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I reviewed Joshua Cohen’s collection of four long short stories, Four New Messages, for Bookforum, which you can find wherever Bookforum in its papery form is still sold, and also online here. My review calls Cohen “immoderately brilliant,” and the takeaway for those disinclined to read reviews is “buy this book.”

Plus also too, I was interviewed by The Believer about the differenece between playing music and writing, or something like that, which you can find here. It was disclosed during this interview that I’ll be doing a tour diary for the The Believer about my band Détective‘s upcoming tour with Guided By Voices. Fans of rambling first person anecdotes should begin bating their breath now.

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.

Two books I happened to read recently and would like to tell you about:

Frank Hinton I Don’t Respect Female Expression (Safety Third Enterprises, 2011)

Frank Hinton is an enigma wrapped in a mystery on a bed of lettuce. A construct, possibly of/by a real person named Frank Hinton, possibly not. His/her limited edition chapbook contains twelve short discrete pieces that defy nomenclatural classification (story? prose poem? flash fiction?), some of which are about a character named Frank who may or may not be the same Frank as the constructed Frank who writes the unclassifiable pieces in this chapbook. I’m not sure there’s any useful difference.

One of the first few stories is called “Make a Man,” and it instructs either the reader or the writer, or both: “Make a man and name him Frank.” The story ends with “Give him a psychic anchor. Give him yourself. Your name is Lili. Fuck him.” The next story is about a couple named Frank and Lili who do not fuck—though Frank seems to want to, and Lili, too, the story is mostly about the closely related processes of cooking and writing.

My favorite piece in this brief collection is called “All of the People In These Pictures Are Dead Now.” It’s about what it says it’s about, and though it (intentionally?) misspells Friedrich Engels as Frederich Engles, the piece ends with the author him/herself lying dead/not dead in a field, waiting to “see what animals come to pick me apart and carry me away.” While that sounds like an unsettling image, in fact, because of the masterly build-up throughout the story of a pervasive melancholy that the title perfectly expresses, it’s a beautiful and beautifully sad image.

 

Scott McClanahan Stories V! (Holler Presents, 2011)

Stories V! is set in the same Appalachian wasteland as McClanahan’s earlier collections, Stories I and Stories II. The main character in many of McClanahan’s stories is named Scott McClanahan, and the way he presents his pieces the reader is led to believe, or at least this reader was, that these are not fictions but things that actually happened, and it’s quite possible that some if not all of these things did actually happen, but that’s quite beside the point.

There’s a story in the beginning called “Invisible Ink” where the narrator explains that as a child his mother wrote him a message in invisible ink, that only appeared when he believed there was a message in invisible ink on the paper he held. The message was: “Thank you for believing.” The narrator then asks the reader “So I ask you now, “Do you believe?” There follow several apparently blank pages, at the end of which, at the top of the page is a message in all caps: “THANK YOU FOR BELIEVING.”

I think it would be a mistake, then, to call McClanahan’s hardscrabble characters and stories “realistic” or “gritty” even when they are realistic and gritty. Beckley, West Virginia is a place that exists. It is real. The characters Scott writes about, including the Scott who’s a character, seem real. But none of the stories in this book are real. They’re stories. McClanahan seems determined to blur the line between fiction and reality so thoroughly that one can be substituted for the other without anyone the wiser. But it’s not the job of fiction to make you wiser. The job of fiction is to put a spell on you that you can never again shake.

Both of these books, in different ways, perform that difficult magic trick. If I were you, I would go out of my way to read them.

låna pengar direkt | John Masley Arrest | Rabbi Barry Kallenberg

Because American Literature will not be able to sleep until I have weighed in on David Foster Wallace’s posthumous unfinished novel, The Pale King, I agreed to provide several words on the subject for the Fanzine here. You’re welcome, American Literature. Get some rest. You look tired.