instead of falling into an easy adventure-story formula—and I’ll hand it to her, Gore could have easily rubbed it in my face that she was a lot more fun at seventeen than I ever was—she strives to show us what went wrong, what turned out to be not-so glittery or even worthwhile, and what she was thinking and feeling and learning throughout her adventure. We start to expect her insightful reflections, the places where she describes her thoughts and ideas with lyrical precision and poetic ambition. The novel, in fact, chronicles the first sputterings of a writer’s coming of age. Gore includes journal excerpts from that period, quotes from the books she was reading at the time, wispy poems she wrote on steamy trains and in hollowed-out old buildings. We begin to suspect that although Gore uprooted her ties to California, her roots eventually buried themselves back down again into something more mobile and free. She found a home in words and in her writing.
In a recent interview with Maia Rossini on Gore’s Web site, Gore described a situation in which she found herself when her daughter was young: Her daughter’s father took her to court, where it was mandated that she not leave the Bay Area for seven years. She noted her initial horror at being restricted to one place, but explained, “I think that if there is a benefit to the experience of someone trying to control you, it is that you are forced to discover that part of yourself that is intrinsically free. You don’t need drugs or train tickets to unbury your imagination, to find that secure place where you hid it, to enter that place and realize you are home.”
A decade and a half after first taking to the road, an older, wiser, less crusty Gore has given us all a peek into that home. It’s an entertaining place, packed with some wild memories and full of swirling images, poetic phrases and introspective, if sometimes self-engrossed, thoughts. But then again, who won’t give a teenager—even an atypical one like Gore—a little leeway for self-indulgence? Certainly not me, and I’ll tell you another thing: When Ariel Gore reads at Fact and Fiction on Friday, May 9, or again at WEEL’s annual Mama Jam on May 10, I’ll be the one in the front row asking to see her Sanskrit tattoo. Join me as I check out what this one-time gutterpunk evolved into—I’m guessing one hip mama.