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January 30, 2005

Say Cheese

Book Number 6 is The New American Cheese by Laura Werlin. Yes, I'm going to count this as book number 6, though, technically, you might classify it as a cookbook and the revelation that I've read it twice cover to cover really shows off my bourgeois fuck side. The book is a comprehensive celebration of the quiet revolution in artisanal American cheesemaking over the last ten or so years. Though I really like cheese, I've only recently realized just how many small cheesemakers there are in Oregon and Vermont and Wisconsin who only supply a few specialty shops and restaurant. You can order their stuff via the Internet, but where to start? This book tells you. It's also a fine education in the possibilities and victories of independent agriculture.

I've tasted several of the cheeses in this book, including five during an excellent New Year's Eve cheese tasting at my house, a picture of which you can see here. Artisanal cheeses are expensive, but there's a way to do it on the cheap. Buy two ounces. No matter how much the cheese is per pound, it's going to set you back three bucks at the most. For really good, fresh cheese, two ounces are more than enough. Death to Kraft! Long live Vella Dry Jack!

I'm also reading another book in the Hard Case Crime series, the creation of which is one of the great unsung stories of contemporary publishing. Out of one man's mania for the genre, pulp has been reborn, and it's authentic. Genre fiction is where it's at, people. And I don't mean postmodern re-interpretations of genre. I mean genre in its purest form, written for nearly no money by obscure people with day jobs. I feel privileged to have taken a peek inside the noir community, and am humbled and excited by what I've found. A writer like Ken Bruen can hold his own with any Booker Prize nominee. I often wonder what literature would be like if the noir people ran the show.....

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Leonard Gardner

I fascinating fact about Leonard Gardner was that Fat City was his only novel. Makes his literary contribution that much more poignant and impressive. Great recommendation, Mr. Pollack.

Jim Schmaltz, Los Angeles

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Some Thanks

Hi Neal,

I'm not sure I'm expecting a response, but I wanted to write a brief email
to express my thanks at having "re-found" your site in the last few weeks
(although I'm not sure it went anywhere - the postings on the old site just
kind of stopped at one point, if I'm right).

I'm a writer myself and just turned 30. My goal has always been to write
fiction and I have written a few short stories and started a novel about a
year ago. What I have written so far is very bad and while I like the
concept, as well as some of the underdeveloped characters, I thought it was
time to start again. So out the window went the 20,000 odd words.

I've wanted to write for the last decade and spent my 20s going to
journalism school, basically putting writing off. I also spent them
drinking. The journalism racket has given me a paycheque while I was
getting wasted, as well as for the last two years that I've been sober. But
now I think it is time to really get going with my writing. I feel very
lost most days and fluctuate wildly between delusions of grandeur and a
soul-destroying lack of confidence.

I've read your writing for many years and enjoyed the "World's Greatest
Living Writer" persona while it was in action. I found it very funny and
never wanted to send you any hate mail. I've been reading about your new
goals with writing (1000 words/per day), as well as the books you're
tackling. I have also set the 1000 words per day rule for myself and just
pounded out the first grand the other day. It was a humbling experience.
I've wanted to be a novelist for so long that to sit in front of the
computer screen and to literally see it blinking back empty at you was one
of the scariest evenings of my life. Made scarier by the fact that I had
started this project earlier and stopped when I realized I didn't have a
clear direction of where I was going. This time around, I've done a bit
more background work, and worked through an outline, so I'm hoping things
will be different.

That's all I really wanted to say. I think you're a brave guy, changing
directions like you are. You've provided me me with a lot of hope in the
last week or two and I hope you succeed. You're a talented writer and I
wish you the best.

Sincerely,

Mike

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January 27, 2005

Book Number Five

I was going to devote an entry to Andrew Sullivan's dustup with Philip Nobile over the burning question of whether or not Abraham Lincoln was gay, but in a sure sign that I'm not an active blogger anymore, that story is two weeks old, and also, I don't have the creative interest. In the old days, I probably would have created a fake controversy involving John Adams and cross-dressing, but these days, I don't want to write such things unless someone is paying.

Since no one is paying, I therefore announce that I've completed Book Number Five in my 50-Book Challenge. That book is Fat City, by Leonard Gardner, the story of two down-and-out amateur boxers in Stockton, California, set in the late 1950s. There's a bit of a plot involving fights and wives and girlfriends, but the book is mostly atmosphere and character. Several of Gardner's set pieces rank among the most beautiful I've ever read. He treats the struggles of these men with gravity, while making sure never to sentimentalize them just because they're down-and-out. They're poor, certainly, but one is a drunk and the other is jealous and possessive to the point of near-psychosis. But he also doesn't condescend, and gives these guys noble qualities while not getting overpoetic. The book's honesty is almost painful, but honest writing is also powerful writing. The fact that Gardner could craft a beautiful sentence and paragraph and could write crisp, realistic dialogue gives Fat City extra heft. This is a lost classic that deserves wider recognition. Denis Johnson did his best in this essay in Salon, back when Salon was free and we were young and happy.

Read Fat City. This is the first mandatory book I've finished this year.

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January 25, 2005

Lesson From The Master

I have little to report other than my opinions on the news, and you're as tired of hearing those as I am. I've spent the last two days draining the swamp of my 20s for this book I'm writing, which I guess is my autobiography, though it didn't start out that way. Anyway, it's the autobiography of a selfish weirdo. Those often are amusing, right?

I set a goal of 1,000 words a day, and don't stop writing until I reach that goal. I'm allowed to go over, but I try not to go under. If I do, it's usually at 870 or something, and only then because I've expressed a complete idea. Then all I have to do is string together 90 great 1,000-wiord days, and the book is done. Of course, I've already reached 20,000 words twice, only to cut back to 13,000, and am currently hacking my way through the thicket a third time. So it's not always Carnival, though it's not Carnivale, either. God, that show is horrible.

If you want more insight into how my interesting mind works, I highly recommend you take my satire-writing class through Mediabistro. This will be a rare opportunity to read the private musings of a midlist author trying to fight his way out of the humor racket. Plus, I am a stern no-nonsense guy from the streets who believes that academics comes before fun. I don't want to turn you into writers. I want to turn you into men (and women, ostensibly, but most of the people interested in this satire stuff tend to be men). We'll start out doing basic parody work and gradually move into writing more sophisticated satirical fiction. You can follow the arc of my career in six short weeks. Our operators are standing by.

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The Maelstrom

Dear Neal,

As one of your 17 admirers that have followed you from old to new websites, I heartily congratulate you on your revelation. I just wanted to let you know that two summers ago I lived in a cabin in rural Wisconsin and as a project, my roommate and I tried to build a raft out of plywood, plastic barrels, and rope. We named this raft the Maelstrom. After the initial launch from our dock, the Maelstrom capsized and broke apart in about 30 seconds. Later that summer we tried again to build a raft; this time we named it the Maelstrom II. It capsized and sank after about two minutes. Here's hoping your website fares better.

Brett Hoffman

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January 23, 2005

Welcome Back, Pollack

Hey Neal,

As one of the Loyal 17 (incidentally, not the one who's gonna betray you to the Romans- that's #8) I just wanted to say that I really like the new site and all the content. I'm also happy that you're doing things that make you happy as opposed to being righteously indignant and miserable. Anyway, great work so far (just read the "Bad Sex" piece. Wonderful.) and I hope you keep it up for a long time to come.

See you in the New Yorker!

Best Regards,
Taylor Cope

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Letter To A Young Poet

Loyal reader Paul Winthrop wrote me last week with this question: "Could you elaborate about
the relationship between your revelation and the petering-out of 'Neal Pollack'?"

By my "revelation," Paul, I assume you mean my happy decision to focus on more traditional short stories over the satire that got my knee in the door of the publishing world. The "Pollack" persona gradually died as I lost interest in it, and, more importantly, as readers lost interest. I also got tired of receiving emails like the one I got on New Year's Day 2004 that called me a "cancer on the corpus of American letters." Some of the reactions I received were so violent that they couldn't just be chalked up to envy or schizophrenia. Friends told me that I must have been doing something right because people hated me, but I felt just the opposite. This wasn't hate based on my politics or my ideas. It was just plain hate.

Since I was a boy in OP cordouroy short pants, I've wanted to be a writer, but not necessarily the kind of writer I became in those early days of McSweeney's, when the world was young. Once I realized that my "punk rock" literary revolution had few adherents, I saw myself getting older and fatter and louder and the assignments growing fewer and fewer. It came time to check the clowning, because I had some real stories I wanted to tell. All I needed was the mental clarity, which started to come into focus when I wrote short stories for two anthologies that came out last year. It hit me full on in the face about three weeks ago.

I'm not ashamed of my books. They were fun to do and I acheived most of my objectives in writing them. But they were also the work of a young guy, and suddenly I'm not so young anymore. Like a fine cheese, I've come out of the plastic to ripen. That metaphor doesn't really work. But I do love cheese.

Anyway, Paul, I hope that answered your question.

I'm currently reading three different books, so I'm not exactly stalled at four in my personal 50 Book Challenge. One morning soon I'll wake up and seven books will have gone down the memory hole. Also, this weekend I finished my fourth short story of the year. None of them are anywhere close to getting published, but I think they're all pretty good.

Finally, if you ever wanted to read fan letters from writers to the creator of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, here they are, including notes from John Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder, and James Thurber. Amazing. It's as if Salman Rushdie, Phillip Roth, and August Wilson had written letters to Spongebob Squarepants. Not like Spongebob needs any additional attention these days.

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January 19, 2005

In America, No One Can Hear You Scream

Well, here we are again. Inauguration Day. Doesn't it just give you a stiffie to see the most superficial and false elements of human existence celebrated in such a lavish way? So it will proceed tomorrow, as the teeming poverty-stricken hordes of this country claw their way out of their Hoovervilles and face the vicious spray-cannons of the Department of Homeland Security, while our bloated plutocratic class dines on lamb's bladder, Johnnie Walker Blue, and the body of Christ.

Sweet Caroline, what I wouldn't do to climb into a king-sized sack at the Peninsula with those chicks from RU. They make the two Russian girls who kissed on TV look like Lucy and Ethel. RU is performing at the inauguration. For real. And Republican Party "Super-Rangers," individuals who worked around loopholes and raised $100,000 to be spent on incompetent security for an unnecessary party, get a lap dance as part of their "Celebrating Freedom" package. For $200,000, they get their Service Honored, and at the $500,000 level, they get to join the Mile High Club.

But what did I smoke a bowl and then get online to say? Oh, yes.

Read this piece from the Christian Science Monitor, which, despite its name, is not really a paper that covers Christianity, or science, for that matter. But they do provide outstanding narratives like the one I just linked to above. At last, the truth about Iraq is coming out. And I know that story is true, because I've been a reporter and I've woken up screaming during a travel junket to Montreal, much less in the most hellish war zone on the planet.

This, then, is what our grand experiment in democracy has come to. We've created a very dangerous environment that may actually turn into one of the most dangerous environments of all time, though admittedly such things are difficult to calculate. You should all spend a few minutes biting off parts of your tongue today in anger, but not because the Bush Administration created this Iraq mess on purpose. If they'd done it on purpose, if there really was some sort of sinister uber-plan to seize control of the oil fields by turning ordinary citizens into police officers and then sending them off in a truck, unarmed, down streets whose geography resembles a late-stage round of Missile Command, then we'd have to say, well, you people are evil geniuses and you win.

No, you should bash your head against the wall until you're retarded because these people DON'T KNOW HOW TO DO ANYTHING ELSE. Grinding a country into dust through mismanagement and incompetence is what they do. It's ALL THEY KNOW HOW TO DO, I repeat in All Caps. In the end, that's what gets me. This Iraq business was all a big accident. I realize this is starting to sound like a standup routine, and I don't have a closing joke. So I'll just say that's why I'll be spending tomorrow working on my oh-so-hip parenting memoir and also on a short story about a dissolute graduate student who has sex with a young woman who lives in a truck.

Well, seeing as how those three breakfast tacos I ate this morning are currently returning to seek their revenge, I should probably get crackin'. Enjoy the clusterfuck.

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January 18, 2005

Literature Then And Now

I have another charming and classy Bad Sex piece on Nerve. The editors published it on the holiday to try to prevent people from knowing the truth: That a woman once brought me to orgasm by comparing me positively with a dead literary critic. Such are the memories I'm currently trying to exorcise with my newfound enthusiasm for fiction writing.

Among the 17 of you readers who've stayed with me through this difficult year, maybe half of you care, but this really has been a time of great revelation for me. That persona that I put on during the McSweeneys years of my life was fun at times and I never got totally consumed by it, but its maintenance was a burden, particularly because the whole experiment didn't turn out that well. Nonetheless, I've emerged a better writer. Others may feel differently, but in my mind I know I've had a minor awakening, and it's been a long time since one of those for me.

Since New Year's, I've finished three stories, and today I did an outline of a fourth. Some of these pieces are better than others, but they all combine the character-based, simply written narratives that I developed when I was a reporter with the bitter satire that came along later. Even if most of these stories don't get published, and I hope they do, it's been a fulfilling intellectual experience for me. Plus I've had fun. Isn't our individual fulfillment all that matters in the world besides helping the victims of the tsunami? My example will inspire the world. And to think I didn't even have to receive plastic surgery on national television!

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January 17, 2005

Goatboy Junior

I spent the holiday weekend alone with my two-year-old son, a recipe for suicide in lesser men. But I endured quite well, thanks to the curative powers of yoga, hiking, and high-grade premium marijuana (which I only used after he went to bed, thank you very much). Obviously, two-plus years in Austin have turned me into a soft-brained hippie.

After I managed to wrestle the whelk into a semblance of sleep, I had a lot of time at night to do whatever I wanted as long as I didn't leave the house. I chose the following activities: Watching Turner Classic Movies and, if applicable, professional football, smoking the above mentioned high-end herbal substance, and reading two short novels by Muriel Spark.

Therefore, I announce Books Number Three and Four in my 50-Book Challenge. The novels in question were The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls Of Slender Means, two of her earlier works. The only other Spark I've read is Memento Mori, one of her classics, but I found it relatively tough sledding compared to the two I've just completed. Spark's novels contain many important religious themes, which I am either too unintelligent or uneducated to understand, and lots of quoted poems, which I skip over almost entirely. I extracted what I wanted from these two: Their acid satire of low-end artistic types, who never seem to change no matter what the country or time period. Spark also has a trick, or a skill, that I admire very much. She's able to move the narrative backward and forward in time, without seams, so that nothing appears in flashback. The majority of each novel takes place in a specific period of time, but once in a while, she'll tell us what a certain character will be doing in 20 years, and suddenly everything about that character makes perfect sense. It's truly genius, and I will be trying to imitate this device often in the years to come.

So I read Muriel Spark. So fucking what? She's good. And besides, I like to read everything.

Meanwhile, the good people at Soft Skull Press have asked me to write 50 to 500 words on the theme "What Would Bill Hicks Say About Our Current Situation" for a hagiographic tribute to that increasingly popular iconoclastic audience-abuser champion consumer of porn. Naturally, I went for 500. They gave an absurdly generous deadline of mid-April. I rammed out a draft during the first half of Desperate Housewives. It may still require tweaking, but here goes. Note: At this point the post becomes political.

I love how it’s become fashionable to express sympathy for tsunami victims. Suddenly, America has discovered something. There are poor people in the world! And they need our help! But it’s not enough to just give a tenth of your paycheck to the Red Cross and then quietly go about your business. No. Everyone has to know you care. A basketball player gives one night’s pay to a tsunami charity, and it’s the lead story on Sportscenter. I didn’t see Kobe Bryant giving money to the families of rape victims, but at least now I know he wants to help the homeless of Sri Lanka. And I loved that telethon. Jay Leno telling you that 175,000 people is about the size of your town, or the town next to you. Jay would know. Wipe out a couple of dumbass small towns, and suddenly he’s two steps behind in the late-night ratings war. But Nelly was a lot better than I thought he would be.

You know, I’d like to see someone throw a telethon to benefit the women and children we haven’t killed yet in Iraq. THAT would take some balls. I wonder how it would go....

“Fatima is 12 years old, but she’s grown up a lot since her country was invaded illegally two years ago. Her father and mother were killed in the assault on Fallujah, and she watched helplessly as a methamphetamine-addicted Marine beat her younger brother to death with a rifle butt. She went to leave with an aunt and uncle in Mosul, but soldiers came in the middle of the night. They took her uncle away to prison, where professional torturers made him drink water spiked with Borax, smear his face with his own shit and have sex with a dog, tactics approved by the Defense Department and the Attorney General. He committed suicide, and Fatima was sad. Then one night, while she was on the way home from the store, three black-masked supporters of Muqtada Al-Sadr blew up a taxi in front of her aunt’s house. And don’t even talk about the three times she’s been raped by her cousins! Please, give to help this girl. Your money is feeble compensation for the fact that, to preserve President Bush’s place on the throne of heaven, we’ve emptied our national treasury to commit de facto genocide. But the dismantling of the fanatic Christian cult that created our President starts one dollar at a time. Eventually, you’ll have to start killing your neighbors, but for now, help Fatima get over the trauma of having her life utterly ruined forever by a series of bad policy decisions. Let’s make the world safe for people who don’t think that two guys kissing on the lips condemns their souls forever to hell. Our operators are standing by.”

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January 16, 2005

I Got Your Skull Hum Right Here

So who all saw that New York Times Book Review piece yesterday? You know, the one where the magazine asked a group of fiction writers, 40 years or younger, "who had most influenced their work and to explain how."?

Some of the responses were more pretentious than others. I'm looking at you, Mr. Jonathan Safran "It's with art, after all, that a culture best expresses its humanity" Foer. What the hell does that mean? Anyway, here is the stunning list of responses: Donald Barthelme, Kafka, Peter Carey, William Trevor, Breece D'J Pancake, Geoffrey Wolff, Mark Twain, C.S. Lewis, and Jean Toomer. Actually, that list is a little more interesting when I type it out this way. My rejected entry follows:

"Sure, I could blow helium up your asses and say I owe everything to Philip Roth or Kurt Vonnegut, or I could try to seem all sensitive and urban by claiming Joseph Mitchell or A.J Liebling as my own, or I could take the 'I've turned dark in my early middle age' approach and name Jim Thompson or Patricia Highsmith. Whether or not it shows in my work, I consider all those writers influences. But I would say that overall, my literary sensibility was formed when I saw that scene in Airplane! where Julie Hagerty gives a blowjob to the inflatable pilot. Another possibility is the "Inquisition Song" in History Of The World Part One. After I saw those movies, my mind was wrecked for life. It's like I have Leslie Neilsen inside my head, saying 'I just wanted you to know, we're all counting on you' every five seconds.

The first adult books I read were all eight of The Kent Family Chronicles by John Jakes. You remember those? The Bastard? The Seekers? The Guy With The Mustache And The Gun? I loved those books. They taught me how to move a narrative forward without any real character development. Not nearly enough sex, though, which is why I kept Clan Of The Cave Bear near my bed, hidden under a science textbook along with my Wonder Woman comics."

Why didn't the Times publish that? Are their book editors afraid of my ideas?

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January 14, 2005

Unconstitutional

Those of us who don't believe that human beings evolved from the distended rib of a confirmed bachelor are rejoicing in the fact that a federal judge yesterday called unconstitutional the stickers on Georgia biology textbooks that refer to evolution as a "theory not a fact." Almost everyone who reads this site knows how they feel on this issue. But I thought I'd let you all have a peek at the other side. Apparently, according to the Center For Reclaiming America, the decision is "a blatant act of censorship" that will "force feed faulty science to young generations."

The Christian right, as always, calling the kettle black.

Even better news: I've arranged for the textbook publisher to send me their extra stickers. From now on, all paperback copies of Never Mind The Pollacks will contain a warning that evolution is discussed within the book's pages as a "theory not a fact">. Maybe now I can get it into Wal-Mart.

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January 13, 2005

Not One Not One Damn Dime Day

I've pledged to keep this space relatively politics-free, largely to prevent myself from receiving any more rabid near-death-threats from the followers of Michael Savage, but I received a forward of an email from Stephen King, of all people, last night, and it made me want to holla.

Mr. King is a proponent of "Not One Damn Dime" day, a nationwide "protest" of the Bush Inauguration on January 20. I put the word protest in quotes, because the goal of Not One Damn Dime Day is for people not to spend any money, at all, on Inauguration Day. As Stephen King says, "the one thing of which the bozos driving this bus seem to have some dim grasp is COMMERCE."

I realize that Mr. King is, like so many of us, tired of banging his head against the wall at the dominionist takeover of this country formerly known as America. His telltale heart is in the right place. But novelists are no less susceptible to ham-handed politics than anyone else. Believe me, I know. Beware, o creator of Cujo, any protest started by anonymous Internet activists. Let me count the ways.

First, if anyone has been following the decline of the dollar against the euro and our rising trade deficit, they'll know Bush and his people neither understand nor care about commerce. Second, how will boycotting the purchase, as King says, of "a loaf  of bread, a gallon of beer, a pack of Pampers, or the daily newspaper," send any kind of message at all to people who are spending the day attending $40 million worth of inaugural balls? Does he think that Treasury Secretary John Snow is going to wake up on the 21st and say, "gee, the drawers at the Target in Skokie, Illinois, were a little short yesterday. I must alert the President!"? Third, what if some person whose family depends on him or her driving to work every day needs a tank of gas? Are they going to skip out and get fired because some anti-globalization freaks tell them that a tight wallet is the only way to let the President know that the anti-Iraq-war forces mean business?

If the protest really happens, which it won't, not in any significant way, small businesses would find themselves in a day's hole from which they cannot extricate themselves, particularly since anyone who's likely to participate probably frequents independent businesses anyway. If you live in Brooklyn and don't eat at that Ethiopian restaurant like you were planning, in what way does that hurt George W. Bush? It doesn't. It just hurts a neighborhood restaurant.

Also, the protest is pointless to begin with, because even if you don't spend any money at a store that day, you'll probably use the phone, and some electricity, and some water, and probably the Internet, and probably cable TV, too. You'll get charged for all that stuff, so you'll technically be spending money, even if you don't put a stamp on the bill until the following week.

The only way a boycott works is if it targets a specific comapny, or country, over a long period of time. Otherwise, it's too diffuse, and only leads to self-satisfaction on the part of the boycotters. Not buying Pampers, eh? If, on January 20, my son has "a poopie", as he likes to say, and we're out of Huggies, that boycott is done. Unless Stephen King wants to come over and do our laundry. Trust me, Master Of Horror. My son eats a lot of carrots. You don't want to face that demon.

Capitalism is not the problem here, people. Our government has been taken over by a cabal of religious fanatics. They're not going to be deterred in their plans for Iraq because we don't buy orange juice for 24 hours. And now, back to my nascent short-story-writing career.

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The Cedar Fever

Neal,

I'msorry to hear of your suffering.If you do not have a ready source of excellent homemade chicken noodle soup,I suggest the following: go to your favorite Viet Namese pho place and get the chicken pho,and add lots of thatSriracha pepper sauce. A little of the jalapeno too, but focus on the Sriracha. Eat allyou can. You need the calories and the peppers will clear your head. Good luck.

John Clark

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January 12, 2005

I Gots The Cedar Fever

It's hard for me to do any writing right now. Central Texas, where, against all predictions, I continue to live, has been consumed by vast, evil clouds of juniper pollen, which creates a flu-like condition called cedar fever. My muscles ache at all times, my chest feels like it's full of glue, and my brain is about as sharp as a cantaloupe left out in the sun for a long weekend.

That said, I've begun work on my third short story of the young year. This one is called Brother Elk, a tale of a young woman in a town very much like Austin who decides to join the local Elks Lodge because that's what all the cool kids are doing. Her choice comes back, if not to haunt, then at least to bother her. I should have a draft done by the end of this week, though Ford knows when and if it will be published. My agent has told me that short fiction is hard to sell. Thanks for the encouragement, Sy! (His name isn't really Sy). As a side note, I wrote 1,000-plus words of the story today while I was waiting for my car to get serviced. This, if nothing else, should indicate that I am now deeply committed to the art of fiction.

I'm back to not quite square one, sending unsolicited manuscripts and query letters to any major glossy that publishes short stories, praying that people don't realize that this so-called serious fiction was written by the guy who once wrote a hit-job on Bob Hope for Slate. A good friend emailed me recently, criticizing my excitement about getting published in the Mississippi Review, a publication that only exists to serve a tiny circle of readers. But it is a good publication, and besides, it's not about where the story gets published. It's about the process of writing. My goal this year is to practice in the short form as much as possible. Hopefully, that can actually lead to a check. If not, I'll be emailing you all a finished copy of Brother Elk in June.

And now, though it is only 9:11 PM, I sleep, for the cedar fever has penetrated my brain. Help. I'm turning into a plant.

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January 11, 2005

The Handmaid, Stale

It has recently come to my attention, via the book blogs that serve as the extra handful of pretzels on the lunch plate of my day, that Canadian party-girl and sometime novelist Margaret Atwood is attempting to invent a robot that will replace the function of the author in contemporary society. This may be fine for Ms. Atwood, who's made a nice career for herself writing one great book and a bunch of boring ones, but those of us who haven't yet reaped the permanent rewards of the literary life should be pretty upset that she wants to render us irrelevant through industrialization.

The representative of Ms. Atwood's publishing company says, in the article, that any way publishers can save money on author tours is greatly appreciated at the home office. Note to publishers: Your overhead is not being spent on pens and author appearances. It's being spent on unlimited corporate charge accounts, high-end hotel rooms, first-class tickets bought at the last second, and expensive author guides. I proved last year that you can tour five guys around the country, for a month, on a budget of $5,000, including more than 100 meals and a good 15 nights of hotels. Authors, particulary young ones, are more than willing to crash with friends, drive themselves around, and make moderately humiliating public appearances on the cheap, at least for a while. For some of us, being a writer is a big deal. I got into this business to write first and foremost, but also to be part of some sort of community of people who share my enthusiasms and interests. That's not going to happen if I'm signing books remotely from home with the help of a robot that, by Asimov's fifth law of robot proxy, is ultimately bound to betray me.

Lazy publicity equals low book sales. So do books that no one wants to read, but that's a problem I haven't yet quite solved.

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January 9, 2005

High Pulp

I was serious when I said, a few days ago, that I would devote this year to being an ACTUAL WRITER, rather than a bad performance artist who plays a writer in public. Should have gotten around to it years ago, but I got sidetracked by a shiny object called hipness and followed it off a cliff. I've climbed out of the canyon, and a thousand flowers will bloom.

To that end, I present my short story Pretty Good Vacation, now appearing in the Winter 2005 edition of The Mississippi Review.com's online magazine. The theme for this issue is "High Pulp." My story covers the pulpy topic of low-end adventure tourism in Guatemala. I guess things are moving in the noir direction for me, judging by my contribution to the excellent anthology Brooklyn Noir and the fact that I'm editing a book called Chicago Noir to come out later this year. But as High Pulp's editor, Anthony Neil Smith, points out in his introduction, the words "noir" and "pulp" don't really mean anything. They just indicate a kind of gritty ungentrified realism. I hope I get close to achieving that in my story. Enjoy. And thanks to Andrew Ervin, a good friend, fine writer, excellent editor, and mentally-challenged rotisserie-baseball league player, for his help with the piece.

Meanwhile, Mediabistro is offering people a once-in-a-semester opportunity to study the art of satirical writing in a class taught by me. Online. For only $425, you can learn all my secrets. For $525, we'll make new secrets of our own, if you know what I'm saying. Such a deal!

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January 8, 2005

Two Down, 48 To Go

I finished Book Number Two Friday night. It was Rendezvous In Black, by Cornell Woolrich, one of the forgotten classics of noir literature, reissued last year in a beautiful Modern Library paperback edition. Possibly the finest fiction ever written on the subject of obsessive love. I admire a writer who's not afraid to tell the truth: Life is a dark and evil void, and our sanity hangs by a thin rope. Anyway, not one for your grandma's nightstand. Like all noir, the plot barely holds together, and the villain is a tad superhuman for my taste. I was this close to calling in Morgan Freeman to combat him. But the central conceit is airtight, and I couldn't stop reading.

And no, I'm not going to pad out my list all year with short, easy-to-read crime books. I, like anyone else who fetishizes printed manner, go in streaks. Sometimes long books, sometimes short ones, sometimes pop, sometimes literary. I've always liked to try everything at the buffet, unless it's made with mayonnaise or sour cream.

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January 5, 2005

Take The 50 Book Challenge

I read about this challenge to read 50 books this year on Bookslut (yes, I read Bookslut sometimes, so sue me, I like books), and I thought I'd play along. You all are desperate to know about my reading habits, I'm sure. Well, let me sum them up. Sometimes I buy books, and then they usually sit in a huge amorphous pile by my desk, and then sometimes when there's nothing on TV, I pick one out of the pile. Fortunately, there's often nothing on TV, so I think I can get pretty close to reading 50 books this year. I've already completed one.

1. Fade To Blonde, by Max Phillips . I picked this sucker up at the New York Is Book Country festival a few months ago. The re-emergence of hard-boiled noir literature as a viable genre has been totally neglected by most literary observers, who prefer their storytelling a little more genteel. This offering, from a press called Hard Case Crime, is emblematic of a great restoration. Phillips has recreated the universe of Raymond Chandler with utter believability. The story revolves around a failed screenwriter, ex-GI sharpshooter and retired boxer who gets mixed up in a Southern California underworld of hopheads, porn directors, and, yes, dangerous blondes, in the 1950s. Phillips updates the literature of that age a bit. His characters are more psychologically intricate, his sex scenes more explicit, and he avoids James Ellroy-style histrionics. The novel moves along with punchy, straightforward, sexy prose, and doesn't lack for wit. I felt like the plot unravelled too quickly toward the end, but that's a common pitfall with such books. The atmosphere is so dense that the author feels forced to explain everything in the last 15 pages. But it's damn good for a bus ride, and has a great old-fashioned cover painting.

What book will I read next? Who knows?

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January 4, 2005

What's Too Painful To Remember

I promised I'd update you on my writing progress, and I always keep my promises. On Sunday night, I put the final touches on a short story called Marty's Drink Or Die Club, which will appear in Chicago Noir, a volume of original Chicago crime fiction that I'm editing for Akashic Books. It should come out sometime this fall, and I'll be talking more about it in the coming months. The story is somewhat dark and somewhat funny and somewhat reminiscent of the work I used to to, before the dawn of time, at the Chicago Reader. It takes place in various bars, and then in a home movie theater.

My other current fiction project is a story called Jewy Jew that I've wanted to write for some time. It's my satirical take on the hipster Jew movement, exemplified by the makers of the "Jewcy" line of clothing, by the Comedy Central movie The Hebrew Hammer, and by Heeb Magazine, which I like. In my fondest dreams, the Jewy Jew story will put an end to hip Jewry once and for all, but that would mean someone would have to publish it in a publication that people actually read. Those odds are small.

As a sort of eulogy to the glory days of the Neal Pollack Invasion, I present this account of our album's recording by Jim Roll, my former bandleader. As Neil Cleary, my former drummer, said, it's like Penthouse Forum for recording geeks. It's also an amusing account of one of the most unlikely rock non-success stories ever. If you haven't heard the "music" of The Neal Pollack Invasion yet, you can download any or all of the tracks from the album here. In general, I recommend Emusic.com. It's a download site devoted only to indie labels. Plus, and my secret can now be revealed, I write a monthly column for Emusic's "Soundtracks/Other" section. Yes, a monthly column about novelty music. Betcha Jonathan Safran Foer doesn't do that now, does he? Huh? Huh?

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January 3, 2005

The Man Comes Around

You'd think that I could go to the gym for a schvitz at midnight on a Sunday and I could avoid bearing witness to a middle-aged Korean man blowing his nose, literally, into a bucket of cold water. But I've encountered such scenes my entire adult life, and they appear to be my destiny. I'll be writing about my love for steam rooms, despite the vile things that occur in them, elsewhere, soon, and for money.

With that, I welcome you to 2005. The 17 of you who've been with me since the beginning of the self-promotional phase of my writing career know that partly by accident, partly by design, and mostly by my warped idea of financial necessity, I've given each year a theme. In 2000, I foisted The Greatest Living American Writer onto a nascent culture of literary hipsters and basked in their ironic glare. I dedicated the next year to my Slam Poetry phase. That ended, mercifully, in 2002, when I decided to become a Pompous Right-Wing Political Pundit. We all endured 2003, my Rock-N-Roll Year, and then I suffered through 2004 alone and themeless, unless you consider Making Shrill Public Pronouncements Following A Nervous Breakdown a theme. Now, this year, I'm going to try something really bold. I'm going to try to be a Writer.

You heard me. No more gimmicks. No more personae. No more schtick. Just short stories and novels and non-eponymous satire and whatever nonfiction assignments come along. Self-promotion is in my blood, as is (on my father's side) kosher butchery. But from here on, I will only promote my actual self, and my actual writing, upon which I will stand, and off of which I will probably fall.

If this site chronicles anything from here on, it will be my attempts to write fiction, some of which will succeed, and screenplays, most of which won't. Sometimes I may complain about annoying things that happen to me during the day or that I watch on TV or read in newspapers, magazines, and online. In other words, this will be a blog, updated at my leisure. I take this writer's blog as a model, though I've got shorter hair. I may even answer reader questions, if I ever receive them.

Now please enjoy this published account of my visit to a strip club in Portland, Oregon, during my recent failed book tour. If you think that it's a somewhat un-literary way to begin a Year Of Being A Writer, you're right. But remember that Borges also once wrote a column about his sex life, though he was also blind, and actually had sex once in a while.

Many thanks to Kenan Hebert for the new site design. I like it very much. And Happy New Year again to you all.

Neal

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