Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Shot and incident in the Penny Press!


Much shot and incident, in the latest examples of the Penny Press to cross our desk!

In the letters page of the latest Esquire, for instance, there's a great deal of response to the profile of Robert Downey Jr written in the previous issue by none other than Scott Raab. One letter writer, Rocky Marcelle, has this to say:

Now I know why I have always lost women to guys like Downey. It's not just the clothes, it's the stories. So much fun and imagination. And Scott Raab, what a madman. The farting contest? I want to party with that cowboy.

As we here at Stevereads might have mentioned here or there, once upon a time, while most of you reading this were crawling around diapers, Scott Raab was delightedly throwing around rollicking pieces just like this Downey profile, in a po-dunk little corner of nowhere, settled comfortably amidst the cornstalks. And he was joined in the happy sunlight of all that fire-throwing by none other than yours truly - and our frequent commentator Locke. There's thinking, and there's writing, and then there's the absolutely habit-forming thrill of doing both in full public view, daring all and sundry to take their best shot. To those of you who've never done it, we can tell you this: there's nothing like it in the world (even back then, when responses came by something called 'snail-mail').

Scott was even then our great prototypical writer-at-large, savaging everything as he saw fit and cowing editors into whatever his latest hairbrained scheme was. In that same bygone era, Locke of course was our movie-guy - writing more perceptively and more hilariously about movies than anybody was then doing (how were we to know that movie-writing, as a genre, would steadily decline into inanity and prepaid boosterism? How were we to know, way back then, that we were publishing the last best movie criticism in the West?). And I? I don't know - even thirty years ago, Locke was calling my reviews 'ciceronian' (and not in a good way) ... I always managed to natter on and on about about something.

Like for instance an insufferable new book called Brother One Cell by a young American punk who got caught selling drugs in Korea and sentenced to a jail term. In the latest issue of GQ (which ran an excerpt from the book), there's an irate letter from yours truly:

You know what I looked for in Cullen Thomas' piece about his prison time in Korea? Guilt. Not frustration about getting caught. Not irritation with himself for being 'stupid.' Not self-congratulation about being 'strong' when he had to be. Guilt, over selling a drug that destroy's people's lives. Guilt, over trying to sell more of it. Some sense that what he did was not just risky but WRONG. I found no trace of what I was looking for. Thomas' judges were too lenient: they should have thrown away the key.

Elsewhere in the same issue, subject matters verge closer to our principal bailiwick here at Stevereads, namely reading. The magazine's editors ask five young writers to name their favorite books, in an attempt to 'update the canon.' This naturally smelled of blood in the water, so we sidled up close to the feature called 'The Seven Books Every Man Should Read.'

Of course the first name on the roster is Jonathan Lethem, the go-to guy of the Sudoku age. Although he has yet to write a good book himself, he's here free to re-shape the canon. His seven picks are these:

Dhalgren by Samuel Delany
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch
Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
Light Years by James Salter
Neighbors by Thomas Berger

To give Lethem due credit, this is a very odd list, obviously a genuinely personal one. Largely misguided, but personal. The Black Prince is a decidedly off-key Murdoch novel, conceptual and not at all successful. Likewise Neighbors, not nearly Berger's best work. Desperate Characters and The Unconsoled are each, in their very different ways, elaborate pieces of junk. But Dhalgren is a weirdly intelligent masterwork of science fiction, and don't even get us STARTED on Christina Stead, whose magnificent, acerbic works are just begging for a major revival. The Man Who Loved Children is a book every single one of you bloodthirsty little ewoks should rush right out and read.

Next up is Jennifer Egan, who, like Lethem, has yet to write a good book (although she's come closer than he has, and with a lot fewer tries). Here's her list:

Underworld by Don DeLillo
A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone
The White Album by Joan Didion
The Known World by Edward Jones
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc


This is a very confusing list - confusing because it, like Lethem's, is so obviously heartfelt ... and yet so hugely wrongheaded. Unlike Lethem, Egan doesn't manage even accidentally to include a genuinely good book (although Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise almost makes the grade), but you have to give her points for actually thinking about her choices.

The next name on the list is Patrick Somerville, whose short story collection Trouble is well worth your collective attention, being a very well-done debut story collection about ... well, about all the things young writers write about these days: angst, disillusionment, horniness, and the elusive suppleness of hope. He's a genius, but he's a YOUNG genius, and that curiously informs his list:

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson
Music for Torching by A.M. Homes
Like Life by Lorrie Moore
The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow
Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis
Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim
Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders

If we ignore the obligatory genuflections to Homes and Moore, this is a fairly optimism-inducing list. Not only does Somerville give individual write-ups to Johnson's curious little book and Saunders' great one (about Civilwarland in Bad Decline he writes: "...I was introduced to an entirely new kind of fiction, one that seemed to be both extraordinarily literary when it had to be, yet unlike what I had read in college, clearly steeped in our time and culture and dedicated to a rich satirical tone that concealed its political acuity with enormous humor"), not only does he mention Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, one of that author's best books, but how grateful can we be for that nod to Charles Portis, one of the 20th Century's greatest neglected geniuses?

Our next young luminary is Sam Lipsyte, whose list is doubly disappointing - he's either intentionally picking obscure authors of modest weight or else he's following the hipster party line:

Airships by Barry Hannah
Florida by Christine Schutt
Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano
George Mills by Stanley Elkin
Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone
Stories in the Worst Way by Gary Lutz
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Nothing there to really detain us, except to point out that when Lipsyte becomes the 9,788th person to parrot Harold Bloom's misguided veneration of Blood Meridian (a decidedly minor work), he's not doing his own intellectual credibility any favors.

The last name of the list of canon-revampers is Arthur Phillips, who more than anyone else on this short list bids fair to become a great writer in due time. His list has decided highs and lows:

The Assault by Harry Mulisch
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
Et Tu, Babe by Mark Leyner
The End of Faith by Sam Harris
Disgrace by J.M. Coetze
Pastoralia by George Saunders
The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Skvorecky

This last list is notable for two amazing inclusions: The Assault, which is short and harrowing and one of the best works of fiction to come out of World War II, and Pastoralia, a genuinely fantastic short story collection by a sinfully young author.

So we can infer from all GQ's shennanigans that the canon is relatively safe from revamping, since the Visigoths are mostly busy getting stoned.

And speaking of which! Our last port of call in this installment of In the Penny Press is a happy one: in the latest issue of the Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens reviews Zachary Leader's new biography of Kingsley Amis, and the piece is a gossipy, erudite delight. It serves, as nothing has in a very long time (he'll be living down that 'Why Women Aren't Funny' fiasco of a piece for some time, we think), as a reminder of why we all liked Hitchens' writing in the first place.

Here is a Hitchens completely at ease, straining at no gnats, phoning nothing in. Perhaps it helps if he personally knows his subject matter - it certainly helps this piece: it's heavy-laden with quotable anecdotes and reveries (Leader's book is hardly mentioned, and as gentlemanly payment for this abuse, Hitchens roundly praises it when it does come up).

Anthony Powell once said great men of letters can never be friends with each other. His own life contradicted this (a free book - shut up, Kevin - to the first of you who can volunteer the name of the great man of letters with whom Powell was himself lifelong friends), and Amis' life certainly did: Hitchens' piece is so shot through with boozy, nostalgic love for his subject that the reader comes away wishing HE would write a biography of Amis - or at least write a hefty memoir of his own, if fifty or sixty different weekly hackwork deadlines didn't preclude it.

Here's a sample, one among many:

Any dolt can see the connection between the mother-smothered Amis and the later unstoppable tit-man who was also a slave to Bacchic overindulgence. (Patrick in 'Difficulties with Girls' has a reverie about the ideal female: 'wise, compassionate, silent and with enormous breasts': If this young lady had lived in a single bedroom upstairs from a pub, Amis might have questioned his own stiff disbelief in God).

Say what you want about Hitchens - and we here at Stevereads have said plenty -but that very nearly rises to the level of song. We want so bad for ALL of Hitchens to be like this - scrupulously honest, endlessly confiding, knowledgeable in ways only somebody on the front lines of the events in question could be, and above all humble in the face of history.

The high-paid right-wing puppet/commenteer version of our hero appears to have put paid to that more faithful version, but you never know. The urge to make a living and keep making one is, by and large, a thing of youth - or at least of desperate, misspent middle age. Despite his disasterous personal habits, there's hope yet that we will all be treated to the wise old age of Christopher Hitchens.

1 comment:

beepy said...

So, what would your choices be, Mr. Donoghue, sir?