Featured Book Reviews from Razorcake Issue 103: Safety in Numbers, Smoke City, Frequently Asked Questions about Being Dead

Featured Book Reviews from Razorcake Issue 103

Featured Book Reviews from Razorcake Issue 103: Safety in Numbers, Smoke City, Frequently Asked Questions about Being Dead

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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