Jesus’ Son

I’m running out of things to read in the house, or at least I have the perception of running out of things to read.  I probably have at least a hundred or two books that I haven’t read, so maybe I should say “things I want to read” or “things I should read”.  I feel like I need to be reading more every day, but I also feel like I should only be reading things that feed directly into what I want to write next: either things that are stylistically similar, or the non-fiction that will fill my brain and eventually dump out onto the pages in my fiction.

So the other night I grabbed a copy of Denis Johnson’s book Jesus’ Son.  It’s a short little book, maybe 150 pages in the pocket edition, and each page is pretty terse.  Johnson is, at least here, a very minimalist writer, the kind of prose that can completely kick your ass in the fewest words possible.  He’s the kind of writer that can spin these infinitely interesting characters, with the kind of quirk that really sticks in your head, but he doesn’t do it by spending pages and pages laying down details.  Sometimes, it’s just a sentence or even a few words of a sentence, but I feel like he burns in these people more than when I spend chapters trying to explain the same type of thing.

This book is a collection of realist short stories, in what I would pejoratively call “MFA fiction” if a wannabe was trying to do the same thing.  I see far too much of this when I’m reading submissions to the zine, and I guess with ten times as many people in MFA programs these days, there’s a lot of it circulating.  Normally, this stuff bores me to tears, but Johnson is one of the few that can make this work.  I haven’t really thought about what the difference between good fiction and “MFA fiction” is, and just by mentioning this, everyone with an MFA is going to be up in my shit about it.  Further, the common theme of the stories is an addict that’s hanging out with other junkies and fuckups, and their various escapades.  It’s a far too common trope in that space of writing, but he does manage to pull it off without being cliche.

The thing about Johnson doing this Raymond Carver sort of writing is that he makes it look so effortless, that it makes me think it would be easy to do.  And of course it isn’t.  And it’s dangerous for me to read this kind of thing and get some wise idea that I should get back to writing this kind of modernist, realist fiction, and start thinking about beating the dead horse that is this unfinished book about Bloomington and forget about the kind of absurdist thing I’m trying to chase.  Fortunately, I’m writing every day in this automatic writing thing, just doodles, and when I tried to get into this kind of writing again, I failed horribly, and that made it easy to move on.

Johnson does make me think of flashes of things that probably could someday become stories, and that’s valuable because I’m at the point where I feel like I’ve been wrung dry of material.  Case in point is this blog: any time I think of something interesting to say about the past, I look here and realize I wrote the story back in 2006.  I don’t feel like a lot is happening here day-to-day, at least the things that I could spin into stories or posts.  And I feel like I told the story of Jim getting his kid caught in a vending machine at least five times in the archives here.

I am still struggling to get the next book moving.  I keep thinking I need to write some big, plotted, narrative book that could go toe-to-toe with any genre writing out there, or at least get me out of the situation where I can’t explain my book in a single sentence.  My usual thought is that I should be writing another Rumored, since it’s the book that I’m happiest with, and it’s my book that’s sold the most copies.  But there’s also this huge disconnect for a lot of people who can’t deal with nonlinear fiction, and I feel like one harmful thing the Kindle has done is made the audience for books much more trained to only like heavily plotted genre fiction, or at least that’s who’s buying most of the books these days.  I don’t want to write vampire romances, but I wouldn’t mind turning out a book like Leyner’s Tetherballs of Bougainville, either.



Re-reading Infinite Jest, part 2 of 863

So I’m now just shy of 300 pages into my re-read of Infinite Jest, which is just over 25% of the way through according to the Kindle, although I think it’s closer to 1/3 done when you consider the last hundred-some pages are all endnotes.  Here are more random observations as I continue:

  • I think reading it on the Kindle does make it seem to go faster than print.  I don’t know the exact numbers or metrics, but it seemed like one print page of the hardcover contained something like 1200 words, where a normal trade paperback contained something like 250-300 words, meaning each page of IJ seemed four times longer.  With the Kindle, each screen has the same number or words, more or less, as any other book I read, be it Vonnegut or George Carlin or Tolstoy.  This makes it seem like the pages are going by faster, although it obviously takes several page turns to get through a single virtual “page”.
  • The endnotes don’t seem to be as much of a pain in the ass as they were back in 1996.  Part of that may be that they lend themselves to hypertext much more, and the Kindle’s links are more convenient than flipping between two bookmarks.  Or it could be that if (and once again, numbers are bogus) there were two endnotes per printed page, and there were six page turns per printed page, it would seem like there were three times fewer endnotes per “page”.
  • It’s so interesting that Wallace created this near-future world that happens in what others have determined to be 2009.  I’ve always disliked when near-future books predict worlds of jetpacks and robot butlers in the year 1991, like pretty much every Philip K. Dick book or 60s pulp Scifi novel.  DFW managed to create a world that largely felt like 1996, except for tiny changes in things like video conferencing and politics and TV media formats.  And that’s pretty much what has happened.  Granted, teleconferencing is just starting to take off because of Facetime, and the DVD and later BluRay were the displacing technologies of video entertainment, but his Boston of the late -00s is pretty close to the Boston of 1996, which I enjoy.
  • There is, however, the issue that this near-future now takes place in the past.  When it was supposed to be 13 years in the future, there was much more license for suspension of disbelief.  Now that it’s three years after the events should have taken place and the futuristic film cartridge system has not been invented, you need to not think about stuff like that.
  • I notice that in some ways Wallace can out-Leyner Mark Leyner.  I never fully understood the relationship between the two, and thought DFW eclipsed Leyner in greatness and popularity, but it also seems that Wallace admired or looked up to Leyner’s work prior to his own fame explosion.  I’ve always thought Leyner had no real peers in his absurdism and almost sketch comedy approach to writing, and always thought DFW was less ha-ha funny and more NPR/Franzen funny or whatever.  But then I see some carefully-placed reference or innuendo in part of IJ that would seem even too absurd for Leyner’s humor.
  • It amazes me how IJ pads itself with pretty much every inside joke or urban legend that Wallace heard over the course of a decade, but manages to pull it off so all of this stuff is an integral part of the story.  At points, it’s almost like he was looking for some excuse to kill pages, like he was getting paid by the word, and said “aha!  I’ll recycle the Jamaican Toothbrush Bandit story, and make it part of Gately’s back story – that should eat up a good 5000 words.”  But of course, it always works.
  • I have the unfortunate issue that whenever I read about Orin, in my mind I envision CJ, the punter who was on Real World: Cancun.

That’s all for now. I’m keeping track of my page count over on goodreads, if you want up-to-the-minute (or -day) tallies.


Re-reading Infinite Jest, part 1 of ?

Okay, I gave in and started re-reading Infinite Jest the other night.

I’m 8% finished as of last night, which is roughly like running the first two miles of a marathon.  It’s enough that I’m getting some momentum, but so little that I feel like it could take me a while.  I dug through my 1996 paper journal last week and found that it took me something like 20 days to read it last time.  Of course, I did not have a TV, was single, had no social life, and this was before Facebook, Twitter, and a million other things were invented.  In fact, I think I was still dialing in at 14.4K back then, and my computer was a Linux machine that wasn’t running X, just a naked command line prompt on a 12″ monochrome monitor.  The closest thing I had to a tablet computer was made by Mead, spiral-bound and college ruled.

My first strategic move on this attempt was to eschew the print edition.  The only print copy of the book I own is a hardcover first edition, signed by the author with the “smiley face” next to his name, which might or might not be more rare or indicative that he was in a good mood when he read in Seattle.  The print copy killed my wrists last time around, and this was long before I’d developed all of my wrist, back, neck, and other chiropractic RSI issues.  When I read in bed, I tend to hold the book with three fingers and my thumb on the cover, and my pinky under the book, as a sort of stand.  This means when a book weighs any tangible amount, it strains my small fingers, and if that book is a thousand pages long, it starts to feel like they’ve been slammed in a car door.

So I went with the kindle ebook.  This solves another problem, the “how many bookmarks do I use?” issue.  Unless you memorize page numbers in some Rain Man-esque fashion, you’re going to use at least one bookmark on a read of the paper edition.  Most people agree you should use two, with one marking where you are in the body of the book, the other marking where you are in the endnotes.  Some people also advise you to keep a bookmark on the page describing the Subsidized Time timeline.  Nobody ever told me about that, but there weren’t web pages about how to read IJ in 1996.  That said, there also wasn’t a wikipedia page I could reference instead of using a third bookmark.

In the kindle edition, endnotes are hyperlinked.  And thankfully, there’s a “return to text” backlink after each endnote, so you can quickly get back to the text.  The only issue with this is that the kindle software will return you with the line containing the endnote reference at the top of the screen.  So, for example, if you’ve got 30 lines per screen (arbitrary – I didn’t count) and on line 16, there’s endnote 44, you can click that, read it, click “back”, and that line will now be at the top of the screen, not on line 16.  That means you lose some context and might need to back up a page, depending on how you read.

I started reading on my iPad, and then switched to my actual Kindle.  The advantage to the real Kindle is that it’s paper-white on the e-ink display, and it doesn’t have Facebook, Twitter, and a bunch of games on it.  But I ended up going back to using the actual iPad.  Why?  Because it’s a bigger screen, and because clicking on endnotes is much easier.  I have the keyboard Kindle, which requires you to navigate around with the little stub of a joystick to get to an endnote and click on it.  Then you have to wait a second for the screen to refresh, and then you have to repeat the procedure.  It’s much faster and less of a hassle to do it on the iPad.

Another huge advantage to reading on the Kindle is that I can click a word and the definition pops up.  I’m finding that Mr. Wallace has a much more, um, big vocabulary than me.  I don’t know if looking up definitions like this is teaching me new words, but I’m much more likely to click on a word rather than dig out a copy of Webster’s.

I’m finding that this time around, it’s been much easier for me to get in the swing of things, but I don’t know if this is because I already know the general plot of the thing.  When I read it in 1996, I didn’t know a single other person trying to read it, and there was no wikipedia to help me.  I am avoiding any secondary reading during this pass, though.  I’m not looking at any of the blogs or fan sites, and I haven’t bought Elegant Complexity or any of the other reading guides.  No sherpas, no supplemental oxygen on this climb up Everest.

My impression so far is that the book is reminding me so much of 1996 and the events around then.  I had a horrible time of it back then, something I’ve alluded to on here, but something that was incredibly painful to read about when I dug around my paper journals back then.  I was about a year into my stay in Seattle, a year removed from my college life.  I hadn’t seriously dated anyone since the end of 1993, and was certain I never would.  I had some kind of stomach disorder going on and was certain it was gall bladder cancer or unchecked appendicitis (it wasn’t), and I seriously didn’t know what the fuck I was doing with writing.  I now look back at Rumored as my favorite book I’ve written, but back then, I spent all of my energy trying to convince myself I needed to stop working on it entirely.  All of this influenced my perception of the book, and now as I navigate his prose, it brings back a lot of those memories, which is both good and bad.

I don’t have any other great insight at this point, but I felt that if I kept mentioning the reading project on here, I’d stick with it.  So, there you go.


Things I Remember About Infinite Jest

I first heard about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest from the 1996 profile in Details.  (I used to subscribe to Details for some reason; I’m not sure why.)  I didn’t have a TV then, so of course I ran to the bookstore, bought the hardcover, and forced myself to read at least 50 pages a day over the next few weeks and get through the whole thing.  And I did, and it was awesome.

And now it’s 16 years later, and I’m trying to start another book, and whenever I ask myself, “what the hell do I want to write?” of course IJ is on the short list.  And I think I should re-read it.  And I bought it on the Kindle, because one of my chief complaints about the book was that at the time, I lived in a tiny 100-some square foot studio apartment with no furniture, and slept on a twin mattress on the floor, and the only way I could ergonomically handle that big chunk of dead tree was to lay on my side with the book on the floor, and completely fuck up my neck and back twisting around to look at the pages.  And of course, I have not re-read it since, because I would have to invest a month of time into it, and I can barely focus long enough to type 140 characters at once.

But I keep trying to think, what the hell do I remember from that book?  So here’s the list.  It’s probably filled with spoilers, so you’ve been warned.

  1. Lots of end notes, but you already knew that.
  2. The one guy was a pro football player, and was a really shitty player on his college football team, but he knew about tennis and one day when he was pissed off, he kicked a football like a tennis ball some insane number of feet, and that led to a career in the NFL.
  3. I knew nothing about the NFL at the time, and was not sure if there was a team called the Arizona Cardinals.  (This was before wikipedia.)
  4. The guy shaved against the grain, like his dad taught him, which was apparently wrong, but I did the same thing and wondered if I was going to somehow give myself some incurable skin disease.
  5. The one girl with the messed-up face was using some toothpaste that was supposed to rebuild your enamel.  Hers was messed up from smoking crack; my teeth were pretty much totaled at that point from drinking a six-pack of Coke every day, and I was in the middle of getting everything restored, and kept thinking about trying to find some similar product.
  6. There was a big discussion about pot being physically addictive in some small percentage of people, and I remember having a similar argument with someone at work once.
  7. A guy killed himself by putting his head in a microwave oven.  He accomplished this by cutting a hole in the door so he could stick his head in it while it was closed.  Shortly after I read this, my microwave oven died and I freaked the fuck out, convinced the coincidence was somehow related.  (And also because I had this thing of Hamburger Helper cooking in it, and you can’t really eat that shit cold and uncooked, and putting it on the stove was beyond my skill level, so I drove to Target and bought a new one at nine at night.)
  8. The part of the story about how that girl ended up with a messed-up face was not explained right off the bat, which I realize is something you do to pull the reader into continuing with the story, but every time this happened in the book, I was convinced I’d somehow missed that part of the backstory by skimming over it, and would go back and re-read, searching for answers, something that made the book take far longer for me to read.  (I am in no way criticizing DFW’s plotting and foreshadowing ability and/or decisions; I’m just saying I’m a poor reader.)
  9. I was going through a very significant depression in the fall of 1996, and the way DFW described the various depressed people greatly disturbed me, mostly because his descriptions were so goddamn accurate, and I greatly felt like I’d end up like one of them.
  10. I thought the ending was the most unresolved ending in the history of literature.

And that’s it.  I do not remember anything else.  So yeah, I need to re-read it.


And So It Goes

I just finished reading And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields’ biography of Kurt Vonnegut, and have mixed feelings and unchecked nostalgia.

The mixed feelings part: the book was somewhat lopsided, but I liked it more than most of the reviewers.  Like someone reviewed it “and so it goes – into the trash,” and I didn’t have that bad of a reaction to it.  I do think Vonnegut probably deserves a more scholarly approach, something that carefully studies all of his books, analyzes their meanings and connections, and focuses less on his life.  That was the main criticism from many reviewers, that Shields didn’t “get” Vonnegut’s work, and dwelled on stuff like his assholishness and extramarital affairs.  I don’t know if he “got” it or not, but he didn’t spend the amount of time on it I would have liked.

That’s not to say Vonnegut wasn’t an asshole.  There’s plenty of examples covered in the book, from the extended divorce-or-not-divorce antics with both of his wives to the various affairs and infidelities.  There’s also all of this business about Knox Burger.  Burger was one of Vonnegut’s early champions, someone who, as the editor at Collier’s, got his short stories published; later, when at Dell, he got his books put out there.  When Burger was thinking about quitting Dell and taking the great leap into being an agent, Vonnegut whole-heartedly encouraged him to do it, and said he’d totally jump ship from his representation and come over to him.  So Burger quit, and Vonnegut told him he couldn’t do it.  There are several other examples of this kind of indecisiveness, and maybe Shields just cherry-picked some of the worst incidents and framed them to draw a morbid picture, but it’s all the kind of stuff I didn’t think about when reading Vonnegut’s fiction the first time.

I think that’s what bugged me about Vonnegut’s post-Timequake career, and this book.  I first read Slaughterhouse-Five as a college freshman, sitting in the IMU building on the Bloomington campus (which, coincidentally, Vonnegut’s dad helped design) and that metafictional construct of mixing himself and fiction into the same story line made me think that in some weird way, I knew him.  I didn’t know anything about him outside of his books; there was no wikipedia back then, and maybe he was in the New York gossip papers, but he wasn’t in the news out in Indiana.  I didn’t hear about the divorce news or the struggle he went through to write Timequake, and being oblivious to that stuff left the persona of Vonnegut much more impressive to me.

When I first started writing in 1993, Vonnegut was one of the writers I took a serious deep dive on.  I bought every Laurel paperback edition I could get my hands on and plowed through them all quickly.  My favorite was Breakfast of Champions, and I probably read it once every year or so, especially when I’m sick of everything else and just need something quick and decent to straighten my head again.  That said, Vonnegut was one of those lithosphere layers of literature for me, something I could easily consume and that would leave an impact on me, but all of the books blended together and didn’t have the forever scarring effect that a more difficult read might.  Nobody else wrote like Vonnegut, which meant his stuff was unique, but it also meant I couldn’t descend further into his madness.  I read the core canon of his stuff, then moved onto other things, occasionally dipping back in to reread a book out of nostalgia.

But at some point, Vonnegut started to lose his charm to me.  I think part of it was the balance between his fiction and his hashing out his personal life in the form of metafiction, until it got to the point (maybe around Palm Sunday) where there was no story and he was just throwing out straight memoir.  By then, he moved, in my eyes, from metafictional genius to cranky old man.  Timequake tried to turn this on end, with this strange twist of exploring determinism with the gimmick of time being stuck in a mobius loop, but he ultimately got dragged into this sea of autobiographical misery.  Everything he did after that was either re-releases of stories that were originally published before he his his stride, or old man rants on the state of politics in the Bush era.

So to read a whole book that contains only these personal life details was somewhat depressing.  The part of the book up to the publishing of Slaughterhouse, the bits about his struggle to find an audience, were compelling.  But after that, it feels like the back half of the book was nothing but Vonnegut waiting to die, which was incredibly depressing.  It’s not that Shields did a smear job on him; the content made it unavoidable.

Oh well.  Maybe I need to re-read some of his old books to get this out of my head.


City Lights Run

On Memorial Day, we decided to run into “the city,” although I hate sounding like one of those bridge and tunnel types that refer to San Francisco as “the city,” because I happen to actually live in A city, but not THE city.  (More annoying than this: the show So You Think You Can Dance recently held auditions at the Paramount Theater here in Oakland, this big, old-timey, restored grand theater, and in every narrative and establishing shot, they went on about “The San Francisco Auditions,” and showed b-roll footage of the Golden Gate and trolley cars and whatnot.  It would not have killed them to actually say they were in Oakland, especially when you’re a bunch of white-bread TV execs trying to look “urban.”  Anyway.)

So the goal of the trip was to go to City Lights, which I have not been back to in a long time.  And in thinking back, it turns out it was 15 years ago, to the month, since my first visit to San Francisco, and my trip there.  I wrote about this elsewhere, in an old issue of AITPL, and the basic rundown is that I was in San Jose for this trade show, working at my first job in Seattle, and I had pretty much an entire day off , and no plans whatsoever.  I loved being in California, loved the weather and the smell of the air and the sunshine, but schlepping around a convention center in a stupid logo-ed polo shirt, handing out CD-ROMs (remember those?) and software to people during the not-yet-burst internet bubble wasn’t exactly the way to see the Bay Area.  Walking back to my hotel, I realized they had a little rent-a-car desk off the main lobby.  Then I realized I was now 25 and had an Amex gold card in my wallet, which meant I could, for the first time, rent a car.  20 minutes later, I’m jetting north on the 101, headed for this city I barely knew, only a rental car map in hand, no GPS, no addresses, no plans, no google on a phone, just a vague idea that the center of the Beat universe was somewhere on Columbus street.

I have no idea how I found the place back then, but I did, and I was in the very same building where Ginsberg read Howl, where Bukowski’s short story collections were published, where every Beat poet wannabe aspired to be shelved.  It’s not a huge store, and back then, it wasn’t that overwhelming.  I mean, you’ve got this Kerouac street outside of it, and So I Married an Axe Murderer, a movie me and Simms and gang memorized in the mid-90s starts and ends in that alley.  But in 1996, there were plenty of great book stores around; I think there were a half-dozen great stores the same size or bigger within five miles of my old Seattle apartment.  I did buy an issue of Cometbus, the first I’d ever read, and wished I had the cash and luggage space to buy a dozen other things.

I figured the city would be jam-packed with tourist types, but after we crossed the perpetually-under-construction Bay Bridge and its doppelganger 21st-century twin, traffic was spectacularly light.  After cutting through a completely vacant financial district, we found a street parking space on a hilly part of Columbus, something I’d only expect to see after a total nuclear holocaust.  Of course, there was no indication as to the meter situation on the holiday, so we risked it, and of course got a ticket.  But still, it’s the thought of a street parking space for free that counts.

I remember eating at some eclectic fusion-y diner restaurant with toys spray-painted gold and glued to the walls, maybe called Icon back in 1996, and I’m sure that’s long gone.  We ended up at some odd 70-year-old sandwich shop for lunch, a place covered with Pittsburgh Steelers stuff.  The sandwiches were made with both fries and coleslaw on the sandwich, which I did not really like, but they did have some awesome onion rings.  This was, unfortunately, one of those carb-heavy meals I can’t really deal with anymore, and within an hour, I was pretty much ready for sleep.

We went to City Lights, and it looked remarkably like it did back in 1996, and probably like 1966, except for maybe the computer registers, and swap out all of the purple-type mimeographed zines for photocopied ones.  It looked smaller than I remembered, but the selection was still astounding, and I instantly found a few dozen things I wanted to buy. There is the issue, however, that I’m running out of storage room, and I’ve got a queue of at least a dozen books on the to-read pile already.  But who cares.  When they film my episode of Intervention, I’m going to have a couch full of family members and that bitchy old lady counselor yelling at me about my private library hoarding, and I’m fine with that.

But my general attitude on the beats is somewhat varied now.  In 1996, I was just recovering from the near-terminal case of student poverty, and dropping every spare dollar I could find on building my book collection.  I still didn’t have the complete collection of any of my favorites: Bukowski, Kerouac, Henry Miller, Burroughs.  Now, I’ve got most of their bibliographies on the shelves.  Some of them have estates that are still trickling out the occasional volume pieced together from scraps, or re-re-releases of “complete” works that would require me to re-buy yet another copy of a favorite book.  On the other hand, there are a lot of biographies and scholarly deconstruction books coming out as more generations find out about and study these original tomes.

The big problem is, I’m trying to avoid writing like these guys, and that generally means avoiding reading them.  I always love to go back and re-read On the Road, but within 50 pages, I’m either thinking about some grand road trip, or trying to re-spin pieces of my own past into some epic novel, and I eventually hit a wall there, thinking that either my own life is too boring, or I don’t find it within my wheelhouse to do something like that.  It’s not entirely my style, and I’d rather be writing something more bizarre.  But I do like to dip back into the stuff every now and again.

I ended up buying a copy of Raymond Federman’s last book, and two newer issues of Cometbus, which are now sitting on the pile.  We ambled out and drove around the city a bit more, and I still don’t entirely feel like I live here, but I feel an urgent need to consume as much of this as I can, because every time I leave a city, I realize how much I didn’t do there.

And even though City Lights was one of many book stores back in 1996, now it’s one of few.  There are zero book stores in West Oakland, and exactly one within a five-mile radius of my house, a Barnes and Noble which will probably shutter in the next two years.  There’s a healthy number out in San Francisco, but they’ve become rare.  I buy a lot of stuff online, so I’m responsible for their death, but I do miss the energy given off by large rooms of new books, and love a place that’s more than just clip-on book lights and mass numbers of covers-out Twilight and Eat Pray Davinci Girl in the Dragon Tattoo books.

general reviews

Review: My War by Colby Buzzell

I wasn’t set to go down the military history wormhole and start reading books about Iraq, but while I was going through one of the Henry Rollins journal books, he mentioned Buzzell’s memoir, and I picked up a copy.  Going into it, I knew nothing about it, none of the background, his history, and I never read his blog.  I didn’t know if he was a staunch anti-war type, or a flag-waving republican.  I didn’t even know if he lost his arms and legs from a car bomb, or if he was now a regular commentator on Fox News.  All I knew was that Rollins liked him, and the book was well-blurbed.  Even Vonnegut gave it a good blurb.  So I was hoping for the best.

Then I started the book, and found out that he’d kept a blog during his time in Iraq, and this was a book made from the blog, and my heart sank.  I hate when people repackage blogs into books.  One reason is that blog to book people rarely repeat their performance; they’re almost always one-shot wonders.  And I love to be proven wrong by this, but it’s just an issue with the format.  You put your all into a blog, every part of your life, and you only have one life, so you only get the one book.  Sometimes you get a follow-up, but it’s always the same book, the confusion and the grind of the post-blog-book world, dealing with publishers and press and all of that junk we don’t care about.  I especially don’t like the blog-to-book when I’ve already read the blog in question.  It’s like getting a greatest hits album from a band that’s got every single song you already have from them, and maybe a shitty live version of the one song you can’t stand to listen to anymore.

And yeah, part of my hatred for this is jealousy.  I’ve been blogging since 1997 here.  I did put out a book of the first three years of blog posts here, and nobody bought it.  I think I could probably get a decent book out of the thousand or so entries I have completed here, but I doubt it would sell.  And yeah, you’re saying, “but Jon, you didn’t go to Iraq and get shot at.”  No, I didn’t.  But it isn’t about the action as much as it is the character presenting it.  Buzzell presents himself in a way that makes him very likable to a certain segment of the population, and that translates into a story that people can relate to and that people will follow.  My likability… we’ll leave that for another discussion, although I think you know what my perception of that is already.

All that aside, the book is interesting because it’s hard to figure out who Buzzell is.  He’s this sort of boomerang kid, a former skate punk not into going to college and not into the popular scene like the rest of his high school.  He’s not pro-war or anti-war, but decides to enlist because it’s better than sitting on his parents couch or doing a data-entry job for nine bucks an hour.  You get the idea now that anyone volunteering for the army at a time when it was almost a guarantee to get sent into war was some bible belt Republican who loved God, guns, and George Bush.  And Buzzell shows that this isn’t entirely true, that you could come from some other background.

The story continues through basic training, on to a Stryker brigade at Ft. Lewis, up near Seattle.  A Stryker is a big 8-wheeled combat vehicle, way bigger and more armored than a Hummer, but not as heavy or treaded like a tank.  He worked as an M-240 machine gun operator, first as the guy hauling the ammo, then working up to the guy actually firing the thing.  Buzzell’s writing is solid; his two main influences are Bukowski and Hunter Thompson.  He only has some of the fluid poetry of Bukowski at his best, and it’s not the kind of rapid-fire manic energy Thompson wields, but fans of both authors would settle in well with his prose.  I think the unfortunate part of this blog-t0-book thing is that his earliest posts were not as polished or refined.  It seems like he just started to find his voice by the end of his time in Iraq.  So the additional stuff he wrote afterward, and any articles you find of his post-book are much more excellent in style and quality.  But the writing is solid enough, and it reads fast, so I appreciated that.

The politics of the book are mixed.  In some ways, it seems like Buzzell would be the typical W-following line-toter.  In other ways, you’d think he was some Berkeley radical anarchist more interested in throwing the system.  It’s hard to tell where his loyalties lie, and I have no problem with that, because I’m the same way.  I think if you adhere to the far left, you’re going to have problems reading this, hearing about shooting people and the implied cultural insensitivity here, like Buzzell’s insistence on using the term hajii to refer to any Iraqi people, which some would consider derogatory.  It’s probably a bit too war-porn for the die-hard Nancy Pelosi fan.  On the other hand, it probably contains way too many f-bombs for those of you who read the bible six times an hour.  (That’s a constant complaint in other reviews, and I honestly don’t give a fuck if he uses the word or not.)

Probably the one criticism I had about the book was that in places, the writing just showed us things, and it didn’t tell us about it.  I mean, it seems like, as an Amazon reviewer put it, he started with 50 pages of blog posts and pushed it out to a 350-page book.  And that’s fine, but there were times when he could have told us more about how he felt, or how things really looked.  Like, in the epic firefight scene that’s the keystone to the whole book, there are monumental things described with a single sentence.  Like, “The Pepsi bottling plant across the street was all up in flames.”  That’s it.  You could write at least a paragraph if not ten about the surreal situation of growing up drinking soda and then having that childhood image of the Pepsi logo transplanted to this giant factory in flames, the sounds of the timbers crumbling, the glow of the glass and plastic melting en masse… whatever.  He did a good job of documenting what happened, but didn’t cover as much how those things made him feel.

And maybe that’s deliberate.  I mean, the picture he paints is that he’s this tattoo-covered, party lovin’ dude that uses blackout drinking as a stock response to almost anything, suddenly thrust into war.  Maybe having feelings about the action goes against this tough warrior persona.  And maybe that’s why people identify with it.  I mean, nobody asks Chuck Norris how he feels about punching a guy in the throat, and more than a few people love them some Chuck Norris.  But I look back to some of the military memoirs or creative nonfiction that I like – for example, Tim O’Brien – and they add this third dimension, which makes you feel more like you can relate to the tension and drama.  Maybe he hasn’t had time to contemplate what went on. O’Brien wrote his books years after returning from the shit, and he had the distance; he wasn’t liveblogging the Vietnam War as it happened.  That’s why I’m curious about Buzzell’s act two, what comes after this book.

And yeah, full disclosure: I published John Sheppard’s verisimilitude work, Tales of the Peacetime Army, which I liked a lot more for the depth of the writing, although it wasn’t about the war of the moment, which is probably why it didn’t sell.  (I’m not trying to snake-oil you into buying a copy – go read it for free at the above link if you want.)  John also wrote the most excellent In Between Days, a novel about returning from Iraq and dealing with PTSD and the bleakness of America these days, which I keep saying is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  But it also didn’t sell.  (Maybe John needs to get some tattoos and do some blackout drinking.)

All in all, this is a decent and quick read, although it made me have more questions than answers when I finished.  If you never read the blog, and you’re into reading military history, it’s worth a look.  It’s a good book.  Not great, but good.


2010 in books

In 2003, I made a list of every book I read that year. I haven’t done this since for a few reasons, although laziness is the biggest one.  Also, I don’t read as much as I should, and these lists are never accurate.  It’s like every top-100 record list by rock snobs that have Captain Beefheart on the list.  I can guarantee you that far more people listen to Boston’s first album than Don Von’s, and but people put him on the list because they want to look superior or act like they have a refined taste.  (For the record, I am listening to “More Than a Feeling” on repeat as I write this, something I do for hours at a time, until I decide to switch to “Don’t Fear the Reaper” or “Freebird”, or the Oakland SWAT team knocks my front door off the hinges because my neighbors have phoned in a potential Waco standoff, because there’s no other possible reason for someone to listen to side 1/track 1 of Boston – Boston 483 times in a row.)

Okay, so here is a partial list of the books I read in 2010 that you should read but probably won’t, because this post itself just broke the 200 word mark, and that’s way too long for anyone not on near-lethal amounts of ADHD medication.  Oh, in no particular order.

  • Loner: Stories by John Sheppard – This is a story collection by my pal John Sheppard that contains three stories previously released in Air in the Paragraph Line, plus a story entitled “Loner” that completely blew me away.  John’s an incredibly underrated writer and the book is worth it for this one story.
  • Meat Won’t Pay My Light Bill by Kurt Eisenlohr – Kurt is better known in these parts as the artist who painted the AITPL 13 cover, but he’s also an awesome writer.  This is a very Bukowskian novel about a punk named Lupus who wants to quit working and spend his time painting, and all hell breaks loose.  If you liked Post Office, this book is totally up your alley.
  • There Are a Million Stories in the Naked City by Fiona Helmsley – This is a cool-sized pocket book that consists of 120 pages of creative non-fiction stories about Fiona’s days world of punks and strippers and heroin and a dirty, pre-Giuliani New York City.
  • Awkward 1 – I first met Awkward Press editor Jeffrey Dinsmore during my brief stint in LA in 2008, which was right before he got Awkward up and running.  They’ve since done a more substantial second issue in 2010, which tells you something about my reading backlog.  This episode has five short stories about awkward occurrences, all of them great.  Each one is pretty innovate in how the story unspools, like Honor Rovai’s “Housesitting”, which starts off as a letter to a housesitter that quickly morphs into a crime confession.
  • The American Book of the Dead by Henry Baum – A high-concept thriller about the end of the world as brought on by a far-right conspiracy by religious fundies in a Cheney-type style.  It’s a good plot that would (or will?) make a great movie, but is also noteworthy in that it was self-published and isn’t just another SKU number regurgitated from the entertainment-industrial complex.
  • Air in the Paragraph Line #13 – I know I published it, and I wrote two of the stories, but I also read a metric fuck-ton of stories before selecting these, and I re-read everything here a million times during the production of the issue.  Todd Taylor’s “Banjo Alien Zen” is one of my favorites in here, as is Rebel Star Hobson’s piece about the insanity of working in a redneck-infested convenience store.

I didn’t buy as much this year because I re-read a lot of old books.  I moved, and in the process of moving, I tried to tightly prune my collection and dump books that had followed me across the country multiple times that I should have read but didn’t.  Also, I tried to nail down what I was supposed to be writing, or what I wanted to write, and a lot of that involved re-reading books important to me.  Here’s a partial list of what I re-read, all books worthy of purchase, if you’ve got that Amazon gift card from xmas burning a hole in your pocket:

  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson – A panic Kindle purchase when I realized I was on the way to the airport for a cross-country flight and had nothing to read.  I practically inhaled this on the plane ride home, and it was just as good as the first half-dozen times I read it.
  • The Risk Pool by Richard Russo – This is pretty much becoming an annual read.  Nobody paints a picture like this guy.
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – Alternate reality we-lost-to-the-Nazis fiction at its finest, especially since all alternate reality fiction currently written is some right-wing wonk trying to get across some point about how paving roads is socialism.
  • The Fuck-Up by Arthur Nersesian – One of my favorite books about New York, even if there is a geographical goof about every five pages.

So what should I be reading in 2011?


Winter, sort of

It’s winter, sort of. The temperature has been consistently under 60 for about a week, aside from a weird day where it was 70. The 50-ish temps mean I switch coats to my leather jacket, which is always exciting to me, for like a day. I’ve written about this before, but I’m too lazy to look up the old posts. It’s always interesting to me, because after months of no jacket or a light jacket, the leather jacket feels like home to me. It’s so heavy, it feels like putting on armor. And the smell of the leather always brings back the memories of all these other points in my history, back to when I first bought my first leather jacket in 1993. (I’m now on my third.) So I like that, but in a few weeks, I’m going to wish I could trade the thing in for one of those Arctic parka things.

It’s really odd that New York has the most people wearing black leather motorcycle jackets compared to anywhere else I’ve lived, but I’m also given the most unending shit about my jacket, especially from people I work with. If you think it’s odd that a person would wear a black leather jacket, you’ve spent too long in the fucking Hamptons. Seriously, check out the other 40-some states some time. And yesterday, I was at a health food store (believe it or not, I take a shitload of vitamins and supplements these days, for fear that my immune system will slow down more and I will be exposed to all of the viruses and parasites in this city) and I completely forgot that I was wearing the hide of a dead cow in a place full of level 7 vegans.

And it’s weird that I even give a shit about that, and I think that the fact that I do is one of my biggest weaknesses as a human, because I care far too much what people think of me or my writing, and almost none of those people really give a shit about me at all. Like I spend a lot of time trying to contact authors of books I have read and enjoyed because I think that they would care about the opinion of a reader, and almost 99% of the time, they don’t even answer their mail. And I do that because I would hope someday that people would write me letting me know if they enjoyed my books, and that also seldom happens. There are times I believe in karma, mostly when a bunch of bad shit happens to me in one day, and I’m convinced that it’s all because I cheated on a precalculus test in 1989 or something. But then I think about the above construct, and realize that karma can probably be safely shelved away with all of the other religious theories in which I don’t believe.

I read a Jonathan Ames memoir called What’s Not To Love?, which was pretty hilarious and also made me think that maybe someday I’d like to write a straight-up memoir (as opposed to the Summer Rain-type autobiographical fiction thing.) And then we went to see the movie Running with Scissors last night, and that 90% unconvinced me. The movie was not bad, but it wasn’t really that funny to me. There were a couple of good lines, but all of them were in the trailer. It was an interesting movie, and some of the acting was great, but it just didn’t blow me away or anything.

This convinces me that I really don’t get the entire memoir genre that’s so popular, with Augustin Burroughs and David Sedaris and so on. I’ve tried to read their books, and they sort of drone on to me like a shopping list, but whenever I see a video or hear a reading of them, people laugh at all of these points that are supposed to be funny, and I don’t get it. I mean, the funny parts are amusing, and some might make me chuckle, but it’s not ha-ha funny to me. I’m sure it’s some sort of demographics thing, like the same reason that I find almost all of NPR completely unlistenable, but tons of intellectual types enjoy it 24/7. And the flipside is true – I don’t think it’s technically possible to be a fan of both this memoir genre and, say, Andrew Dice Clay. I absolutely fucking loved Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but I know a lot of people who thought it was about as compelling as films of botched colon surgery.

And I don’t give a shit in the sense that I bear no hostility towards that genre, and I can keep reading my stuff and ignoring their stuff, just like I do with country music, Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings films, and whatever Disney/Pixar animated film of the month has talking fish, toys, cars, or whatever. But the problem to me is that I really do want to write a memoir in some sense, and just by picking that type of document, I’m instantly compared to these writers. And I simply don’t know how to write stuff that would appeal to that audience. I seriously think it would be easier for me to lay down a dance single in a studio, or maybe paint a modern art masterpiece than it would be for me to pen a memoir that was compatible with those standards in any way.

There’s also the issue that I’ve never been beaten, in rehab, on the streets, or sold to my mother’s shrink. I grew up in a tri-level house in a sea of tri-level and ranch houses, all with identical aluminum siding. There’s a part of me that thinks that because I haven’t lived a really out-there life, I couldn’t write a book about my life that would be interesting. But another part of me thinks it’s not the events, but how you frame them and write about them that makes it interesting. So who knows.

The zine is almost done, sort of. I have enough submissions to equal 170 pages, which was the length of #10. I have a few pending submissions that will maybe bring it up to 200. The cover’s not done or even thought about (I have the idea, just haven’t done it yet) but each story is already laid out in FrameMaker, so I don’t have a huge project ahead of me. I got a couple of last-second stories that were absolute fucking genius, so I’m happy with what’s going into this one. I am still nervous that I’m going to have to mail out more free copies than I will actually sell, and that’s a pretty legitimate fear, since it always happens. I want it to sell a lot of copies, and not because I make like 34 cents a copy, but because I want a lot of people to read some of the good stuff in it. And I want all of the authors in it to get some more exposure. My hope has always been that Y number of writers comes to the zine with their own audience of size X (the people who buy their shit no matter what), and so Y times X buys the thing, but some of the fans of one writer say “hey, that other writer is pretty cool too” and they go out and buy their books or read their web site or whatever. Last time, a couple of people posted links to the zine on their blog, and one person actually went out and pasted the press release into a jillion discussion boards and web sites. But yeah, not as much synergy as I’d hoped for. We’ll see how it goes this time.

(I’ve vaguely thought about writing a press release for the zine, mentioning that this guy used to write for my last zine, just so it shows in a million web searches. I’ve wasted a ton of time talking to the press about the guy, which converted to about zero book sales. If some idiot can get a book deal because they’re a 17-year-old blogger from Harvard, it seems like the distant zine buddy of the FBI’s most wanted might at least get me a column in Salon. But, I know I mentioned above that I didn’t believe in karma, but I think trying to huckster the terrorism angle would probably be a bad idea in general.)

I’m leaving for Berlin on Saturday. I have not done a single bit of preparation. Sarah picked out a bunch of restaurants. I bought a book, but read like a page of it. Time to get busy on that, although I’m now reading a bio of a Vietnam helicopter pilot, which is a bit more interesting…


Work (or lack thereof), social strata of New York

First things first: there will be a new issue of Air in the Paragraph Line soon, and I’m looking for contributors. The theme of the next issue will be Work (or lack thereof.) So if you have any fucked up tales of corrupt employers or savage burns you’ve pulled on The Man while at a place of business, send them my way. Click on the link above for more info.

I read Toby Young’s How to Lose Friends and Alienate People yesterday. There were several forces that prevented this from happening earlier; the biggest was that when I started working on an anti-self-help book in the fall of 2001, I decided that this would be the perfect title. I worked on the book for a couple of weeks, then sort of wandered writing-wise, and then this smart-ass writes a book with the same fucking title! So that pissed me off for several years. Then, for some reason, I read half of a blurb on a subway over someone’s shoulder or something, and somehow got the idea that Young was working in the fashion industry. I assumed that his memoir was some sort of Devil Wears Prada thing, and wrote it off. But a few people told me I should read it, and I also found a used copy on Amazon for ONE CENT, plus shipping. And no, the shipping wasn’t $28, it was like $2.

Anyway, I liked the book very much. His writing reminds me of Chuck Klosterman in some ways, although where Chuck might go off on obscure KISS trivia, Young goes off on obscure pseudo-academic history, which had the eyes glazing over. But the other stuff was great, because there’s something that I have in common with him, and it’s not as obvious to most people, which is that we’re both outsiders to New York, and the ludicrosness of the situation in Manhattan that would normally be endured by the fashionistas and aristocrats is something that we both notice, in an Emperor Wears No Clothes sort of way.

You’re probably wondering what the fuck I mean, so I’ll break it down for you. I grew up in an essentially classless environment in Indiana. Yes, there were cliques, and maybe some legitimate racial segregation, but the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor shopped at the same mall. The best golf course in Elkhart in 1987 was only marginally better than playing in a gravel driveway. People didn’t ‘summer’ or spend time in Europe. I don’t know who the richest kid in my graduating class was, but there’s a pretty good chance his or her house had aluminum siding just like mine. I’m not saying that the cruelness of children didn’t create great social divides among us; but I’m saying the income of the rich and the income of the poor was probably close to the amount I currently have in my checking account.

I showed up in New York in 1999, and it was a totally different world. The richest of the poor and the poorest of the rich were set apart by seven or eight digits of salary per year. Something that Young explained was that he came from this strict social class system in England, where you never moved above or below a certain level, based pretty much on who your parents were. And if you were stuck in the middle, why should you work hard to become the next Bill Gates? You never could, so keep slumming. Contrast that with New York, where everyone says there are no social classes, and the poorest guy can become the richest person in the world if he just pulls himself together and gets out there. Americans love to think this country is a meritocracy, and in some ways it is, but in New York, there’s this artifical aristrocracy, and it’s something I never really could digest properly.

A lot of people in New York do stuff not to do stuff, but because they think if they do it, that moves them a little closer to the top. The biggest example I can think of is summering in the Hamptons. The other example is how people don’t actually process movies or books, but usually only memorize that one catch phrase that coincidentally is also the first sentence of the New Yorker’s review. (Cases in point: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential – every single person who said they read that book and didn’t said it was “the don’t eat fish on Monday” book, and that has so little to do with the actually the book, it’s stupid. It’s like saying the bible was the “how to build an ark” book. The other example is Bowling for Columbine, where EVERYONE I knew said “oh yeah, that movie’s about how horrible guns are,” even though it was about how horrible the news media is. Same goes for Fast Food Nation and the fact that everyone says the book talks about how horrible McDonald’s was, when it was actually pretty neutral about MCD and spent a lot more time picking at Jack in the Box and the cattle industry.)

There is such a strong groupthink in this city, it’s impossible to deal with. And the reason this makes this faux-meritocracy so hard to deal with is that the upper-upper-class believe both that “anyone can make it to the top,” even though they are probably at the top because of their parents’ money and influence, but they also simultaneously think that because they are at the top, they are there to stay and they can piss on everyone below them. That’s what makes Enrons happen, not Republicans or Democrats; it’s people so out of touch with reality that doing such horrible things seems normal. And that thought pattern trickles down through the tree until you have people in the upper-middle-class that think it’s okay to spend $800 on a purse because Carrie Bradshaw had one.

Toby Young also really had his finger on the dating situation here in New York. He said most women, knowingly or unknowingly, are just looking for the proper attributes that will produce a man that is marriage material, much like how you shop for a new car or hire someone for an office position. In the people that I met here during the fivish years I was single, almost all of them were looking at what I was, not who I was. And that sort of feeds into the above, in that a woman would rather date a bland guy who had a nice summer house than an interesting guy that her coworkers might think isn’t a good long-term investment. I’m just glad I somehow beat the million-in-one odds and found someone who wasn’t like that.

Anyway, book was good. I’ll pick up his next one now, although it just came out, so I’m sure it will cost more than a penny…