book review: Because I Was Flesh
The book begins in this way:

Kansas city is a vast inland city and its
marvelous river the Missouri heats the
senses. It is a wild concupiscent city,
young and seminal, and the seeds of its
men were strong. The maple, alder and
elm trees are songs of desire that
deeply awaken the hungry pores.
Kansas City was my Tarsus and the
Missouri was the washpot of joyous
Dianas from St Joseph and Joplin

Yes its a different kind of writing—a voice like
no other.  The book is an autobiography—the
story of the writer Edward Dahlberg and his
mother and its the story of the mother that
takes precedence and dominates the action.

The mother was Lizzie—the lady barber of
Kansas City. In those days, circa 1910, lady
barbers were few and those few held in none
too high esteem. It was a notch but not much
more above being a prostitute.

But there she was, Lizzie, running her own
shop and raising her son Edward, an only
child, also a bastard, the offspring of Saul--a
low life if ever there was one. We’ll get to


She had a narrow face and a long nose I
took no pleasure in because it reminded
me of my own, and burning eyes and
much feeling in the appearance of her
mouth though several teeth had been
removed by a quack dentist on
Rivington street in New York.  No more
than five feet tall health was her beauty.
She had the tender full paps of Ruth  
and wore a tight corset on the job that
never failed to arouse some
curmudgeon who already had used up a
wife with a hanging udder and 5

The book has two themes: Lizzies obsession
to claim a husband and the sons obsession
with sex—getting laid. Lizzie was foiled in her
quest for a man and the sons luck with
women wasnt much better. He inherited from
his mother a stout heart but not a stout sense
of self worth to go with it. Women like
confidence in a man. You read along and
the feverish moanings and groanings of a
soul suffering the tortures of lust appear on
nearly every page:

He was at 10 already the prey of Eros.
His privities were a torment and he
came to view whoring as natural as rain
snow and defecation. Ruby Parrs
posterior had moved his soul and
hearing the sighing undergarments of
Blanche Beasley, the new hire, he
suffered sexual agonies. Lately  Mrs
Hickman had taken one of the chairs
and her daughter Venus overwhelmed
him. Her silk dresses harmed his entire
nervous system.  

Ive been obliged to sprinkle this piece
liberally with quotes that normally I would
not do but I have my reasons which are: its a
book about language, there is this voice and
my intention is to suggest something of the
rhythms and power of the language and—
more than anything—the nutty, wonderful
humor.  So I must quote; there is no other

Lizzie at work: The owner of an enterprise
such as this, a barber shop with four chairs
with Lizzie on one and a revolving door type
situation of young or even not so  young
women working the other three is more than
an owner—the boss. You are also a friend, a
parent, a therapist, a banker for the giving of
the short term loan not always repaid and a
few other things that arise as they will. But
its mostly as a friend and confidant to provide
a sympathetic ear for the troubled soul of a
young woman who has been treated poorly—
also known as being fucked over--by some
low-life. I wont labor that one.

But this was her turf, the shop, the one place
she could assert her authority and obtain
confidence. She came alive in the shop.  In
strolled the customers—the good, the bad and
the ugly and she went into her pitch:

Good morning sir, what splendid hair
you have but you look down in the
dumps. I trust no lowly chit with
marvelous hunkers has deceived you.
Will you have a close shave, a light trim
or a feather edged cut. Don’t you think a
good massage would ease the strain of
the day. I restore hair, give enemas and
remove soul-grieving calluses.


No woman could hold Saul, the sight of
a skirt  made his blood run mad

Saul she met as a young woman when she
was easily deceived—a “gull” as Dahlberg
says—a word no longer in use except by him
and the meaning is--a sap, a mark, someone
easily conned. That was Lizzie and so she  
would remain. You could call her gull or an
eternal optimist. It was her nature.

Saul was a sport and a hustler  posing as a
barber and it was he who taught Lizzie the
trade, also to knock her up at the same time
and to disappear soon after with some chippy
from Galveston.  This was the beginning of a
familiar scenario, the first in a series of
appearances and disappearances, whenever
Saul found himself in a jam and to pop up
and sweet talk a fresh stake out of Lizzie--a
heart of gold type that put her at the mercy
of every bullshit artist who wore a sharp suit,
a cool tie, the handmade shoes. Clothes
make the man.

Saul was followed by Harry Cohen, the baker:

A bowlegged Edomite with brutal hair.
He had a deep gut on each side of  his
raw roguish mouth and a hinder gold
tooth he thought quite modish and
regarded as an amative fang.

But Harry was another familiar type—the
loser type—and soon to disappear from the
scene following a fire that destroyed two
horses he owned covered by an insurance

Next: Popkin. Popkin was divorced, an
investor in diamonds in Palestine. Lets say:
who had a plan to invest in diamonds—and if
there was a type Lizzie could never resist it
was the financial genius. She married Popkin
and turned over her life savings to fund the
diamond investment scheme and off was
Popkin to Palestine. After that she saw him
once—in handcuffs.

But that was Lizzie. As they say—if she didnt
have bad luck she would have no luck at all

The orphanage

Lizzie was at her wits end, running the shop,
an endless struggle, while looking for a man
and tending to the boy, age 11, a sickly child
with a tendency to vomit when stressed and
she made a tough call—to pack him off to the
Jewish Orphans Home in Cleveland. Here he
becomes chums with the likes of Prunes,
Mooty, Bucket, Stones, Binky etc, and is
advised not to puke during meals because
the puke resembled the food and the kid
sitting next to him might start eating it.

I'll pass over the orphanage years, a hard
time for the boy but with its moments and
also served to teach him discipline—not to be
found hanging around Lizzies shop to observe
the girls and  their comings and goings with
men—comic but none too edifying.

He returns to Kansas City six years later to
find nothing has changed. Lizzie is older
but no wiser. She has a new friend: the

The Captain was semi-retired  from his job
navigating a freighter up and down the river
between St. Louis and New Orleans. The
captain had two things going for him—a jolly
disposition and a minor talent for music—to
sing and play the piano—and one thing
against: he was cheap. It was my own
mother who was fond of saying: dont make
friends with a cheap person—and Lizzie
subscribed to this one also. The Captains
days were numbered.


Only someone like Dahlberg could have
crossed paths with someone like Tsu-Ben,
met in Los Angeles while  bunking at the
downtown Y where, if you are a misfit type,
you are certain to encounter many kindred
spirits. Tsu-Ben was older by a few years,
chronologically but light years ahead when it
came to a natural savvy for the basic
requirements of survival—street smarts.

It was Tsu-Ben who demonstrated the fine
art of quick thinking by crawling not out of
but into the window of a streetcar laying on
its side following an accident and then
removing himself from the wreck to
participate in a class action suit.

Tsu-Ben had the hustling gift and another
gift, even more phenomenal, for the
seduction of women:

Tsu-Ben had eight or nine females in as
many lubricious beach houses within 15
or 20 miles of the city. His preference
was for married women, believing that
ground grubbed by another would prove
more arable.

Dahlberg says: He was fond of me
because I was a droll creature and the
most original fool he had ever

Ben took Dahlberg under his wing and from
time to time D was able to score for some of
the spillover—women-wise--the Ben-Tsu

Ben was also a reader, of literature and
philosophy and introduced Dahlberg to
Nietzsche--another misanthrope with
problems with woman—-and when Dahlberg
discovered that many of the greatest artists—
Nietzsche, Goethe, Beethoven—suffered from
syphilis he decided “to look for a whore who
could help me become a man of letters”

Dahlberg attended UCLA for a spell, also UC
Berkeley and eventually to study philosophy
at  Columbia in New York where he began to
write. Fortunately all his problems with
women did not apply to the writing and his
remarkable gifts were recognized and he
began to publish almost at once. The books
had titles like:
Bottom Dogs, The Flea of
Sodom, The Sorrows of Priapus, Can These
Bones Live.
He had a style—powerful and
exhilarating and impossible to define—
something not seen before or since either—
that  many found not to their taste but others
did, including some of the hotshot critics of
that time—Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, Alan
Tate and he managed to scrape along,
writing the books, doing reviews, some
teaching. Thank God for teaching.

Time passed. Lizzie was old and got older.
The son was long gone and on his own and
now the last and of them all the most ill-
chosen by far of the losers Lizzie
preferred to amuse herself with appeared on
the scene—Tobias Emmerich:

He had an insufficient mouth a potato
for a nose, tended to break wind and
was barely 5 feet tall and Lizzie was
certain he would be unable to extend
himself in any other way either.

If pessimism and a grim outlook is your
preference read Beckett—or arrange to meet
someone like Tobias Emmerich. He wore
galoshes and carried an umbrella in spite of
the brilliance of the day because as he said—
you never know.

And he also said:
Every time I meet a new
person he gives me such a load of gas
on my stomach I am unable to sleep
until I have evacuated him.

And he also said he enjoyed walking but had
nowhere to go.

TE viewed all people with suspicion and the
foods they ate:

peas give you gas, cabbage sours your
system and one plate of spaghetti is
enough to rush one of your relations to a
dealer in tombstones.

That was Tobias Emmerich--one of the more
perverse but perversely interesting
specimens to cross Lizzies path but enough is
enough and following two hours of this type
jabbering she steered him out the door and
laid down on her bed with a splitting

And thats the story—or a severely
compressed version of it—of Lizzie the Lady
Barber of Kansas City and her son Edward
whose books along with himself have faded
into obscurity—or maybe oblivion. He is a
forgotten writer. I read the books 30 years
ago and since that time have failed to come
across one person—of all my well read and
super educated friends, including a few
professor of English types who have read or
even heard of him. But from time to time the
name will occur as it did during the writing of
this piece when I stumbled across an
interview—on the internet where else—with
the writer Gilbert Sorrentino—the late Gilbert
Sorrentino-- who had this to say:

Dahlberg is a writer whose work cannot
be tamed or reduced or assimilated. He
is a subversive and at his best so good
he takes your breath away. He is also
zany, goofy, loopy, misogynistic, deeply
prejudiced, bitter, nasty, paranoid. He
has no politics any politician could find
useful and he is a great agent of the
truth that only art can convey. He is a
great writer, astonishingly original, a
virtuoso without peers, much too good
for us. That he is hardly known or read
and is virtually ignored by academics
and  regularly mocked and patronized
by literary scum all testifies to our
vulgarity as a people. The
circumstances of his life turned him into
a half crazed misanthrope but as an
artist he is the definition of integrity and
purity. Ten or fifteen pages of Because I
Was Flesh is a terrific antidote to the
kind of lifeless, phony prose one is liable
to bump into in the pages of a magazine
like the New Yorker.

I liked that line about the literary scum.

The book ends with Dahlberg living in New
York, in Queens, and tending to his mother
during her last years, absent some of the
resentment and bitterness that plagued the
relationship and it is with these words he
wraps the saga of her life:

When the image of her comes up on a
sudden—just as my bad demons do—
and I see again her dyed henna hair, the
eyes dwarfed by the electric lights in
the Star Lady Barber Shop, and the
dear, broken wing of her mouth, and
when I regard her wild tatters, I know
that not even Solomon in his lilied
raiment was so glorious as my mother in
her rags.
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