Text-to-Screen Ratio: The Rum Diary Trailer

September 3, 2011

Long-time readers of this blog will remember that a couple of years back, I wrote a review of the Hunter S. Thompson novel “The Rum Diary,” a novel originally started by the famed gonzo journalist in 1959 and published almost 40 years later. At the time I showered it with a great deal of praise, comparing it favorably to early Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and it’s aged quite well over time. It paints a vivid portrait of the city of San Juan, is full of stories of drinking and journalism (the latter almost always affected by the former) and generally sits on all of my reading pleasure zones.

My enjoyment of the book has been tempered somewhat in recent years however, by the fact that a film adaptation has been lingering in development hell since before Thompson’s death – at one point becoming so gnarled that the Doctor himself termed the project a “waterhead fuckaround.” Nick Nolte, Benicio del Toro and Josh Hartnett all were signed at various points, but dropped off as the film went through multiple rewrites and two producers. Over time, this film has taken on the reputation of a Duke Nukem Forever or Daikatana to me, the project that seemed to have promise but lingered so long that all anticipation had long since atrophied to a stub capable of feeling only echoes of its previous joy.

The last time it came up in the news – around the same time as another Hunter S. Thompson project, the feature article “Prisoner of Denver,” had been optioned as a film – it came up the film was supposed to come out in September of 2010. That obviously did not happen, but I wasn’t expecting it to given the years of disappointment. At the time, I said something along the lines of: “I’m an eternal cynic on this film making it to the big screen, given that two incarnations were killed in development, but it’s more concrete than anything I’ve heard in years. Show me a trailer, then we’ll talk more.”

Well? They’ve finally shown me a trailer:

So let’s talk more. Leaving aside the fact that there’s still no date given for release beyond the vague promise of “this year,” I’d say that the trailer hasn’t restored my anticipation completely but it does make me feel much better about the finished product. The atmosphere of the trailer captures the vibrancy of San Juan life which made the book such a vivid read, and also presents the right scenes: news rooms, carnival, ratty apartments, parties with big money. There’s a few more hallucinatory aspects (likely to appeal to the Fear and Loathing audience) than expected, but that can’t be faulted as “The Rum Diary” novel was full of moments of borderline madness via late-night rum binges.

Cast-wise, I can’t find too much to dock it for at first glance, mostly because in all its versions the film has retained Johnny Depp playing the Thompson doppelganger Paul Kemp. Between the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas film and readings in the Gonzo documentary, Depp has a grasp of Thompson’s voice honed through a long-time friendship, and there’s no other man* I trust to play the Doctor or his alter egos. On the topic of extras, Amber Heard (soon to appear on NBC as the female lead of The Playboy Club) certainly seems to have the sultriness and raw appeal that Chenault exuded in the novel, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Rispoli have the degenerate scruffiness of Moberg and Salas respectively and the always dependable Aaron Eckhardt looks the part of consummate fixer Sanderson.

*Apologies to Bill Murray, but Where the Buffalo Roam has not aged well at all.

It’s story-wise that I have some concerns though, as the tone of the trailer appears to be going for something more overtly adventurous than the source material. It seems to have an almost caper-like atmosphere, putting Kemp and the San Juan Star staff in a position to bring down the real estate deals of Sanderson and his cronies, rather than the sense of pending disaster and near-existential crisis the book centered around. And of course, the omission of Dr. Gonzo-esque Fritz Yeamon is a decision whose impact is impossible to predict – reportedly he wasn’t in Thompson’s original draft of the book, but he was such a vibrant, destructive force in the finished product that absence will color everything.

But of course, you cannot judge the film based on the snippets of the trailer, so I’ll say in summary that it makes the film look very entertaining with at least some grasp on the source material, and I’m certainly going to be first in line to see this when it eventually premieres. And as to that premiere, I’ll quote the Doctor’s own words as to its continual delay: “If you don’t Do Something QUICK you’re going to Destroy a very good idea. I’m in the mood to chop yr. fucking hands off.”

More on this story once we get an actual release date.

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Text-to-Screen News: HST Returns to Cinema

May 6, 2010

Hunter S. Thompson at a "Free Lisl" rally in Denver, 2001.

As anyone who has even a passing familiarity with me knows, I love Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve read the great majority of his books, I’ve dressed as him on three Halloweens, I can quote him at will, have a font of trivia at my disposal and do more than a passing impression. The reasons why I love the Good Doctor are long and detailed and far more impassioned than that I simply like yelling about golf shoes in hotel bars, but will have to wait for another time. I mention this now because an interesting bit of Thompson-related news came out on Sunday, and I feel it’s important to cast light on potential bias before discussion.

As the Hollywood Reporter noted on Sunday and which I heard about through The A.V. Club, the Motion Picture Corporation of America has optioned “Prisoner of Denver,” an article Thompson wrote for Vanity Fair in 2004 in collaboration with contributing editor Mark Seal. The article concerns the imprisonment of Lisl Auman, a 21-year-old who was charged with murder despite already being in police custody when the crime occurred – an accomplice who committed suicide did the actual shooting. Thompson became pen pals with Auman and took up the fight for her freedom, rallying several of his celebrity friends to the cause to help earn her release in 2005.

“It is not in my nature to be polite to people who want to hurt me, or to turn my back on a woman who is being brutally raped right in front of my eyes, especially when the rapists are wearing big guns and Denver Police Department badges. And that is why I am telling you this disgusting story about how notoriously vicious cops buried a provably innocent young woman in a tiny cell in the concrete bowels of a Colorado state prison for the rest of her life with no possibility of parole. That is a death sentence, pure and simple, and those rotten, murdering bastards are still proud of it. Proud. Remember that word, because it is going to come back and haunt every one of those swine. The Lisl Auman scandal will whack the Denver law-enforcement establishment like Watergate whacked Richard Nixon.”
– “Prisoner of Denver,” Hunter S. Thompson and Mark Seal, Vanity Fair, 2004

I have not read “Prisoner of Denver” myself as it has yet to make it into a Thompson compilation, and a cursory search couldn’t yield a link on Vanity Fair‘s website or any other site (though the first few paragraphs can be read here), so I can’t comment on whether or not it’s an article that deserves filming. What I will say though is that it opens up room to portray an aspect of Thompson many people overlook. Despite making a career chronicling “the death of the American Dream,” Thompson loved America fiercely, and in his later years perceived violations of her principles sent his fighting spirit into overdrive. “Songs of the Doomed” depicts an excellent example of this, chronicling Thompson’s arrest for sexual assault and drug possession which he soon turned into an assault on his Fourth Amendment rights.

As Ralph Steadman put it, “he felt this deep outrage, because someone was fucking with his beloved Constitution,” and that’s an attitude I think would be good to see on screen to clear up the image of drugs and hyperbole that too often colors Thompson’s public image. Plus, the Doctor as aged patriot might make a great excuse for Bill Murray to step back into the role.

That said, I’m not approaching the release with wide eyes. I think The A.V. Club makes a legitimate point about how it has the potential to be somewhat mawkish, considering Thompson has been dead for five years now and not around to make sure the swine keep him in the right light. Plus, according to the Hollywood Reporter, MPCA are looking for screenwriters “with a focus on Thompson and Seal acting as a couple of gonzo Woodward and Bernsteins,” and that phrase just makes the bile rise in my stomach. Few things do more damage to the Doctor’s reputation than shoddy imitators.

Of course, given that the film adaptation of “The Rum Diary” languished in development hell for a decade and Thompson’s third collection of letters “The Mutineer” delays its release date more than its author did turning in articles, I don’t expect to hear too much out of this project for at least a year or two. A close eye will of course be maintained on proceedings, to see if the eventual ride is worth the ticket price.

(As an aside, the article also states that the long-delayed “Rum Diary” film will be seeing release in September, a fact confirmed by IMDB and Wikipedia. I’m an eternal cynic on this film making it to the big screen, given that two incarnations were killed in development, but it’s more concrete than anything I’ve heard in years. Show me a trailer, then we’ll talk more.)


Book Review: Inherent Vice

February 26, 2010

Inherent Vice: A Novel

By Thomas Pynchon

Published August 4, 2009

The Penguin Press

384 pp.

ISBN 1-594-20224-9

Reviewed February 26, 2010

Despite my position as a nigh-infallible authority on the world of literature, I’m willing to admit that there are a few gaps in my lexicon of readings. Ray Bradbury, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Heller, the recently departed J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn – if someone made a list they could stock a small town library. As I’ve written before, I make no apologies for these omissions, preferring to come to these authors when the mood strikes me rather than giving into the same mass hysteria that tends to turn me off popular trends. (I’m looking at you, “Lost.”)

However, these gaps in my reading history do occasionally offer me some interesting opportunities, and such is the case with Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice.” Having never read any of Pynchon’s groundbreaking tomes (with the exception of browsing through the phenomenally splendid illustrated version of “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Zak Smith) his latest work affords me an entry into an authorial canon differently than the way most readers approach him traditionally. It also frees me up from the need to compare it to the epics that have defined his career as other reviewers have done, and judge it on its own merits as a mystery/work of historical fiction. And on its own merits, it’s a work that can certainly stand up on its own, despite its tendency to stumble and occasionally giggle randomly.

“Inherent Vice” takes place in the surfer’s paradise of southern California, as the 1960s are preparing to give way to a much more repressive decade but the culture of free love and free drugs still has some life left. Larry “Doc” Sportello, a part-time PI/full-time pothead, is happy to get as much of both as he can – until his old girlfriend Shasta walks into his apartment after a year’s absence. With barely a hello, Doc finds a series of cases (almost) snapping him out of his haze: a land developer surrounded by neo-Nazi bodyguards, a yacht that may be smuggling counterfeit bills or heroin or dental tax dollars, and a junkie saxophone player who shows up a lot of places for someone who is supposed to be dead.

And those cases are just the start of the path Doc steps on, with a road map that feels like it’s been tie-dyed one too many times. The book has a massive cast of characters with esoteric names – Fabian Fazzo, Amethyst Harligen, Bigfoot Bjornsen, Puck Beaverton to name a few – and the action takes Doc from Los Angeles to Santa Monica to North Vegas. Plot points are abandoned only to be picked up about fifty pages later, and for a book that tips the scales at 350-plus, it’s hard to tell which threads and characters are supposed to matter. It also doesn’t help that Doc’s a third-person unreliable narrator, an investigator who’s surprisingly good at disguises and bullshitting but whose investigative tactics and smoking habits owe more to the Dude than Philip Marlowe.

But in many ways, the fact that the book so regularly gets lost in its own story helps it achieve the atmosphere a novel with this subject matter needs. This book is rooted in the counterculture of the Sixties – a fact Pynchon regularly reminds readers of, throwing out film titles and television shows and even the lyrics of songs popular at the time – and most of its residents are happy just to go with the flow. As such, a reader is encouraged to do the same, taking events for what they are and trying to make sense of it later.

It also helps that while the book’s mind might be a little shaky, its body is constructed of iron in how well it uses words. The language is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s journalistic features on the psychedelic world, with long and winding sentences that go into countless details on the cast and climate. Sharp metaphors are mixed in with the long random dope fiend conversations on TV shows, giving a lot of weight to what you’d normally think of as throwaway. And just when things seem totally fragmented, a truly masterful passage like this one comes along:

“Offshore winds had been too strong to be doing the surf much good, but surfers found themselves getting up early anyway to watch the dawn weirdness, which seemed like a visible counterpoint to the feeling in everybody’s skin of desert winds and heat and relentlessness, with the exhaust from millions of motor vehicles mixing with microfine Mojave sand to refract the light toward the bloody end of the spectrum, everything dim, lurid and biblical, sailor-take-warning skies.”

Sentences like that give you a contact high with how well they’re done, and the fact that so many of them are tied to actual drug experiences only exacerbates the mood. A friend of Doc’s comments that “PIs should really stay away from drugs, all ’em alternative universes just make the job that much more complicated,” and more than once the cases seem to shift dimension. An acid trip where he learns he is an interstellar being named Xqq who can pass through drywall without problems (except for the wall studs) is a fine example, as is a later instance where a joint laced with PCP splits his body and mind into two parts and creates a giant wolf to the tune of the score from “The Big Bounce.”

Yet for all the fun and games the cast undertakes, the book is also aware of the unpleasant turn history is about to take. The world of “Inherent Vice” is fast approaching the crash of the 1960s, its energies “all wired into a survival trip now… aggressively dissipated by the rush to self preservation” as Hunter S. Thompson wrote in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Pynchon is no less prescient on what that means for the hippies, with Charles Manson’s rampage still fresh in everyone’s memory and the specter of surveillance rearing its head in the ARPANET prototype one of Doc’s sources is fooling around with.

Even Doc, for all his distractable nature, can see real unsmiling men in the gray wool suits in the party’s background, and while they may or may not be keeping tabs on him he knows what their presence means: “If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen.”

Again, I am unable to comment how Pynchon’s fans will perceive this book, but from my separate perspective I can recommend “Inherent Vice.” If you have the patience to wade through a plot that not even the main character seems too terribly focused on, the fluid language and eccentric cast all come together to create a fairly remarkable reading experience. You feel good but loopy after reading, and won’t be sure if you learned anything but you’ll know it was worth the ride.

Despite my position as a nigh-infallible authority on the world of literature, I’m willing to admit that there are a few gaps in my lexicon of readings. Ray Bradbury, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Heller, the recently departed J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn – if someone made a list they could stock a small town library. As I’ve written before, I make no apologies for these omissions, preferring to come to these authors when the mood strikes me rather than giving into the same mass hysteria that tends to turn me off popular trends. (I’m looking at you, “Lost.”)

However, these gaps in my reading history do occasionally offer me some interesting opportunities, and such is the case with Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice.” Having never read any of Pynchon’s groundbreaking tomes (with the exception of browsing through the phenomenally splendid illustrated version of “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Zak Smith) his latest work affords me an entry into an authorial canon differently than the way most readers approach him traditionally. It also frees me up from the need to compare it to the epics that have defined his career as other reviewers have done, and judge it on its own merits as a mystery/work of historical fiction. And on its own merits, it’s a work that can certainly stand up on its own, despite its tendency to stumble and occasionally giggle randomly.

Inherent Vice” takes place in the surfer’s paradise of southern California, as the 1960s are preparing to give way to a much more repressive decade but the culture of free love and free drugs is still going strong. Larry “Doc” Sportello, a part-time PI/full-time pothead, is happy to get as much of both as he can – until his old girlfriend Shasta walks into his apartment after a year’s absence. With barely a hello, Doc finds a series of cases (almost) snapping him out of his haze: a land developer surrounded by neo-Nazi bodyguards, a yacht that may be smuggling counterfeit bills or heroin or dental tax dollars, and a junkie saxophone player who shows up a lot of places for someone who is supposed to be dead.

And those cases are just the start of the path Doc steps on, with a road map that feels like it’s been tie-dyed one too many times. The book has a massive cast of characters with esoteric names – Fabian Fazzo, Amethyst Harligen, Bigfoot Bjornsen, Puck Beaverton to name a few – and the action takes Doc from Los Angeles to Santa Monica to North Vegas. Plot points are abandoned only to be picked up about fifty pages later, and for a book that tips the scales at 350-plus, it’s hard to tell which threads and characters are supposed to matter. It also doesn’t help that Doc’s a third-person unreliable narrator, an investigator who’s surprisingly good at disguises and bullshitting but whose investigative tactics and smoking habits owe more to the Dude than Philip Marlowe.

But in many ways, the fact that the book so regularly gets lost in its own story helps it achieve the atmosphere a novel with this subject matter needs. This book is rooted in the counterculture of the Sixties – a fact Pynchon regularly reminds readers of, throwing out film titles and television shows and even the lyrics of songs popular at the time – and most of its residents are happy just to go with the flow. As such, a reader is encouraged to do the same, taking events for what they are and trying to make sense of it later.

It also helps that while the book’s mind might be a little shaky, its body is constructed of iron in how well it uses words. The language is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s journalistic features on the psychedelic world, with long and winding sentences that go into countless details on the cast and climate. Sharp metaphors are mixed in with the long random dope fiend conversations on TV shows, giving a lot of weight to what you’d normally think of as throwaway. And just when things seem totally fragmented, a truly heavy passage like this one comes along:

Offshore winds had been too strong to be doing the surf much good, but surfers found themselves getting up early anyway to watch the dawn weirdness, which seemed like a visible counterpoint to the feeling in everybody’s skin of desert winds and heat and relentlessness, with the exhaust from millions of motor vehicles mixing with microfine Mojave sand to refract the light toward the bloody end of the spectrum, everything dim, lurid and biblical, sailor-take-warning skies.”

Sentences like that give you a contact high with how well they’re done, and the fact that so many of them are tied to actual drug experiences only exacerbates the mood. A friend of Doc’s comments that

PIs should really stay away from drugs, all ’em alternative universes just make the job that much more complicated,” and more than once the cases seem to shift dimension. An acid trip where he learns he is an interstellar being named Xqq who can pass through drywall without problems (except for the wall studs) is a fine example, as is a later instance where a joint laced with PCP splits his body and mind into two parts and creates a giant wolf to the tune of the score from “The Big Bounce.”

Yet for all the fun and games the cast undertakes, the book is also aware of the unpleasant turn history is about to take. The world of “Inherent Vice” is fast approaching the crash of the 1960s, its energies “all wired into a survival trip now… aggressively dissipated by the rush to self preservation” as Hunter S. Thompson wrote in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Pynchon is no less prescient on what that means for the hippies, with Charles Manson’s rampage still fresh in everyone’s memory and the specter of surveillance rearing its head in the ARPANET prototype one of Doc’s sources is fooling around with.

Even Doc, for all his distractable nature, can see real unsmiling men in the gray wool suits in the party’s background, and while they may or may not be keeping tabs on him he knows what their presence means: “If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen.”

Again, I am unable to comment how Pynchon’s fans will perceive this book, but from my separate perspective I can recommend “Inherent Vice.” If you have the patience to wade through a plot that not even the main character seems too terribly focused on, the fluid language and eccentric cast all come together to create a fairly remarkable reading experience. You feel good but loopy after reading, and won’t be sure if you learned anything but it was worth the ride.


Back Shelf Review: The Rum Diary

January 4, 2009

The Rum Diary: A Novel

rum-diarypbkBy Hunter S. Thompson

Published November 2, 1998

Simon and Schuster

224 pp.

ISBN 0-684-85647-6

Reviewed January 4, 2009

Originally reviewed at: Helium

Since acclaimed journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in 2005, there have been two schools of thought on his legacy. The most prevalent one is the “Uncle Duke” viewpoint of free-wheeling brilliant lunatic, dispensing acidic barbs while snorting cocaine and pausing occasionally to fire a shotgun into the darkness. This view is supported heavily by Thompson’s own “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and never-ending stories from his friends and editors, collected in the recent “Gonzo” book and documentary.

The other viewpoint, fiercely defended by his wife Anita in “The Gonzo Way,” is that Thompson was a writer in the purest sense of the word, a man who chose every word carefully and did so with the fervent belief that he could find truth and understanding in them. To find proof of this, one need look no further than “The Rum Diary,” the novel he began when he was 22 and which was finally published 40 years later. It’s an outlier from his journalistic body of work, which makes it all the more remarkable that it’s conceivably his best book after “Vegas.”

“The Rum Diary” tells the story of Paul Kemp, a journalist who heads to San Juan to take a job at the San Juan Daily News, a dying paper being put out by an eclectic group of drunkards and drifters. Kemp, who is coming to a realization of how long he’s been part of that group, finds himself pulled along in their binges and paycheck disputes, trying to find contentment and a sense of connection in a city that cannot figure out how to clean itself up.

Thompson’s early letters, reprinted in the fantastic collections “Fear and Loathing in America” and “The Proud Highway,” show that he approached this novel in much the same way most authors approach their first novels – their ticket to wealth and a place alongside literary icons. Emulation is clearly present here, with Kemp regularly engaging in introspections that match F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyrically discursive characters. On the other side, several sentences clearly attempt Ernest Hemingway’s gift for grand meaning in a dozen words or less.

However, Fitzgerald would have never called a cocktail party “a dull sideshow full of quacks and clowns and philistines with gimp mentalities,” and Hemingway’s streamlined approach would founder in the decadent depravity of a St. Thomas carnival. “The Rum Diary” could never be called derivative, as Thompson’s voice – anarchic, observant and holding an angry sense of humor – is clear in every page. It’s almost purer in a way, free of the hallucinatory rambling that distinguishes his later work but still unafraid to call the swine by name.

Kemp’s reflections are helped along by the group of people he is surrounded with, who could be called eclectic if you wanted to be nice and degenerates if you wanted to be honest. Sanderson, a PR man whose constant wheeling and dealing hide a mask-like persona on par with Jay Gatsby; Sala, the staff photographer and Kemp’s drinking partner who sees himself at war with everyone else; and Yeamon, a prototype of “Vegas’s” Dr. Gonzo, ostensibly good-natured but with a mean spirit at the end of an evening. It’s an excellent cast of journalists, and Thompson fills them with that profession’s typical tension and drunkenness.

And like any good journalist, Thompson puts his thought to trying to understand them and their world. When not focusing on the excellent dialogue, the majority of “The Rum Diary” is given over to Fitzgerald-inspired musings on romance, living with “vagrant addresses” and just how long any one place’s peace can last. Even in the book’s weakest scenes, where Kemp is called to write articles promoting an upcoming resort, have odd and quiet thoughts on selling out.

It’s an elegiac tone in many respects, as Kemp – barely past 30 – looks back on his short life and marvels how quickly he became tired of it: “But it was pure masturbation, because down in my gut I wanted nothing more than a clean bed and a bright room and something solid to call my own at least until I got rid of it. There was an awful suspicion in my mind that I’d gone over the hump, and the worst thing about it was that I didn’t feel tragic at all, but only weary, and sort of comfortably detached.”

The final product is certainly not pure 1959 Thompson – years of letters speak of constant revision, and William McKeen’s “Outlaw Journalist” reports he stole the manuscript from his publisher for a final edit – but the fact that a young writer conceived of such a book and turned it into what it is speaks worlds of his talent. Anyone who reads this book for gonzo will not find that (at least to Thompson’s typical extremes), but if they continue they will find “The Rum Diary” deserves to be called literature.


Cardinal Column #15: The Final Countdown

August 14, 2008

(Editor’s note: This was my final column for the Cardinal, written hoping to get a better sense of closure to my project and talk about two of my favorite books. By picking the two, I was – as I said in my writing – genuinely surprised and pleased to find common links and be able to elaborate onto them. Not much else to say here as this was a column written as my own reactions, so I have no other reactions to add to those.

With the posting of past columns completed, don’t think this will mean I have nothing else to say – I hope to move onto printing new content fairly soon, once my relocation to Portland, OR gets sorted out. Stay tuned for more than partial excitement!)

Les is no more: a tearful farewell to our book worm

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, April 26, 2006

As Mr. Fitzgerald put it, “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past …” Yes dear readers, the time has come for my final chapter, and the last installment of “The Lesser of Two Equals.” Next year, I move on to greener pastures (or at least sleeping Monday nights with no deadline) and my deviant typist photo will be retired.

I thought long and hard about this final column, and doing justice to the best writing experience of my college career. First, I thought I’d list off my favorite books and authors and be culturally relevant, but my fellow columnist Pudas beat me to that idea—and even took the closing line I wanted. First he makes me overdose on gin, and now this.

Then I decided to turn to the old reliable of addressing readers’ concerns, except for the sad fact none of you seem to have any. In 14 columns I’ve received five e-mails, most of which were, instead of personal questions and literary debate, bitching at me for not being harder on the lying author Nasdijj and praising my knowledge of “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

There are two questions, however, that I’ve been asked before this column started and increased during publication: what was the first book you ever read, and what’s your favorite book? I tend to give evasive answers to these questions (i.e. bullshit my way out) because my book collection is ludicrously difficult to decipher, but for my denouement I thought I should try to answer them both.

My first book (cue tender music) was a children’s book by Marilyn Sadler, called “It’s Not Easy Being A Bunny.” In it, P.J. Funnybunny grows tired of being a bunny and takes off to live with other animals, ranging from birds to beavers to skunks. However, when he learns he can’t fly or work hard or stand the smell, he realizes he’s happiest being a bunny and goes home to the family burrow.

Hearing this at a tender young age, free from college cynicism, was one of my best youthful experiences and I both read and had it read to me many times. In addition to a simple format—P.J. moving from one animal to another, rejecting each one and building up a list of past efforts—it had a gentle theme of finding yourself and appreciating what you had. Additionally, the image of a tiny rabbit making moose calls is still one of the cutest things ever.

Keeping to my sympathetic side, this book still holds a close place to my heart—on my desk back home in Brookfield, where it remains safe from my college excess. Even now on vacations, I still pick it up late at night and peruse its well-taped pages, harkening back to the days when my vocabulary had 20 words and being you mattered most.

After remembering this from 15 years ago, I was struck by the radical shift to my favorite book (cue orchestral crescendo) and the only book I own multiple copies of: Hunter S. Thompson’s drugged-up epic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” I first read this on a drive to Indianapolis, and the trip we were taking to a gaming convention was quickly displaced by a head-trip of literature.

Beyond the fact that this was the first book to make journalism look like a cool profession—Raoul Duke and his attorney driving around in convertibles, loaded on amyls and acid and not paying for any of it—it was also one of the few books to jar me into alternate perspective. Not only was it original, but its fluid, stream of consciousness format passed my ultimate test: I not only wanted to read more of this, I wanted to write like this.

Making these two choices was difficult, but it also birthed a startling question—how did I go from a white rabbit with bird aspirations to an acid-fried attorney demanding “White Rabbit?” Were these themes of brazen individuality, trips saluting the fantastic possibilities of life somehow connected? Did reading P.J. Funnybunny make me more receptive to Raoul Duke, and did this mean Sadler was inadvertently guilty of corrupting the youth?

Personally, I see it as a salute to the tangled web of literature that is out there. We’re all drawn to common elements in the books we read, and finding what those are elements is one of the best parts of developing our reading style. When we look back and find these threads, it’s not only an amusing coincidence but a sign of how our reading tastes are birthed very early in life.

Thanks for following along with me this year, and if you see me perusing in a Madison bookstore or library, don’t hesitate to say hello.


Cardinal Column #14: Performance of Literature

August 14, 2008

(Editor’s note: I’m running out of comments to say about my early columns, but as I’ve said about the latest ones this one has a great style to it and I like the tone of voice I fell into. I was also able to reference past columns in a sign I was building up a body of work, and draw on a lot of personal examples which really helps to put a strong face on the column.)

Chappell sees a voice – of the best authors

Originally printed in The Daily Cardinal, April 19, 2006

Recently, in the spirit of shared weirdness and as an alternative to productivity, my friend Pat loaned me a recording of William S. Burroughs’ live readings. The albums, leaping through Burroughs’ heroin-induced library of works like “Naked Lunch” and “Exterminator!” are a stirring cross-section of one of this country’s most original writers.

While I personally find Burroughs so powerful and disjointed I have to take his books slowly—I can’t stomach more than a few stories at a time—I could listen to an entire disc of those recordings without fail. Burroughs has an inimitable voice which is strong and raspy at the same time, a New York accent reeling off drug and sex acts like cynical advice to the youth.

Regular readers of this column may recall I once voiced distaste for digital books—to the tune of “I’m personally happier keeping my library on a shelf than on three CD’s”—but there’s a big difference between audio recordings and performance literature. When an author reads his own work it’s a different animal, a move that elevates the relationship between reader and author.

Turning reading into a performance is one of the oldest concepts in literature. The legendary blind poet Homer got his start traveling around Greece to read stanzas from the “Iliad,” and the Aztec codices—long, illustrated encyclopedias—were stretched out several meters long and read as a group. To these audiences, storytelling was the key factor, and the tone of the reader’s voice made as much difference as the right word choice.

Today, adding a performance angle to a book lets the audience hear what the writer’s thoughts sound like for themselves as opposed to interpreting them silently. Last year I saw Chuck Palahniuk read from his collection of stories “Haunted,” and his tone—starting out measured, rising and falling like a heartbeat in a haunted house—was so captivating I riveted my eyes open in awed surrender.

Granted, the stories had vivid details like fat men boiling alive in sulfur springs and cramming sex dolls with razor blades, but I hold the inflection of his voice made it all the worse to hear.

At least half a dozen audience members walked out on Palahniuk during that reading—a reaction he seemed very proud of and which exemplifies the power of audience reaction. Readings are the best opportunity an author has for critique, as a gushing book jacket quote can be solicited by any publisher—wide-eyed audience members clapping or fighting off vomit are harder to replicate.

In fact, the best writers can take this reaction a step further and use it to cultivate their own image. On the rare occasions when he did public speaking and recorded an audio version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Hunter S. Thompson spoke in Southern tones that were as staccato as his writing, while nonfiction’s Judas James Frey was apparently good enough at his talks he could make anyone believe his story.

Of course, being able to present their work in a public format is by no means a qualifier for success. Bob Dylan used Sean Penn to record his autobiography “Chronicles: Volume 1,” and it doesn’t dent the book’s quality (stepping back was actually a smart move, as Dylan’s ‘voice of a generation’ is lately in bad shape). Good writing will always stand on its own merits, and the written word can still have more impact than the spoken.

Anyone who can cultivate performance, however, will find themselves in one of the most comfortable positions a writer can find: able to interact directly with their work and see how it affects an audience. And, for fun, they can write about bloated warts and leeches and watch the book fans squirm.


Cardinal Column #13: Mixing Reading Genres

August 14, 2008

(Editor’s note: The result of a burnout during finals season and an idea from a Cigarro and Cerveja comic, I had a lot of fun writing this one. I got to be particularly schizophrenic in my style, splicing together what I was reading at the time and channeling my desire to be William S. Burroughs. I’m a huge proponent of the cut-up technique and how something new can come from mixed sources, and how when you hear something it can be rewritten a different way – often to a much better result. I have a mix of those experiments, some of which will soon be finding a new home on a new blog.

The first paragraph is particularly twisted, taken from my cookbook, cuts from my Journalism 560 and Art History 354 texts, Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics” and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” I was giggling like crazy while putting that together.)

Forget everything you know: Enter Les’ genre tornado

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, April 5, 2006

“With the oven preheated to 350 degrees the New Yorker is run by decayed whores pouring over J. Walter Thompson advertising. Bernal redefines ancient models for advertising Aunt Jemima pancakes as electric snakes in the sky study how drug dealers still live with their moms. You can cook better pasta, and cook with glowing red rocks and metallic shrubs! Zip! Crack! Ow!”

What is this jumble, you may ask? Perhaps the latest mumblings from Scanner Dan between corncob pipes, or a waterlogged textbook with smeared type? In fact, it happens to be the first paragraph of an essay I was working on for art history, only four words of which can even be used in the final draft.

To answer your second question, I was not on drugs when I wrote this statement and I did not use a random word generator online in the hopes of digitally replicating a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters. Rather, I fell back on my more dangerous habit—mixing literary genres when reading and hoping I could absorb it all at once.

Being a university student naturally means you’re going to mix genres, as I can’t think of a single course at this school that doesn’t have at least one reading assignment due a week. These reading lists set traps for students that actually want to do well—either they’re crazy like me and consider reading assignments a challenge that needs to be met on time, or they put it off until the end of the year and overload.

Trips to the library for extra reading usually accentuate this problem, as I consider it a challenge to reach the university’s limit of 250 books checked out at one time. I stock up on almost every book I can get my hands on—I actually have so many right now my bedroom door doesn’t close fully—and promise myself that I’ll read them all before I go over six renewals and the librarians shoot me into the lake via trebuchet.

This blend of books results in a reading order that borders schizophrenia—a section of a textbook, a few chapters from one of the books on my reading list, a philosophy essay and then finishing a library book when I wake up from the philosophy essay. Add this to undergraduate insomnia, and the odds are your thought processes will resemble a Jackson Pollock painting by morning.

So why do I keep doing it? I have two reasons: first, an almost masochistic drive to finish as many books as I can and add them to my list of favorites on Facebook. When finishing a book there’s always a sense of personal accomplishment, and if you get all the way through you can pick up on enough little details to make yourself a formidable force in literary discussion.

The second reason is a bit more personal, and requires a passion for the absurd: mixing genres can often lead to more fun than reading books alone. Reading political commentary with cookbooks can make you very passionate about your next meal, while blending graphic novels and economic texts leads you to question exactly how superheroes can afford their headquarters and shiny gadgets on the unpaid intern’s salary of saving the world.

It’s not for everyone, but with a balance of books and sleep deprivation mixing genres can lead to some of the most interesting reading experiences ever. Just try to pace yourself when exams come—professors are not yet ready for a single term paper on MAD Magazine, Watergate and the conquest of the Incas.