In 1961 I was introduced to Tom Veitch in the apartment of a Columbia undergraduate classmate of mine. Tom was a recent dropout, due to a spiritual crisis, but was hanging around the neighborhood, said to be a fiction writer. When I mentioned that I had to go buy some books, Tom asked if he could tag along.
After browsing a bit, I found the volumes I needed and paid for them, then walked over to tell Tom I was ready to go. He was holding a stack of books that went from his groin almost to his chin. As we approached the sales counter, which was next to the front door, I paused to allow him to stop, but he walked around me and straight out the door. Astonished, I followed him out, lagging slightly behind him as he walked down Broadway—I didn’t want to get involved in what might be his shoplifting arrest. When I saw we weren’t being pursued, I caught up with him and asked, “Weren’t you worried about getting caught?” He was wearing a bright red windbreaker.
“No, man,” he said calmly, “I’m invisible.”
Soon Tom became part of a group that included Ted Berrigan, Johnny Stanton, Joe Brainard, Dick Gallup, my classmate Lorenz Gude, and me. Tom and Lorenz had known each other as children in Walpole, NH, and had attended the same high school, in Bellows Falls, VT, though Tom was a year older.
By 1962 he was sharing a threadbare apartment at 210 West 102nd Street with a young construction worker named Edelblute. I have no idea how this arrangement came about, as the two of them had nothing in common except a certain footloose and fancy-free attitude. When Tom drove down to New Orleans with Ted on a lark, he let me use the apartment. One night at 3 a.m. I was awakened by the sound of breaking glass and, in the hallway between the kitchen and living room, there stood Edelblute. The overhead light bulbs had all been shattered. “Why did you break all the light bulbs?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said cheerfully, “I just felt like doing it!”
Tom’s writing was an exciting blend of his influences—Henry Miller, William Burroughs, perhaps Rabelais, and fantasy comic books, with an underpinning of Carl Jung—but he had an insouciance and good humor that gave his experimentalism a goofy, companionable feeling. His first published collection, aside from the elaborate family newspaper that he and his siblings had written, designed, and printed at home, was brought out by Ted’s C Press in 1964: Literary Days. By then Tom had become a welcome addition to our little band of ex-Tulsans (Ted, Dick, Joe, and me), though, always a free agent, he never made any effort to be accepted. He bounced back and forth between the Lower East Side, where Ted and Joe were living, and Morningside Heights, where Lorenz and I were.
But the spiritual seeker in him came to the fore, and in 1965 he entered the Weston Priory, a Benedictine monastery in Vermont, where he became Brother Robert. Joe, my wife Pat, and I visited him there in August of 1966. Wearing a brown robe tied at the waist with a cord, he was his usual jovial self, though with an added aura of calm. The other monks were friendly and everyone was happy that the newcomer was able to repair the old tractor they used in their sizeable vegetable gardens, but eventually the head of the monastery expressed puzzled concern over Tom’s continuing to subscribe to Mad magazine.
After several good years at the monastery, Tom took leave of the order, on friendly terms, and returned to New York, renting an austere room in an anonymous building somewhere in Brooklyn. In those days, why would anyone want to move to Brooklyn? At least the rent was cheap.
Tom, who seemed to have no income, lived on remarkably little. Borrowing an idea from Miller, he got seven sets of friends to invite him to dinner at their places on different nights of the week. For a number of months he came to my apartment, where my wife served extra large portions to accommodate his partaking of what was essentially the only meal he would have that day. Behind his spartan life style was his deep stubbornness: he would never give in to the demands of conventional society. With minimal furniture or possessions, he spent long hours at his typewriter, banging out wild, fluid, disrupted narratives and highly individualistic poems.
In May of 1968 my wife and infant son went out of town for a family visit, and during their absence Tom moved in with me so he and I could write something together. Over the course of a week we wrote alternate pages of a science fiction novella entitled Star Gut (a title taken from a collaborative painting by George Schneeman, Tom, and me, in which the words “Arlo Guthrie” had been altered to “Star Gut”). There was much chuckling at the typewriter as Tom and I worked; later we were told by an experienced sci-fi writer that no publisher would take on the manuscript because science fiction isn’t supposed to be funny.
Not long after Star Gut he and I started creating a “novel” made entirely of found (stolen, plagiarized) text. He would mail me an envelope filled with paragraphs clipped from various sources. It was my job to arrange them into a semblance of a narrative, changing only some of the proper names for continuity and adding minimal transitions. I typed up the result and mailed it to him, along with a batch of snippets I had accumulated for him to assemble. And so it went, back and forth. In the end we were excited about the result—Antlers in the Treetops, the title itself “stolen” from an old childhood joke—and thus we were happy that someone was willing to publish it (Coach House Press).
It must have been in 1968 that Thomas M. Disch invited Tom and me to an informal gathering of science fiction writers in a farmhouse in Milford, Pennsylvania. Tom and I admired Disch’s two science fiction novels (Mankind under the Leash and Camp Concentration) and were interested in getting a sense of other people who worked in the genre. Among them—and something of an elder statesman—was Damon Knight, who was very cordial and encouraging, and Harlan Ellison, who buttonholed us with a long, nonstop, rapid-fire monologue. Otherwise the gathering consisted of guys standing in small groups chatting about this and that, and after an hour or so Tom and I looked at each other and bid everyone adieu. That was the last we saw of them, except for Disch, who gravitated into the Poetry Project community.
On June 17, 1969, Tom was among the guests at a sort of banquet at an Italian restaurant on East 14th Street, which Anne Waldman had arranged for my birthday. Afterward we all trooped to George and Katie Schneeman’s apartment on St. Mark’s Place, where George painted us in a large group portrait. We were all nude (except for George). Included were Tom, Anne, Katie, Dick, Clark Coolidge, Larry Fagin, Joan Fagin, Gerard Malanga, Jim Carroll, Tessie Mitchell, Bill Berkson, and myself. It was an unforgettable experience for those of us who were unaccustomed to disrobing in social gatherings. I remember Tom’s nonchalantly picking his teeth during the posing, as if he did this all the time.
In the mid- to late 1960s Tom became a regular at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, with a wider group of friends and colleagues that included Anne, Larry, Bill, Lewis Warsh, and Tom Clark, all of whom published collections of his new work. When he read at the Poetry Project he read exactly the same way he talked, unselfconsciously and honestly, at ease in his skin, never playing to the audience. He was who he was. If you liked him, fine; if you didn’t, fine.
In the late 1960s Tom moved to northern California, living at times in a tent on Stinson Beach, at times in a tool shed on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, behind a house rented by poet Lewis MacAdams and several others. It was in San Francisco that Susan and Clark Coolidge introduced him to their neighbor, Martha Marsden, who later became his wife and the mother of his child.
During his time in Marin County Tom began collaborating with illustrator Greg Irons on fantasy comic books, which led to a larger involvement with the world of underground comics. Eventually Tom was writing for major comic book companies, such as Marvel and DC, and he was hired by George Lucas to create Star Wars comics and graphic novels, which gave him a very high profile in the sci-fi and comics world.
At some point in California he wrote a lengthy (400 pages?) account of his rich inner life, which he self-published in a small photocopied edition subsidized by private subscription. It was an amazingly detailed exposition of his religious and philosophical meditations, accompanied by vivid descriptions of his staggeringly cosmological dream life.
Until his sizeable literary archive is catalogued, we won’t know how many books Tom wrote or drafted, as he could be private about such projects and in fact never finished some of them. I’m thinking of a manuscript called something like Meetings with Burroughs, in which he recounted the times he and Burroughs met, sometimes for dinner, in New York and Boulder. Some years ago Tom and I gave a reading at a private home near St. Johnsbury, VT, where Tom read from the manuscript. It was extremely enjoyable and at times very amusing. He said he’d send me the manuscript when it was complete, but apparently it remained unfinished.
In 1978 his experimental novel The Luis Armed Story was published by Full Court Press, a small press whose authors included Burroughs, Brainard, Fagin, Allen Ginsberg, Edwin Denby, Frank O’Hara, John Godfrey, and Philippe Soupault. As one of Full Court’s editors, I was surprised by how such a spiritual person as Tom could be so businesslike and tough in a contractual negotiation. The novel had been published in German eight years earlier, and I hoped that the Full Court edition would bring his fiction to a much larger American audience, but his fame was to lie elsewhere, in the world of fantasy and sci-fi comics.
In 1982 Tom and Martha—she too was a Vermonter—returned to their home state, where he worked first as an auto mechanic and then as managing editor at Hemmings Motor News, a major publisher of automotive information, and in 1988 he began collaborating with various artists in the mainstream comic industry.
Periodically he would send me his new comics, but as they weren’t quite my cup of tea I had little to say about them other than Thank you, and gradually contact between us diminished. It turned out that he had gone into selling used books as a sideline, then as a serious business. I heard that he was a thorn in the side of the Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association, whose traditional, brick-and-board members groaned at his persistent urging that they sell online. For him the business became profitable. He explained to me that he would drive around Vermont, stopping at lawn and library sales and buying somewhat oddball nonfiction books in sociology, science, history, religion, and biography for no more than fifty cents a copy, books he would offer online for perhaps forty dollars. Wheat Production in Argentina in the 1930s. “There is going to be one person in the world who is writing a thesis on this subject and will have to have the book.” Tom and Martha were kept busy filling orders from the large inventory in his basement. However, being in business didn’t seem to alter him: he remained totally himself, basically the same Tom Veitch I had first encountered that day in 1961, though now he was selling books, not stealing them.
During the last two decades of his life he and I would meet periodically in Vermont to have lunch and drive around to library sales, otherwise staying in touch by letter or email. Oddly enough, he never mentioned that in 2016 he had published a book about his spiritual life, Visions of Elias, or that for years he had curated a popular online message board devoted to religious and philosophical matters, “Lightmind Forum.”
A few months ago he sent me a photocopy of the manuscript of The Planetary Route, a science fiction novel he and Dick wrote in 1969. Last year he told me his doctors had issued a “death warrant,” but provided no details other than that he had some time left to arrange things. He had no fear of death, seeing it as a doorway into a higher life. Then Covid took him away, on Valentine’s Day.
Note: A 21-minute video about Tom’s life and work is available at this link.