The Occidental Hotel by John Bentley Mays
The Occidental Hotel, published in 2020 by Guernica Editions, is a novel by the late John Bentley Mays, who passed away in 2016 at the age of 75. The fact of its existence is as exceptional as its literary quality, being the work of a critic and not a dedicated novelist. Mays lived most of his life as a critic of art and architecture, writing for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Canadian Art magazine and other publications. He was a gifted interpreter with tremendous learning and profound insight but one devoted to exegesis and delving into what he saw, not to invention or to personal expression. His critical voice was itself original, intellectually and stylistically unique and deeply persuasive, but he was careful to stay on the reactive side of the line and not to try to become a creator. For many years, he believed that he simply could not do so.
And then, quite by surprise, later in life he began writing the startling and vivid fiction that became The Occidental Hotel while attempting to write a second book on depression— his first book, In the Jaws of the Black Dogs: A Memoir of Depression, having been a widely read and respected autobiographical work on the subject. The non-fiction work he had started was intended to have in it a strong element that discussed bigotry and hatred and the relationship of depression to hatred—cultural and personal, societal and individual. Mays was highly disturbed and alarmed in recent years, especially during the rise of Donald Trump, by the tide of racism and prejudice, hatred and rage that we have witnessed, understanding it to be an existential threat to our society. He did not live to see Trump elected but presciently took him seriously and feared him more than most people did, even early on in his buffoonish, repulsive political career. His election and what followed would not have surprised John Bentley Mays.
Mays moved to Canada in the late ’60s and settled in Toronto, but he came from the deep South. Born in 1941 and raised in rural Louisiana, as a mature man he spoke about being born into and educated in a profoundly racist place and time, and he feared that if he hadn’t left, he could have become disfigured by, and inured to, the evil bigotry in which he was instructed. In truth, as an adult he was a profoundly moral person who was appalled by prejudice and violence; his genuine belief in Christianity both complicated and comforted him in his egalitarianism and generosity of spirit (he was raised a Baptist but changed his affiliation several times, eventually joining the Catholic Church, and stayed there despite becoming critical of it). But his relationship to the bigoted culture of his youth—he lost both parents while still a child and was heavily impacted by that as well—stayed with him as a ghostly reminder that evil is far more present and pervasive than we’d like to believe, in liberal society.
The Occidental Hotel is a shockingly good book on this subject. And although it touches on many ideas and things, and is deeply pleasurable to read because of the masterful quality of Mays’s gifted language, it is finally and fundamentally a critique and satire of Western white supremacy and the attending wickedness and lunacy of that historical and current force. The book is narrated by an unnamed man who superficially resembles Mays himself in his biography (from the deep South, born in the same era, parents deceased early on and raised in a patrician environment). But this narrator, who is in himself a phenomenal literary invention, is by turns rancid and reasonable, unhinged and cogent, and always shifting, unreliable in his presentation of reality and his own perspective; he is a savage ironist while being unable to escape the ironies of his own existence, upbringing and experiences. It would be inappropriate to give away too much about the story in a review because this is a book that has to be read and reread, and will bear and reward doing so.
Briefly, this bizarre narrator, whose chronology is blurred (he seems to be speaking to us from a moment in time near to the millennium), is obsessed with a German contemporary artist called Jupp, who is explicitly modelled on the life and career of Joseph Beuys, and, even more oddly, somewhat aware of the actual Beuys himself, who also comes into the novel. But it is his cipher Jupp, and his life from the Hitler youth to the Luftwaffe and on to his artistic epiphany in the 1950s after retreating to a wooden box in his studio, that the narrator pores over; he seems to know an enormous amount about things he could not realistically know. In fact, the narrator is himself a writer, producing “pages” in virtual hibernation somewhere in the American Southwest suggestively (and banally) named “The Occidental Hotel.” He is writing whatever it is for his ghostly companion, Alexander, who is vaguely described as a curious and adventurous child roaming the hotel with no supervision but whose tastes and interests are anything but innocent and whose existence is not formally certain. Together, they live in and haunt the hotel, which is a defunct, formerly segregated, southern luxury hotel that now exists as a kind of semi-operational shell, with no guests other than the narrator and Alexander, and the former manager, who also floats around the place, all living interstitially and effectively as interlopers. They interact (and somewhat identify) with the coyotes nearby, and sometimes shoot a deer in the parking lot to have meat in the winter. Many weird stories are told in this novel, including, for example, the ridiculous tale of the narrator’s illegitimate half-brother, who goes on a mad quest for a mythical and mystical Aryan history. After noting all this, it’s also true that the book is at times hysterically funny, with delicious comedy lurking under the narrator’s deadpan delivery but only if the reader can cope with and accept the corrupt and dark mind that spins the yarn. This mind is the narrator’s, and not the author’s mind. We sense that as this book was being written, and Mays was carried away with the urgent need to write it, he performed some kind of exorcism on himself—and possibly on the reader— destroying, by creation, the demonic potential that he feared in himself and in us all. ❚
The Occidental Hotel, by John Bentley Mays, Guernica Editions, 2020, 268 pages, paperback, $20.00.
Benjamin Klein is a Brooklyn- and Montreal-based artist and writer, and co-director of McBride Contemporain in Montreal.