Miller remembers going to California, “working like a slave in the orange grove at Chula Vista.” He feels he is still not coming into his own. He wanders through Arizona on his way to California and is dismayed that the geographical reality of the place does not seem to correspond to his Brooklyn dreams of it: “I feel so terribly deceived that I begin to weep.” He feels despondent, alone, lost without Hamilton: “Now, Roy Hamilton, I need you!” He remembers being similarly deceived by his mother, who took him down Humboldt Street when he was a child – a ritzy avenue near his neighborhood in Brooklyn, a “different, more glamorous, more mysterious” street which exerted a fascination on young Henry – promising him “something spectacular as a reward for accompanying her,” something “which never materialized.” As a child, Henry would try desperately to believe his mother’s promises even when he knew they were too far-fetched to be sincere. He was full of earnestness, faith: “That people could make promises without ever having the least intention of fulfilling them was something unimaginable to me. Even when I was most cruelly deceived I still believed; I believed that something extraordinary and quite beyond the other person’s power had intervened to make the promise null and void.” Now, in California or Arizona, Miller feels he is perishing, and he recalls another man “left to perish quietly”: his father, a man who, like the promise never fulfilled, “was deserted at the moment of his greatest need.”
What follows is the story of Miller’s father’s – his conversion and his subsequent disillusionment. A long-time heavy drinker and far from religious, Mr. Miller swears off alcohol abruptly one year and falls terribly ill as a result. His swearing off is the first time he has ever shown real resolution about anything, and he sticks “to his guns,” even when his family members look on incredulously. His drinking pals drift away, and he finds himself alone. He is stricken with a stomach ailment and becomes very weak.
Henry’s mother, worried, sends her son to the doctor to find out in confidence what is really wrong with his father. The doctor tells him his father has no chance of recovery and will be dead in less than six months. Henry returns home and tells his family that the father’s condition is a serious one, but that if he takes good care of himself he’ll pull through. Mr. Miller is cheered by this and begins very diligently dieting. Once he is stronger he starts taking daily walks, sitting by the cemetery for prolonged periods.
Then, one day, Mr. Miller meets a Congregationalist minister who belongs to one of the neighboring churches. Just like that, he becomes religious. As Miller describes it, “he blossomed forth and that little sponge of a soul which had almost atrophied through lack of nourishment took on such astounding proportions that he was almost unrecognizable.” The old man starts saying little prayers before eating; he recommends that Henry read specific chapters from the Bible, even though as far as his son knows he’s never looked at a Bible before in his entire life; he attends all church services and functions and retreats from sobriety to espouse “moderation” as a doctrine. He even lectures Uncle Ned on the point. Ned has been trying off and on to go sober for years and is currently on the wagon. Mr. Miller, to the shock of those watching, offers Ned a glass of wine, and with it a speech on “the virtue of moderation.” For days thereafter, Uncle Ned sips his alcohol – “only a thimbleful,” he says – and seems altogether a new man. Unfortunately, the change doesn’t last. One afternoon at a picnic, Ned develops “an extraordinary thirst” and practically empties the beer keg before going on a “rampage.” He winds up engaging in a bar brawl and getting a concussion from which he never recovers.
Meanwhile, Mr. Miller gets promoted to the position of “elder” in the church. He seems imbued with a newfound passion, a burgeoning sense of pride. Then, one evening, he returns home with a sad look on his face. The minister is going away; he’s been offered “a more advantageous position in the township of New Rochelle” and has decided to take the offer. “We need him here,” Mr. Miller says. He tries to plead with the minister, but to no avail. At the same time, he defends the minister’s decision to his own family, explaining that he is sure the minister is just as unhappy with the situation as he is, but that he is needed in New Rochelle and has no choice but to go. With the minister gone, Mr. Miller falls into a deep melancholy – “a sadness encrusted with disillusionment, with despair, with futility.” He becomes lifeless, drifts through his days “expecting nothing” from people. “He was deader than dead because alive and empty,” Miller writes.
Miller turns now to Grover Watrous, another born-again whom he knew as a kid. Back then, Grover was something of a bad apple. He would “smoke like a trooper” and curse whenever he had the chance, but as he was a gifted piano player his mother indulged his every bad habit, allowing him to smoke so much because he was a “genius and a genius had to have a little liberty.” His father, on the other hand, called him “a lazy son of a bitch who could make a lot of noise.”
Around the same time as Mr. Miller’s collapse into disillusionment, Grover finds God. He starts “scattering benedictions” left and right, stops cursing, dresses immaculately. People say he’s gone mad, but he acts with deep certainty now, profound conviction, and he never once wavers.
Miller returns to the “present” and to two of his friends: Hymie and Steve Romero. Hymie is obsessed by his wife’s “rotting ovaries”; he sticks with her, but when making love to her often imagines he is making love to another woman, so that he may have, in his mind, a “brand new fuck with a brand new cunt” whenever he wants. Steve, on the other hand, is clean like an “egg” - not very bright, but sturdy and direct. Hymie is filthy, “a toad” who sees sex everywhere. He is as dirty-minded as Curley, but less successful. Miller describes “the general sexual confusion which prevailed at this time” and recounts the tale of a girl who lives upstairs in Hymie’s place and who is “obviously a simpleton.” One night, Miller peeks into a bathroom while the girl is inside and sees her stroking and petting her genitals in front of the mirror. Almost delirious with excitement, he lies on a bed in the dark and tries to lure the girl to him when she exits the bathroom. She winds up standing by his side while he strokes her groin. Then she goes down on him. They make love without saying a word.
Veronica, on the other hand – another woman with whom Miller has sexual relations - seems to think too much, to get distracted by a dozen irrelevant thoughts whenever sex is about to rear its head. Miller writes that her “cunt” itself seems to think, to act as a brain. This resistant girl, who will beckon you with her sensuality but then push you away at the last moment, “was like a pigeon trying to fly with its legs caught in a steel trap. She pretended she had no legs. But if you made a move to set her free she would threaten to moult on you.”
While Veronica has a “talking cunt...[that] talks you out of a fuck,” Evelyn, another of Miller’s conquests, has “a laughing cunt”: always telling jokes. The funniest woman Miller has ever known, she likes to perform “ventriloqual” acts with her genitals. From one woman to another, Miller drifts and feels like a “vagabond,” but he achieves a kind of purity, or sense thereof, through sex. He thinks often of death, and “the fright of extinction” solidifies him. He reaches a “state of vacuity” and is “no more.”
The extended digression concerning Grover Watrous is quintessential Henry Miller. In a passage of typical exuberance, he writes: “And the sight of this river of life [referring to the river flowing from the Lord’s throne] was to Grover like the bite of a thousand fleas in his lower colon.” Going from the water of God to colons in a single sentence is a defiantly transgressive move that also underlines Miller’s central preoccupations: the body, the corporeal, and the way in which the invisible may lie within. Again, Miller seeks out the essence of things, the indefinable object, but underneath the surface of physical artifacts he is in fact looking for something larger, grander, more mysterious – God, perhaps.
Miller’s ambivalent relationship to religion finds full expression in the story of his father, cruelly abandoned by the minister who had given him such hope. Roy Hamilton – in many ways Miller’s own minister – leaves him, but Miller never seems to blame him for doing so; it was simply the natural order of things. The Congregationalist’s departure for New Rochelle, on the other hand, is viewed as a betrayal, much like Miller’s mother’s false promises. The minister is simply going after more money, but couching his reasons in a selfless guise: the people of New Rochelle “need him.” Without explicitly declaring it, Miller expresses his disdain for this minister and his decision, and he writes with horror and indignation of his father, “searching for Cain and Abel but encountering no living soul.” The Church, the Bible, God have all lied to him, like the mother on Humboldt Street, and he is left lost and alone.
Grover, on the other hand, never loses his faith. And it is again classic Henry Miller to view this persistence with mostly admiration, even if the belief itself is faulty. “At the time I simply thought that Grover was a harmless fanatic, yes, a little ‘cracked,’ as my mother had insinuated,” Miller writes. “But every man who has caught the truth of certitude was a little cracked and it is only these men who have accomplished anything for the world.” Grover is joyous, infinitely alive. He is free of uncertainties, his energy is bountiful and “inexhaustible.” Of course, to be inexhaustible implies a kind of perpetual fullness, which can in turn imply emptiness, a stagnant, unchanging state. Miller does describe Grover as “alive and empty.” Like Roy Hamilton, he is confident in the midst of confusion, a straight arrow in a thicket, but unlike Hamilton, he is not necessarily wise: “He may have been wrong, but he was certain.”
Miller does acknowledge that there was a greatness in Grover’s certainty, even in his insanity. With Grover’s pure joy comes shallowness, but the one-note nature of the man also suggests that he has hit upon some essential truth. “It is a pity,” Miller concludes, “that he had to use Christ for a crutch, but then what does it matter how one comes by the truth so long as one pounces upon it and lives by it?” Grover, then, remains a mysterious figure: not quite a model to aspire to, like Hamilton, but still possessed of something unique, something great. As with Hamilton, many people find Grover strange, or even demented; Miller is not one to disagree, but he is drawn to just that “cracked” quality, the thing that separates the greats from the mediocrities. Anything that breaks out of the mold is worthwhile; society’s degenerates, or Bible-thumping loonies in this case, are preferable to its upstanding, cookie-cutter denizens.
More religious references return, in a considerably different vein, when Miller writes later of his various sexual liaisons. From Evelyn to Veronica, passing through all different kinds of “cunts” (a term Miller is quite fond of), our hero/narrator tries to reach for or put to words that which is “unmentionable” – namely, “pure fuck and pure cunt.” He has decided, through his experiences, that what holds the world together is sex, but “fuck, the real thing, cunt, the real thing, seems to contain some unidentified element which is far more dangerous than nitroglycerin.” He refers to “the Land of Fuck” and “the one cunt which is all,” and the “super-cunt” as if he were writing of gods and goddesses. The prose achieves a crazed exhilaration, but through the ecstatic stylistics runs the same question that animates Miller’s entire oeuvre: where does one find meaning in the modern world?