A Perfect Piece of Pleasant Hell

Last Friday we headed over to the sound studio and John read his memoir Pleasant Hell (2005) to see how it would sound in an audio format. As Brendon worked his magic at the switches, I had the luxury of sitting back and listening on a comfy couch in the control room (if that is indeed what it is called). It was a revelatory experience because John’s voice, naturally enough, is the perfect vehicle for the humor, the faultless phrasing and the elegiac tone. I enjoyed listening to it even more than reading it.


Below I’ve given a particularly lyrical excerpt from chapter four. I believe the youth of the Future will study it as “Dolan’s Funeral Oration to the American Dream”:


BART: Bay Area Rapid Transit. A light-rail system which was the technological equivalent of the Vietnam War. BART-NAM. With subway gremlins standing in for the Viet Cong…little red-star Looney Toon gremlins stealing a weight-bearing girder here, altering a blueprint there, then snickering in Vietnamese/Gremlin patois as they watch the test-train get buried under a million tons of sandstone.

The blueprints were classic con-game stuff: soaring suburban rail stations, approaches lined with trees as supple and willowy as models on a catwalk, the stern noble canopy of the station, the sweep of the aqueduct on which the trains would carry lebbenty-zillion commuters home at almost the speed of light. They would never age, even. Dad would come home younger and cleaner-shaven than when he’d left, and there would be the whole set-up waiting unchanged: toothy kids, well-groomed dog and docile loving wife. They never saw it coming, the docile-wife problem. She was a weight-bearing girder as far as they were concerned—and then she sues for divorce.

Ten years and a trillion dollars behind schedule, just in time for my freshman year at Berkeley, BART started running. Sort of: three trains per hour, prop-like aluminum shells, “futuristic” in a dated way like the monorails of old science-fiction films. Inside these chrome bodies were weary ancient engines capable of toiling to San Francisco at about 30 mph unless they broke down, which they invariably did. Then you had time to look at those poor losers zooming home on the freeways—they didn’t know what they were missing!—while you stood (there were never any seats) and held onto something, the side of a seat, or just tried to eep your balance. There were no handholds of any kind, because as we had been told for the 15 years we’d been paying it off, no one would need to stand on BART. There would be trains arriving every 30 seconds and taking off at nine-tenths lightspeed. After all, this was not filthy New York, this was no dirty subway. This was the clean zone, the golden time.

When they christened the first shovelful of BART back in 1965, the guest of honor was the president after JFK, a Boris Gudonov regent known as LBJ. I was a child, and we went there to see him. Americans still wanted to revere their presidents, and no President had ever come to Roofland. So we went to the site in the heat, the terrible summer smell of straw baking; people were there, waving Soviet-style placards: “Join us, Comrades! We are building the Future!” For me it was confusing, a clash between vision and smell. I could smell some really bad omens: dust, baking straw. But all around I could see the smiling placards.

Should’ve believed my nose and run off to some place nice and cold. Antarctica perhaps. But back then I believed; my parents believed; and so did the half-million neighbors. Most had arrived early in their feckful Protestant way; we, naturally, were late, had to park a mile away and walk down a gauntlet of sun-flashing mirrors and windshields to the even brighter glare of the model-home BART car.

Rohr, the company which made the BART cars, was in the fighter-plane business. Which accounts for the fact that the model car gleamed so bright it hurt our eyes, and for the 2,000% cost overruns, and decade-late delivery time, which was standard Defense-Department procedure. Not that any of us knew that. All we saw was that futuristic glint, not the money pouring down through the rails. The car hurt to look at, it was so sharp. A sharp aluminum nose like an F-4 Phantom. It had cost as much as a Phantom, too—and that was without an engine. As the sign by the car said, they would add the engine later. Do you not trust the engineers of the people, Comrade? The main thing was the gleaming Soviet shell. So shiny, Comrade! It would do Mach 3 on the straightaways, intercept oncoming ballistic missiles and still get you to work ten minutes before you left. The shock-wave of its passing would blow all the smoggy evil cars right off the freeways, and the sonic boom would scour every dingy tenement in Oakland. Another sign explained that the train would have “a human operator,” though it didn’t need one. The Computer would make all the real decisions.

The chrome prop sat on a 100-yard stretch of track—all the track which BART had actually laid. All around were stacks of rusted rails. The rust surprised me; I thought BART wouldn’t rust. But I was ashamed of myself for noticing it. They probably wanted the tracks to rust before they used them—a kind of tempering, like firewood. It was just another proof of my stupidity that I even noticed! So I erased the rust from my sight, like a good Soviet child.

We wove our diffident way toward the circle of dust and dead grass where LBJ’s helicopter would land. A hundred thousand trusting villagers ringed that circle, eager to lend their faith to restoring the Royal magic which had poured out of JFK’s broken head. We stood in a circle and waited. And after two hours in the heat, we heard the big drum of the rotor announcing the royal Presence. Helicopters were full of pride back then. “Futuristic,” that’s what they were. Someday every suburban home would have a helipad, the same grinning dad waving to the kids as he got aboard. He got around, that futuristic dad; he just seemed to go from one conveyance to another.

It was another couple of years before the helicopter lost its magic—before people got tired of seeing jerky footage of them landing in unpronounceable rice paddies, disgorging bewildered cannon fodder from the high schools of America to fall face-first into paddy water that was two parts human shit and one part grenade. But for us, waiting in the heat for the President, the helicopter still meant the future, the royal steed, grace descending on the populace like Pentecost. There was a hum of excited gratitude from the crowd as LBJ’s copter hovered overhead, then descended to our level through a column of cyclone.

And then the tornado touched the ground—the hard adobe chips and dry straw—and flung it up, a claymore mine blasting the Rooflanders with supercharged dust, blades of straw that could pierce a flak jacket, and clumps of adobe hard as concrete. The crowd hunched and cowered; parents tried to shield their children and the helicopter continued its descent, though by the time LBJ walked out only a few combat-hardened veteran photographers were still facing him.

The official figures were that a couple dozen people were injured and several more “treated and released.” But the lawsuits went on for years. And everyone knew, though as good Soviet citizens they never said it: the dynasty was cursed.

Poster for the Bennie Railplane system from 1929. Railway posters, 1923-1947: from the collection of the National Railway, By Beverley Cole, Richard Durack, p.155