Submitted by Caleb Caudell
The sexual revolution promised freedom and pleasure. It shackled the self to ruinous desire. Moral climate follows changes on the ground. And plates had been shifting for a long time. The sexual revolution wasn’t a starting point, but rather the culmination of a series of social disruptions brought by technological and economic development.
People couldn’t stay together. They didn’t want to stay together. It’s not as though everything was adequate, and people thought they could do better. The bonds of family and the ties of history were thinning, breaking. The spirit of community dying, the force of religion fading. What remained was the individual and his enjoyment. Entertainment, commerce, identity. Endless accumulation of experience.
A feast of fantasy in which you still go hungry. The dream of Playboy gives way to the reality of a solitary man clutching his spiral notebook. Writing about what he had and let go, writing about what he’ll never have again.
Welcome to Hell, says “Bad” Billy Pratt. Hell comes at the end of the sexual revolution, bursts forth from the cracks in the shifting earth at a terminal stage of civilization. After the spirit drains from the quest for carnal delight, when all that’s left is mechanical pumping, tired theatrics and ego inflation. What looked like freedom from afar reveals itself up close as compulsion. Marriage, family, everything you rejected in the name of your individual interests: you can no longer have it, even if you wanted it.
Bad Billy Pratt is a single man in his 40’s, and this is his book about what it’s like to live in a media dominated society after all the old norms that governed sexual conduct have been ripped to shreds. He did what he wanted, he indulged. Casual sex, serial dating, movies, video games and rock music. It’s not as fun as it sounds.
Blog posts in book form. Welcome to Hell is episodic, like a life segmented by sitcoms. Each essay rehearses a few themes. You can only fall in love once or twice, when you’re young, and everything after is undead stumbling. Rather than living your events, you watch yourself perform them, you direct them with jaded amusement. The show is always playing, but you’ve seen it before, a thousand times, and you’re always looking for a new actress. Even though she looks like the old actress.
Art makes up for romantic failure. Writing is the pursuit of truth. With art, it’s possible to improve; time and effort bring us closer to perfection. With love and sex, the opposite tendency holds: time degrades, breaks us down, hollows us out. Each relationship takes a little piece of us, and in trying to get that piece back, we lose more and more.
Authenticity rules, at the expense of stability, success and happiness. We’ve been taught to get rid of people and careers when they no longer fit our identities. Feeling determines action. No such thing as doing what’s right. We do what feels right, even when it clashes with that’s best.
Repetition is a pillar in hell. Pratt’s writing is melodic, beautiful at times. It almost floats, sways with a chiming intonation. His sentences sing a mournful tune. But they also rest, catch their breath on recurring images and phrases. Not necessarily a stylistic flaw, it’s a feature of writing about sex as consumption in an age when people have been reduced to commodities.
Dark hair and large breasts. Holding hands at the Strawberry Festival. Adventureland. Throbbing waves of intensity.
The sound of a girlfriend’s name rings like a brand. Experiences that shine and vibrate in the moment pile up like garbage in a landfill. Each essay rocks back and forth in time. The recollection of events is nonlinear, an accurate reflection of the workings of memory. As we move closer to death, the past comes back to us cut up, mutilated, in distorted shapes. Getting older means the most recent is the farthest away, the least vivid, while the distant past towers over us, as a time when things could have taken a different turn.
Pratt views contemporary experience through the lens of popular culture. In many writers, this is an irritating ploy for relevance and relatability. But Pratt does something different. He tinges a screened reality with genuine nostalgia, giving pop culture productions a depth that the more sophisticated among us assume they lack.
It is all too easy to dismiss conventional entertainment, to separate the great works and commercial junk. But Pratt squares up to an uncomfortable truth: with the advent of the culture industry, entertainment is education. We don’t learn from Shakespeare or Dante, we learn from Jim Carrey and Kurt Cobain. Growing up in the age of spectacles, we must admit that our great tragicomic figures don’t come from the page, they come from gold records and blockbuster movies.
The plodding acts of ancient plays are nothing next to the rush of music video channels. The pace of consumption has only accelerated. From the mtv of Pratt’s childhood, where you had to sit in one place for your entertainment, to the current ubiquity of streaming services, where podcasts, albums, shows and movies flow into the ever-expanding cavity of the soul anytime, anywhere.
Pratt compares himself to semi-famous blogger and novelist Delicious Tacos. He says he’s just like him, or at least wants to be him. Tacos enjoys moderate internet success, writing with brutal honesty about his sexual urges, his relationship failures and his contempt for the modern world. The pseudonym protects his real life, his career, which he abhors. This is genuine art on the current scene: telling the truth in hiding to save something worthless. The only way to produce real writing is to use a fake name.
Bad Billy is a bit like Delicious Tacos. Both write blog entries about the ravages of casual sex. Both men are in their 40’s and seemingly clear eyed regarding their disillusionment. They’ve given up, yet they go on. But Billy’s prose is miles apart from Tacos. While Tacos short sentences hit like jabs, land like punches to the gut, Pratt’s sinuous lines wrap themselves around you and raise the hair on your neck. Both writers carry heavy emotional weight, they distribute it differently.
Friendship is glaringly absent from Welcome to Hell. Family is also missing. For all the attention given to dates, hookups, threesomes and body parts, there’s hardly a mention of friends and family. The reader is left to wonder. Did Billy ever have friends, a brother or two? What was his childhood actually like, outside of consuming media?
I ask these questions not to mock Billy’s past or his writing style, but to highlight a condition. Friendships matter less and less in our lives. The friends of our youth drift away. We acquaint ourselves with coworkers, maybe join a hobby group or take a class where we meet similarly disconnected adults who come and go. Belonging to no one and nothing, with nothing to fight and die for, a man obsesses over sex because it charges his days with an illusory sense of urgency.
The man of today is less like a wolf in a pack and more like an endangered tiger, solitary, alive for the hunt and dead to everything else. Billy shows what it’s like to age alone, to have lived past a man’s expiration date, with only the craft of writing and the game of dating left to occupy him. And at least when it comes to dating, the game loses its appeal.
In part because he has harnessed the influence of rock music, Billy knows how to write a hook. His writing is loaded with lines that pull you in, drag you along and lead you on his road to nowhere. Maybe to a fault, Pratt’s mastery of the sound of language has you nodding your head when you might not agree with what he’s saying.
We can ask if the prospects for finding love and maintaining relationships are as bleak as they appear in Welcome to Hell. The answer is yes and no. Yes, if we follow Pratt’s trajectory. His patterns are all too easy to slip into and repeat until they dump us into the grave. If we internalize the current cultural imperatives and see them through, we will likely end up with the same tattered past and dim future. Discontinuity has become the default. The individual is now assumed to bear immense psychological and spiritual pain from broken relationships, with pleasure seeking as the only palliative.
But the values of today aren’t written in stone, and though they flash everywhere all the time, there might be some hope of turning them off and downplaying their influence. Where Pratt let a lover go because he thought she wasn’t the one, maybe some of us can hold on, bolstering the bonds of love with steadfast action. Though we have a dysfunctional environment and warped economic model working against us.
Whether there is a real choice between isolation and togetherness, between love and sad sport fucking, Welcome to Hell is worth reading as a description of a disintegrating society and the emptiness of its principles.