Two Novels, One Novella, One Transmedia Experience, and a Book Of Poetry: Considered

by James Greer

The Dirty Poet, Emergency Room Wrestling, Words Like Kudzu Press

Jesús Ángel Garcia, badbadbad, New Pulp Press

Ben Tanzer, You Can Make Him Like You, Artistically Declined Press

Tom Williams, The Mimic’s Own Voice, Main Street Rag

Patrick Wensink, Black Hole Blues, Lazy Fascist

First, I have to apologize. I’m not in the habit of reviewing books, and I’ve long since grown out of the bad habit of reviewing music, because it’s not one of my strong points. I’m a very bad critic. I’m likely to resort to shop-worn formulations and insights that would make a ten year old cringe and whisper “The banality! The banality!” in a strangled voice to her slightly older brother as they sit quietly reading their Kindles on a rainy day, slumped against couch cushions on the floor of the living room in their parents’ summer house in Kennebunkport, Maine (I figure the kids must be rich if they both have Kindles.)

Second, I have to apologize. Each of the books I’m going to briefly mention deserves a much longer review than I have time to write. While it’s true that I’m a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and further true that I might one day write a longer review of one or more of these books for that newly-launched and well-regarded endeavor, the backlog of reviews over at LARB central is such that anything I have written for them and might write in the future will necessarily appear many months from now. That’s not a bad thing, and in fact one of the operating principles of LARB is that it revels in sometimes reviewing books that are not exactly current, but in the meantime, I thought a few short lines of praise about a few books I read recently couldn’t hurt.

Third, I have to apologize. Readers of North of Onhava should be aware that I know most of these authors, with one exception, and that I am on friendly terms with all, excepting that same one person. I haven’t met all of the people I know in person, yet, but these days that’s less and less necessary. While I make every effort to maintain a costume of objectivity, occasionally the mask will slip, because I don’t look in the mirror when I write. Probably nobody looks in the mirror when he or she writes, except Tao Lin, and even then he looks in a mirror that’s not a mirror but approximately a mirror, and no one else should try to write in an approximate mirror, in my opinion. He’s got that covered.

On to the books, in alphabetical more or less alphabetical (except apparently I can’t spell) order:

Emergency Room Wrestling is a short book of poems by someone who calls himself The Dirty Poet. His poems are not dirty in an obscene way, unless you consider death obscene, or gallows humor in the face of death, or the grim truth of human suffering, or laughing about the grim truth of human suffering. In that sense, Emergency Room Wrestling could be called obscene and The Dirty Poet an obscene poet, but that would be misleading. In fact these poems are documentary in nature, and I suspect cathartic (I hope cathartic) for The Dirty Poet. A graphic description of flesh-eating bacteria devouring the scrotum of a 400 pound patient opens the book, as the narrator of the poem helps three nurses insert something called a “rectal trumpet” whose purpose I would rather not consider just now into the struggling and howling overweight patient. It’s a shocking image. I think it’s meant to shock, but also to draw you in, to see what other horrors await. The poem is called “you think you need a beer” which is a good example of the way The Dirty Poet uses humor to offset the brutal truth of his poetry. But there’s tenderness, too—depthless, unrelenting—as in “dead end,” where a father struggles to come to terms with his son’s near-fatal car accident. He tries to thumb wrestle with the kid’s “large, limp hand,” his thumb “hopeful in a hopeless world.” And on and on, alternating by turns in short, sharp poems that are sometimes cynical, sometimes forlorn, sometimes despairing, sometimes numb, sometimes funny, and always arresting. The Dirty Poet stands at the gate between life and death and watches. I don’t know how he does it. The book is not long, but its power far exceeds its modest presentation.

I cannot do justice to a work as ambitious and multifarious as Jesús Ángel Garcia‘s badbadbad in one paragraph. I can’t even accurately summarize the plot without taking a cleaver to at least one or two of the novel’s limbs. On one level, it’s about a guy named Jesús Ángel Garcia who works by day as webmaster for the First Church of Church Before Church, and by night as a kind of online sexual healer. In less accomplished hands, even that level of quirk could curdle, but Garcia is a vigorous and hugely talented writer, so when he goes off on even more far-out tangents (one could make the argument that the whole book is a series of tangents, and I’d maybe agree, and say that’s not a bad thing), you follow. You don’t have much choice. It’s a little like this: you’re walking along a deserted desert road, and a beat-up old Ford pulls up next to you. The driver offers you a lift. You accept. It’s both the best and the worst decision you ever made in your life. At the end of the ride, you realize the driver is you. A soundtrack and a series of short films accompany badbadbad, and the experience of reading the book is not complete unless and until you listen to/watch the bonus material. Garcia aims, if I interpret his intentions rightly, to unsettle your assumptions about class, about gender, about sex, about religion, about identity: in short, about yourself, and what it means to be human in an inhuman world.

Ben Tanzer‘s ambitions are less lofty. He just wants to make you cry. In You Can Make Him Like You, which unfortunately is a song by The Hold Steady, from an album called Boys And Girls In America, released in 2006. It’s a not-great album by a fitfully competent band, but I’m not going to judge Ben’s book by his taste in music, however much he wants me to. Tanzer writes with endearing frankness about the kind of postponed adolescence that most Judd Apatow characters go through in Judd Apatow movies, except Ben is more honest, and his dissection of his character Keith’s emotional oscillations is both more precise and funnier than anything in Knocked Up, for instance. (I really hope Knocked Up is a Judd Apatow movie, or this review is screwed.) Ben’s also wiser about the different ways people deal with the maturation process. His characters can be self-centered and dense to the point of unlikability, and yet you still like them, because (perhaps most importantly) you recognize them, or yourself in them. I think the magic trick Tanzer pulls off here has something to do with unsentimentality. His prose is clear-eyed and dead pan, even if his characters are more dead pan than clear-eyed, and the trip from confused-scared-selfish but basically large-hearted guy to confused-scared-selfish but basically large-hearted dad will plaster a goofy grin on your face by the time you finish the book. Those are not tears, that’s just something in my eye, but thanks for asking.

Tom Williams’ novella The Mimic’s Own Voice is an act of mimicry itself. It purports to be a semi-scholarly monograph about a talented and hugely popular mimic named Douglas Myles, whose meteoric ascent—at the height of his popularity Myles “plays” to football-stadium-sized audiences—and subsequent disappearance from public life parody the similar trajectories of (to name just a few) J.D. Salinger, Andy Kaufmann, Scott Walker and so on. And so on. Williams himself never breaks character, and the result is an absorbing meditation on fame, race, show business, the mystery of inspiration, the absurdity of life, and a bunch of other stuff, too, but you get the idea. That Williams is able to cover so much ground so deftly within the confines of a novella is a testament both to his own tremendous talent and to the underrated possibilities presented by the form itself. (Though Melville House has taken an admirable step in the direction of rectifying that situation with its relatively budget-priced novella series.) The Mimic’s Own Voice is as close to a perfect book—meaning perfect on its own terms, with respect to intent, execution, textual integrality—as I have read in many moons. Or however you count time.

Patrick Wensink is not a weird guy, at least I don’t think he is, in my limited experience, but he has a decidedly twisted imagination. His second book (second that I know about, anyway) and first novel (his collection of short stories Sex Dungeon For Sale I can also recommend without reservation) is about an aging country music star named J. Claude Caruthers and his twin brother, Lloyd, a physicist. When I say “about” I mean that those are two characters in the book, which is told variously from the point of view of both Caruthers, J. Claude’s guitar, a tour bus, a particle of energy, a sandwich, and on and on, all of whom are given distinctive voices and personalities over the course of a novel wherein Lloyd accidentally creates a black hole that threatens to destroy the universe, while J. Claude struggles to write the last in his alphabetically comprehensive series of songs about women, “Zygmut,” who turns out—and really, who didn’t see this coming?—to be J. Claude’s and Lloyd’s long-lost sister. I would tell you more, but I don’t want to, and I don’t think I need to. Black Hole Blues is a trip, and one I think the reader is better off taking without particular guidance. At least from me. Bring your spirit animal, if you want. We are all lucky that Wensink decided to turn his talents for good. As an evil mastermind he could wreak some serious havoc.