Anitclimax Leviathan By Ryan Bartek, 404 pgs.

What if I told you Ryan Bartek, author of Anitclimax Leviathan, compared himself to Henry Miller and he says he wrote like Miller before he even knew Miller existed? That would be annoying, right? Well, Bartek writes in the same manic style of Miller, but without the low points. Reading Miller is often like doing somebody else’s Ketamine. When his prose gets long-in-the-tooth, you start coming down and things get boring until you get another bump of transcendent prose. Bartek’s writing, however, stays compulsively readable.

Anticlimax Leviathan is a memoir told in a stream-of-consciousness style. Starting out in Detroit where he’s immersed in the underground music scene and a well-recognized heavy metal journalist, he energetically describes Detroit in the early aughts with engrossing tales of the desperate underground music scene in that decaying city. His eerie tales of booking shows in a cursed, haunted building where ghost fires would mysteriously combust, to those of his psycho friends whose mission was leading a terror campaign against Eminem are compelling.

Anticlimax Leviathan is interspersed with stories of Bartek’s desperation, like his stint as a taxi driver driving mentally ill folks around who’d been booted from the hospitals with nowhere to go, and the accident on that job left him with a cracked spine. Out of fear of getting caught scamming welfare, he can’t go to the hospital and gets strung out on pain meds scored off the street.

Eventually, he hits the open road for a year-long stint, crisscrossing the country on Greyhounds, often sleeping on the ground to write his magnum opus, Big Shiny Prison. He also ends up in a very dark place attempting to pull off a Tyler Durden-style cult called the Pan-Tribal Conspiracy. Then he willfully and joyously lives on the streets of Seattle, running around with his buddies starting something called Free Therapy and finally comes out of the closet as bisexual and attempts to navigate mainstream gay bars, coming away only with contempt for them. He then gets immersed in Occupy Portland.

Most of the book, though, is about chasing women from Florida to Portland to Seattle and back to Detroit. In fact, mostly, it’s about these dysfunctional relationships he has with these women. Women who he gives names like Mistress Maam, Clownbaby, and [][][] (yes, [][][]). Shockingly, even here, I never tire of reading. The dude can just write.

However, there’s a lot not to like about Bartek. He’s cringingly politically incorrect (to be fair, this came out in 2015 and takes place mostly in the early aughts, (a cringey time for myself as well)). He’s a megalomaniac, to the point of referring to himself in the third person under names like GhostNomad, Quixxote, and more. He’s also a misogynist. The flippant way he refers to the sexual assaults of women he knows is, particularly, bristling. Yeah, I can’t say Bartek is anybody I’d ever want to meet, but I can’t deny that I just plowed through all four hundred pages of Anticlimax Leviathan. –Craven Rock (Anomie Press, bigshinyprison.com)

Colorado Crew: Denvoid Pt. 2 By Bob Rob Medina and Sonny Kay, 322 pgs.

Bob Rob Medina and Sonny Kay are both veterans of the Denver, Colo., area punk/hardcore scene, and both are established visual artists. Their book Colorado Crew: Denvoid Pt. 2 is a mindblower from first glance on. This gigantic book documents the Denver/Boulder scene between 1988 and 1996. Each one of the 320 pages is beautifully printed in full color and packed with local punk rock history, as well as photos, fliers, artwork, drawings, random band graphics, et cetera. The devotion required to realize a project of this magnitude is immeasurable and inspirational.

The bulk of the text is made up of interviews with over sixty people who were entrenched in the Denver/Boulder scene of that era: band members, label/zine folks, promoters, artists, wastoids, and other fixtures. I’d heard of a few of the bands/people featured in this book before reading it: Donut Crew Records (founded by Medina in 1988), Cavity (I played with another band called Cavity in the mid-’90s, so I was always like, “Who the hell is that?”), Warlock Pinchers, and the Fluid. A few obvious (to an outsider like me) groups, like Dead Silence and the Nobodys, are not interviewed here (Dead Silence does have a two page spread with photos and fliers, but no interview), and I have yet to find an explanation for this in the book.

The interviews are in depth and entertaining, and they often cross-reference in a way that keeps the story moving. After reading one person’s interview, you’ve learned enough about another figure to be thoroughly interested in theirs. Example: I had never heard of Tom Headbanger (show promoter) before, but after reading about him in other interviews, I was surprisingly stoked when his chapter came up.

The accounts in the interviews frequently overlap and sometimes hilariously contradict each other (I mean, we are talking about punks here). In fact, Colorado Crew unfolds in fashion reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, which is told not chronologically but from each character’s point of view. Similarly, in Colorado Crew, you must read through the interviews and put two and two together for the larger picture to present itself. Ultimately, the stories combine to create a familiar scenario—triumphs, failures, friends made, friends lost, venue owners infuriated, cockhorses ridden—that is both moving and relatable.

Colorado Crew: Denvoid Pt. 2 has the content density of a large college textbook on punk rock. There is a lot to read here, and the print is tiny (some of it is hard to read for an original gang member like myself). The price of this book (around $30) might seem high, but once you have it in your hands, you’ll understand that no amount of money could begin to cover the work that went into creating it—not to mention the cost of printing such a book. This is clearly a labor of love. –Buddha (Robot Enemy Books, bobrobart.bigcartel.com)

Death of You, The: A Book for Anyone Who Might Not Live Forever By Miguel Chen, 152 pgs.

At the end of 2019 I experienced a lot of loss. First was my dad in mid-October, then it was three friends within eight days. Two of those were back to back. It felt like just when I started getting used to those feelings of grief—or thought I was—another one hit harder. In a way I was closer to accepting the news of each passing friend as I went to four memorials in a week’s time.

I almost bought this book from Miguel after his yoga session at Fest, but didn’t feel like I was ready for it yet, so I grabbed his other book first. Then I put off my grief about my dad as long as possible. (Four months later there’s still a massive box of photos I haven’t had the energy to look through.) But after that second run of loss, I knew I needed to dig into this book. Miguel’s last one taught me how to adopt gratitude just for being alive and inspired me to change the name of my alarm to “Happy to be here,” so it’s the first thing I see every day. I got deeper into a meditation practice and became calmer as well as mindful.

For Death of You however, I needed to face hard truths full on. We are all going to die someday. Yeah, it’s not a shock to most people. But for me, I’ve often let the fear of dying occupy my mind in a way that causes intense anxiety. Reading through this book and practicing some of the meditations Miguel lays out have really helped me curb that.

He goes through stages of grief, outlines his own experience losing close family and friends, learns how to accept the inevitable, and breaks down ways to deal with the many causes of death. Within that he includes unexpected loss, ones you could kind of see coming (terminal illness, old age), suicide, and murder. None of this is easy to process, and he also explains that the stages of grief (DABDA: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) don’t always happen in a specific order.

Some of the meditations offered in here help establish a meditation foundation: finding moments of peace; exploring what our own personal version of hell looks like; avoiding distraction and embracing wholeness; forgiveness; and, finally, our own death. In the last one, Miguel teaches the nine Buddhist contemplations of death. Throughout the entire book, he keeps the language non-denominational and open for each person’s individual belief system.

While I’m not quite ready for the death meditation, all of the practices and words of wisdom are extremely helpful. Miguel writes in a very conversational tone, which makes the book very accessible. I love that all of this comes from the mind of a punk (bassist of Teenage Bottlerocket!), but he opens it up to any living person grappling with these parts of our existence. –Kayla Greet (Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm St., Somerville, MA 02144)

East Pittsburgh Downlow By Dave Newman, 459 pgs.

Sellick Hart is a former welder who wrote formulaic romance novels for a paycheck on the side. A kindly dean at the local community college hired him to teach creative writing after reading a newspaper profile on the author. Hart, who’s accustomed to wielding a torch under bridges in freezing cold weather, appreciates the good fortune of bumbling into his academic gig. He also realizes its inherent contradiction: his students are in school to further themselves, to get out of bad jobs and bad situations, “to not be” whatever they are any more. Judging them on the short stories they write—often based on their own lives—won’t get them hired. There’s nothing to do but present ideas the best he can, and offer encouragement.

As Hart teaches, he nurses a flirtation with a bartender at his local bar who doubles as his student. He maintains a relationship with his mom, hangs out with an ex-NFL player friend who has just gotten out of jail, and pecks away at a novel. Not a romance novel written under an assumed name, but a literary novel about people like himself and the students he teaches. Hart says “the places where most Americans work are the least likely to appear in novels” and yearns to honestly portray those Americans whose voices are underrepresented.

In the midst of this, a student uses a handgun to kill himself in one of Hart’s classes.

Dave Newman’s writing on class issues is never self-congratulatory, and never feels forced. I get the sense that he’s writing what he knows, like Sellick Hart. And it’s not just class that Newman writes about, either: watching Hart sink into the depths of depression following the classroom suicide is a stark treatise on the realities of depression, repressed trauma, and self-delusion. All of this is delivered in an imminently readable style. His prose is unfussy but scattered throughout are great lines, gems which made me put the book down and catch my breath; no shit.

East Pittsburgh Downlow is the second of Newman’s books I’ve read (the excellent Two Small Birds was the first). I teach at a community college, so it’s no surprise that the ideas of students attending “to not be” resonates with me. But the weary sympathy in his particular brand of realism offers a sense of hope in the face of struggle even to those outside of the academic racket. Dave Newman’s work has a huge heart and is worth seeking out. –Michael T. Fournier (J. New Books, jnewbooks.com)

An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels By Josh MacPhee, 196 pgs.

I bet you didn’t know you needed an encyclopedia of political record labels, did you? Okay, this slim, easily digestible volume might not be a necessity, but it would be an excellent addition to your bathroom shelf, wedged between your Ben Snakepit and Liz Prince collections. This is actually the third edition and it contains 789 short entries on “political record labels” around the world, each about a paragraph in length and highly informative. You aren’t gonna read this cover-to-cover, and while it’s an excellent resource in its own right as a reference book, its value comes from providing useful and entertaining nuggets of information about random and obscure labels you’ve probably never heard of before.

I like this book a great deal, but I do have some serious criticisms. I’m about to rant, so bear with me here. MacPhee says he grew up enmeshed in the DIY punk scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but by the turn of the century his love of music had been “crushed” by his “disillusionment with the potentials of political punk.” Fair enough. I won’t begrudge him his loss of faith.

Nor will I fault him on his musical evolution into folk and “world music.” It was that journey, after all, which led him to start compiling a list of what he considers political record labels. He states clearly in the Introduction that he limits “record labels” to those that released vinyl records and his understanding of “political” is also limited to exclusively leftist and/or nationalist politics. He has no interest in compiling information on right wing labels. And while I’d personally find information on such labels useful (know your enemy), I don’t fault MacPhee for not wanting to damage his soul by doing so.

I also don’t fault him for only looking at labels from the 1970s to 1990s. I get it; lines sometimes need to be drawn. But I question his justification for imposing a cut-off date of the mid-1990s. He gives two reasons: vinyl was in decline and bands weren’t political anymore. Specifically, he says that music became “more about politics than of it.” Excuse me? That’s some serious bullshit there. MacPhee makes that claim because he stopped being engaged in the late-1990s. That was his decision and that’s fine, but I have serious problems when someone is generalizing and making grand pronouncements about scenes that (by their own admission) they stopped paying attention to.

Any regular reader of Razorcake is familiar with plenty of political punk labels of the past two decades. Moreover, MacPhee dismisses the “return” of vinyl as a boutique fashion being driven by Barnes and Noble and their ilk. I’m sympathetic to that complaint, but many DIY punk labels never stopped pressing vinyl and still do. What’s more, let’s be honest about the fact that vinyl is a Western luxury and many non-Western labels release their music on cassettes and CDs for good reason (for instance, they’re cheaper, more mobile, and hold up better in tropical climates). So just looking at vinyl-releasing labels ignores a huge swath of important political labels around the world. Okay, rant over.

If these things bother you too, just skip the introduction and dive into the almost eight hundred entries. There so much to enjoy here. This is ultimately a labor of love and, even with my criticisms, I am happy MacPhee has such an obsessive fixation (also check out his ongoing zine series, Pound The Pavement). I’m also glad that the press, Common Notions, ponied up the money for full-color logos throughout and let MacPhee design the cover and internal layout. It is gorgeous. –Kevin Dunn (Common Notions, 314 7th St., Brooklyn, NY, commonnotions.org)

Four-Year Depression By Billy McCall, 95 pgs.

I’ve enjoyed reading Billy’s zines for well over a decade now—especially his Last Night at the Casino series—and his other zine, Proof I Exist, is also good. Thus, I was happy to get his book, Four-Year Depression, to see how his writing would fare in a longer format.

The subtitle on this book is “How to Love Your Family (even though they voted for you-know-who),” which informs the reader that the material in these ninety-five pages isn’t about Billy’s battle with mental health issues but rather a tale of how to deal with Donald Trump’s presidency. (Ironically, I wrote a zine about my initial shock and fear after Trump was elected in 2016.) Billy explores his experience the night of the 2016 Presidential election. He writes about what went on for him that night, but also the range of emotions he went through.

Billy also isn’t afraid to write of his politics, which are far left leaning. He delves into the problems of the American political system, including how the main two parties aren’t really that different (yep). He acknowledges that Hillary Clinton wasn’t an ideal candidate but in comparison to Trump, she was certainly the better alternative.

Four-Year Depression isn’t just about his thoughts on politics and the election of Trump, though. What makes the book special is how it ties in with finding out his family voted for Trump. How does one negotiate a family who you love and care about but who also voted for someone you find reprehensible? Billy explores the ups and downs, especially in light of how his concern for his brother brings him closer together with his mother, even though she voted for “you-know-who.”

It’s the personal angle that causes this book to be a winner. Something that focused on only the political frustrations or the faults of Trump would’ve been redundant in the face of everything we’ve all read the past four years. But the complications that come with loving family that also hurts you is what gives this book depth.

That said, I felt this book could’ve used the help of an editor. In case it doesn’t sink in the first few times, Billy makes it clear that he really hates Trump. And while I totally agree, some of the content was redundant and could’ve been cut. Many of us are aware of what a horror Trump is and capturing that in the course of a chapter instead of spread throughout the book would’ve enabled Billy to focus more on the material that is key to this book’s success. Still, Four-Year Depression is definitely worth a read, especially if you’ve enjoyed Billy’s writing over the years. –Kurt Morris (iknowbilly.etsy.com)

Music Is Power: Popular Songs, Social Justice and the Will to Change By Brad Schreiber, 237 pgs.

What’s better than a book you didn’t know you needed?

Music Is Power is a history of the nexus of music and protest, from Wobbly-turned-musician Joe Hill to Green Day, from folk to hip-hop.

The other punk musicians covered are Dead Kennedys and the Sex Pistols. I learned a few things about each, just as I learned a few things about every musician or band. For example, Frank Zappa’s music was a fuel of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution (knew that), and Soviet secret police would threaten demonstrators by saying, “I’m going to beat the Zappa out of you.” (Didn’t know that.)

And I’d known nothing about the political landscape of Jamaica during Bob Marley’s life, and now feel ready to tackle Marlon James’s epic novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, which centers on the attempted assassination of Marley, and on the forces behind it.

Music Is Power is a university-press book, and priced accordingly, but I assume most libraries would order it. –Jim Woster (Rutgers University Press, rutgersuniversitypress.org)

Salted Plastic: Tales of Los Angeles Gentrification By Nathan Castellanos, 85 pgs.

Why use a scalpel when you have a bazooka? This Los Angeles satire uses capital letters and boldface like one of those Lyndon LaRouche tracts I used to find on the subway. I get that humor is implied in the zany character names and overwrought descriptions, but using the heaviest, meanest sledgehammer to make every point desensitized me to any charms herein, and quickly. Maybe this lack of dynamics is an intentional reflection of Los Angeles. If so, the joke’s on me, I guess. –Michael T. Fournier (Self-published)

Shining Man By Todd Dills, 304 pgs.

In Shining Man, Todd Dills spins a fantastic, gently unreliable narrator in his character Cash. He’s an over-educated guy with “more than a little of that tendency integral to the mad mind of the Southern hedonist to elevate [himself] to mythic status,” stuck for years, through his own inertia, in a gig as a Carolina fry cook. That is, until the events of the novel are jerked into motion by absence. Cash’s deadbeat dad Ralph disappears from his Chicago apartment. Cash drives his janky car up to Illinois, claims his father is dead, finds work at a bar, and starts writing (the narrative is peppered with footnotes-as-examples).

He finds a trove of reflective vests in his father’s apartment, sews them all together, and becomes Shining Man. He walks onto a highway median, where oncoming headlights blind drivers when they bounce off his suit. Cash escapes police detection by jumping into the back of a pickup truck piloted by a sympathetic driver.

Photos of the Shining Man go viral then get turned into the subject of an art exhibition, culminating in many shining suits being disseminated amongst gallery-goers and into the streets of Chicago (and we later see similar suits on a marching band). Cash leaves Chicago for Birmingham, then, later, for the pit crew of a racecar team for one of his high school classmates, then, finally, to Charlotte. Dills renders all this change easily, with nary a seam to be found—he’s impressive on the keyboard.

Threads of modernism are woven through Shining Man: a mysterious note is handed off to Cash by Suited Man, whose (perhaps non-)presence in the novel’s background is Nabokovian; characters named Tacklebox and V nod to Pynchon, as do slogans (DOWN WITH DEBT; WE ARE OUT HERE), racecar conspiracies, actual Nazis. A kind of self-reference familiar to readers of the genre permeates—with enough subtle inconsistency—Cash’s narration to keep astute readers on their toes throughout.

Beyond all this, and beyond the entertainment value of Cash’s road trip, Dills hones in on identity, the need to be seen, excess, self-awareness (and sometimes a lack thereof) throughout. At one point, in Chicago, Cash says, “You can be whatever you want, really: I hadn’t understood that.” Shining Man asks what Cash—what we—want to be, echoing Vonnegut’s declaration in Mother Night that, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend.”

Sounds like a lot, right? It is. Shining Man is dazzling, confusing and honest; a bold take on Southern writing traditions that ruminates on both the region and the modern era, whatever that means in 2020. In Shining Man, Todd Dills confronts us with the true meaning of the phrase “reflective of our times” and its connection to self-identity. What a trip! –Michael T. Fournier (Livingston Press, livingstonpress.uwa.edu)

Texas Is the Reason: The Mavericks of Lone Star Punk By Pat Blashill, 240 pgs.

Texas is the birthplace of some of the fiercest and uncompromising punk rock ever created. As Gary Floyd, vocalist for Austin band the Dicks, is quoted here: “I’m a redneck fag. It’s like, ‘You don’t like it? Fuck you.’” Like the Lone Star State itself, Texas Is the Reason: The Mavericks of Lone Star Punk is immense, and author Pat Blashill uses his iconic photographs of stalwart Texas-tough bands like the Big Boys, the Dicks, Scratch Acid, the Offenders, and the Butthole Surfers to tell his version of the story of Texas punk rock in the early ’80s.

Photographer/journalist Blashill’s book is heavy on the Butthole Surfers, which is great for a lifelong fanatic like me. At the time, the Butthole Surfers had to be one of the most visually compelling underground acts ever to exist, and the massive number of Surfers photos in Texas Is the Reason are about as twisted and provocative as any I’ve seen. On the other hand, I find myself wishing this was balanced out a little with more pics of slightly lesser known bands, like the Dicks or the Hickoids, as the photos of these bands that are included in this book are fantastic.

The book’s publisher Bazillion Points never fails to produce a fantastic looking book, and Texas Is the Reason is no exception. This is a super-nice hardbound edition with killer cover art and cool embossed lettering down the spine. The inner page printing is top notch as well, with huge crisp, photographs presented flawlessly on glossy pages throughout the book, ensuring that the author/photographer’s obvious passion is properly conveyed.

Texas Is the Reason also includes seven essays by Texas punk veterans like film director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock), Blashill himself, and a few others. David Yow’s story about getting locked in his University of Texas dorm room when he was about to go out to see the Dicks is pretty hilarious, and Teresa Taylor of the Butthole Surfers has a “Top-Ten” Texas punk records segment that is essential.

The few photos of bigger non-Texan bands (Devo, Dead Kennedys, Samhain) are great, they look fantastic and all, but they don’t seem to add much to the story. However, the pics of the young and clearly rowdy Replacements are entirely priceless.

My only major complaint: not enough Wade Driver.

Texas Is the Reason: The Mavericks of Lone Star Punk is an outstanding photography book, a trip back in time, and an essential look at the early days of Texas punk rock. Calling this a coffee table book would be an injustice. The presentation of the photographs is thoughtfully executed, and the packaging is aesthetically unsurpassed. In fact, when I first picked up Texas Is the Reason and flipped through it, I thought to myself, “I would take a bullet for this book.” What would Oswald do? –Buddha (Bazillion Points, bazillionpoints.com)