Ishmael Reed

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By Ray Sawhill

You don’t turn to Ishmael Reed’s fiction for fully-rounded characters in whose detailed and textured world you lose yourself only to re-emerge refreshed and renewed. You turn to it for zig-zaggy energy, iconoclastic brains, and freaky satire. Novels such as “The Free-Lance Pallbearers” and “Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down” — if those titles make you smile, you’ll probably enjoy the books — are less likely to call to mind comparisons with “Middlemarch” than they are with “Krazy Kat,” R. Crumb, and “Richard Pryor Live in Concert.” They’re like underground comix for the literary audience.

Reed, perhaps the premier trickster figure of current American letters, is a whirlwind of industry and deviltry. He has written plays, as well as volumes of poems and essays, and has founded small magazines and a prize-awarding literary organization, the Before Columbus Foundation. Although generally well-reviewed, and turned to by the media for his reliably corrosive observations and commentary, he has seldom gotten the credit he has earned as a literary innovator. (It’s the fate of humorists not to receive the recognition they deserve for their achievements as technicians, let alone artists.) In “Mumbo Jumbo” (1972), for instance, Reed mixed up fictional and historical figures, and spliced newsreel and fantasy elements into his story lines, three years before E.L. Doctorow was lauded for doing similar things in the smoother and more polished “Ragtime.”

Usually at his best in short bursts of invention and ridicule, Reed may be more valuable as a provocateur than for any of his individual works, some of which are reminders of how exhausting and antic ’60s-style writing can be. And recently his attitudes have taken a more earnest, and more predictably multicultural, turn than his fans might prefer. (It’s a lot more fun watching Reed go nuts than it is learning what he actually believes.) But when he’s on his game, no writer has been better at conveying how crazy, man, crazy our racial jambalaya can render a soul. His most sustained performance, and the best place to start, is “Escape to Canada,” in which he plays harlequin changes on the traditional slave narrative.

©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literature.

“Joe College” by Tom Perrotta

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By Ray Sawhill

Tom Perrotta, the author of “Bad Haircut” and “The Wishbones,” is like an American Nick Hornby: companionable and humane, lighthearted and surprisingly touching. And with his new novel, “Joe College” (St. Martins), he has delivered another sweetheart. Danny, a New Jersey working-class boy at Yale circa 1980, finds himself both enchanted by a schoolmate and dodging calls from a hometown girlfriend. Spring break, and the inevitable crisis, loom.

There may never have been a more unassumingly winning treatment of a young man’s divided loyalties. Danny shares an ease with his old Jersey friends, yet many of them are already going to seed. He values the intellectual rapport he has with his Ivy League chums, yet they’re bafflingly high-strung creatures. And why, these days, does he find himself so often acting like a rat? “I hadn’t been this way before college, I was sure of it,” he reflects. Perrotta has established a slightly befogged comic landscape that’s his alone, though fans of such quirky indie films as “Chasing Amy” and “Dazed and Confused” will feel right at home too.

© 2000 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“The Wishbones” by Tom Perrotta

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By Ray Sawhill

We’ve seen all too much fiction that treats our supposedly postmodern woes — family “dysfunction,” men who won’t grow up, etc. — in solemnly self important tones. Finally, here’s a novel that takes a look at these subjects and does so comically and open-endedly. Tom Perrotta’s “The Wishbones” (Putnam) is like an early Jonathan Demme movie — low key, fond of American forms of eccentricity, and peopled by loony self starters.

It’s basically a scuffed-up romantic comedy. Dave is 31 and still rooms with his parents in their suburban New Jersey home. He’s had the same girlfriend, Julie, for 15 years, and he lives for his weekends playing guitar in a rock band; the big time may have happened to someone else, and the Wishbones may perform mostly for wedding receptions, but Dave still thinks of himself as a rock musician. One night, he almost unintentionally suggests to Julie that they finally get married. She accepts delightedly, then says exactly the wrong words: “there are other things in life besides playing music” — ie., she wants him to herself on Saturday nights. As the wedding preparations proceed, Dave’s life takes a nosedive. A d.j. who spins discs at parties starts to underprice the local bands. Dave stumbles into an affair with a Downtown poet; she has her own troubles. When one of the women he’s made unhappy tells him not to talk to her anymore because “It just makes it worse,” Perrotta writes: “Dave knew better than to ask her to clarify her pronouns.”

Perrotta sets the novel in a landscape of pizza joints, cloverleafs, and chain motels. His characters, their brains equally innocent of zoning laws, are resourceful and animated, and they keep revealing unexpected sides. A guy Dave imagines to be his nemesis turns out to be smart and likable; banal, sweetly bourgeois Julie adores the song “Cocaine.” Perrotta’s special comic tone is slow-burning, rueful acceptance. When Dave anxiously asks an older buddy about being a married man, the buddy says: “I got a house, a wife and kids, and a job that doesn’t make me want to buy a gun and go wreak havoc at the mall. I get to play music on the weekends and drink a couple of beers every once in a while. Things could be worse, Daverino.”

Perrotta may work as a creative writing teacher at Harvard, but he isn’t above doing some actual research; the wedding-reception and wedding-band lore he supplies add a lot to the book’s lived-in texture. And if no-win predicaments keep coming at Dave from out of nowhere, so do happy surprises. One night, drunk and pleased with life, Julie tugs open Dave’s belt. “In the whole pantheon of sex,” Dave reflects, “almost nothing beat a blow job when you least expected it.” “The Wishbones” is a hybrid of the rhymed and the unplanned — a small-scale comedy of accomodation and unresolution that’s full of loopiness and warmth. Like “Bad Haircut,” Perrotta’s 1994 collection of stories, it’s a minor work but a major pleasure.

©1997 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

“True Story” by Bill Maher

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By Ray Sawhill

Bill Maher’s “True Story” (Simon & Schuster) is a true curiosity, a book by a popular hotshot (in this case the host and producer of TV’s “Politically Incorrect”) that isn’t an autobiography or a transcribed routine. Instead, it’s an episodic novel about a group of standup comics back in 1979 and 1980. New York City might be a fast-decaying relic, but the standup scene is prospering. Headquarters is The Club, an Upper East Side dive where the fellows go to “work out,” impress women, booze, agonize about their careers, and indulge in obscene-joke shootouts. Every now and then one of these hotshot-wannabes takes a gig in the sticks and shows the rubes a thing or two. Every now and then the rubes show the city boy a thing or two of their own.

At first, the book seems an underdramatized blur. It’s all observations, more a description of a novel than the novel itself. And while the writing has the top-this rhythms of standup, its tone is morose, in a guy-taking-stock-of-his-life way — perhaps because Maher wrote the book in the early ‘90s, between his years as a standup and when he developed “Politically Incorrect.” But Maher has a gift for guys-are-like-this / gals-are-like-that riffs, and the more he complicates the lives of his main characters with love and sex, the more his overgrown boys become distinctive.

And, in the book’s second half, he comes through with a handful of well-conceived scenes. One of them — a comedian-has-an-epiphany chapter, not an easy thing to carry off — delivers an impressively maudlin-yet-bitter wallop; it should be used as a shillelagh with which to tease oversensitive creative-writing students. The creepy competitiveness, the behind-the-scenes lore and the raunchiness all start to work, supplying a texture that’s rank and seductive.

At its best, the book suggests a half-baked cross between “Diner” and “Sweet Smell of Success.” Maher fans should enjoy it. So should anybody who’s fascinated by the standup life, as well as readers who like to fantasize about the movies good screenwriter / director teams might shape out of raw but rich material. Robert Getchell and Martin Scorsese, who worked together on “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” are you listening?

©2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review Section.

“Horny Biker Slut” by John Howard

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Hags on Hogs by Ray Sawhill

If you worry that upscale comic books such as Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” have destroyed comics as an unselfconscious entertainment vehicle, then you may find the work of John Howard in the irregularly-published smut comic book “Horny Biker Slut” (Last Gasp) rejuvenating and cheering. Printed in black and white on cheap paper, it’s disposable, gratuitous and inexcusably vulgar. It’s impossible to defend in any respectable terms.

Howard writes and draws two stories per issue, and includes a couple of full page drawings too. (The stories by other writers and artists in the issues touch on the same themes.) His work mostly features a rotating cast of motorcycle mamas—members of the Road Weasels. Life for the sluts, who are built like Olympic athletes, consists of riding choppers, participating in epic gang bangs, guzzling rotgut (preferred brand: “Antelope Piss”), and brawling with members of a rival gang, the Skull Fuckers.

Heavy on the blacks, cross-hatchings and Fritz Lang-like low angles, Howard’s visual style is out of expressionist woodcuts and the men’s room. It’s essentially a tribute to the inescapable physical crudeness of sex—to puddles and slime, appendages and clefts, puckers and oozings and stink. But Howard has the fastidiousness of the true pornographer, incising every curly hair on the underside of an overweight belly, every bump and hole in a pierced nipple, and every wrinkle in a tight scrotum with fondness and humor. Protrusions, flaps and orifices are made colossal with sexual assertiveness in ways that can make you giggle and gag. It has to be said that, as an artist at least, Howard has a way with sphincters.

Part of the fascination of smut of course is that it’s largely about your subjective response. In one story, a couple of buzz-cut toughs challenge the lead slut to screw them both. When they slam their monsters into her simultaneously, she gasps, then grits her teeth and calls out: “I got the strongest pussy-muscles in the tristate area! … Nobody fucks me into submission, losers!” Why do I find this cry of indomitability and pride more moving than Rastignac’s—”He eyed [Paris] … and said with superb defiance, ‘It’s war between us now!'”—at the end of “Pere Goriot”?

Howard is as crudely male as Henry Miller, and he has Bukowski’s gusto for the gutter. His work offers similar lewd, funny pleasures, but “Horny Biker Slut” has no surprises of melancholy or feeling. Howard is frankly skulking and furtive, and behind his deadpan is the spirit of a baggy-pants variety-show entertainer. “Horny Biker Slut” is also free of the element of generational self-congratulation boomer-era underground comix often had. In fact, I can’t detect a political or aesthetic agenda behind a single panel. (The dog collars, leathers and studs are blessedly un-chic.) In five issues, Howard hasn’t wimped out once; even the exhortations to practice safe sex are sweetly gross.

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Howard is so methodical and clear-headed a degenerate that he might be a family-man accountant whose ya-yas come from perpetrating the occasional anonymous outrage. In a note to his readers in his most recent issue he announced that he’d got married, but that we weren’t to worry—”she knows what I do for a living.”

The appeal of his fantasy for the (inevitably) male reader is that the sluts aren’t just huge, gorgeous and powerful—they’re also raunchier than you’ll ever be. No tender feelings here! (The sluts may be tough, frightening babes, but they’re still projections of male fantasies.) What the comic expresses (and celebrates) is the never-say-die quality of men’s ability to fantasize about sex—an ability many men enjoy equating with the life-force itself.

The best time to thumb through an issue of “Horny Biker Slut” is probably after an exhausting day at work. It hits the spot then as satisfyingly as booze; it makes you feel free to wallow in your surliness and resentment. The gentrifiers may have taken just about everything else from you, but you can still call the hostility and filth your own.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.