Joe West’s Brother
The beautiful thing about fighting fascism, eighty-nine-year-old Joe West was saying, is that if you die, you die on the side of every work of art ever created, even the bad ones, you die on the side of every book and every song and every painting, and every one of them belongs to you now as a memorial and a remembrance.
We thought he was just being poetic.
Listen, he said, I’m not just trying to sound poetic. What does every book and every song and every painting say? It says I don’t know, but here’s something. What does fascism say? It doesn’t even get to that. It says, I know.
Eighty-nine-year-old Joe West had a twinkle in his eye towards the rise of fascism in America. He looked like a little kid when he talked about it. I had to admit that I’d asked Celine to the old black-and-white movie playing at the public library partly because I thought we could use a reminder.
How’d you know? Celine said to me.
How’d I know what?
That this would be the best place to come.
That’s an easy one, I said. Just go wherever they’re giving something away for free.
I don’t know about countries, Joe West said. Remember that America took its time to say anything about Hitler and Mussolini and those guys. The most reliable enemy fascism has ever had has been art.
He’s a writer, Celine said, nudging me.
Then you’re a soldier, Joe West said.
I don’t know about that.
Yes you do. It’s all right. Modest soldiers are the best kind. We’re going to need you, you know.
I had to admit it was nice to be needed. I hadn’t heard that a lot. But I didn’t want to write like I thought I was needed. I wanted to keep writing like the world was acting like it didn’t need writers but that secretly it did.
I didn’t want to write like fascism was a target exactly either. I just wanted to aim for people, and figured if I did that, fascism would look very small along the way.
I wanted to write like one man, perhaps even Joe West himself, was bigger than all of fascism.
We settled in for a black-and-white movie from a time when people were thinking of fascism a great deal. I thought of all those people who’d watched it back then and I got more wrapped up in them than in the movie, which seemed like a pretty anti-fascist way to watch it, to tell the truth.
What if fascism is just an angry way to be sad? I said.
Shhh, Celine said.
I thought about how important it was to have a sad way to be sad, though I didn’t want to discount the importance of having an angry way to be angry. The characters in the movie seemed to agree.
I don’t think we’re going to out-anger the fascists, I thought. We may out-sad them, but I don’t know if that wins you anything.
I believed Joe West when he said that fighting fascism was on the side of every work of art ever created, but weren’t people just going to get tired of art again and want something clean and simple and straight, even if it was a lie? Even if it was a very big lie, because the truth was so sprawling and unkempt? You could walk past the library and see all the life in the books, or you could walk past it and see a building, but one of those wore you out more than the other.
Before we left, I asked Joe West how he knew all that. He was staying behind to put the chairs back away.
My brother, he said. He died in the Spanish Civil War. 1937. When I read a good book, I see him. When I hear a good song, I see him.
I wonder if he saw him during the movie, Celine said after we left.
Hell, I said—which was not directed at her but at the world, which she knew, which was another thing I liked about her—he must have seen him. I saw him, and I didn’t even know the guy.