How exactly does a man find his calling in life? Is it through constant soul-searching? A near-death experience? A certain feeling that just comes from deep inside? Who knows? All I know is that Bradley Smith’s A Personal History of Moral Decay is about precisely this. While on the surface it presents itself as Smith’s personal memoirs, a collection of vignettes spanning nearly fifty years of his life, the real story is about his lifelong search for purpose.
And while Smith did find his muse, it took him well into middle age to get there.
And yes, this is the same Bradley Smith who’s made a career out of Holocaust revisionism, the same guy who wrote The Man Who Saw His Own Liver. It’s not spoiling too much to state that Smith chose challenging the mainstream Holocaust narrative as his purpose in life. Smith himself doesn’t even write about it too much; the bulk of the book is concerned with his tumultuous journey there.
Moral Decay begins with a familiar story: “Joseph Conrad and the Monster from the Deep,” first published as part of Liver, details how Smith accidentally killed his baby brothers when he was a boy. From there, we fast-forward to various segments of his life, from his service in the Korean War to his exploits in Mexico to his career as a war correspondent in Vietnam:
De Marion said: “Last month I met this broad in the park in San Pedro. She had red hair and we got to talking. Her old man had left her. One thing led to another and she offered me seventy-five dollars a week if I’d live with her and her two little girls. I tried it for a week but the kids were too much. They’d jump up on my lap and call me daddy, shit like that. I kept gettin’ a hard-on. What kind of daddy would I be, I thought? Another week and I’d be finger-fucking both of them and by the time they were ten I’d be peddling their ass. Nah, I thought, this isn’t the life for me, and I come to sea again.
Smith writes with an understated simplicity, the argot of a man with little education but a lot of brains. His prose is raw and functional, conveying the anarchy of war, the raunchiness of his comrades, the sincerity of his lovers with honesty and conviction. This is what writing is supposed to look like, before McSweeney’s, the New York Review of Books and the ivory tower ruined it all. While the book can seem thematically disconnected at points, as Smith zips between different time periods, the hilarity of his stories and uncompromising self-examination holds Moral Decay together.
And that’s what really sells the book: honesty.
Young Bradley comes off as an odd blend of Billy Pilgrim and Prince Myshkin, as he criss-crosses the country and the globe looking for adventure. Smith ruthlessly depicts his younger self as a twit: an endearing twit, a talented twit, but a twit nonetheless. Well into his thirties, Bradley can’t figure out what to do with his life. He flits from job to job in a haze, crashing at his parents’ house in between escapades. He dissolves his marriage with his first wife out of boredom. He tries on every hat he can find—soldier, journalist, bookseller, bullfighter—rejecting them all when the reality doesn’t match up with the dream. All the while, he keeps writing, his gormless navel-gazing failing to impress his friends or family:
“Then I saw that the producer, my aunty’s friend, was masturbating. We were in this private little screening room, you know how they have them, and he saw me staring at him. It was the most degrading thing I had ever seen. Here was this big burly man smoking a stogie and masturbating and saying: ‘Hey, this is the life, eh, Kid? Wha’cha say?’ And it was ten o’clock in the morning.”
What motivates Smith through these long years of shiftless drudgery is his belief in fairness, an odd sort of naivete in which he just wants to live and let live. It’s this fundamental belief that convinces him to take up the mantle of Holocaust revisionism just before his fiftieth birthday, on the premise that he believes the Germans are being unfairly slandered. Smith’s not German himself, mind you; he just hates oppression in all its forms. And just his luck: the cause he dedicates his life to is one that alienates him from most of his friends:
Reading the Sunday paper I find that Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, wants to force me by law to participate in a program (Medicaid) to pay for abortions on demand by pregnant women. I don’t want to. Glasser suggests I don’t want to because of my religious beliefs. I don’t have any. Not only does Glasser want to direct my acts of conscience by the threat of force, but he wants to justify his initiation of violence by falsely attributing to me beliefs I don’t have.
I suppose that’s life: we can’t choose what we get passionate about.
Reading Moral Decay made me wonder if I’d ever have my own revelation. I assume at some point, I’m going to look back on the writing I produced during this period and think, “What the hell was I thinking?” Of course, if Smith hadn’t spent his twenties and thirties in a state of perpetual ennui, he wouldn’t have gained the perspective that inspired him to make defending Holocaust revisionism his life’s work. I’m pretty sure that wherever I’m heading, the period of my life where I was posting ridiculously offensive blog posts will have helped me—in small way—get there. Each step we take, even the missteps, makes us grow as men. Yes, we’re going to make mistakes, say and do stupid shit along the way. That’s life.
Without those mistakes—without the cold, hard lessons they teach us—we’d never figure out what to do with ourselves.
The other noteworthy aspect of Moral Decay is the sense of satisfaction it exudes. Not the smug satisfaction of a writing workshop dimwit who just learned how to use metaphors, but the serenity of a man who has achieved everything he set out to do. I don’t know Bradley Smith personally, but it’s obvious that he’s near the end of his life. In contrast to the mortality-driven panic that grips most old farts as they seek ever more expensive ways to prolong their pathetic lives, Smith seems content with the way things have unfolded for him. He spent the first half of his life having fun adventures and the second tirelessly working for an unfashionable but noble cause.
If he were to pass away tomorrow, this book would be the perfect epitaph.
That’s A Personal History of Moral Decay. If you enjoy funny memoirs filled with adventure, raunchy language and sex, you’ll love Smith’s contribution for that alone. But peer past the fucking and the four-letter words and you’ll find a powerful story about a man seeking to find his place in the world. More importantly, Moral Decay is about having the courage to follow through on your convictions even when doing so means you may lose everything.
Ultimately, it’s that conviction that determines who you become.
Click here to buy A Personal History of Moral Decay.