Kamikaze L'amour by Richard Kadrey

If ever a novel needed its own niche, Kamikaze L'amour by Richard Kadrey might've been it. Dipping here, there, everywhere, from many subgenres inside and out of science fiction—dystopia, post-apocalypse, urban fantasy, cyberpunk, timeslipstream, satire, literary fiction, magical realism, it eluded a single label—a good thing—but also eluded sales—not so good; it's unclassifiable nature reminiscent to me of Steve Erickson's inimitable oeuvre, particularly his second novel Rubicon Beach, in which an encroaching jungle, a parallel reality Los Angeles, and a mysterious woman named Catharine, all figure prominently. Could've been coincidental, there being so many striking similarities between the two novels, though I suspect Kadrey was probably paying Steve Erickson some much deserved homage.

first edition, 1995
When Kamikaze L'amour opens, San Francisco and Los Angeles are in ruins. "San Francisco was on the verge of some discrete internal shift accompanied by subtle deviations in gravity, cellular tremors — like a city-sized snake getting ready to shed its skin. In an ecological experiment gone cataclysmically wrong, the Amazon Rainforest has inundated the California coast.  Hardcore defoliants have been no match for this super-sized rainforest. The Feds, running out of options, have resorted to dropping napalm on Hollywood (yes, napalm, such sweet satire), with little long lasting effects.  It's like the Vietnam War all over again, except it's in Los Angeles, where mutant jungle vines grow fast before your eyes like scabrous menacing erections. U.S. Highway 101 has become a barely passable corridor between the Bay and L.A., an overgrown concrete stand-in, say, for the Congo or Nung Rivers of Conrad's and Coppola's respective visions.

Ex-rock star Ryder and his hearty appetite for destruction (yeah, he knows Slash), having faked his own suicide in order to escape what he's deemed an empty existence of excess and ennui (because "Fame is just schizophrenia with money," he's reasoned in Kamikaze L'amour's fantastic opening line), takes the dangerous trek south for Los Angeles in search of an idiosyncratic personal "light" from his memory whose luminescence, if he can only recapture it—and the strange thing is the peculiar light emanates from sound—believes will somehow restore him.  Maybe save him.  Provide him renewed purpose.  Become his guide.  Or might the epic anti-heroic quest for the light leave him in darkness instead, disillusioned, damned, another abandoned husk of a human being sifting the ashes throughout the charred vestiges of L.A.?

Ryder's girlfriend, also a talented and nutty musician (and likely insane), has fled south through the jungle before him. Ryder's convinced, since she's spent so many secret hours on the fringes of the new rainforest, recording the jungle's animate sounds, that she knows the right combo of ambient tones and notes to unlock that resurrecting light within and without.  But will he find her before the jungle devours her whole? Ryder pursues her with reckless abandon, as obsessive in his search for the light and the sound (vis-à-vis Catharine) as perhaps Proust was his past.  Despite the untold dangers, and some scary setbacks along the way, involving mercenaries, wild beasts, and indigenous tribes of the new Amazon, Ryder arrives in L.A., having barely survived his harrowing journey.

"The new Los Angeles seemed remarkably smaller, and somber; the most extroverted of cities had turned introspective. This was the sleeping face of L.A.—its dream face. Under its jungle coat, all the fantasies that the city had birthed, appropriated, conceived or destroyed moved raw and wild beneath the luminescent green canopy of the kapoks and palm trees. When it gave itself over to Amazonia, Los Angeles had found itself—a hermetic fusion of city and rainforest, half construct and half dream—as solid as the omnipresent HOLLYWOOD sign still visible in the hills, and as fragile as a dragonfly's wings."

In Kamikaze L'amour's acknowledgements, Kadrey thanked those who helped him write "The Book That Would Not Die". I think it's unfortunate that Kadrey's underrated second novel did in fact "die," commercially speaking, shortly after publication.  Victim of false expectations, suffering from unfair comparisons to his, granted, dazzling debut Metrophage, considered now a cyberpunk classic—Kamikaze L'amour is nevertheless a good, often great, novel in its own right (so what if it's not a classic phenom like its predecessor, neither was In Utero after Nevermind, or Tusk after Rumours, but they were still very good) has been out of print now for almost twenty years. Perhaps Harper Voyager will one day reissue it as they did Metrophage in 2014 to acclaim and steady sales.  Regardless, I hope many curious intrepid readers will soon reconsider reading the more experimental Kamikaze L'amour—a paean, ultimately, to humanity's obsessive search for light or illumination throughout the ages, and what an elaborate suicide might've symbolized in such a quest—for when they do I'm convinced they'll discover, as I did, that Richard Kadrey's second novel has long deserved a second chance.


All Twenty-One of Stephen King's Books I've Read* so far (or Attempted to Read) Ranked from Worst to Best

Vulture released a worst-to-best ranking a couple years ago of Stephen King's sixty-four books and I thought they got it mostly right.  But I like this hardcore King fan's list better.

*I've read -- completed -- eighteen books by Stephen King so far in my life and have attempted to read three more.  The three I couldn't finish are the first three listed.  So, here's my personal worst-to-best ranking of the twenty-one books I've read or attempted to read by Stephen King.

Signet pb of original version
21. The Tommyknockers (1987).  A heartbreakingly bad reading experience that ended my then loyal relationship with Stephen King.  I made it 200-250 pages and gave up in disgust.  It's good to see I wasn't the only reader who thought this novel was tired, bloated, and just generally all-around atrocious.

20. The Complete & Uncut 1990 version of The Stand.  Three years had passed since I abandoned Stephen King.  Having such fond memories of the much shorter (by about 400 pages) original version of The Stand, I thought I'd give King another chance. But quickly realized there were valid reasons King's editors excised that extra baggage & overblown bloat more than a decade earlier.  It just sucked, and I was so disappointed, having been suckered in by the hype & hoopla regarding its re-release.

19. Insomnia (1994).  Another four years had passed.  I missed Stephen King!  He was my good buddy when I was a lonely alienated adolescent, like so many of us here.  I wanted him back.  But damn it, Stephen, your Insomnia put me to sleep!  Twenty years now have come and gone, and while I've reread a couple of King's books in the interim listed below (The Dead Zone and The Shining), I've yet risked reading anything new of his.  Am I wrong for no longer remaining current with the prolific output of King?  If I am wrong, which book of his, post-1994, should I begin with?


18. Cycle of the Werewolf (1983).  Even though I read it in one sitting (it's a novella plentifully illustrated), it was just okay.  Of course, "okay" by Stephen King standards is pretty damn good for most anybody else.  It didn't transport me someplace special; I never got lost in the story; it didn't take me away outside of myself like so much of the finest work of King's once did.  Or maybe I was just too damn young and naive to know any better, could that have been it?

17. The Running Man (1982).  Forgettable. A race that never ends.  Last man running in the race doesn't win, he just gets to live . . . until the next race. I thought the Schwarzenegger adaptation bit the dust too.

16. The Long Walk (1979). I enjoy taking long walks. Walking, or even hiking uphill with a forty pound backpack is not Hell. Leave it Stephen King to take something really nice like a nice long walk and metastasize it into something monstrous. Bastard.

15. Rage (1977).  First of the novels written under the Richard Bachman nom de guerre, and a novel now most notable because King regrets publishing it, and has refused his publishers the right to reissue it. King is blessed (or in this case cursed?) with sometimes too prescient of an imagination. Rage is about a high school boy who walks into a classroom with gun and holds the class hostage all day.  I think he even killed a fellow student (or teacher) or two, though I don't remember for sure. When school shootings began occurring here in the States w/alarming regularity in the mid-1980s, one of the school shooters proudly proclaimed King's Rage as being his inspiration.  Copycats followed.  King took a ton of heat and soon disowned the book.  But it's still a good book.

14. Roadwork (1981).  Like his short story "The Woman in the Room, "this is one of King's rare ventures into literary fiction.  Real horror can be bureaucracy, red tape and not just a bloody vampire's fangs.  Real terror is the government acting like oppressive vindictive ghouls out of Stalinist-era Soviet Union come to clobber you and bury you alive with earth movers.  Eminent domain can be a major pain for some homeowners.

loved these Signet paperback covers
13. Thinner (1984).  The last of the five novels King wrote under the pseudonym "Richard Bachman" (at least up to that point, that is, when Richard Bachman was still a secret even to his most fanatical aficionados) and easily his best, for my money, under the Bachman nom de guerre.  If you're ever at a carnival and a real (not pretend) gypsy offers you a delicious cherry pie, don't you dare give into the temptation and take a bite of it, because otherwise you've just begun the cherry pie diet to end all diets. Funny how the first three letters in "diet" are d, i, e.

12. Misery (1987).  The last novel of King's I completed before leaving him as a dedicated, bought-his-new-hardcovers-the-day-they-came-out-fan for good.  How he could write such a compelling and demented novel like Misery and then follow it up with a colossal dud like The Tommyknockers just half a year later is beyond me.  Actually, it's not.  King later admitted it was  the drugs he was abusing that made him suck so bad as a novelist for a while.

11. Danse Macabre.  King's first work of non-fiction from 1981 remains a book I regularly reference for reading and movie ideas to this day, as it contains long lists of King's personal horror novel and terrifying film recommendations that often include obscure titles worthy of a larger audience.

10. Different Seasons (1982).  A collection of four wonderful novellas.  Everybody's seen Stand By Me, right, & The Shawshank Redemption?  Well, those two novellas' contemporary classic films made from them are as good if not better than their brilliant adaptations.  And I've yet failed to mention Apt Pupil too, and, and, what was the fourth one? ....

09. It (1986).  Despite It's lackluster and disappointing denouement, there's still well over 1,000-plus pages of sheer mesmerizing storytelling.  For a novel this huge, it didn't read like it needed an editor.

08. The Dead Zone.  King's fifth novel and the third one to examine, realistically, and in this case, politically, the far reaching implications of the paranormal in a person's -- and in their country's -- often very taken-for-granted liberties and ultimately, survival as a free society and as uncaged individuals.  I think it is overlooked and way underrated in King's canon.  The adaptation, and particularly Christopher Walken's haunting performance, is a rare exception of a movie based on a Stephen King novel that actually compliments the novel, and to the point where I can say the movie was as good as the book.

I remember lugging this first printing hard cover
 around from class to class my senior year in high school
07. Skeleton Crew (1985).  Buying it for the novella "The Mist" alone would be worth it, but this collection has some truly twisted & disgusting (yet oddly endearing) stories just as good as the novella its most famous for.  The story "Survivor Type" prefigured, I believe, the Survivor reality show.

06. Night Shift (1978). His first and probably scariest short story collection. "Jerusalem's Lot" scared the bejeezus out of me.  Demonstrated too that King could go strictly literary (the few times he's ever wanted to, I guess) as in the horrifically real "The Woman in the Room," a story inspired by the slow agonizing death of his own mother.

05. Salems' Lot (1976).  Much better paced and overall written if, granted, a hair less gothic and sexy, through certainly more ridden with terror and existential gloom, than its more famous forebear, Bram Stoker's Dracula.

04. Carrie (1974).  Told through diary entries, letters, news reports, its documentary-type style narration lent it a realism so real that reading it barely requires the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.  Next to The Shining, I think it was King's most literary achievement.

03. The Shining (1977).  Two of King's first three novels plunged deep into parallel realities where extrasensory cognition can be deemed as much normal in a person's life as touch or taste is, and not condemned as de facto psychological disorders or conjuring empowered by the devil, despite the whacko mothers or sicko fathers in the novels who might argue otherwise.  The potential for evil, King seemed to be ironically asserting (like so many literary luminaries preceding him -- even, say, Dostoyevsky), resides in the so-called "normal" and much less gifted, "everyday" human beings on earth, who, in King's bizarre harrowing takes on this planet, lean towards the soulless Jack Torrance's rather than the supernatural Carrie's.

02. The Talisman (1984).  Underrated dark epic fantasy co-written with Peter Straub.

01. The Stand.  The original, edited and cut (thank God!) 1978 post apocalyptic masterpiece.


Nakamura Reality by Alex Austin

Reading Nakamura Reality by Alex Austin is like riding a perfect wave. In its exhilarating, grips-you-from-the-get-go prologue, "slabs of water, rhinos the surfers called them" are booming off shore. Closer, the shore break "sounded sharply like a gunshot."  As you read Nakamura Reality (and do know it will be difficult not to complete it in one sitting), keep in mind this dualism Austin first evokes here with the imagery of waves: inside versus outside, far versus near.  Incoming infinitely, ephemeral as they are, Austin's waves foreshadow and harbor clues in Nakamura Reality's epic prologue.

preview copy
Alex Austin is a practiced illusionist in words and images. He's been a playwright; he's witnessed his words and images staged in Los Angeles and New York.  He's published many stories both online and in print, including publication in two issues of Black Clock.  You could safely say, as I will, because yes I know Alex, that he has a special way with words and images; employing them both to pull the wave over your eyes! Tricking you over and over again, for 272 mesmerizing pages -- I wished it would never end. For Nakamura Reality amazes me, as I consider how many intricate, interwoven, parallel dramas, realities, and confabulations of fiction and fact are introduced -- in action -- simultaneously.  Even seemingly insignificant details Austin includes are imbued with foreboding, or longing or loss, like those pesky seagulls we'll see "swooping down" and "mewing insistently" throughout the mysterious narrative(s) of the novel.  I just can't help wondering what the seagulls portend.

We meet at least three (but maybe more) of the major players in the prologue: Hugh and his twin sons Takumi and Hitoshi.  They are on the beach in a supposed paradise in southern California, surveying those "rhinos" whose "chaotic" enormity is reminiscent to me of those magnificent rhinos in the grand finale of Big Wednesday.  Once in a lifetime day.  And what a likewise rare day for two boys and their Dad.  To surf, or not to surf?  That is the question; the question that preoccupied the double-minded indecisive Hugh who must decide for his eleven year old sons.

Twelve years pass from the prologue to chapter one. Hugh's sons, you probably figured, are long gone.  Presumed dead.  Disappeared.  Likely drowned.  Hugh's Japanese wife, Setsuko, resultantly divorces him.  How could Hugh, she must have thought even if she never exactly stated so, though her relatively swift abandonment of Hugh clearly implied as much, be so reckless, so irresponsible, so stupid as to let Takumi and Hitoshi, her only sons, her defenseless children senselessly put in unnecessary danger for crying out loud!; how could Hugh let them paddle out into the surf that damnable day? And if it wasn't the recklessness of that dangerous surf,  it was bows and arrows, and who knows what else!  How could Hugh -- a schoolteacher for junior high punks (think pawns Aaron and Anna) because he couldn't make it as a writer; couldn't make it like her father -- let her boys play at archery unsupervised?  What a dunce!  Ergo, divorce was predictable.  Perhaps her return to Japan, where she had first met Hugh at the university, was inevitable too.  Home to the house of her famous father, a man of unimaginable power and influence as we'll soon find out; and whom, if we're to believe the boasting of his bodyguard, has "fans among the Yakuza -- big fans," Japan's most popular literary author next to Haruki Murakami, the magical realist, Kazuki Ono.

Once we meet Kazuki Ono, Nakamura Reality goes rogue wave.  A novel-within-a-novel emerges. Fingal's Cave, Kazuki Ono's novel-in-progress, the novel we get to see him write and we get to read as we turn each successive page in the parallel time and the parallel life of Kazuki Ono's super real realityfiction.  A lifelike realityfiction as believable and plausibly enacted as, say, The Truman Show's realityfiction.  I can't help being reminded also of the cosmic puppeteers in Frank Herbert's The Heaven Makers, jaded and bored by eternity, playing God and making rook or knight moves in the finite realities of pathetic little earthlings.  Let's just say Kazuki Ono treats his former son-in-law, Hugh, like a pathetic little earthling and leave it at that.

What an experience, reading a novel that's really two novels in one, the second novel (Fingal's Cave) like some experimental commentary on the first novel (Nakamura Reality); the former serving as both a biography and fantasy future history in the fated life of an unfortunate and unjustly bereaved man who did not deserve, no matter how many idiotic and impulsive and regrettable flings and affairs he had, the cold and bewildering punishment served to him by that shady conglomerate we never really see and can only imagine known as "Nakamura Reality".


Nakamura Reality is slated for publication by The Permanent Press in February, 2016.  Heartfelt thanks to Alex Austin for titling the novel that was Fingal's Cave's predecessor what he did -- I like it a lot! -- and for thinking enough of the novel (was it Kazuki Ono's tenth?) that Kazuki read an excerpt from it at Pasadena's revered independent bookstore, Huddle's (I think that was 2010 or 2011, right?), when Ono's book tour arrived in Los Angeles.  May that novel of Kazuki Ono's, the one preceding Fingal's Cave, come out of realityfiction someday soon and shine like the brilliance that is Nakamura Reality's.


Obscure (& Awesome) Books Unearthed from the Upstairs Dollar Section of The Last Bookstore in Historic, Art Deco Era, Downtown Los Angeles, Part I: A Couple of Comedians by Don Carpenter

If you've been there, you know.  You know that The Last Bookstore is the best bookstore you've ever been to.  For me, there's not a close runner-up, not even from my memory of a defunct legend like Acres of Books.   Much has been made of The Last Bookstore's spectacular style; yet it's substance is just as spectacular, particularly for bibliophiles who put on their camouflage and go hunting deep inside their virtual jungle of dollar books.  Case in point: A Couple of Comedians by the late great Don Carpenter.

my copy of the first printing
Don Carpenter was a revelation to me when several years ago I first read the NYRBs reissue of his first published novel Hard Rain Falling, which was actually the fourth novel Carpenter had written, but the first three he wrote, according to his website (currently undergoing maintenance or I'd have linked it), are lost.  Or rather destroyed by Carpenter.

Who was Don Carpenter?  He was a talented novelist and screenwriter: those are the two most pertinent and basic facts you need to know.  Until NYRB intervened, Don Carpenter was completely out of print.  Forgotten by most but for his fellow colleagues and hardcore fans who kept the then waning legacy of this under appreciated writer's writer alive.  A Couple of Comedians, like all his novels, wasn't a bestseller upon it's publication in 1979.  Even if the NYRB were to reissue it (it's actually been recently reissued as part of The Hollywood Trilogy omnibus published last year by Counterpoint) I suspect it still wouldn't be one of their bestsellers, but owning it, having salvaged it (and so what if it's a library discard that was never checked out, it's a first printing of an out of print novel by Don Carpenter!) is absolutely priceless to me.  A first printing from the 1970s by a writer who, except for a few recent reissues (and may those reissues -- thank you Counterpoint and NYRB! -- keep on coming), are largely long gone.  Long gone, that is, unless you were perusing the upstairs dollar section of the Last Bookstore on a lazy Sunday morning not too long ago, like me, and found Don Carpenter's gem A Couple of Comedians.


More obscure (& awesome) books unearthed from the upstairs dollar section of The Last Bookstore in historic, Art Deco era, downtown Los Angeles, coming soon. . . .


Not Exactly Water and Power by William L. Kahrl

Mulholland Drive is a paved snake winding its sinuous way for dozens of miles through the curvaceous contours of the Hollywood Hills.  Pause at a precipitous turnoff, careful to avoid parked cars whose occupants have fogged their interiors; and gaze southward, where iconic canyons steeply recede into riparian mysteries and rustic enclaves of musicians and artists; or, glance north, and if its night, all the stars will have fallen from the sky, still alight, in gaudy boxy grids, a matrix of massive and enmeshed illumination, this sunken panorama otherwise known as Los Angeles and the Valley.

by Dawn2dawn photography
Mulholland Highway extends further out west, gaining altitude as it slithers along the crest of the fire drenched Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu before dead-ending, like so many damned California dreams before it, on the rocky cliffs confronting the Pacific. What little rain falls rarely reaches the ocean except for whatever runoff escapes the concrete lagoons either side of PCH. Come autumn, come the as much maligned as they are malignant, Santa Anas, whose combustible gusts some unseasonably hot afternoons are stand-ins for fuses, for gasoline.  Santa Anas are the L.A. arsonist's aphrodisiac.

Were Mulholland Drive a human being, she'd have gone mad or been murdered.  Be missing. On F.B.I. Most Wanted persons list and posters, or wanted by any one of a million garden variety Valley pimps exploiting her online. Had she survived into middle age, she'd be skidding around the corners in her old man's baby beamer, cranking Coldplay, driving drunk, disoriented, on drugs, her custom black sundress she'd named Eclipse billowing around her like a busted parachute with the top down, her skimpy dress whipped skyward in the molten breeze.  After a near head-on or three, she'd slam the brakes and spin to a stop on the slim shoulder of a hairpin curve, unable to remember how she got there. David Lynch might know.

Leaving the BMWs lights on, she'd stand atop the earthen embankment at the edge of road, where pieces of pavement have cracked off like so many scales, a slender silhouette on a dangerous stage.  She'd

She'd what?

Maybe its better Mulholland Drive was named for a man.


The above began as a book review, now abandoned, of Water and Power by William L. Kahrl, a 1982 comprehensive account of the legal (and more often illegal) conflict over water rights between the citizens of the Owens Valley -- the duped victims of the man that Mulholland Drive was named for, William Mulholland -- and the city of Los Angeles, but quickly metamorphosed into something else above.  Which is to say that, like the 1974 Roman Polanski classic Chinatown, Water and Power fueled my imagination gone temporarily neonoir-ish.


A Fabulous Opera by Tropic of Ideas

What could the following ninety-six titles listed below -- novels mostly, some poetry, memoirs, a how-to manual on caring for goats, treatises on linguistics and literary criticism, as well as other unclassifiable, though delightful, oddities and arcana (including one movie review) -- possibly have in common? . . .  Go ahead, peruse the eclectic list.  Take your time.  Say to yourself, "I've never heard of that."  I insist.  Some of the titles you're sure to recognize.  How many have you already read? Me?  I've finished twenty-four of them. Began and abandoned another quarter of that. Five of the twenty-four I've read shook me up enough that I was prompted; no, compelled to scribble my inmost thoughts about them.  But, damn, I've digressed.  What do the books below have in common?--that was the question! . . .

2666 (2004) by Roberto Bolano,
A Book of Common Prayer (1977) by Joan Didion
A Drink Called Paradise (1999) by Terese Svoboda,
A Passage to India (1924) by E.M. Forster,
A Small Yes and a Big No (1923) by George Grosz,
A Voice from the Attic (1960) by Robertson Davies,
Adam Bede (1859) by George Eliot,
Arjun and the Good Snake (2011) by Rick Harsch,
Black Light: A Novel (1966) by Galway Kinnell,
Calling Mr. King (2011) by Ronald De Feo,
Chateau d'Argol (1938) by Julien Gracq,
Children of Violence Series (1952-69) by Doris Lessing,
Clarel (1876) by Herman Melville,
Complete Plays (2001, posthumous) by Sarah Kane,
Confessions (398AD) by Saint Augustine of Hippo,
Contraptions (2007, posthumous) by W. Heath Robinson,
Darconville's Cat (1981) by Alexander Theroux,
Decadence Mandchoue (2011, posthumous) by Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse,
Delinquent Days (1967) by John A. Lee
Digging Deeper--A Memoir of the Seventies (2011) by Peter Weissman,
Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker,
East of Eden (1952) by John Steinbeck,
Eugene Onegin (1825) by Alexander Pushkin,
Finnegans Wake (1939) by James Joyce,
Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley,
Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road (2002) by Neil Peart,
Have You Seen Me (2011) by Katherine Scott Nelson,
Hector (2009) by K.I. Hope,
High Albania (1909) by Edith Durham,
History: A Novel (1974) by Elsa Morante,
"I Am": The Selected Poetry of John Clare (2003, posthumous) by John Clare,
Independent People (1934) by Halldor Laxness,
Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace,
Jennie (1950) by Paul Gallico,
Johnson's Dictionary: A Modern Selection (1755) by Samuel Johnson,
Kettle Bottom (2004) by Diane Gilliam Fisher,
Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) by D.H. Lawrence,
La-bas (1891) by Joris-Karl Huysmans,
Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) by John Sturges,
Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo,
Let the Great World Spin (2009) by Colum McCann,
Magnus (2005) by Sylvie Germain,
Man in the Holocene (1979) by Max Frisch,
Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) by Marguerite Yourcenar,
Middlemarch (1874) by George Eliot,
Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) by Nathanael West,
Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville,
My First Two Thousand Years (1928) by George Sylvester Viereck,
Nadja (1928) by Andre Breton,
Neighbors at War: The Creepy Case Against Your Homeowner's Association (2013) by Ward Lucas,
Nightwood (1936) by Djuna Barnes,
Of Human Bondage (1915) by W. Somerset Maugham,
Owen Wister Out West: His Journals and Letters (1958, posthumous) by Owen Wister,
Pincher Martin (1956) by William Golding,
Play It As It Lays (1970) by Joan Didion,
Published Poems: The Writing of Herman Melville, Volume 11 (2002, posthumous) by Herman Melville,
Sheep and Goat Medicine (2001) by D.G. Pugh, DVM, MS,
Star Maker (1937) by Olaf Stapledon,
Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert Heinlein,
Suite Francaise (2004, posthumous) by Irene Nemirovsky,  
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) by Thomas Hardy,
The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) by Robert Burton,
The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History (1987) by Maria Rosa Menocal,
The Arcades Project (1927-40) by Walter Benjamin,
The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Fyodor Dostoevsky,
The Double Tongue (1995) by William Golding,
The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast (2009) by Scott Coffel,
The Golden Notebook (1962) by Doris Lessing,
The Green Child (1935) by Herbert Read,
The High Life (1979) by Jean-Pierre Martinet,
The Hour of the Star (1977) by Clarice Lispector,
The Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America (1995) by Tom Shachtman,
The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (1819-21) by E.T.A. Hoffmann,
The Magic Mountain (1924) by Thomas Mann,
The Magus (1965, rev. 1977) by John Fowles,
The Master and Margarita (1966, posthumous) by Mikhail Bulgakov,
The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins,
The Odd Women (1893) by George Gissing,
The Poetics of Space (1958) by Gaston Bachelard,
The Poor Mouth (1941) by Flann O'Brien,
The Rebel Angels (1981) by Robertson Davies,
The Recognitions (1955) by William Gaddis,
The Sea (2005) by John Banville,
The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad,
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson,
The Things That Always Were (2013) by Solla Carrock,
The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O'Brien,
The Virginian (1902) by Owen Wister,
Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe,
To the Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf,
Trainspotting (1993) by Irvine Welsh,
Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772) by Johann Gottfried Herder,
Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe (2005) by Doreen Baingana,
Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce,
Ursule Mirouet (1841) by Honore De Balzac,
We (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

published by Running Girl Press, 2015
What connects each book to the next are the readers who read and reviewed them. Readers like me, perhaps you, who've met other readers online and got down to discussing and dissecting (not out of some empty dissertational duty, but because they had to, for love) what they'd read and were inspired to write about in forum posts and threads. The best of what they'd read and reviewed were selected for publication in a fabulous book about fabulous books: A Fabulous Opera.  A Fabulous Opera was collectively authored, edited, and produced by a group of obsessed readers known as Tropic of Ideas, reader's whose mutually shared fervent mantra might be, "Give me literature, or give me death!"  Most of these readers, I might add, had never (and probably will never) meet together face to face, which only amplifies how deep their emotional bond over books goes.  You can buy their book (of which I contributed the preface and five of the more than 100 reviews) here at CreateSpace or wherever fine and/or fabulous books are sold.

So that's A Fabulous Opera, but Who or What is Tropic of Ideas?

Tropic of Ideas is any place, from any time, where memory or imagination or a combination of both have combusted and erupted out from under and become material mass. A Fabulous Opera is one such place happening right now.  The very writers whose brilliant books are reviewed in A Fabulous Opera, however, describe the idea of Tropic of Ideas with more eloquence:

"I dream about living on a beautiful tropical island that I have made out of nothing, as advertised." ~ Terese Svoboda, A Drink Called Paradise

"...do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we refuse to see it. If we would, we should have heaven on Earth tomorrow." ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen." ~ Steinbeck, from this interview.

"Broad sun-stoned beaches.

White heat.
A green river.

A bridge,
scorched yellow palms

from the summer-sleeping house
drowsing through August.

Days I have held,
days I have lost,

days that outgrow, like daughters,
my harbouring arms." ~ Derek Walcott, Midsummer, Tobago

There are many many beaches, in fact, many bridges, virgin bays and busy harbours, as many islands and archipelagoes as there are days in the Tropics. Some are famous: Tahiti, Bora Bora, Peter Matthiessen's Grand Cayman, the mythological seascape for "Far Tortuga," Barbados, Fiji, Martinique. . . Days there last forever. Exquisite destinations, all. Other tropic enclaves remain unknown, elusive as pirate's sunken gold. . .  Sao Tome & Principe, for instance, rarely receive 100 visitors in a year. Not many more travelers frequent the forgotten and exotic isles of Ascencion, Tuvalu, and Chuuk.

The diverse myriad of tropical islands comprising Books and Literature are much the same. Great Expectations, War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, Wuthering Heights or, any novel by, say, Jane Austen or Henry James, might as well be ... Waikiki. Arguably the Tropics' most classic destination: Heavily trodden but lush and revered. And rightly not to be missed by anyone who wishes to experience those popular pages.

While always amenable to Waikiki and other Hawaiian Islands of World Literature, Tropic of Ideas prefers those keys and hideout-reefs not already shipwrecked by Hyatts and Hiltons, tempting though they be. Tropic of Ideas' citizens prefer survivor-type atolls unlisted in travel guides, Carnival Cruises, or Google; but instead, chooses sandbars happened upon by pure chance -- by the sea's serendipity -- rather than current itineraries; books for intrepid, eccentric Readers, for Certifiable Bibliophiles (even sultry BiblioBimbos) committed in their "gentle madness" not merely to asylums, but to salvaging and restoring rare tomes into a dialogue with popular culture.

Welcome to the solitude and simplicity of lapping wavelets and trade winds. Recline with that book or breeze in our scattered hammocks hung from palms. Sip a fresh coconut spiked with rum. Regardless what shackle, imagined or real, has perchance immobilized you in this or that cage the great Gaddis called a cubicle, may Books and Literature release your liberation even while you're chained.

Buy A Fabulous Opera by Tropic of Ideas


On discovering Lola Ridge while visiting Terese Svoboda's website; or, Poetry, Personal Loss, and Remembrance


I wonder
how it would be here with you,
where the wind
that has shaken off its dust in low valleys
touches one cleanly,
as with a new-washed hand,
and pain
is as the remote hunger of droning things,
and anger
but a little silence
sinking into the great silence.

~ Lola Ridge from Sun-Up and Other Poems (1920)

Lola Ridge was a poet and activist; an advocate for immigrants, women, and the working class. I'd never heard of her until this afternoon, after spending some time on Terese Svoboda's website.  Svoboda, an accomplished poet, novelist, and activist herself, will publish Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet in early 2016, and I can't wait to read it, to discover more about this remarkable woman and artist, Lola Ridge.

Terese Svoboda is a remarkable author herself. A Drink Called Paradise remains for me one of the most memorable -- and poetic -- novels I've ever read. Juxtaposing the tragic consequences of a nation's shameful history of atomic testing in the South Pacific with a bereaved mother's rumination on the loss of her son, it's searing images are indeed as luminous as the sun.  It was the last novel I read and reviewed before the sudden and unexpected death of my own daughter, in late December, 2013.  The pent-up grief that Clare shared in A Drink Called Paradise as well as the collective grief of the Pacific Islanders Clare encountered there, still recovering -- or, rather, reeling -- from the covered-up crimes of the United States government committed against them over half-a-century ago, naturally melded into my individual experience of grief over my daughter, so that her loss and the memory of it is inextricably intertwined in my remembrance and reading of Terese Svoboda's novel. Svoboda just feels to me like the right poet to tackle the life of the forgotten poet Lola Ridge.  Thanks largely to Svoboda's soon-to-be released biography, I suspect Lola Ridge isn't going to remain forgotten for long. I know it'll be a long, long time, before I forget Terese Svoboda or A Drink Called Paradise. . . .

Here's another poem by Lola Ridge from Sun-Up and Other Poems:


Your love was like moonlight
turning harsh things to beauty,
so that little wry souls
reflecting each other obliquely
as in cracked mirrors...
beheld in your luminous spirit
their own reflection,
transfigured as in a shining stream,
and loved you for what they are not.

You are less an image in my mind
than a luster
I see you in gleams
pale as star-light on a gray wall...
evanescent as the reflection of a white swan
shimmering in broken water.

And another, this one from The Ghetto, and Other Poems (1918):


I remember
The crackle of the palm trees
Over the mooned white roofs of the town...
The shining town...
And the tender fumbling of the surf
On the sulphur-yellow beaches
As we sat... a little apart... in the close-pressing night.

The moon hung above us like a golden mango,
And the moist air clung to our faces,
Warm and fragrant as the open mouth of a child
And we watched the out-flung sea
Rolling to the purple edge of the world,
Yet ever back upon itself...
As we...

Inadequate night...
And mooned white memory
Of a tropic sea...
How softly it comes up
Like an ungathered lily.


Opening Remarks on Literary Outlaw: The Life And Times of William S. Burroughs by Ted Morgan

Have I mentioned I'm reading Ted Morgan's stellar bio Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs?  What an unusual life (to put it blandly, 'cos I can't think at the moment of an extraordinary way to put it) this sick -- meaning good and bad -- cat lived, and I've only gotten up to the time in the biography his first novel Junky came out.  And then Queer. Two books, whose titles themselves, encapsulate Burrough's life both literally and figuratively up to that point.  Junky got him a $1000 advance, which was right around the same time that Kerouac, his younger buddy, got the same for The Town and the City.  And even though Junky sold over 100,000 copies, the book gave Burroughs no fame.  Fame would come much later, after infamy.

Longest job Burroughs ever held was being an exterminator.  And from his experiences there later came, of course, Exterminator! Lasted eight months as an exterminator.  Long time for a man who was afraid of insects. Failed as a farmer too.  Tried his hand at cotton, carrots, peas, marijuana, in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  Busts all. Tried being a small time dope dealer, but found he was too prolific a user to have much use for selling.  His $200/month "stipend" from his society parents in St. Louis kept him alive, afloat, adrift. Luckiest thing that ever happened to him, as a then nascent writer, was accidentally shooting and killing his wife, Joan Vollmer. Admitted he'd of never become a writer (he was by then in his late thirties) had it not been for Joan's bizarre early death at twenty-seven.  Her death and the resultant guilt he did only thirteen days in a Mexican jail for haunted him the rest of his life -- an understatement, but how else is there to state it? -- and "writing down the facts" in book after book for almost the next half century, was his sole, shaky, redemption.  Hard for a man with a fiendish predilection for heroin and for guns to find redemption in the sitcom-Mom milk-and-cookies vibe of 1950s U.S. of America.  Good thing Burroughs wasn't a moralist, like so many conventional writers of his time, but instead a self-described "factualist," for being about the facts, and solely about the facts, M'am, may have saved him from committing suicide. . . .

Way out in the boonies of New Mexico, the teenage Burroughs attended a boarding school that later became the birthplace (after the school was eminent-domained by the government who'd been spying out the isolated locale for years) of the atomic bomb.  Los Alamos.  The atomic bomb and junk.  The juxtaposition of the two Burroughs relied on in his later fiction.  His grandfather was the inventor of the adding machine; hence his family's fortunes.  Burroughs graduated from Harvard and could recite entire scenes of Shakespeare even before he enrolled.  The chronically unemployed Burroughs would recite Shakespeare to his lifelong pals Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in Ginsberg's Columbia dorm room, where Ginsberg was an undergrad at the time.  Burroughs wanted to work, he just wasn't good at it -- even attempting to get in as a soldier on the action of WWII, but he failed at that too, and failed, thankfully for the literary world and for Burroughs, before he could get enlisted and killed.  Everywhere Burroughs went: Los Alamos, New York, St. Louis, New Orleans, Mexico City, the police were invariably after him.  He wore the threads of his society heritage--he was a suit-and-tie beatnik.  He was an oddity among the oddball beats, whom he mentored when he was off junk for a spell.  He was a father figure to many.  Beloved.  Vilified.  Enigma of the enigmatic.  All this, and I've barely begun to scratch the surface of his writing career, so well documented by Ted Morgan, who writes of Burroughs in a similar endearing style and sensibility as Burroughs, with a streetwise Shakespearean prose that's as earthy as it is erudite.  Literary Outlaw was written in an elegant inspired voice as factual and anti-establishment as the literary outlaw it chronicles . . . .


Mickey (Dis)Mantle(d); or, How Not to Teach Your Kid the Value of Priceless Baseball Cards

It's 1985 and a baseball card "convention" came to our local Lakewood Mall.  I was sixteen and while maybe I was a little old to still be interested in baseball cards, I had a good eye for them (in part, thanks to those bulky paperback Topps Baseball Card Price Guides I'd regularly get); a good eye for cards that had bona fide value and for rookie cards that were currently trending upward, such as Tony Gwynn's and Wade Bogg's cards at the time.  My Dad, learning of the baseball card convention, gives me fifty bucks and says "go find us an investment".  So off I went, with my newly minted California driver's license, in my Mom's 1977 Oldsmobile station wagon (with its rear seats reversed so that if you sat there and were anything like me you felt self-conscious with all those drivers and passengers in other cars staring directly at you while you awkwardly averted your eyes) to the Lakewood Mall.  A mall, in fact, named for a cookie cutter city built largely to house McDonnell Douglas employees that Joan Didion wrote about in one of her particularly scathing New Yorker articles, "Trouble in Lakewood," covering the infamous "Spur Posse" scandal that rocked the community and made national headlines in the early 1990s.

Once I was at the convention, it didn't take long to find Dad his investment: A 1961 Topps MVP Mickey Mantle card, offered for sale at $55.00. Not his regular playing card, mind you, which would've priced me out of the ball park completely, but a lesser valued MVP card that only spotlighted Mantle's MVP seasons of 1956 and '57 (no year-by-year statistics on the back, in other words).  Looking forlornly at the guy sitting behind the table with his cards displayed before him side by side, I asked, "Will you take $50 for that Mickey Mantle card?  It's all I have."  He proceeded to squint and slowly went sideways with his head and the hiss I heard of indrawn breath through his open mouth of clenched teeth was communicating, I feared, "can't do that, Son"; but then he let out his breath, sighed, and nodded 'yes,' and never said a word as we consummated our business transaction.

Years go by.  Every few months my Dad would inquire "so how much is our card worth now?" and year by year it steadily, incrementally, rose.  In 1991, when baseball card collecting was at its zenith, and some dealers at what amounted to like a Card Exchange were getting rich buying and selling little rectangles of four-colored cardboard, the value of our MVP Mickey Mantle broke the $100 barrier for the first time. Not bad, doubling it's value in six years.  Better than a lot of stocks, especially these rollercoaster days.  Soon thereafter, however, and not long after a Minnesota Twin shortstop and second baseman faked out Lonnie Smith in the most exciting seven game World Series I'd yet seen to date (did Jack Morris really pitch a ten or eleven inning complete game shutout, that game seven?!), real life intruded, college came, and then adulthood, and later marriage, and later kids, and yada yada yada, that for about a good decade-and-a-half I completely forgot about that Mickey Mantle card -- and I guess my Dad did too.  Time came when I was working for a boss who had a bunch of boys, and they all played little league baseball.  I went to their games. Found out they were (of course) also into baseball cards.

Baseball cards!  I remember them!

So I went looking for my old cards boxed somewhere in the garage and found them.  Showed my boss's boys my Topps MVP Mickey Mantle card that I had long ago bought secured in-between see-through covers, the hard plastic plates screwed together so the card couldn't slip out and be diminished my moisture, heat, and the acidity of skin.  My bosses boys were so wowed by it, by something that old, I guess (old and historic to them) that I thought, yeah, this card is pretty cool, so what good is it doing just being boxed up in the dark?  And so in keeping it out I priced it out and by that time, around 2007-2008, it's value, in mint condition (which mine was in), was around $250.  I thought it would be cool to display on our bookshelves, and so set Mickey Mantle, face out, leaning back at a slight angle against the hardcover, Mylar-protected spines, of novels by Thomas Pynchon, A.M. Homes, Robert Coover, David Foster Wallace, et. al. . . . Turns out, I wasn't the only one at home interested in the card.  Our adopted three-year-old son, Jordan, whom I wrote briefly about several years ago in my review of Walter the Farting Dog, was also interested in it.  Keenly interested, in fact.  So interested that one day when I got home from work and walked inside, I soon stared in abject horror at the floor by the bookshelves and screeched "What the f*&k happened!"  Oh God, it was so gruesome and simultaneously sad.  I almost cried.  For there lie poor Mickey Mantle, amidst shards of shattered plastic, torn in two.


And so I learned a valuable lesson in child rearing that day; learned that it's not wise leaving collectibles low to the floor for the naturally inquisitive fingers of a three-year-old who lacks both the wisdom and dexterity to handle gently your prized baseball memorabilia, and so hastily moved the 1983 Topps rookie Tony Gwynn card I still had, and the Fernando Valenzuela bobble-head I had, whom I still fondly think of whenever ABBA's "Fernando" comes on in a mall elevator in Lakewood (or in a mall elevator anywhere, whenever I have to unfortunately be there in the stupid idiotic mall in the first place because my otherwise lovely wife insists on shopping), who was apparently an eyewitness to Mickey Mantle's dismantling and dismemberment by Jordan (I mean look just look, will you, at Fernando's eyes to the right, see how sad and even disturbed they seem to appear?) -- who was the only damn Yankee I ever loved, Mickey Mantle, that is -- up to a higher shelf beyond the reach of Jordan's curious outstretched arms.

So long, 1961 Topps MVP Mickey Mantle Card. May you rest in peace.


Exhuming The Body by William Sansom

Considering William Sansom's short fiction was once widely anthologized in frighteningly titled story collections (e.g., London Tales of Terror, Ghosts in Country Houses, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, as well as several installments of The Pan Book of Horror Stories), with a novel named The Body, readers already acquainted with his better known, more diminutive, phantasmal forebears, could understandably conclude that Sansom's first novel The Body was likewise macabre.  Honest mistake, that. And perhaps also disappointing for those mystic connoisseurs of the obscure with a taste for Sansom's peculiar style of understated extravagance -- a style similar to yet not quite as distilled as that of those refined denizens of the fin de siècle, nor as baroque as the later Lovecraft crowds he was often lumped in with (peruse any of the table of contents of one of the dozens of anthologies Sansom contributed to in order to better see my point) -- who naturally approach the The Body expecting the same disquieting ambiance of his eerie short stories.  But the worms and the flesh's imminent decay, from which chilling wisps of (of what?) might soon materialize and emanate in sun dappled shadows in the woods, are absent.  Such ghastly expectations are soon dashed, reading The Body.

1959 Penguin reissue of Sansom's first novel
The Body rises out of a different ground.  It is a novel that William Sansom essentially made out of a molehill.  It is seeded in what amounts to a sandbox, rooted as it is in an immature husband's absurd overreaction to a neighbor's leering glance. The novel flourishes swiftly, like a prickly weed, from the uncommunicative cracks of this self-hating husband's heart, feasting on his doubt and festering insecurity.  Over another man staring over the wall at his attractive wife.  The Body, then, is about a marriage that may soon be buried, because of a husband's jealousy and profound paranoia.  A paranoia so profound its become perverse as the husband repeatedly "goes out of town" that he may spy on his wife and that ungodly garrulous, lascivious neighbor-paramour.  Alleged paramour.  Watching this extraordinarily double minded husband as he deviously befriends his wife's envisioned lover for pints at taverns all over town, concocting elaborate traps to prove himself a cuckold (and a cuckoo cuckold at that) in the very company of the vile offender, demonstrates exactly how pathologically overpowering and perverse the husband's paranoia has become.  He'll do just about anything to contrive some future indiscreet incidents between the pair to "prove" there's been an affair, even as he's the one orchestrating it.  Is a single unreciprocated glance, in the first place, automatic grounds for a spouse's jealousy and suspicion?  That's the molehill William Sansom turned into a novel.  A novel that may have been better executed and more believable as a long short story. Because even as I'd rate it a good but not great novel (perhaps "great" for a first novel, I won't quibble over that), it's still a novel at heart that's as shallow as a sandbox upon first inspection.  Upon introspection, however, the novel gains major mass.  One could say it embodies the depth of dunes. Holy shit, though, God forbid that such measly weaselly husks of human beings otherwise known as men indeed exist in this world who are as idiotic and insecure as the husband in The Body.   And what could possess a wife to remain true to that, anyway, to her husband's faithlessness in her faithfulness?  Are there really wives that forbearing and angelic in this world, willing to put up with such unjust and unfounded barrages of bullshit?  What are the odds that this marriage, on the verge of being embalmed, can bounce back and survive?

Yet somehow, The Body has survived, barely, since its publication in 1949, even enduring decades of being out of print; survived largely, I suspect, because of both the reputation of William Sansom's short stories and on the hard won approval of Anthony Burgess, who included The Body in his influential 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (published in 1984) and wrote, in part, about it:

"Sansom's ear, matching his eye, renders the idioms and rhythms of post-war lower-middle-class English with a frightening exactness.  The final image that emerges in the self-tortured brain of the husband is of the human body growing old and unsavoury -- the broken toenails, the rough skin, the bad breath -- and the sexual urge as a kind of insentient insanity.  It is what the sharpened eye is led to observe at last and it leads, in its turn, to a kind of resigned philosophy.  By a paradox, Sansom mines into the human spirit by staying on the surface."

The surface of my tattered 1959 Penguin Books copy of The Body has sure seen better days.  The cover, in fact, is held on by scotch tape.  Who knows for how many years it languished, in the dust and dimly lit glory, on a long crowded shelf at the late great Acres of Books in Long Beach before I salvaged it, thanks to Anthony Burgess, in 2008, just before the store closed.  The Body remained out of print until Faber and Faber reissued it in 2011.  I believe it's worth the steep price to obtain, or I'd be happy to send you my copy.


Arnošt Lustig's autograph (Lovely Green Eyes)

Recently found this signed copy at the Bookman in Orange, in near fine condition, affordably priced.  Not a huge Arnošt Lustig fan here. But grabbed this, one of his last works of fiction, Lovely Green Eyes, on somewhat of a whim, and I'm glad I did. Like his contemporary Raymond Federman, Arnošt Lustig's oeuvre was the Holocaust, and I've yet to read a novel or memoir about it that wasn't able to put my own life into purest perspective whenever I'd let its petty dramas and difficulties get me down.

more autographs


Metrophage by Richard Kadrey

A few weeks ago I was in Pacific Grove and sauntered into what I thought was a coffee place (it was) but turned out to also be a bookstore -- Bookworks!  Pretty cool feeling to find a bookstore when you weren't even looking for one.  So, after enjoying our coffee and croissants, spent some time browsing the small shop.  I knew right away that Bookworks of Pacific Grove was an awesome bookshop when I saw the lone copy of Infinite Jest and its fat blue spine (the tenth anniversary edition) occupying a large slot in the bottom shelf of the CLASSICS section in-between the glossy sheen of brand new trade paperback copies of Lew Wallace's Ben Hur and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.  I told the gentleman manning the register how cool I thought it was that they stocked Infinite Jest in the CLASSICS section and he smiled, nodded, and replied that "it comes and goes often".

Ace Specials ed., 1988
Another book that comes and goes with even more frequency than Infinite Jest from the shelves of Bookworks, come to find out, if the kind tall man with a slight stoop in his step standing at the register was to be believed (and I saw no reason why he shouldn't be), is Metrophage by San Francisco-based freelance writer and photographer, Richard Kadrey.  "Couldn't keep those in stock when they first came in," he said, handing the copy of Metrophage I'd just purchased back to me in a white paper bag with handles.  I'd first heard of Metrophage in one of those science fiction best-of lists from yesteryear, and had never been able to find a copy.  Until walking unwittingly into Bookworks in Pacific Grove on the first Tuesday of August, 2015, that is.  Seems Metrophage had been out of print for years (it'd been published originally in 1988 by Ace Specials), until Harper Voyager reissued it as a "SIGNED FIRST EDITION" in late 2014.

Metrophage has essentially been my introduction to "cyberpunk" even though the genre has been around for thirty-one years since the release of William Gibson's innovative and instant-classic first novel sensation, Neuromancer, in 1984.  Of course elements of cyberpunk had been around since at least Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from way back when in the early nineteenth century (and I recommend reading Larry McCaffery's enlightening anthology on the subject, Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction, for a superb and authoritative book-by-book chronological assessment of cyberpunk's genesis and evolution) but it was Neuromancer that pieced all the nascent elements of the genre's inchoate fragments together in such perfectly realized ways that it was obvious among the avant-garde science fiction/postmodernist crowds that something new in literature had just been born -- cyberpunk -- and its name was synonymous with Neuromancer, and it's father was William Gibson. I've no clue who could've been cyberpunk's mum.

"Storm The Reality Studio. And retake the universe."
William S. Burroughs, Nova Express
Enter Metrophage, stage left, four years later. Nearly thirty, Metrophage remains a vital novel; it reads as technologically and culturally relevant today as the day it was published (the latter I can only imagine); it is a novel that is not dated like the hair metal and synthesizers and Milli Vanilli lip-synckers that defined the music scene of the era in which Richard Kadrey's first novel was published. It's not dated probably because of its prescience on multicultural and sociopolitical fronts.  The intermingling of Asian and North American cultures is a prominent trope of cyberpunk, I've learned, from reading Storming the Reality Studio, which reminds us how well director Ridley Scott managed the America-Asia image-mix in so many of those futuristic scenes he artfully rendered in Blade Runner, but Kadrey tweaked the trope a bit adding Arab and Middle Eastern cultures to the mashup, and the imaginary Los Angeles (or "Last Ass" as the locals call their city) that he projected from the future back in 1988 bears an uncanny resemblance to the Last Ass I see and breathe today in 2015.

The sociopolitical zeitgeist of Metrophage took for granted the ongoing, ever present existence of the one percent/ninety-nine percent cultural divide/debate in the United States (I know I don't recall this reality in political discourse when the first Bush beat Dukakis in '88), and went so satirically over the top with the concept that when a young one-percenter, Jonny (I'd rank Jonny as a one-percenter, yet must acknowledge and allow for alternate perceptions that he's never explicitly described by Kadrey as being said one-percenter), the antihero of Metrophage; that is, when Jonny gets cornered by a poverty stricken septuagenarian gang of "discards and defectives" known as The Piranhas, wielding "the few weapons they could find, principally government-issued teeth--filed and set firmly in angry, withered jaws," he refused to shoot his way out through them with his high-tech Futukoro handgun/grenade launcher because he felt an irritating compassion/kinship for them -- imagine that, a one-percenter feeling compassion?, feeling sorry for and identifying with the poor beleaguered ninety-nine percent?) and so instead had to use his wits and his fists to escape from the septuagenarian's deadly dentures.  Does anyone now living in the United States who's not deluded, drugged out, outright crazy, a politician or overpaid C.E.O., doubt the reality of the one percent/ninety-nine percent divide in the U.S.A.?  The denizens of Last Ass were already taking the divide for granted when Richard Kadrey first envisioned them doing so in the mid-1980s, when Ronald Reagan was king; though, admittedly, the Last Ass denizens weren't even conceptualized then and so couldn't have been taking the one percent/ninety-nine percent divide for granted as early as 1968, when Reagan was just California's governor and J.G. Ballard, prescient as he was as a speculative pre-cyberpunky type of writer, somehow saw the imperialist danger lurking in plain goobernatorial (sic) sight a little over a decade away, and published his provocatively titled pamphlet that, to my knowledge, wasn't narrated by a real or fictitious woman named Nancy, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," but, man oh man, I have digressed. . . .

Suffice to say, the good publishing people over at Harper Voyager knew what the hell they were doing reissuing Metrophage.  Perhaps the next time I stroll into Bookworks in Pacific Grove, Metrophage will also be shelved in the CLASSICS section, where it belongs, and by CLASSICS I do not mean CULT CLASSICS.


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

I'm not appalled at all by the political incorrectness and sheer irresponsible lunacy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Saying so, however, can't help but show, I fear, that the responsible-citizen side-of-me believes I should be appalled; that I should absolutely and incontrovertibly loathe Hunter S. Thompson's Savage Journey To The Heart Of The American Dream.  And yet I don't.  I treasure my posh, mylar-protected, Modern Library hardcover first printing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  A book, I suspect, that has induced more side splitting, spittle spraying, laughter per page, in others -- I know it has in me -- than any other book in history.

frontispiece illustration in first printing
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers . . . and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. . . .

"We" being, Thompson, of course, and his high, high powered attorney. Driving under the influence through the Mojave Desert, or while intoxicated; loaded, if you will; out of one's mind (which is to say hammered, blotto, stoned, shit faced past Pluto, well beyond the rubicon of any possible recovery) isn't funny -- never mind hysterical -- or even remotely mildly amusing, correct?  Yes, correct.  DWIs are reprehensible, unforgivable, completely avoidable, correct? Correct, except -- for there is one exception and one exception only in recorded history -- when it was Hunter S. Thompson behind the wheel, gathering wild, outrageous, jaw dropping material as lucid as it was lunatic for what would become the plastered pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a masterpiece of pop culture and sociopolitical reportage that tweaked and freaked out even the California Highway Patrol in the research, with so much of Hunter's speedy shenanigans, aided and abetted at every wrong turn by the illegal assistance and conduct unbecoming of his attorney who should've been disbarred.

Getting hold of the drugs had been no problem, but the car and the tape recorder were not easy things to round up at 6:30 on a Friday afternoon in Hollywood.

While Hunter would not ultimately need that tape recorder for what turned out to be a dud instead of a scoop in the 1971 Mint 400 Desert Race outside Las Vegas, Nevada, the drugs would be a vital necessity in order for Hunter's plan-B option to reach its zenith after the Mint 400 Race fizzled: His uninvited yet impromptu attendance at the National District Attorneys' Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs that, coincidentally, was then ongoing in Vegas the very same weekend as the Mint 400 assigned to him for a paltry $250 by Sports Illustrated.  Hunter saw, as only a new gonzo journalist like Hunter S. Thompson could see, the gloriously subversive opportunities of such an anti-drugs shindig like that and struck, er, smoked, snorted, and imbibed, a motley stash of narcotics and dangerous drugs while the proverbial iron was hot.  Ergo, he got the hysterical, in your face scoop and then some, in his classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.


The N.F.L. and Not Junior Seau Have Taken the Easy Way Out

I've heard it stated frequently in the aftermath of Junior Seau's suicide on May 2nd, 2012, that he took the so-called "easy way out".  I'm not so much interested in adding to the redundant rhetoric regarding the sad particulars of Seau's case, but rather wish to examine this "easy way out" mentality that inevitably crops up whenever anybody, famous sports star or not, takes their own life.

When people have terminal cancer, we don't accuse them, as they near death, of taking the easy way out, because that would be absurd, not to mention ignorant and just plain cruel to say about someone suffering tortuous and terminal pain.  But those who've suffered long with what amounts to a cancer or a disease of the mind, generally aren't given the same grace or compassion as those whose deadly afflictions are physical and observable.  Those who commit suicide chose to die, right?  And nobody chooses to die of cancer.  Not even three-pack-a day smokers are choosing to die one day of lung cancer.  This apparent choosing to die, choosing to reject life and the love of others can create a curious resentment and abiding anger even among those not personally involved in any given case, even Junior Seau's.  Within hours of the news of Junior Seau's suicide, people not connected to him in any way other than having watched him play collegiate and professional football for twenty years from their televisions, were flooding sports talk radio programs with their subdued tirades.  Their guilty verdicts were in (even before any evidence, pro or con, could have possibly been collected):  "Junior Seau took the easy way out."  As if suicide were as easy as simply opening a door.

The first time I contemplated suicide, I was seventeen.  Over the next six years, as my life and relationships eroded, leaving me isolated and alienated (even as I was surrounded by so many damn people) on the ruinous soil of dread and despair, I discovered how hard it was to die, that suicide was not easy.

I found myself alone one night at the age of twenty with my father's .20 gauge shotgun.  My intent that night wasn't necessarily suicide, but to test myself and to see if I could really do it, if and when the time came that I knew I needed to; if and when, that is, I got so desperate I saw no other means of escape.  The three preceding years had been anything but easy.  Easier, even less, was holding that cocked and loaded shotgun in my hands, or sticking the double-barrels inside my mouth and tasting that awful metallic taste as my front teeth inadvertently scraped the steel of the cold barrels -- a sound I'll never forget as it seemed to literally scrape across the inside my head.  I remember my right hand trembling as my thumb fumbled for then finally found the trigger.  I was not thinking about the opening line of Hamlet.  All I was thinking was all I had to do now was squeeze. To squeeze or not to squeeze? I knew then that I probably could squeeze the trigger, but that squeezing it would not be easy.  Over the ensuing three years I would attempt suicide twice, and both times it was exhausting.  Not to mention how hard going was the almost constant internal turmoil of those horrific years of despondency in between.  After my second hospitalization, and another three years following my first "test," that deeply wounded young man I once was finally got some help that lasted. More than twenty years have come and gone since those hellacious days and months and years. I've discovered since then that choosing to live, choosing to endure, to persevere and all that, is not an easy way out either.  But I'm convinced that as hard as living is sometimes, it's a hell of a lot easier than suicide.

I suspect the decision Junior Seau made on May 2nd, 2012, wasn't easy, either.  Needless to say, what his family has had to endure the three years since his death has no doubt been emotionally excruciating. And now comes the disturbing news that, against Junior Seau's wishes, the N.F.L. won't let his bereaved daughter introduce him at his Hall of Fame induction.

If anyone can be accused of taking the easy way out in Junior Seau's case, it's the N.F.Ls. cruel and despicable decision makers.

The N.F.L. is obviously more concerned with protecting its precious premium brand and lucrative image above all else than properly honoring or respecting the wishes of one of its greatest players who gave them literally everything, including his life.  No wonder so many intelligent (and now former) N.F.L. fans such as yours truly have increasingly come to abhor the league's ludicrous decisions, absurd disciplinary policies, and frankly creepy culture of crime and violence its long enabled and now ultimately represents. 


The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

I'd just as soon have not read Richard Preston's The Demon in the Freezer if it meant I could remain blissfully ignorant of the disturbing reality that vaccine-resistant smallpox and anthrax is undoubtedly already in the unhinged hands of jihadists or other sadistic dogmatists around the world, and that a large scale bioterrorism attack on North American soil is more a question of when than if. Yet with the bumbling bureaucratic bozos at the Pentagon running amok recently, FedEx'ing live samples of anthrax by mistake to more than fifty unsuspecting laboratories across the States and overseas, perhaps the deadliest likes of Isis are the least of the Western world's worries after all. Look in the mirror for a change, drunk Uncle Sam!

The Demon in the Freezer makes me wish I didn't know how to read -- almost -- it's that unnerving.  I'd rather not know that the former Soviet Union was producing weapons-grade smallpox by the ton as late as 2001 on the eve of 9/11, and that today -- or so say several Russian scientists who've since defected to the U.S. -- the authorities in the former-USSR have no idea where those tons of weapons-grade smallpox went.  Despite the worldwide "eradication" of smallpox in India in 1978, the USA and the former-USSR decided to freeze samples of the virus in order to keep it "safely stored," presumably as a  "safeguard" pretext in the event it got into the "wrong hands" and a vaccine needed to be manufactured from the stored samples in an emergency.

Had our wise global protectors simply destroyed all smallpox in the first place, like they were supposed to do when whatever treaty it was got signed and contractually obliged them to do so, no one would have to worry about any virulent vials of smallpox getting smuggled into the wrong hands would they?  Oh, but it's more politically complicated than that, Freeque, simply doing the right thing and destroying every ounce of it.  Yeah, and only because the bigwigs in this world don't trust each another enough to follow through on their historic, much ballyhooed agreements.

The Demon In The Freezer reads like the finest of John le Carré's espionage thrillers, replete as it is with international intrigue and suspense.  Can you imagine United Nations inspectors today confronting Vladimir Putin's covert bioweapons operations in Russia?  Neither can I.  Good luck, Doomed Earth, against vaccine-resistant smallpox and anthrax!


Hell House by Richard Matheson

Hell House's ending totally surprised me. I wondered just how much Richard Matheson may have waffled with that black-and-white, cut-and-dried, definitive ending.  Because ghost stories generally don't end that well.  Though, granted, two of the four people who entered Belasco House lost their lives, but rarely have I ever read a "ghostly" novel that ended so unequivocally. In wondering if Matheson maybe was intentionally going against the grain of the ghost story genre, leaving it purposely free of ambiguity, free of any doubt, I found an interview in which Matheson indeed confessed how unsatisfied he was by two of the endings in classics of the genre -- Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House -- and predetermined that Hell House's ending would be clear cut, devoid of equivocation.  Even with his ending finished before he began writing his book, I believe he pulled the ending off without it feeling contrived, but rather following its own unforgettable, frightening course to its utterly surprising climax that served also as kind of Matheson manifesto on the origins of evil.

First U.S. printing, Viking (1971)
Hell House is a first rate horror novel no matter how it ended.  It gave me the chills -- gave me goosebumps -- in a piping hot bathtub the night I finished it.  I enjoyed Hell House's pitting science versus faith (albeit faith in the paranormal/occult); empiricism versus mysticism; and how both science -- as evinced in the physicist Dr. Barrett's life's work, the "Reversor" -- and the supernatural, in the mediums Florence and Fischer, were instrumental in combatting the mansion's predilection for psychological torture and murder.

The Reversor was a clunky contraption of dials and knobs that must have resembled a large generator -- a large metaphysical generator.  Dr. Barrett believed the power it generated would produce enough negative electromagnetic radiation (EMR) to eliminate any residual energy, or "positive EMR", still inhabiting the house from its previous deceased occupants.  This positive EMR, in Dr. Barrett's strictly empirical eyes, was the real culprit for the mansion's unexplained paranormal activity.  I enjoyed how Matheson set Dr. Barrett's scientific worldview in sharp contrast against the frankly bizarre beliefs of the passionate proponents of the paranormal in the mediums Florence and Fischer.  Their snarky dialogue provided, at critical junctures of crises, fleeting doses of much needed relief from the nuclear cauldron of nearly constant intensifying pressure ongoing inside that hellacious house. Reading Hell House has made me want to read more haunted house/ghost stories, in order to see how they've evolved in literature over the years. I suspect few have relied as much on science as Hell House.

I suspect also, after reading Hell House, that some alleged "haunted houses" in literature are a trifle more haunted than others.  Belasco House, the "Hell House" of the novel's title, as it was commonly called by the mediums and other ghost-pros who dared entering it, was considered the "Mt. Everest of haunted mansions".  However, comparing Hell House to Mt. Everest doesn't do Hell House justice when one considers that of all the mountaineers who've ever attempted to climb Mt. Everest, only about ten percent have died; whereas, conversely, only ten percent of the people who've ever entered Hell House and spent the night there have left the house alive.  Exceedingly more deadly, based on the statistical rates of failure recounted in Hell House, spending the night there than attempting to climb Mt. Everest. I doubt even El Chapo could escape from Hell House alive.

TOR edition (1999) 
with Michael J Deas cover illustration
Hell House, if you'll pardon the momentary longeur, is so adept at sending anyone who'd spent a night there straight to an early, grisly grave, it's practically as effective an executioner as capital punishment is here in The States.  A pity that capital punishers could never be allowed to sentence its vilest criminal offenders to Hell House to die (assuming, of course, Hell House were real).  Such an unorthodox Hell House Death Sentence, unfortunately, would probably constitute cruel and unusual punishment; too cruel, no doubt, for even pedophiles and serial killers.  And too unusual because it usually took too long to die there, up to four days and nights in some instances, as was the case for one of the mediums who entered the house with Dr. Barrett.  And one of those nights was a gruesome night of necrophilia, and that's necrophilia of the unexpected reverse kind initiated by the dead upon the living.  Yuck!  Christ, even when an an execution goes awry in a state sanctioned house of horrors, as was recently the case in the botched lethal injection of Joseph R. Wood in Arizona, his death still lasted for only one hour and forty minutes. Hardly the type of slow tortuous death that goes on for days inside Hell House.

Richard Matheson
While Biblical passages loom large a couple times in Hell House, particularly Matthew 5:29 (though I think John 8:32 could've rung just as true in Matheson's narrative contexts as well), there's nary a hint of Catholic subtext in Hell House (thank God) until we enter its chapel and find a perverted (though not inverted), life-sized, and shall we say, wooden, crucifixion; the blasphemous imagery obviously borrowed from Anton LaVey's own borrowed depictions of the Black Mass then en vogue at the time of Hell House's 1971 publication.  The chapel gets more intriguing when its secret gothic chamber and the pathetic power for so long concealed there is revealed in a denouement that's more akin to Julien Gracq's stylized "Chapel of the Abyss" chapter in Chateau d'Argol than any of the lurid and absurd schlock ripped off by that carnival clown, Anton Lavey.  For the genesis of evil, as Richard Matheson envisioned it, and as he empowered it in Hell House, while allowing spacious room, yes, for the supernatural (or the paranormal or whatever the hell one might wish calling the eerie shit -- and forgive me if I momentarily risk giving away too much), was at least as much if not more the result of the malignant manifestation of a human ego gone superbad, a la Hitler, than that of lost or angry spirits, whom, being somehow stuck in their carryover of negative emotions after death, go berserk on the other side to such an extreme their unearthly echoes of outrage can be heard by those psychics attuned to hear them.  Even for the most gifted psychics, however, such as Florence or Fischer, opening themselves up to hear them doesn't always mean they'll automatically receive illumination, but rather madness, or much worse. . . .

Some novels can so possess you they literally scare the hell into you.  The Exorcist is one example. Hell House, another.