Friday, February 27, 2004

It is almost 10:30 p.m. and I am packing with Dickensian urgency. You may remember a character from "A Tale of Two Cities" named Sir Packs-a-lot. But not everyone is a scholar. Not everyone remembers. Those who do not remember may think I made this character up. To those people I say: Hey man, chill. This isn't a contest.

Dickens once wrote a story about a middle-aged Boston cab driver whose romantic relationship was in jeopardy because of his addiction to huffing airplane glue. The details are sketchy; the moral is clear. After several unpleasant run-ins with a vindictive streetsweep driver and an untimely gelastic seizure, the main character considers suicide. He decides, however, that a mojito will cure what ails him, put his bad days in perspective. It works. The mojito causes him to have a vision. The bartender, Dr. Crowly, morphs into his mother, whose name also happens to be Dr. Crowly. There is much confusion and a bystander is tapped on the head by a raw pork chop and rendered unconscious. The event changes the protaganist's life. His addiction to huffing glue is replaced with an overwhelming desire to work with the infirm. During his subsequent travels, he discovers an unlikely cure for neurasthenia. The details are sketchy; the moral, well, it too becomes sketchy.

Then again, maybe Dickens never wrote anything like that. But he could have.

That's all I'm saying.

Let's devote today to comments. Any subject. I'll get it started.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Anyone who’s made it through a good creative writing class learns some basic rules about composition. Read something written by a high school kid, and you’re likely to see these rules broken constantly. In bold text are excerpts from a short essay on writing by Elmore Leonard. He outlines ten common guidelines for young writers. Nersesian violates many of them habitually in The Fuck-Up.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.

From The Fuck-Up:
“Are you insane or what?” she croaked. [p. 292]

“Fuck you!” he roared. [p. 292]

“You called me,” he heaved. [p. 292 ... again]

“Well, what are you doing in a chair now?” she yelled.
“You made me feel uncomfortable sitting on the floor,” I mumbled.
“Sit on the fucking floor if you want,” she barked.
[p. 280; this is a single exchange.]

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” ...
... he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

From The Fuck-Up:
“No!” I whined pitifully, as I wiggled myself to my feet. [p. 222]

Pointing the revolver at Junior, sternly she said, “Get the hell out of my store this instant.” [p. 222]

"Just lie still.” She looked at me intently. “Can you see me?” [p. 222 ... again]

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

Not only does Nersesian use exclamation points on almost every page of The Fuck-Up, but he also types in CAPS or uses multiple exclamation points when someone is really mad. Why does he do this? Because he is incapable of making us care about his characters. Each exclamation point comes across as begging. Nersesian is begging us to care. It doesn’t work. And sometimes, it’s downright comical. Case in point:

“ALL RIGHT! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m sorry...” He started screaming and flaying his arms and legs so convulsively that I thought he was having a convulsion. [p. 197]

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

How prescient of Elmore. Sure enough, the same guy who loves to use exclamation points to create the tension and urgency he is incapable of creating with his prose, breaks this rule, too:

“For no apparent reason, I suddenly remembered that tonight was the night of the contributor’s party for the Harrington.” [p. 240]

Last word on The Fuck-Up,: This was one of the worst books I’ve read in recent years. (I won't even begin to deconstruct the novel's awful conclusion. Frankly, I'm getting mad just thinking about it.) Granted, I’ve had the good fortune to read some pretty good books lately. I actually recommend TFU. I think it’s a great cautionary tale. It shows how flowery prose can distract some readers from poor overall execution. But I encourage you to decide for yourself.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

I got Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck Up as a gift. A friend of mine, a copy editor, bought it for me last fall at the St. Mark’s Bookstore in New York City. I started reading it a couple of weeks ago. The first 100 or so pages were stellar. Then I began noticing things — misspellings, poor grammar, and poor usage. I found this irritating, but the story had not yet suffered irrevocably for it. I was willing to wade through the mire. No longer. I’ll explain why.

Here, in the passage where Nersesian finally lost me for good, the protaganist goes to an off-track betting parlor to confront a woman he blames for killing his best friend. I have copied the punctuation faithfully, right down to the number of dots in the ellipses. My commentary is in bold. Here we go:

“Not a word,” I replied and threw him a salute. Then I drove around the corner, put a quarter in the meter. I leaned up against the car across the street from the local betting place and waited. After fifteen minutes or so, I saw her enter with a group of guys. [OK, she shows up fifteen minutes after he begins his stakeout. Twenty minutes after someone has told him that she hangs out at the OTB parlor — occassionally. This chick is clearly working on his schedule. Believing she shows up with such convenient timing takes conscious suspension.] She was wearing a large cowboy hat and a wide-framed pair of dark sunglasses. ['Dark sunglasses' just annoys me. I assume sunglasses are dark. Light sunglasses would have been news. But dark sunglasses? Nuh-uh. Those are normal. And they always come in pairs. Like pants. ‘wide-framed sunglasses’ would have been sufficient. ‘wide-framed pair of dark sunglasses’ just makes me want to punch the elderly or some shit. Argh, Pt. II.] Through the store-front glass, I watched her clown around awhile with the guys until they took out their racing papers, and chatted: “Devilrun’s got bandages and is running on bute.... Yeah, but Breakingwind runs well on slop... Hippityhopity always comes from behind...” [How the protaganist knows what these characters are saying while leaning against a car parked across the street from the OTB is beyond me. The author has clearly made a mistake. Either that, or he has completely abandoned his point of view in mid-fucking-paragraph. And this is aside from the fact that the dialogue has all the wit of a drunken high school football player. ‘Breakingwind’? C’mon.] Soon everybody started placing bets. They all watched the horses run on the monitors then either ripped up their tickets or collected. [This is what people do in OTB parlors? Fascinating.] Slowly the group she came in with mingled with others, and I casually entered the place and leaned up alongside of her. She was busily jotting notes on her racing form.

When there was no one around, I quickly grabbed her arm and muttered, “If you don’t mind, I want to talk with you.” [I’ve always been taught that adverbs sap strength from the verbs they modify. That good writers avoid them. Nersesian loves them. He also hates the word “said.” His attempts to avoid it distract the hell out of me. ‘Muttered’? Who the hell mutters? When was the last time you muttered anything? I don’t know that I’ve ever muttered. But in Nersesian’s world, people mutter or gasp or interpolate or exclaim or holler all the fucking time. No one ever says anything.]

“Who the fuck are you?” she broke loose hollering. [See?] Out of nowhere a fat guy with a neck the size of my waist had me in a painful headlock. [Someone comes out of nowhere and puts you in a headlock, yet you manage to describe him? Ugh.]

“You want I should knock his teeth down his throat?” he asked Angela. [I can buy that there are some tough neighborhoods in NYC. But knocking a guy’s teeth down his throat simply for muttering to a chick seems outlandish.] I felt like a taxidermed head mounted above a fireplace, and as she slowly realized who I was, I impossibly tried to prepare myself for a great deal of suffering. [This sentence needs a facelift and a grammar implant.]

“What the fuck do you want?” she asked. “You’re the little shit that broke my nose.”

“And you killed my only friend,” I hoarsely replied in the vice.

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“You and your brothers.”

“You want I should snap his neck?” the pizzeria owner asked. [This is where I’d had enough. One of two things has happened here. 1. Nersesian forgot that the scene he is writing takes place in an OTB parlor, not a pizza parlor. Or, 2. He is describing the headlocker as a pizzeria owner because he thinks that’s a good way to describe him. That it will evoke Danny Aiello in "Do the Right Thing." Or I suppose that maybe the fat guy who applied the original headlock could have gotten bored, left the OTB and been replaced by a pizzeria owner. Either way, this passage activated something in my brain. I am no longer interested in the story so much as I’m interested in finding more inconsistencies. And I am actually enjoying this.]

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

This has been a big year for Roger Ebert and superlatives. He called Charlize Theron’s work in Monster “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” And now, check out his review of the most violent movie he’s ever seen. Yes, I’m curious.

Monday, February 23, 2004

We’re approaching the first juicy parts of the year. College basketball tournaments and the NFL draft and St. Patrick’s Day parades and patio dining are lined up in a row. Here in Dallas, we had a good taste this past weekend, as the mercury hovered near 70 and the sky was bright blue and vast. I chased down a frisbee until my hamstrings burned. I attempted to climb a tree. I drove with the windows down. I still haven’t replaced the car stereo that was lifted in December. My drives suffer in silence as a result. I must get on the ball.

I will move to a new apartment this weekend, roughly a mile from my current stead. My new roommate has a strong design sensibility. She has lived there for months and the place is clean and there is artwork in the living areas. We are good friends and we get along very well. That will all change when I get drunk and urinate on her housecat.

I am working on two feature stories to be published in March. I am easing my way back toward maximum productivity. I feel like my posts have been dry and boring. I tell myself that the winter puts my thoughts in a small room, but I wonder. The bedside notepads don’t fill up the way they used to. I try not to worry about this. I try not to think about not being funny anymore. I try not to think about using up all my ideas.

I think maybe I suffer under the illusion of Too Many Eyes. I’ve thought for a while that I must maintain some abtract level of profundity. I am afraid of making mistakes in my writing, so I take fewer chances. The prose posts are buckling under the weight of my effort. I am OK with this, for now. I am a young, unpublished writer and I am still finding my voice. I was close before but I am stepping back to find different things.

I have very good feelings about what’s coming.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Actual conversation between the two guys who were standing in front of me at last night’s Galactic concert at Gypsy Tea Room:

“Dude, I’m telling you she’s fine.”


“No. You don’t understand. She’s fuckin’ fine dude.”

“I hear you.”

“But seriously, man. No, really. Look at her. That shit is fine.”

“Her? Oh, her. Yeah. She’s only 16 dude.”

“You know her?”

“She’s my sister.”

And the show went well. We were squeezed and jostled. I was groped and fondled. The opening act, a three-man wrecking crew that went by Drums & Tuba, rocked my socks right off. Galactic then rocked my underwear off. The breeze was glorious. High population density eventually pushed me to the outer edges of the place. I was overheated and lightheaded. I squatted under an A/C vent and gathered myself. I went to the bar to close my tab and watched the fastest waitress this side of the Mason-Dixon flip bottles and pirouette like a dancer. I tipped generously. Outside, the vagrants set upon me with gimmicks of all kinds: a harmonica, a poem, a twisted kind word.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Check out my City of God review, if for no other reason than to espy one of the best headlines I've ever written.

Second things will be forthcoming.

Second things: Rumsfeld Fighting Technique. (Found at Irreverent Probity.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Oh fuck. Oh fucking fuck. This is a very difficult time of the year for me. This is dead time. Sportscenter is a waste land. Diversions are at a premium.

I look forward to spring. I want my patios back. I want sweaty beer glasses and a warm neck. I want those spindly median trees to grow fat with leaves. I want to squeeze into a hot leather seat and drive, windows down, to no place in particular, my left arm resting on the sill with cigarette after cigarette as coeds zoom by in colorful convertibles, ponytails trailing back, a bundle of frantic filaments. I want a hill that smells like cut grass I can roll down and dizzy and stain myself. A thicket of soft bushes, a cozy green afro I can fall into backward. I want to swing a bat and throw a ball. I want to run at top speed. I want the sting of sweat in my eye. I want a swirly, cinnamon-capped cup of caffeinated slush. I want to wave my hand at flies and run screaming from bees. I want to pick the thin, white skin off a day-old tan. I want a taco from the walk-up window, styrofoam hole and grease drip, syrupy cola impossibly cold in its icy nest. I want to leave work with sunlight still four hours strong. I want to see legs and arms again. I remember the things, but I feel like I’ve forgotten how they feel. So remind me.

Is that too much to ask?

Monday, February 16, 2004

Last Thursday, a gang of evil microbes found its way into my respiratory system and proceeded to have what doctors refer to as “a spirited lung-fucking contest.” Which contest lasted for several days and has rendered me utterly useless. I’ll be back to subnormal later this week.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

I woke up this morning feeling like the mayor of Bed City. Rains had arrived overnight and the gutterdrip outside my window beat a soft, splashy rhythm. I carefully considered my options. Ultimately, I decided to make bacon and pay the billz. I disengaged the snooze and closed my eyes. One minute later, I bit lip, twirled my arms for torque and sprung out of bed in one, fluid motion. Peeling off the morning Band-Aid. It’s better to get the unpleasantries over with quickly. I showered and dressed. In ten minutes, I smelled of fine soaps and looked like several million dollars, my jeans crisp and once-worn shirt reflecting brilliant colors. I shimmied into my jacket and headed out the door, the moist cold hitting my mug like a soaked rag.

I rushed into the car, careful to prevent The Fuck Up from getting fucked up in the rain. Keys. Ignition. The motor lives. I reversed out and found first, released the clutch and lurched forward. My left rear felt jagged. The tire was flat. I parked and considered my options: change a tire in the cold, wet outdoors or call for backup. I called for backup, a pick-up, and we made our way.

But I left my cigarettes and book carside in haste.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Sometimes I overdo it; I get anxious and I get carried away. It is 9 p.m. and I have sampled several exotic porters. My shirt sleeves are bunched up ‘round elbows both. I plunge into a virtual mist of lightly carbonated darkness. Double chocolate. Amsterdam. Anti-domestic. A little more expensive. The last pint ran into my pocket seven dollars deep. Our tabletop has been brushed with steel wool to appear weathered. Yes. Yes. Another. Dandy Jonathan’s Double Dublin Oatmeal Extravaganza. I clean rings of condensation in the middle of it. I see women in shoes of magnificent value, blouses woven of sheer fabrics clinging and nipples at half mast under the A/C.

I never knew what time the bars closed in Chicago because it never came up. I know it wasn’t three, four, five a.m., because I was there. It’s best not to know when the bars close, lest they close too early.

Monday, February 09, 2004

City of God is just as good the second time around. Chilling. Visually eyeball socket fucking. And it's back for an encore Dallas run at the Angelika Theater. If you missed it last time, don't miss it again.

Sad, the Academy thinks Seabiscuit is better.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

A group of people meet online. They develop a relationship. Relationships. They consider themselves part of a network. Friends. Some of them might know each other in real life. Either way, they find themselves to be, for the most part, like-minded and congenial. I am not talking about us, although I suppose I could be. I’m inclined to think we wouldn’t undertake the project I am about to describe. Maybe we’re too old. Or too busy. Either way, here is my idea for the documentary these people (not us) could endeavor to produce:

Roll cameras ...

Step 1a: Start an internet message board. All parties will agree to approach this message board as if they were someone they are not. The subject of this message board could be “I am addicted to hiding flatware in my rectum.” Treat the message board as a place to glean tips and provide peer counseling for the “afflicted.” Participate with a straight face. Outsiders must be convinced the discussion is legit.
Step 1b: Start a website devoted to people who are addicted to hiding flatware in their rectums. Manipulate the website’s traffic statistics to make it appear as if this is a popular underground fetish.

Step 2: Someone in this fake network must write a poignant letter to the producers of MTV’s “True Life” detailing his plight, expounding in personal detail how his compulsion to hide flatware in his rectum is effecting his relationship with his family, friends and co-workers. Refer the producers to the message board and website devoted to the topic. Express that you are willing to talk on camera about the lifestyle. Give the names of other fetishists who would also be willing to talk. Make sure not all participants post to the message board. It is imperitive that the problem appears legitimate. A growing trend. An issue that touches people across the country. Touches them in the rectum. Sorry, I couldn’t help that.

Step 3: If, and only if, the previous two steps succeed in getting MTV to agree in principle to cover the story and provide the participants with cameras to document their struggles, participants in this scheme must proceed to undertake the mission as if they were doing it for MTV. They record themselves and talk about the pathology and lifestyle of those addicted to hiding flatware in their rectums.

Step 4: With faux footage in place and tapes sent and cameras returned, sit and hope like hell that the producers fall for the ruse.

Step 5: Edit and produce the real documentary footage and distribute it. The object being to illustrate how MTV exploits troubled teenagers for its own material gain. If MTV objects and tries to sue you for fraud or breach of contract or some shit, kindly inform them that they have been punk’d. But don’t spell it “punk’d,” because then they might sue you twice.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

OK, I’ll steal a few moments right quick. The protracted weekend inched along then liquified and rendered roaring Irish Car Bomb rapids of my nethers. Drinking transpired, yes — at New Amsterdam, Cosmo’s, Ben’s, Barleyhouse and beyond. Notorious Reb and I came to conclusions and made decisions over a finely mixed flurry of gin & tonics. “You realize if we keep hanging out at this pace that we’ll see each other only 10 more times before we’re 35?” The nostalgia left me down by Monday, driving back cloudy from DFW, feeling 700 miles southwest of home again. Again. Every trip north arouses thoughts of emigration. And every visit from my cityfolk closes with the stale, lingering sadness of a flickering bulb.