People of my ilk have the despicable habit of taking a quick peek into the constituent parts of a person’s character upon being (unwisely) permitted into their homes. While some furtively open medicine cabinets to read prescription bottles and others nonchalantly kick open a refrigerator door to see who’s cutting carbs, intelligencers like me perform in plain sight. All it takes is a meander over to the book case.
E-books have curtailed my ability to figure out who is a pervert and who is a pedant, but during my time in prison, the limitations on property made the job all the easier, as you were technically allowed to keep only 25 books at a time. Looking at my own selection would have disclosed everything there was to know:
The Collected Works of Shakespeare: I was probably educated and had a taste for both the historical and dramatic;
Literary Marketplace: I wrote and had intentions of publishing;
In Search of Lost Time: I had the subject on my mind;
Ulysses, with two distinct guides to the novel: I was serious about Modernism and pretentious;
Naked Lunch: I had a history with drugs.
Of course, there are occasions when such sleuthing is misleading. I was excited to see a fellow prisoner with Infinite Jest on his locker, only to learn that he had pasted hardcore pornography into the pages so that he would be able to masturbate on bathroom trips during his GED classes. The book is long enough for many trips.
But what would a party monster read? I’m not being coy; I’m referring to Michael Alig, who was released from prison a few months ago after serving 17 years. In case you’re unfamiliar with the story: In the ‘90s, Alig was a big deal in the world of New York nightclubbing. He worked for Peter Gatien, creating spectacles at the four nightclubs that the eye-patched (and now deported) businessman ran. In the spirit of full disclosure, I might add that I too spent a summer working for Gatien, keeping a guest list at the Tunnel. But I was a small fish and actually managed never to get paid for my entire tenure, while Alig was twilight royalty, moving from Limelight to Tunnel to The Geraldo Rivera Show with a following of drug-taking pranksters and sycophants. But in 1996, it all ended in murder. A drug dealer named Angel Melendez was killed by Alig and a friend. The story has been told in a book (Disco Bloodbath by James St. James), a Hollywood movie (Party Monster starring Macaulay Culkin and Chloe Sevigny), several documentaries, countless articles and, soon, by Alig himself in the brilliantly titled memoir Aligula, which he wrote while incarcerated.
I knew Alig in two prisons and had a look at the memoir, which is fascinating. But I also know what he read, and that tells me the rest. The two books that did time with Alig were Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Turns out the party monster is also a bit of a book worm — or wyrm, which to the antiquarian means something more dragon-like, more monstrous.
I asked Alig why these two works were significant to him. He had read both before his apotheosis into the “King of the Club Kids” and then again upon becoming a prisoner. He admitted to feeling a kinship with Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov — not in the sense of rationalizing away the death of his victim, which he regrets greatly, but because it was important for him to work out the consequences of having taken a life, to work out whether there is a right and a wrong (he has since concluded that there is), to work out whether murder can be forgivable.
Alig explained to me that, on his first reading of Crime and Punishment as a youth, embarking on a quest for notoriety if not fame, Dostoyevsky had taught him all he needed to know about moral relativism and bending the rules of society for one’s benefit. The grand works of 19th century nihilism are dangerous reading for young minds.
And then there is de Sade, a nihilist of an altogether different sort. Alig is gay and has known it from the age of four; first reading the Marquis did not give him any kind of comfort with what got him off. If anything, reading through the works of that very dirty old nobleman desensitized the party-monster-to-be to the sexual fetishes he would encounter in the bruised, excited flesh of New York’s nightlife.
Alig read voluminously over the years, enjoying authors like Dave Eggers, David Sedaris and John Waters, but returning to de Sade in prison eventually did help him in the way that Hustler assisted his peers: It made for good one-handed reading. But as an older man paying for his crimes, he also found himself locked up just like the Marquis had been and could identify with the frustration of answering for one’s bad behavior and flirtations with moral relativism.
These days, Alig can joke. “Reading is fundamental — unless it’s from a drag queen,” he says, “reading” in this context meaning a litany of insults that a transvestite can inflict by criticizing one’s appearance. It rises to an art, apparently, amongst the verbal and cruel. The former party monster is very good at it.
Now that he is free, Alig continues to be a culture arbeiter. There are no more parties held at unlikely places like Burger King or subway stations, no more ecstasy feasts where the dress code is feathers and foam. Instead, Alig writes, paints and makes music. His lithographs are expressive, his column at Gay Times has a loyal readership.
In a song of Alig’s which he played for me, I couldn’t help noticing a refrain that asked over and over “What is good?” and “What is bad?” It appears he is still wrestling with the same questions that he first encountered in literature as a young man. Reading Aligula, you know it is a subject he has pondered deeply. It’s actually the same result as learning what his 25-book jailhouse library contained. We’ll leave his medicine cabinet closed.