Dorchen Speaks. Again.
To the editor,
[Re: “Curtains?” September 27]
Jack Helbig sits at a table in an Indian restaurant on Devon Street, looking not unlike a portly and unshaven Darren McGavin in the role of the hectored, down-at-heel reporter in the cult TV series The Night Stalker. He dabs his face with a napkin, sopping up the oil from a heavy, umpteen-course meal. He is unable to pay his tab. I take care of it, and although I assure him that it’s no problem, his obsequious gratitude is stammered forth with discomfort and shame. I have often, in the course of the yearlong interview process, heard him complain bitterly–and without a trace of gallows humor that I would choose to indicate here–about the low rate of pay at the Reader and his own inability to support himself by writing.
Is he depressed? “I sometimes have trouble getting motivated,” he admits, though the conversation steers clear of any mention of shock therapy. Is he frustrated by the miserable lot to which the critical intellectual is relegated under the yoke of a capitalist economy? “Oh, it’s unbelievable,” I’ve heard him opine on the sorry state of affairs.
Flashback to a Whitmanstide party at theater critic Tony Adler’s upscale residence in Evanston: Jack is popping food into his mouth and washing it down with pinot noir. A corpse-laden battlefield of empty wine bottles spreads like a vast testament to debauchery on the counter behind him. Has Jack swilled all that vino himself? Despite the presence of numerous other guests at the party, one might be uncharitable enough to wonder. He is certainly in a giddy and jovial mood. He and the sexy, intelligent, charming blond chippy on his arm, who he wants people to believe is his “wife,” have discussed leaving the party for the past two hours. But there is still more wine to be had, and they remain. Does Jack have a drinking problem? The subject is dutifully avoided. Is his marriage in trouble? “We differ in opinion on many things,” I paraphrase freely. Perhaps his marriage will be in trouble if I continue along this line of innuendo.
Flash forward: After over a year of Jack’s struggle with procrastination and, perhaps, schizophrenia, the article finally appears–and only two weeks after I’ve traveled thousands of miles away from where the publicity, such as it is, could do me any good. In any case I am portrayed as a troubled, unstable–if gifted–potential suicide. The photos are sexy, though, and the quotations from my work Jack has chosen testify to my writerly grace. Jack, who has often betrayed insight in reviewing me and in our conversations, is clearly a booster of my work, though his journalistic integrity obligates him to balance his enthusiasm with misleading distortions and errors.
Worst among these, as it injures friends of mine, is the notion that “the most [I] can say” about my klezmer band is that we are the best possible band at our level of technical skill. I can certainly say more about Shloinke: it’s a band that plays exciting, intriguing music with a loose and witty style. I could go on. Shloinke has been an arena of learning for me, opening a world of music and music theory I might never have explored. I have learned as much from being part of Shloinke as I have from any of the richest experiences of my life.
Another is that I haven’t performed recently, aside from Shloinke, in any remotely satisfying way. Untrue. I’ve invited Jack to many performances he has declined to attend. I will refrain from theorizing about what horrible inner battle has kept him away from the theater. Granted, I haven’t produced a full-length work since the last performance of Jewboy Cain in December, and granted I am reconsidering the kind and size of theater I want to do, but I have been far from inactive, and have experimented with different forms incorporating music and spoken text. My trip out west, far from being an abdication of a career, is an attempt to rethink and redevelop my artistic strategies, and to write, in a fresh and rent-free atmosphere.
Minor corrections: I never went to Hebrew school, nor did I ever prepare “for a bar mitzvah that never came.” It sounds so sad: young Dorchen, hoping and working to get his bar mitzvah, was robbed of it, causing an emotional scar that never healed. Actually, my parents asked me if I wanted a bar mitzvah and I chose not to have one, as did my brother and sister. We felt the ritual bore little relevance to our lives.
The bizarre quotation concerning my ex-girlfriend and the breakdown of my car (“everything was fine with my girlfriend until my car broke down”) makes it sound like we broke up because the car broke down. The interview this quotation was carelessly culled from took place about a month or two after the breakup. My ex and I remain friends, but the relationship was strained by the hour-long commute to work in the close quarters of her car, which she was gracious enough to drive me to work in.
I was not “replaced by a puppet” in the Redmoon Frankenstein production. Paul Tamney’s and my roles were played by the egotistical director.
It was fascinating for me to watch a discussion of Torah take place in Arabic. But I was not “surprised” that the Jews in Morocco spoke Arabic. Everyone in Morocco speaks Arabic. The child who wanted to tutor me was 13 years old, not 6. I met Ira Glick in Marrakech, not Casablanca. I was introduced to him by the Jewish community leader, the man who gave me the goofy suit, not the rabbi. The rabbi hated me. The fascinating wisdom of Ira Glick barely comes across in Jack’s retelling of the story, which I know can’t be my fault because I tell it the same way every time.
I was so smiling when I said I had a midlife crisis every two years. It was joke. How could it not be? I’m not claiming that I’m not a psychopath, but I do enjoy hyperbolizing my distress in what I hope is a humorous way. Then again, I’m probably covering up my inner pain.
Flashback to the Indian restaurant: I am involved in a new love relationship that nourishes and buoys me beyond belief, and which will continue to do so from as far away as California. Jack notices the difference in my demeanor, but will omit any mention of it in the article.
Jack reveals to me his writing method: He plays the tapes of the interviews and, as the actual words speed by, he jots them down in the form of hasty inaccuracies. Anything ambiguous or equivocal is gelled down to its most negative connotation. Great, I think to myself. A year of trying to be thorough and honest down the toilet.
Is Jack Helbig a bitter, depressed alcoholic schizophrenic gourmand with financial problems and a rotten marriage and a chippy on the side? Or is he a frustrated writer projecting his vicarious image of the tortured artist onto a gnomelike, genius sex god? Perhaps only time will tell. In any case, I wish him all the best in the battle with himself.
Much love to all,
Jack Helbig replies:
I am sorry Jeff Dorchen feels I have misrepresented him. Allow me to clear up some facts. In last season’s production of Frankenstein, the monster, the role Dorchen was to have played, was performed part of the time by a puppet and part of the time by a man in a mask. Danny Baron told me that he and Dorchen attended Hebrew school together. I assumed this was part of Dorchen’s pre-bar mitzvah education.