Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Phoning It In

Well, as usual, the Christmas season has sat on my head and farted. So naturally, this piece is late, and naturally, I've been scrambling to come up with a decent topic to write about. So for this month, neglecting the sort of clever(?) framing devices I so often go in for, I'm just gonna talk briefly about a couple hardcovers I read recently that I can give my highest recommendation, before I have to get back to all the other writing I've been putting off because the day job has been kicking my ass.

Thanksgiving Day is the last day of serenity I'm allowed over the normal course of the holiday season, before the grindstone rams itself into my nose. I tend to eschew the generic family get-togethers, not becuase I don't like my family or anything, but because I'm awful goddamn selfish with my time. Happily, this year, I got to spend a lazy day laying around with a cute chick, a Band of Brothers marathon, and a copy of Harvey Pekar's The Beats: A Graphic History.

Generally speaking, I've never met a beatnik that I liked. I've never found the iconoclast-lit from the Ike years to be anything much to write home about on a roll of butcher paper while all whacked out on bennies. I think the main reason I even ordered this book, aside from Pekar's involvement, was that I've been kicking around an idea for a piece of fiction that takes place in the '50s and I thought this'd be a good piece of research. That didn't turn out to be the case so much, but I am glad I dropped the twenty-two bucks on this book, as it turned out to be the first truly unflinching look at this admittedly highly influential generation of creative-types.

My own personal tastes aside, the main reason I'd never really dug the work of these way-out cats was that their adherents are so volatile and steadfast, it's nearly to the point of mania. Nothing will put me off something quicker than a buncha other jerks really liking it. On top of that, most of the rabid beatnik fans I've known in my time have been utter morons in every other sense. Kinda guilt by association. I mean, I always liked Ginsberg. Kerouac seemed like a cool enough dude, but his work was so boring to me. And even though I've never actually read any Burroughs, my opinion of him was colored negatively 'cause he had all that nice calculator money with which to cultivate a fashionable heroin habit as well as a shooting-my-girlfriend-in-the-face habit (although he kicked one sooner than the other). Now Pekar, et al, clearly have a sense of respect for these writers and their work, but they don't let their personal feelings intrude nearly as much as I do. The book is broken down into extended chapters on the Big Three mentioned above by Pekar and artist Ed Piskor (who has a real nice, very Clowes-y style that suits the topic well). Pekar's usual charmingly straight-ahead prose style is in full effect, giving the leaders of the Beat movement their due, while far from ignoring the seamy underbelly. Drug abuse is not romanticized, but rather shown to be just as detrimental to these writers' careers as it was helpful (how did they get any writing done when they were throwing up so much?). Kerouac's womanizing is discussed as thoroughly as his contributions to world culture, not to mention his own complacent involvement in a murder. Pekar presents all these simply as facts, not wishing to influence the reader in any other way, which is such a refreshing take on this (or any) subject, that I find words are failing me now. Needless to say, I feel the urge to give some of these guys and their work another shot. The book finishes out with short sections on a number of lesser-known writers within the beat scene, guys I'd actually read before, like Amiri Baraka and Robert Creeley, to a slew of guys I'd like to read more of, like Phillip Whalen and Tuli Kupferberg. So whether you're already an avowed beatnik or merely curious about what the hell they were on about back in the 1950s, give this book a whirl. In fact, if you don't wanna shell out the cash, you oughtta go check and see if it's at your local library. And if it ain't, tell 'em I said to order a copy already.

Next up is Josh Cotter's Driven by Lemons.
I am an unabashed fan of Cotter's work, considering his previous book, Skyscrapers of the Midwest, not only the best book of 2008 (along with Jeff Lemire's Essex County trilogy) but also probably the most important comic book of my generation. For his next outing, Cotter decided to go for something a little more experimental. Apparently, he just started doodling in a sketchbook and then just kinda let it go from there. According to some interviews I read (my memory may not be doing Cotter service here, but I think you'll be able to follow me), Cotter said he wasn't gonna go back and edit or "fix" anything, that he wanted the narrative to evolve naturally. Now, as much as I like to put up a kinda artsy-fartsy pretense (even if with a façade of macho-ness), this sorta talk made me as nervous as anybody. Skyscrapers was not only hilarious but heartbreaking, and although he often went into the symbolic and the sublime, Cotter never jumped the narrative track so totally that it became opaque or came off as pretentious or obtuse. Running the risk of that now had me worried, especially at the cost of a double sawbuck, MSRP. But I kept the faith, and reasoned that something like this would probably much more likely succeed right out of the gate, like if I took the plunge right along with the guy, I wouldn't regret it, rather than if I hemmed and hawed. And turns out, I was right (I know, I could scarecely believe it myself). Driven by Lemons is not conventional by any means. But not only is it aesthetically lovely, doing things in a format not entirely unfamiliar yet markedly different, also the story isn't as hard to follow as I had worried. Granted, a lot of it went right past my head, but not unlike a Pynchon novel, it's hilarious and exhilirating even when I don't know what the hell is going on (not unlike life itself either, now that I think about it). For twenty bucks, I got plenty to chew over and digest, leaving plenty left over for multiple re-reads, so the book even pays for itself. How often does that happen? So do yourself a favor and pick this book up. If nothing else, you'll look a lot smarter to foxy art school girls. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about.

No, I don't.