Book Review: Stiff

December 3, 2010

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

By Mary Roach

Published April 21, 2003

W.W. Norton & Company

304 pp.

ISBN 0-393-32482-6

Reviewed December 3, 2010

It’s the great mystery in the universe that we can never know what happens to us after we die. It’s the journey that no one has ever sent a postcard from after taking, the question that has spurred countless philosophers and religions to great discussion, and one that everyone ponders at least once a day. Try as we might to get past it, we can’t avoid the fact that some day we will all find ourselves passing on to something we can never get a hold of, leaving nothing behind but the piece of meat and bone that carried us through our daily grind.

But while the fate of our consciousness after death is one that cannot be measured, the fate of that piece of meat is one that’s easier to quantify – and as Mary Roach shows in “Stiff,” just because a body is dead doesn’t mean its experiences are over. Over the course of history, human corpses have been boiled, mashed, stuck in stews, chopped up, shot to pieces and put to ten thousand other uses across the spectrum of morality. In “Stiff,” Roach unflinchingly explores the myriad and grisly uses these cadavers come to, and in the process weaves a quirky and unique narrative of life after death.

Beginning with a simple curiosity about what happens to human bodies that aren’t simply buried – a “foreign land between the cracks” as the author puts it – “Stiff” follows cadavers through a plethora of final fates. Roach travels to cosmetology schools, decay research facilities and shooting ranges, chronicling how scientists and doctors are using the cadavers to learn and teach things no live subject would ever consent to. She also expands her search to the shocking and bizarre events of the past, going back to experiments to replicate the circumstances of the Crucifixion and just how long a head can survive after it has been severed by a guillotine.

As Roach mentions early on, once a body is donated to science it has no control over where it eventually ends up, and “Stiff” similarly goes in all directions as it explores the various possibilities with a mix of contemporary studies and involved historical research. One chapter that begins in an anatomy lab memorial service for cadavers jumps into a discussion of body snatching in 1700s England, while the next switches between a body left in the sun for three weeks and the origins of arterial embalming. The breadth of the subject means that no stone is left unturned – that is, unless the stone is on a cadaver and being unturned is part of the experiment.

Roach however manages to keep all these disparate links together, chiefly through her entertaining writing style. Thanks to various quips at the historical subjects (the “father of embalming” asked not to be embalmed himself, “though whether this was a function of sanity or insanity was never made clear”) and a legitimate curiosity about those who spend their time around human bodies (“What I do is, I think of them as wax” is one option), it’s hard to ever feel bogged down or lost on her journey. Special praise goes to the transitions between sections and chapters in the way they establish common threads: One chapter ends talking about an organ donor (“H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her”) and the next begins by discussing the idea of souls, which leads to brains as their resting place, which leads to the idea of human head transplants.

If anyone does have trouble going from section to section, it will likely be because of the subject matter rather than the writing – much of “Stiff” is not for those with weak stomachs. The breadth of topics makes it very engrossing, but it regularly teeters to the “gross” part of the equation by turning up experiments like the creation of a two-headed dog (a “lively, puppylike, if not altogether joyous existence” for the new head) and just where human excrement falls into the medicine cabinets of ancient civilizations. “Stiff’s” subject matter tends to be far from polite dinner table conversation, and the odds are good that readers will take a break in between sections such as this decay research observation:

“Arpad walks around to the corpse’s left foot. It is bluish and the skin is transparent. ‘See under the skin? They’re eating the subcutaneous fat. They love fat.’ I see them. They are spaced out, moving slowly. It’s kind of beautiful, this man’s skin with these tiny white slivers embedded just beneath its surface. It looks like expensive Japanese rice paper. You tell yourself these things.”

But despite being confronted with these observations, Roach never backs down from getting close with the cadavers – either whole or in part. While she frequently turns to a dry, Wodehousian black humor there’s also a strong respect for the choice these people made when alive to commit their earthly remains, and observes the bodies with a quiet fascination. She strengthens this commitment by including interviews with several truly devoted experts in the field, ranging from an injury analyst who studies corpses after crashes to a Swedish woman spearheading a movement for human composting. None of her subjects are ghouls who get off on manipulating the dead, but matter-of-fact individuals who happen to work with dead bodies to learn something new.

And that leads to the real strength of “Stiff” – it’s certainly full of fascinating data and presents itself well, but it still carries the appropriate gravitas its subject material deserves. Roach is at all times aware of the fact that her subjects were once alive, and that at the core what’s on the table in front of her is only a few degrees separate from each of us: “We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” In “Stiff,” Roach shows us that maybe we shouldn’t try to forget it, because even after we’re dead – and possibly destined for a biology class – we’re still innately fascinating.


Back Shelf Review: The Wrestler’s Cruel Study

October 4, 2010

The Wrestler’s Cruel Study

By Stephen Dobyns

Published February 17, 1995

W. W. Norton & Company

432 pp

ISBN 0-393-31212-7

Reviewed September 29, 2010

If you ever go to see a wrestling match, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’re not going in with the belief that you’re going to see a serious athletic contest. Between the outlandish behavior of the participants, the vivid presentation of the ring as a stage and the exaggerated drama of the feuds that evolve between combatants, the image of the sport is geared towards providing a performance rather than any sort of resolution. It’s a long-standing conception that most professional wrestling is fake, the course of each match scripted body slam by body slam for the sake of turning up the cheers.

But is it all entertainment, or when we see two wrestlers grappling at each other are we seeing some form of Socratic dialogue? This concept is just one of many that Stephen Dobyns runs away in “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study,” a novel almost dizzying in how many genres and ideas it manages to cram between its covers. It’s almost impossible to put the title under one category: philosophy meeting pulp novel, a epic poem as enacted by volunteer theater, a book that might win and lose readers in equal measure but is like nothing else on the shelves.

Set in New York, the action is centered on Michael Marmaduke, a muscular blonde Adonis with a gentle heart – a heart unknown to the legion of wrestling fans who known him by his stage name of Marduk the Magnificent, reenacting the battles of ancient Babylon under the roof of Madison Square Garden. When his fiancee Rose White goes missing, Michael sets out to find her in a quest that leads him to get involved with a multitude of street gangs and religious cults (or some combination of the two) and grow to confront how much of himself he’d have to give up to become a real hero.

The plot presents itself as the typical hero-rescues-damsel scenario, but there is not a single thing that is typical about this novel. From the beginning scene where Rose is abducted from her apartment by two gorillas – one of whom is wearing a Walkman – it twists and turns its way through a variety of different sideplots and characters. Marmaduke finds himself traveling under the city in search of clues, battling ex-wrestlers who have so blurred the lines between their personas and themselves that they’ve nearly become animals. The detectives investigating Rose’s disappearance are the worst of partners, unable to stand the other man for a second, and yet the longer they’re partnered the more they resemble each other. A homeless man named Beetle mumbles a Greek mythology-shaded story that no one wants to listen to – when they’re not busy with their daily lives of hunting aquavit or begging or new apartments, they’re preoccupied with the whereabouts of an angel- and demon-headed golden coin.

Much as the book is full of random details, it’s also packed with various influences and homages to other styles of literature. Marmaduke’s quest has something of the air of a picaresque novel, if the roguish hero of that novel spent all his time trying very hard not to offend. The vignettes of its supporting cast make up an urban comedy in the vein of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” or Gilbert Sorrentino’s “Crystal Vision,” but it also has the exaggerated sensibilities of a comic book and the hard-broiled air of a dime-store detective novel.. Such a use of elements sounds unfocused on paper, but “Cruel Study” thrives on this mix because it never gives itself too heavily to one – whenever the book seems to slide into wackiness, a philosophical discussion adds an extra layer.

And thanks to its language, the layers of narrative manage to avoid collapsing on each other. Dobyns, who has written several books of poetry, infuses the prose of “Cruel Study” with an experimental, almost joyful spirit. Written in present tense the book’s language regularly feels as if the writer is addressing the reader directly, both leading the reader along the story’s path and regularly stopping to ask them why a character is pursuing this course of action. For example, take this view on Marmaduke’s character midway through his quest:

“For twenty-five years his life was a simple as a ball rolling down a hill. He had brains he never used, emotions he never explored. If vanilla was his favorite flavor, it was because no one had offered him tutti-frutti. One should feel sorry for those even-tempered people for whom puberty is no more than a mild merry-go-round ride. Their lives are as smooth as Nebraska. Instead of burning with a hard and gemlike flame, they simmer like a bowl of Cream of Wheat. But even to them something can happen – a child can die, a loved one can be taken away – and they change. ‘He became a different person,’ we hear people say. But has he intrinsically changed or has he dredged up something from his own unexplored potential?”

This passage also gets to the book’s central questions of duality and identity, a debate further accentuated by periodic first-person chapters ascribed to Primus Muldoon, Marmaduke’s trainer who spouts Nietzsche quotes and the philosophy of man’s “Gimmick” from underneath a mustache that would put a pushbroom to shame. Muldoon sees the persona of the wrestler – their “Gimmick” – as simply a more overstated version of the Gimmicks everyone carries in their lives, and waxes poetic on how you can peel away a man’s layers of Gimmicks like an onion. These sections are even more stylized than others, but work because they’re presented as coming from such a pompous character.

So do all these elements make “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study” a good book? Well, it’s certainly a unique one – the characters mostly distance themselves from conventional fiction archetypes and the philosophies are pleasantly varied – but it’s also a book that will likely alienate as many readers as it attracts. The stylized nature of the writing might strike one reader as too florid and distracting, while another will admire the interplay of wording. And characters like Marmaduke or Muldoon, presented in such a larger-than-life manner, could be reasonably interpreted as cartoonish and narrowly defined.

But really, that seems appropriate for the kind of book “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study” is – a book that centers on duality and questions of identity isn’t designed to please everyone who reads it. As much as it defies classification, it also defies a thumbs up or thumbs down rating, and one that will speak more to the personal tastes of a reader. But it is without question a book that deserves to be tasted, as colorful as an top-billed wrestling match and as varied as a Philosophy 101 reading list.

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Back Shelf Review: Robert B. Parker, In Memoriam

February 23, 2010

Since I started working as a book critic, one of the sadder impacts it’s had on me is that I tend to notice when a well-established writer finally inks their last page and heads off to the great literary salon beyond. To name a few I have witnessed the obituaries of Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Gilbert Sorrentino, William F. Buckley Jr., J.G. Ballard, Frank McCourt, Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger – all authors considered masters in the field, with works destined to last longer than their natural lifespan. I’ve offered a eulogy here and there on the site, but with the exception of Thompson and Vonnegut I’ve found it hard to really go into detail since I’ve either not read their work or had minimal exposure to it.

However, one writer who has passed on left me in a shattered state of mourning – even moreso because I found out only recently, a month after it happened, strolling through the shelves at Powell’s to see if his newest book was out yet and seeing a notice. On January 18, 2010, acclaimed mystery novelist Robert B. Parker was found dead in his home in Boston, the victim of a heart attack at his desk while working on his next novel. He died at the age of 77, leaving his wife Joan and two grown sons.

But that’s not the only thing he left behind. Parker may well be the most prolific mystery novelist in American history, responsible for the creation of Spenser, the private investigator with the unflinching moral code masked with a perfect sense of humor. He is the most reread author in my entire collection, I can name more of his titles than any other writer and he could probably take both Thompson and William S. Burroughs in a duel for the role of my favorite author.

Certainly a lot of pretty strong statements in that sentence, but I don’t say any of them lightly. Having read Parker’s novels for close to a decade now, I’ve grown up with them as I transitioned from casual reader to literary analyst and think I’ve learned a bit about what makes his style resonate – thoughts I’d like to take the time to share with you now. I’ve had this piece on the back burner, but with Parker’s unfortunate demise going under the radar I would feel remiss as a critic and a fan if I didn’t give the master the tribute he deserves.

“Ninety percent of writers who do P. I. admit Parker was a major influence. The other ten percent lie.”
– Harlan Coben

Parker was rather understated when asked about his success in the Boston Globe, saying that the secret was “You create interesting characters and put them into interesting circumstances and figure out how to get them out of them.” And interesting characters certainly make up the first part of why Parker’s books are so readable, headed by the alpha male of Boston’s investigative world Spenser “with an S, like the poet.” A Korean War veteran and former D.A. investigator, Spenser became a P.I after being summarily dismissed from the cops for an independent streak that no chain of command could stand.

Spenser has many strong character traits that set him aside from other mystery protagonists – a former boxer, an accomplished cook, well-read, comfortable with being a smart-ass – but that streak of independence is what puts him at the head of the class. His career is one that puts him through many tough events and confronted many dangerous people, and he has survived it by adhering to a strict code of honor: no killing unless in self-defense, no harming of the innocent, pursuit of the truth at all costs. In many ways it’s essentially noble virtues, and on many occasions characters comment Spenser thinks he is Lancelot or Galahad – a virtue he encourages by claiming his strength as “the strength of ten.”

And his strength never seems to fail him, even when everyone including his clients would prefer it to. The majority of the Spenser books aren’t motivated by money, or even legal rights – they’re about the simple fact that he agreed to take a case and wants to see it through to the end. Spenser may be the only P.I who solves cases for the same reason men climb mountains, and while his motivations seem limited to “Because I can’t sing or dance” in many of the books, it somehow makes him stronger rather than one-dimensional.

Spenser may rely on himself more than anyone else, though it is in the interaction with two other main characters that the story comes to life. The first is Susan Silverman, his long-time love, a Cambridge psychiatrist and self-described “well-bred Jewess.” She not only offers him a professional opinion on the cases he handles, but also understands his quest for self and provides him an anchor when he needs it. Susan and Spenser have been together since the second book in the series (1974’s “God Save the Child”) and despite “a little gap in the middle” in Spenser’s words, they have weathered adultery and cohabitation and continually come out stronger – and even gotten a dog they spoil unceasingly.

The other side of Spenser comes with Hawk, an African-American solider of fortune and unquestionably the greatest badass ever created in crime novels. A man with a taste for finely crafted clothes, expensive champagne and a chrome-plated .44 Magnum that could take down a jet, Hawk is charming and self-amusing, seamlessly segueing between impressions of David Niven and Uncle Remus. Spenser and Hawk’s banter is classic tough-guy prose, the sort of conversations by friends who have known each other for years and can’t take offense at anything the other says.

But all of Hawk’s charm comes with an unsettling quality, “impassive and hard as an obsidian carving,” as is evident every time he offers to kill people in the way and Spenser turns him down because he knows he means it. Not sociopathic but pragmatic, Hawk simply doesn’t care about who he has to kill, comfortable in the life he has chosen and the knowledge “the games I play nobody can play as good.” Spenser’s world is full of these confident amoral rogues: Vinnie Morris, a shooter with almost-clockwork movements; Chollo, a self-mocking Chicano gunman; and Tedy Sapp, an unflinchingly tough bleach-blonde gay bouncer. Anytime they enter the book, you not only get excellent banter between Spenser and his rogues’ gallery, but a real sense of the decency behind the man: he could take their way, but to be true to himself he never will.

The relationships between the characters are stellar, and the main reason is that Parker’s prose is perfectly tailored for the world he creates – I have always made the comparison that if Ernest Hemingway wrote mystery novels, they would be the closest thing to Parker’s series. Parker rarely uses too many words in his sentences, his action progressing at an even clip and incorporating only the details and thoughts that his protagonists consider important. And while I mentioned it above, it bears repeating – the dialogue is the best in mystery or even mainstream novels, back-and-forth repartee that I’ve quoted back and forth with my dad hundreds of times.

But what really makes the book stand out for me is the overwhelming grasp of literature evinced in the books, a truly rare thing in mainstream mystery. Parker held a doctorate in English literature (writing his dissertation on the protagonists of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) and taught at Northeastern University, and it peppers every novel he writes. Titles are taken from Robert Browning to John Keats to Robert Frost, and Spenser may be the only private eye who can mention the Red Sox and Shakespeare on the same page.

It’s a “large but literate” quality, really said best in Parker’s “Bad Business”:

“And your conclusion?”

“Sort of a big John Keats,” Susan said.

“That would be me,” I said. “Silence and slow time.”

I’ve spent the majority of this piece on the Spenser series, but while that would be enough for any writer Parker wasn’t content to stop there. Surprisingly late in his career, Parker started writing two new series based on new characters, Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall. Both are set in Spenser’s world – Spenser even partners with Stone in “Back Story” – but the two don’t come from the same hardened core he does. Stone, an ex-LAPD detective turned chief of police in a Massachusetts harbor town, is recovering alcoholic with an ex-wife he can’t let go of. Randall, a female Boston P.I from a background of cops and criminals, also has a troubled relationship with her ex and has to fight off the typical prejudice that a woman can’t do the kind of work she does.

He also expanded genres into Westerns with his trilogy on lawmen-for-hire Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, containing “Appaloosa,” “Resolution” and “Brimstone.” I’ve talked about these briefly in my Text-to-Screen of “Appaloosa,” but to reiterate his style and moral code pair perfectly with the unforgiving world of the Wild West, and proves that whether they have six-shooters or Browning nine-mils his shooters never fail to disappoint.

So, where to start reading? When an author has more than sixty books to their name, starting out is certainly a tall order, even for an author whose prose and plots can be consumed very quickly. Thankfully, Parker’s books are easy to find – being the alpha males of the paperback mystery, I’ve built my collection on a mix of used bookstores and airport kiosks, and Goodwill stores will almost certainly have at least one.

A_Catskill_EagleOut of all his work, I feel “A Catskill Eagle” is the best – a letter tells Spenser that Susan in trouble and Hawk is in jail, and from there it’s a foregone conclusion on hell breaking loose. The bonds between the three are never stronger, the story has never been more intense and the action has never been so defined. It’s a masterfully written book that could easily stand alone, not as minimalist as later Spensers or as hard-boiled as earlier ones, transitional both in terms of his style and the way the characters develop. However, I think that to really appreciate it, more familiarity with the world is necessary.

Chronologically, it doesn’t really matter where to start. “Sudden Mischief” is the first of his books I ever read, and it was enough to propel me to continue exploring the canon – and also probably the best depiction outside of “A Catskill Eagle” of the relationship Susan and Spenser share. Other later favorites include “Thin Air,” “Small Vices,” “Widow’s Walk,” “Back Story” and “Now and Then.” In the earlier books, “The Judas Goat” and “Early Autumn” are the most indispensable to the storyline, with the former really establishing the importance of the Spenser-Susan-Hawk trinity and the latter showing Spenser’s humanity as he takes on an unofficial fifteen-year-old foster son.

In his other series, some of the quality and interest varies but in each case it’s hard to pick one that goes wrong. The Stone and Randall books both get better with later installments such as “Night and Day” and “Spare Change” as Parker manages to really split the characters’ voices from the more established franchise – Stone comes out stronger after each case as he makes the town his own, and Randall becomes a strong female character without being a bitch or a cliché. His last book (I can’t even type that phrase without having to blink rapidly), “Split Image,” released this week, will continue a crossover between the two that began in “Blue Screen” and I’m hopeful for a happy ending for both.

Really though, when it comes to Parker’s books, a happy ending isn’t necessary in the broad sense because the world he created will always be there, his Boston as eternal as Doyle’s London. Spenser’s office will always be at the corner of Berkeley and Boylston. A German shorthaired pointer will be sleeping on the sofa, and a massive black man will be sitting next to it reading Simon Schama with a sawed-off shotgun on the end table. A picture of a beautiful brunette will sit on the file cabinet, a .357 Magnum in an open desk drawer, and at the desk will be a man with a quick wit and a slightly flattened nose willing to work for any client who can put up with him.

That world remains alive for me and thousands of others, in the collection of lovingly battered paperbacks that will never lose their spot of honor on the shelf. Rest in peace, Mr. Parker.

“I don’t think of myself as a genre novelist. I think of myself as a person writing novels about people involved with crime. I go through the same process that Updike went through, but he may have gone through it a little better. It’s all about the limits of your imagination and the limit of your skill.”

– Robert B. Parker, Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2009

Back Shelf Review: William S. “Billy” Burroughs Jr.

September 1, 2009

William Burroughs Jr _p21William S. Burroughs, in looking back on his life, would often comment that the defining moment in his career was the tragic moment when he shot his wife Joan Vollmer in the head during a drunken game of William Tell. Being one of the rare times that his master aim failed him, as well as the impetus that sent him into Tangiers and to the realizations that led to “Naked Lunch” and the Nova Trilogy, saw it as a telepathic event. As he said in the introduction to “Queer,” “The death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”

william_burroughs_372x495But if the death maneuvered him into a lifelong struggle, it also had vicious repercussions on the child he had with Joan, a son who bore his name. William S. Burroughs Jr. (known as Billy to friends and family) was four years old at the time, and the shooting not only drove him away from his father but also inflicted the same psychic aftershock of drug use and violent thoughts. He too sought to use writing as a way to escape the Ugly Spirit, with the autobiographical novels 1971’s “Speed” and 1973’s “Kentucky Ham” putting his addictions down on paper. Like his father, he too could write with uncommon skill – but unlike his father, he couldn’t write himself out of it.

David Ohle’s biography of Burroughs Jr. was titled “Cursed From Birth,” and looking at his roots it comes across as darkly appropriate. Joan used benzedrine constantly while pregnant and Billy was born addicted, and Burroughs was at the time going through a series of opium habits that would later fuel his book “Junky.” Shuttled from Texas to Mexico as a child he was eventually sent to live with his grandparents in St. Louis after his mother’s death, having little contact with his father and stifled in suburbia. Predictably, he acted out, skipping school and experimenting with drugs on random road trips.

Speed-book-coverBurroughs Jr.’s first novel “Speed” follows the most extensive of these trips with a look into the “speed freak” culture of 1960s New York City. Heading into the city with friends, Burroughs Jr. found himself exposed on a constant basis to methamphetamines and booze, seeking a fix and dodging the police cracking down on his friends. His devil-may-care nature leads him to try whatever he can get his hands on, but it also means he is constantly fighting off the vicious paranoia and physical breakdown of drug use to the point where his mind seems ready to break.

The original works of the Beat Generation seemed to portray their world as a sort of setting free of real danger, where there was always a bar willing to seat you or a way to scrape together drug money, but Burroughs Jr. isn’t going to have any of that. This isn’t the mad bar-hoppings of Jack Kerouac or Jan Kerouac’s free-flowing Southwest parties, these are flea-ridden flophouses and darkened streets at New York’s most dangerous hours. More than once he winds up in jail, and it’s regularly implied that without the generosity of his father’s friend Allen Ginsberg he would have been left there to rot.

Burroughs Jr.’s voice has a lot in common with his father’s, ranging from the sardonic off-the-cuff remarks (“He and Vinnie, another charmer, poured acid on the kid’s legs and he never walked again. But you can never tell, medical science is making great strides these days”) to the frightening visions that strike out in drug sickness (“The skyscrapers in the mist writhed like monster cobras, of course”). But unlike Burroughs the elder, whose autobiographical efforts come across as detached – owing to the anthropological view he took of his subject – Burroughs Jr. never stops being native, and his narrative reflects the rapid degenerating thought process that amphetamines wreak on the mind.

In many ways, “Speed” is reminiscent less of Burroughs the elder’s efforts and more of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange,” and its young narrator Alex DeLarge. Like “Clockwork Orange” the sentences have a cynical lilt and rarely seem to pause, mired in more reaction than reflection, as if the mix of youth and stimulants won’t permit the narrator to take any more time. Burroughs Jr. seems aware of this but seems either afraid or unable to stop, observing at one point “I’d been running in overdrive for so long that I was leery of really stopping to take notice of myself.” It’s a struggle that seems much more real than the original Beats, free of mystique and overwhelming visions.

Kentucky-Ham-book-coverWhile “Speed” evokes comparisons to Burgess and “A Clockwork Orange,” Burroughs Jr.’s second novel is more reminiscent of Ken Kesey and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In this installment, his lifestyle of drug abuse has finally caught up with him and he has been arrested, forced to a rehabilitation facility in Kentucky and the almost anarchic system for dealing with him and legions of addicts. After being forced to exist in the hospital setting, he sets out for Alaska as part of a work release program, a cold and unflinching wilderness on par with “Speed’s” slums in terms of comfort.

Cut off from the addicts and city life of his first work, Burroughs Jr. goes deeper into himself, and his work takes on more of a novelistic observatory quality. He presents the inmates of the asylum – many half-crazy or locked up for years – as a cast of characters, and paints their exploits as such: starting a newspaper, eying the female visitors, scheming for an early release. Later in the book when sent to Alaska, his work takes on a journal format, presenting events in order and often sliding into stream-of-consciousness as if it was lifted from the pages.

“Kentucky Ham” also brings in Burroughs Jr.’s father as a cast member – flying in from London to assist with the trial, nursing his own junk habit and seeing his son for the first time in years. Showing him in Florida and memories of visiting him in Tangier, Burroughs Sr. (usually referred to as “Bill” or “the Old Man”) comes across as distant, spending less time looking after his son and more staring at the sunset or an orgone box for hours before dashing back to the typewriter to “transcribe” his Word Hoard. Jan Kerouac’s novels were peppered with evidence of how she longed to connect with her father, but Burroughs Jr. has few of these feelings, seemingly assuming such a connection would never happen.

Where he does share more similarity with his father is in an openness of thought, which takes over in the final chapter as Burroughs Jr. goes into an impassioned plea for the legalization of drugs. Waxing on the harmless nature of most stoned addicts, the culture of distrust and the reality of how prevalent heroin was at the time, he has the veteran’s voice seen at the end of “Junky.” Our narrator has come through the storm of drug use and seen the reality of its treatment, and as such sees the world in a different light.

Burroughs Jr. did manage to make his way out of the street and drug world he chronicled, but unfortunately his addictive nature wouldn’t allow him to move to full-time professional writer status. Replacing drugs with alcohol he shredded his liver, surviving only due to a series of coincidences that put a gifted doctor and donor liver in his hospital. He worked on a third novel about the experience, “Prakriti Junction,” but never finished it as he kept drinking and stopped taking his anti-rejection meds. He eventually died in 1981 in Florida at the age of 33, passed out in a ditch and estranged from all his loved ones.

billyburroughsPerhaps Burroughs Jr. was never able to be saved, caught in the mood he had seen on his father’s face after Joan’s shooting: “Over the yearning and pain that he felt for me I felt something heavier. Like lead, but molten and smelling of gunpowder and burnt copper. The Burroughs Curse.” That curse may have claimed his life, but it gave him the drive to send back reports from the trenches – works that earned their place in the best of drug memoirs, and worthy heirs of the Beat energy.

Back Shelf Review: Jan Kerouac

August 18, 2009

jan_kerouac_nycAs much as Jack Kerouac disliked being called the “Father of the Beat Generation” (he once famously said “I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic”) he had even more distaste for simply being called a father. His wife Joan Haverty left him while she was pregnant – and he was deep into typing the scroll that would become “On the Road” – and when asked he would regularly claim the child was the result of extramarital affairs. He met this child only twice, once to take a court-ordered blood test to prove she was really his, and once again when she was heading for Mexico and he was drunk in a rocking chair.

jack_kerouacBut for all his denials, it was impossible to deny the truth that Jan Michelle Kerouac deserved the name for more than who her mother married. For one thing, her appearance – intense blue eyes, tan skin and firm jaw – came so close to her father’s that family members and old friends saw it right away, and even Jack had to hesitate when shown a photo. For another, like her father, Jan was a person of impulse and wanderlust, not content to stay in one place and driven to chase after interesting people.

And for a hat trick of similarities, Jan was driven to write about these experiences, turning out two novels that followed the same themes of exploration and expansion. 1981’s “Baby Driver” and 1988’s “Trainsong” are both genetic and spiritual successors to the themes of the Beat Generation, but somehow possessed of a more personal and emotional touch. This mood comes from two forces working within Jan Kerouac: a talent she may have gotten from her father, and a sense of alienation and rejection she certainly did.

Baby_Driver_cover“Baby Driver” follows the first decades of Jan’s complicated life, written in an alternating chapter format that switches between domestic family life in New York City and a series of wanderings around the Southwest and South America. It’s a novel that focuses on what it was like growing up a rebellious and troubled child, with an early exposure to drugs and sex that eventually led to a stint in a psychiatric ward as an adolescent.

Jan Kerouac’s style is as full of life as her father’s, but it’s a different kind of life than the amped-up adrenaline flow of works like “On the Road.” Rather, her experiences lean towards a more poetic consideration, carefully considering the relationships between people and things and finding just the right words. Her writing is very vivid and original: at one point she is in a Santa Fe bar consuming “crystal-licorice ice clouds” of ouzo in a bar while the bartender is occupied “playing expert Ping-Pong with the alcohol-soaked souls,” walking out to be bowled over by a sunset of “scarlet-fuchsia gashes.”

The quality of the writing can measure up against any of the Beat writers or their successors, but what makes it so startling in many places is the detached nature she takes with herself. Even during the darker times in her life, of which there are many – working as a prostitute in New Mexico, birthing a stillborn child in Mexico at fifteen, attached to a deranged lover in Central America – there’s never a strong feeling of grief or remorse, but rather the feeling of going with the flow. It might seem a bit insensitive on first read, but the perspectives are so well-realized the tragedy isn’t as pronounced.

Of course, her deeper introspection also can be attributed to the world she is interacting with. While Jack Kerouac had to deal mostly with benzedrine and beer, his daughter grew up in the early days of the hippie movement, which meant a whole new cocktail of drugs she had no qualms against trying. She relives the rushes of peyote and LSD and heroin without regrets, caught up in the communal spirit of the Sixties and the pursuit of some deeper meaning.

For the most part, Jan keeps away from capitalizing on her famous name, referring to her father offhand as “the famous wino” in the first chapter, but she does talk in detail about the two occasions that they met. Viewed through her young eyes, the first meeting in particular comes across as deeply touching as the two speak shyly to each other and she holds his hand in front of other children to prove she has a father. There’s something very touching in these scenes, more so than any of Jack Kerouac’s bonding moments with Neal Cassady or Gary Snyder – a young girl longing for something she can’t have and won’t be able to understand why not until at least a decade later.

Trainsong_coverWhile “Baby Driver” shows how Jan grows up and begins to find herself, her second book shows that not only does the journey continue but it’s begun to take its toll. Published seven years after her first effort, “Trainsong” is written in much the same style, focusing on another series of continent-spanning travels, wild descriptive visits and poorly advised relationships. This time the travel takes her up and down the West Coast, through the foreign cities of Tangier, London, Paris and Berlin, and through writing conferences and book tours that cross paths with Ken Kesey and Richard Brautigan.

“Trainsong” continues the high quality of writing that “Baby Driver” created, but the tone has changed in some ways with quite a few subtle hints that Jan is beginning to wear out. At more than one occasion in the book she seems to spiral off into a stream of consciousness, which may be partly influenced by spending time in Boulder, Colorado and the School of Disembodied Poetics, but in context could be attributed to too many pubescent acid trips. These bits range in tone, from rapid details on the railroads of Dogtown, California to a burst of anger as she swipes all possessions off the dresser “scanning… for something else to demolish.”

Emotions do seem to be running higher in Jan’s second book, and a good part of that could be due to the fact that she’s becoming more and more conscious of her father’s ghost haunting her. Regularly throughout the course of the book she invokes his memory: erupting in screams at a photo in Allen Ginsberg’s house, feeling oddly fulfilled when she acts as an extra in a movie about her father and teaches John Heard to curl his lip, lighting a candle in his memory in a Paris cathedral and blinking back tears. As a result, there is something much sadder about “Trainsong” in comparison, right on to her last rambles on time and smoke and the lines “Daddy don’t live nowhere, no more.”

In one last sad comparison to her father, Jan’s lifestyle eventually caught up with her. While working on her third novel “Parrot Fever” in Puerto Rico her kidneys gave out and she wound up spending the rest of her life on dialysis, eventually dying in 1996. Her final years were mostly spent feuding with her stepmother Stella Sampas Kerouac over her father’s estate, a debate that has continued even in recent months. During this time she would speak of creating a writers’ sanctuary in her father’s memory, and occasionally muse what fun it would have been to drink and go on the road with him.

And as the books attest, it would have been one hell of a trip, because Jan was clearly one of those “mad ones” that her father extolled in his works  who shared the same view of everything and nothing at once, as she attests in “Baby Driver”: “But now I could really sense a page turning – even remember looking out in my mind’s eye toward Santa Fe and the rest of the general direction south, and seeing things laid out in the future – nothing in particular, but an immensely inviting vacuum waiting to be filled.” Jan Kerouac dove head-first into that inviting vacuum, and while she never completely came back the brace of books she delivered can hold their own against any Beat-inspired work.

Coming Soon: The Beat (Second) Generation

August 12, 2009

beats“I think the Beats were extremely dysfunctional people who basically had no business raising children.” – Christina Mitchell, daughter of John Mitchell, entrepreneur who ran several Greenwich Village coffeehouses in the 1950s

This quote might seem a rather harsh criticism of a group of people widely considered among the most influential writers of the century, but when you look at their personal lives – frequently their subject matter – it makes a sad amount of sense. Men like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso were in no way Ward Cleaver types, but were independents, wanderers and frequent substance abusers, pursuing their own enlightenment and freedom over the stability of a normal life. Certainly they managed to raise a legion of spiritual children by inspiring thousands of youths to follow in their footsteps, but when it came to the very involved process of bringing a child to maturity they preferred to be somewhere else.

But despite the fact that so few of the Beats were equipped to be fathers, several of them managed to pass their genes onto the next generation – and in the cases of Kerouac and Burroughs, also managed to pass on the gift that made them famous. Like their fathers, Jan Kerouac and William S. “Billy” Burroughs Jr. possessed a grasp of language and an interest in using their lives as subject material. However, they also wound up inheriting their addictive personalities and an energy level that would convert into self-destruction.

These next two installments of Back Shelf Review will fall into a subcategory dubbed “The Beat (Second) Generation,” examining the writings of the younger Kerouac and Burroughs. In addition to the obvious evaluation as to the pros and cons of their work, I’ll take a look at just how much of their fathers’ style they seem to have inherited and see where they differ for better or worse.

So, check back on August 18 for “Back Shelf Review: Jan Kerouac” and on August 25 for “Back Shelf Review: William S. (Billy) Burroughs Jr.”

Back Shelf Review: The Year of Living Biblically

July 21, 2009

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

year-of-living-biblically_coverBy A.J. Jacobs

Published October 1, 2007

Simon and Schuster

392 pp.

ISBN 0-743-291476

Reviewed July 20, 2009

While the concept of gonzo journalism is most regularly associated with excessive drug use and acts of mayhem while reporting, the founding ideas are a bit more serious. Hunter S. Thompson defined his creation as the pinnacle of engagement, comparable to “a film director who writes his own script, does his own camera work and somehow manages to film himself in action.” The driving principal is that in this deep level of engagement, the author cannot remove himself from the story and as such greater depth can be attained than through straight reporting.

From this technical perspective, it’s easy to consider A.J. Jacobs as some form of gonzo practitioner. Jacobs’ writing career regularly involves chronicling a series of social experiments he subjects himself to, ranging from outsourcing his daily life to India to striving for honesty in all cases to studying every last piece of information in an encyclopedia. Not content with these lengths though, he moved from the collected knowledge of man to the collected knowledge of God in his book “The Year of Living Biblically” – and the journey proves to be entertaining and surprisingly poignant.

The book’s title summarizes its intent perfectly: for one year, Jacobs strove to follow the Bible to the letter, ranging from its most basic commandments to the most obscure proverbs. Visibly, this meant donning all-white single-fiber garments and growing a beard resembling the brush outside a haunted house; and behaviorally it meant regular prayer, never lying and giving away 10 percent of his salary. He presents his findings in a journal format, tackling a new issue each day and recording his results.

Of course, the issue with following these rules is that many of them aren’t truly applicable in modern life, and therein lies the real humor of “Living Biblically.” Not eating fruit unless the tree is five years old, not wearing any garments that have more than one fiber, not touching any woman for a week after her period (his wife Julie is not amused) – Jacobs tries to keep to all of these and more, often going to great lengths and annoying those around him. He never betrays any frustration at the limitations, only an increasing curiosity at their origins and how he can work them into his daily life.

The real problem – from his perspective at least – comes up in the variety of instances where the Bible seems to contradict itself, especially when moving from Old to New Testament.  A key instance comes in what should be one of the simplest rules, the Sabbath: “A friend of mine once told me that even observing the Sabbath might be breaking the Sabbath, since my job is to follow the Bible. That gave me a two-hour headache.” Jacobs come across as neurotic and yet likable, determined to find an answer no matter what crazy direction it takes him.

Jacobs doesn’t try to work these issues out alone, consulting with a wide variety of scholars and professors to seek interpretations of the Bible and interpretations of those interpretations. He runs the gamut from a sect of snake handlers to openly gay Christian fundamentalists, and even makes a pilgrimage to Israel where he herds sheep and speaks with his “spiritual omnivore” guru Uncle Gil. As with the proverbs he judges none of them beforehand, but simply admires and comments on the strength of their faith.

His neutrality is helped by his own lack of religious background – raised in a secular family and a self-defined agnostic – but as the year goes on he finds that immersion in faith is starting to rub off on him, creating an alter ego dubbed Jacob. Jacob scolds him for paying attention to Rosario Dawson’s sex life, puts olive oil in his hair and pays attention to every little moral choice made during the day. With every prayer or simple “God willing” he inserts into conversation, it’s clear as the book goes on that his journey has changed him, not dramatically but in very subtle ways of thought and appreciation.

At one point in the book, as Jacobs begins to show some frustration at why the Bible can be so contradictory or hard to understand, one of his spiritual advisers offers him a key piece of wisdom: “Life is a jigsaw puzzle. The joy and challenge of life – and the Bible – is figuring things out.” In many ways, “Living Biblically” is defined by this wisdom – a book that confronts hundreds of challenges, and winds up being a joy for the sheer fact that the journey is being undertaken.