Saturday, July 02, 2005


Being Jon Schwarz's friend means you have to work. Jon expects nothing less from a comrade. None of this "each according to his ability" crap -- you gotta bring it when he lays down the challenge. Failure to act consigns you to Jon's withering putdowns and dismissals, and baby, you want no part of that. I've seen the brightest people break down in Jon's shadow, sobbing, openly asking if life is mere suffering. He's that brutal.

So when Jon tossed his latest challenge my way, I took it seriously. My response follows. I only hope Jon finds some mercy in his heart.

Total number of books owned:

I honestly have no idea, but lots, all sizes, widths and ages. Many are still in boxes from our move last year. But the books we have on display sit majestically on the large, unvarnished book shelves my father-in-law built for us years ago. They look like planks taken from a weathered barn and pieced together. I love them.

Also, I'm very multimedia, so you have to add all my old magazines (a lot of National Lampoons from 1971-74), comic books, CDs, records, tapes, laser discs, DVDs and videos. To me, all of these are interchangeable.

Last book bought:

"notes of a dirty old man" by Charles Bukowski.

The first and only Bukowski I own. The local library has so much of his stuff that buying his books seemed a waste of money. But they don't have "notes," which is one of his first collections, written when he was, oh jeez, around my age. Maybe older. Yeah, definitely older . . .

What I like about Bukowski, apart from the fact that, like me, he was an autodidact, is the strange beauty that emerges from much of his writing. He wallowed in the lowest places, yet found and translated the poetry there. Sometimes he forges magic, but it seems like an afterthought. Maybe, in time, I can approach this plane in my serious writing, that is, when I'm much older than I am now.

Last book read:

"Namath" by Mark Kriegel.

Great sports bio that goes deep into the culture of its time. I dashed off a mid-book review of it at American Fan, so I won't repeat all that here. The chapter on Super Bowl 3 is the best account I've read about that epochal event, and Kriegel beautifully describes the slow tragic decline of Namath after he shoved a stinging defeat into the older league's face. At his height, Namath was the AFL, and thus the future of pro football. But his celebrity overshadowed his talent, and his broken body finally gave out when he tried to extend his gridiron life with the Rams. Then came heavy drinking and scattered attempts at showbiz. Kriegel ends the book on an up note, where Namath reconnects with his daughters and finds some solace in his skin. But overall, Kriegel shows us the destructive power of American celebrity and fame, a fantasyland with a million secret graves.

Five books that mean a lot to you:

"Myra Breckinridge" by Gore Vidal

The best of Vidal's "inventions." Crisp, funny, unsentimental. Influenced a lot of my early comic writing. Was turned into an incredibly bad film starring Raquel Welch and John Huston which Vidal had nothing to do with. In his series of televised debates with Vidal in 1968, William F. Buckley referred to "Myra" as "pornography" and evidence of Vidal's overall deviance (in addition to his anti-Vietnam war stance, of course). Through it all, Vidal smiled. His savage comic novel had turned America's leading rightwinger into a quacking literary moralist. Vidal responded to one of these attacks by stating that he based Myra's rhetorical style on Buckley's -- passionate, and highly irrelevant. Yet another reason why I love this book: it comes from a time when authors spoke about their work, or used their work as a weapon, on national TV. Dem daze iz gone . . .

"On The Road" by Jack Kerouac

I still own the now-yellowed, beaten-up paperback of "Road" I bought when I was 19. One of the first books that inspired me to write. Looking back, "Road," while seminal, is not one of Kerouac's better efforts. Oh, there's plenty of lush, poetic imagery to be found, some truly inspired riffs. And I love the way the book ends (have it memorized, in fact). But Kerouac was forced by Viking Press to tone down his experimental prose and chop his extensive ruminations into more-easily digested, commercially-viable sentences. "Visions of Cody," which was once part of "Road" and published after Kerouac's death, is closer to what he originally intended. But then, it's doubtful that "Road" would've made the splash it did had it read like "Cody." Sometimes editors make good suggestions. The bastards.

"The Diaries of Dawn Powell, 1931-1965" edited by Tim Page

The inner-thoughts of an original, brilliant mind. Powell's various struggles show us once again that writing is not for the weak. Some of her entries are painful to read, but Powell's prose is so smooth, so penetrating, so witty, that her anguish and insecurities flow into you like the finest narrative. Powell's curse was that she saw the essential core of everything, and could shape her insights into pretty much any form she chose. Most times it was satire, at her best seemingly light but always lethal, and this hurt her commercially and professionally. Also, Powell couldn't adequately censor herself for the sake of her career, so when pushed or poked, she slashed right back. Killing the golden goose, as she once put it, was her bloodsport. Her "Diaries" are a must-read for any writer who takes his/her craft seriously. Dawn Powell died for us.

"Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas" by Hunter S. Thompson

Like "On The Road," Thompson's book had a huge impact on me at an early age, and showed me where writing could go. Many writers imitated the good Doctor's style, but for me, it was his energy, his imagination, that sparked those first fires in my head. In a sense, Thompson nailed himself into a corner with "Fear and Loathing," and he was never really able to blaze a different creative path. He certainly had the talent to do so, but Gonzo made him wealthy and famous, and in our branded world, you stay within the lines. That he ended his life completely in character showed that Thompson understood this rough, if profitable, bargain. The man who wrote "Fear and Loathing" could not die peacefully, and this now gives his masterwork an even sharper edge.

"Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue, The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous"

This book means a lot to me for some obvious reasons, but none of them are connected to any authorial vanity. Indeed, I give myself at best a B-minus for this effort. When I got this project, I was scared shitless. I had never written a biography before, and I had to deal with a host of people, some of whom were quite famous and powerful, who were burned by Bob Woodward's "Wired," his awful book about John Belushi. Few trusted me and let me know this to my face. There were plenty of nerve-wracking interviews. So I was determined to compose the first real serious study of the National Lampoon and early-"Saturday Night Live," and according to many of those I interviewed, I succeeded. I received a tremendous amount of praise from people who I grew up reading, watching and admiring. I became and remain friends with Nelson Lyon, one of O'Donoghue's closest friends and former writing partner, and Chevy Chase, who's an incredibly sweet, smart guy. So on that front, I scored big.

Commercially, "Mr. Mike" tanked. Had I gone a more lurid route, perhaps I might've garnered some heat. But I didn't want write a Woodward-style book, which shows how removed I was from the genre. "Wired" is still in print. "Mr. Mike," when you can find it, is at the bottom of the remainder bin.

Had I to write "Mr. Mike" again, I would be looser and mess around with the bio form more. I would go a little deeper into O'Donoghue's personal world and be less lit-crit with his humor. But it is what it is -- my first real attempt at writing. I learned a lot from that experience, which, I suppose, is better than nothing.