The Lucky Star by William T. Vollmann – Book Review

Review by Ben Arzate

Neva, often referred to as the people who know her as “the lesbian,” has a seemingly supernatural ability to make anyone around her love her on the condition that she loves them back. This results in her gathering an almost cult-like following at the Y Bar that she frequents. Her lovers include the alcoholic Richard, the bartender Francine, and a transwoman named Judy. Judy’s boyfriend, a retired policeman named J.D., grows jealous of her relationship with Neva and starts digging into Neva’s past to try to find a way to get back at her.

The lesbian was nearly always on time for our appointments. That made I easier for us to pretend that she was faithful to each of us alone.”

While Richard is the narrator of the book, the main characters are really Neva and Judy. The main theme of the book is “performing femininity.” In the case of the lesbian, Neva (technically not really a lesbian), does not need to “perform” as she’s a goddess-like being. The platonic ideal of femininity. Judy, a transwoman, is, in contrast, constantly in need of performing it to “pass.” This comes to the forefront with her love of both Neva and J.D. She seeks the perfect femininity of Neva but often finds herself pulled away from it by J.D., who often abuses and misgenders her. This is made even more obvious by the fact that characters are often referred to as their “roles” such as “the lesbian,” “the transwoman,” “the retired policeman,” etc.

While Vollmann is actually quite skilled at sketching out his characters, and this is a book more driven by character and theme than by plot, he’s not so good at bringing it together as a coherent whole. At least not in this book. An example of one of this book’s major failings is that the main plotline of J.D. exploring Neva’s past is rendered completely pointless as much of the beginning of the book explains it in great deal. The plotline is ultimately a shaggy dog story, which makes it even more annoying.

The novel is over 600 pages. This isn’t unusual for a Vollmann book, but here it isn’t warranted at all. The stories of these characters are ultimately straightforward and much of what Vollmann puts into it is just filler. To contrast it with another Vollmann book with a similar premise, The Royal Family actually earns it 800 page length with its wide cast of different characters, its odd non-fictional digressions, and some of the genuinely nasty imagery. Here, it feels like Vollmann is simply trying to wear the reader down with repetitions of the various characters’ devotions to Neva, J.D. learning things we already knew about her, and the dead sex scenes that I’m really not sure were supposed to be erotic, disturbing, or just meant to unerotic in the most banal way.

I can’t say this book is a complete failure. I found when Vollmann zoomed in on one character and focused on their individual stories I was far more engaged. Also, despite being rather worn down with this book by the end, I still felt a little sad watching the mostly tragic endings all of the characters unfold. It’s obvious he did something right.

Vollmann is known for being somewhat difficult with his editors and often refusing to make cuts, sometimes even taking lower royalties and advances to offset the risk of the size of his books. However, this is one that really would have benefited from a lot of cuts and rearrangement. There’s a pretty good 300-400 page book inside this 600 page one. As it stands, I really can’t recommend this book unless you’re a hardcore Vollmann fan. Otherwise, you’re better off picking up The Royal Family.

JT Leroy, More Like JT Literary Fraud!

By Ben Arzate

Just a few weeks ago, as of writing this article, the film JT Leroy was released. JT Leroy was allegedly a young transgender woman who came from an abusive household and formerly worked as a prostitute. Leroy released three semi-autobiographical books, but remained reclusive from the 90s, when she first began publishing, until 2001 when she began making public appearances.

The inconsistencies revealed in her interviews began casting doubt on her authenticity. In 2005, it was revealed that JT Leroy was an invention of the author Laura Albert and the person making public appearances was the actor Savannah Knoop. Despite the hoax that Albert and Knoop perpetuated, the books released were, in fact, labeled as fiction and many defended the stunt as performance art.

Probably the most infamous case of literary fraud in the United States was James Frey and his memoir, which turned out to be complete fiction, A Million Little Pieces, released in 2003. The book followed Frey’s supposed time in rehab after drug-related criminal charges.

A Million Little Pieces received mixed reviews, with the harshest review coming from author and critic John Dolan, known for his War Nerd column, who lambasted it as the worst book he ever read, calling it complete fiction. Despite this, it became a best seller and was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2005. Shortly thereafter, an exposé was published in The Smoking Gun, showing that nothing in the book was true.

One of the most ridiculous cases of literary fraud was the 2008 fake memoir, Love and Consequences by Margaret Seltzer, writing under the name Margaret B. Jones. She claimed to have been a half Native American girl who was an orphan and was involved with the Bloods gang in LA. In interviews, she even talked in Ebonics. Not long after it was released, the publisher had it recalled when Seltzer’s sister exposed it as a complete fraud. She was white, not mixed, and grew up with her biological parents in an upscale suburb.

With Leroy, one could see how people bought into the fraud. The books were fiction and couldn’t be fact checked, and the author kept out of the public eye for a while. Frey and Seltzer, however, were much more obvious cases of fraud.

The characters were overt stereotypes that didn’t ring true and many parts were flat ridiculous. Frey, a curly-haired frat boy, painted himself as a tough guy who did a ton of drugs including sniffing glue, despite coming from a rich family who could afford decent drugs. Jones/Seltzer was obviously a white girl putting on an act. Why did people believe such things?

It’s no secret that people enjoy stories of overcoming adversity, especially personal adversity. The vast majority of books, memoirs especially, are about just that. The rub is what kind of adversity. Frey’s story fit a sexy narrative that drugs will ruin your life and make you a hopeless addict, but you can climb out of it with the help of the benevolent rehabilitation industry.

Seltzer’s fraud was a bit more multi-layered. The obvious aspect is that there is a wide audience of white Americans who have an interest in things perceived as being “black,” but like them even more when they don’t have any actual black people. Not to mention many true narratives about gang life, especially in LA, tend to be very cynical and unsentimental. Seltzer injected her narrative with bathos and sentimentality, as did Frey, which opens it up to a much wider audience.

This may sound like a pretentious thing to say, but it seems that most readers do not want to be challenged. They want their worldview confirmed. I’d argue that nearly everyone is guilty of this at at least one point. It’s no wonder a huckster who has their finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist can put together a narrative that will confirm it to rake in money and fame. Much like many of the mostly now-forgotten authors who, in their time, wrote to please the people in power, even if they had to lie.

It’s a noble thing to have convictions, but it isn’t to follow them so blindly. We see this now with many people buying into fake news stories that confirm their bias or putting themselves into social media bubbles where they hear no opposing opinion. Liars and frauds who can string a sentence together will always have a lucrative market, so keep your critical eye open.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go finish my memoir about growing up as a lesbian in a family of undocumented immigrants.

The Story of the Y by Ben Arzate – Book Review

by Zakary McGaha

Up until now, Ben Arzate has only written shorter works of fiction and poetry. Now, his first novella-length work has been unleashed into the wilds of the small press scene. Although still rather short, The Story of the Y is written in a minimalistic, to-the-point way that makes it play out like a full-length, road trip comedy movie.

The Story of the Y will touch the hearts of all those who have ever collected stuff…in particular, rare/obscure stuff. In this book’s case, there is an album by one Y. Bhekhirst. Said album and artist are actually real…and completely unknown/obscure…but the book’s plot is a fictionalized account of a music writer setting out on an adventure in hopes of interviewing the “real” Y. Bhekhirst.

If that brief synopsis doesn’t make you want to read the book, then you’re probably lame.

The “adventure of the open road” aspect is where The Story of the Y shines, because the road in this case is surreal. Literally anything can happen in this bizarro sort of world, so you never know what to expect. Strangeness is thrown at you a mile a minute…yes, that was a road trip pun…but none of it ever feels annoying or tacky.

Instead, the effect makes you think you’re watching one of those trippy ass cartoons from the late 90s or early 2000s. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson also came to mind, and not just because someone mentioned it in one of the books’ blurbs.

The action, comedy, and forward-moving momentum all conspire to make it hard to stop reading The Story of the Y. I, for one, finished in two sittings (which is saying something because I started it late at night while already running on little sleep).

The characters were another strong point for this book. They were just as funny and memorable as the surreal aspects of the plot. There’s a ghost trapped in a record (my favorite character), a lovable conman/small-time drug dealer dude with a lobster claw for a hand, a couple anarchists, etc.

Some of the prose was a little deadpan (and, as mentioned before, minimalistic) in terms of dialogue, action, etc., but that isn’t necessarily a complaint considering it was a stylistic choice on Arzate’s part.

Overall, the book was a fun, short read that had the same effect on me that most of Arzate’s stories have: they make me want to stay in the universe longer. This one, in particular, could lay the groundwork for a surreal universe of books; we’ll have to wait and see. The characters and situations are interesting and unique enough to easily offer up more material.

Another thing I feel I should note is that Arzate walks the line between seriousness and silliness. Everything going on is insane, yet it’s all believable, compelling, and entertaining. In other words, he’s not writing for gags despite the silly aspects (I, of course, don’t use the word “silly” in a derogatory sense).

I give The Story of the Y 4/5 stars. I’m eager to read more of Arzate’s lengthier work.

Kindle Crack: The Literary Edition, Featuring Thomas Pynchon, Umberto Eco, G. W. Sebald, and More

The opening poem is a clever little lick based on the tune to “Off to See the Wizard” from The Wizard of Oz. The second features an interesting palate of shifting perspectives, but I haven’t been able to dig further yet. Helen Dewitt’s fiction reads sort of like David Foster Wallace’s, and I’m sure it’s a fantastic collection. For the price, it’s bound to be worth the dive.

Although it’s not “weird” per se, everything by G. W. Sebald is certainly unusual. Blending fiction and historical elements with an encyclopedic historical vision, Sebald’s narratives are intoxicatingly beautiful and delightfully disorienting. I’ve read The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, an both were more than enough to convince me that The Emigrants will not disappoint.

Durrell’s controversial first novel was heavily influenced by Henry Miller. Some folks might take the Miller influence negatively, but this is certainly better than anything I’ve read by Miller so far. It’s weird, dark, oddly fascinating, and definitely a good buy for the price.

Okay, this isn’t “weird fiction” in the slightest, but it’s a fascinating glossary featuring detailed explanations of a whole range of poetic concepts. This is a must have for anyone who is interested in taking literature seriously, and I’d stand behind Hirsch’s book even if it went for double it’s USUAL price. At less than four bucks, this is a no-brainer.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a classic, duh. That doesn’t mean I’ve ever been able to finish it, but I hope to, along with Joyce’s Ulysses. Also like Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow is famously one of the most difficult novels ever written. Love it or hate it, this mobi file features hours, months, even years of material to mull over. All for a buck ninety-nine? Yup. Get this.

Again, it’s not exactly “weird,” but damn it’s good. If you enjoy heady novels about books, snag this one. Also, fans of the medieval period will find much to enjoy, as well as lovers of mystery and strangeness. There really is too much to say about this book in so short a space. Trust me when I say at this price, it’s a steal. Buy it now, thank me later.

Near to the Wild Heart is the only long work I’ve read by Lispector yet, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s strange, intoxicating, frustrating at times, but in a well-worth-the-effort sort of way. This novel is like a pleasant fever; for the price, it’s a truly great buy.

5 Weird Books You’ve Probably Never Read

The title of this post may seem like clickbait when you see the legendary authors that landed on this list, but despite their reputations as literary behemoths, the books in question are far weirder and way more obscure than almost anything else in their respective canons. You won’t find  seminal characters like Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’s Raoul Duke or Hellraiser’s Pinhead/Priest anywhere in sight.

What you will find are some of the strangest and most unsung literary works to ever be pounded into parchment. From salacious specters and violent dwarves to dangerous cheerleaders and questionable reincarnations, the following represent the very best in these writers’ forgotten works.

The Curse of Lono, Hunter S. Thompson (Bantam Books)

Emerging from what could seem like kismet or cruel fate, depending on who you ask, The Curse of Lono chronicles what happened after Running magazine approached Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson about covering the 1980 Honolulu Marathon.

In a fit of pique, Thompson wrote his longtime illustrator Ralph Steadman about joining him on this journey which he clearly saw as an opportunity to create a spiritual follow-up to their landmark Fear & Loathing collaborations.

‘Lono’ doesn’t disappoint, delivering plenty of madcap satire and hallucinatory imagery, but the Gonzo humorist is scattered and unmoored in a way that he definitely was not when he penned his masterpiece. In fact, it is the uneven narrative and repeated historical digressions that give this novella its weirdest quality, that sense as a reader that everything is slightly askew.

First published in 1983, ‘Lono’ eventually went out of print and by the early-Aughts, it was nigh impossible to snag yourself a copy of the limited edition reprint for less than 120 bucks. No doubt Thompson, notorious for demanding money at every opportunity, would have relished in this fact.

Today, a copy of this massive oversize coffee table book generally goes for around $35 on sites like AbeBooks, and it’s well worth the price of admission. From the opening scenes in which Thompson’s arm turns blue from fist to elbow after getting it trapped in the airplane toilet to his fateful meeting with the enigmatic Ackerman, whose connections to the Hawaiian drug trade make for a subtle mystery sub-plot, ‘Lono’ crackles with Thompson’s bizarre wit.

The weirdness is amped up when they arrive at their destination and Thompson sees talking penguins over cocktails. It only gets more odd after the gimcrack-loving Gonzo godfather gets his hands on a Samoan war club and uses it to beat a trophy Marlin to death.

While it lacks the raw brilliance and generation-defining components that make the “Vegas book” such an important literary achievement, Thompson’s beautifully indelible language and yen for Fun are still intact…along with his penchant for grandstanding. The main thrust of ‘Lono’ is Thompson’s proclamation “I am Lono!” This is the engine that the second half of the plot runs on and it seems beyond absurd. But at the end of the day, who are we to say that Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t, indeed, the freak reincarnation of the doomed god Lono?

A Feast of Snakes, Harry Crews (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

Harry Crews is one of the finest authors of Southern grit lit, but many of his titles have fallen out of print. Fortunately, A Feast of Snakes is still readily available in paperback. While this one may not be his most esoteric novel, it is definitely one of his weirdest. And that’s saying a lot when one considers the imaginatively grotesque underworld he created in his cult classic Naked in Garden Hills.

This one doesn’t waste any time in ramping up the weirdness; we’re off to the ribald races in the very first paragraph: “She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, coiled, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike.”

Snakes’ revolves around Mystic, Georgia’s annual Rattlesnake Roundup and the hysteria that attends this local tradition. More specifically, it revolves around Joe Lon Mackey, a withering former football star and trailer park drunk whose family breed fight dogs and sell moonshine.

The book is full to the brim with violent and repulsive imagery, from genital mutilation to cretinish backwoods behavior, but there are other sights to be seen here, including one of the most out-of-left-field shit gags that you are likely to ever read.

Mackey makes a foreboding declaration early on, one that cannot prepare you for the chaotic conclusion of this curiously funny eldritch tale. Reflecting on the hordes of primitive hilljacks that turn out in droves for the Miss Mystic Rattle beauty contest, he observes, “Just a bunch of crazy people cranking up to git crazier. But that’s all right. Feel on the edge of doing something outstanding myself.”

And that Joe Lon Mackey does.

If you’re in for more inexplicable strangeness from the late, great Crews seek out a copy of the out-of-print This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven. It may cost you a hundy, but as Hunter Thompson would say, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

Coldheart Canyon, Clive Barker (HarperTorch/HarperCollins)

The name Clive Barker is synonymous with strange and unspeakable images, having produced countless creatures in a slew of novels, novellas, short stories, comic books and motion pictures. However, Coldheart Canyon stands out among his more famous offerings (The Hellbound Heart, Imajica, Cabal, The Great & Secret Show) in that it features flawed flesh and bone human beings in central roles. Billed as a Hollywood Ghost Story, Coldheart Canyon focuses on Todd Pickett, a washed-up movie star who is hideously deformed during plastic surgery.

In the wake of the botched surgery, Pickett must go into hiding lest the paparazzi get a glimpse of his deformity. Pickett’s agent selects the abandoned former home of a once-beautiful 1920s movie actress.

What makes ‘Canyon’ weird is the twist that Barker puts on the classic ghost story. These ghosts are Bacchanalian swingers who fuck in the courtyard. When they’re not getting off, they’re rather vengeful as Pickett soon learns.

What’s weirder is the relationship that develops between Pickett and the obese woman who runs his unofficial fan club. As this robust volume unfolds, it is she who emerges as the smartest and most heroic character. Without a doubt, this is the sharpest and most subversive Barker has been in years, and it’s delightful to witness what old Hollywood personalities become in his callused hands.

Grape City, Kevin L. Donihe (Eraserhead Press)

For those familiar with author Kevin L. Donihe’s work, Grape City is an especially interesting read. It shows Donihe’s extraordinary talent for making the uncommon seem commonplace and the commonplace seem absolutely deranged.

Grape City was my introduction to the world of Bizarro fiction and I’m glad I read it when I did since all subsequent entries into the genre should have to be measured against the clarity of its prose and the sharpness of its satire.

Donihe himself has said that it isn’t a book that he counts among his favorites, but I don’t care. If anything this reminds me of filmmaker John Waters saying that Desperate Living is the film he likes the least of all his titles. It is worth noting that this very same John Waters movie is an enduring fan favorite. Marilyn Manson can be counted among those fans, having sampled its dialogue on his debut LP Portrait of an American Family. One could easily see the same happening with the demented words of Donihe’s debut novella.

Grape City’s protagonist is a world-weary demon named Charles who is forced to be berated by his pipsqueak boss at a fast food restaurant. He whiles away his time on our crumbling clusterfuck of a planet by writing desperate emails to a Satan who won’t return his calls.

There is little that one could say isn’t weird about Grape City…were it not for the simple fact that the foul earth Donihe conjures in its pages is most certainly an outsized version of the one we now inhabit. The culturally-accepted past-times of hack-raping and bang-murdering referenced in the book aren’t a far cry from the insanity we see in our everyday news cycle.

It is the precision with which Donihe lampoons these abominable acts that makes this Bizarro novella such a bladder-shatteringly fun read. I dare you to read it at work without drawing looks of pity and concern from co-workers.

Although this book has gone largely unrecognized by even the indie press, it is available in paperback on Amazon.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut (Holt, Rinehart & Winston)

Kurt Vonnegut is well-known and, indeed, well-regarded for his proclivities towards the weird and wacky. Despite being held in high esteem by the literati, he has always featured bizarre imagery and strange sub-plots in his canon, from the constant peripheral presence of fictional sci-fi novelist Kilgore Trout to the funky little drawings in Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut never disappoints the discerning reader who is keen on camp and chaos.

What some may forget is how serious a writer he is and, most importantly, what a humanitarian he considered himself. What makes God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater particularly weird isn’t any gross detail or gory sequence; it’s simply how beautifully earnest its words are.

Far and away Vonnegut’s least talked about novel, ‘Mr. Rosewater’ sings from page one, a hushed lullaby that can only be heard by the downtrodden and tethered to earth. Like Cervantes’ classic about fighting windmills, Vonnegut’s novel presents a plot that would, at first blush, appear to be just absurd and pathetic…but along the way its bloated and seemingly simple philanthropist becomes what all men should aspire to—a renaissance man and a real martyr, bearing witness to the undoing of man by money.

In a world driven by commerce and financial status symbols, really, what could be weirder than a book about the root of all evil?

Honorable Mentions:





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