Featured Book Reviews from Razorcake Issue 90: Featuring Denvoid, Human Punk, Last Mass, and Restart Me Up

Human Punk
By John King, 341 pgs.
I am, of course, a sucker for books related in any tangential way to punk rock. Seldom does one come across my desk as impactful and artistic (yeah, I said it) as John King’s Human Punk.

Joe Martin, the novel’s protagonist, is a rough-and-tumble teenager when Human Punk begins in 1977. He lives with his parents, hangs around with his friends, and picks cherries and works in pubs to finance his record buying and drinking. Between tube station dust-ups with boot boys he sees tons of bands play, including a SPOTS-era Sex Pistols gig. And there’s tons of speed to be snorted.

Joe and his friends copping lines serves as an important stylistic device throughout—the obvious connection first comes in King’s prose, which extends over three or four pages without punctuation on nights when Joe and his friends are speeding, drinking, and show-going.

Events at the end of part one set the tone for the book’s second and third acts. Part two shifts to 1988, as Joe takes the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing West. As part one ends, Joe and his friend Smiles are thrown into a river by hooligans. Joe emerges physically unscathed, but Smiles—named this for his expression and attitude—doesn’t. The time underwater changes him, and the guilt Joe feels in not helping his friend drives him across the world, where he lives in squalor and drifts from job to job.

Throughout part two, its train travel and hookups and flashbacks and the run-on cadence so joyfully prevalent in part one becomes something of a curse: no matter how far Joe runs, he’s always stuck with and in himself. There’s no escape from the events that shaped him. King emphasizes this both through his character’s inner monologue and through the stylistic trick he establishes through his prose, which draws attention to itself in order to echo the good times gone awry.

By part three, Joe Martin has done something resembling settling down: he has a steady girlfriend, buys and sells used records for a living, and DJs clubs on the side. But Smiles is dead, the guilt remains, and the good nights are always just a few drinks away from becoming run-ons anew, reminding Joe—and us—of his inescapable past. Then (spoiler alert) a ghost appears and forces a reckoning.

Human Punk King weaves threads of punk rock throughout the narrative, both subtly and forcefully. As 1977 fades from view the working class attitude remains, as do references to bands, songwriters, musicians, friends. Punk rock is pulsing at the heart of this novel, but never intrudes on the story or announces itself for its own sake. PM Press has re-released this gem domestically on its fifteen-year anniversary. How I managed to miss it for so many years is beyond me. I’m grateful for the chance to read it. –Michael T. Fournier (PM Press, PO Box 23912, Oakland, CA94623)

Denvoid and the Cowtown Punks: A Collection of Stories from the ‘80s Denver 
Punk Scene
By Bob Rob Medina, 228 pgs.
The recipe for a scene biography (or whatever you wanna call it) in the post-Please Kill Me world has been a reasonably simple one: assemble quotes from scenesters to form some manner of semi-coherent narrative; add a few photos; garnish with lemon; serve over ice. Denvoid and the Cowtown Punks absolutely demolishes this idea as the eternal blueprint for such tomes, commanding attention from current and future generations simply on account of its unprecedented (or possibly only barely-precedented) MASSIVENESS. This thing is 8.5” x 11”, the better part of an inch thick, and there’s full color on every page. That just blows my mind. There’s so much ink on these pages—which are themselves on rather thick stock, presumably to hold all the ink—that opening the book up to read it made the whole room reek of printer’s ink. Unremarkable you say? I hasten to add that I started reading this book in the lunchroom at work, and I work in printing, in a building that ALREADY reeks like printer’s ink! Even more mind-blowing is the sheer volume of illustrations in this thing—apart from the de rigueur scans of flyers and records, there are only a handful of photographs included here. The brunt of the illustrative workload is handled by the author’s full-color drawings—there’s probably at least two hundred in here—which bring to mind some manner of Brian Walsby/Vincent Van Gogh hybrid, using the gross, color-by-the-wrong-numbers palette of Wesley Willis for added eyebrow raises. The sheer amount of effort it must have taken just to draw all this shit—to say nothing of, you know, the writing and the interviewing—should really give future authors of such works pause, or at least grist for the mill of scholarly contemplation. So, yes. This is a huge, weighty, colorful, stinky, profusely illustrated, sparsely photographed book about the Denver scene of the 1980s, a scene that, due to relative geographic isolation and the absence of internet, mutated largely along its own trajectory. The author spends the first thirty-odd pages giving his own origin story, starting as a tween-age cholo before discovering The Punk Rock; then devotes the rest to interviews with the Denver movers and shakers of the day. Ultimately, while it’s cool to read about Denver bands I’d largely forgotten—Hey, the Rok Tots! Oh yeah, the Lepers! Whoa, the Anti-Scrunti Faction!—the relative lack of star power (no offense intended) coupled with the book’s sheer voluminousness might make this massive volume a tough sell to anyone not either deeply invested in the Denver scene or a rabid consumer of random scene biographies. Rev. Nørb (Robot Enemy, bobrobart.bigcartel.com)

Last Mass
By Jamie Iredell, 199 pgs.
Kurt Vonnegut set out to write his big novel about the WWII bombing of Dresden, but ended up with a weird prose-collage featuring a planet called Tralfamadore and birds that say “Poo-tee-weet.” (Slaughterhouse-Five, if you didn’t know. I no longer know what people know or should know.)

Jamie Iredell set out to write his big novel about Spain’s colonization of California. His protagonist was going to be Father Junipero Serra, whom the Los Angeles Times summarizes as “the 18th-century Spanish Franciscan priest who founded nine missions in California and spread Catholicism around the western United States.”

What Iredell ended up writing was his own collage of California’s colonial history and his Catholic upbringing on California’s Central Coast.

Iredell doesn’t concern himself too much with parallels or contrasts, as that would be too easy. The church’s treatment of native Californians was as horrific as you’d assume, but Iredell’s life as a Catholic kid wasn’t horrific or idyllic. And if it occurs to him along the way to write about Star Wars, or the Georgia cabin he sequestered himself in to work, then he writes about that.

Paragraphs like this:

Although Hernando de Alarcón’s ascent of the Colorado River Delta in 1540 proved that Baja California was a peninsula, Spanish rhetoric written by Father Fray Antonio de la Ascensión, Carmelite friar for Vizcaíno’s expedition of 1602-3, described Isla California, meant to discredit Sir Francis Drake’s claim of Nova Albion for the British monarch.

Share the book with paragraphs like this:

At Reconciliation the following Saturday I confessed to stealing the T-shirt. I never confessed to my other thefts, of baseball cards or chewing gum, or the butterfly knife I stole out of Chuck Calderon’s jean jacket.

I usually can’t stand the results of a writer saying to himself, “I did all this research, goddamnit, I’m fucking using it,” but Last Mass’s lack of compromise is fascinating—even Faulknerian. An interviewer once asked William Faulkner, “Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?” and he responded, “Read it four times.” I’m going to give Last Mass at least one more read: see what I notice the second time, see how much of Father Serra’s frequently interrupted story I retain. Although I should probably mention that I was already interested in California history and was raised Catholic. –Jim Woster (Civil Coping Mechanisms, copingmechanisms.net)

Nihilist, The: A Philosophical Novel
By John Marmysz, 164 pgs.
If the old standard of “showing versus telling” is really the cornerstone of fiction, then The Nihilist is about twenty-five percent story and seventy-five philosophical treatise. The actual story in this novel (and I’m resisting the urge to put the word novel in quotes) is couched somewhere between slim and nonexistent. The book honestly seems to be little more than a vehicle for the author to expound on his philosophical viewpoints. Page after page after page of them, be it in straight dictation to the reader, or in stiff, unrealistic verbal debate between the main character and someone, anyone else.

The main character is an ex-punk who eventually marries his college sweetheart and becomes a tenured philosophy professor. He has a few buddies from his punk days, back when they were in a band called, you guessed it—Nihilism. He talks with them. They debate. He talks with his wife. They philosophize. He teaches his students. They discuss issues pertaining to philosophy. Everything from death, to life’s purpose, to fiction, to the grading of papers, to the purpose behind dreams is discussed in exhausting philosophical detail.

Yet, hardly anything of note actually happens, which is kind of infuriating for a novel, you know? You never get a particularly good sense of anyone’s inner life because everything reads so stiff and robotic and academic. People converse like term papers. Even the wacky anecdotes about the nameless professor’s punk days are so bland and formulaic any potential velocity is totally robbed. I mean, yes, okay—eventually the protagonist develops stomach troubles, mourns the death of his friends, shits his pants, shoots fire from his nipples… but it’s all to the rich cadence of so much navel-gazing. It’s virtually impossible to care.

Philosophy and fiction are at odds with each other because one is about showing, and the other is about espousing one’s theories. Theories win here: pages and pages and pages pass without any dialogue or advancement of the story. I really do hate to bag on someone’s work, but pages of academic rumination on the meaning (or lack of meaning) of life does not make for compelling fiction, whether or not you warn people in the subtitle of your novel or not.

It’s possible that Marmysz is an excellent philosophy professor. In fact, I’d bet on it. He certainly knows his material, and he’s clearly given these issues a lot of thought. But if one is going to use fiction as a vehicle for ideas, there’s got to be as much story as there is documenting and essaying and expounding. And The Nihilist has way, way too much of one and not remotely enough of the other. –Keith Rosson (No Frills Buffalo, 119 Dorchester Rd., Buffalo, NY14213)

Restart Me Up: The Unauthorized, Un-Accurate Oral History of Windows 95By Lesley Tsina, 80 pgs.
Computers are like health—you don’t think about ‘em until something goes wrong, at which point there’s nothing else to think about. Anyone who’s spent time on a help line can attest to this. It’s so easy to get wound up by glitches and bugs, especially if, like me, you’re a person who’s not at all technically inclined (and especially times two if you’re deadline-driven when said glitches go down). The notion of having a whole day or more derailed by a few lines of code is a folly particular to our era; maddening and specific.

So it makes sense that an oral history of Windows 95 would exist, right? Well, Lesley Tsina has written a fake oral history. She understands the aforementioned folly, that the computer realm is loaded with gags and punch lines, and elevates the oral history form to new comedic heights with this (mostly) fabricated story of Microsoft’s lauded operating system.

I say “mostly” because some of the subject material here is so absurd that I assumed Tsina was spoofing the modern day media tropes that blare for our attention by looking back twenty years and making them less bombastic and thus more silly. This isn’t the case, though—The Rolling Stones really gave permission for “Start Me Up” to be used as a theme song; Jay Leno really did host a gala premier. All of these events sound so ‘90s that on first read I gave kudos Tsina for spoofing every event opening, be it large or wannabe. The thing, again, is that they all happened.With that said, the conversations held around the real-life events were never as funny (such as the one here, in which Tsina’s Bill Gates negotiates with The Rolling Stones, who previously had never leant a song to advertising, so that Keith Richards can feed his addiction to Beanie Babies).

In less able hands, the material here might easily fall flat. But Tsina (who in addition to writing has appeared on Community) boasts pitch-perfect comedic timing, and her jokes fully embrace the latent absurdity of computers and the people who to this day line up outside of stores to buy them before anyone else. It would be easy to change the delivery a few degrees and resort to geek cruelty, but Tsina never once does. Her writing is crisp and light-hearted throughout. Restart Me Upis an absolute tour-de-force of both form and function, with nary an error message or bum note to be found. Thumbs way up. –Michael T. Fournier ($10, www.devastatorpress.com)

Tables without Chairs #1
By Bud Smith & Brian Alan Ellis, 164 pgs.
This book is a slacker sandwich. There are two novellas about slacker dudes going about their day-to-day slacker business. Between them is a spread of bullshit—and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

The bullshit in the middle is a piece by Brian Alan Ellis called “Ha-Ha! Sad Laughter.” It’s really just a collection of tweets and tidbits that are probably only funny to other writers. Like: “Dreamed you got a rejection letter that thanked you for submitting your manuscript and then told you to burn in hell.” I’m a writer, so I found a lot of it hilarious—especially the one about selling your first novel for a copy of Playboywith Chyna on the cover. (P.S., my copy is autographed.)

This is fun, but the novellas are where it’s at. The first one, “Sexy Time in the Spook House, Oh Yeah!” by Brian Alan Ellis, is about a dude who lives in a spook house and is in a relationship-type thing with someone referred to as Sexy Time. He faces the usual trials and tribulations, which involve drunken karaoke to Alabama songs and girls in hippie dresses peeing in his living room.

The second novella, “Calm Face” by Bud Smith, is about a dude who lives in New York and gets grumpy about his corner bodega disappearing. He kind of wanders around and is awkward. He fills a pool in his apartment with a hose and calls it his hot tub. The water overflows and goes into his downstairs neighbor’s apartment, but she already hates him anyway. He watches a horse shit in a bucket while eating a hot dog. I don’t know if he has a job; I’m guessing not.

It’s fun to laugh at slackers doing slacker business, right? –MP Johnson (House Of Vlad, houseofvlad.tumblr.com)