Featured Book Reviews from Issue #88: Lit-rah-chur!

Nov 02, 2015

Cattle Cult! Kill! Kill!
By MP Johnson, 152 pgs.
First things first: this ain’t your grandpappy’s love story. In a small Wisconsin town, something strange is afoot. The story follows Remmy, a man in love and unwittingly in over his head. He and his girlfriend Sera are in a car crash on Highway Twenty-Nine. Bare-chested men wearing severed cow heads emerge from the snow and take them prisoner. The floodgates open and Remmy’s world, our world, will never be the same. Bovikraaga, an old god, has been awoken.

This is yet another book that makes me love bizarro fiction. It’s a genre that seems tailored to my love of B-movies, dark humor, and concision. It’s amazing how quickly MP can develop and deliver a story. Sure, there’s blood, cults, spiked pig head flails, and otherworldly corn stocks. However, underneath the gore and guts is a story. A romance. It keeps the character real and moving forward. That is one of my favorite things about bizarro fiction and MP’s storytelling; its and his ability to build characters quickly and non-trivially, to utilize the absence of rules to showcase the timeless ones, and to keep the stress on the latter half of shock value.

The story is fantastically over-the-top but so well-crafted and paced that the absurdity doesn’t prevent you from immersing yourself as it unfolds. It’s like a Tiki drink—lurid and potentially dangerous—but delivered with such a sincere intent on having a good time that you willingly imbibe its devil-may-care debauchery. Its pages almost stick together from all the blood and viscera throughout.

I often have a hard time watching or reading depictions of violence against women. I also unfailingly love any movie with more squib packs than actors and any book with a glossy, embossed cover and an adjective in the title. It’s important for me to be able to try to understand the director/author’s intent. Are they going for titillation, exploitation, realism, eroticism? If it’s not obvious at first blush, then I’m usually onboard. As a reader I want to be engaged with those types of questions. MP is able to be sensitive to a feminist perspective and yet stay true to the amorality inherent in a tale of the bizarre. Cattle Cult! Kill! Kill! is both unapologetic and thoughtful. I can see that MP is making decisions and going on instinct. Bizarro is like pornography; it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it. But unlike the vanilla allusions to anal sex in Lady Chatterly’s Lover, MP alludes to a man fellating two of his captors who have severed eyeballs affixed to the tips of their erections. Lit-rah-chur!

Highly recommended. –Matthew Hart (Strange House Books, roosterrepublicpress.com)

Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
By Michael Stewart Foley, 177 pgs.
Michael Stewart Foley’s Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetablesis one of the newest releases in the “33 1/3” book series, an on-going series of short works each focusing on an iconic record. It is sort of the pantheon of music-geekdom, where the books range from sophisticated analysis to rambling personal recollections. There have been a handful of punk albums covered in the series—such as the excellent Double Nickels on the Dimeby Michael Fournier—and they tend to be stand-outs. That remains true with this release, which may now be my favorite in the entire series. There are three factors that make this short book about the Dead Kennedys debut album such a gem. The first is the subject matter itself. In case you’ve somehow forgotten, the DKs’ 1978 debut contains such fantastic songs as “Kill the Poor,” “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” “Stealing People’s Mail,” “California Über Alles,” and “”Holiday in Cambodia,” to name just a few. You know that even a half-assed book about this album is going to be a great read, especially when much of the material is based on interviews with Jello Biafra, East Bay Ray, Klaus Fluoride and other significant players such as Mike Watt and V. Vale. As Foley argues, “Fresh Fruit was the most important, articulate, and accessible document of dissent to come from American youth in an age when it is generally assumed that American youth had given up. It is a political document for a generation, even if most of the generation missed it because they were still listening to fucking Hotel California.

As you may have concluded from that quote, the second strength of the book is Foley’s writing style. His tone is pitch-perfect, reflecting both his academic training and his punk rock roots, producing the equivalent of a scholarly spit-ball that complements the pissy intelligence of the DKs’ masterpiece. His writing is effortless, even when he is flexing his intellectual muscles. I’ve never met Foley, but as I read the book I got the strong feeling here was a guy I wanted to drink beer and talk about music with. There aren’t a lot of academics I can say that about.

And that gets me to the third strength: Foley is fucking insightful. That is readily apparent from the way he structures the book. He begins broadly, talking about the context of national politics in the late 1970s, and then narrows the scope with each subsequent chapter, shifting from the national, state, local, and down to the San Francisco punk scene. Each chapter is rich in historic detail and analysis, with the discussions around the intricacies of San Francisco politics—from the tragic assassination of Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk to the rise of Diane Feinstein and her unsavory allegiance with landlords and real estate developers—being particularly insightful.

I grew up on the East Coast and while I’ve always liked Fresh Fruit, I realize now I never fully recognized what was going on with the album. As I read Foley’s book, I found myself constantly re-listening to the album with fresh ears, my appreciation and admiration of it growing every time. As he concludes: “Fresh Fruit brought outrage and caustic analysis in equal measure, anger, insult, and gallows humor, all wrapped up in a distinctive sonic attack… an honest assessment of the state of the union, free of the bullshit and lies that defined mainstream American political culture.” Foley’s excellent little book has more than convinced me that Fresh Fruit was a vital act of rebellion and a fucking masterpiece. –Kevin Dunn (Bloomsbury, 1385 Broadway, NY, NY 10018, bloomsbury.com)

Pipe Bomb for the Soul
By Alice Bag, 112 pgs.
Pipe Bomb for the Soul
is a collection of Alice Bag’s memoirs from her time spent in Nicaragua in 1986. If you are a fan of Bag’s 2011 memoir Violence Girl, as I am, then this slim volume is a welcome sequel of sorts. When discussing her immediate post-Bags life in Violence Girl, Bag mentions going back to college and the month she spent in Nicaragua that changed her life. I remember wishing she wrote more about that experience (especially because I spent time in Nicaragua two years after her). Lucky me, almost the entire Pipe Bomb is composed of her journal entries during this time, as she travels to Nicaragua as part of an internationalist group to help peasants in the northern part of the country. Less than a decade before, the Sandinistas overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator and established a revolutionary socialist society. Ronald Reagan’s administration sought to undermine and destroy the revolution, in part by establishing and funding the Contras. If this isn’t a familiar history to you, go pick up a few American punk albums from the 1980s and there will undoubtedly be plenty of references to it.

While most political punks in the ‘80s were content to sing about what a dickhead Reagan was, Bag actually traveled to Nicaragua to help out, first in the fields and then in the classroom (on a literacy campaign that was hugely successful and had profound implications). The diary entries cover her cultural shock at being in an impoverished rural community, to her awakening to the feminist aspects within the Sandinista struggle, to a self-awareness of revolution as a political and personal process. As she repeatedly observes, “the revolution starts within.”

Bag sprinkles her diary entries with historical facts to provide context, as well as a number of thematic box inserts, such as “Fuck This!” (when she recognizes bad thinking in her own journal writing), “Seeds for Germination” (to identify ideas that entered her subconscious and impacted her life later) and “Upon Reflection” (where she critically reflects upon her entries from her current perspective). When I read Violence Girl, I was entranced by Bag as a writer. She is open, honest, and engaging in that book, and in this one as well. My sole complaint is that I really wanted there to be more contemporary reflection from her on her entries from thirty years ago. The book might have been even more powerful if it were twice as long with many more thoughtful “Upon Reflection” interventions throughout. But Bag follows the logic of “leaving them wanting more.” Ultimately, this is a wonderful book and Alice Bag is a fucking gem. I look forward to reading whatever she writes next. –Kevin Dunn (Alice Bag Publishing, PO Box 41812, LA, CA 90041)

Please Bee Nice: My Life Up ‘Til Now
By Gary Floyd with David Ensminger, 69 pgs.

Gary Floyd was the singer for The Dicks, one of Texas’ most infamous and revered punk bands. His autobiography Please Bee Nice: My Life Up ‘Til Now documents Floyd’s upbringing, the formation of The Dicks (and the “‘new’ Dicks” in San Francisco), his employment at a runaway shelter, and his journey to spiritual awakening. The writing is matter-of-fact and concise. Floyd wastes no words and is never self-indulgent. The rare photos and fliers enhance a sense of time and place.

The anecdotes are engrossing, particularly his miserable accounts of the Rock Against Reagan Tour. Hippies and turkey dogs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner hampered his ability to enjoy the countrywide trek. Cameos such as MDC, Black Flag, Soundgarden, and Nirvana illustrate Floyd’s diverse musical trajectory from abrasive, in-your-face punk to blues-rock (he became frontman of Sister Double Happiness in the ‘80s, who eventually released a record through Warner Bros).

Floyd is forgiving in his recollections. He is rarely critical of bandmates or friends, instead he openly expresses his regrets and mistakes. He admits that reforming The Dicks in San Francisco without any original band members besides himself was a selfish move. He recognizes that his attempt to become a monk was foolish because of his inability to refrain from sex. His humility is admirable: “I was hardheaded and wanted to do it anyway.”

Ultimately, Please Bee Nice is written by man who has learned from his experiences. He wants nothing but kindness and companionship from here on out: “Getting my hand bit a lot has caused me to be cautious and think ahead before doing it... my road has led me from ‘me saving the world’ to just ‘me trying to save me’ as I get really old.” If Gary Floyd, the cannonball frontman of The Dicks, can find inner peace—then there is hope for us all. –Sean Arenas (Self-published, $10, thedicksfromtexas.com)

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