Friday, November 27, 2009

The Road

Ah, Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is, to me, a pretty strange time of year. I mean, either you're a thankful person or you aren't, in my opinion. If you're not thankful for your health, friends, family, loved ones, computer, car, shelter, grocery stores, running water, etc... all year round, it probably isn't going to really shine through on this one day of the year. Especially because most of us probably first experienced this holiday dressed up as pilgrims and Indians (back then they weren't being call Native Americans yet) in elementary school. At least I sure did.
My point is that this holiday isn't exactly sacred. In the way that Christmas was once about the birth of a deity-on-Earth and is now primarily about Christmas music/decorations appearing inappropriately early in stores and restaurants, Thanksgiving used to be a day on which people were truly thankful for the little that they had and is now about gluttony, football, and Black Friday shopping specials.
(Get ready for this transition, because it's fucking brilliant.)
I think that's a shame, because we have so much to be thankful for. Heat, food, shelter, and clean water are things that we so easily take for granted in this country while millions of people around the world go without, and it's important to recognize that more than one day a year. In fact, having electricity with which to play our sweet video games and refrigerators with which to store our delicious leftovers are a relatively new phenomenon in the big scheme of things. Rather than consider our technology a permanent fixture of life, you may consider it a flash in the pan random happenstance that could one day vanish as easily as it came. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the kind of book that reminds one of that possibility.
(Sweet Jesus, I NAILED that transition.)
If the man and the boy from The Road sat down to a Thanksgiving dinner at some point in the novel (not that they have any goddamn clue what year it is, let alone month) they would probably be thankful for absolutely nothing. Maybe the kid would be thankful for the one time he got to drink a Coca-Cola, and maybe the dad would be thankful for the one bullet he has left in his gun. But that's pretty pathetic, isn't it? I mean, that's stretching your thankfulness pretty thin. One bullet isn't even enough for a murder suicide, and you know that's got to just break the dad's heart.
The Road is a novel without hope, without any kind of light at the end of the tunnel. For nearly 300 pages the two nameless main characters march through "burned America" towards the coast for absolutely no reason other than the fact that they have nothing else to do. Well, also, they have to keep moving in order to find food. And to avoid the roving bands of cannibals, who seem to be the only other characters in the novel. Literally. Just about every single time you see another human being, he's about to eat somebody or he's being eaten. How absolutely horrifying is that?
What I like about the cannibals, though, is it really lets you know that McCarthy knows what he's doing here. (The Pulitzer Prize the book won in 2006 helps too, but I prefer the cannibals as my indicator.) I mean, roving bands of cannibals is not the first thing that pops into your head when you sit down to write a father-son post-apocalyptic road-trip novel. At least it wouldn't be my first thought. That kind of thing would come on the second draft when you realize that cattle, crops, and all other edible things would be unable to survive a nuclear holocaust. So what do people eat when they run out of canned corn? Answer: The only fresh meat left on Earth. The kind that can figure out how to survive something as unnatural as a nuclear holocaust.
And yes, this vision of post-apocalypse America IS a nuclear one, and I wouldn't concede that point if McCarthy himself told me something different. Don't let the movie trailers fool you into thinking that this was some sort of environmental catastrophe. In the novel they have to wear masks because the air is full of ash. The snow is gray. The sun is blotted out by a gray sky that never clears. Certain food is deemed unsafe to eat. Water has to be strained through a rag before it can be drank. Etcetera. I have no idea why they would change it for the movie, but let me assure you that we are seeing the aftermath of nuclear war here.
Also, that movie is going to suck. Don't see it. Watch the trailer on YouTube instead, because they used literally all of the action from the book in that two and a half minutes. The only reason that anyone would ever dare to make this book into a movie is because the last time somebody made one of McCarthy's books into a movie it won like 19 Oscars. (Even though I thought that movie was mediocre at best.) The book didn't win the Pulitzer because it would make a good movie. It won because...
Actually, that's a good question. To be honest, the entire time I read The Road I expected something to jump out at me, to really stun me and make me think differently about writing, the way that Pulitzers have in the past. (See: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The novel, not the blog post I wrote about it here. That post is terrible.) But, really, after finishing The Road I can't quite get behind all of the "A subtly brilliant, deeply disturbing, beautifully written, triumph of American Literature," talk that surrounds the book. It was good, sure. Quiet and beautiful I suppose. True to life in a painful sort of way and emotionally deep, but LOTS of books fit those descriptions, don't they? That's what a good book is all about.
I don't know. Either I'm desensitized by read one amazing novel after the other and my expectations are set so high that Pulitzers seem average, or I'm missing something about The Road.

NOTE: You'll notice I didn't discuss the fact that The Road is technically a work of science fiction, and the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction has generated some controversy amongst the nerds of literature.
That's because by "controversy" I mean that a lot of gloaty sci-fi nerds are writing up criticisms and blogs about a sci-fi novel winning the Pulitzer and rubbing them in an imaginary audience's face. "The Road is sci-fi, make no mistake! Literature snobs won't admit it, but it's true!" In reality, nobody cares. All great literature is stripped of genre when it would otherwise fit into one. You're not going to find Frankenstein in the horror section, now are you? Shut up, sci-fi nerds.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


It's no secret. I'm a middle-class white male, born and raised in suburbia, and I love rap. Like a lot. Like I listened to the Notorious BIG and little else for a year straight. And as strange as this sometimes seems to me, I think there's actually a perfectly good explanation for it.
First of all, rap is 90% dependent on lyrics, and I love words.
Secondly, beyond the amazing word-play and rhyming that comes with good rap, it also serves as a window into experiences that are completely alien to me. Hustling on street corners and plotting robberies are pretty far from my life experience so far, (but one can only hope.)
Those are two major reasons for my interest in rap, but there is one more reason that I think explains the fascination perfectly. Two words: Space Jam.

It's Michael's Secret Stuff

This was one of the first albums I ever owned, and for a time I listened to it like it was the only music in the world. Particularly, I liked the last track: Bugs Bunny's "Buggin." The fact that I liked a favorite cartoon character's rap over actual music definitely says something about my childhood, but I'm not sure what exactly.

I have a theory about rap, and it's this theory that I want to share with you today. Granted, my knowledge of the genre isn't incredibly expansive, but this is what I think and this is my blog, dammit, so I'm going to write it down.
The theory is this: Rappers only have two good albums in them. They have the album they write as young, poor men who saw no end to their hardships in sight, and they have the album they write after the success of their first album, in which they can reflect on their past and share new stories of their wealth.
As I said, rap is interesting to me because it is primarily words, but in order for the album to work, the words have to be good. For this reasons, I think a rapper's first album (and by this I mean the first commercial album with professional backing) is always the best.
Why? Let me tell you. First of all, as I said, the rap that I like is largely autobiographical. The first album is the poor album, the angry album. Let's take a look at the Notorious BIG.
In Biggie's first album, Ready To Die, he was completely desolate. He was a part-time crack-dealer and a part-time rapper. The majority of these songs are about the hopelessness of his environment, the extremities he will go to in order to escape his misery, and the small things in life that help him push through. "Gimme the Loot" is a song completely about robbing people on the street. Do you know how poor you would have to be to think about robbery so much that you could write an entire fucking song about it? The final song on the album, "Suicidal Thoughts," ends with the sound of a self-inflicted gunshot after Biggie completely villainizes himself to a friend over the phone and reasons that he can't go on because, basically, he's just a horrible person. That's insane. It's also incredibly interesting.
Apparently, a lot of other people thought so too, because this album eventually went quadruple platinum and the Notorious BIG has gone on to be one of the biggest names ever of rap. Because of his success, Biggie was immediately launched out of the Bedford-Stuyversant ghetto into millions of dollars. It was from this financial disposition that he wrote his second album: Life After Death. In this album, we see a newly rich man who just discovered that his wealth isn't enough to push away his misery. The final song on this album also focuses on his own death. Actually, it prophesies it. "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)," actually turned out to be sort of true for Biggie, and I think it's kind of true for all rappers. Just fifteen days before the album was released, he was killed in an unsolved drive-by murder and has since been more than a man, but more like a symbol for rap itself.
Now, let's take a look at Eminem.
Eminem's first album was amazing. Like Biggie, his lyrics primarily focus on a struggle with poverty, depression, and the small things that make his life easier. Primarily, these small things seem to be drugs and an explosively violent vocabulary, the latter of which would understandably ease tension and allow one to vent against the hardships of life. His second album, like Biggie's, was written after an incredibly quick rise to the top of American music charts, and once again we see that money is a relatively small problem when pitted against personal relationships and the pressure of remaining a success.
But then, what did Eminem do? He went ahead and stayed alive. Bad move.
Now, Eminem is on his fifth album, and personally I think that everything he's done after The Marshall Mather's LP is complete garbage. He can still rap, sure. He can still fill up a sixty-minute album with words, but they're not good words, so he's only doing half the job. I mean, how long can you go on rapping about killing people when everyone in the world knows for a fact that you live in a mansion and have more money than God? After the first two albums he completely ran out of material. In The Eminem Show he's rapping about Saddam Huessein and Osama Bin Laden. Also, he and Dr. Dre go on for five minutes in a song called "Say What You Say" when the entire song could basically be summed up in three words: Don't Talk Shit.
Personally, I would like to go back in time to fifteen days before the movie 8 Mile was released. Then I'd like to walk up behind Eminem, but a shotgun up to his brain stem, and pull the trigger. That way, when the movie came out along with the soundtrack and the two combined with The Eminem Show on the charts to give him the most commercial success of anyone in music history since The Beatles (which is to say, a number one movie at the box office, a number one album and a number three album all in the same week) he could have died a legend. Instead, he continues to stick around the radio, writing nonsense songs with absolutely no passion or emotion, and we are stuck listening to more half-hearted raps about his daughter.

Now, this brings us to an interesting question. Is art worth dying for? Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Kobain, even Elvis, they were all made rock-solid legends forever because they died young and at the tops of their careers.
And I quote: "Dying was a good career move for Elvis. What was he gonna do, get more unpopular? Keep touring? Wouldn't that be sad? A real old Elvis touring with Steppenwolf and shit?" - Bill Hicks
Maybe it's cruel to say I want to kill Eminem, but I have the best intentions. You can't write good rap once you've made it big. There's a reason Bill Gates doesn't rap. Alright, probably a few reasons. But he has the money to make it happen, so let's say Bill Gates did decide to release an album. Would you listen to it? Hell no you wouldn't, because Bill Gates is rich and comfortable and his life isn't interesting the way Eminem's and Biggie Small's lives were. If Eminem continues to produce music, he is doomed to fade into mediocrity, and arguably he already has. That can never happen to Biggie.
I'm a pretty staunch atheist, but sometimes I find myself believing in higher power, and the deaths of great talents is one of the most convincing arguments for these thoughts. As soon as Led Zeppelin started to suck, BAM, John Bonham died. As soon as Bill Hicks started to get famous and sort of happy with his life, WHAM, pancreatic cancer. As tragic as their deaths are for their fans, for their loved ones and, most of all, for them, you have to consider the effects.
Death means never having to sell out.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

East of Eden: Part 2

I finished East of Eden while I was in Alabama, reading by the light of my cellphone in a pop-up camper. I said that I would return to it if the ending did something really interesting and, as it turned out, it did. So here it is.

As I said last time, East of Eden is basically a modern (well, not so modern anymore) retelling of the stories of Adam and Eve, as well as Cain and Abel. And Steinbeck doesn't simply retell these stories, but shows the reader a family line whose descendants seem locked into reliving these stories. For example: two brothers named Charlie and Adam represent Cain and Abel near the beginning of the book. The two have a falling out, Adam moves on, marries, and has two sons named Caleb and Aron, and then those two begin to represent Cain and Abel.

So, what Steinbeck seems to be taking a look at here, in a lot of different ways, is what might be causing this? By dissecting three generations of two different families, Steinbeck gives the reader a lot to consider when judging the behaviors of the son vs. those of the father (or mother.) Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes and patterns of our ancestors, straight up the line back to Adam and Eve? Could it be possible that, just as parents pass one genes of eye color and nose shape that they could also pass on their cruelty and evil?

Ultimately, Steinbeck gives a pretty definitive answer to this question, which is no. And the way that he delivers it is pretty brilliant. The Bible passage from which the title of the novel is derived is the story of Cain and Abel, and this passage exists in its entirety in East of Eden. Three of the main characters discuss one word in particular within the passage, a word that changes depending on what translation of the Bible you read. In one Christian translation, God tells Cain "thou wilt triumph over sin." In another, God says "thou shalt." However, in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, God's words leave a little more wiggle room. He tells Cain, "thou mayest triumph over sin." Thou mayest in Hebrew is timshel.

Thou mayest triumph over sin. You don't have to, it's not an order, it's not restrictive. You have control over your own destiny, that's basically what that means. Because if God could eliminate all of your control from the situation and force you triumph over sin by setting you along a nonnegotiable path, he could obviously do the opposite, and those set along a dark path would forever stay on it. That's what the new translations imply. But, originally (or sort of originally) God said, "Hey, it's up to you, man. You may or you may not. Your choice." I like that.

Something else I liked about this book, and something that I didn't really realize until the end, is that there are hardly any likeable characters in this novel at all. Some are rude, some are arrogant, some are greedy, some are selfish, some are mean, some are jealous, some are ignorant and some are just evil. And these are the main characters I'm talking about. There are a lot of them so you get to rotate back and forth a lot, and I think that's important because if the reader had to stay with any one of these characters for more than a few chapters, it would become tiresome.

But that's because they're human. And I quote:
"I'd like to respond to the common complaint that Holden Caufield is an unlikable character by saying this: you are also an unlikable character. So am I." - John Green, author.

And so it goes with so many characters in fiction. A lot of characters are super likable in a way that just isn't true of real people. They're completely selfless and do incredible things. In East of Eden people are petty, people are thoughtless, they ignore each other and hide behind their fears and lose people close to them just because they were cowards. And it feels so real that you don't even care that you're not rooting for anyone because they're all sort of bastards.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Real Life Stories 3: Alabama

Honestly, I never thought I would go to Alabama. Out of all the places that I've imagined visiting, like London, Ireland, India, California, New York City, etc... I just never really pictured myself at a NASCAR event in Talladega. Not really my scene, you know? If you have a better candidate for the redneck capital of the world I would love to hear it, because I simply cannot fathom a better choice. Lindsay's joke was that if we had to take a shot for every single Confederate Flag tattoo we saw, not t-shirt or bumper sticker or flag being worn as a cape, but just tattoo, we would have died.
Yeah, it's pretty serious.

So anyways, the reason we were in Alabama in the first place was to help Nina (Lindsay's best friend's older sister) sell these things called Shotgun Champs. These are small plastic cylinders that fit over your beer, punch a hole in the bottom, and allow for a fast and clean way to shotgun. They are far superior to a knife or your keys (or your teeth, as some of these rednecks implied as their method.) Like I said, I never thought I would go to Alabama. Then again, I never thought someone would offer me $300 to leave Kalamazoo for five days and demonstrate something called a Shotgun Champ for twelve hours at a time. You can't say no to that. Not if you're any kind of decent person. I would have gone anywhere, literally anywhere, under those circumstances. And you must believe me, because Alabama is where I actually went.

The Drive Down
Let me just say this: Never before in my life have I had any kind of reverence for caffeine. Even as a kid, I don't really remember Mountain Dew ever doing anything for me. But now, I kind of think that, to a kid, caffeine might be like the first time you smoke pot. Maybe you don't realize it's working because you don't know what to expect, but that doesn't mean it isn't working. That said, during my three hour driving shift down to Alabama, I found the line at which caffeine cannot be ignored, and crossed it.
After drinking one of those gigantic $4 Red Bulls, everyone else in the car drifted peacefully off to sleep and left me alone with the road and the pop-up trailer we were hauling all the way across the country. I've never hauled anything before, so I was a little nervous about it, which is why I drank the Red Bull. I wanted to make sure I was extra alert and awake for my shift. It worked on the way to Arizona. It stood to reason it would work again. But, apparently, caffeine is like any other drug, in that when you are left alone while under its influence, the effects rapidly multiply.
I didn't want to drive. Instead, I wanted to jump out of the car and run down the freeway at 70 mph. My thoughts weren't so much thoughts, but more like a humming blur of nothingness. And I was seeing shit, which was the weirdest part. Lights on the side of the road were leaving trails across my vision. The shape of the headlights took on different forms, specific forms, like monsters and animals. My eyes refused to focus, and at first I thought I might be nodding off, but it was just the opposite. I was too awake. Too awake to drive a car.

Our Days in Alabama
The very first guy we met in Alabama was a 65 year old Vietnam vet named Moonshine, and the day I met him he was wearing a t-shirt that said: "Fuck you, I have enough friends."
Needless to say, I liked this guy immediately.
Moonshine first told me the story of how his pit bull killed a poodle WHILE THE POODLE'S OWNER WAS WALKING IT DOWN THE STREET. And then, when the owner called the police, Moonshine showed "the law" that he had papers for his pit bull, that it was a guard dog, and since it was on his property he wouldn't be putting his dog down. Instead, he bought the other man a new poodle.
Then, he told Lindsay, "with misty-eyed pride" a story about his wife. Apparently, Moonshine and Mrs. Moonshine have a barn, and in that barn they have roughly thirty feral barn cats. One day, a dog got into the barn and killed one of the thirty, and that just so happened to be Mrs. Moonshine's favorite cat "Snowball". So, she grabbed a gun (which was just so readily available) and chased after the dog with the intention of killing it, but the dog got away. Then, the next day, Mrs. Moonshine was driving home from work, saw the same dog on the side of the road, pulled over and shot the fucking dog. And, thusly, Snowball was avenged.

"You're gonna have to pack a lunch if you wanna fight this old man. See, I gotta finish you quick or else I have to shoot you." - Moonshine.

When we weren't listening to hilarious stories that could only be true in the South, we spent most of our days selling Shotgun Champs to skeptical NASCAR fans. Truth be told, you'd think that a NASCAR event would be the premier beer-drinking spot, but mostly the crowd was older and wary of such quick access to alcohol. "Ha ha, oh no no," said thousands of onlookers, passing our booth with what can only be described as clear and apparent fear of their own alcoholism.
Still, most of the time when we did a demo of the product, we sold at least one. So we shotgunned about twelve beers a day. That's really not that bad when you reason one per hour, with a bottle of water in between each one. In fact, I was hardly ever drunk in Alabama.
Except for Halloween night.
To be fair, it our last night there, and we'd been having a really good day. We met some young guys who were really into the product, and who were really nice, and who are probably going to meet us down in Panama, FL for Spring Break and help us sell down there. These guys were in and out throughout the night, and their names were AJ and Jake Went the Bull Rider. Well, somewhere between selling all day, talking with these guys and racing a young couple that walked past the booth and gave me their beer, I got drunk. I also spent ten dollars on a Cuban cigar that was supposedly hand-rolled by a real Cuban, but I now realize that could've been any dark-skinned fellow claiming to be Cuban and everyone in the state of Alabama would've believe it.
Oddly enough, just like the caffeine, I didn't really feel the full weight of the alcohol until I was alone. AJ and the Bull Rider went off to some country concert, Lindsay was off getting more beer, and I looked around me. The table was covered in beer and cigar ash, I was smoking and spitting instead of talking to potential customers, and the world wasn't spinning but it was sort of dancing.
"Oh. I'm drunk," I thought to myself. In lieu of paper towels I cleaned the table off the best that I could with the edge of an empty cigarette pack, and things went up from there.

My biggest regret about Alabama:
The guy next to one of the Shotgun Champ booths was selling deep-fried everything. The fact that there were deep-fried Twinkies not ten feet away from me and I didn't try a free sample... I may never forgive myself.

While the redneck capital of the world may not be the most fair place to make general observations about the South as a whole, I'm going to do so anyways.
Both Moonshine and another Alabama friend of ours named Brandon made one thing abundantly clear to us during our visit: racism is still very much alive and well in this world.
These were guys I liked, guys I talked to and laughed with, guys who seemed genuinely cool and interesting to me. And then that dark and terrible N word would come sailing out of their mouths like it was the most natural thing in the world.
"Oh I'm from North Carolina. The town I come from doesn't let n*ggers in." - Moonshine
"The crowds are easy to predict. In the morning you get the old people, because they get up the earliest. Then a little bit later you'll get the young people, because they were up all night partying and they sleep in. And you'll notice that the n*ggers are lazy and sleep in really late, so they come out last." - Brandon
Then, of course, on Halloween a man was running around in a monkey costume shouting "I'm Obama!" and an old woman gave him a hug because she liked this joke so much.
I have a theory.
I think the South is a very uncomplicated place, which isn't so surprising when you consider how these states rank in education. And that's not a slight, it's just an observation. A lack of education means a lack of complex thinking, and it's simple thinking that keeps everyone on the same page. Fly the Confederate Flag, believe in Jesus, watch NASCAR, listen to country, hate black people. That's the checklist, and that about covers it.
When you live in a society where 99% of everyone abides by these rules, you would never think twice about them. You would just accept them as the laws of life. That's why every other person we saw had a Confederate Flag tattoo. It's like, to be a good southern boy, you have to get the flag in ink on your 18th birthday. And that might not be so far off. They are so proud down there and so enthusiastic about their heritage. All you have to do is wear that Confederate Flag and you're in the club. They'll love you forever. It would be easy to forget that the rest of the country is always sort of snickering at you for being a bunch of dumb hicks. In fact, after a while, with so many like-minded thinkers around you, you would sort of start to take pride in it.