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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Monday, June 11, 2018

Outlaws and Inlaws, Part the Fifth


I read em, I review em. Anthologized short stories, that is.

From Calling the Wind:

A Summer Tragedy by Arna Bontemps: An elderly African-American couple sets out on a trip that doesn’t end well. This ominously gentle story unspools the struggles they’ve had with health, poverty, and racism, and the ways they’ve tried to stay strong and proud through it all. The ending is a warning about what happens when you (particularly white society and/or employers) thwart people (particularly Black and/or working people) too much for too long. Sadly, the result isn’t the guillotine. At least not this time.

I realize that I’ve made this sound like a big downer. It is a big downer. Life is a big downer for some people who deserve better, and that’s the subject of the story.

Truant by Claude McKay: A married man who works in the dining car on a passenger train, and has always been reliable in that position, plays hooky one time and finds out that the consequences for this naughtiness are way more intense than the consequences for being a good employee. Turns out that, years before, our man left a placid island life to pursue a highbrow education. What role does the USA have for sophisticated black people? Kitchen work. Not that anything’s wrong with kitchen work, god knows, but he didn’t go to culinary school. He’s also bored with his marriage, in the way a closeted gay man is likely to be bored with his marriage, and he’s yearning to wander. But for all that he wants to walk out of his responsibilities, he also wants to cover the bases; making sure that the wife he plans to abandon is financially secure, etc. Any resemblance to McKay’s actual life is non-coincidental.

McKay may be best known as the author of the fist-pumpingly rousing poem/fight song If We Must Die, but his prose is well worth investigating; it’s plainspoken yet engaging. Having read this much, I’d like to real all the rest.

From The Outlaw Book of American Literature:

Jan and Jack by Neil Ortenberg: This short essay provides context for some of what we’re about to read; Jack Kerouac had a daughter, Jan, whom he barely ever met, but who became a fierce guardian of his literary estate.

Baby Driver by Jan Kerouac: Jan describes a hospital stay in which an orderly, recognizing her name, gives her a copy of On The Road, which is Jan’s first serious engagement with her absentee father’s work. She recognizes her own thought patterns in her father’s writing. She also hangs a bloodstained artifact of a medical lab test over her bed because it’s pretty. I liked this better than anything I’ve read by her father.

On The Road by Jack Kerouac: this excerpt is typical of Kerouac’s chest-thumping chatterboxing. I’ve got a blind spot for this guy’s appeal, even though I adore Burroughs and Ginsberg, but I can’t deny the powerful reactions I’ve seen from women I know who read Jack’s stuff. “He’s so sexist,” they say, but they don’t say it with the annoyance they’d bring to a lesser guy’s sexism; they say it with hushed awe.

In college, my roommate said that he wanted to spend a year or two “Jack Kerouac-ing around the country.” After he’d said this about a hundred times I asked him if he’d read any Kerouac. He hadn’t, but decided he ought to. After reading On The Road he said “Okay, I don’t want to do it the way he did. I want to do what I thought Jack Kerouac-ing was.” Years later, he joined the Peace Corps and roughed it in an Ecuadorian village, and I’d rather read his memoir, if he writes one, than any more Jack Kerouac. However, there is a rhapsodic passage in the excerpt under consideration in which Kerouac compares all his other friends to his man crush Dean Moriarty and finds them wanting. It reminds me a bit of both Burroughs and Ginsberg, which makes it my favorite bit of writing from Kerouac. I dunno who copied whose style here, or if there’s a Beat Q Gospel that shaped the 3 of them (okay, a preposterous notion, but a fun daydream/story seed), but either way, Kerouac writing like his cohorts is my favorite Kerouac.

Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson: Kerouac’s ex gives her side of the story, and it’s probably the best exploration of how a woman can size up a guy’s many shortcomings and still be enchanted by him that I’ve ever read.

Women write about Kerouac better than Kerouac wrote about anything.

From Best American Short Stories:

My Dead Brother Comes To America by Alexander Godin. A woman and her children, including the narrator, immigrate to the USA and meet her husband at Ellis Island after a separation of years. The narrator, recounting his childhood experience, conveys just how huge and mysterious things are when you’re a kid, without turning it into a Tim Burton production. There’s a terrible secret, a weird yet understandable betrayal, that creates fresh anguish for the newly reunited family. In frightening new surroundings, the trauma and loss of the old country follows the immigrants like a family member.

Resurrection of a Life by William Saroyan: This rhapsodically romanticized account of childhood is written with a Whitmanish self-aggrandizement and a plummy purple populism that suggests Saroyan was a shaping influence on Ray Bradbury’s writing. This also reminds me of J. M. Demattais’ more autobio comics (like Seekers into the Mystery). It’s so flamboyantly self-dramatizing that it’s like the male prose version of a shojo manga. Does a nice job of conveying that life’s beauties and evils coexist and make of life a beguiling tapestry. I relate to the ways that religious ceremony enriches the boy’s sense of awe, even as his mind rebels at the tenets of the faith. Still, this was too much like watching a middle-aged guy being grandstandingly emo for my tastes.

Also, fat shaming. It’s one of those stories where a fat person represents a grab bag of human failings.

From Dangerous Visions:

The Malley System by Miriam Allen deFord: A variety of creeps commit some truly horrible crimes, but it turns out that they’re reenacting their actual villainies in a virtual reality simulation. This is part of a therapy that’s designs to reduce recidivism in dangerous criminals. The side effects, though, undermine the entire endeavor. Does the mere fact that a treatment doesn’t work mean the prison system will stop using it? What do you think?
Ms. deFord worked in criminal justice and wrote legal fiction, so it’s no surprise that her story feels grounded in knowledge. Her prose in the first half, as she recounts the crimes, strains for hard-boiledness but sells the improvisational intensity of criminal acts of passion; the dialogue in the latter half, in which blasé penal professionals exposit the rationale, process, and shortcomings of this VR aversion therapy, are clear but bland. If only the same could be said for Ellison’s introduction, in which he whips himself into a popeyed frenzy about how just because she’s old, it doesn’t mean Ms. deFord couldn’t fist-fight you all into submission. But that’s the kind of hyperventilation Ellison fans pay their money for, innit?
A Toy For Juliette by Robert Bloch: In the future, there’s pretty much 2 people left: a nymphettish sexpot who likes to torture and murder people, and her time-traveling uncle who brings her torture devices and victims from throughout history. But remember, history has its own killers, isn’t that right, JACK THE RIPPER?

The airless BDSM nastiness of this tale (from the creator of Psycho) suits my worries about the Post-Trump, globally warmed future. But is the story any good? I’ve basically told you the whole tale, but I’m reminded of Howard Bloom’s wisecrack about The Fall of the House of Usher: anyone can retell it better than Poe told it. I don’t cosign that opinion, but I find it a useful rubric for evaluating the strength of a plot relative to the strength of its execution, and I’m inclined to say Bloch sells it with greater venomous zest than my capsule summary does.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Outlaws and Inlaws, Part the Fourth

Hi folks! I’m still reading those anthologies of short fiction.

From Dangerous Stories:

New Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip Jose Farmer-If you think Robert Anton Wilson was the great American novelist of the 20th century, or you reject the notion that the Firesign Theatre ever did a bad album, then you owe it to yourself to read this gobstopper. Otherwise, you owe me $5 for reading it in your stead. After chewing my way through all hundred-or-so pages of it, I’m deeply grateful that I’ll never have to read it again.

Basically, a young artist in a whimsically imagined but dire future is trying to achieve enough glory to escape his family’s apartment, while his grandpa, who’s like R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural reconceived as a Catholic tax evader, continues to evade his Javert. The mere plot, though, is scribbled over with loads of jokey psy-kuh-delic clowning; page after page after page after page of allusions, puns, and other such textual antics. I’m open to such things in theory; I read Pynchon, after all. But, as they say on Project Runway, I’m concerned about Farmer’s taste level.

Digression about Yes: Any fan of the band Yes knows they were at their best when Eddie Offord was their producer. After he left, their near-perfection became a grab bag of good and bad ideas. I suspect that Yes had talent, but Offord had taste. The band could produce all kinds of ideas, good and bad; Offord helped sort through those ideas, separating the jewels from the jive. With him gone, there was no one to do this work for the rest of the 70s, and they devolved into Pre-Raphealite stadium rock.

Farmer, in this story at least, comes off like Yes without a sharp producer, splattering ideas and effects all over the place, swamping the occasional good idea under an array of ill-chosen effects and flatulant bombast. He invokes and evokes a range of writers both lo-brow and high (Edgar Rice Burrough’s flare for action has found an apt pupil in Farmer) but the sub-Finnegan’s Wake psychedelic folderol comes off as more modish than meaningful.

Also, the story has rapey humor on the second page (don’t worry, folks; turns out She Likes It!) and extreme body shaming (the protagonist’s mother is obese, and no war criminal was ever chastized more angrily than is mother for her weight). More sexual violence (by the protagonist, against his girlfriend) occurs midway through the story; it’s appalling, and Farmer seems to think it’s completely justified. The girlfriend is portrayed as a shrill whiner for protesting her violation and wanting an abortion. Or as Harlan Ellison puts it in his introduction, “Philip Jose Farmer is one of the few truly good people I know.”

From Outlaw Fiction:

Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles: this excerpt begins with a frame story, in which a western man, Port (who, based on what I know of Paul Bowles, may be homosexual) and an Arabic man, Smail, visit an Arabic woman who makes them some tea. Smail low-key flirts with the woman, who gently rebuffs; Port’s impatience with this flirtation probably speaks for generations of gay people waiting for clumsy hetero courting to yield the floor to more interesting pursuits.  The woman requests that Smail tell a story...

The story he tells is about 3 women who yearn to have tea in the desert. It’s no spoiler to say that their attempt to put this plan into action doesn’t end well. The moral of the story seems to be that following your dreams can get you killed if you’re foolish about the risks involved, which could seem banal, but not when it’s conveyed with the existential cruelty, mingled with romantic poeticizing, that gives the story a subtle flavour as entrancing as a good cup of hot tea.

Cool For You by Eileen Myles: 3 pages in the life of a bibliophiliac girl’s mind, written with the lively directness of expression and complexity of thought you might indeed get if you persuaded a brainy young woman to tell you what she’s really thinking about. She ponders heavenly bodies, both real and imagined, and libraries, and the connection between art and astronomy; all expressed with a visceral, embodied sense of how it all matters, but in ways that are only evident to a sharp girl in a library. I am now an Eileen Myles fan.

Junky by William Burroughs: Before cutting up and folding in, Burroughs wrote with a noirish hard-boiled terseness about the zombie life of the drug addict. It’s a lot like a detective novel, but the plot isn’t directed by a mystery or investigation as such, only the drifting quest for the next hit. “Bill” just fumbles along and overrelies on other peoples’ goodwill. A glimpse of Burrough’s future work appears in a brief bad dream: “the human form can no longer contain the crustacean horror that has grown inside it.” Lack of affect and lack of effect, but conveyed with a crystalline clarity. Tellingly, one of Bill’s friends warns him to stop relying on guns, since a gun is no damn good in the hands of a hopeless screwup. If every American understood this, we’d have far fewer gun-related injuries and deaths.

Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien: O’Brien portrays alcoholism that manages to be fun for as long as the drink is available, and kinda fun when the drink is unavailable as long as one is able to schematize the next batch of booze. Alcoholism is one problem I’ve feared but avoided, largely by going long stretches without drink so that when I do have a glass, one glass is sufficient. Nevertheless, I know how wonderful life feels when you’re so thrillingly sozzled that you can only manage to do one thing, like sit down, with the kind of effort and focus a sober person might expend on shooting hoops. That’s a once-a-year treat at most. For our hero, it’s a daily deal. And he’s loving life, but the severance pay on which he’s subsisting is only gonna last so long. The prose is so cheerful and zippy that we accept that a person might choose to bollux up his life this way, but O’Brien implies, without yet showing, how joyless the crash will be, when it comes; or how much centrifugal force it’ll take to head that crash off.

From Best American Stories:

Wild Plums by Grace Stone Coates. A haughty father heaps scorn on the friendly hillbilly neighbors, while bossing his quietly resentful wife and bored little girl. The girl, who narrates, yearns to join the neighbors on their plum-picking campouts, but fraternizing with the unwashed is forbidden. She finally gets a taste of forbidden fruit, but this isn’t a story of straightforward defiance; it’s about regret and yearning and sneaking a taste of the good stuff. My ex-Calvinist heart understands.

Theft by Katherine Anne Porter: A single woman in New York bops from guy friend to guy friend, keenly observing how carefully everyone tries to stay socially and economically afloat. Then her purse gets stolen, and her confrontation with the thief ends in a victory, but also a glimpse of how bad life might yet get. Porter writes with such inventive, perceptive prose that this dunking in hopelessness is endlessly rereadable; it’s like a catchy sad song.

That Evening Sun Go Down by William Faulkner: A poor black woman dreads her violent ex. For help she turns to the well-to-do white family that sporadically employs her, and we soon see that, for a black person in America, you don’t get to need too much. I don’t know much about Faulkner as a person; they say he was racist, but however wrong his views of race, he was still a sensitive recorder of how selfishly and perniciously white supremacism works. It’s not like in tinseltown movies that portray America’s racist past as a matter of a few mean people, with a nice white savior or two for modern white audience members to identify with. As Faulkner shows, even white people who want to help don’t want to help all that much, and soon give in to all the other white people who insist that frightened, vulnerable black people aren’t as worthy of help as slightly inconvenienced white people. Throughout, a young white boy obsessively explicates who is or isn’t a n-gg-r, with the zeal of a model student. Faulkner shows us how structural racism begins with (mis)education; whatever his intent, this story is an indictment.

Here We Are by Dorothy Parker: An anxious newlywed couple can’t stop spatting and sparring; the eustress of marriage shifts into distress, and the ways they take it out on each other establish what we can tell will be patterns of conflict that last throughout their marriage. The old saw that men are dumb and women are crazy gets a thorough airing; he’s dumb enough to rhapsodize about how hot the maid of honor was, and she’s crazy enough to start a trench war over everything he says. Happily the paradise of love that is my marriage bears utterly no resemblance to any of this. Parker is the most famous wit of the Algonquin Round Table, but her humor is shot through with heartbreak. The laughter stings.

Crazy Sunday by F. Scott Fitzgerald: an ambitious screenwriter, a lonely starlet, and a miserable producer in 30s Hollywood; are they a love triangle, or is something more nebulous happening? Nobody covers this terrain with livelier melancholy than Fitzgerald. Marred by the kind of fleeting, pointless racism that was practically mandatory in pop culture of the time; otherwise this is pretty near perfect for those of us who like Old Hollywood and social complications.

From Calling the Wind:

Sanctuary by Nella Larsen: A young black man on the run from the law seeks shelter with the mother of his best friend. Things take a nasty turn or two. The question under review is: which loyalty takes precedence; loyalty to family, or racial solidarity amongst African-Americans? Loyalty to the State tries to elbow its way into the equation but gets elbowed right back out. Recently awakened debates about when black women should or shouldn’t defend black men show how urgent these issues still are; this story doesn’t so much choose a side as reveal how urgent these issues have always been.

Truant by Claude McKay: A reliable worker on a Pullman train learns just how little room a black person has to slack off at work. In deft strokes, we delve into his promising youth, and see how society has both encouraged and stifled his intellectual, romantic, and bodily ambitions. McKay may be best known for his fist-pumpingly rousing poem If We Must Die, but judging from this story he was a subtle and powerful prosesmith as well. The story is slightly less focused on white supremacism than some of the others under discussion here, but not because white society is off the hook; just because African-American culture has fine things to offer. Regardless, McKay’s protagonist finds that it might be best to uproot and keep moving; the pleasures of truancy seem preferable to the assurances of stolidity.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Outlaws & Inlaws, Part the 3rd.

I abandoned this blog because I spent the better part of a year getting a house repaired and learning a bunch of theory for a paper I intend to write. The house is done, the paper ain't, but I'm itching to get back to this.

Quick refresher: I'm reading a batch of short story anthologies. Calling The Wind collects African-American prose; Outlaw's Bible of American Literature collects cuttings from various writers whom the anthologists deem underground; The Best American Short Stories of the Century explains itself in the title; and Dangerous Visions is a 60's era collection of science fiction that aimed to push the boundaries of that theoretically imaginative (but in practice, often reactionary) genre.

From Calling the Wind:

Esther by Jean Toomer: A shopkeeper's young daughter witnesses a  magnificent oration by Barlo, a visionary street preacher, who becomes the lodestone of her imagination. As she grows, her dreams and desires rotate around the memory of Barlo, and when he returns to town as a newly wealthy investor, she is compelled to present herself to him. For her the stakes are apocalyptic, but is Barlo still a high-minded man of God, or have commerce and class besmirched him?


Toomer's vivid prose has a controlled poetry and hypnagogic mysticism that delights and terrifies this reader. In a mere six pages he covers so much thematic ground; the purgatorial poetry of race, class, gender and commerce in America is held aloft like a scarred fist for our consideration. Essential.


The Hands: a Story by Marita Bonner: A distraught woman (we never learn exactly why she's so upset, but she seems to have deep-rooted anxiety) boards a subway car and soothes herself by imagining the Christlike life of a man on the car with her. The life of dignity she conjours up for an anonymous working man comes forth in terse, thick, anxious fragments, like a desperate effort to make hard life into good life. A lot of sorrow, loneliness, and aspiration expressed in a fragmented poetry. 4 pages. Another wallop of a story.


From Outlaw's Bible:


Jew Boy by Alan Kaufman. In an anthology where most writers get 3-4 pages, editor Alan Kaufman has been marvelously generous with writer Alan Kaufman, permitting him a roomy 10 pages for a first person tale about being a street person in San Fran, hanging out with a shaman, and kicking alcoholism. It's written with the clever/glib/witty/cliched/original verve of an old-school ad man; a very sane Mad Man writing about the struggle against a mind-warping disease. I can't help wondering how Joy Williams would retell it; she'd rewire the prose into something as dangerous and unpredictable as a hungry coral snake, with no cutesy-poo sentimentality left in it. As it stands, this reminds me of that Seekers into the Mystery comic I poked at a while back; it's a kindred Spirit.


The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen: The title gives you a sense of the grandiloquent prog-rock mystification you're in for, but not the motor oil fumes that pong off of this odd collage. Two things this whimsical rhapsody of grievances and passions recalls to me:



  1. The distinction that some underground cartoonist (either Robert Crumb or Spain Rodriguez, I forget) made (in some Comics Journal interview) between the Flower Power hippies of the West Coast and the edgy, dangerous hippies of the East. This story feels like an unstable alloy of the two.
  2. Jack Smith, best known for his fantastical underground film Flaming Creatures. I've seen a documentary on Smith (Jack Smith and the drowning of Atlantis, well worth seeing) that reveals how lovely his fantabulous art was, and how he crippled his own career with pointless animosity towards anyone who might help him. I've also read a biographical article about Patchen (Steloff, F. (1975). Kenneth patchen. Journal of Modern Literature, 4(4), 805) that reveals Mr. Patchen suffered from a similar strain of self-ruining puritanism. 
Anyway, this is vivid and angry work, but, as with a lot of rambling psychedelia, I found it difficult to stay focused on its wayward logic as it flitted from one curdled whimsy to the next.

From Dangerous Visions:

The Day After The Day After The Martians Came by Fredrick Pohl: The Martians have landed, and they aren't at all imposing, so people immediately repurpose all their racist jokes for the occasion. The punchline is a black guy expressing relief that someone else is now the butt of those jokes. It's the kind of windup/pitch upon which SF relies. The idea that humanity will always have a pecking order, and one way to move up in that order is to have someone else lower than you, is sadly evergreen.

From Best American Short Stories

Double Birthday by Willa Cather: A gay young man is no longer young (but is coded very gay) and has come down in the world from his fancy upbringing. He wants to give his uncle a proper birthday, and that means wrangling champagne and guests. The principal guest is a dazzling woman they've been friends with since she was young; she hasn't come down in the world, and has drifted away from them, but is ready to reconnect. From this low-concept starting point, Cather dives into her characters' struggles and sorrows, and reveals the ways that human connection can be a balm to our wearying lives. The consolation we can take in good companionship shines out as vividly as a candle on a darkening evening. 

Cather is marvelous at revealing the ways that immigrant populations enrich America (the men of the story keep prewar Germany alive in their modest house), and has a gift for showing her characters through each others' eyes. Both of these strengths are on display in this story, along with Cather's graceful, unshowy prose. Cather's characterization of both women and men is so rich and finely tuned that I'm tempted to credit her butch lesbianism with helping her understand multiple genders, but perhaps I overstep. At any rate, she was a wonder; I think it's sexism to blame for the fact she isn't as famous as Twain or Faulkner.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

It's Halloween in March!

I've put my short story anthology reading on pause while I work on another project that has completely sidelined my blogging, but anyway, in October I started a post about Halloween treats, then stopped. Here it is.

Carrie on the big screen: emotionally overwhelming, much to my surprise. Carrie/Sissie Spacek's journey from sad little mouse to prom queen and back again left me tearful in a way it never had on TV. Related: this is the only time I've watched it and fully understood that most of the students aren't in on the pig blood conspiracy. What can I say? I used to struggle with the basics of following a plot. My misunderstanding on this score caused me to initially see the film as a much cruder entertainment than it turns out to be. Perhaps this is part of my strong response to it this time; Carrie is actually winning friends along the way, but that doesn't staunch the bleeding. 

Shining on the big screen: Since I've seen it often enough, I could focus on the nuances of the sound mix (lots of creepy background sounds) and play Room 237 (why do red-white-and-blue color schemes show up so often, particularly in clothing?) Also, when the end credits rolled a young woman immediately started asking her friends to help her make sense of it; a schlubby guy muttered "idiots" to himself as he passed me on his way out, perhaps hoping that I, a fellow lonely schlubby guy, would join him in solidarity against the fools who don't get The Shining. Sorry, pal; I'd rather hang out with people who admit that they need to build understanding than with people who presume to have all the nerd-knowledge.

Candyman: A woman researches a teasingly complex local urban legend, and gets into trouble when she white-privileges her way into a dangerous housing project that's haunted by a variety of dangers, possibly including the murderous spirit of Candyman. Lots of people die around her, and for once nobody buys it when a white lady blames murders on a black guy.

This movie is really quite Lovecraftian in some ways. It's smart about research and folklore, and most of the first act involves the heroine interviewing a surprisingly large cast of characters about Candyman. Also, race-mixing is front and center, and it's portrayed as sizzlin' hot romance, which I much prefer to Lovecraft's sweaty racist preoccupation.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Outlaws and Inlaws, Part the Second.

I've expanded the scope of this "reviewing short story anthologies" project by adding a couple more anthologies: Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories, Ed. Clarence Major, and Dangerous Visions, Ed. Harlan Ellison (a "classic" science fiction anthology upon which I gorged as a teen). 

From The Outlaw Bible:


Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs: Gonzo, performative account of sex. There’s a lot of butter in this pastry, but celebrations of carnal love were arguably revolutionary acts at the time, and Bangs unleashes the same flavor of psychedelic sweat that perfumes the urgent rock criticism for which his name is the name brand.

Complete by Patti Smith: An ecstatic evocation of erotic magic qua musical performance qua sex. Smith shuffles identity options like tarot cards; a womanly Walt Whitman containing mutually exclusive multitudes. I could feel John Knox and Jonathan Edwards screaming in my cerebrum as I read this lusty pagan invocation. Suffer, boys.



For more Patti Smith poetry, in convenient audio format, check out: http://www.ubu.com/sound/smith.html


L'anarchie flier by Patti Smith: A manifesto demanding that rock radio maintain its indie integrity and play the real music, man, the music of the people, instead of selling out to huge financial interests.


Decades after she wrote this, a morning show DJ I knew told me how fired up he was about the fresh talent he’d heard at a recent music festival.


“Are you gonna play them on your show?” I asked.


“Naw, we have to play off a list they send us,” he replied.


Then Clearchannel (now iheartmedia) bought his station and fired all the off-mike people a few weeks before Christmas. Sorry, Patti Smith, you lost.


Paradoxia by Lydia Lunch: Dirty grimy sexy adventures between a drug-loving klepto who may or may not be Lunch herself, and a Bad Boy who’s obviously trouble. Leather-jacket rough erotica. Hallway knife-humping. Outlaw indeed!


Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk: Tyler Durden’s organization is even more of a Bro Terrorist Network than in the film; forget “You have to fight”; all recruits to Project Mayhem are ordered to kill someone. A big contrast with my fight club, where the first rule is have fun and be safe.


The second rule of my fight club is that you guys gotta eat all this pizza, cuz I’m not taking any home.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller :The narrator accompanies a guy from India around Paris, including that most representative emblem of civilization, the brothel. A scatological misunderstanding (the Indian guy poops in the bidet) becomes the central motif of the narrator’s conversion to amoral nihilism. Miller’s case for this conversion is flimsy. It turns on raw speculation; what if the whole universe is just poop in a brothel bidet? To which one can respond, yeah, and what if it isn’t?) but I find his prose rich and seductive in a way his ideas aren’t.  

Ask Dr. Mueller by Cookie Mueller: Mueller costarred in the classic underground cinematic provocation Pink Flamingos, and this is a behind-the-scenes account that surprised me. The surprise is just how normal and level-headed everyone is; the characters in this film are grotesque monsters, but the performers are civilized and charming. The only unreasonable person in the story is Mueller’s mom, who tries to stop Mueller from letting her baby appear in the film. Happily, Mueller’s baby did make her screen debut as Noodles, a name which sadly does not appear in any baby name book. Such stardom may not be the most divine gift a mother can give, but it’s a start.

Pimp by Iceberg Slim: Slim shows us a night in a dangerous brothel, where a stew of lusts and yearnings keeps everybody swirling like bladed, bleeding tops. Frightening, but Slim’s prose is zesty and enthusiastic.

Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz: A young man is either getting raped by a delusional motormouth, or participating in full-immersion BDSM edgeplay. Wojnarowicz ain’t showing his hand, but he shows plenty else. Woj led a short, intense life and wasn’t afraid to take readers into the pains and pleasures he knew in his allotted time.

What did I do? by Larry Rivers: As a painter, Rivers deftly rethinks the genre of portraiture, and in this evidently autobiographical excerpt he delineates a time when he was trapped in alcohol, and an utterly worthless husband/father. Glimpses of his creative process whiz by, but it’s the human cost of alcoholism (and unhappy early marriages) that registers. Rivers sits in strip clubs wishing he was a better father to his kids. Compulsive wasted energy. Go check out his paintings; dunno if he shaped up as a family man, but at least in his art he was able to salvage some value from his life.

American Splendor Anthology by Harvey Pekar: Pekar wrote comics, and this one’s a squirmy account of a confrontational appearance on David Letterman. While his collaborations with underground cartoon master R. Crumb, who’s a virtuoso draftsman, brought Pekar to the world’s attention, he’s worked with a real grab-bag of artists, one of whom illuminates this anecdote, and the awkward figures in this comic are like monumental primitive sculptures snarling at each other.

Don Quixote by Kathy Acker: It’s never possible to tell how sincere Acker is being; her brand of faux-naif faux-confessional is endlessly slippery. So this rant about how the musician Prince should be the President of the United States is a tough one to pin down; taken straight, it’s as doltish a bit of neo-romantic populism as you could find. The lightest of editing could transform it into a pro-Trump editorial, which proves that its arguments are utterly invalid, but Acker’s real point may be an endorsement of Prince/Acker’s performative show-biz over the clammy pieties of the politicking class. RIP, Prince and Acker.

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.: Another account of substance-abusing street hustling. This time the protagonist is a pretty drunk woman who grifts a naive Navy boy. Naturally he falls in love with her, and she's not sure how best to strip-mine his wallet and break away clean. Low key prose, very different in manner from the hyperventilating expressionism of Requiem For a Dream, which was my only previous encounter with Selby.

Tin Pan Alley by Barney Rosset: This story rips the lid off depressing dive bars; it’s pretty straight-ahead prose, but if you ever feel the urge to hang out in a crummy bar strictly for the low-life atmosphere, you might prefer this lo-cal literary substitute. The single most interesting thing I found in it is the observation that the bar's low-grade Pan-European decor creates a nowhere/everywhere pocket dimension in Chicago; a pomo observation in a drably realist account.

An American Dream by Norman Mailer: A gorgon of an ex-wife hurts a man’s feelings, so he goes into a mystically sexual fugue state and strangles her to death. Seems to me that this little daydream crawled out of Mailer’s spank bank. The woman is portrayed with no surfeit of compassion; while representation does not equal as endorsement, there’s little evidence that Mailer was trying to raise awareness of domestic abuse. This smells more like revenge on an ex, although the prose has a practiced swagger that reminds us that Mailer was once a lauded Hemingway aspirant. He was also sufficiently prolific that the editors of this collection probably could have found a less repellent excerpt, but I guess that wouldn’t be very Outlaw of them. People who like compassionless portrayals of men hurting women will enjoy adding this story to their own personal spank banks.

For some reason I read the novel from which this thing is excerpted at a way too early age. I remember a lot of enthusiastic descriptions of rectal romance and the protagonist proving his manhood to another guy by getting drunk and balance-walking on a balcony railing. Norman Mailer! He's a Great Writer, kids.


From Best American Fiction of the 20th Century:

The Other Woman by Sherwood Anderson: A successful man is about to marry a wonderfully perfect girl, but is compelled to dally with a plain, earthy married woman who works at a newsstand. The subtle twist ending leaves me in agony for everyone involved. Anderson’s neurotic fiction always puts me in mind of David Lynch, although Douglas Sirk is probably a more direct cinematic descendant.

The Golden Honeymoon by Ring Lardner: A chatty, henpecked nonsophisticate takes his wife on a glamourless vacation and gets stuck with some boring companions. You might feel like you’re stuck with a bore yourself if you read this, but there’s a wit at work. Sometimes it’s the guy telling the story being witty, and sometimes it’s Lardner himself having fun at his protagonist’s expense. Once I gave up on trying to figure out why this was in an anthology with Best in the title I found it pleasant enough. It probably packed more punch before its sell-by date; now it feels like Dave Barry by way of Norman Rockwell, which isn't terrible, but.

Blood-Burning Moon by Jean Toomer: Now this is a lot more like it. A pretty young African-American woman is in love with two men; one a wealthy white guy who yearns for the days of slavery, and the other a black man with anger issues. It’s hard to see how this could go wrong, but guess what: it does. Toomer (a cult figure of the Harlem Renaissance) works a powerful spell; the entire night in this southern sugar-cane town is like a tightly strung guitar that resounds at the slightest movement. People are emotional pinballs coruscating though a vivid landscape where animals seem to understand what's happening better than humans do, until the end when an ofay mob becomes a dumb bitter beast performing a pagan blood sacrifice. Toomer understands the petulant chimp-brained resentment that energizes racism. Scary insights, gorgeous storytelling.

The Killers by Ernest Hemingway: A source text for hard-boiled noir storytelling, with the core of mystery and despair that makes Hemingway’s best “iceberg fiction” (where 90% of what’s going on is hidden beneath the waves) so compelling.


From Calling the Wind:

The Goophered Grapevine by Charles Chesnutt: Post-Civil War, a white guy considers buying an abandoned plantation (not far from where I live) but a former slave tries to scare him off with some tall tales about a curse on the property. The first time I read this, a few years back, I was too anxious about Chesnutt’s motivations for his whiteface performance (my understanding is that, at the time, he was in the closet to his readers about being black) to appreciate the cunning of the ex-slave’s storytelling. The second time through, I was able to see how the slave delicately mocks the way slavery commodifies human beings.



The Ingrate by Paul Laurence Dunbar: A slaveowner teaches a slave to read, write, and do basic math, all so that the slave can be of greater utility.



Then the slave escapes north and joins the Union Army. The vicious punchline is foreshadowed by the story’s title; it's a takedown of white supremist crybabyness, and, sadly, still timely.



Mary Elizabeth by Jessie Fauset: A middle-class, married woman quarrels with her husband, then listens with amused condescension to her maid’s uncultivated tales of love and woe. Condescension vanishes, though, as the maid reveals the depth of her losses. This motivates the wealthier woman to make up with her husband in a drippily sentimental climax, but the real interest of the story is the communication between women from different classes. The fact that both women are African-American packs a lot of the race/class/gender issues that still bedevil Americans into a tiny space.




From Dangerous Visions:

Evensong by Lester Del Ray: This is a skeleton in my closet. I read an edited-for-time rendition of this story as a high school Forensics team member in the Prose Reading event. It's exactly the kind of story a 16-year-old prog-rock fan would think is really deep. Basically, the protagonist is a galaxy-spanning refugee from hostile humans who are desperate to imprison him. Eventually the humans, who have conquored every nook and cranny of the universe, capture him. He protests that "I am God!" and his captor sneers "But I am Man." Wha'd I tell you? Super deep, dude.

Del Ray handles the thrilling Space Opera stuff like a pro. One might perceive a measure of thematic depth in the ambiguously pro/anti God/Human nature of the story. Del Ray's afterword declares himself to be on the side of Humanity outpacing barriers and boundaries, but don't dive into Intentional Fallacy just yet, dear readers: the humans in his story are arrogant jerks, and there's no indication that their conquoring of Creation is a net gain for anything except Humanity's collective self-admiration. Mostly, though, this story is E. E. "Doc" Smith after a few Composition courses.

Flies by Robert Silverberg: Aliens rescue and rebuild an injured spacefarer, then send him home to earth with one "improvement," an increased sensitivity to others' emotions. This sensitivity turns him into a sadistic junkie for other peoples' misery, so he seeks out all his exes and torments them horribly. Everything I said about that Norman Mailer bit pretty much pertains to this. The women are portrayed with an unsympathetic counter-feminist loathing. Also, there's a heapin' helpin' of extra sci-fi window dressing that ain't essential to the story; it's just there to keep the geeks comfortable. Still, if it did anything to break ground for Octavia Butler's similar but richer Kindred series (another story of aliens improving humans), I'm grateful for that.