Torsten Krol, Callisto (Harper Perennial, 2009)
To read the story of Odell Deefus, the simple-minded hero of Torsten Krol’s Callisto, is to contemplate the atrocities of the past eight years: the hysteria of the war on terror, the paranoia of domestic surveillance, and the crimes of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. Oh, and did I mention the novel is a comedy?
Krol’s madcap romp through the Terror Age as seen through the eyes of his Forrest Gump-like Deefus is in its essence a send-up and condemnation of Bush and, in Krol’s words, his “hideous entourage.” While the degree to which such a novel actually affects public discourse is debatable, the novel does provide insight into The System, the Delilloesque underworld of American corruption and power, a byzantine system of “wheels within wheels.”
Deefus’s narrative voice—earnest, dim, compassionate—is a fine technical achievement. While the narrator is less than astute, his tender guilelessness and humor engage the reader. Deefus’s comical voice recalls the characterizations of George Saunders, or the broken English of Alex from Jonathan Safron Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. The mangled pronunciations (“Sammy bin Laden”, “Jewteronomy”) and malapropisms (“a figurine of speech”) were particularly apt and hilarious. How can you not feel for a guy who says The Yearling “wets my eyelashes” and who desperately loves Condoleezza Rice, especially “that little gap between her front teeth”?
Deefus’s key characteristic is his great capacity for compassion. Deefus sympathizes with those who hurt him; he even sympathizes with his torturers. In a crucial scene, while taking a lie-detector test, Deefus displays his talent for imaginative empathy for a literary character. He “concentrated hard on being Jody in The Yearling when he gets told his pet fawn has got to be shot,” and this intense focus causes Deefus to weep, thereby rendering the lie-detector test inconclusive. This moment is the crux of the novel: while people around him cannot sympathize, Deefus can—and this gift is his salvation.
Krol’s novel has its flaws, for example, an ironic cop-show plot that feels a bit more like the “falsity of TV” than a satire thereof. Nevertheless, Callisto is a tour-de-force of voice-driven narration and proof that indignation alone can produce a compelling novel.
Steven Brower,Introduction by Hilton Als, Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Amstrong (Abrams, 2009)
Your favorite singer and favorite trumpet player may soon be your favorite collagist. Steven Brower’s beautiful new book of more than one-hundred breathtaking collages by Louis Armstrong establishes the musician as a contemporary of Max Ernst and Romare Bearden.
Armstrong had a powerful impulse to document his extraordinary life. He made sure to leave a trail for posterity, from his “autobiography” (Swing that Music, 1938), to his other extensive personal writings (Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings,1999), to the many reel to reel tapes on which he recorded all sorts of musings. On the boxes of those tapes he made collages. The collages are perhaps his finest non-musical statements.
Armstrong assembled his collages from newspaper clippings, fragments of telegraph messages, pictures of himself with celebrities and now-unknown or unidentified persons, publicity materials, and minutae gathered on the road. In one collage: the cakewalk team of George and Ada Overton Walker, Babe Ruth, a beer jingle, Lucille Armstrong, Alexandre Dumas, a Western Union cable, membership cards (“Hot Club de France,” “Melody Lainers Fan Club”). There is nothing didactic, cute, folksy, or naïve about these works. According to Brower, Armstrong was “creating a self-aware art form and a record of the events themselves.” Armstrong’s rhythmically balanced arrangements of unpredictable images on intriguing backgrounds are usually fun or thoughtful; dynamic and absorbing. They can be studied for hours on end. Also: he prodigiously employs medical and scotch tape, which is cleverly incorporated into the book’s cover.
Brower tentatively attempts to locate the roots of Armstrong’s collage-making (citing Zora Neale Hurston) in the traditional African American practices of adornment and visual embellishment, the visual feasts that were the New Orleans parades, and a proclivity to “make a little story of my own” out of material he was reading. But Armstrong’s trumpet playing is the crucial link. Ralph Ellison claimed one of his major inspirations to become a writer came when he realized that T.S. Eliot’s verbal pastische in The Wasteland was similar to Louis Armstrong’s use of quotation on the trumpet. Readers of Michael North’s The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth Century Literature (1994) will not be surprised by yet another connection between another segment of modernism and African American culture.
Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell, The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation (Hill and Wang, 2008)
The United States Constitution, a new “novel graphic” by Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell, is a clear and timely adaptation. An updated and more comprehensive Schoolhouse Rock tractate, The United States Constitution views the intrinsic and complicated compromise between the state and federal governments with a Hamiltonian bent, overwhelmingly favoring one side of the states’ rights argument, while focusing on its stated mission that “to know the legacy of political exclusion that once existed in the Constitution is to have a greater insight on the most unflaterring chapters of the nation’s history.”
The greatest achievement of the Hennessey/ McConnell adaptation is the amplification of America’s past exclusionary policies regarding the extension of citizen rights, by applying a compendious and factual argument that is tailored to a fast-paced visual world. Using the ratification and journey towards implementation of the Fourteenth Amendment as the cornerstone for their story, Hennessey and McConnell partition the work from Article One of the Constitution to the document’s Twenty-Seventh Amendment, making this a quick and easy reference tool for the modern American citizen. The Hennessey/McConnell adaptation of the U.S. Constitution reaffirms the document’s legacy as a living one, clothing it in the new skin of “novel graphic” to reach the next generation of American citizens.
Bob Berkowitz, Ph.D. and Susan Yager-Berkowitz, eds., Doctor Hubbard’s Sex Facts: Vintage Advice for Men and Women (HarperCollins, 2009)
"Maidens…whose virtue is easy are as a rule unfortunate young women who are defectives mentally, in other words near lunatics.” DHSFVAFMAW (for short) is full of such gems. It’s the type of book that’s good dipping in and out of, instead of reading serially. And putting it down is always punctuated with a chuckle. The text was published as nonfiction circa 1922 and has now crossed into the humor section. Its 2009 publication acts as a tangible record of social progress.
Doctor Hubbard’s Sex Facts is filled with seemingly insightful advice followed by—huh? Some examples: 1) Things that are bad for babies: Thumb Sucking, Pacifiers…Moving Picture Shows. 2) The advice on how vigorous manhood is achieved? Sufficient exercise, eight hours of sleep… be chaste.” The lists remind me of Tina Fey/Tracy Morgan routines. On any given page there is a handful of information and a nugget or two of insanity. It couldn’t have been written with more wit if it had been intentional.
An index would have been helpful. It would have made finding the section on masturbation easier. It was located under “Self-Abuse” and defined as “the excitement of the sex organs by friction…with the hand in the male and with the finger or a candle in the case of the female.” I had to read that last bit twice too.
There is nothing humorous, however, about the editors’ introduction, which I think was a mistake. I can only hope that no conservative book dealer miscategorizes the work. It could scar a young reader taking all of S. Dana Hubbard M.D.’s advice as truth. Doctor Hubbard’s Sex Facts: Vintage Advice for Men & Women is a welcome addition to any coffee table, as long as it’s not in an actual medical office.
Robert Polito, Hollywood & God (University of Chicago Press, 2009)
Clean, decisive, and yet shimmering with the too-real clarity of a dream, Polito’s poetry is part craving, and all desire. The lost moment, the lost decade, the lost stardom, we yearn for these things with the turmoil and desperation of pop culture—we want it all, yet all of it is always evasive. In “Paris Hilton Calls on Jesus,” Polito writes:
My God makes me feel good.
There is a grandeur and purity in all I see.
A grandeur and purity in all around me.
To find in American vapidity a convincing path for self-enlightenment is Polito’s object. And he makes a convincing case for a Gnostic revelation—the strumming need in the American soul is the spark of the divine, which of course is manifested in the all-too imperfect expression pop culture. Polito’s voice and references harken to the hard-boiled, tracing a lineage of the brash, bold culture we see today, in the brash bold culture of yesterday. And yet the deification of yesterday is already underway, while the present is overlooked: “William Burroughs insisted that literature lagged fifty years behind.”
Polito, as the author of Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, is well-attuned to the crass, the unrefined, the upsetting—and the contemporary creative endeavors of popular culture to which only future generations will ascribe redemptive value. But his context—generational—is impossible to dismiss, and he delivers his conjecture with such patience that we are won over, we are willing to watch the old movie, google the Paris Hilton sex tape, and get lost.