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On the Catskill


Tom keeps insisting on painting this stuff. Every day, up there on a grassy hill. Even on the cloudy days, he's painting glimmering reflections off the river. What keeps him at it? I don't know. He has some idea about creating a mythology of this place; of proving to someone out there that he's found the right place to make a life for himself and for us. That he's got something right in his life.

I don't know about any of that. Truly, I don't. The first time he took me up here, it was so cold at night that I thought we would freeze in the little house. This was, of course, after we dug the front walk out and the wood dried adequately for him to get a fire going.

Next morning, he put on his coat and -- it was astonishing, really -- went out into the drifts to paint. He couldn't possibly have felt his hands for more than a few minutes. Sure enough, he came back to the house after about an hour. The paint had frozen. Or maybe his brushes had proven too stiff in the cold. I can't remember which it was to be honest.

But then it was just us in the house. The silence. The crackling fire. I started to understand what he wanted to get out here, so far from the city. Still, he became something different when we went up to the mountains. He softened and opened up a little more. Treated me more kindly. Obsessed less about the work, aside from his insistence that he complete some of it every day.

The results were strange to me. Not realistic. Not naturalistic in any true kind of way. They reflected his sense of the place, and, I thought, something about the role that he figured I was settling into in his life. The role that they started to play to the public, though, was what I really think he was making the pictures for.

We would never be rich off of them. He made that clear, even then. But he thought that the goodwill generated by the work would be enough to elevate our status to something that would serve as a proxy for actually belonging to the class to which he aspired so clearly.

It pained me to see what happened to him as a result of the labor. But what felt worse was to watch his relationship to the spaces that had initially inspired him change at the same time. These mountains are not mountains. They're hills. Pretty hills. But still: they are not much more than forested knolls compared to what else I have seen in this country and elsewhere. His delusions about the mythic scale -- about the region's ability to inspire others -- seemed misguided.

That others were convinced suggested to me, for a while at least, that I was the one who must be mad in some way. Looking at the mountains through the wrong end of a telescope. Or just missing something fundamental in their nature that truly was captured by the paintings but not the eyes.