Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

        On my commute to work the other day, I was frustrated by the glacial pace of the underground exodus. Normally, New Yorkers quite literally sprint up the stairs to get the hell out of the subway. I reached the second flight and spotted/smelled the culprit: a giant mound of human shit rested in the middle of the steps. *Happy Wednesday*. Now, this inconvenience could easily have been the present of some drunken frat boy on a dare. More plausibly, it was the product of a homeless(wo)man.

As someone who has a home (albeit a very cramped, poorly functioning one), it’s easy to look at homelessness as a binary fact: you’re either living on the streets or you’re not. After reading Nick Flynn’s award-winning and brilliantly titled memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City*, I learned that actually there is a great deal of fluidity within the homeless community. The scene within a shelter is continually in flux based on weather, familial support, occupation, pride, etc. While this seems self-evident, I do think our tendency to simplify and condense is so ingrained in us that we often look at a person in a shelter and immediately categorize them as dispossessed, even if that might just be a short-term situation.
The book is about a social worker who is reunited with his homeless father after years of estrangement. Nick was raised by a single mother while his absentee father wandered about Boston, occasionally sending his children eccentric letters that detailed some elaborate heist or shenanigan. Despite Nick’s understandable revulsion towards the man, he finds himself following in the adrift footsteps of his paternal legacy. They are both aspiring writers who cannot find a foothold in that industry. Their lives are shaped by drugs and alcohol; every activity is laced with the urge to suppress. From an outsider’s perspective, it appears that Nick and his father are on parallel tracks. Subjectively, Nick is disturbed by the notion that he’s destined to fall short of societal and self-expectations. He wonders if failure is part of his lineage—if indignity is in his blood. Once he enters his early twenties, Nick starts working at a shelter, so ironically, the homeless pay his rent. He vaguely knows that his dad lives on the streets; clearly, although he is disgusted by his father, he is also in some ways deeply drawn to him. His choice to remain within a scene in which his dad could pop up at any moment, like a “drunken jack in the box”, opens up Pandora’s psychological box (Flynn, 225). There is fear and unease associated with the possible confrontation of his demons. Is he concerned for his father’s well being? Does he need closure for his years of fatherlessness? Is he simply curious about the madman being the letters? Does he have a desire to affirm the differences between him and his father—a way to negate the similarities by pinpointing and refining what they are exactly? In some ways, his dad is a compass that allows Nick to weave in and out of these questions, sentiments, and self-reflections. A compass with the magnets all screwed up if you will.
Sure enough, his dad eventually shows up as a patron of the shelter. Nick reveals, “some part of me knew he would show up, that if I stood in one place long enough he would find me, like you’re taught to do when you’re lost. But they never taught us what to do if both of you are lost, and you both end up in the same place, waiting” (Flynn, 24). With this new development, there is some unsettling role reversal—he’s taking care of his dad even though his dad never took care of him. They’re “living together” in adulthood rather than childhood. What an odd and disorienting experience—and keep in mind that this is a memoir, this twilight-zoney business actually happened. Nick ponders the implications of their new relationship. He sees a homeless guy on a bench and wonders, “If this is my father, if I leave a sandwich beside his sleeping body, does that become a family meal? Is this bench now our dinner table?” (Flynn, 248).
So, the storyline of this book is exceptional, but is it expressed well? Nick Flynn is primarily a poet and this profession certainly suffuses through his tragically beautiful memoir. It is definitely a heavy read, but it’s something that feels somehow necessary—both for him to put his feelings into words and for me to read and attempt to empathize. It is a brutally honest disclosure of his search for an essential self. He is an introspective guy who is profoundly shaped by his experiences of fatherlessness and unique re-fathering. Some teachers advise writers to “show, not tell”—Nick Flynn shows and tells. I would LOVE to hear him do a reading because I imagine his words would sound poignantly lyrical aloud.
Even though the memoir’s tone is generally somber, Nick is cynically funny throughout. After a particularly heart-wrenching family event, someone asked him how he was doing. Nick mockingly remarks, “He might as well ask, “Besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?” (Flynn, 156). Lawlz. His dark humor and creativity augment rather than detracts from his message. He punctuates his story with imaginative analogies or poetic sidetracks and it effectively tugs at the heartstrings. For instance, he spends one chapter (four pages) just listing different words/phrases that mean “drunk”. Additionally, oftentimes he quotes his father or describes an episode within his father’s life. While Nick did investigate his father’s factual history to some degree, these depictions are mostly retrospective superimpositions by Nick—they are expressions of what he imagines his father's thoughts were and what his destitute situation must have felt like. It is a blend of nonfiction and fiction, and that is where his talent really shines through.

A sign of a good book is when certain passages haunt you for months, even years to come. I read this memoir a few months ago for a book club with my friends you’ve encountered in the past—Matt and Will—and I’m only just now humpday-hardbacking it! I was reluctant for so long because I felt that my review wouldn’t do it justice—it’s such an intense story with ties to an endemic socioeconomic issue. One chapter that has spoken to me since I put down the book is titled “Ham”. It consists of an intricately well thought out analogy to the biblical Noah. It is a remarkably applicable comparison of fathers with grandiose ideas and sons grappling with the hopelessness of an inevitable inheritance and poor predestination. Like father, like son. That’s not great when your dad is a homeless, penniless, loveless, drunkard. Luckily, my dad is a loving, good-souled hunter with an impressive beard and a passion for dachshunds. Hopefully, I'll end up looking something like this:

During his upbringing, both Nick and his father loosely held on to the idea that writing is a noble profession that justifies and maybe even necessitates struggle. After all, “to be a poet digging ditches is very different from being a mere ditch digger” (Flynn, 15). They inwardly thought that maybe homelessness isn’t so bad because it’s an *experience*-- it contributes to an interesting personage and provides material to write about. Being a struggling writer doesn’t mean you’re not talented… you’re just *undiscovered*. Finally, with this memoir, Nick Flynn is discovered. He’s redeemed. And this is a very aggressively beautiful transformation to witness. All in all, I give Another Bullshit Night in Suck City 5 out of 5 camel humps. Read it and perhaps you’ll have enough good luck to not encounter shit on your commute.
*Flynn, Nick. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004. Print.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs, and Stand-Up

            “It might seem a bit reckless to be picking up drugs on the way to Heathrow, but my need for a regular supply of narcotics would not be constrained by the exigencies of international air travel. I generally traveled with drugs up my arse in the belief that should customs officers decide to pursue this unsavory line of inquiry my day would be ruined and the discovery of crack or heroin couldn’t make it much worse” (First-Class Twit, section 24). Here you have an apposite excerpt from Russell Brand’s 2010 memoir My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs, and Stand-Up*. An eccentric celebrity who has been to rehab for sex addiction and drug dependency wrote about the outlandish junkie-riddled escapades of his formative and young-adult years and it landed on the New York Times bestseller list. Why am I reading and reviewing a book by Brand? Well, aside from the fact that he has phenomenal hair and I like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I enjoy having a *back-pocket book*. This is a book(y wook) that I can occasionally whip out when I’m wine-buzzed and I don’t have to take too seriously. If you’re wearing cargo shorts, you can also have a *side-pocket book* but then you’d have to cope with the indignity of owning and sporting cargo shorts in public.  

The memoir popped up under my Oyster books account recommendations--an online book source that I reference in my Your Movie Sucks review. I thought it fell perfectly into the category of books-I-want-to-read-but-don’t-necessarily-want-to-buy. Honestly, his talent surprised me. He dabbles in impressive poetry, references philosophers I personally admire, shares entertaining stories, and knows when to be retrospectively contemplative about his destructive exploits. Basically, it’s a tour through the crazy shit he’s done in his life (your classic prostitute, substance-abuse, self-harming, unemployment cocktail) distilled through a comedic lens. You learn about his early misogynism—like when he broke up with one of his infinite number of exes, returned the key to her apartment, and then used a clandestine copy he had made to go back and steal things when she wasn’t home (Is This a Cash Card I See Before Me, section 18). You hear about the concessions he made, the boundaries he crossed, and the sinking environment he stepped into when his heroin addiction reached its heights. You discover how he latched on to comedy as a means to weasel out of depression and keep his head above the murky waters of despair. And all while maintaining that impeccable mane!

Throughout his book(y wook) is a thread of introspection as lively as the threads of his bohemian-styled wardrobe. He acknowledges that he is a grandiose character, admitting that he treats life as a never ending performance. Brand has never been one to color in the lines or stick to the script. As a youngster, this took a self-destructive turn; the search for identity and “absolute self” was precarious because he constantly adopted different personas that varied depending on his audience at the time. The memoir has a dark tinge to it that reads breathlessly honest—while comedy is a valuable distraction from “the tyranny of life’s minutiae”, the need to resourcefully unwind is very palpable for him (First-Class Twit, section 24). He says, “You might have a glass of wine, or a joint, or a big delicious blob of heroin to silence your silly brainbox of its witterings, but there has to be some form of punctuation, or life just seems utterly relentless” (April Fool, section 1). Now, purportedly sober for 13 years, he relies on creative career endeavors rather than a narcotic abyss.

My typical experience with memoirs is once again confirmed: they’re amusing, light-hearted, and usually contain a dash of philosophical extrapolation to render the author less vain and the reading worth your time (see: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Not That Kind of Girl, and Are you There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea for more of my reviews on memoirs). It’s good, but it’s not bloody brilliant. He’s a charming, dramatic Englishman who is self-deprecating but certainly not self-effacing. You’ll likely enjoy it, but it’s not jaw-dropping spectacular, and its words won’t resonate for days afterward.  Still, truthfully, I like the guy. He’s human, he’s interesting, and he’s exposed. And not just in the literal sense, as when he shares this dashing pic with us: 

I see him in a different light now and I respect his intelligence, which I suppose was a motivating factor behind him writing the book(y wook) in the first place. Balancing his wit and intellectual aptitude with the drawbacks seemingly inherent in the memoir genre, I give My Booky Wook 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Brand, Russell.  My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs, and Stand-Up. New York: It Books, 2010.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Naked Lunch

Take a second to reflect on the most appallingly miserable thing you’ve ever had to do. Got it? Exponentiate that by twenty.  We’ll call that incident “A”. Now, think about a situation in which you or a close friend felt profoundly degraded. Exponentiate that by twenty. We’ll call that incident “B”. Finally, multiply “A” by “B”. This monstrosity of a result is no match for the unbearable experience of trudging through William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch*. I wouldn’t even call what I had to do “reading”. Before I unload a list of reasons supporting its gratuitous intolerability, let me make a few things perfectly clear:

1)               It’s not that I can’t handle vulgarity. I’m like kind of a gross person and I certainly don’t expect all of my books to reside on a pedestal of propriety. I appreciate Bukowski (just recently purchased Post Office—can’t wait). I’m not easily offended and I categorically oppose all forms of censorship and book banning. Obscene language/content does not faze me nor is it the core of my complaint.
2)               I don’t shy away from books about drugs. Much merit can be found in drug literature—from Huxley to Kerouac to Hunter S. Thompson, and everything in between. You can talk negatively about drugs, speak positively about drugs, be on drugs, etc. and create something of artistic significance.
3)               I can enjoy novels regardless of the existence of a clearly defined plot. Naked Lunch is experimental in that each page can (theoretically) be read individually, at random. Certainly, there is no linear narrative. I so badly want to relish in that unbound, vignette prose. I’m so incapable of doing so because this is not the product of a respectable author. It’s the haphazard garbage of a heroin addict—quite literally. In 1951, he accidentally shot his wife in the head while aiming for a glass that she balanced atop. That’s cute. But remember—this book isn’t bad because the author was high all the time. The only reason Naked Lunch receives any attention is because it’s jarring. Personally, I don’t automatically assume that because something has shock-value, it’s worthy of my time. This man is talking out of his ass. Of course that’s going to grab attention, but that does not necessarily implicate that his work is reputable literature.

Burroughs (1914-1997) came to fame in the Beat generation. I desperately want to love the authors of that era because their subject matter sounds so beautiful and free. But they disappoint! Hunter S. Thompson wrote with the same laissez faire attitude and then added a layer of profundity to his writing. He recounts his putting-around but also commentates—he’s simultaneously within that world and without. Notably, Thompson hated Kerouac—or so my friend Callie told me over a glass (or four) of wine, and I’ve taken that to be an absolute fact ever since.  Hunter S. Thompson disliked Jack Kerouac, tell all of your friends!
After a while of reading and re-reading, questioning my own sanity and wondering if some obscure, deeper meaning was eluding me, I realized that a clever writing style couldn’t entirely make up for lack of substance. This shitty excuse for a book reads as if a 15-year-old sadistic, sex-addled junkie stumbled upon a thesaurus and threw some big words into his incomprehensible orgiastic fantasy for good measure. Does this seem remotely on par with the writing skills of his generation? Despite my reservations on Kerouac, I recognize that he was a very talented writer, perhaps because he adhered to a hazy morality. His words still read like actual literature and not something that belongs in a trashcan. Kurt Vonnegut once declared, “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing of a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or banana split.” Good point, but I don’t like chocolate or bananas. In my further defense, he also said, “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”

Think I’m exaggerating on the book’s repulsiveness? Instead of underlining phrases that speak to me as I typically do, I was only able to mock Naked Lunch and highlight the most ridiculous statements to share with you all. Because I suppose I’m part sadist too, here are two particularly cringe-worthy excerpts. Full disclosure that these are NSFW:

“Johnny extracts a candiru from Mary’s cunt with his calipers…he drops it into a bottle of mescal where it turns into a maguey worm…He gives her a douche of jungle bone-softener, her vaginal teeth flow out mixed with blood and cysts” (Burroughs, 84).


The boy crumples to his knees with a long “OOOOOOOOH,” shitting and pissing in terror. He feels the shit warm between his thighs. A great wave of hot blood swells his lips and throat. His body contracts into a foetal position and sperm spurts hot into his face. The Mugwump dips hot perfumed water from alabaster bowl, pensively washes the boy’s ass and cock, drying him with a soft blue towel.” (Burroughs, 63).

I’m immediately reminded of the “nope, nope, nope” running-away Bitmoi. You’re probably still wondering what the book is about. I HAVE NO IDEA. I truly could not tell you. What you see above is what you get, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight if I didn’t award this literary joke 0 out of 5 camel humps.

*Burroughs, William. Naked Lunch. Paris: The Olympia Press, 1959. Print.