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Cookie Mueller Walking through
Courtesy of MIT Press

Cookie Mueller writes the best opening lines in literature

To mark the release of the reissue of Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, we look back on the five best first lines in Mueller’s madcap ​​oeuvre

Cookie Mueller is the best writer of opening sentences in literature. You can fight me on that. “I had two lovers and I wasn’t ashamed” – bam – “I accidentally burned a friend’s house to the ground once” – incredible, tell us more – “I know that dogs dream: I’ve seen their feet running while they’re asleep” – yes! Nobody writes a first line like Cookie.

With just one sentence Mueller drops you head-first into her madcap universe, with just enough context to leave you desperate for more. Often we enter the action mid-scene – Mueller stepping off a plane in Rome, shopping for knockwurst at the butchers, in the park doing LSD – sometimes it’s mid-conversation. “What’s the worst thing that can happen to me when I eat the dogshit?” Mueller quotes Divine saying in the opening of one of her stories. One time it’s even mid-labour: “The night Max was born mongrels roamed in packs. Reading Cookie is like listening to your wildest friend tell the best story you’ve ever heard. 

Born in Maryland in 1949, Mueller dropped out of high school as a teenager and travelled around, spending time in LSD-fuelled San Francisco and, briefly, a mental hospital before ending up back in Baltimore. At 20 she met and befriended John Waters, joining his boisterous crew of misfits and weirdos, Dreamland players, and starring in several of his films including Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos. In the 70s she headed to New York City where she worked as a topless go-go dancer, fell in with Warhol, wrote a homoeopathic health column for The East Village Eye, befriended artists like Nan Goldin and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and dealt coke to Robert Mapplethorpe, before tragically dying from Aids-related illness in 1989.

Underground actress, adventurer, muse, mother, Mueller was many things. But at heart, she was a storyteller. She used both her adventures and misadventures – including rape, abduction, overdoses, house fires, boat wrecks, shock therapy, escaping from German police in Berlin, smoking a joint with Charles Manson – as material for her writing. Careening through life, completely unflappable, Mueller reported on the world as she saw it, transforming often terrifying situations into (black) humour with her electric, compelling writing, sharp rhythm and perfect comic timing. 

“Cookie Mueller wrote like a lunatic Uncle Remus – spinning little stories from Hell that will make any reader laugh out loud,” Waters wrote of his friend. It was her unflagging sense of humour that helped her survive the slings and arrows of life. “The act of being alive certainly is an oppressive job,” Mueller wrote in a 1986 column for Details magazine. “Humour is all the anti-gravity gear we need. It’s the best aircraft.”

Shortly after her death in 1990, the first collection of her writing, Walking Through Clear Water In a Pool Painted Black, was published. Ask Dr Mueller followed soon after. Both of these books became cult classics, though for much of the past 25 years the collections were out-of-print, leading to rare, well-loved copies being shared and passed around friends and lovers. Thankfully those dark days are over, as this week Semiotext(e) released a landmark volume bringing together all the stories from the previous two collections, now reissued in chronological order, as well as selections from Mueller’s art and “advice” columns and previously unpublished work. To celebrate the occasion, please enjoy our five favourite Cookie opening lines.

“There are plenty of sex perverts in Sicily; all of them are men.” – The Stone Age – Sicily, 1976

A strong start to a short story that chronicles Mueller’s “lesbian honeymoon” trip with then-girlfriend Sharon Niesp. The trip was plagued by “randy dandies and horny honchos”, who walked alongside them “whispering in dialect about their balls and other organs.” The presence of Mueller’s four-year-old son Max doesn’t deter the men of Sicily, “maybe they thought he was a very short pubescent girl,” she muses. “Everyone is short in Sicily anyway.”

“They were just three sluts looking for sex on the highway,” the two abductors and rapists said later when asked to describe us. This wasn’t the way we saw it.” – Abduction & Rape – Highway 31, Elkton, Maryland, 1969

Mueller uses her trademark cool humour to recount the harrowing story of when she, Mink Stole and Susan Lowe were abducted while hitchhiking to Cape Cod to visit John Waters. The black humour of the piece (“the worst part is there’s no flattery involved in rape”) doesn’t diminish the gravity of the situation, nor does Mueller play ignorant to the bleak reality (“In the courtroom I didn’t press charges…I would lose”). But it does lessen the hold of the pain, and take away some of its power.

“In the beginning I just couldn’t bring myself to do floor work.” – Go-Going – New York & New Jersey, 1978–79

An opening line that immediately draws you in from Mueller’s account of her time as a topless go-go dancer and the wild ride of a story of why she ultimately stopped dancing (spoiler: it involves $50 and a character named the Brooklyn Butcher). In a piece from the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of Dazed, friend Linda Yablonsky recalled that “they weren’t really topless bars, she wore a little G-string and some pasties and said, ‘It’s great exercise.’ She had a very pronounced lisp when she spoke, but over the next few years, she conquered it.”

“The whole time we were flying across the Atlantic I hadn’t been nervous at all about my personal stash of drugs that I was carrying inside my overly padded bra” – ​​The Berlin Film Festival – 1981

Mueller’s account of her time at the Berlin Film Festival story starts with her flying to Germany with a stash of hashish, cocaine, MDA, and opium in her bra. It then proceeds to document her experiences being strip-searched by a “buxom bulldyke cop in full torture drag” before ending with her scaling walls, while being chased by the German police over an unpaid Hotel bill.

“It was his party and he’d die if he wanted to.” – Sam’s Party – Lower East Side, NYC, 1979

So begins the tale of Sam’s birthday party, an occasion that starts promisingly: the apartment Sam shares with his lovers, Alice and Tom, is jammed with all his loyal friends (“the famous, the infamous, the washouts, the successful rogues, and the types who only have fame after they die”). Then Mueller finds him OD-ing on heroin in the bathroom, “his skin the colour of a faded pair of blue jeans”, and proceeds to run a revival operation involving ice cubes, salt, and a syringe.