Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Marbled Swarm - Dennis Cooper (2011)

It's not often that I read other reviews of a book before I attempt to write my own.  I used to think that was "cheating" when I wrote film reviews for Washington Square News Weekend at NYU.  It was "cheating" because it was almost like I was afraid to say how I felt about something--or more specifically, afraid that I would praise a film that would be dismissed as a cinematic disaster, or pan a film that would show up on every critic's year-end top 10 list.

We are reaching an important point on Flying Houses.  Recently I applied for a Press Pass for the Pitchfork Festival.  If I get one, it will be the most audacious experience in our history, as I will try to bring in a cameraman and film interviews with the likes of St. Vincent and Beck.  But I won't find out until June and dreams tend not to come true.  Moreover, April 1st will mark our sixth birthday here, and I will post as I have the past couple of years an "MD&A."  After more than 270 posts, one would think I would have the courage to state how I felt about a book without consulting other reviews.  But The Marbled Swarm is one of the more troubling books I have read.  I both liked it, and didn't like it.  It's probably easiest for me to list all of the other books by Dennis Cooper that I have reviewed here and state that I liked it less than all of them.

That's my knee-jerk reaction before even checking all of the others.  But between Closer, Ugly Man and Try, I certainly rank it below Closer and Try, and probably beneath Ugly Man too, though maybe I would say it's on par with that.  More importantly from the Ugly Man review, I list and rank all of his books that I've read (six others, three or four of which I would re-read), and from this list I would not put it any higher than #7.

It will be fun to try to explain what this book is about.  First, to continue with the comparison theme, I will say it is most similar to Period in that it is extremely experimental.  I would also say it is better than Period, but maybe I wouldn't stand by that statement if I re-read that book.  But the plot:

The narrator (who is nameless, I am pretty sure) is rich--apparently he is a 22-year-old billionaire (though it doesn't really seem like he is that rich) whose parents were famous French actors.  Well, at least his father, Pierre Clementi, was (I'd need to re-read to check on his mother).  He wants to buy a chateau.  He meets the owners--the father, the mother, and their 14-year-old son Serge--and decides he wants to buy it.  They had another son--16-year-old Claude--who died (Maybe, I think?  For some reason I'm not concerned about spoilers in this review).  Basically, Serge is "interested" in the narrator, and the father seems to think he is a nuisance so he says he will "include him" in the price of the house.  The narrator puts Serge in the trunk of his car and is driven back to Paris (he has a driver, Azmir, of course).  Serge is then raped, murdered, and eaten (Maybe?).  The narrator then starts reminiscing about his younger brother, Alfonse, who was very into Manga and was also eventually raped, murdered, and eaten.  By the narrator and a couple cohorts.  One of those cohorts has a son named Didier who is eventually groomed to look exactly like Alfonse.  Finally, there is the issue of the narrator's father, who apparently dies at some point after Alfonse (though this is confusing, too), and has another property in his will that nobody really knows about in a remote part of France.  There is another story about this house and the people that stayed in it/the reasons why his father built it, that seems to coalesce with the chateau from the beginning of the novel as well as the lofts in which the narrator, Alfonse, and their father reside at in Paris.  Then, the novel ends, and the ending I have to admit is one of the more beautiful endings that Cooper has written.

Why is the ending beautiful?  Because, as may be clear from my plot summary, this book is fucking bonkers and basically impossible to "get."  The most obvious "themes" are younger/older brothers (and this is not the first time Cooper has touched incest--see My Loose Thread), rape/murder/cannibalism (the first two are in nearly every single one of his novels; the last is something new, but seems more "out there" for some reason, and just there to shock), and most conspicuously, secret passageways.  But the ending ties things together as best as it possibly could.

This book is not totally inscrutable.  Cooper does pull back the curtain a couple of times and acknowledges that  he knows that he is not presenting anything close to a linear narrative.  Even so, it is very hard to tell what happened, and I'm not really sure what the whole point of it is:

"The play was set in a chateau whose history of on-site murders, ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena required a lengthy spoken foreword, which Claude's father had recited through the speakers for what would have felt like months were not the bloodthirsty details of this story so custom-made for mordant teenagers.
To cite the most agentive of these details, the couple's older son had either killed himself, been murdered, died by tragic accident, or faked his death within the previous few months.
The anguished man and wife had put the crime scene on the market, and the young Parisian, struck by certain parallels between their son's obituary in Le Monde and the clueless death of his own brother years before, found himself inspired to visit the chateau and then acquire it." (171)

I think I've made most of the points I wanted to make about this book, but it is worth noting that in my search for reviews, I came across an interview that Cooper did for The Paris Review in 2011.  You may find it here.  I highly recommend it, as I do most interviews in The Paris Review, which is probably the most important literary journal apart from The New Yorker (though I find The New Yorker to be pretentious most of the time, and really consider an interview in The Paris Review one of the highest honors a writer can receive).  In it, Cooper had this to say about this novel:

"With The Marbled Swarm, I was trying to write a novel the way a sound technician mixes a song or piece of music into its final form. I’ve been studying recorded music and trying to transpose its principles into my fiction ­going all the way back to my first novel,Closer, where one thing I did was try to simulate the sonic effect of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy album with my prose. In The Marbled Swarm I found a voice that let me do that. I thought about each element of the novel, whether it was a narrative thread or character or reference point or an ongoing motif or tone or rhythm. The idea was that they would all always be there, but they would be emphasized or de-emphasized at different points, mixed into the foreground, middle ground, or background, being moved around constantly so the reader’s attention would be directed all over the place. My idea was that it would give the writing a three-dimensional quality, as the reader is carried along by the musical surface of the novel, but he or she would also be chasing different story lines and recurring ideas as they waver and scamper about and hide inside the prose."

This novel certainly creates that sort of feeling.  Cooper also says in the interview that he wants to write one more novel, and then be done with them, so that he can finish with an even ten.  That makes me sad, but he has been pretty prolific over the past 25 years, and the world of literature is richer for the contributions he has made.  I'm sure some people would take issue with that statement, but one of the factors that makes his work more interesting than 90% of his contemporaries is its divisiveness.  While this is not my favorite book by him by a good stretch, it was still a worthwhile read, and the ending was very nice:

"I've failed the marbled swarm as I semi-understand its rules and premise, and, although you'll never know the difference, barring errors that weren't meant as an insidious direction, there is nowhere deeper or more intricately stifled by my story than this hotel room, and I'm out of means to keep you waiting for the secret that involved my sleight of hand unless you think a very frightened thirteen-year-old boy who looks vaguely like Pierre Clementi seems magical or promising enough." (194)

I also loved the references to Isabelle Adjani.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

V for Vendetta - Dir. James McTeigue (2005)

V for Vendetta (2005)
Dir. James McTeigue

F for Fake
Jack Knorps

This will be short.  Sometimes I like to review the films made from the books I review.  I watched V for Vendetta last night and I just have to say a few things about it.

My #1 complaint about this film is that it takes serious artistic liberties with the source material.  Here are all of the things I can remember that were different from the book:

In the very first scene, Evey Hammond is not trying to prostitute herself, but is looking for her "uncle," which makes the scene with the Fingermen much more hackneyed.  She does not work in a sweat shop, but instead works for a news program.  There is no radio program, as in the book, but it is changed to this news program.  Derek Almond and his wife Rosemary do not exist in the film.  The leader, Adam Susan, has had his named changed to Adam Sutler.  Dascomb does not work for the radio program, but is still part of Norsefire, and does not die.  Ally Harper, the Scottish crime boss, does not exist.  Gordon Dietrich is not a petty thief, but a TV personality who hosts a variety show.  Lewis Prothero does not go insane, traumatized by the burning of his dolls--he just gets killed.  "Old Bailey" is blown up at the beginning--not Parliament, which gets blown up at the end.  V does not take out the surveillance system of England, but instead ships hundreds of thousands of masks for people to wear and escape detection.  Oh, also Finch doesn't take LSD and "kill" V.  

Now I did not think the book was truly that amazing, but I felt the film would have been better if it had stuck more closely to it.  I can't think of any reason why so much was changed except that this is more "accessible" for American audiences/2005 audiences.  

This really isn't a terrible film, to be honest, but it's one that you can't really enjoy after reading the book (in my opinion).  I do think Natalie Portman does a very good job at playing Evey Hammond, and think Hugo Weaving makes for an excellent V.  I also enjoyed Stephen Fry as Roger Dietrich--that was the only change that I think was an improvement over the book (as Dietrich is not very well developed in the book).  There is also a nice "aha moment" when John Hurt first appears as Adam Sutler, who is obviously modeled after "Big Brother."  Most viewers probably won't know that Hurt played Winston Smith in the film adaptation of 1984, so this is a nice (albeit troubling) bit of casting.  (Still, I prefer Adam Susan in the book to Adam Sutler in the movie, because Susan is less of a cookie-cutter totalitarian leader).  

The most noteworthy sequence--where Evey is tortured and has her head shaved--is 100% true to the book.  Maybe this is why it's one of the best parts of the film too.  Valerie Harper's story is beautifully evoked on film, and you can also chart the time differentials from the adaptation (it's not a dystopian 1997/1998, but more like 2018 or so).  Some of the shots from this sequence seem directly lifted from the page--and this is where adaptations of graphic novels can be nearly as powerful as their source material.

But the climax of the film is false as compared to the book.  The entire film itself is relatively dark, but a lot of times it just seems "cartoony."  I found the ending to be rather sugar-coated in comparison with the book.

Basically that is all I wanted to say.  And while I think the adaptation of Watchmen has nothing on the book--I found that much more faithful, and a better film overall.  I am a bit shocked that this film's rating on IMDB is 8.2 and that it is rated the #148 film out of the top 250.  It also got a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  By contrast, Watchmen is at 65% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.6 on IMDB.  Regardless, the films serve their purpose.  While Alan Moore may not watch them, most people that read either one will probably have their curiosity piqued just enough to check them out.  Thus, like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games et al., on a much smaller scale, these films turn the story into an even more successful "product."  Unfortunately they also detract from its artistic cache.  In today's world though, it seems likely that most writers/artists would rather produce the next Divergent than the next Watchmen.  We're all just too damn poor.  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

V for Vendetta - Alan Moore & David Lloyd (with Steve Whitaker and Siobhan Dodds) (1982 - 1989)

V for Vendetta, like many other feature-length comic and graphic novels, is not an easy thing to review.  The easiest point of comparison is Watchmen, since they are probably Alan Moore's two most famous works.  From this perspective it is easy to sum up my feelings: while it is a very good story, it is just no Watchmen.  That said I still think it is worth reading and I am looking forward to seeing the film, even though Moore disavows it.  For some reason I think it will be better than the Watchmen adaptation, though I have read that the film portrays the protagonist as a "freedom fighter," which makes sense for Hollywood, but which is also the wrong move.  I suppose I should explain the plot.

The story opens with a young girl who is trying to prostitute herself for the first time.  She doesn't really know what she is doing, and the man she solicits quickly tries to take advantage of her.  He is joined by other men who are part of "The Finger," which is the police force of the totalitarian British society in 1997.  They surround the girl (whose name is Evey) and she is rescued by a figure in a mask.  The men are killed, and Evey and her savior go to a rooftop where they watch the Houses of Parliament explode.  Then there are fireworks in the sky.  The savior says, "I did that."

It would get way too tedious to explain everything that happens, but after this scene Evey is taken to a secret hideaway and her savior explains that his (her?) name is "V."  V never takes off the mask, which is a Guy Fawkes mask.

Now I think the most interesting way to write this review is to write about the mask and the Occupy movement and Anonymous.  But before we get to that, what is my criticism?

Basically, this is a very good story.  The writing is sharp, and the political situation that the novel (I'm just going to call it a graphic novel because that's the form it was in when I read it) describes is just creative enough to be unique.  It certainly bears similarity to Nazi Germany, or Orwell's 1984, but it is Moore's England of the late 90's.  Like Watchmen with its dystopian New York City in 1985, the depiction does not seem all that far from reality, though underneath it is obviously very unsettling.

I couldn't pin down what the problem was with this book until I read the Wikipedia page.  Now, I had a pretty good idea of everything that happened in the story, but about midway through, I started to get lost.  The problem with this story is that there are too many characters and it is way too hard to keep track of everything that is happening to them.  This issue becomes most pronounced around pages 142 and 143, where a woman hides in an alley to shoot a man who killed her lover.  I basically had no idea what was happening for the next forty pages.

But then it does become clear, eventually, and by the end of the book the reader should have a pretty good idea of what's happened.  But in order to fully to understand every nuance, you need to pay very close attention.  You might even need to take notes to keep track of all the characters.  I don't think normal people take notes to understand books they read, so there is my criticism.  If you read the Wikipedia page, that should clarify the storyline a great deal, but it will also highlight what I didn't realize about the book until finishing it: this is not really V's story.

This is really the story of everyone that is working in the British government.  Sure, it is V's story too (you find out about V's past), but seriously that seems to account for about 10-15% of the content.   Much of this is Evey's story, but much of it is also Eric Finch's story.  Finch is probably the most sympathetic character that works for the government, but he also plays an antagonistic role in the climax of the story.  In this sense, he is ambiguous.

But so is V.  Portraying V as a "freedom fighter" in the film really simplifies how the audience should react to the character.  V is, in fact, a terrorist.  But a terrorist against a totalitarian society.  He is not evil, but the things he does to Evey sometimes cross the line into torture.  So it is really Evey that is the "conscience" of the book--the protagonist that seems to have a clearly humanistic view of what is right and wrong.  Her description of the way that England came to be is also one of the high points of the book (Kennedy is also oddly President as in Red Son):

"I was only seven, but I remember when the news came over the radio.  Dad kept telling Mum not to worry.  He was scared to death...It was about Poland and the Russians, wasn't it?  And President Kennedy said he'd use the bomb if they didn't get out.  That's what Dad told me...It was horrible.  Nobody knew if Britain would get bombed out or not.  I remember Mum saying 'Africa's not there anymore!'  That's all she said...I though about all the lions and elephants being dead.  It made me cry.  I was only seven....But Britain didn't get bombed.  Not that it made much difference.  All the bombs and things had done something to the weather.  Something bad...I remember one day Dad called Mum and me into the back bedroom.  He said he wanted to show us something...We could see right across London from the bedroom window.  It was nearly all under water.  The Thames Barrier had burst....The sky was all yellow and black.  I've never seen a sky like it.  Dad said London was finished and he wanted to take Mum and me to the country...Mum wouldn't go.  Just as well, I suppose.  It turned out that the countryside was worse than the towns.  The weather had destroyed all the crops, see?  And there was no food coming from Europe, because Europe had gone.  Like Africa...I-I didn't like to think about the next four years.  We'd got together with some neighbours in a protection committee.  It didn't help much....There was no food.  And the sewers were flooded and everybody got sick.  Mum died in 1991.  Dad wouldn't let me see her...There were riots, and people with guns.  Nobody knew what was going on.  Everyone was waiting for the government to do something...But there wasn't any government anymore.  Just lots of little gangs, all trying to take over.  And then in 1992, somebody finally did...It was all the fascist groups, the right-wingers.  They'd all got together and with some of the big corporations that had survived.  'Norsefire' they called themselves...I remember when they marched into London.  They had a flag with their symbol on.  Everyone was cheering.  I thought they were scary.  They soon got things under control.  But then they started taking people away...All the black people and the Pakistanis...White people, too.  All the radicals and the men who, you know, liked other men, the homosexuals.  I don't know what they did with them all...Dad had been in a Socialist group when he was younger.  They came for him one September morning in 1993...It was my birthday.  I was twelve.  I never saw him again....They made me go and work in a factory with a lot of other kids.  We were putting matches into boxes...I lived in a hostel.  It was cold and dirty and I just used to cry all the time.  I wanted my dad....That's how it was for four years...Not enough food, not enough money.  Some of the older girls made money going with men.  That's what I was going to do, last night.  But they were Fingermen.  Thy were going...They were g-going to...They were going to ruh...ruh...ruh..." (27-28)

There is also a very funny panel on page 64 where V is reading V by Thomas Pynchon.  V is obsessed with the letter and Moore does an excellent job of incorporating this motif into the book.

One of the other high points comes when V takes over the television network that appears to be the only option for people to watch.  Another comes when he turns London into "the land of do as you please" where anarchy is now the rule:

"Good evening, London.  This is the voice of fate.  Almost four hundred years ago tonight, a great citizen made a most significant contribution to our common culture.  It was a contribution forged in stealth and silence and secrecy, although it is best remembered in noise and bright light. To commemorate this most glorious of evenings, her Majesty's government is pleased to return the rights of secrecy and privacy to you, its loyal subjects.  For three days, your movements will not be watched...Your conversations will not be listened to...And 'do what though wilt' shall be the whole of the law.  God bless you...and goodnight." (186-187)

Ultimately there is a reasonably satisfying climax to the story, but I couldn't fully appreciate it because I still didn't really understand it all until I read the Wikipedia page.  Again, V for Vendetta is just not as good as Watchmen, so don't go into it with such high expectations.  Regardless, it is a quality read, and if you pay really close attention you might get more out of it than I did.  I have the film on hold at the Chicago Public Library and I have been waiting for its delivery for more than two weeks now.  I'm not expecting a lot out of it, but I still think the source material is good enough to make for a special movie.

But yes, let's be honest here, V for Vendetta is not famous for its story anymore so much as the Guy Fawkes mask.  Alan Moore and David Lloyd have said that they are happy that the mask has become associated with modern protest movements, but what intrigues me is, why has it been adopted?  Is it because of V for Vendetta, or is it because of the original Guy Fawkes?  Of course, I think it is because the film adaptation (sad as it is) put it back in the public consciousness.

The 5th of November is now, actually, a day I will look forward to as perhaps if there is going to be a revolution, it will happen then.  Ironically, Amazon and Time Warner have made a ton of money off this mask, as it it the top-selling mask in their inventory, and as Time Warner owns the rights to it and is paid a commission on each one sold.  So really, it is not the best way to lead an anarchist revolution.  It's just commercial like everything else.  But people know what it means, basically, and the fact that it communicates a message is valuable.

We don't live in an outwardly totalitarian society run by Norsefire, but we are certainly watched.  I remember when I worked at City of Chicago Department of Law and they told us that if you walked around the Loop for about thirty minutes, your face would be on enough cameras that they can run facial recognition software on you and identify you in thirty seconds.  Sadly, they do not have cameras on sidestreets in Logan Square where just last week someone smashed a car window and stole something.  It would be nice if surveillance were used to catch thieves and not make everyone paranoid that they need to be "acting normally" at all times that they may be on camera.  It would also be nice if there were greater transparency in the job search process when we live in an era of economic desperation.  But we don't live in the land of do-as-you-please.  My hope is that someday soon we'll come closer to that, though.

(Warren in 2016!)

Friday, March 7, 2014

Defending the Damned: Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's Office - Kevin Davis

Two days ago, I interviewed with the Cook County Public Defender's Office.  I was nervous about it because I want to be an Assistant Public Defender very, very badly.  I had come this close to obtaining the position at the Legal Aid Society in New York, but I felt like I didn't connect well enough with the interviewer in the final round.  This time, I decided I had to learn as much about the office as possible.  While searching on the internet for all the information available, I came across reviews for Defending the Damned.  I felt very lucky that such a resource was out there, and I took the book out of the library on Thursday, and finished it about 30 minutes before my interview the next Wednesday.  Did it help me?  I won't know for another two to three weeks.  But it's about as good a book as you will find about what it means to be a public defender.

My only complaint is that it focused squarely on the Murder Task Force.  I would have liked to read more about the work that entry-level attorneys do there (for obvious reasons), but in terms of interest to the general public, Davis is probably right to focus on the most shocking crimes out there.  Some of this book is really gruesome, so expect to get grossed out.  He opens up the book with the shocking testimony of a truly horrible incident, so the reader knows what to expect.  It is actually the first paragraph in the "Author's Note," but later it is treated in more detail:

"The defendant's name was Joan Tribblet, one of about twenty other clients Marijane was representing besides Aloysius Oliver at the time.  Tribblet was a thirty-year-old mother of five children who was charged with murder.  Sitting beside the judge and leaning into a microphone, Tribblet spoke in a steady, emotionless voice as she recounted how she and her boyfriend choked and beat their fifteen-month-old daughter because she wouldn't stop crying.  Tribblet admitted to holding her daughter in a stranglehold, and said her boyfriend smacked the baby with a ruler on the back of the head.  After the beating, the baby stopped crying.  When the couple realized the child was dead, Tribblet said they panicked and tried to conceal what they had done.  Tribblet blamed her boyfriend for coming up with the plan to dispose of their baby, whose name was Oncwanique.  'He said we had to cut up the body and get rid of the body parts,' she testified, not a hint of pain in her voice.  'I placed her in his arms and I told her I loved her and would miss her and then I kissed her.' As Tribblet said this, I heard sighs and snorts of disgust in the gallery.  Marijane nodded for her client to continue.
Tribblet went on to describe how her boyfriend went into the bathroom to slice up the baby's corpse.  As he went about the task, Tribblet said she was busy in the kitchen doing her part.  She prepared a flour batter and heated up a pain of oil on the stovetop.  She then coated the baby parts with the batter, fried it up, and gave it to her boyfriend to toss off in an alley where the dogs could eat it.  The courtroom was silent, the judge, the staff, the people in the seats stunned at what they were hearing.
When the smoke and stench from the cooking overwhelmed them in the apartment, Tribblet said she and her boyfriend decided to put the rest of the body parts in plastic bags and store it in the refrigerator for later disposal.  And if that were not awful enough, she borrowed a neighbor's blender to liquefy the rest of the remains and later returned the blender to the unwitting accomplice." (47-48)

Marijane Placek is the attorney representing Tribblet, and she "wins" because Tribblet accepts a plea bargain in which she is sentenced to sixty years in prison, and would likely serve half of that.  This is because the death was an "accident"--she didn't intend to murder the child--and what they did to cover it up may have been grotesque, but was irrelevant to the murder charge.

This is one of many stories that is told in Defending the Damned--but it is likely the most shocking one.  It's not a book that gets off on "shock value," but it's about how the attorneys work with their clients to achieve the best possible results.  This is just reality.

The "plot" of the book is the murder trial of Aloysius Oliver, who is accused of murdering Chicago Police Officer Eric Lee.  Lee was undercover on the night of August 19, 2001 in the Englewood neighborhood.  He was with several other officers.  Oliver heard a homeless man walk into his backyard to urinate, and he started beating the man with a friend and his cousin.  The officers heard the commotion and ran to investigate, and it ended with Lee being shot in the head.

Throughout the rest of the book, Davis reconstructs the scene several times as Placek attempts to mount a defense for Oliver.  A truly valiant effort is made, and every courtroom scene is excellently written.  The reader really will be on the edge of their seat waiting to see what the result will be.  Davis does a fantastic job of portraying the stakes in the case, and only revealing so much that the decision at the end is a surprise (I will not spoil it in this review, either).

I will say that the book is a tiny bit repetitive at points, and certain details are repeated as if to remind the reader.  But this is really a minor quibble (also there were about four or five typos in the book that distracted me).  Really one of the major triumphs of this book is how Davis answers the question, "how can you defend these people?" This is known as the "cocktail party question" and is at the center of Davis's motive in writing the book.  And he provides a very balanced view, listening to both the defendant and the victim, to make sense of the various crimes involved and how they should be resolved.

He was fortunate to follow Marijane Placek because she has such a commanding presence as a character.  There is one passage I particularly like that sums up her attitude about her work.  It is about as badass as you can get:

"To hate and to be hated was part of the job.  Marijane knew that parents, spouses, children and friends of murder victims despised her.  She felt they should despise her.  Marijane told me a story about one murder trial during which she had to teach the father of the victim to hate her because that's the way it was supposed to be.  She represented a client who was accused of tossing a Molotov cocktail into the man's home, an apparent act of retaliation over street drug sales.  Three children and their grandmother died in the fire, but the father was not home at the time.  One of the girls who escaped the burning house without her siblings was called to testify during the trial, and Marijane was unrelenting as she cross-examined the child, bringing the girl to tears.  During a break, the girl's father began walking toward Marijane full speed, as if he were going to attack.  Investigator Richard English saw him coming and stood in front of Marijane to protect her.  The father urgently wanted to talk to Marijane.  He yelled out, 'You're one of the best goddamn lawyers I've ever seen.  I want to take your card.' Marijane couldn't believe what she heard.  'He was a known drug dealer and had a case coming up.  And he wanted me to represent him.'  Marijane was enraged.  'I said, "Get out of here.  Get out of my way, you fucking bastard." I had such contempt for that man.  He broke my boundary.  You cannot come up to the person who represented the man who killed your daughter and say, "Will you be my lawyer?" Not in my ethic, not in my soul, not in my nationality.  You should want me dead.'  Marijane would have understood if the man had yelled or cursed or tried to attack her.  'I would have respected him, and I wouldn't have reported him for hitting me, or trying to hit me or trying to get in my face and call me a bitch or whatever,' she said.  'You don't praise me and say I'm good.  Don't do it.  That was the most appalling thing I've ever seen in the courtroom.'  Marijane stopped to underline her point.  She was not in court to make friends.  She was there to hate.  'I am that hard.  I am that cruel.  Get that right,' she insisted.  'I know what I am doing.  This is not any kind of soft thing.  I signed on, and I am doing it.'" (160-161)

While the trial of Aloysius Oliver is a good framing mechanism for the book, I found the random stories from the other public defenders featured in the book to be more compelling.  Davis gives a brief biography of each of the attorneys, and gives a little "where are they now" at the end of the book that is very nicely done.  Some of the attorneys stay, but for many it is simply too much.  For those that do stay, they usually need some kind of coping mechanism to remain sane.  For Placek, it is the thrill of the trial--she just finds the work fun as hell.  For another, it is a sports metaphor:

"The veteran lawyers who remained in the task force in Chicago were aware of the personal and psychological risks of being on the job for so long and struggled to balance their lives inside and outside the courthouse.  'I can shut off the misery I see here on a daily basis by looking at this job as an athletic competition and shut out the hell and the havoc," Bob Strunck told me.  'This is like the Notre Dame Fighting Irish versus the USC Trojans.  It's a game.'  Sports was Strunck's refuge and his own perfect metaphor [sic] what he did for a living.  The spirit of competition helped drive him in in the courtroom and gave him pleasure outside it.  He was a season ticket holder to the Chicago White Sox and every fall was glued to the television during college football season.  He went to the Indy 500 every year with a buddy.  Yet these diversions never completely released his mind from the madness he encountered at Twenty-sixth and California, the appalling cases he continued to see every day.  'It never fucking ends.  I've got a naked guy who was running through Uptown, wearing nothing but a sock and stabs a guy to death.  He just drank a half bottle of Kettle One [sic] and then stabbed this guy on the street,' Strunck said.  'Here's another one: This guy was having sex with his daughter and then he found out she was pregnant.  He took her down to some building, chained her to a fence and beat her to death.  I mean, this was fucking awful.'" (280-281)

Work in the Murder Task Force is understandably difficult--but I'm aware now of how bad it gets.  This work certainly isn't for everyone.  Still, after reading about all of the horrifying experiences that public defenders are likely to encounter, I want the job as much as ever.  The stakes aren't higher in any area of the law.  This is nicely summed up by a public defender who left to do civil practice:

"Musburger went on to become one of Chicago's best-known entertainment lawyers, representing television, film and radio talent along with former Chicago Bulls Coach Phil Jackson.  But he told me that what he experienced as a public defender, especially during the Williams trial, made much of his modern-day work seem unimportant by comparison.  A bankruptcy lawyer once hired Musburger to handle a case because of his trial experience.  'He said to me, "I'm really glad to have you  because you seem to be able to handle the pressure of this."  And I remember thinking, This is only money.  The only thing that can happen to us is that our client will lose money.  Until you sit next to someone who can lose his life, you don't know what pressure in a courtroom is all about.'" (278)

Defending the Damned has its flaws, but it's a wonderful resource to have.  This book should be in every prison library because there are few works that could be more relevant for inmates than this.  It should be required reading for students majoring in Criminal Justice and for law students interested in being public defenders.  It's both inspiring and troubling, and should make every reader see both sides of the equation that make up the justice system.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Interview - Kyle Thomas Smith

After reading 85A, I reached out to its author, Kyle Thomas Smith, and asked if I could interview him.  Graciously, he accepted and I sent him 20 questions on sometimes absurd topics (i.e. the question about the BRT system on Ashland Ave.).   The interview sheds light on the writing process, certain details about the novel (though I did my best to avoid spoilers), and some recommendations for further reading.  Hope you enjoy it.

JK: When did you first begin writing 85A?  How long did it take you from the writings of the first pages of the first draft, through the final publication of the book?

KTS: I began writing 85A as a short story in early 2008. Next thing I knew it was 80 pages and I wasn't even at the quarter mark for the first draft. I kept writing at white heat, it was a cathartic venture. Within a year, I had a manuscript. Within two years, by 2010, I had a published novel.

JK: How did you go about getting the book published?  Did you send query letters to agents or the publishing house directly?

KTS: I did the standard drill. I shopped around for an agent and met with rejection, which I pretty much expected given Seamus' gutter mouth and illicit affair with a man more than twice his age. Then I got lucky. I had registered in an online forum - I forget which one, it was one of those informational symposiums on how to pitch your breakout novel - and I happened to chat with a publisher who owned a small press in Minneapolis. I told him about 85A, he liked the premise, I sent him the manuscript, he accepted it. 

JK: Who are your top five favorite authors of all time?  

KTS: That's a tough one. I read a lot, and I like different authors for different reasons. Maybe the best way to answer your question would be to say that, when my husband Julius got me a Kindle this past Christmas, I scrambled to download the authors whose works I'd broken the most bag straps lugging around. They included D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Patrick Dennis, Flannery O'Connor, Yukio Mishima, Raymond Carver, Allan Sillitoe. One of my cats is named Marquez, if that helps. I don't read too many contemporary authors, though I do like early Paul Auster, and Elisabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge" was nothing short of a masterpiece. I'm also huge into theater and my favorite dramatists are Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and Joe Orton, whose life was cut short before he could write his best plays. That's more than five, I know, but it's hard to be decisive in the shadow of so many giants.

JK: Did you write exclusively for a living at the time you wrote 85A or did you need to work a separate job too?  Is this situation still the same (i.e. how did your life change, if at all, after publishing it)?

KTS: For about ten years, I was one of those writers who woke up at 4 o'clock every weekday morning to write before work. Through most of my post-college life, I made my living writing for nonprofits--grants and marketing materials and so forth. It was hard work, long hours, made all the more onerous by my ADD. I was stretched way too thin and, through it all, was trying to salvage my dream of being an author. By the time I began writing 85A, though, I'd moved in with my then-boyfriend, now-husband. He believed in me and I was able to exit cubicle hell and devote myself full-time to writing. I know I'm lucky, I know that, but if you'd seen me and the circles under my eyes back then, you'd agree I'd paid my dues, and I don't take my good fortune for granted today.

JK: Much of 85A seems drawn from real-life experiences in Chicago in 1989.  How much of it is autobiographical? 

KTS: 85A is about as autobiographical for me as "The Glass Menagerie" was for Williams. I grew up on the northwest side and went to school on the south side like Seamus, although unlike him, I'm the youngest of seven kids (he has only one sibling), but when things got unbearable at home, I moved in with my Grampa in Rogers Park, which was 100 percent more integrated and creatively fecund than anywhere to the north and west of Logan Square at the time. Between Rogers Park and West Town, which was just beginning to attract artists en masse then, I had a vision of salvation. Sometimes I wish I could recapture that vision.

JK: Do you know if the Blue Line changed its route?  The only factual error that stood out to me is that it stops at Division and Milwaukee, while it appears in the book that it stops at Division and Ashland. 

KTS: That's actually not a factual error. Growing up, the conductors almost always announced that stop as Division and Ashland, rarely Division-Milwaukee. That might have changed in time, I don't know. Later, I lived at Division/Ashland/Milwaukee as a young adult when it was a far different place than it is today. But bear in mind, I'm pushing 40 now. When I was taking the L to and from school as a teenager, they didn't call them the blue line or red line or brown line. In fact, they'd only recently begun calling the blue line the O'Hare line as they'd only extended the L past River Road (now Rosemont) in 1984 or 1985. The Red Line was the Howard-Englewood Line. The Brown Line was the Ravenswood Line. I can't remember what they called the Green Line but the Orange Line was the Midway Line. It's a different nomenclature now.

JK: Do you have any thoughts on the proposal to establish a rapid transit bus operation on
Ashland Avenue?

KTS: No, I'm sorry, I don't have any thoughts on it. I know nothing about it. I haven't lived in Chicago in ages so I'm not sure what's going on there.

JK: Did you obtain approval from the CTA before publishing this book (full disclosure: I work at the CTA Law Department and really enjoyed the details you included about the Blue Line because I live right at the Logan Square stop)?

KTS: In the process of publishing, I'd consulted attorneys on copyright matters and they indicated that I did not need to obtain special permission to mention public-transportation stops as it was no different than mentioning street names.

JK: You live in Brooklyn, and you've written a novel, so you probably understand the phenomenon of so many books taking place in New York.  Why do you think this is?  I haven't read many great books about Chicago.  Crossing California is the only thing that comes to mind.  Have you read that? 

KTS: I'd never heard of "Crossing California" until now, though I did love Langer's "The Thieves of Manhattan." Thanks for the rec, I'll check it out. 

I don't know why there aren't more great books about life in Chicago. Nelson Algren and Stuart Dybek found plenty to say about it. It's pretty evident why people write about New York, though. It's a whirlwind, a maelstrom, there are all sorts in all places at all times from all over the world. No matter where you're from, if you can find a way to stay there (which is infinitely easier said than done), you can reinvent yourself and you'll rub shoulders with some of the most extreme characters, for better or for worse, you'll ever meet. The problem is, how do you find time to write about New York when you're so busy trying to make rent, which is triple what it is just about anywhere else in the country? 

JK: Did you live in Chicago after college?  If so, what made you want to live in New York?  Do you think Chicago is dying?  Which city do you think has a brighter future?

KTS: I was born and raised in Chicago. I went to UIC and continued living in Chicago for several years after graduation as I worked on my writing. I had just been there too long. I was itching to get out. I'd made a failed attempt at living in Europe, just couldn't set down roots and kept wandering. New York was alive and vital and called out to me like a Siren. There seemed only one viable place to go. I made friends there right off the bat and found my true home. There have been harrowing challenges but they didn't bother me inordinately, they just seemed to be part of the game.

Is Chicago dying? Hell no! Chicago is a never-say-die town. I go all over the world and I've never seen a city that affirms itself anywhere near as much as Chicago does. Friends from home come see me and I'm floored by how each and every one of them won't stop rhapsodizing about all that's going on in Chicago, whether it's the horrid politics or the amazing Taste of Chicago or Millennium Park or Steppenwolf; the way they talk, you'd think there's nothing else going on on this planet if it ain't happenin' in Chicago. New York doesn't do that. It's already New York, so dot dot dot.

Which city has a brighter future? Well, since so much of the world financial industry is based in Manhattan, there will probably always be more investment in New York, so its economic future as a city is most likely brighter--just as long as this new spate of hurricanes we've been experiencing doesn't wipe us off the map.

For artists, New York is becoming prohibitively expensive, though. In Chicago, however, you can still afford to try, fail and try again. In New York, you're one flop away from the next Greyhound back to Dodge--so Chicago gives more latitude for experimentation, the mother of mastery.

In terms of whose mayor is bringing along the next generation better, I'd put my chips on De Blasio. Yes, he's still untested but he's going all in for universal pre-K and efforts to reform Bloomberg-era charter-schools initiatives so they don't stay on track to becoming yet another extension of a failed No Child Left Behind policy. He's putting forth measures to create more affordable housing and to reconcile the city's appalling income disparity. He's clamping down on stop-and-frisk. Rahm Emmanuel, by contrast, has been systematically shuttering the Chicago public school system and, at one point, had suspended red-line service on the south side with little expressed interest on how that would impact the lives of low-income families, many of whom already had to travel far and wide for work every day. Daley might not have been any great crusader for the construction of fair housing in opportunity areas or for reinvestment in blighted neighborhoods but at least he was a south-sider! He never would have let that happen.
New York's homicide, gun violence and violent crime rates are much lower than in Chicago. The reasons for this are many and varied and too much to unpack in a single interview but I do hope to see those tragedies diminish in my city of origin.

JK: Did you actually grow up in the city of Chicago, in the same area of Rogers Park as Seamus?  If so, do you ever wish you grew up in the suburbs, or closer to the center of the city (full disclosure: I grew up on the North Shore and often wish I grew up in the city)?

KTS: Yes, I grew up in the city, a little north of Jefferson Park. To be clear, Seamus did not grow up in Rogers Park. If he had, he'd have no cause to complain about lack of diversity in his neighborhood. In the book, he's living on the far northwest side - in fact, Part One is called Northwest Side.

I've never lived in suburbs. I've always felt an intense aversion to them. The northwest side gave me quite enough angst to chew on growing up. There was no need to cross the city limits for more.

JK: Do you have any opinions about the present state of the Chicago National League Ball Club?

KTS: No. Haven't watched baseball since I was about 12.

JK: What are your top 3 favorite bands?  Is your taste in music comparable to what Seamus likes in the novel?

KTS: Wow, I'm really gonna lose some cred here. Yes, I shared a lot of the same tastes as Seamus as an alterna-teen but I don't listen to much of any of that stuff now. If I had to pick three faves, I guess they'd be Stones, Pixies, 70s Bowie (all phases of that decade of his career) and Dylan (tied for third). While writing, I listen to Chopin and Krishna Das. I practice in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism so most of what I listen to is the sound of silence and the yammering of my own head on the meditation cushion. Here is an essay I wrote about eight years ago about how The Stones' "Exile on Main Street" saved my life when I was trying to wean myself off the scene in my late teens (note: it talks a lot about what Chicago was like in those days, a far different town from what it is today):

JK: Would you ever want 85A to be turned into a film?

KTS: People have said it should be a movie but no filmmakers have ever approached me. I'd be open to it but it'd be hard to get Chicago to look the way it used to.

JK: 85A seems heavily influenced by The Catcher in the Rye.  Can you comment on that book and whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that people will inevitably compare it to that?

KTS: The truth is, when I'd read Catcher at 15, I liked it fine but I didn't think about it again until after I'd already written 85A, nearly 20 years later. I was 34-years-old and was taking a train from the south of France to Paris for my flight back to JFK. I'd already read all the books I'd brought with me on my trip and the station at Avignon had an English language copy of Catcher. I bought it and had read it cover to cover by the time I’d touched ground in New York. I was stunned by how I must have absorbed the book subconsciously as a kid. Next day, I talked to the editor in Minneapolis who only then started citing Catcher comparisons. That was fine by me, so we underscored the similarities on the back-cover copy, knowing people were going to form comparisons anyway. But, to me, the book is far more greatly influenced by Sillitoe's "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner." 

JK: What advice would you give to a young writer in Chicago looking to get published for the first time?

KTS: You mean someone who already has a manuscript ready to submit? Just work on finding an agent through a directory. Gone are the days where you have to move to New York, get a no-pay job as an editorial assistant and sidle up to the Xanax-popping big shot. The industry is changing, formats are changing, indie presses are the new majors and living outside New York isn't much of a deterrent anymore. 

JK: The character of Brody paints a rather negative picture of people in the legal profession.  Do you have any experiences with attorneys that led to this characterization?

KTS: Didn't mean to leave that impression! My husband is a lawyer, some of my best friends are lawyers. I worked for lawyers throughout college and totally appreciated them signing my paychecks. I've been screwed over by lawyers and I've been helped out enormously by lawyers. They're no better or worse than anyone else. We're all just people!
That said, Brody is the type of guy who's popping his buttons over how he's fulfilled his parents' expectations by having worked his way into more advantaged, white-collar corners of society. You used to see that type of guy—they were mostly guys, males--a lot around the board of trade and as junior associates in law firms on LaSalle Street. They were kind of nouveau riche before they could get riche - and if you hung around enough, you'd hear a lot of the talk that would come out of their mouths and it was often pretty stridently racist and homophobic. Remember, this was the eighties. If racial stratification in Chicago is bad now, it was worse then; and as for LGBTQIAs, if they were going to be like that, then they deserve what they got - that was the accepted code of the road, not much different from Putin's Russia, although these guys tended to find street violence against gays to be a bit too blatant and it might cost them their jobs. (You even sense that Seamus, who wants so much to be cosmopolitan and to see racial unity, is still unlearning a lot of racist and homophobic attitudes. I did not disguise that in him.) Not everyone in those trades was like Brody but a lot were and I had grown up around a lot of those guys, ones who didn't grow up in rich families but who leveraged their white, heterosexual privilege for all it was worth on their way to making money. And God help a gay kid like Seamus who couldn't fill those shoes or toe that line. Fire and brimstone were just the warm-up acts for what their homes and neighborhoods had in store for them in those days.

JK: One of the more difficult parts of the book for me to accept was that Seamus's parents and brother could be so mean to him.  It seemed almost over the top to me.  Was this intentional, or do you feel that's just how people were in the 1980's (i.e. blatantly homophobic and non-supportive of countercultural types)?

KTS: might seem over-the-top from the standpoint of today but it was not all that uncommon even as recently as the Eighties. David Sedaris writes about this well in one of his more recent essays, "Attaboy." He says of his upbringing in the Sixties and Seventies, "Self-esteem hadn't been invented yet." By the Eighties, there was only a dawning consciousness in the mainstream that maybe shaming and corporal punishment were bad for child or adolescent morale--commercials started coming on TV encouraging parents to count to ten before breaking out the belt, etc.--but these concepts were mostly accepted by baby-boomer parents, the new generation of yuppies who didn't want to see their kids raised the same way they were raised. Suddenly enrollment in Montessori schools goes up, individuality is encouraged and living-room coffee tables are decked with alluvial fans of Conscious Parenting magazine. This was still a pretty new idea by the Eighties.

Seamus' parents were older than those of his peers, they grew up in the Depression. He makes mention of how they were the children of immigrants and educated by autocratic nuns. It's the kind of thing Mary McCarthy writes about in "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood." In Seamus' parents' time, you didn't dare tell your parents that Sister Mary Holywater bloodied your nose in school that day, not unless you wanted a black eye on top of it. So when Depression-era children grew up to have kids, "spare the rod, spoil the child" wasn't considered child abuse, it was considered a good rule of thumb. If you couldn't whip your scions into shape, then you weren't whipping them hard enough. Add to this that Seamus' dad had been a marine a la "The Great Santini" - the threat of military school is always in his holster and he's exceedingly competitive with his fractious son.

The movement away from this mentality was still in its infancy by the Eighties. Old school authoritarianism was still alive and kicking ass in many American homes - though it's true it was on its way out. Kids started reporting their parents to the police. All this might seem inconceivable today but it was still practiced and applauded not so long ago by parents who came up in the lockstep Silent Generation, as Seamus' parents did. They called it tough love. There's a whole sociology embedded in these generational dynamics.

JK: Are you working on any new pieces of writing right now, and would you be able to comment
on the subject matter briefly?

KTS: Yes. I am writing a new novel, although it's been put somewhat on hold as I work with a wonderful new agent I recently got in Manhattan. We've known each other a long time and she's always encouraged me in the direction of personal essays and humor pieces. I've written volumes of them by now, so she's helping me to build a cohesive collection of them.

JK: What was the hardest part for you personally in the writing of 85A?

KTS: The book had been moving along swimmingly and I had a sense of how it was going to end. Then, at about two-thirds of the way through, there was a gap in the story that I did not know how to bridge. I set about trying to bridge it with 200-pages of pure, unadulterated shit, and then confidently completed the last several chapters. I then showed it to a well-known editor, who loved the first two-thirds and the final several chapters but made me wish I was never born for wasting her time with the shit chapters. I didn't know how to rebound from her drubbing until about a week later when the scales fell from my eyes and I knew what I had to do--just take out those 200 pages! It felt like a risk but I went in, excised the mamah-jamah tumor and ended up bridging the hitherto impassable gap with just four paragraphs! But if I hadn't written those 200 excess pages, I'd have never gotten those four paragraphs. And the book itself ended up being only 223 pages.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

85A - Kyle Thomas Smith (2010)

I have mixed feelings about 85A.  On the one hand I want to recommend it because it is about as vivid a portrait of Chicago circa 1989 as you will find in a book.  It's also a pretty good coming-of-age story and a decent primer on how to live a "punk rock lifestyle."  On the other hand I can't quite call it an undiscovered masterpiece because...I don't just seems to be missing something.

My friend gave me 85A sometime in November of last year.  He had gotten it from Center on Halsted, which is a non-profit organization that has a community space in Lakeview.  They were doing a weekly reading series called "Read All about It" in one of the youth groups and he was offered a copy.

COH provides crisis management services for LGBTQ individuals and have a number of youth support groups.  It is not surprising that my friend got this book from there, because it seems like the sort of place at which the main character of the novel, Seamus O'Grady, should have been a regular visitor.  Unfortunately it opened about 18 years too late.

The story takes place on January 23, 1989, and begins with Seamus waiting for the eponymous CTA bus to take him from his home in Jarvis Park to the El to his Catholic high school on the south side of the city.  I can't quite figure out the route--since apparently he takes the Blue Line (then known as the O'Hare-Congress line) and it doesn't seem to go near Ashland Ave. and Blue Island Ave., which is an intersection near his school.  But I am getting wrapped up in travel details.  I have to say I really liked the description of the escalator at the Logan Square stop because it is my home stop.

He lives in an upper middle class community and his parents are religious.  He does not seem to have any friends at his school.  He really only seems to have two friends: Tressa and Dr. Strykeroth.  The former is an artsy biracial girl who rescues him from a group of skinheads that jump him at the corner of Belmont and Clark near the "Punkin' Donuts" (this is one of my favorite moments in the novel because that Dunkin' Donuts is still there and it may be one of the famous fast food branches ever because of it); he also later loses his virginity with her.  The latter is his psychiatrist with whom he apparently has a sexual relationship.

This is a slight problem for me--not because it's sick or whatever, but because it's teased out like the reader isn't supposed to be clear on what's going on.  Like, does Seamus just go to visit him and cry on his shoulder and ask to be held?  Or are they having various kinds of sex?  Of course, a graphic description might be off-putting, but the scene with Tressa is pretty graphic, so I don't understand why Seamus doesn't blatantly tell the reader what is happening in that office.  In a sense, this makes the novel like Try by Dennis Cooper.  I say that the because the main character is gay but also has sex with a girl in it.  But obviously, Try is going for something quite different than 85A.  Still, it just seems tame by comparison.  If you're going to write about transgressive subject matter, I don't think you should beat around the bush, basically.

This book also reminds me of Crossing California.  Together, these books paint a wonderful portrait of Chicago in the 1980's.  I like this better than Crossing California because it's more compact, and less of an "award-winning novel" (i.e. like those movies that are made to win Oscars), but I like it less because it's not as intricately constructed--or at least doesn't appear to be.

Still, I read this book not long after beginning my recent stint at the CTA, and I found it very entertaining for its topicality.  I daresay this may be the ultimate "CTA Novel" though it is certainly not a history of the transit system.  Certainly there cannot be many other books named after bus routes.  Many, many people ride the CTA everyday.  I am sure that many of them would find this book to be at least of passing interest.  At the very least it would be the most ironic book ever to read while on the bus.

But I also take issue with an early scene:

"Finally!  The 85A's rounding Touhy Avenue.  Just when my thighs are freezer burnt and my balls have turned to dry ice.
Last time I asked the driver, 'What took you so fuckin' long?' he ordered me off the bus.  Refused to move til I got off.  Everyone's screaming at me.  He threatened to call the cops, so I got off.  Had to wait for the next bus.  Ended up thirty-five minutes late for school.  Got JUG.  Had to write out the St. Xavier Norms of Conduct twice and the tardiness policy three times.  It's the same asshole bus driver every morning.  So now, no matter how late he is, I have to just suck it up, flash my Student ID, deposit my token and fifteen cents and take my seat like a good little cunt." (11)

Maybe things are different today than they were in 1989, but if Seamus had reported the bus driver for ordering him off the bus, I believe that bus driver would be disciplined.  Bus drivers, like cops, are essentially public servants that are expected to put up with their share of bad behavior.  I read a case about a bus driver who was fired because she pushed an older man who had confronted her physically and had also been loudly directing racial comments at her.  She said she was wrongfully discharged but the arbitrator said you can never have a bus driver hit a passenger.  Now, Seamus is not getting hit, but that sort of behavior (stopping the bus and ordering him off) is unacceptable and I don't believe it's realistic.

Which is my main issue with this book.  My big criticism.  I just don't think it's realistic.  I'm sorry.  Some of it is absolutely wonderful and clearly drawn from true life.  But other details just seem too ridiculous to be taken seriously.  In particular, I do not believe that Seamus's father and brother would beat him as mercilessly as they do, and treat him with such cruelty.  It seems like everyone is a villain in Seamus's life and he has nobody on his side.

Now, I have to admit, I would be pretty mean to Seamus too, because he is kind of annoying.  He clearly is smart but he fails all of his classes anyways.  He doesn't want to have any kind of job but to write.  He has vague ideas about living in London and New York as a quasi-homeless artist who can get by on the kindness of others and he doesn't want to conform to any kind of "normal" life.  This is all well and good--I was like this too, and I am sometimes still like this.  But he does not have very many redeeming qualities apart from having a fair dose of artistic talent.  So that is another problem I have with the novel: cannot identify with the narrator.

Don't get me wrong.  I love the Sex Pistols and PiL.  I love Sid and Nancy.  I love all the musical references in this book.  But Seamus is just like Johnny Rotten in a way: a "fashion item."  He dresses and acts the part, but the book sort of highlights the vacuity of so-called "punk rockers."  Maybe this is just because Seamus doesn't hang out with a group of them, so you don't get the sense of the lifestyle like you might from reading Our Band Could Be Your Life or Lexicon Devil.  85A is basically a lot of posing done by Seamus.

Still, this book has a lot of heart, and would make a good movie.  It reads pretty nicely, though I think Seamus relies too heavily on the word "fuck."  The Wolf of Wall Street supposedly set a record with the number of f-bombs there are in it.  But that is a three-hour movie too.  This book might set a similar sort of record.  I understand he's a teenager but I couldn't help but feel the writing was sort of, I don't know, lazy because of it.

I don't understand the narrative "moment" either--I suppose it takes place at the final scene in the story.  But Seamus doesn't appear to be writing a memoir, or telling it to somebody.  I just don't get who the novel is addressing.  Clearly, the key referent for this book is The Catcher in the Rye.  This is basically the same novel, 50 years later, in Chicago instead of New York, and with a Catholic high school rather than a boarding school.  But Catcher is an adventure story of sorts--it's about 3 days in New York, and that's the plot.  My friend that gave me 85A said the problem with it is that it doesn't really have a plot.  At least until the end.

And the ending is great.  The last fifty pages are the best part of the book.  And the rest of the book isn't too bad, but it just feels random and sometimes (I hate to say this) cliched.  So I think I've adequately summed up my feelings at this point.  But a couple more passages:

"When I was a little kid, I used to go into a deep fuckin' freeze whenever I thought about death and being stuck in a casket some undertaker drops in the ground.  It scared the living shit out of me that buried dead might be the same as buried alive--and it'd be for-fuckin'-ever, just you and your lonely little corpse, stuck in one place under thick wood and mounds of immovable dirt, until the end of time, until the Second Coming--whenever that shit was supposed to happen.  Later, when I was about seven, I found out you could get cremated instead, so I went and told Mom I want to be cremated, have my ashes scattered to the four winds so I can at least get some elbow room when this trip is over.  She said Catholics can't.  Man, Catholics can't do shit, can they?  I think it's after she told me that that I first started checking apartment listings in the Sunday Trib, thinking I should move out.  Seven years after my cremation chat with Mom, I found myself right where I didn't want to be: flat on my fuckin' back in the afterlife, in a dark place, unable to move a muscle, probably for-fuckin'-ever." (37-38)

This is a nice example of Smith's ability to write very well, i.e. to explain a feeling that most of us have felt at one time or another and put it perfectly into words.

The other part of the novel I really like is Seamus's obsession with a boy named Colby that he met on the El.  There is a passage that was very similar to one part of my second novel S/M, and made me feel like a similar feeling was at work, i.e. writing about somebody and hoping they would one day read it and know they were the character and find you years later:

"It's been well over a year now.  Colby still hasn't called.  Not that I'm waiting by the phone anymore.  And I haven't seen him around since that night either, not even at the fuckin' Murphy's Law concert, where my eyes were peeled out of their fuckin' sockets for him.  And I've been back to the video room time and again and he never turned up.  He wasn't even at Medusa's when Ministry played.  Fuckin' everyone who's anyone was there!  Not him, though.  Who knows, maybe he moved.  God, I fuckin' hope not.  I so want to see him again.
I never told Tressa about the night I met Colby.  Never told her what happened with Narc.  Never told her about my attempts at a cockney accent and a new story.  But I did ask her if the name Colby rang a bell.  She said it didn't and asked me why I asked.  I said somebody told me some story about somebody on Belmont named Colby but I couldn't remember how it went.  I could tell she could tell I was lying.  I remembered the story.  Knew it fuckin' chapter and verse.  I was its author.  'Colby's coming with me to London': I nursed the story all last year.  I nurse it now, but not so much now that a year has gone by and the phone hasn't rung.  Yet my London Plans still stand if he ever wants to hear my pitch, if I ever see him on the L again, if we ever become friends.  I'll keep watching out for him at Irving Park station.  But I won't do a cockney accent next time.  That was just fuckin' stupid." (104-105)

In summary, 85A is a bumpy ride, but it is one that you may be glad you took.  This is a really good book for young adults, even though the language is very vulgar.  I know things are different in 2014 than they were in 1989, but there are still kids out there like Seamus who feel like nobody could ever understand them.  This book will show them that everything they're feeling is totally normal, and that they shouldn't give up hope that their lives will get better.  It's not a perfect book by any means, but it's a pretty good debut for Smith, and I would be interested to read his other books if and when they are published.