Book Reviews

Smoke City By Keith Rosson, 309 pgs.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wondered in the past eighteen months exactly when life became an absurdist novel. Daily, outrages and improbabilities stack higher and threaten to topple. Razorcake contributor Keith Rosson knows this, and mirrors the funhouse in his excellent sophomore novel Smoke City.

Check it out: talented artist Michael Vale is stuck working a fast food job after a meteoric rise to fame yields both a crippling drug habit and a fall from painting grace. In the height of his fame, he cheats on his wife. Some years later, she dies young. Vale quits his fast food job, sells his last remaining painting for a fraction of what it’s worth, buys a beater, and drives to the funeral. Along the way, Vale picks up hitchhiker Marvin Deitz, who’s on a quest of his own. He’s the reincarnation of the executioner who killed Joan of Arc. Since setting flame to her pyre, he’s lived life in body after body, the predictability of life’s rhythms dulling him to the present day. In his current incarnation, Deitz owns a record store stocked with rare jazz records owned by his previous iteration. His landlord, a wannabe Boston gangster, is slated to raze the space Deitz has been renting. It’s then that Dietz sees a tabloid show in which a woman claims to be Joan of Arc’s reincarnation, and the unlikeliest of buddy narratives begins.

If all this discussion of reincarnations sounds a little far-fetched, don’t worry. It gets weirder: Across the world—particularly in California—a series of human spirits manifest. They jam up traffic as people crowd around to gawk and shoot footage to post onto their feeds. These spirits, dubbed “smokes” by the media, are oblivious to the goings-on of the material plane. That is, until Marvin Deitz engages with one.

Rosson is a gifted writer. Throughout Smoke City, he maintains distinct narrative voices, incorporating media reports and journal entries to add heft and credibility to a story that in lesser hands might not pack as much punch, or sound remotely feasible. Beyond the stylistic elements, though, what Rosson does here is create a cast of cantankerous, difficult characters—then he brings readers around to liking them. Marvin Deitz becomes an executioner because it’s the family business, and repents his decision for lifetime after lifetime, dying in unjust wars and living normal, humdrum existences. Vale believes the hype about himself and becomes a cliché, throwing away his talent in the process, then selling rights to his work to the highest (and only) bidder for pennies on the dollar, a move that stokes his daily flames of rage. But by the end, I found myself rooting for them both.

If the cast of Smoke City can come to terms with what haunts them, than anyone can. That’s the message here: that giving up renders us powerless. As improbable as it might seem—any of it or all of it—with perseverance we might be able to get through, to let go of what plagues us like so many smokes, even though it might not be pretty or tidy. It might not sound like much, but I’ll take it. And so should you. Smoke City is a tour de force. –Michael T. Fournier (Meerkat Press, meerkatpress.com)

Safety in Numbers: My Journey with L.A. Punk Rock Gangs By Adam Wilson, 266 pgs.

It’s sometimes hard, even for someone involved in punk far enough back to have lived through it, to keep in mind just how different Los Angeles punk rock was in the 1980s. While the country’s current political climate skews so far right that it makes the “Reagan Revolution” seem like some liberal pipe dream, punk rock is far mellower than the scene’s so-called “golden era.” I don’t mean this in the pejorative—frankly I wholeheartedly prefer being able to see a random gig without having to constantly watch my back—so much as a reminder that things were much, much different then.

When L.A. punk’s initial 1970s salvo waned, a leaner, meaner “hardcore” scene developed, one fueled by younger adherents, more frenetic beats, and, for some, a yen to make its predecessor’s tongue-in-cheek violence more reality than fantasy. From this petri dish, L.A.’s first major punk gangs arose, and many more followed until things—to my recollection—reached its nadir in the late ‘80s, and it seemed like everyone at a gig was cliqued up. While a lot of great music and gigs were in the offing, it was also a very fucked up time where people often got hurt for no reason. It was an environment that infused things both with a jolt of adrenaline and a sense that, as the book’s title implies, safety might be found in numbers.

As author Adam Wilson points out mid-tome, many of these punk crews didn’t fit the stereotypical “gang” definition spoon-fed by film, TV, and lurid news stories: “We weren’t raised in Watts or East L.A. We all came from relatively safe neighborhoods in upper Los Angeles…. The reason we were so enamored by street gangs and the ghettos they came from was that we were spoiled, attention-seeking and mirroring. Nothing more, nothing less.” Nearly everything he recounts prior reflects this, both in his accounts of angry, fucked up kids doing angry, fucked up, dumb shit and in his descriptions of his younger self and his friends. This mid-point also marks when—like L.A.’s first wave gave way to something darker—his gang “mirroring” devolves into a much grimmer reality of ‘hood drama, drugs, violence, and deaths.

Another book by other authors was released a year or two ago, purporting to be about the city’s “deadliest” punk gang, by an imprint with a penchant for hyping the lurid and playing fast ‘n’ loose with factual information. True to form, that book is rife with salacious tales of murder, violence, and factional warring. Despite garnering much attention, closer inspection brings into question the veracity of its accounting—I know from personal experience that one incident it recounts did not happen as described and conversations about the book that have popped up, both personal and on greater social media platforms, indicate that other incidences might not have happened at all and some purported rivalries didn’t exist—and its reliance on bravado and an almost celebratory attitude towards the subject matter is disturbing and—rightfully so—controversial.

Unlike that book, Safety in Numbers reads more like a true memoir: straight-ahead storytelling, an aversion to the aforementioned bravado almost to the point sometimes being a little overly conciliatory in places (though I wholly understand the intent of Wilson’s effort is to dissuade those who might want to interpret things otherwise), and a genuine attempt to unravel what happened and why. A deft sense of “slow burn” plotting which includes the more mundane aspects of gang life adds to a deceptive normalcy that leads down a road where—like the author—readers ultimately, unwittingly find themselves in a world of crazy that seems sudden but—looking back—all the road marks leading there can clearly be seen.

Wilson paints clearly and concisely of a world few are aware, let alone have experienced. Those of us who do know it well will find his vision of it rings true and honest. Any errors that may be found in his words do not feel intentionally mendacious. It doesn’t read like yet another blustery brag-fest about how cool and dangerous he and his friends were, but rather like a true account of a kid whose life spun wildly out of control. He miraculously made it out the other side. It is a tale worthy of much attention and discussion. Wilson deserves maximum respect for plunging into a subject rife with landmines and managing to pull the hat trick of recounting his journey through one of punk’s darker corners without glorifying or trivializing it. Never thought I’d ever say this about a book covering this topic, but this comes highly recommended. –Jimmy Alvarado (Adam Wilson, adwilone93@gmail.com)

Patterns of Reconciliation, By Matt Mauldin, 88 pgs.

Matt Mauldin’s old band Car Vs. Driver was always on the periphery of the music my friends and I listened to—I knew the band’s name and heard a track here and there (most notably on the excellent Whirled Records compilation Attaining the Supreme) but I never spent much time with the band. This poetry collection changed that.

Contained in Patterns of Reconciliation are poems collected between 1993 and 2017. Some of these first appeared in songs as lyrics, and others were drafted on Mauldin’s blog. I was engaged throughout, due in large part to Mauldin’s refusal to rest on laurels: he shifts form and tone effortlessly. Some of these poems are fairly narrative in nature, while others are impressionistic in their reliance on sensory detail to convey emotion. Topics vary from specific experiences, friends, thoughts about “the system,” about marriage, to longer, spiritual psychedelic work evocative of Daniel Higgs’s stuff.

I know, I know: poetry ain’t punk, maaaaaan! Whatever. That tired refrain is for people who haven’t checked in with the form since being forced to read some Rod McCuen bullshit in high school. Get over yourself and check out Mauldin’s stuff, which is deep and wide enough for everyone. –Michael T. Fournier (Robot Enemy Publications, bobrobart.bigcartel.com)

Job of the Wasp, The, By Colin Winnette, 194 pgs.

In college I took a fiction writing class with a guy whose stories were variations on this: lonely boy goes to a school, is met with hostility from students and at least one faculty member, and is eventually victimized by something like a black mass run by the faculty member, for whom the hostile students act as acolytes. And there may have been a Lovecraftian god-creature in the mix. At some point later, it occurred to me that this was an archetypal narrative that young writers around the world were likely exploring.

This is the essence of Colin Winnette’s The Job of the Wasp, which is set at a boarding school for orphaned boys. I’m not implying that Winnette is being trite, but rather, regarding this particular narrative, he may be the first writer good enough to get his published.

The Job of the Wasp isn’t Lovecraftian, and doesn’t feature black masses. What it features is a possibly paranoid narrator who rarely settles for very long on a conclusion about the other characters. The adult reader suspects that many of his conclusions are tortuous adolescent crap, but you’re never sure which ones, if any, will turn out to be accurate. I recognized some of the narrator’s perceptions as ones that I had in my empathy-free junior high days.

Because of its archetype, the novel has a dream-like quality, and when Winnette has to choose between being a storyteller or a dream constructor, he chooses the latter. The narrator’s constant questioning of reality reminded me of Philip K. Dick, as does the way Winnette stops propelling his story in favor of someone talking or thinking at considerable length, the central feature (for me) of Dick’s The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.

I haven’t read much young-adult fiction. I know that its readers read mainly for story. But someone trapped in adolescence, just as Winnette’s narrator is trapped at the boarding school, might be especially enthralled with this dark dream of a book. –Jim Woster (Soft Skull Press, softskull.com)

Frequently Asked Questions about Being Dead By Wred Fright, 208 pgs.

I met Wred Fright a few summers ago when Mike Faloon and I hit Cleveland on a book tour. Wred’s a funny and engaging guy who I’ve kept in touch with since—my literary broadsheet Cabildo Quarterly ran one of his stories, and I dug his novel the Pornographic Flabbergasted Emus, which remains one of the truest novels I’ve ever read about a band. There’s no great success to be had, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, as the Emus grind it out—the success is that they keep doing it despite success, like so many of us do in our respective media. Wred knows a collection of people playing music—generating tones at the same time— is at least a little absurd, and runs with the idea.

Frequently Asked Questions about Being Dead is also an absurd novel—any work that contains talking stacks of pancakes and penises is, almost by default—but the absurdity works on multiple levels. Wred’s tale of the afterlife is full of animate objects walking around, asking newly dead folks to fill out consumer questionnaires before they’re reassigned back into the universe. In his wry way, Wred is poking fun at the very nature of the afterlife, reminding me of the old Bill Hicks bit where he wonders why we celebrate the crucifixion by telling children a giant rabbit put plastic eggs full of chocolate in baskets. A lot of what passes for normal is what we take for granted—and Wred knows this. He couches his discussion in more absurdity, which loops back to “normal,” whatever that means nowadays. And all this happens before the “question dudes” assigned to giving surveys start to get restless regarding some of heaven’s newly minted denizens and decide to revolt.

Even if you’re not into tipping sacred cows, Frequently Asked Questions about Being Dead is a fun read for its snappy dialogue, which moves with the gag-laden pace of good screenplays, or vaudeville. This book is a trip, well worth checking out. –Michael T. Fournier (wredfright.com)

Everything You’ve Ever Done By Amelia Marie Whalen, 306 pgs.

The umbrella of punk rock is big enough to accommodate wildly disparate ideas and interpretations. This is part of its charm. This book fits: shows and music are vitals threads in author Amelia Marie Whelan’s debut, but the punk ethos extends beyond these surface-level traits.

Whelan has an amazing relationship with her husband Dave Zagorski—they travel, they have adventures, they support each other’s endeavors. Dave plays music, records bands, and has a candle-making business. Amelia waits tables and camps and climbs.

After a point, the relationship goes sour as Dave gets mean and detaches. Amelia is perplexed by this turn, but she’s in love, and tries to give Dave the benefit of the doubt. Eventually, self-care prevails and she divorces him—only to find, later, that Dave’s brain has degenerated due to adrenoleukodystropy, also known as ALD. Whelan begins blogging her experiences, and their friends and family send Dave off with ‘the mother of all parties,’ a tribute to his life.

Everything You’ve Ever Done is harrowing. It has to be, by dint of its subject matter: a relationship dissolves, a loved one degenerates and dies. Whalen is frank in her discussion: it sucks, it hurts. She’s deft with detail, both heartbreaking and hilarious. As Dave degenerates, he loses first his ability to speak, communicating largely through a series of pterodactyl-like shrieks, making the occasional spoken sentence taking on additional resonance. Inhibitions are lost, too, yielding uncomfortable, unclothed situations (no spoilers here). By juxtaposing pain and hilarity, Whelan’s narrative adds resonance.

This isn’t the sort of book I would have read on my own—I’m usually turned off by discussions of spirituality, which are touchstones for both the process of Dave dying and Whelan trying to heal. But the subject here is discussed with disarming honesty, grounded not so much in orthodoxy as it is organic practicality, a love and connection of the outdoors, and a sense of a larger connection. I admit that the dragonfly on the cover was an initial turnoff, and that the book’s introductory passage seemed to nod towards a bumpy ride prose-wise, with its repetitions and needless words. But, once I got through the intro, the prose became much smoother, as if the initial passage was written earlier than the rest of the book—a sample chapter, maybe?

At any rate, I should have known better. Punk rock is all about not judging books by covers, and there I was forgetting the cardinal rule. Ultimately, Everything You’ve Ever Done pulled me into its rollercoaster trajectory. It’s a tale of loss and redemption, one that should be of interest to advocates of mental health, of healing, and of doing it yourself. –Michael T. Fournier (Ambos Books, everythingyouveeverdone.com)

I Wanna Be Well: How a Punk Found Peace and You Can Too By Miguel Chen with Rod Meade Sperry, 192 pgs.

Fifteen years ago, I would’ve thought it ridiculous someone from a pop punk band would write a book about meditation and yoga. How could someone from the punk world ever know enough about meditation and yoga to write a book about it? My understanding of the subject was very narrow. However, after decade and a half of using such practices myself, I’ve thrown off that view. In fact, it made me happy to read Miguel Chen’s book, I Wanna Be Well.

Chen, the bassist for Teenage Bottlerocket, writes (with the help of Rod Meade Sperry) a readable work about the basics of finding peace in one’s existence. The book begins with Chen sharing a brief account of his life story and how he became open to learning about meditation and Buddhism. This came about through a couple of instances, including receiving the book Dharma Punx by Noah Levine. As someone who has also read and benefited from that book about mixing punk and Buddhism, it seems a logical place for Chen to begin his journey.

I Wanna Be Well breaks down into twenty-six chapters, the majority of which follow a similar structure. Chen writes about an idea related to meditation or yoga. He then gives the reader something they can practice related to this idea. After that is a very short “tl; dr” (too long; didn’t read) that summarizes the practice in short detail. It makes reading each chapter very manageable.

The practices start simple: focusing on your breath. From there he moves on to walking meditation. He also covers many other subjects including the five remembrances of the Buddha, something I repeat to myself at least once a day. Chen writes in a very down-to-earth style that isn’t too religious and maintains a good deal of humor. He’s quick to acknowledge that some of his ideas may sound far-fetched, but he walks the reader through the concepts in an easy-to-understand manner.

If you feel as though everything sucks, and you want to make some changes in your life, I’d recommend checking out I Wanna Be Well. Meditation and yoga can do wonders in one’s life—they’ve changed me enough to respect someone from a pop punk band for the way he’s living his life and the work he’s done here. I’d highly recommend this for both beginners and old hands interested in meditation and seeking self-betterment. –Kurt Morris (Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm St., Somerville, MA 02144)

Mean By Myriam Gurba, 175 pgs.

Myriam Gurba is a short-story writer—I made a note to pay attention to her work after reading her in Punk Planet—and she’s turned her economy of words to Mean, a memoir of growing up Latina and gay on California’s Central Coast, and also of violent crime. She fits a lot into 175 pages.

The memoir opens with the rape-murder of an unnamed woman. After that chapter, Gurba doesn’t return focus to the victim for another hundred pages, instead writing about her own ongoing life.

As a child dining with an Anglo neighbor, Gurba is served something called “Mexican casserole,” but instead of being engaged with the well-told story, all you can think is, You had to eat rude food—who gives a shit? Can we get back to the rape-murder? Even when a classmate molests Gurba, the dead woman’s absence is lamentably notable. You wonder whether the opening chapter was there solely to lend appropriated tragedy to Gurba’s memoir.

But eventually you learn that Gurba and the victim have a connection. And so I’m going to encourage you to read Mean, but to skip the opening chapter, and go back to it when you reach the chapter where you learn about the connection. This is arguably a dick thing for a reviewer to write (though I liken it to skipping or re-ordering tracks on an album), but it’s either that or pan the book. And panning the book means people missing out on moments like the Mexican casserole, or like this: “One of our assignments was to make art in a non-art space. For this assignment, Tim wrapped a nearby spiral staircase in pink and purple string. It became something for students to trip on while doing psychedelics.”

Gurba admires meanness—even while highlighting the personal and cultural despair that it wreaks—and she wastes no rarefied time trying to reconcile any of that. –Jim Woster (Coffee House Press, emilybooks.com)

Not My Small Diary #19: Unexplained Events Edited by Delaine Derry Green, 104 pgs.

This is an anthology of comics about mysterious occurrences and otherworldly encounters—unexplained events, one might say. Forty-three artists illustrate their real-life experiences with the supernatural or simply inexplicable, including ghostly run-ins, cryptid sightings, and crossings into the dreamworld. There’s a little of everything in this anthology, really. Some comics are just a frame or two depicting a peculiar moment, a memory just a little too unsettling to shrug off completely, while others are multi-page miniature ghost stories. The artists themselves are clearly divided between skeptics and true believers, with pieces ranging in tone from cute and goofy to dead fucking serious. A few images are genuinely horrifying (all I’m going to say is “masturbating kobold in the crawlspace”). Definitely a cool way to check out the work of a whole lot of modern comic artists, and maybe a way to research the possibilities of realities beyond our comprehension, depending on your personal beliefs. –Indiana Laub (Self-published, mysmallwebpage.com)

Pinball Punks By Dave Anderson, 196 pgs.

I gotta say, when I found this in my reviews I thought it was either that I was being pandered to, or someone had finally written the novel where my two biggest interests intersect. But there was a chance it could be bad and I’d get irrationally upset at both pinball and punk simultaneously. At the end of the read, I think it’s a strange brew of all those possible outcomes, and I’m not totally sure where I landed when the dust settled.

Right off the bat I was swept into a world of rock’n’roll, politics, class war, veganism, and DIY ethics. The elevator pitch of this story is such: the U.S. president (who prefers to be called Mr. Awesome) is asking for the American people to help him solve the state of economic crisis and will award $100,000 to the citizen with the most viable plan. In steps our protagonist Mikey (bassist of the punk band Piss Rats) who suggests pinball as the way to save the nation. Because of the recent recession, there are many vacant factories and warehouses where Mikey means to create jobs by turning them into pinball manufacturers. From there the public can vote with their dollars, er quarters. Half the money will go to supporting the pinball production, and the other to schools, libraries, sports arenas, or whichever enterprise that positively affects society that they choose. Mr. Awesome and the band (who is mysteriously missing their singer Johnny) will go on tour, setting up rallies where the punks will demonstrate how pinball helps build tangible communities and gets people to look away from their phones long enough to make a human connection.

But once they hit the road, this story goes off the rails. Anarchists attack one of the rallies, the Piss Rats get a weird metal injected into their fingers after a late night bender with Mr. Awesome, and at every event they notice people are stumbling around as if they’re wasted after playing pinball. Is there some government conspiracy afoot? Are they a part of some confusing cover up? Is the man in bed with big pharma? The punks decide to coerce the truth out of the Commander in Chief with various illicit drugs and strippers in Las Vegas.

I’ll stop here lest I ruin the rest, though I will say that the Piss Rats really live up to their name by the end. Bat shit crazy plot lines aside, the book is extremely digestible and I finished it in less than a day. There are ever so many references to both punk bands and wildly popular pinball machines like Twilight Zone. Anderson even includes basic pinball history including its “prohibition” phase, and makes Mikey the fictional son of Roger Sharpe—aka the man who saved pinball. I love an inventive story, but some moments got too crude, and too far away from social economic politics solved by my favorite pastime. –Kayla Greet (Self-published, East Falling)