Not that anybody has asked lately (and why not, huh?) but it's summer, presumably a time which, with longer days, vacation (if you're lucky), time off from school or teaching or just plain stubborn insistence on some kind of autonomy you will want to exercise the imagination and engage in, not just the summer reading list-making game but, like this tough-looking literary customer, demand that people actually read a book at the beach, say, and not Decision Points by some ex-president or other which, I kid you not, I saw a guy straight out of central casting reading, not reading, reading very slowly on the sand in Laguna, in front of the upscale if silly-named Montage Hotel. I assumed he was a paying guest. I was an interloper, a citizen, a happy low-end beneficiary of Gov. Jerry Brown's first term and the California Coastal Commission's commitment to prohibiting private beaches and insisting that people read good, smart fiction and nonfiction and not made-up revisionist nonsense or at least be challenged when they appear to be reading same. Okay, I made that last part up, and resisted asking the fellow, well, what exactly? And where to start? Sheesh. There's an easy joke there, and maybe a smarter one, too. I'll bet Jerry Stahl, real writer, and lately sitting in for David Feldman at KPFK would've known what to do.
I mention Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight, Happy Mutant Baby Pills) because, well, I can, but also by way of introducing, sharing, talking up a couple of books I am reading, at the beach and, soon, up at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley where I also get to moderate some excellent panels and meet a bunch of terrific new and aspiring and established writers. I'd received a copy of Joseph Mattson's Empty the Sun a couple of years ago, kept it, but lost track of my copy. Sorting through a pile of similarly cataloged volumes, I noted Stahl's blurb, which got this first novel by Mattson moved to a different, smaller, ostensibly more urgent pile next to the comfortable old chair into which the Bibster settles for some serious, sincere reading. The opening lines of Mattson's wickedly attitudinous noirish Los Angeles first-person voice should be enough to interest anybody but the goosing from Stahl didn't hurt, and he did not lie: "Here I was, doing ninety on the Santa Monica Freeway with a quart of whiskey shoved into my crotch and my dead neighbor in the trunk. It had come time to leave Los Angeles." Ha!
But, wait, what's that tall, thin volume right under Mattson's, an artsy-looking book? Why, it's
the heretofore also completely unknown to me (though helpfully reviewed, it turns out, by Wayne Koestenbaum over at Los Angeles Review of Books) experimental and presumably only semi-fictional autobiography of sorts titled 2500 Random Things About Me Too, the title itself an invitation to a project which author and artist Matias Viegener makes to anybody interested in the experiential in story telling, the language of the mind, conscious and un, an argument with authorship itself. Short items offered in a list, among them bits of conversation and interrogative and observation and self-examination, of memory and consciousness, I'm only up to maybe 300 random things so far, but already deep in narrative, if you can imagine such a thing, and you and Viegener can. He teaches at CalArts. Just sayin'.
I was recently gifted a copy of a Nicholson Baker novel I hadn't yet read. Thanks, Rebel Girl. The Fermata is the cleverest dirty book you will ever want to read. The narrator, one Arno Strine, a "temp" office worker, discovers a way to stop time, temporarily, restart it, and in-between do very naughty things indeed. Nothing criminal, though perhaps immoral and unethical, but always wickedly imaginative and joyfully perverse, usually involving looking at women's bodies. His observations about life, moving and still, offer the funny and terrific Baker prose, this time with erotica and literary context. Baker is one of the funniest serious writers there is, as illustrated in the following, a parenthetical. So you can imagine perhaps, or will want to discover, what the rest of the sentences, outside the parenthesis are like.
(The sight of naked middle-aged women in the steam rooms of certain country clubs carrying their jewelry around in droopy plastic bags, because they are afraid that it will be stolen from their lockers, thrills me, too; I have been in the steam rooms with them; I have touched their moist plastic bags of jewelry.)
You bet he has. Droll, arch, yet offered with a kind of disarming sincerity, it's perhaps even more fun than that old if wonderful conceit of time-travel. Stopping time offers so much more to write about, think about. Sexy stuff.
You couldn't maybe get further from any of the above than the upcomng novel-in-stories by Dylan Landis, whose previous book, Normal People Don't Live Like This won her big acclaim. The advance copy of Rainey Royal says the novel will be out in September, and reminds us that Landis explores the making of an artist, the portrait of a young girl working out the rules. To live outside them you must be honest, and the struggle to both see honest and be honest is the biggest part of maturation for any young person, more so the teenage Rainey and her friend Leah Levinson, who was more or less the heroine of the previous short story collection, which explored the 1970s world of a girl with some fast friends, by fast meaning both the edgy set, including Rainey and steadfast. Landis's writing takes the intimacy of adolescent journal-like perspective and offers it with the insight of an adult, including the danger. Youth is such an exaggeration of adulthood, or is it the other way around?
I like to take a break from longer work and so have, always, a collection or two of essays, preferably comic and insightful or insightfully comic, lying around. S.J. Perelman usually does the trick, or one of his literary heirs, George Saunders. Have you the need to laugh out loud? Who doesn't? The essays collected in The Braindead Megaphone speak to and about a world so goofily rewarding to inhabit, to embrace that sending it up, as Saunders does, feels less like exaggeration than reporting, if by a crazy-wonderful correspondent offering dispatches from a slightly foreign country. This 2007 collection includes "Nostalgia," a piece now either affirmed or outdated as regards so-called reality television: "The other day I was watching TV and it occurred to me that I've become a prude. The show in question was innocuous enough, nothing shocking – just an episode of HottieLeader, featuring computer simulations of what various female world leaders would look like naked and in the throes of orgasm – but somehow, between that the Pizza Hut commercial where Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson engage in some "girl-on-girl" action in a vast field of pizza sauce, something snapped." How 'bout that? Clearly, he's read N. Baker's novel.
Finally, I return to reading the old but always new collection of Gore Vidal's collected nonfiction, criticism and commentary, United States: Essays 1952-1992, opening up to one of the hundreds of short essays or other which delight, never tiring of his wit. Here's a typically rewarding excerpt from "Ronnie and Nancy: A Life in Pictures," an insider's and historian's and political analyst's take-apart of two very bad actors.
I remember thinking I had made the right choice in 1959 when were casting The Best Man, a play that I had written about a presidential convention. An agent had suggested Ronald Reagan for the lead. We all had a good laugh. He is by no means a bad actor, but he would hardly be convincing, I said with that eerie prescience which has earned me the title the American Nostradamus, as a presidential candidate.
So good to be reminded of the past, by the wittiest dead writer around. I miss him still. Thankfully, the collection is nearly 1,300 pages in length. Brevity is not the soul of wit here. Wit is.
Random, or not, there's my list just now. Happy summer.
Joseph Mattson, Empty the Sun, Rare Bird, 166 pgs, $15.95
Nicholson Baker, The Fermata, Vintage, 322 pgs, used
Matias Viegener, 2500 Random Things About Me Too, Les Figues Press, 255 pgs, $15.95
Dylan Landis, Rainey Royal (September 2014)
Gore Vidal, United States: Essays 1952-1992, Random House, 1295 pages, used.
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California…except that he's taking some time away for a few months. Look for – listen for – excellent substitute guest host programmers soon.