The Fourteenth Ward
Miller recounts his childhood in the Fourteenth Ward in Brooklyn. This was the only world he knew, a fantastic and insular place where he played in the streets and lived freely. The boys in the streets were the real heroes of his world.
Other memories include the large battleships in the Nay Yard, a man named Rob Ramsay who went to war and killed himself, the weekend playing and perambulations, the tides and weather of the river that are in his blood, and the sight of the Brooklyn Bridge against the sky.
Childhood and youth were times unblemished by fragmentation and splitting and change, but adulthood is different.
He remembers the moment when he discovered Dostoevsky, and nothing was ever the same.
A Saturday Afternoon
Miller is in Paris and feels more at home there than he did in America. He loves riding his bike around the city and meeting people. He feels part of the weave of the city’s fabric and is grateful for the way Paris seems to anticipate his needs. Specifically, there is a wonderful urinal in public and he reminisces on other perfect places for urinals in the city.
Miller’s thoughts also turn to Robinson Crusoe as detailing a life before fragmentation and modernity; now men can never be happy. They are always taken by something like cancer or syphilis or the pressures of life. Writers like Rabelais and Apuleius and the contributors to the King James Bible, along with Jonathan Swift, are the ones with a “salty tang,” the zest of life, the real cruelty, and the real boredom.
Third or Fourth Day of Spring
Miller is in Paris now but in stream-of-consciousness. He thinks of his childhood home; syphilis; the fact that the world is neither good nor bad; that there is no such thing as past, present, or future; that his story was only one of many. He feels mad and wants to get out of America.
The Angel is My Watermark!
In this section, Miller explains the process by which he created a masterpiece of painting. One day, he visited a few art museums and returned home and pulled out his typewriter. He felt inspiration flooding him; the force of some external dictation overwhelmed him and he wrote page after page after page. He took a break for food and drink but even that seemed to be fueling his creative force. Finally he paused, and ate again; this time it felt like his own body eating.
At this point, he realized that what he really wanted to do was to paint something. He looked at a book of paintings by inmates of an insane asylum and admired how they painted so much. At first, he thought of simply copying one of them, but that seemed like the worst form of plagiarism.
He decided to begin with a horse. Each body part seemed impossible to do perfectly and he became vexed at how hard it was to capture this quintessential image of art history. He chronicled the other additions, the erasures and the stops and starts and triumphs and vexations: a man tickling the horse, the bridge he is looking over, a mountain that then becomes a volcano, a cemetery, and an angel. He then added color, and, randomly, a gondola.
Finally he washed the painting, scrubbed it, and laid it out flat. This was the finished product, and he claims the angel is his watermark.
The Tailor Shop
In this section, Miller reflects on his years as a young man in Brooklyn, particularly focusing on his father, whom he called “the old man,” and the tailor shop where the man worked. His father loved drinking and eating and would leave work often for a break. He had many friends in the neighborhood, but over the years almost all of them passed away. One of them found Jesus, one of them became famous by pretending to be the Crown Prince but was truly quite depressed below his cheerful demeanor, and Miller seduced the wife of another after the man died.
The old man had many customers and Miller felt bad for the people like him who had to work with obnoxious rich people, but overall his father frustrated him with his behavior. His mother also annoyed him with her complaining.
Miller was married in his early twenties and found his own wife to be annoying like his parents, but he was pleased that they had tremendously good sex after she had one of her angry fits of sobbing.
The extended Miller family often got together, whether it was for holidays or any other time they felt the need to gather. His Uncle George and Tante Melia both suffered from bouts of craziness due to their poor spouses, though Melia gradually descended more and more into insanity and eventually had to be committed.
Generally Miller ruminates on how he suffered at this time, how he once felt like there were good things in store but now he did not.
Miller and a friend pay a visit to this eccentric but friendly man and his wife, daughter, and three servants. Things are charmingly strange in the house and “Jab,” as he is known, speaks volubly about numerous things such as poetry and real estate.
Into the Night Life
Miller recounts dreamy, surreal vignettes that are not linked together in any meaningful way. They are perplexing and mesmerizing scene of city and nature, sex and death, meaningless and peace.
Walking Up and Down in China
In this section, Miller decides France (Paris) is China because it is a foreign land. He details his perambulations, his encounters with a dead man on the street, his ruminations on the fragmentation of identity, what plagues the world, and his old life in Brooklyn. He concludes by grimly saying that another war is on the horizon and all the boys he knew from home will have their brains blown out.
Miller links a series of memories: walking through the ghetto, going to a hole-in-the-wall church service and seeing a dead body, a burlesque show, an adulterous wife of a friend, and sitting in front of his childhood home. He says America is great if one can just be a man and ask for what he wants, and that one can find solace in one's own internal book.
Miller paints a vivid picture of the noisy, vibrant, nature-defying, crowded city and its denizens. He indicates that humanity has achieved much, including the ability to kill millions at the push of a button. There seems to be an end at hand, and he wants to simply sit and meditate on his own essence.