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Gore, no?


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Akashic Books’ initial 2002 publication of High Life was not much of a cause célèbre in the larger literary world. But the ultraviolent novel of sex, murder, and scatology in mid-1990s Los Angeles was a definitive moment in the development of the so-called "torture porn" subgenre. As the debut author for Dennis Cooper’s Little House on the Bowery imprint, Matthew Stokoe became both a disciple of glorious S-M writers like Cooper, Bret Easton Ellis, and Samuel R. Delany and a centurial groundbreaker. Now a reprint edition of High Life (Akashic Books, 330 pages, $15.95) is belatedly securing Stokoe’s rank as either a literary assassin or putrid gore hound.

Set in the seamy pasteboard backlots of Hollywood, High Life centers around doughnut worker Jack and his prostitute girlfriend, Karen, who goes missing after a sordid organ donation. When Jack discovers Karen’s mutilated body some days later, he sets out on a sociopathic journey through the city’s back alleys and fetish clubs. Along the way he meets a twisted vice cop, Ryan — a psychological foil who elicits unspeakable fantasies from Jack — and Bella, a femme fatale whose character seems to have sprung from the pen of Georges Bataille rather than the typewriter of James M. Cain. While most of High Life obsessively centers on themes that are requisite to the noir genre, the graphic detail and repetition with which scenes of necrophilia, rape, mutilation, and coprophagy are recounted seems mechanized, if not completely militarized.

Written on the cusp of 2001’s radical political, cultural, and social turn in the wake of 9/11, High Life is a strikingly prescient view of a celebrity death culture that teeters between antebellum fantasia and post-Lapsarian horror. Stokoe’s novel arrived at the very cusp of a post–9/11 glut of torture porn, or, as David Edelstein of New York magazine described it (in a portmanteau of gore and porno), "gorno."

As characterized by Edelstein, gorno is a cross-generic exploration of graphic violence and sex alongside themes of terrorism, collective anxiety, and xenophobia. Commercial films like the Hostel series (2005; 2007) and Saw series (2004-2007), as well as Wolf Creek (2005) and Grindhouse (2007) introduced the movement’s adrenalinized visual tropes to the largest audiences, but the art and literary worlds have their controversial contributors, such as the Chapman brothers and the writer known as J.T. LeRoy. When asked to defend their creations, most of these artists use a common refrain of confrontation — that they are out to challenge the last remaining taboos, the increasingly militarized capital of the West, and a society where fear has literally mutated the body.

As if anticipating the shield behind which they would slice and dice their work, in 2000 the postmodern theorist Paul Virilio wrote of artists out to break "the taboos of suffocating bourgeois culture … the unicity of mankind, through the impending explosion of a genetic bomb that will be to biology what the atomic bomb was to physics…. Without limits, there is no value; without value, there is no esteem, no respect, and especially no pity: death to the referee!"

Yet such analysis leaves gorno artists like Stokoe in a critical limbo. Are they heroes of a new kind of anatomical avant-culture emancipated from capital and the military strictures of biopolitics? Or are they fetishists whose claims of degeneracy-as-art are a camouflage for something far more sinister? High Life hardly solves the conundrum, as Stokoe’s professed role is not as satirist or philosopher but pugilist; he refuses to ponder the possibilities of answers, only the certainty of bloodletting.

Green and red


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Now that the Iraq War and occupation is accepted as a permanent feature of American life, it seems worthwhile to reflect on how controversial it once was — not just among the millions who filled streets around the world to protest the impending invasion, but also within the governments of some of America’s traditional allies. No one better expressed the rift it created in Europe than German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer when he publicly rejected Donald Rumsfeld’s appeal for support at the February 2003 Munich security conference. Lest the then Secretary of State miss the point, Fischer switched to English for his summation: "Sorry, you haven’t convinced me."

It’s unlikely Rumsfeld was particularly surprised, except possibly by Fischer’s command of English, since the German government so clearly owed its come-from-behind reelection the prior September to the vehemence of its opposition to the upcoming war. At the time, George W. Bush opted against making the traditional congratulatory call to Socialist Party Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and Condoleezza Rice declared that Fischer’s "background and career do not suit the profile of a statesman." Given Rice’s history as a Stanford professor and Chevron corporate board member, such a remark makes perfect sense. Fischer, leader of the Green Party — the coalition government’s junior partner — was not only a high school dropout but a veteran militant street protestor of the German new left that demanded that its parents’ generation confront the Nazi legacy while vehemently opposing the US war on Vietnam.

In Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic (Oxford University Press, 400 pages, $35), journalist Paul Hockenos explores the life, beliefs, decisions, and actions of Germany’s recent Foreign Minister. For example, although the Greens are widely considered a pacifist party, Fischer was not a pacifist — after a few small leftist groups had taken to kidnapping and assassination in the 1970s, he once gave a speech urging the movement to "put down the bombs and pick up stones again."

As Hockenos explains, Fischer was the most prominent of the German "68ers" who considered themselves to the left of the Socialists and who fashioned something of an "anti-party party" with the Greens in order to embark upon a "long march through the institutions." During his 1998–2005 tenure as Germany’s Foreign Minister, Fischer became the country’s most widely admired politician, although the Greens never surpassed single-digit percentages of the national vote. Still, his legacy — and the party’s — is mixed. The "Red-Green" government engineered Germany’s first military intervention since the end of World War II, when German pilots participated in the bombing of Kosovo. Just as it took Germany’s Socialists time to realize they could form a government of the left if — and only if — they did so in coalition with the Greens, the Greens are in opposition today because they have been unwilling and unable to coalesce with other factions.

Nonetheless the post-’60s German left did at least set itself on an identifiable course of action. In this respect, Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic makes an excellent case that Americans can learn from Europe.

Paper weight


› johnny@sfbg.com

Call me wasteful, call me Luddite, call me nostalgic, call me obsolete. I’m not ashamed to admit it: I like paper. I like it a little too much. These days, when I look at paper, I have a pair of scissors in my mind if not my right hand — I want to take the complete form of detritus that a single sheet or a full book represents, and cut it into a new shape. Maybe it’s a visual extension of editing words for a living. Maybe it’s a basic reaction to the stacks of visual and text-based matter that I shuttle from one space to another in the city when I’m not staring into the Valhalla of the computer screen or — heaven forbid — reminding myself that I have a body.

This week, I’ve been carrying a couple of heavyweights from work to home and back again: Glamour of the Gods (Steidl, 272 pages, $65) and The Stamp of Fantasy: The Visual Inventiveness of Photographic Postcards (Steidl, 216 pages, $60). Both books are testaments to the specific charms of paper, with tactile qualities — a gloss and an undivided directness, for starters — that no expensive flat-screen monitor can match. They’re made to be ravished, not ravaged. They also tell — via numerous knockout illustrations — a story. That story is of paper’s important role in relation to art and photography (or photo-documentary) in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A few weekends ago I went to a paper expo in San Francisco, where I admit to being nonplussed by the dozens of vendors with box upon box of postcards that cost $25 or more apiece. The sheer surplus of matter, coupled with the collectors’ prices, was off-putting. The Stamp of Fantasy, however, instantly reminded me of the artistic value of the postcard, a form I first fell for in high school, when I’d thumb through decks of cards for a well-executed trick image of a person with a cat’s or baby’s head. Curated by Clément Chéroux from the collections of Peter Weiss and Gérard Levy, the book presents those types of pictures, along with other puns and surrealist touches: melting Eiffel Towers; Victorian women with roots for torsos; human faces blooming from trees, emerging from mountain- and moonscapes or blooming from the tail-ends of trails of pipe smoke. Less predictable visions — a mass of Chinese baby faces akin to one of Weegee’s Coney Island photos; children riding butterflies in a realm not far from Henry Darger’s imagination — have a wow or jolt factor. They also effectively preview Hannah Höch’s innovative postcard-based collage.

Hollywood movie-star stills — the oft-luminous portraits that icons like Joan Crawford would autograph and send to thousands of fans — are the subject of Glamour of the Gods. It draws from the peerless collection of the late biographer and gadfly John Kobal, who helped bring renown to artists such as Crawford’s favorite cameraman, George Hurrell, via the 1980 book The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers. When I look at Greta Garbo’s reliably stunning close-up collaborations with the undersung and influential Ruth Harriet Louise, I think of Garbo’s remarkable skill at blocking paparazzi shots from any angle with her hands (demonstrated in Gary Lee Boas’ sweet 1999 book Starstruck) and ponder the old camp quip about the lie that tells the truth. Something has been lost in the journey from glossy paper to the infinite sea of candid digital imagery. Ramon Novarro and Clara Bow weren’t all about going to Starbucks for Frappuccinos. As someone once said, they had faces.

Notes of a dirty old man.


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I was having visions in those days. They came mostly when I was drying out, not drinking, waiting around for money or something to arrive, and the visions were very real — Technicolor and with music — mostly they flashed across the top of the ceiling while I was on the bed in a half-slumberous state. I had worked in too many factories, had seen too many jails, had drunk too many bottles of cheap wine to maintain any sort of cool and intelligent state toward my visions —


It was San Francisco. Then I’d hear a knock on the door. It was the old woman who ran the place, Mama Fazzio.

"Mr. Bukowski?" she said through the door.



"Ulll. Ummph…."

"Are you all right?"

"Oh, sure."

"Can I come in?"

I’d get up and open the door, sweat now cold behind my ears.

"Say …"


"You need something to keep your wine and beer cold, you don’t have a refrigerator. Even a pan of water with ice in it would help. I’ll get you a pan of water with ice in it."


"And I remember when you were here two years ago you used to have a phonograph. You’d play symphony music all the time. Don’t you miss your music?"


Then she left. I was afraid to lie down on the bed or the visions would come again. They always came just the moment before sleep. Or the moment before one would have slept. Horrible things: spiders eating fat babies in webs, babies with milk-white skin and sea-blue eyes. Then came faces, 3 feet across with puss-holes circled with red, white, and blue circles. Things like that. I sat in a hard wooden chair and peered at the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Then I heard a rumbling sound on the stairway. Some giant beast crawling toward me? I opened the door. There was Mama Fazzio, 80 years old, pushing and twisting an ancient stand-up green wooden Victrola, the wind-’em-up kind, and the thing must have been twice her weight and clumsy up that narrow stairway and I stood there and said, "Jesus Christ, hold it, don’t move!"

"I can get it!"

"You’re going to kill yourself!"

I ran down and grabbed the thing but she insisted on helping me. We took it into my room. It looked good.

"There. Now you can have some music."

"Yes. Thanks very much. As soon as I get some records."

"You had breakfast?"

"Not hungry."

"Come on down to breakfast any day."


"And if you don’t have the rent, don’t pay it."

"I’ll try to have the rent."

"And excuse me, but my daughter was helping me clean your room when she found some papers with writing on them. She was very fascinated with your writing. She and her husband want you to come to dinner at their place."


"I told them that you were funny. I told them that you wouldn’t come."


After she left I walked around the block a few times and when I came back there was a huge pan of ice with 6 or 7 quarts of beer floating in it plus 2 bottles of good Italian wine. Mama came up 3 or 4 hours later and had a beer.

"You goin’ to dinner at my daughter’s?"

"You’ve bought my soul, Mama. Name the night."

She fooled me. She named the night.

The rest of that night I drank the stuff and wound up the old Victrola and watched the empty felt-covered wheel run at different speeds, and I put my head down to the little wooden slits in the belly of the machine and listened to the humming sound. The whole machine smelled good, holy, and sad; the thing fascinated me like graveyards and pictures of the dead, and the night went well. Later in the night I even found a lone record in the belly of the machine and I put it on:

"He’s got the whole world

in His hands

He’s got you and me, brother

He’s got the little babies

in His hands

He’s got everybody

in His hands….."

This scared me so much that the next day, hangover and all, I went out and got a job as a stock boy in a department store. I started the day after. Some old gal in cosmetics (she seemed to be at the bad age for women — 46 to 53) kept hollering that she had to have the stuff RIGHT AWAY. I think it was the insistent shrill insanity in her voice. I told her: "Keep your pants on, baby, I’ll be along soon to relieve you of your tensions…." The manager fired me 5 minutes later. I could hear her screaming over the phone: "If that isn’t the damndest SNOTTIEST STOCK BOY I ever heard!!! Who the hell does he think he is?"

"Now, Mrs. Jason, please calm yourself …"

At the dinner it was confusing also. The daughter looked real good and the husband was a big Italian. They were both communists. He had a fine fancy night job somewhere and she just laid around and read books and rubbed her lovely legs. They poured me Italian wine. But nothing made sense to me. I felt like an idiot. Communism didn’t make any more sense to me than democracy. And the thought often did come to me as it came to me at the table that night: I am an idiot. Can’t everybody see that? What’s this wine? What’s this talk? I’m not interested. It had no connection with me. Can’t they see through my skin, can’t they see that I am nothing?

"We like your writing. You remind us of Voltaire," she said.

"Who’s Voltaire?" I asked.

"Oh Jesus," said the husband.

They mostly ate and talked and I mostly drank the Italian wine. I got the idea that they were disgusted with me but since I had expected that, it didn’t bother me. I mean, not too much. He had to go to work and I stayed on.

"I might rape your wife," I told him. He laughed all the way down the stairway.

She sat in front of the fireplace, showing her legs above the knees. I sat in a chair, watching. I hadn’t had a piece of ass in two years. "There’s this very sensitive boy," she said, "who goes with my girlfriend. They both sit around and talk communism for hours and he never touches her. It’s very strange. She’s confused and …"

"Lift your dress higher."


"I said, lift your dress higher. I want to see more of your legs. Pretend I’m Voltaire."

She did show me a little more. I was surprised. But it was more than I could stand. I walked over and pulled her dress back to her hips. Then I pulled her to the floor and was on top of her like some sick thing. I got the panties off. It was hot in front of that fire, very hot. Then when it was over I became the idiot again:

"I’m sorry. I’m out of my mind. Do you want to call the police? How can you be so young when your mother is so old?"

"It’s grandma. She just calls me ‘daughter.’ I’m going to the bathroom. Be right back."


I wiped off with my shorts and when she came out we had some small talk and then I opened the door to leave and walked into a closetful of overcoats and various things. We both laughed.

"Goddamn," I said, "I’m crazy."

"No, you’re not."

I walked on down the stairway, back over the streets of San Francisco, and back to my room. And there in the pan was more beer, more wine, floating in water and ice. I drank it all, sitting there in that wooden chair by the window, all the lights out in the room, looking out, drinking.

The luck was mine. A hundred dollar piece of ass and ten bucks worth of drink. It could go on and on. I could get luckier and luckier. More fine Italian wine, more fine Italian ass; free breakfast, free rent, the flowing and glowing of the goddamned soul overtaking everything. Each man was a name and a way but what a horrible waste most of them were. I was going to be different. I kept drinking and didn’t quite remember going to bed.

In the morning it wasn’t bad. I found a half empty and warm quart bottle of beer. Drank that. Then I lay down on the bed, started to sweat. I laid there quite a time, became sleepy.

This time it was a lampshade that turned into a very evil and large face and then back into a lampshade again. It went on and on, like a repeat movie, and I sweated sweated sweated, thinking that each time, that face would be the unbearable thing to me, whatever that unbearable thing was. There it came AGAIN!


The knock on the door.

"Mr. Bukowski?"


"Are you all right?"


"I said, ‘Are you all right?’"

"Oh fine, just fine!"

In came old Mama Fazzio. "You drank all your stuff."

"Yes, it was a hot night last night."

"You got records yet?"

"Just ‘He’s got the little babies in His hands.’"

"My daughter wants you to come to dinner again."

"I can’t. Got something going. Got to clear it up."

"What do you mean?"

"Sacramento, by the 26th of this month."

"Are you in trouble of some sort?"

"Oh no, Mama, no trouble at all."

"I like you. When you come back, you come live with us again."

"Sure, Mama."

I listened to the old woman going down the stairs. Then I threw myself down on the mattress. How the wind howls in the mouth of the brain; how sad it is to be alive with arms and legs and eyes and brain and cock and balls and bellybutton and all the else and waiting waiting waiting for the whole thing to die, so silly, but nothing else to do, nothing else to do, really. A Tom Mix life with a constipation flaw. I was almost asleep.


"Mr. Bukowski?"


"What’s wrong?"


"Are you all right?"

"Oh, fine, jus’ fine!"

I finally had to get out of San Francisco. They were driving me crazy. With their free wine and free everything. I’m in Los Angeles now where they don’t give anything away, and I’m feeling a little bit better…

HEY! What was THAT??? …

Reprinted from National Underground Review, May 15, 1968, courtesy of David Stephen Calonne.

From the forthcoming City Lights collection Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays 1944-1990, edited by David Stephen Calonne.

Critical sass


ISBN REAL This month, a collection of Daniel Mendelsohn’s essays on books, plays, and films is being published. How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken (Harper, 480 pages, $26.95) is excellent. But it lacks something I can’t help wanting from the criticism I read, no matter how often some denunciation tries to shame the desire out of me. One of Mendelsohn’s pieces even takes novelist and literary critic Dale Peck’s 2005 review collection, Hatchet Jobs (New Press, 240 pages, $14.95) to task for indulging in the very thing I look for: bitchiness.

According to Mendelsohn, Peck’s analysis of any book cedes too much space to his caustic persona. Mendelsohn suspects that "what’s really going on here isn’t so much criticism as a kind of performance."

This is a common complaint. As standard as it’s become for critics to coat their reviews in personality, extravagantly painting their territory with barbed humor and a couple catalogs’ worth of references, there’s no scarcity of resistance to that practice, either. Just last week, on Mark Sarvas’ blog The Elegant Variation (www.marksarvas.blogs.com), writer Benjamin Percy expanded on Sarvas’ disgust over an excessively autobiographical review of Julia Reed’s memoir, The House on First Street (Ecco, 208 pages, $23.95) in the Aug. 3 The New York Times Book Review. Percy suggested a causal connection between the swell of infantile pop punditry on cable news channels and "those critics who spotlight their voice, their life, upstaging the assigned book."

Within How Beautiful It Is, Mendelsohn quotes Peck’s response to the controversy surrounding his critical flaying of Rick Moody a few years ago. Here we-go-’round-the criticism-bush: in turn, Peck’s quote mentions Heidi Julavits’ highly-regarded piece about the future of literary culture from the March 2003 maiden issue of The Believer. There, Julavits appeals to book critics to cool it already with the self-serving wisecracks. In fact, she mentions Mendelsohn as an exemplar of considered evaluation free from the static of the vitriol that’s come into fashion.

Julavits’ major beef was with the sadism of the bitchy critic, and in large part, that’s the same problem Mendelsohn has with Peck’s reviews. I have a lot of inner ethical debates queued up before I ever address, let alone endorse, the matter of the clever takedown. What I am willing to dispute right here, right now, is the puzzling belief that caustic criticism is not just ethically but also artistically deficient.

It’s one thing to frown upon a mean-spirited performance that gets away from the reviewed work as well as the rhythm of its own structure. I could even grudgingly comprehend were a canonical critic like Dorothy Parker called out for wandering too far into the realm of bilious stand-up comedy. (So much for wicked stand-up criticism as only a current trend). Regarding Peck, Mendelsohn is not wrong to point out the ungainliness of his grabs at attention. I can appreciate the argument that one’s limited reserve of creative energy should be spent in the service of creation and not destruction, particularly in the assessment of writers who don’t deserve the baroque angst their crappy books inspire.

But is there really no understanding that the affected horror of the cranky critic is a ritualized template for evaluation, and one that is as valid — when done well — as any other? If there isn’t, we’re all in trouble.

Speed Reading



By Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes

W.W. Norton & Company

192 pages, $22.95 (hardcover)

336 pages, $14.95 (trade paperback available next month)

Since the recent television writers’ strike seemed to have a greater impact on the nation than our two ongoing wars or the frequently floated possibility of a third, maybe it’s money that matters. After all, a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money. In The Three Trillion Dollar War, Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and co-author Linda Bilmes try to illustrate what it means to spend $3 trillion on the Iraq war.

Arguing that “money spent on armaments is money poured down the drain,” Stiglitz and Bilmes dismiss the notion that wars are always “good for the economy.” Their arguments are bolstered by the grim reality that during the Iraq conflict oil prices have risen from $25 a barrel to more than $120 a barrel, while household savings rates have gone “negative for the first time since the Great Depression.” Meanwhile, as they point out, the National Guard has been under-equipped in the face of domestic disasters such as Hurricane Katrina due to Iraq deployment.

Unfortunately supporters of Sen. John McCain, who foresees a century of Iraq occupation, aren’t likely to read this book. But it would not be wasted on Barack Obama’s supporters since — much as they might want to overlook it — his presidential plan also envisions tens of thousands of American troops remaining in Iraq after the combat troops have gone. (Tom Gallagher)



By Johnny Ryan

Buenaventura Press

128 pages each

$9.95 (Comic Book Holocaust)

$14.95 (Klassic Komix Klub)

If there were such a thing as achieving the zen of filth — the zero-sum nirvana of willful wallowing in sweat, spunk, excrement, and blood till one has achieved the nihilistic bliss of transgressive freedom — then cartoonist Johnny Ryan might be dubbed our comic book bodhisattva. The evidence is all over two handsome volumes on Oakland’s Buenaventura Press: The Comic Book Holocaust, the cartoonist’s 2006 send-up (and put-down) of mainstream and underground/alternative comics from Thor to Persepolis, and The Klassic Komix Klub, his short, sharp wholesale demolition of literary warhorses à la Ulysses and, hey, Siddhartha (the search for enlightenment ends with a diaper loaded with poo, home to “Osamarexic Slim Laden”).

Sure, the unrelenting butt-violation, mutilation, rape, boner, crap-eating, racial stereotype, and flying vulvas jokes tend to hit or miss — and get monotonous. Reading Ryan panels in, say, Vice offers hipsters the fast, nasty frisson of a chuckle, while reading more than 50 in one sitting can be quease-inducing, which is more than Mad can claim. Ryan’s quick ‘n’ dirty, reductionist aesthetic, absurdist and disgust-centered shit-vision, and all-inclusive takedowns come off as a bit dated for these post-9/11 times — redolent of a ’90s alt-nation, slacker pessimism fed by punk rock, J.K. Huysmans, Howard Stern, and Peter Bagge. Still, at its most effective, Ryan’s work is the funny-book equivalent of watching nonstop war footage. He gives us a dirty-bird cartoon version of the Marquis de Sade, leavened by the occasional chortle at Garfield’s expense. (Kimberly Chun)


Micheline, man


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So much of Jack Micheline’s work is great that it almost feels like a lie to speak of it. He remains a problematic, adorable, and — to the very end — indefinable artist. This is not loose praise.

In an introduction to the new Micheline collection One of a Kind (Ugly Duckling Press, 155 pages, $15), editor Julien Poirier asks, "Why does literature consider Jack Micheline a joke if it considers him at all? When he puts everyone in the dark!" It isn’t conspiracy speech to claim there are no valid or easy answers to this question. As Micheline said: "Fuck fame sweetheart. It is so fleeting. This stupid thing called Fame. (power, money)." He was well aware that "it is a sad affair what Modern America does to its poets. Or what happens to poets in 20th-century America." He lived his art and life against such destructive forces.

Micheline died in 1998, riding a BART train to the end of the line. He loved trains, racetracks, cities, poets, musicians, artists, and women. He was at ease with the roiling mass of humanity. His friends ranged from Charles Bukowski and Charles Mingus to street hustlers and bookstore proprietors. Late in life he became a prolific painter, and One of a Kind includes several reproductions of black-and-white paintings and drawings alongside a healthy selection of previously uncollected (for the most part) prose and poetry. Micheline’s work is phallus-centered and action-oriented, but it can also allow gender to be an open question. Ultimately, one of his primary concerns is the inherent and often unnoticed beauty found in subtle gestures.

Micheline dug speech. The nonstop rapport of an active city street lifted him from within:

I walked in the streets of night

so no one could see my face

and heard beautiful sounds

If you don’t know Micheline’s work, read One of a Kind. (If you do, read it too.) Micheline is an essential tick at the center of humanity. His poems don’t solve problems, but they celebrate and provide attentive insight into what it means to truly live. Hearing them will do you good. Poirier’s introduction, taking the form of a personal letter addressed to Micheline, is a treasure in itself. The intuitive care he’s given to Micheline’s poetry is clear. As an editor and fellow poet, he possesses the wonder necessary to assemble this book, yet true to his hope, the reward belongs to Micheline. This is the book Jack Micheline was working on for all those years.

Speed Reading



Edited by Karin Bauer

Seven Stories Press

268 pages


Will the myriad fragments of Ulrike Meinhof’s life ever make a convincing portrait? This first English publication of her journalism presents the many argumentative voices of Meinhof and those she inspires or infuriates. Editor Karin Bauer couldn’t publish Meinhof without an excoriating afterward by Meinhof’s daughter, Bettina Röhl, that fixates on her mother’s Communist ties. (Röhl may — somewhat predictably — be as conservative as Meinhof was radical, but like mother like daughter, nonetheless: she’ll discard human contradictions for the sake of political argument.) Thankfully, Elfrede Jelinek’s too-brief preface and Bauer’s introduction are more evenhanded.

Meinhof’s enigma is fortified by her writings for the magazine konkret. In 1961’s "Hitler Within You" (which provoked a German defense minister into a libel suit rather than soul-searching), fierce intelligence wrestles with the inheritance of a still-living older generation’s Holocaust crimes. These incantatory and analytical gifts shift toward feminism with 1969’s "Everybody Talks About the Weather." The opening salvo of 1968’s "From Protest to Resistance" is borrowed from the Black Panthers, yet Meinhof’s scathing same-year critique of newspaper columns and columnists, 1968’s "Columnism," should be studied at journalism school. But in contrast to radicals such as Angela Davis and Soha Bechara, isolation and imprisonment doomed Meinhof. Bauer only quotes from Meinhof’s last, agonized writings before she committed suicide in 1976. (Johnny Ray Huston)


By Christopher Ciccone (with Wendy Leigh)

Simon Spotlight Entertainment

342 pages


Christopher Ciccone’s life with his sister Madonna turns out to be what any reader would expect: that of a gay little brother to a latter-day gay icon — in other words, that of the ultimate lackey, wiping her down after performances and accompanying her to parties where everyone tries too hard to be fabulous. For a reader, the little bit of pleasure resides in trivia: Madonna’s favorite candy was Hot Tamales; she was uncharacteristically weak in the presence of Jean-Michel Basquiat; she met Cher surprisingly early in her career; she didn’t think Andy Warhol was much of a conversationalist. (In contrast, in his diaries, he instantly recognized her business sense.)

According to Life With My Sister Madonna, Warren Beatty looked through Madonna’s trash for evidence of cheating, Courtney Love likes to count her lines of coke, and Jack Nicholson ain’t above a key bump.

Sandra Bernhard’s name is misspelled Bernhardt.

First best-sentence nominee (about a Helmut Newton knockoff photo of Madonna by Stephen Klein): "I think it sad that poor Rocco and Lola have to wake up each morning and come face-to-face with this huge picture of their mother dressed in a blatant S&M outfit, lying on a bed with dead animals all around her." Second best-sentence nominee (gleaned from a fax): "I gave up my fucking life to make you the evil queen you are today … 15 years listening to your bitching egotistical rantings, mediocre talent, and a lack of taste that would stun the ages." (Huston)

Self-help books


ISBN REAL In a recent, much-discussed Washington Post op-ed, Twelve publisher Jonathan Karp said, "There are thousands of independent publishers and even more self-publishers. These players will soon have the same access to readers as major publishers do, once digital distribution and print-on-demand technology enter the mainstream. When that happens, [major] publishers will lose their greatest competitive advantage: the ability to distribute books widely and effectively."

The "widely" Karp refers to is an advantage that major publishers lost a long time ago. A physical copy of the latest Robert Ludlum novel is far less accessible to the global community than Joe Shmuck’s online prose poem about his first drug experience. It’s the "effectively" that’s taking its sweet-ass time to materialize. After all, thanks to the ease of e-distribution, the Internet has already become a cosmic slush pile.

Karp foresees a time when the glut of options for disposable entertainment will make brand-establishment for "formula fiction" a less successful strategy, leaving attention to quality as the only way for a major publisher to stay relevant. On the contrary, it seems to me that the agoraphobic variety offered by the Internet would make brand-establishment quite successful for a major publisher. Maybe it’s defeatist thinking, but I wonder if the only truly exciting possibility for seekers of uncompromising work in the near future is that smaller enterprises might have a better chance to survive alongside the larger ones. Maybe the practical hope is that the eventual normalization of "digital distribution and print-on-demand technology" might be sufficient to sustain the talented independent writer of modest financial expectations.

One potential beneficiary of this modest revolution is novelist Carl Shuker, who is publishing his brainy horror experiment Three Novellas for a Novel all by his lonesome at www.threenovellasforanovel.com. This month, Shuker — a New Zealander now living in London — has made the second of the three titular installments, ?O Hills Park, available for download. Also available is the first novella, The Depleted Forest, about an editor in an alternate-present Japan who is proofreading the computer-translated memoir of a member of a secret society of rape-tourists. The third installment, Beau Mot Plage, will be uploaded soon. For the PDFs, he’s charging — à la Radiohead — whatever you want to pay.

Since Shuker has already published two well-regarded novels (2005’s award-winning The Method Actors and 2006’s The Lazy Boys), he’s not exactly at the bottom of the slush pile. But he’s not Radiohead, either. More to the point, while The Depleted Forest is a relatively accessible and not unmarketable story, ?O Hills Park is the kind of thing only an Internet could love. It’s the full memoir excerpted in the first novella and presented in the quasi-English of computer translation. Rushed to publication to catch the public’s fleeting interest in the first book’s sex scandal, the text of ?O Hills Park is as much a mesmerizing word puzzle as an intriguing piece of fiction. It’s also a supremely ironic comment on the publishing culture from which the work was spared — the culture whose cathartic rehabilitation Karp is so optimistic about.

It’s doubtful either Karp or Shuker is making that culture hang its head in shame. Back when writers with a taste for food and shelter were at the mercy of those with the exclusive means of wide distribution, they had no choice but to pretend publishers answerable to stockholders had an obligation to publish works with all the mass appeal of a conscript military. It’s always been an honorable delusion, but it may be that such an insistence is now a waste of the energy that should be spent learning how to cut out the middleman.

Speed Reading



By Herb Boyd


272 pages


Herb Boyd’s Baldwin’s Harlem is a successful primer on James Baldwin’s work and a well-researched travelogue through the history of ever-changing Harlem. But it’s also something more.

When Boyd, an accomplished journalist for the Amsterdam News in Harlem, was approached to write a biography of a native son and his native soil, it probably seemed like an apt placement. And therein lies the rub.

In the book’s preface, Boyd writes that he "felt a pressing need to defend [Baldwin] from some of those writers and critics who seemed to relish bashing him with each new publication, or renouncing him for being less than totally committed to the struggle for Black liberation." He then proceeds to relish in a similar type of bashing and renouncing — in this case, connected to sexual liberation.

Over the course of Baldwin’s prolific writing career, he had more beef than 50 Cent and LL Cool J combined. Baldwin may have possessed a postmodern understanding of beef as a way to gain notice, a knowledge employed later by the aforementioned rappers. Boyd continues this legacy by excoriating Baldwin (and the word excoriate). He does this through off-hand commentary wedged between well-researched biographical and bibliographical elements. These comments reveal more about the biographer’s none-too-flattering personal opinion than they do his subject’s life. One striking example occurs when Boyd describes a young Baldwin’s sexual deflowering by an older tough as his being "turned out." The homophobic contempt in that chapter alone taints Boyd’s portrait of Baldwin. Being a black writer from New York is simply not enough to give James Baldwin the justice he deserves.

Beyong the nerd herd


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REVIEW Amid impoverished rural segregation, my parents were part of the first bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. While my father studied Frantz Fanon and tae kwan do in Okinawa, my mother went on to be a probation officer in Los Angeles during the Watts riots. I was born in a riot-torn Washington, DC, around the time my father helped take over the administration offices of Howard University. I’m a Black Movement baby, and Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of my number.

Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (Spiegel and Grau, 240 pages, $22.95) is a memoir about growing up in Baltimore through the Black Power 1970s and crack power ’80s as one of the seven children of Paul Coates, owner and founder of Black Classic Press.

Judging from recent books such as Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to Shawn Taylor’s Big Black Penis, the black nerd has become the locus of pomo literary style. And why not? Who, besides me, didn’t love Urkel? Coates begins his tale as a sensitive black nerd — Beautiful Struggle even has a Dungeon and Dragons–esque map of Old Baltimore on the inside front cover. Swords, dragons, and Monotype Corsiva font chart intersections like Garrison and Liberty, where, as the author relates, "the Orcs cold-played me for my scullie." Ultimately Coates moves beyond the nerd trend, instead playing the vulnerable, reluctant warrior with grace and wit.

Initially unwilling to fight, Coates is sucker-punched, jacked, and tormented on the mean streets. To navigate Baltimore’s threats and perils means acquiring what he calls "The Knowledge": street smarts and savvy that is "the sum experience of our ways from the time Plymouth Rock landed on us." This knowledge is built upon the realization that "death was jammed in us all, hell-bent on finding a way out," and that a man shouldn’t measure his "life in years but in style."

In Beautiful Struggle, Coates contrasts his older brother Bill and father Paul. Bill is a popular player in a decaying neighborhood, struggling to make it to the outside world. Paul is a former Black Panther and full-time revolutionary attempting to raise seven kids to attend the mecca of Howard University, where he’s a janitor, rogue black historian, and would-be publisher.

Watching Bill embrace hip-hop, smoke blunts, chase dimepieces, and pack a biscuit, Coates becomes versed in The Knowledge. He sets it against his father Paul’s "Knowledge of Self," as drawn from Kwanzaa, Nkrumah, and the consciousness of being more god than man and more man than animal. In attempting to find a balance between these tropes, Coates invokes the words and experiences of J.A. Rodgers, Rakim, George Jackson, Ishmael Reed, and KRS-ONE with uncanny ease. He embodies both the hope and the bane of the Black Power movement, and his flashbacks capture its tender and toughening moments.

It is this tension that gives The Beautiful Struggle its potency. Coates charts the seemingly boundless optimism of his father’s generation and the rising cynicism of his and brother’s. He does so with a compassionate, poetic voice that is rooted in a no-bullshit grasp of his personal history and of American history over the past 60 years. To read this book is to catch a glimpse of the profound legacy and letdown of a generation raised to rebel but forced instead to fight disappointment, imprisonment, and despair. As Coates puts it, "The Knowledge Rule 2080: From maggots to men, the world is a corner bully. Better you knuckle up and go for yours than have to bow your head and tuck your chain."

Speed Reading



By Lars Svendsen

Reaktion Books

188 pages


As a once and future dandy, I’ve noted the growing field of fashion philosophy. In the realm of the academy, the idea of a unified theory of style has become something of a holy grail. The latest knight-errant, Lars Svendsen, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Bergen in Norway, starts his quest by seeking the meaning of fashion.

Relying heavily on Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin, Svendsen (as translated by John Irons) creates a concise and comprehensive primer on fashion and clothing as it relates to identity. He then stitches on a virtual CliffsNotes of philosophy on fashion, citing Roland Barthes, Charles Baudelaire, and Michel Foucault, and then appliqués some hep quotes from Bret Easton Ellis, AbFab, and the Pet Shop Boys.

In the end, Svendsen finds that we cultivate surfaces, that we live in an increasingly fictionalized reality, and that our identities are in steady decline. He concludes that fashion is a highly diverse phenomenon that pretends to have meaning, but in reality "has meaning to only a limited extent." That’s it? Fashion has no meaning, but some meaning? How weak is that?

If philosophy wishes to find meaning in fashion, it must make room for the power of talisman, totem, and fetish — elements that pure reason cannot abide. Svendsen errs in a manner many fashion philosophers have, by refusing to look away from the runways of Europe toward the magical elements of dress in Africa, Asia, and South America. The eggheads just don’t get it.

Flight or write


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"The moment one learns English, complications set in," wrote Spanish ex-pat Felipe Alfau, in English, beginning his 1948 novel Chromos (first published in 1990). Learning English, he wrote, "far from increasing [one’s] understanding of life, if this were possible, only renders it hopelessly muddled and obscure." While this might be true of learning any new language — one starts to see how words simply refer to other words — we might say the same about literature. Are those of us who look to books for salvation making the simple needlessly complex? Orhan Pamuk claims that writing novels is just an "excuse to wrap myself up in new personas." Gregory Corso wrote of our relationship to books: "I, as though tipping a pitcher of milk / pour secrecy upon the dying page." Though not especially positive, both descriptions are sensual and alluring.

Katherine Silver’s thrilling translation of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness (New Directions, 142 pages, $15.95), the first English appearance of any of the Salvadoran exile’s eight novels, brings out the physical effects of a different type of reading: the translation of human tragedy into words, and then back into life. It begins with the incantatory phrase, "I am not complete in the mind." The sentence comes from a report of transcribed Indian testimonies of survivors of a massacre in an unnamed country that resembles Guatemala. The alcoholic, sardonic, surprisingly compassionate narrator is editing this report as a freelance gig for the Catholic Church.

On the phone from her home in Berkeley, Silver admitted that when an editor first showed her 2004’s Insentatez (Tusquets Editores) at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, she was put off by the subject matter: "I looked at it very quickly and said, I don’t like violence. Then I read it on the airplane and said, ‘I want to do this.’ It’s not really about violence. It’s all ultimately about the intimacy of language and writing."

Despite being plagued by increasingly violent fantasies ("For I am not a total stranger to magical realism," the narrator says to explain a particularly brutal one in which a brain is split in half), he is finally brought back to earth not by the truths of the report but by a paranoid (and in the end, realistic) attention to the relationship of the report to the outside world. One sexual fantasy’s effect is simply to "stabilize" his mood. Later, overwhelmed with isolation, he goes outside to "howl like a sick animal under the star-studded sky." After this release, he is able to see the real danger approaching in the shadows.

Senselessness builds so seamlessly to an arresting finale that you will immediately read it again, attentive to how the language of the report infests the narrator’s language. Silver was lucky, she said, to be working with such a "careful" writer. "A translator is a very close reader," she said. "It’s kind of like looking at a book through a magnifying glass. But I never had to second-guess him. He wears well." As a result, the moment one starts reading Senselessness, complications set in — complications we cannot live without.

Glamazonia in “Portal Potty”



Speed Reading



By Andrea Askowitz

Cleis Press

241 pages


My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy is a bracingly frank and exhaustively detailed tour of lesbian single-motherhood, written as a more or less straightforward journal of the weeks leading up to conception and birth. It’s funny and addictive — author Andrea Askowitz spares few of the details one might hunger for, from her selection of a donor to her doctor’s-office conception to her quest to get laid in the third trimester. Alongside the pregnancy, she chronicles a messy, lingering breakup with her lover Kate, her nonprofit’s struggle to stay afloat, and haunting memories of her best friend Robin, whose fatal cancer was discovered after a pregnancy.

Sharp-tongued Askowitz maintains her wicked sense of humor throughout, feeding the reader deliciously bitchy one-liners as she navigates pregnant Los Angeles, with its doulas, prenatal acupuncturists, and support groups ("I walk out terrified I’m just like these women. Please, no. They seem so happy."). She observes her own neuroses and midnight freak-outs just as lucidly, and we’re grateful for the recognition that it’s not just her no-show friends making her miserable and lonely.

By the end, however, Askowitz’ relentless self-involvement, the source of much of the book’s humor, begins to wear thin. What’s missing is a connection to something larger that transcends the sometimes funny but often repetitive whining. While it could serve as a warm, honest resource on the little-explored subjects of sperm donation and home birth, My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy ends up reading a little like a long and tiresome sick note.



Oooh! Lookee up here, on the dirty gay porn rag shelf. Past the Out, featuring a very strange half-naked photospread "dedicated to the memory of Georgia O’Keefe" — think nipply model and cow skulls — and The Advocate, giving you full-on yawnsville with ho-hum marriage and "reality gays" stories. Past Genre‘s insectoid white boy snaked in the Stars-and-Stripes cover and Instinct‘s insightful "Exposed! Mario Lopez Rocks Your Bod!" tell-all.

Up here in the anal bleachers, Inches parts hunky Russki Nickolay Petrov’s iron curtains, and shoves anti-model Herman’s head in our gaping eyeballs. Black Inches leads with "Holla! 8 Black Brothas Boned Up!" and showcases Quentin ("9 inches — Cum Taste the Flava!"), while Latin Inches outsizes ’em with Carlos ("13 x 6 — Extra Thick ‘n’ Juicy!"). Alas, a quick scan reveals no Asian Inches or Eskimo Inches or even Arab Inches, although they’re all the rage. (Inch’allah!) With Playguy you also get a bonus Inches from 1996, so it reeks of meth and dial-up modems.

We’re a soft target for hairy Honcho cover hunk Alex Corsi’s "heat-seeking missile," although the "Bobbin’ for boners" and "Bareback rimming" how-tos seem like mere excuses for pretty pictures. Celebratory 100th issue Unzipped model Antonio Braggi’s tagline says everyone wants him for his "11 x 6," but we’re pierced by his steely gaze and perfect facial hair formation. Another can’t-miss in this issue: "Weapons of Ass Destruction! The Battle of the Celebrity Replicocks!" We’re dismayed by the dearth of bear-porn magazines this month, and that Mandate‘s "9 Hot Hunks Butt Naked!" is full of too-familiar faces. But we’re perfectly pleased by Advocate Men‘s dreamy "stallion in a suit" — and a hair suit at that — Matthew Cameron. Grrrl.

Tell it like it is


ISBN REAL Samuel R. Delany is best known as a science fiction writer. And it’s a good bet that once people see the documentary The Polymath, or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman — screening this week at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival — Delany will be equally well known as a prolific tea-room queer (50,000 and counting), a lifestyle that has informed much of his fiction. By all rights, either of these enthusiasms should provide the best inroad to Delany’s work. But I’m not so sure that’s true.

What I’ve read of Delany’s science fiction is ambitious, path-clearing, and fearless in its treatment of sex and race. It also tends to let ideas outperform style. Some selections of his work tighten the gap more successfully than others. Triton (Bantam, 1976), sometimes published as Trouble on Triton, is simultaneously much more effective and much less ambitious a work of art than its megahit predecessor Dhalgren (1975), a book of commendable narrative and sociological experimentation that still feels, page by page, overdetermined and overly dependent on dialogue for orientation.

When Delany writes about sex beyond the speculative landscape, he has no less a tendency to dote on ideas, often leaving the reader bloated with enlightenment and blue-balled by the promise of a tight story. His "pornotopic" novel Mad Man (Voyant, 2002) is in many ways a beautiful rumination on the staggered evolution of social tolerance, the ways in which our complex alliances and prejudices can work at cross-purposes. While it’s also admirably brutal on the average reader’s gag reflex, it’s still probably best to select a few boutique items — like maybe the scat play and interspecies fellatio — and save the cavernous foreskin tubes of smegma for another novel. Similarly, while Dark Reflections (Running Press, 2007) is equal to Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 A Single Man at exposing the animal humility of an aging literary life, it relinquishes its eerie sad hush to a bulbous interlude of bathroom-sex protocol.

Really, Delany is too forgiving of his enthusiasms — be they technological, sexual, or literary — to exclude what thoughts they might inspire, to avoid treating fiction as specimen capture. Some of the most impressive bits of Mad Man are simple lists of autonomous thoughts discovered in the notebook of a deceased philosopher. But the beauty of the lists make them no less transparent an opportunity for Delany to do some housecleaning. And while he was able to parlay his mania for inclusion into the artistic success of Phallos (2004), a great little faux-academic novel about an erotic text of mysterious provenance, writing about writing seems an awfully limiting way of solving the problem.

Unless you do it up right, in nonfiction. Though they are not by and large what have earned him his notoriety, works of criticism, memoir, and pedagogy shine brightest on Delany’s mantle. His elegy to the egalitarian sex culture of pre-Giuliani Times Square, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (NYU Press, 1999), is deservedly well known. Though not as prominent, About Writing (Wesleyan, 2005) is a fantastic collection of essays, letters, and interviews on writing as a craft. Equally worthy is Silent Interviews (Wesleyan, 1994), a collection of souped-up interviews that deftly handle many of the concepts he has tried, with mixed results, to illuminate in his fiction. One particularly memorable piece in the collection is "Toto, We’re Back!", a 20-page crucifixion of some insidiously parochial questions posed by a couple of poor professors who thought they were being obsequious. Not only is it a brilliant demonstration of intellectual sadism, it’s also an intriguing examination of the nature of genre as well a solid beginner’s guide to the notables of science fiction. Though he is but one such notable, there are few better places to start.


Fri/20, 8 p.m., $9–$10

Roxie Film Center

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 703-8655


Speed Reading



By Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Simon Spotlight Entertainment

268 pages


Dear Diary: I wanted to like Go Fug Yourself Presents the Fug Awards. Really, I did. Partly because this tome by GoFugYourself.com creators Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan feels like a miss-guided tour through the mind of the cattiest, most clothes-obsessed cheerleader — one who spells Kanye, K-a-y-n-e and admits she’s too lazy to check the exact origins of the It Girl phenom. (Er, try Clara Bow of the 1927 silent film It.)

From its opening salvos at Inexplicable Style Icons (well, Vogue and all of Vogue‘s tatty offspring differ when it comes to Chloë Sevigny and Sienna Miller), to its truly startling images of a death-rattled Marc Anthony and a radical-plastic-surgery-disaster Kenny Rogers, Fug Awards is the book equivalent of the meanest girl in high school. You kind of, sort of, want to pal around with her, if only to protect yourself from the harsh glare of judgment. Alas, instead of nasty kicks, what it offers is unfunny and even tedious — like an awards ceremony, it fluffs its pseudo-pomp with overly lengthy intros and kaboodles of glossy red carpet snaps. Fug Awards only inspires you to dress in the most conservative yet "classic" garb, accessorized with a sorry case of the fashion blahs.

True, the orange-hued aesthetics that inspire the Tanorexics Awards are startling in these melanoma-riddled times — occasionally there’s a logic to Cocks’ and Morgan’s middle-of-the-road rage. But does Cate Blanchett deserve to be in here simply for trying out an unconventional ensemble by a chance-taking designer? Must one wear a gown to a car promotional event?

Oh, Diary, such a long, lukewarm sip of haterade makes one wonder: why try anything sartorially daring or new and be subjected to a similar clawing, courtesy of your neighborhood Fug-in-training? XOXO (Kimberly Chun)


By Charles Bock

Random House

417 pages


The notion that Las Vegas is a playground for complete id-indulgence certainly holds resonance for tourists. But what is the city like for folks who work and live there? Charles Bock’s debut novel Beautiful Children strips away the city’s glittering veneer to reveal a degraded core. At the epicenter of Bock’s troubled Las Vegas landscape sits 12-year-old Newell Ewing, a coddled, almost joyless boy — comic books are his chief source of comfort — who disappears from his affluent suburban home. Newell’s alienated parents, Lincoln and Lorraine, each embark on a distressing solitary journey to find out what has happened.

Beautiful Children is also populated with runaways and street kids. Aside from one notable exception, these characters appear trapped underneath the weight of unfulfilled expectations. Their friends, family, and acquaintances — pawn shop dealers, gambling addicts, exploited sex workers — expand the tangle of disillusionment. The result is a modern counterpart to the alienated Los Angeles cityscape of Nathanael West’s classic 1939 snuffed-dream chronicle The Day Of The Locust.

Beautiful Children has been on the receiving end of more than a few "cinematic" compliments. Bock crafts an ambitious pull-back-the-curtains epic reminiscent of the early work of filmmaker P.T. Anderson. Occasionally the author appears overly aware of his novel’s filmic qualities, resulting in heavy-handed dialogue. Still, he portrays the underbelly of Las Vegas with precise detail. What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas. Instead, Bock argues, what happens in Vegas is actually happening everywhere. (Todd Lavoie)

No exit


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LIT An interviewee in Grant Gee’s excellent 2007 documentary Joy Division posits that the gloomy Manchester band inverted punk’s initial "Fuck you!" to convey a more atmospheric and ultimately unsettling sentiment of "I’m fucked." If so, the contemporaneous No Wave bands from New York City melted down those two approaches to one primal howl. Spiritually indebted to punk but suspicious of the first wave’s rockist stance, the No Wavers pursued aggressive detachment and tongue-in-cheek dissonance with the all-in brio of performance artists.

With its loose aesthetic boundaries, abbreviated timeline, and incestuous collaborations, the No Wave years are ripe for the kind of anthropological studies offered by two recent illustrated histories, Marc Masters’ No Wave (Black Dog, 205 pages, $29.95) and Thurston Moore and Byron Coley’s No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York 1976-1980 (Abrams Image).

No Wave’s bylines make for an unwieldy taxonomy: Rhys Chatam studied with LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad; Lydia Lunch was a teenage runaway; Arto Lindsey of DNA and Mark Cunningham and China Burg of Mars all met at Eckard College in St. Petersburg, Fla. Moore and Coley have the most fun with the movement’s eclecticism. A No Wave coffee-table book may be a paradox, but they cram a fantastic level of detail into a handsome spread. If you want to learn that the artist Jeff Wall suggested the name of Glenn Branca’s group Theoretical Girls, theirs is the tome for you. But Masters gets several broader trends right, like when he makes the crucial point that No Wave filmmakers like Beth and Scott B. were upsetting an established avant-garde just as much as No Wave’s musicians were troubling their punk godparents.

Both No Wave overviews go to pains to limit their sphere of focus, though one does wish to read a little more about the movement’s literary influences (William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson) and outliers (Lizzy Mercier Descloux, please). Likewise, it would help to learn how the same set of city blocks produced Lydia Lunch and Madonna, and what exactly Jean-Michel Basquiat was doing all those nights at the Mudd Club.

But what these books skimp on context, they make up for in their rich detailing of No Wave’s internal split between Lower East Side habitués and SoHo aesthetes. There’s no question that Glenn Branca has influenced as many Mogwais as James Chance has Liars, but at the time of the movement’s heyday, downtown NYC was contested terrain. Brian Eno’s 1978 folklorist survey No New York (Phantom) conspicuously ignored the more outwardly intellectual SoHo contingent, and one still senses the bruised egos in Branca’s stinging account: "We were doing music that was too similar to what [Eno] was thinking about," the composer explains, elsewhere fuming, "If those East Village bastards had ever come down to Barnabus [a Tribeca bar], they would have found … as much sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll going on in our scene as theirs."

Never mind the bollocks, there’s one clear constant refrain in all the No Wave testimonies: gimme cheap rent. Robert Christgau is right when he muses that No Wave’s bundling of nihilism and self-righteousness was "symptomatic of formal exhaustion"; but beneath, one finds an obvious irony. Where the movement’s progenitors were reacting to a perceived state of endless urban decay, their actions have, in retrospective, taken shape as an essential pre-gentrification story. As with Weimar Germany, No Wave is compelling for what was — and for what followed.




This month’s Magazinester saves the best for first: in conjunction with an art show, Needles and Pens has fantastic zines by Edie Fake on display. Rico McTaco stars a four-legged dyke not averse to carrot strap-ons and dizzying black and white lines Bridget Riley might admire. Issue four of Gaylord Phoenix adds color and erotic examinations by a quartet of wizards with entwined beards to the many-sexed picture.

In Matt Furie’s boy’s club, Andy, Bret, Landwolf, and Pepe bro down with Nintendo, pizza breakfasts, and T-shirt jokes when they aren’t fending off dust mites. The hug department in boy’s club is always open. Dead Pets No. 1 relates tales of tarantula starvation, ferrets crushed by futons, black-eyed white mice slain by children’s tea-party merriment, and many ill-fated betta fish. The centerfold lists five dead pet movies. Published in deluxe gold-embossed color by Blue Q, Killer Queen: The Freddie Mercury Story‘s terrific illustrations portray Mercury’s overbite and stamp collection. Issue 116 of Belladonna presents Dodie Bellamy’s Mother Montage, a combination of writer and subject matter (one’s mother, not motherhood) that sparks a demonologist’s wit — the kind that doesn’t pander. John McCain’s gizzard does not escape unscathed.

Best free mag honors go to Arthur for following Erick Morse’s superb Fantomas survey with an extensive critical hurrah for the music of Sparks. (Also, Arthur‘s comics page features Furie and mocks blogs.) Expensive-mag-to-browse honors go to Aperture for features on James Bidgood, Robert Frank, and Trevor Paglen, and a wild series of Iraq War vets portraits. A cheap raspberry to $29-and-up rags such as Paradis, Purple Fashion, UOVO, and Fantastic Man: most or all feature the saggy yet nonexistent ass of the overexposed, under-talented Terence Koh.

Tales of the shitty


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REVIEW San Francisco is larger than the stories written about it. This is out of necessity: if we all tried to write down everything that happened here, our arms would get tired. And while the city itself is physically and culturally in thrall to many disparate groups, its history is surprisingly open, belonging most often to those who have nothing more than the inclination to take out a pen and start writing.

Exhibit A: Erick Lyle, a punk kid from Florida who makes zines about pulling off petty scams at chain stores. Mix Lyle and San Francisco and something interesting happens — he becomes a bard of the Tenderloin, distributing his missives (written under the name "Turd Caen") out of a stolen newspaper box. He quietly stocks the shelves of the San Francisco Public Library main branch with his work, leaving clippings and photographs in the library’s archives and inserting his zines in the periodicals section.

Lyle’s new book, On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City (Soft Skull Press, 272 pages, $14.95), is more likely to end up in the general collection of the library through official channels. After all, it’s reasonably book-size and reasonably book-shaped. It has an official-sounding title — and one that, charmingly, betrays a Tales of the City-like solipsism.

On the Lower Frequencies reminds me of Armistead Maupin’s early work in other ways too. Both are emblematic of the times in which they were written. Maupin’s characters fret about sex and identity (mostly sex) while squeezing melons at the Marina Safeway, while Lyle and his friends steal from Safeway and worry where to live next. The threat of eviction hovers over Lyle and his friends like an anvil, and they cope with a campy lightheartedness that is almost Judy Garland-esque. All they really want to do is throw parades, play music, paint murals, drink cheap beer, interview the mayor, and look for ancient steam vents. To achieve those ends, they live on the cheap and squat in building after building, often in the half-second before its conversion into condos (in one case, a wrecking ball almost takes out a few of them.)

None of these are uncommon tropes in punk writing, except for the "interview the mayor" part. The stories around that encounter — and the other interactions that the group has with city government — made me realize how insular and formulaic much zine content can be: interviews with bands x and y, a few squatting and train-hopping stories, and maybe one about hooking up with a girl who has a pet rat. Lyle’s writing is unusual in its intense curiosity about various subcultures and its sheer enthusiasm for discovering how the city does (and doesn’t) work.

Long-time fans of Lyle’s writing should note that virtually everything here has already been self-published, and that more than a little is lost in the transition to placid, even typography. It’s too bad On the Lower Frequencies didn’t get the warts-and-all reprint treatment that Last Gasp gave its Cometbus anthology. This book is for lending. Your earlier copies of Scam, if you have them, are for hoarding. The original format just feels, in some indefinable way, more secret. It’s hard to describe. Let’s just say that it’s the difference between exploring a building you’ve always been interested in under legitimate circumstances, and walking by that same building one night and finding the door unlocked. And that there’s a party going on inside. *

Pixel Vision: an interview with Erick Lyle

Speed Reading




By David Hadju

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

448 pages


David Hajdu is an antidote to ersatz historiographers. He’s unearthed and analyzed formative but forgotten figures (such as Billy Strayhorn) and moments of 20th-century Americana. In The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America, the Columbia University journalism professor turns his attention to Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of the 1940s and early ’50s, when a cadre of young outsiders engendered a new and controversial artistic medium: the comic book.

Hajdu surveys Famous Funnies pioneer Harry Wildenberg, eccentric militant Major Nicholson-Wheeler, Crime Does Not Pay impresario Charles Biro, psychological activist Frederic Wertham, and Superman creator Jerry Siegel. But milquetoast EC Comics owner Bill Gaines, partly responsible for the horror and sci-fi craze that accompanied the atomic age, is at the center of the book’s narrative.

The Ten Cent Plague thoroughly documents the censorship struggles and creative flourishes of a subculture and revolutionary art form, but it lacks the freewheeling energy of earlier histories. For all of his rhapsodizing about the authentic juvenile experience within comics, there is a dearth of playful and existential perspective. Instead, the writing takes on an insipid encyclopedic tone, forcing cohesion on a subject matter renowned for random creativity. Large portions of text come across as just the kind of parental lesson comic book enthusiasts might shun. Nonetheless, Hajdu provides a necessary investigation into the moment when America stepped from a black-and-white past into a Technicolor future. (Erik Morse)



By Gemma Solana and Antonio Boneu

Index Books

313 pages


Initially, Gemma Solana and Antonio Boneu’s survey of credit sequences in movies sported the title The Art of the Title Sequence. But now it is called Uncredited: Graphic Design and Opening Titles in the Movies, a gesture of solidarity toward the legion of graphic artists, particularly in Hollywood, who have designed credits for movies without being acknowledged for their efforts. Early sections of this hardcover slab of imagery and text — which weighs a good five pounds, in case you want to strengthen your biceps — explore the white-on-black and title-as-logo roots of studio movies from the first half of the 20th century. The creators of signature sequences such as the umbrella-twirling opening of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) are praised while remaining anonymous. Even when credits were credited, as with Pacific Title and Art Studio’s splendorous text for Gone with the Wind (1939), it was under a corporate blueprint.

Uncredited‘s latter chapters right those wrongs committed by the film industry by exploring the efforts of Otto Preminger’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s frequent partner-in-design Saul Bass (probably the only credit specialist to receive exhibition and monograph showcases) and his wife Elaine, as well as Jean Fouchet (an influence on Jacques Demy?), Pablo Nuñez (who created the credits for Victor Erice’s 1973 The Spirit of the Beehive), Dan Perri, and others. A climactic section about current trends displays work that uniformly pales in comparison to the work by Arcady, Fernand Léger, and especially Mary Ellen Bute and Jean-Luc Godard in a central chapter devoted to concepts. Uncredited is lavishly, gorgeously illustrated (complete with a DVD) and playfully designed. There are errors galore in the informative text though — a sharper editorial eye was needed. And who exactly is that mysterious “QT” who seems to have provided captions for a number of the illustrations? (Johnny Ray Huston)


Time travel ticket


TRAINS Mostly True (Microcosm Publishing, 144 pages, $8) is the book companion to my 2005 movie, Who Is Bozo Texino? Styled like a 1930s pulp magazine, it’s an enigmatic compilation of railroad ephemera — a ticket for time travel back to the roots of American rail folklore.

The book was created as a by-product of making the film and as a direct product of 25 years of asystematically collecting any scrap of material related to the ideas of tramping, trains, Depression-era culture and graffiti (with a small g).

The relationship between the 100-year-old form of traditional rail graffiti and contemporary aerosol graffiti is much closer than their radically different styles and scales would indicate. There is also a curious parallel between particular social patterns in the long-gone networks of hobos and the secret society of contemporary urban graffiti writers. The book doesn’t address aerosol graffiti directly, but the historical similarities can be deduced from the odd evidence. By using the format of a 1930s adventure pulp serial mag, I figured I could relate these cultural practices without explicitly having to state the underlying connections.

The book is also a celebration of the popular written language of the day. I’ve excerpted 1930s railworker union newsletters by workers whose way of writing is so beautiful and so far removed from how we write now. This now-nostalgic style of letter-writing is another folk form I’m playing with in the book, both in presenting vintage material and in styling my own contributions to blend with the things I’ve found.



Green mania is old news or no news for the weekly tabloids. A quick perusal of In Touch and OK! reveals someone out there still cares about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Life & Style frets over Angelina Jolie’s doc visit, while US Weekly creates a baby album for Shiloh.

Martha Stewart appears with two equally fierce-looking toy canines on the cover of her "Color" issue: the bitches are back! Every Day with Rachael Ray presents a new shorter, darker ‘do for Rachael-holics to digest. Men’s Vogue sports a car on the cover — a mystifying first for the supposed tout le monde of men’s fashion. Rolling Stone‘s package on the best of rock in 2008 is equally perplexing: is the year even half over? Simon Doonan’s interview with Madonna is a refreshing change of pace for Elle. Wherever Madonna goes, a touch of green is sure to follow.

The Wire’s oft-excellent Wire Tapper CD series entreats Magazinester to make a purchase. Cover girl Gudrun Gut doesn’t. The Eddie Harris and "Funky Cuba" features in Wax Poetics are more appealing. At the end of the day, tired eyeballs turn to what’s free and brave, such as the first issue of the handsome rock mini-zine Low Life. ANP Quarterly has the most stories (including ones about Hamburger Eyes, Colette, Tom of Finland, Jim Goldberg, and Emory Douglas) Magazinester wants to read. A close runner-up: Vice‘s fashion issue, which spotlights frilly cat costumes, Ryan McGinley’s wardrobe, wildly embellished trucks, international street fashion, and, er, an investigative report on men’s rooster cuts in Iran.