In Last Burn in Hell: Director’s Cut, John Edward Lawson isn’t giving us a novel so much as he’s playing with the concept of what a novel is. And just in case you don’t get the message from the “Director’s Cut” subtitle, the sub-subtitle is “a film by John Edward Lawson.” It comes complete with photo stills, promotional images, an R rating, and a soundtrack. The soundtrack is mostly composed of actual tracks by hiphop/synth/sampling artists like Techno Animal and DJ Spooky, which you can listen to on Youtube while you read to get the full flavor of the book. Continue reading John Edward Lawson’s Last Burn in Hell: Director’s Cut
Adam Golaski’s stories in Worse Than Myself are scary. They’re also compelling stories—the word that comes to mind is addictive. I’ve never gone out of my way to read horror stories, but if I saw that an Adam Golaski story had been published anywhere—in a magazine, on a blog—I would go out of my way to read it.
George Williams’ stories in Gardens of Earthly Delight (review) are frightening because they deal with the real horror around us—modern weapons, our growing irritation with each other, the degeneration of civility, our strip-mined landscapes.
Golaski’s stories are scary because each of them hones in on a familiar and permanent source of human anxiety—the fear of sinking into an obsession, paranoia about the opposite sex, the fear of squandering your life, the fear of helplessness. Continue reading Adam Golaski’s Worse Than Myself – Short Stories Like Nightmares
Bukowski’s Women is a ribald comedy about a poet, Henry Chinaski, who’s reached that point in mid-life where you find yourself thinking a lot about your own mortality. Here’s a self-description (on his way to a poetry reading) that reminds me of Yeats’ description of himself, at 60, as an old scarecrow:
I had on my dead father’s overcoat, which was too large. My pants were too long, the cuffs came down over the shoes and that was good because my stockings didn’t match, and my shoes were down at the heels. I hated barbers so I cut my own hair when I couldn’t get a woman to do it. I didn’t like to shave and I didn’t like long beards, so I scissored myself every two or three weeks. My eyesight was bad but I didn’t like glasses so I didn’t wear them except to read. I had my own teeth but not that many. My face and my nose were red from drinking and the light hurt my eyes so I squinted through tiny slits. I would have fit into any skid row anywhere. Continue reading Women by Charles Bukowski – Love in the Face of Mortality
You Can’t Win by Jack Black is a memoir of life among the “yeggs,” an American subculture that existed for decades in the early twentieth century, with tens of thousands of members pretty well hidden from the society at large. Today, the slang term “yegg” has become synonymous with “safe cracker.” A hundred years ago, yeggs were vagabonds who traveled by hopping freights, convened in the hobo jungles that sprang up on the outskirts of towns that had railroad yards, and lived primarily by committing small-time theft. Continue reading Jack Black’s You Can’t Win: On the Vagabond Life
The most haunting story in Look How the Fish Live, a collection of short stories by J.F. Powers published in 1975, is the eponymous story that opens it, “Look How the Fish Live,” a story about the indifference of the universe. Every time I read it I think of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” although the stories could not be more different on the surface. The story was in the first book Powers published after his masterpiece, the novel Morte D’Urban (see review), with which Powers beat out Nabokov, Updike and Katherine Anne Porter for the 1963 National Book Award. “Look How the Fish Live” is now available in The Stories of J.F. Powers.
Continue reading Look How the Fish Live by J.F. Powers, the Poet of Frustration
Reading John Edward Lawson’s Discouraging at Best is like watching the Marx Bros. directed by Wes Craven. It’s a series of snapshots of American life in which the national id is hanging out for all to see, where every character is a caricature of our worst views of each other, and all traces of plot take a back seat to the punchlines. Continue reading John Edward Lawson’s Discouraging at Best: A View of the National Id
Agnes Owens’ Like Birds in the Wilderness (now available in Agnes Owens: The Complete Novellas) is about a 23-year-old working class kid in Scotland named Mac, who faces shut doors, hard times and bureaucratic indifference no matter which way he turns. He falls in love with a 23-year-old typist from a slightly higher level of the working class and has to figure out how to keep her while fighting off anxiety, depression and alcoholism and stubbornly groping his way to his own code of morality. Continue reading Agnes Owens’ Like Birds in the Wilderness – The Kids Aren’t Alright
Junky, a semi-autobiographical novel by William S. Burroughs, is a seductive story set at the inception of the “hip” subculture in America. The story follows a man at odds with American mainstream culture into a quest for spiritual meaning via heroin. Burroughs did, in fact, start using heroin in 1944 and within a year, he was an addict. Though the book does not shy away from the sordid aspects of an addict’s life, this is not a literary Reefer Madness. Continue reading William S. Burroughs’ Junky: A Spiritual Quest via Heroin Addiction
Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By is a perfectly constructed tragedy, but because the main characters wear cowboy hats, it got consigned to the “Westerns” bin long ago by the academics and New York critics, who could then write it off as a lightweight elegy on the passing of the Old West and return their attention to boring novels about men in suits. Continue reading Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By – A Force of Nature
Novels are rarely about the things reviewers say they’re about. If a writer’s done a good-enough job on his novel, he’s created such a vivid impression of life that we’re compelled to search for a higher meaning in it, just as we relentlessly pick over life in our endless search for meaning. I’m going to seek to entertain you by comparing George Williams’ Degenerate to John Ford’s The Searchers. Continue reading George Williams’ Degenerate – A Man Will Search His Heart & Soul