Ah, gentle readers, it’s been so long since I’ve given you any recommendations for good books to read, and you’ve been so good about sending me suggestions. I found all of these authors through suggestions from readers. In case you haven’t heard, my new book, LAMB, won’t hit the stores until February of 2002, when we will all rush out and buy it so it will go to the top of the bestseller lists. But until then, I’ve been holding out on y’all.
The reason for the creepy title of this “picks” is that I’m going to recommend some disturbing things. Probably not as disturbing as father stabbin’ and mother rapin’ but as books go, these here ones are not ones you are going to want to pass around among all the tea drinkers at the quilting circle (and don’t get all haired up if you just happen to be the president of the biggest leather-wearing, father stabbin’, mother rapin’ quilting circle in west Wapakoneta County, I’m talking in general here.) What I’m saying here, is don’t give these books to your mom until you’ve read them. I’ve been asked by a reader to remind people of this. (Right, your skanky mom is probably still surreptitiously going through your illustrated copy of Good Dog Carl acts out the Kama Sutra, but just in case she’s more delicate, you’ve been warned.)
If I sound smug, the reason is (besides that I’m smug) is that I have been recently orphaned. As a recent orphan, I can now write secure in the knowledge that my mother will never read my stuff and call me up and say, “Chris, what’s all this father stabbin’, mother rapin’ stuff you’re going on about. Are you trying to tell me that I was a bad mother because I didn’t offer you sex and cutlery when you were growing up?”
(Right, it’s always about you, Mom. And after all those years I ran the motel for you.)
So you see, there is a bright side to being orphaned, and at 41, which is the age at which I became an orphan, you can be pretty-much assured that you’re not going to be abused by an adopted uncle and made to live under the stairs unless you damn-well want to. (Come on Uncle Alvin, bring it on! I’ll squeeze that colostomy bag so hard your Miracle Ears will shoot out and kill a half-dozen of those little rat-dogs Aunt Louise raises. If it doesn’t have hair, it’s not a dog, goddammit!) Where was I? Oh yeah, don’t give these books to your mom until you’ve read them first or she’s dead. Or both. And don’t give them to your dad either. If he’s fit enough he might whip your ass and if he’s not he’ll just blame you for wasting the time he could have been reading Tom Clancy novels.
These authors are not going to let you go gently into that dark night. They’re not going to hold your hand, they’re not going to coddle you and make you feel all warm and fuzzy about the world. But they will make you laugh.
The first fifty pages of Chuck Palahniak’s latest book Choke made me laugh out loud so many times that I was forbidden to read it in bed lest I disturb the mysterious and cranky woman who sleeps with me most of the time. Which is not to say it wasn’t a tad challenging, and I’d say that if you’re sensitive or a girl or something, you might want to start with one of Chuck’s other books. (I call him Chuck, not only because I feel I know him, but because I am yet to spell his last name correctly on the first try.) So what is Choke about? Well, a guy who is in a 12 step group for sexual addiction, mainly so he can have sex with similarly compulsive women who are out of jail on work release, pretends to choke to death in various restaurants so he can be saved by various people who will send him money so he can support his insane mother who is in a nursing home. Oh yeah, his day job is in a place like Colonial Williamsburg, where his best friend, who is a chronic masturbator, spends most of his days in the stocks, then collects large rocks in his off hours to stay “sober”. That’s just the first 20 pages or so. Chuck uses more ideas per page than almost any comic novelist working today. In my book, that’s the mark of a talented writer, a writer who trusts his muse to come back again and again. He doesn’t hold ideas to his chest like precious baby birds, he throws those fuckers up against the wall to look at all the pretty colors their splattered little brains will make on the concrete. The sex is gritty, the language is more so, and although there is a certain twisted nobility in Chuck’s characters, you have to give yourself to their situation in order to appreciate it, which makes for some very engaging fiction.
Choke is a hard way into Palahniak’s fiction. Survivor is an easier introduction, but not as outrightly funny. It’s the story of Tender Branson, the last survivor of a religious cult that’s sort of a cross between the Amish and the Jim Jones Church. The rest of the cult committed suicide, but a few of the maladjusted survivors who had been sent out in the world to work as domestic servants lived on, sort of with no instruction book. The story is dictated by Tender into the flight recorder of a jet that he has hijacked and which will crash as soon as the fuel runs out. In the mean time, you’ll read about recreational suicide hotlines, hanging out in the mortuary, and get a pretty thorough examination of American values through an unclouded satiric eye.
Invisible Monsters is your typical supermodel with her face shot off in a shotgun blast who teams up with drag queens and travels the country on a sort of real-estate buying, robbery, hormones and plastic surgery and self-identity discovery revenge story. It says more about how we view ourselves and how we value appearance than I can even decipher. Chuck tells this one with a very unsyncopated time frame, so if you like your fiction linear, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, then this one will mess with you. It has a beginning, middle and end, they’re just not in that order. It works. Trust me.
Fight Club is the first and most famous of Palahniak’s books. If you liked the movie, you’ll like the book, but there is a lot more in the book. (It amazes me that I run into people who didn’t like the movie, and without exception they all failed to realize it was a comedy. That’s the scariest thing about it. Maybe if Brad Pitt had worn big shoes and the lead character had been played by Adam Sandler? Don’t get me started.) Anyway, the short of it is that Fight Club is the story of a yuppie insurance risk investigator who finds the meaning of life by fighting bare-fisted in the basement of a bar. This after looking for succor in cancer support groups where he meets a similar poser named Marla who is, as we used to say, a piece of work herownself. I’d tell you more, but I’m not supposed to talk about it. (The DVD set of Fight Club has a complete commentary by Palahniak, which is a first. Usually they try to kill the guy who wrote the book. Really.)
If you don’t mind someone who not only colors out of the lines sometimes, but who draws new lines just to mess you up, read Palahniak’s books. He’s so good I’m not even sure what he’s doing half the time. You will, however, be entertained.
Now, when you pick up Tim Sandlin and start reading you might push back from your reading table and say, “Well, I’m aghast, Christopher has never lied to me before, but here I am some thirty pages into this august tome and I am yet to find anything to motivate me to the Oedipal atrocities that he has promised, the cur.” (I know you guys talk like that.) Well, no, at first read of Skipped Parts, which should be your first Tim Sandlin novel, you’ll find a writer in complete control of his material, who creates very likable characters and who seems to have a rather gentle sense of humor. That’s because you haven’t gotten to the part where the kids fuck. Folks generally find nothing more off-putting than the idea of children having sex, but Sandlin writes about just that, and he does it with such humor and affection that you forget to be outraged. And therein lies his talent. (Not the kids boning, his writing. Jeeze.) Skipped Parts is the story of Sam Callahan, who has just moved to Gro Vont, Wyoming with his alcoholic mother Lydia. Sam is incredibly precocious in his role as caretaker for his mother, which is pretty funny in itself, but when he meets Maury, a beautiful and incredibly bright girl in his class, the story really gets going. Oh yeah, and they have sex. But only academically. You’ll see. Skipped Parts is the first in Sandlin’s Gro Vont Trilogy, which follows Sam and Maury into middle age (The other titles are Sorrow Floats and Social Blunders). They are all worth reading. Sandlin has a bunch of other books in print, and I’ve read a few of them, but I recommend you start with Skipped Parts and then move on from there. (I read these books a couple of years ago, so this isn’t the freshest review, and I think a couple of movies have been made from the Gro Vont books since then as well. I haven’t seen them yet.)
By the way, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to be outraged at the Sandlin if I hadn’t seen some reviews on the web. That’s not the case with Joe R. Lansdale. If he’s gonna piss you off, he’ll get right to it. Of the writer’s in this “picks”, Lansdale is the most traditional in terms of narrative. He writes horror stories which some call Redneck Gothic, which is a genre that if Lansdale didn’t invent, he certainly has made his own. In this mode he’s sort of like Ray Bradbury with a twelve-pack of tallboys, a coon hound, and one tooth (You want the tooth? You can’t handle the tooth!). I’m thinking here of a book called Freezer Burn, which is a story that begins with the protagonist living off the social security checks that are coming to his dead mother who lies rotting in the bedroom, and ends with him working as a roustabout in a traveling freak show, planning murders and adulteries and other nefarious stuff, while living in a trailer with what may or may not be the frozen body of Christ. Well there you go. Along the way the characters will use language describing members of other sexes and races that one seldom hears outside of the O.J. trial. It is, however, how the less enlightened among us talk. Especially the less enlightened among us from East Texas, which sort of defines less enlighten, geographically speaking. Lansdale also writes a mystery series staring Hap and Leonard, two ex-cons who are sort of perpetually down on their luck, but in the process of getting laid and burning down the crack house next door, they solve mysteries, kick ass, and deal with some of the shittiest weather I’ve ever read. (Joe, if you’re reading this, you don’t have to live in hell to write about it. Rent hell out, move to California, or Hawaii or something. You can visit tornadoes and humidity between books if you get homesick.) Hap is sorta tough and charming and Leonard is sort of tough, charming, large, black, and gay. You can imagine how tough, if you try to imagine being Black AND Gay in East Texas. The Hap and Leonard books include Bad Chili, Mucho Mojo, Rumble Tumble, and The Two Bear Mambo. (And probably more.) I didn’t read them in order and I don’t think you have to. These are solid, entertaining crime novels with great metaphors and fully drawn characters. The language is gritty, especially as it references race and guy on guy action, but if that doesn’t bother you, you’ll have a good time with Lansdale. You’ll also have the added benefit of having found a writer who writes faster than most people can read. (Oh, check out Cold in July as well. A great story of the chain of events you set off when you shoot a burglar in your living room.) (While we’re recommending everything he ever wrote, I’d also strongly suggest ‘The Bottoms‘, where Joe gets serious with a ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ type story set in East Texas during the depression. I think its probably his best. — ed)
Because it’s getting late and this is getting to be a long picks, I’ll wrap up with one of the funniest coming of age novels I’ve read in a long time, Youth in Revolt, by C.D. Payne. Youth in Revolt is the story of Nick Twisp, an incredibly bright fourteen-year old, who is growing up in Oakland. This kid is smart, really smart, and he’s the narrator, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself rushing for the thesaurus from time to time, because Nick has the affected vocabulary only found in college creative writing courses or academic journals. Which is not to say that Payne can’t write, he can, it’s just that Nick’s erudite voice is one of the funniest things about the book. I won’t go into the plot, it’s adventures of a kid who gets in some trouble. It’s a big honkin’ book and it’s fairly episodic (read linear), as Nick hatches wildly Byzantine plots so he can be near the love of his life, the equally erudite Sheeni. If you liked Catcher in the Rye, this is very much in that vein.. Not everything in this book quite rang true to me, as far as the behavior of 14 year old boys, beyond the obvious farce. (There’s a short scene where Nick and his pal Lefty do some experimenting sexually, and I thought it was, uh, well, let’s say, I must have been sick that day when I was 14. Nevertheless I had to explain to my girlfriend, that no, not all guys do that. Although maybe they do and I really was sick that day. Who knows? I’m just warning you guys and informing you gals out there so you don’t have to have that conversation).
In the mean time, there’s a lot of new books out by authors we all like. Eric Garcia has released Casual Rex: A Novel, the second in his dinosaur noir series. Neil Gaiman has published American Gods — early reports are that it rocks. And Fred Willard has published Princess Naughty and the Voodoo Cadillac (sequel to Down on Ponce). I haven’t read these yet, but they are all on my “to read” stack.
Soon to come is Bill Fitzhugh’s Fender Benders, a fun crime novel that’s half mystery, half expose of the country music scene. I have read an early copy of this one and it’s Bill’s best book yet. Check it out. It will not make you want to kill your Dad or have sex with your Mom, or vice versa, but it’s still a good read.
A final note. The term “father’ stabbin’ and mother rapin’ ” has been, with great affection, stolen from Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant. The phrase, “You want the tooth, you can’t handle the tooth.” Was stolen from a guy who used it in a trivia chat room I was in one night, and who explained it as “a phrase often heard in West Virginia” which cracked me up so much I had to swipe it. If I had his name, I’d give him credit.