Legs Get Led Astray by Chloe Caldwell (A Review by Ryan Werner)

Future Tense Books

168 pgs/$12

I remember being young because I still am. What is there to say about it? I met a lot of people, didn’t have sex with most of them, and then either left them or was left behind by them. This is the story of youth.

I wrote lots of things down, but I made up almost all of them: short stories about airplane-fueled daylight savings time break-ups in three different time-zones, cutting an old man’s head off with a Civil War era saber and driving it down to Mississippi; songs about Robocop and muscle cars, Porta-Potty sex at the county fair. If it was fiction, I made sure of its posterity. If it was true, I let it fend for itself.

Chloe Caldwell is an obsessive stenographer. This is about her and her book of personal essays, Legs Get Led Astray (Future Tense Books, 2012), but it’s about lots of other things, too. That’s why I can talk about myself and you can think about yourself when you read it.

It’s why I can talk about Lucinda Williams, the way she feels things through song. Lucinda had writer’s block for about six years, and then, all of sudden, she became unstoppable. On 2001’s Essence—her first album after the album that broke her through the block—she sang, “I don’t want your drugs and I don’t want your money / I just want to steal your love.” That’s what Legs Get Led Astray is all about. The drugs and the money are there, and they’re good, but the only thing that matters is being the thief.

 The thing about Legs Get Led Astray is that it has nothing to do with itself. The only thing it draws attention to is Chloe. This isn’t to say it’s a tome of self-centeredness. She’s just a screamer, and there’s a sort of magic of unawareness surrounding the picture of her that the book paints. She comes across as the girl you date at camp or your best friend for a year or two. Call it the bittersweet ephemerality of an ever-growing life, I guess.

As a document of truth, Legs Get Led Astray couldn’t be more pure. All of the exes are various forms of dead. Extemporaneous lovers are complicated. Kids say the darnedest things. Orgasms are cool. These are the tropes of literature and life, but the essays in here transcend cliché because they have the details. In fact, there are long stretches of the book where the stories are nothing more than an in depth hail of bullets, detail after detail after detail. It’s put to best effect in the first essay, “Barney,” where Chloe chronologically lines up her nostalgia and lets us pull the strings together in deciding what it’s made her. In other places, especially when combined with the second person, the repetition has a tendency to take the mantra effect a bit too far, leading to a bit of zoning-out from the sheer perpetuation of it all. The book is so charming, though, that it’s hard to fault it for leaning heavily on a listing technique.

 “My mother comes to visit. I am having a hangover from heroin. She comes into the café I work at on Grand Street. I am behind the counter. She sits at the counter. I have my hair in braids. There is no air conditioning. I am so hot and depressed and want to reach out for help. A few days later, I receive a letter from her about how much she loves me and I fall in love with her all over again.

 I sleep with a French man who is a thief and I fall a little bit in love with him.

 My brother is leaving for Europe and I am sitting in the bathroom writing him a letter on the typewriter and crying.” – from “That Was Called Love”

 

What this compulsive stacking of details really provides is a duality, a lucid reverie that propels the book and organically forms the overall narrative. It’s a simple message: I’m Chloe, and I’m learning. And she keeps learning over and over again. Legs Get Led Astray stands on its own as a realized work, but this promise of constant discovery is the most exciting element of the book. I’m engaged by The Legendary Luke, his addictions and afflictions and his role in Chloe’s life as the magician’s top hat—is the thing that’s empty really empty? I’m intrigued by the aftermath and handling of an orgy with her friend Lauren, the way the hunger of the stomach tangles with the hunger of the soul, the pussy, the cock. And I’ve never been to Berlin, but seeing what going there means to a young, intelligent girl at a stage in her life where short-term gratification is the only thing that matter is beyond compelling.

Chloe—and I’ve been calling her Chloe, will continue to call her Chloe and not Caldwell or Ms. Caldwell, because, like anyone else who reads this book, I have dredged into her life and care about her beyond the limitations of writing—is working through things. The Legendary Luke shows up in many more essays than just the one that bears his name. Same with the orgy and Berlin and her mother and masturbating and GChat and everything else.  It’s a personalized Venn diagram, and this promise that I’m talking about is the one that will be fulfilled in twenty, thirty years, when these people and events and actions have done what all good pieces of history do, remaining constant as we move not beyond them, but around them.

There’s a density to the ways in which Chloe feels things. When the part of her that reads diaries she’s not supposed to read and writes diaries she can’t help but write meets the part of her that is reaching for truth beyond feeling, the results are deadly. In essays like “Sincere Sensation” she takes the scenes and lets them play out, and it is in these moments that her skills as a writer shine.

 “In the morning, he was up listening to jazz and rolling joints and cooking for everyone that had slept over. He was wearing a necklace made of wood that belonged to my mother. I sat down at the table. He was whistling. He was explaining something to me and put his arm around my shoulder in a joking, cliché, overacted sort of way, and then laughed and said, “You think I am very strange man?”

 I laughed.

 On my way out the door into the snow to the bodega, he slipped an index card in my trench coat, on which was scrawled:

 Last night I touch a girl after midnight and she moaned of a god who I hope was me.

 He would walk around my room, putting on my stuff and putting my stuff in his pockets. I didn’t care. We were walking to brunch one morning and he held his arms out to show me. Gold rings, beaded bracelets, rubber bands, pins on his sleeves.” – from “Sincere Sensation”

Legs Get Led Astray is many things. Depending on your age, it’s the future or the present or the past. It’s genuine, your life as it dresses and undresses and keeps one article of clothing from each outfit until, eventually, you are sweating and swearing and screaming and laughing. It’s your heart learning to be a beacon of honesty for the rest of your being, regardless of whether or not you’ve had this many drugs or jobs or lovers. It’s a document of your fears, the ones that are inside because you swallowed them and the ones that are inside because you can’t figure out a way to get the goddamn things out. Above all else, it’s yours. Just yours.

*

Ryan Werner cleans bathrooms at a Wal-Mart in the Midwest. He also plays guitar and does vocals in the sleaze rock band Legal Fingers and runs the music/literature project Our Band Could Be Your Lit.

  • Great review, Ryan. Been excited about this collection for some time now and your take on it made me look forward to it even more.