Sunday, November 2, 2008

Another Side of Hugh Dillon

Cover profile of the actor and former Headstones frontman, from Driven magazine, September 2008.

There’ve been two Hugh Dillons jostling around in my head lately.

First there’s the spiky-haired rock and roller who fronted the Headstones. In my memory I see them racing through a set at a dive bar in 1993. Dillon snarls and spits, swinging the mic stand, singing about digging up his baby at the cemetery, while the band slams through power chords behind him.

Then there’s the Dillon who’s been on TV all summer, playing a police sniper on Flashpoint. Poker-faced and taciturn, slow to smile. He’s in fit, fighting shape: his head is shaved, his body always tense with checked energy. He crouches on a rooftop and his eyes narrow as he draws a bead on some lunatic waving a gun.

On a cafĂ© patio on a hot August morning in downtown Toronto, a third Dillon takes shape: a rising actor with a hit TV show, backed by the veritable star machine. Cautious and image-conscious, but still proud of his rough edges, he displays a curious mix of humility and bravado, and he has the star athlete’s habit of dropping ready-made sound bites. (On the intensity of his performances: “Life is intense, except when it isn’t.”)

To be fair, Dillon has earned some bragging rights. After premiering in July, Flashpoint, which centres on a Toronto emergency response team, scored solid ratings both on CTV here in Canada and – more improbably and, Dillon admits, more importantly – on CBS in the States. It isn’t Dillon’s only TV cop gig, either. He also stars in the dark drama Durham County, playing a Toronto homicide detective who moves out to the suburbs to escape big-city violence, only to be caught up in a serial-killer case.

Dillon actually dabbled in acting throughout his Headstones years, most memorably in Bruce McDonald’s 1996 cult classic, Hard Core Logo. He played Joe Dick, a down-and-out punk singer driven by rage and desperation; the role seemed to barely stray from his own stage persona, and initially, he says, “I had no desire to do it at all.” McDonald eventually convinced him, says Dillon: “He is one of those guys, there’s no hidden agenda – they just see something in you that you don’t see in yourself.”

By 2003, Dillon started chasing screen time in earnest. The Headstones had split after five albums, and he’d married his longtime girlfriend, Midori Fujiwara. He’d also kicked a longstanding heroin habit. “You realize that you can no longer put your family through that kind of torment,” says Dillon, who was five years clean and sober this past summer. “You realize that you’re going to die.” He credits Fujiwara and his sisters with convincing him to get help – and admits he didn’t make it easy. “The denial is fucking outrageous,” he says. “Especially being in a rock band, where that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Determined to reinvent himself as an actor, Dillon moved to L.A., land of bit parts and waiters. (Sound bite: “I started over; I like starting over.”) Here’s the twist: after moving to the States, Dillon landed breakout parts in two made-in-Canada productions. Another twist: in both of those roles, the rock and roll animal and former junkie is playing, well, The Man.

Not that Dillon considers it a stretch. “These guys have an incredible job and nobody ever gives them credit,” he says. For him, cops have been humanized since before the Headstones hit, when he worked as an orderly at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and saw police in action on a regular basis. The result, he says, is that he learned to “see them on a different level, as opposed to just authority figures.” To prepare for Flashpoint, Dillon hung out with ATF officials in the U.S., took weapons training and studied the Israeli hand-to-hand combat technique Krav Maga. (Sound bite: “You’ve got to totally invest. If you’re not invested, what can you expect?”) He still keeps in touch with some of the cops by phone.

The emphasis on prep is no accident: Dillon has to work hard at acting. (Sound bite on Flashpoint’s success: “It just makes me work harder.”) Music, on the other hand, always came naturally. The quick release of writing and playing songs still tugs at him. “There’s no thought put into it, and that’s the joy of it,” he says. “It is the art, because it just happens.”

Not that there weren’t compromises along the way with the Headstones, and Dillon admits that “there might have been a record that we weren’t thrilled with.” (DRIVEN elects Nickels for Your Nightmares.) But the group went out strong with its 2002 swan song, The Oracle of Hi-Fi. “We recorded an outstanding rock record,” says Dillon. “We walked away with our heads held high.” Characteristically, he also takes a little punk-rock glee in the fact that the Headstones’ major-label ride coincided with the near collapse of the record biz. “I was leaving as Rome was burning,” he says. “I had a smile on my face. It’s like my spaceship crash-landed in Los Angeles.”

He may have escaped the major-label machine and found his niche on the small screen, but Dillon isn’t ready to give up on rock. “I’ll do music my whole life,” he says. “I’ll always write songs.” That’s no idle boast. His second post-Headstones album, Works Well With Others, is about to come out. And if Dillon feels pressure about his acting (sound bite: “You put that pressure on yourself”), when it comes to music, the pressure is now definitely off. “I’m older, I don’t have as much to prove,” he says. “I’m not writing songs for a paycheque, or a record company, or to fit into a genre, or other people’s perceptions of who they think I might be.”

Dillon’s hoping to get a few live gigs together this fall in support of the new album, but his time is in high demand these days. After finishing out the summer filming Flashpoint’s initial 13-episode run, he’ll spend the fall shooting Durham County’s second season in Montreal, joined by new cast member Michelle Forbes. Her credits include Homicide: Life on the Street – one of the few cop shows Dillon admits to liking – and Dillon says the second season will be “very, very sophisticated, darker than the first one.” (For the record, season one was already quite dark.)

In the new year, he will be back at work on Flashpoint. Beyond that, he’s open to whatever comes his way, including a rumoured four sequels to Hard Core Logo. (Sound bite: “There’s no neutral. You’re either going forward as a performer or just backwards. And for me there’s never been any backwards, either. It’s just forward.”) He and Fujiwara divide their time between L.A.’s hip Silver Lake district and their house in Toronto’s Danforth area. Dillon’s recent success seems to gratify him for her sake as much as his own. “She’s somebody who never gave up on me, even when I gave up on myself,” he says.

“My life is what I want it to be. It’s been a long haul.”

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Review of Drive: A Road Trip Through Our Complicated Affair with the Automobile by Toronto journalist Tim Falconer. A slightly condensed version appeared in the Toronto Star in May 2008.

Is a car simply an appliance, a tool that performs a task, or is it a ticket to life-affirming, life-altering experiences? That’s one of the questions at the heart of Drive, Tim Falconer’s consideration of car culture. As for Falconer’s book itself, it’s more appliance than experience – dependable, sure, and stocked with information, but decidedly short on thrills.

Falconer, a Toronto journalist, wants to write about how cars have sprawled our cities, made us lazy, and complicated our lives. And he’s done plenty of research to back it up. But he also wants (quite sensibly) to bring some sense of narrative to that research, and also to understand the deep connection so many people feel with their rides. And so a road trip is born. Falconer sets out from Toronto in his ’91 Nissan Maxima and drives all the way to California, reporting on his progress and interviewing various auto enthusiasts and industry types as he goes.

Drive thus proceeds along two fronts. Falconer doles out background on everything from the history of car design to advertising through the decades to professional car racing, while theoretically using his own experiences and encounters along the way to add colour. It all reads as a bit of a grab bag, but one main theme does emerge: car culture is bad for urban planning, but folks sure do love their cars. For much of the book, these ideas are repeated more than expanded upon.

That’s one problem with Drive. Another is that the colour isn’t very, well, colourful. Falconer writes about highway traffic, about auto-themed tourist attractions (like the Cadillac Ranch, a handful of cars upended and stuck into the Texas desert), and about the ups and downs of the historic Route 66 in the southwest U.S. He also records his impressions of the various cities he passes through, rating them on how inviting they are. But while Falconer’s prose is serviceable enough, he struggles with setting a vivid scene or capturing the spark of a personality. He introduces just about everyone he encounters, for example, with a superficial physical trait or two – descriptions that range from nearly meaningless (“a small, thin, fey man with bleached blond hair”) to laughably absurd (“a small, dark-haired man who wore running shoes and jeans without a belt”).

The author himself strikes a position somewhere between amiable and altogether edgeless. He throws out general disapproval over traffic volume, suburban sprawl, and our car-enabled sedentary lifestyles. But the more specific the subject gets, the more his own opinions seem to retreat. After describing a crass TV ad that plays on parental anxieties, Falconer offers this hard-hitting analysis: “Some people found these spots offensive because they seemed to suggest that people who didn’t pony up for the expensive service didn’t care about the safety of their family.” It’s not the last time we hear from these mysterious “some people” or “more than a few people.”

As an argument, the book is strongest in its final chapter, which makes the case that downtown traffic tolls would both acknowledge the true societal cost of congestion and generate revenue for improved public transit. London, England, has tried this approach with some success. but here in Toronto, Mayor David Miller toyed with the idea and then quickly backtracked. “Miller is just one more politician without the guts to make tough decisions against cars and drivers,” writes Falconer, in a rare but welcome flash of fire.

Drive has other pleasures here and there; they come and go like rest stops on the highway. One charming section recounts a night at a family-friendly drive-in outside Picton, Ontario; another intriguingly describes the way technology is used to track traffic patterns. Overall, though, the book keeps to the middle of the road: it’s informative enough but not fascinating, entertaining enough but not captivating.

Falconer ends Drive with a playlist of rock and roll car songs, including Chuck Berry and the inevitable Springsteen but also the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” and Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn.” It’s a bit of fun that seems out of place, and ironically, it reminds the reader that the book itself could have used some more rock and roll energy.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Black Postcards

Review of indie-rocker Dean Wareham’s memoir Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance. Appeared in the Toronto Star, spring 2008.

Dean Wareham is a rock star – sort of. Like countless indie musicians before and after him, Wareham has spent his career in a no man’s land somewhere between obscurity and mainstream success. His fans are numerous enough that he can earn a living with regular club gigs, but not quite numerous enough to make that living an enviable one.

All of which makes Wareham a refreshing rock memoirist. The genre’s usually given over to tales of fiscal excess and champion debauchery, but Black Postcards, Wareham’s new book, is about as far from Motley Crue’s The Dirt as you can get.

Wareham’s known as the frontman for two cult bands: Galaxie 500 in the late 1980s, and then Luna from 1992 to 2005. Both groups blended dreamy pop and rock-snob taste in influences (Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Modern Lovers) with Wareham’s expressive guitar solos and somewhat less expressive vocals. He may not seem like a likely author – his doggerel lyrics were usually the weakest thing about his records – but the book shows him to be an observant guy with a wry sense of humour.

A New Zealander by birth, Wareham moved to New York City as a teenager with his family, and began his musical career while attending Harvard. As Black Postcards recounts, in Cambridge he learns the guitar and begins playing with an old high school classmate, Damon Krukowski. Eventually the two of them form Galaxie 500, with Krukowski on drums and his girlfriend, Naomi Yang, on bass.

Galaxie 500 made three cult-classic albums, but the personal dynamics were tense; in one of indie rock’s more legendary breakups, Wareham quit the group suddenly in 1991, deeply embittering his former bandmates. In Black Postcards, Krukowski and Yang do not come off well. Wareham paints the couple – convincingly, it must be said – as controlling, petty, and insecure. They constantly outvote him on band decisions, even though he writes most of Galaxie’s songs. And it’s hard not to seethe on Wareham’s behalf when they berate him just for playing a solo charity gig or, even more absurdly, for stepping into a spotlight onstage.

So Wareham splits the scene and forms a new band. Luna’s story is not as ugly as Galaxie 500’s, but in some ways it’s even more dispiriting. The band begins with promise, but by Wareham’s own estimation, they peak with their third album, Penthouse. They go on to record four more, but Wareham seems to find the process increasingly painful, and to take less and less pride in the end result. And a commercial breakthrough eludes the group: they shuffle from one record company to another and tour constantly, usually playing the same clubs again and again.

Wareham’s candor about these frustrations is the greatest strength of Black Postcards. With a light and self-deprecating touch, he thoroughly debunks standard rock mythologies. The touring life? A thankless grind punctuated by band bickering and misadventures, enlivened only by drugs or tawdry one-night stands. Luna’s recorded legacy? Wareham can barely muster any interest in most of his own albums. The adulation of fans? “If you wanted to try and pick up a girl, you had to make an effort,” he explains. “You had to wade out into the audience immediately after the show, pretend to look busy, and then answer a lot of stupid questions from guys who wanted to know what kind of distortion pedals we use.”

Amid all the cheer, the intra-band dynamics are regular points of interest. The various Galaxie 500 psychodramas stand out, of course. But Sean Eden, Luna’s Ontario-born second guitarist, is also a memorable figure. He comes off as mainly benign but hopelessly neurotic, rerecording his own guitar parts for hours on end in the studio while his bandmates twiddle their thumbs.

Lest readers assume the subtitle of Black Postcards must be sarcasm in action, genuine romance does bloom with the arrival of a new Luna bassist, the beautiful Britta Phillips. She and Wareham fall for each other on the tour carousel and eventually become an item. Wareham, however, is already married, with a young son. After much agonizing and some psychotherapy, he leaves his wife for Phillips. Since Luna’s 2005 breakup, Wareham and Phillips have recorded and toured as a duo.

The torn-between-two-lovers stuff is quite affecting, helped by Wareham’s bold honesty. (To his considerable credit, Black Postcards never once reads like he’s trying to court the reader’s sympathy.) But it would all be much more affecting if we had even the barest sense of either woman’s personality. Throughout the book, both Phillips and Wareham’s wife, Claudia, remain near-total ciphers. Perhaps this springs from an admirable impulse to protect their privacy, but the decision does Wareham’s narrative no favours.

In fact, whatever Black Postcards’ merits as an honest document of an intriguing career, it doesn’t exactly mark the arrival of a major new literary talent. Stylistically, Wareham mostly relies on flat, offhand declarations that give the book the feel of an as-told-to. (“I was a father now. It was exciting and scary.”) And for content, he relies too much on his tour diaries; huge patches of the book are devoted to tedious city-by-city summary. Black Postcards is a must-read for any fan of Wareham’s music, and should engage general indie-music fans too, but its appeal outside those boundaries will be slim.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Last Night at the Lobster

Review of Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, from the Toronto Star in December 2007.

I suspect many people will take a pass on Stewart O’Nan’s new book for the subject matter alone, which is about as prosaic and downbeat as you can get. Last Night at the Lobster is a slim novel that recounts a day in the life of a Connecticut Red Lobster outlet, from the perspective of Manny, the manager. The last day in its life, actually – the branch is about to close in a corporate downsizing move.

Readers who avoid this one will be missing out, though. True, O’Nan’s book is sombre in mood, unleavened by the comic hijinks that we’ve come to expect from workplace tales, and much of the narrative is built on the mundane details of restaurant work. But Last Night is surprisingly affecting and charming: O’Nan takes his milieu seriously and treats his characters with compassion.

On reading O’Nan’s first novel, Snow Angels, many years ago, I was impressed by how well he captured his working-class characters without slipping into the “I sing of the common man” tone sometimes found in, say, Russell Banks. In the early pages of Last Night at the Lobster, I wondered if that balance had tilted. The book is set at the height of the Christmas season, in what seems like an open bid for pathos, and it’s dedicated partly to “everyone who works the shifts nobody wants.” Obviously, O’Nan is keenly aware that while chain restaurants and retailers are unavoidable fixtures of North American public life, they rarely get written about in serious fiction. But a writer on a mission doesn’t always bode well.

I needn’t have worried. O’Nan does openly court our sympathies, and he sounds several earnest notes about corporate indifference: “The whole place may be disposable, and everyone in it,” thinks Manny early on, “but you can always find a use for a rubber band.” (Red Lobster’s parent company, Darden Restaurants, is transferring Manny and four other staffers to a nearby Olive Garden; everyone else at the Lobster is being pink-slipped.) But while the premise has sentimental undertones, O’Nan doesn’t overplay them – instead, he focuses squarely on the responsibilities and worries and minor crises that make up Manny’s last day at the helm of the branch.

That day is complicated on several counts. Several employees don’t bother to show, and some of the ones who do are surly. A blizzard worsens throughout the day. And Manny is distracted personally, too: while he has a pregnant girlfriend who’s waiting for some kind of commitment, he’s still tormented by a recently ended affair with a Red Lobster waitress, Jacquie, who’s not going to Olive Garden and who is working at the Lobster on this last day.

Over the course of the novel, O’Nan sketches several scenarios that will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in a restaurant: the daily regular who’s there when the doors open to order his usual; the huge party that arrives without warning in the middle of the lunch rush; the neglectful parent who blames her child’s bratty behaviour on the staff. Having put in several years at a chain pizzeria myself, I can testify that O’Nan also shows a strong grasp of the casual bickering and camaraderie that employees share. He even throws in another staple of restaurant life, the late-night bull session.

Mostly though, he focuses on the work itself. Last Night is full of patient, deliberate descriptions of Manny and his co-workers carrying out their various duties, from clearing the ice in the parking lot to heating up the deep fryers to cleaning the washrooms. Although one of the book’s regular refrains is “as always, Manny tries to lead by example,” O’Nan manages to stop short of idealizing his protagonist. The messy affair with Jacquie is an obvious humanizing strategy, but it works, helping to create a measured portrait of a decent, confused man.

It’s not lost on the reader, of course, that Manny’s decency is unremarked upon and unrewarded. He’s undoubtedly too loyal to his work: as he admits to himself, “he can’t stand a job left undone,” and it’s downright startling when he idly muses, midway through the novel, about a possible future that doesn’t include Darden Restaurants. Last Night at the Lobster is a small, quiet story with no epiphany or resolution, and Manny’s absorption in his unglamorous everyday tasks could be seen as futility. But the novel dares to suggest that even drudgerous work can still offer us enough purpose to get through another day, and sometimes that’s important enough.


Review of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, from the Toronto Star in September 2002.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book isn’t the only long-awaited second novel coming out this season – Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man will be along in October – but it’s the one with the most to live up to. After all, Eugenides’ nine-years-ago debut, The Virgin Suicides, was a more promising book than, say, Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History. Both of them balanced literary ambition with crowd-pleasing camp, but ultimately Eugenides’ sad, creepy tale carried greater resonance.

While The Virgin Suicides was slim and compressed, Eugenides works on a new scale with Middlesex. It’s a 500-pager, a long family saga spanning most of the 20th century and stuffed with Big Themes: personal turmoil and political cataclysm, incestuous love and familial guilt, labour unrest and immigrant unease, crime and capitalism. Small wonder that it’s been gathering pre-publication buzz.

Like its predecessor, Middlesex also concerns sexual confusion amid the leafy streets of Grosse Pointe, Mich. As the very first sentence informs us, the novel’s hero is a hermaphrodite: Callie Stephanides is born a girl in 1960, but reborn at the age of 14 as a boy. The adult Cal, a male diplomat living in Berlin, relates the story of his/her own early life, culminating in that traumatic rebirth. He also looks back in time, recounting the adventures of his parents and paternal grandparents.

Those grandparents are Desdemona and Lefty, who flee the Asia Minor village of Bithynios after the Turks invade in 1922. Narrowly escaping a mass slaughter at the city of Smyrna, the two board a boat bound for the U.S. and marry en route. They settle with relatives in Detroit, and while Desdemona struggles to adapt her silk-growing skills to the new world, Lefty puts in a brief stint at a Ford factory before opening a bar. Their son, Milton, becomes a restaurateur himself, marrying and raising two children of his own. His younger child is our narrator, Callie/Cal.

It’s best not to dwell on the fact that in these early sections, the narrative voice relates events in more detail than a not-yet-born Cal could possibly possess. Cal playfully alludes to this disconnect at times, but that doesn’t make for anything approaching an unreliable narrator subtext. In fact, the technique seems like nothing more than a device to allow Eugenides his epic scope while also making room for a chummy, conversational tone. Cal is a patient and indulgent storyteller, constantly saying such things as “shall I get right to it?” and “so, to recap” and “surely you’ve guessed by now.”

Such asides are symptoms of the novel’s major problem: There’s something a little undignified about its relentless attempts to ingratiate itself. Eugenides tends to formally announce his themes and motifs, as if to spare us the effort of looking for them. (Cal on the subject of Berlin: “This once-divided city reminds me of myself.”) He splashes ellipses liberally to lubricate the suspense. He shows a weakness for cute visual metaphors: the movie reel, the snapshot, the diorama. And the book has more than its share of Lovely Images that seem calculated to provoke sighs of delight. (“It was the custom in those days for passengers leaving for America to bring balls of yarn on deck. Relatives on the pier held the loose ends. As the Giulia blew its horn and moved away from the dock, a few hundred strings of yarn stretched across the water.”)

The hyperactive plotting also suggests a pathological fear of flagging readerly interest. The sacking of Smyrna and the 1968 Detroit riots provide natural crisis points, and make for two of the book’s most charged and gripping sections. But calamity is never really far: The dominant mode here is melodrama, the dominant strategy plot contrivance. On the night Callie is born, a stroke hits her grandfather, but it’s not fatal – he has more strokes in store, conveniently timed for key moments in Callie’s life. Unlikely coincidences and flamboyant demises abound. We can’t even get through the performance of a school play without somebody dropping dead.

I’m all for (fictional) people dropping dead, and Lord knows The Virgin Suicides had a high body count. But with a story as long and busy as this one, a surplus of crises makes for diminishing returns. Middlesex is always readable and entertaining – for all his apparent insecurities, Eugenides is a natural storyteller – but most of its characters and events seem too arbitrary to really haunt the reader’s consciousness.

The pace does slow down a bit as Callie approaches puberty. Ensconced in a futuristic Grosse Pointe mansion on Middlesex Boulevard and enrolled in a private girls’ school, Callie frets about her body’s increasingly obvious strangeness and moons over a redheaded classmate, dubbed only The Obscure Object. A close attention to the minutiae of teenage life – a page-long description of a school bathroom, say – helps ground the action, and the affair with the Object is particularly well rendered, surreal yet plausible. There’s also a tart section in which Callie’s worried parents fall under the sway of Dr. Peter Luce, a hipster sexologist.

Callie’s resistance to Luce and her own dramatic gender switch form the core of the novel. She flees to San Francisco and takes a brief tour of the underground sex industry, but her adventures feel strangely truncated after her family’s long and winding story. In fact, Eugenides never really reconciles the whimsy and excess of the novel’s first half with the psychological realism he aims for in the second. It doesn’t help that after a tremendous build-up to Callie’s “coming out,” he skimps on describing its aftermath. A predictable subplot involving the adult Cal’s halting romance with an American photographer is sketched as thinly as possible.

Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate Eugenides’ talent. His writing can be sharp and funny. There are nice riffs in Middlesex on German compound words and on the horrific qualities of public men’s rooms. He can move a complicated story along economically. And his obvious affection for his characters (even as he refuses to indulge them) is charming. Middlesex may be underwhelming in the end, but as a diversionary yarn it’s more beguiling than most. At the very least it should inspire curiosity about what Eugenides will do next. I hope we won’t have to wait nearly 10 years to find out.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically

Review of A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Toronto Star, fall 2007.

It’s a long and ongoing tradition: journalists artificially insert themselves into some milieu and then recount their experiences. Every so often some reporter will, for a brief time, live as a homeless person, or work at a menial job, or undergo some fad diet or exercise regime. Nearly 50 years ago, white writer John Howard Griffin posed as a black man travelling in the Deep South for his book Black Like Me. More recently, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock lived on nothing but a McDonald’s diet for a month for his film Super Size Me. There’s an air of the stunt about these endeavours, but they can also serve as a springboard to thought-provoking larger discussions; Spurlock, for example, managed to look at the unhealthy influence of fast-food culture on modern life from several angles.

A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire in New York, has put himself at the centre of a story twice now – first with 2004’s The Know-It-All and now with The Year of Living Biblically. In the new book, Jacobs tells us that his agent refers to his chosen genre as “immersion journalism.” Unfortunately, Jacobs is the kind of writer who gives immersion journalism a bad name. Superficial, intellectually lazy, and unfunny, he uses his own experiences not so much to explore big ideas as simply to kitschify them.

For The Know-It-All, Jacobs spent a year reading the Encyclopaedia Brittanica in its entirety, after somehow convincing a book editor that this would be an interesting and meaningful task. For The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs sets out to follow the numerous and varied dictates of the Bible, “as literally as possible,” for one year. Especially the oddball ones. Especially the oddball ones that are merely wacky and in no way genuinely threatening or distasteful to modern liberal humanist sensibilities.

Both the book and the project are organized chronologically. Jacobs decides to tackle the Old Testament in his first eight months and then the New Testament in the final four months, and he records his progress in brief diary-style entries, spanning a few days at a time. The breezy, episodic feel is exacerbated when Jacobs realizes that there are rather a lot of rules in the Bible – hundreds and hundreds – so he’s going to have to do some picking and choosing. “I will still attempt to follow all the rules simultaneously,” he writes early on. “But on a given day, I’ll hone in on a particular rule, and devote much of my energy to that rule, while keeping the others in my peripheral vision.”

Look, let’s face it: this is book-deal bait, pure and simple. Jacobs, though, argues (unconvincingly) that his project springs from a genuine interest in spirituality. Nominally Jewish, he lives a mainly secular lifestyle, but remains fascinated by his Uncle Gil, a black-sheep relative who’s tried several religions and has even been a sometime cult leader himself. The irreligious Jacobs also claims to be looking for some sort of ethical framework he can pass on to his young son, and figures living Biblically can help him articulate it.

In that latter respect, it may be that the project actually served a purpose. Part of Jacobs’ Bible year involves trying to rein in his some of his baser human instincts, like lying, gossip, and envy – things we could all stand to work on. But Jacobs’ ethical exercise program seems to bear pretty modest results. At the end of the first month, he notes with some surprise that his new self now holds open elevator doors, gives small change to homeless people, and “refrains from gawking at odd-looking passerby.” That it took 38 years and a Bible-themed book deal to bring basic, everyday human decency onto Jacobs’ radar is downright alarming, but better late than never, I suppose.

Anyway, Jacobs is most interested in visible manifestations of his spiritual carnival ride. He lets his beard grow unchecked, wears white robes in public, and starts blowing a horn (shofar) to mark each new month. His tone while describing these escapades is one of disingenuous mugging: “I sip a glass of water, part my lips, jut out my jaw, and blow the shofar again. It sounds like a dying fax machine.” You can practically hear the whimsical string music that will no doubt figure heavily on the soundtrack of the inevitable film adaptation. The same is true of the various one-off projects that Jacobs engages in, such as building a rudimentary hut in the living room of his condo or writing scripture on the frame of his front door.

The Year of Living Biblically could have made some intriguing points about what it means to observe Biblical teachings in the modern world. But while Jacobs does make some dutiful field trips – he visits, among others, an Amish man, a group building a creationist museum, and his fanatical Uncle Gil, now living in Israel – he returns from these excursions with shockingly little insight. What do you know, the Amish man has a dry sense of humour, and the creationists are more engaged and intelligent than you’d think.

If there’s an overall theme to the book, it’s that much of the Bible probably isn’t meant to be taken literally, especially the unpleasant bits. But Jacobs himself shows no inclination to actually probe deeply at any questions that arise. When faced with the problem of reconciling spiritual interests with fantastical beliefs (creationism, miracles) or unpleasant ones (the Bible’s anti-homosexuality passages), his MO is simple: shrug and move on. The book’s most common rhetorical flourish is the gormless little section-closing scratch of the head, such as: “Could I ever get into the skull of an ancient Israelite who believed in several gods? Do I want to?”

Failing to achieve any relevance, The Year of Living Biblically could at least have been entertaining. But Jacobs has the comedic sensibilities of a matinee standup at a B-grade Vegas lounge. “Humans have come up with some astoundingly bizarre stuff ourselves – biathlons, turducken, and my son’s Chicken Dance Elmo, to name a few,” he writes at one point. And at another: “You watch the Appalachian snake handlers on the Discovery channel, and they look as weird as the guy on Coney Island who hammers six-inch nails into his nostrils, or Nick Nolte after a couple vodka tonics.”

Like religious belief, humour is a personal and subjective thing, and I guess some readers may consider Jacobs’ comedy stylings to be heavenly. But for this one, they were purgatorial.

The Fabulist

Review of Stephen Glass’s contemptible debut novel The Fabulist, from the Toronto Star in spring 2003.

A young man is rising quickly in his chosen career when his unethical actions catch up to him. He’s fired and disgraced; his sense of himself and his place in the world is shaken. But a new and transcendent love affair helps him to accept his past mistakes and move on with his life.

It’s a perfectly workable story arc for a middleweight commercial novel. And the hero of Stephen Glass’s The Fabulist is no more flawed than many other fictional characters who command our respect, or at least our attention. Yet the publication of Glass’s first book has provoked almost universal revulsion from commentators and critics.

Of course, media types tend to take a dim view of Glass, who’s become a bogeyman in the field. In 1998, the 25-year-old journalist had worked his way up to associate editor at The New Republic when it came out that he’d spent most of his young career brazenly making things up in print. And The Fabulist, though billed as a novel, recounts the fate of, ah, “Stephen Glass,” a young reporter whose life falls apart when it comes out that he’s been brazenly making things up in print.

Most observers have made a great show of their moral outrage over Glass’s new career, stopping just short of invoking legislation that deviants not be allowed to profit from their crimes. Reading the coverage, it’s easy to forget that Glass is not, in fact, a murderer, and that he’s at least managed to land in a business where his approach to accuracy can be an asset rather than a liability. After all, novelists often smugly describe themselves as “wonderful liars,” while in the next breath asserting that fiction allows them access to some sort of “greater truth.”

Still, the unsettling scent of a cash-in clings to The Fabulist. A coy author’s note addresses Glass’s backstory even as it works in the usual all-that-follows-is-fiction disclaimer. And after ducking media for five years following his firing from The New Republic, Glass gave in and told all to 60 Minutes – on the eve of his book’s publication. (His publicity team has also had a bit of uncanny luck: the breaking story of fallen New York Times reporter Jayson Blair has made journalism ethics a hot topic.)

Readerly unease won’t be limited to the book’s packaging and promotion. The meatiest part of the story is a lightly reworked account of Glass’s now-famous confrontation with his boss at The New Republic after his lies were exposed. (Here the boss is called “Robert Underwood” and the magazine “The Washington Weekly” – Glass changes all names but his own.) Glass’s subsequent soul-searching drives the rest of the narrative. Which means that one obvious question looms: why is this a novel at all? Surely The Fabulist: A Memoir would have had Simon & Schuster reaching for its chequebook just as quickly.

Perhaps we’re to believe that Glass’s motive was some postmodern freeplay of genres. But the text itself – straightforward in structure and tone, with a readable but lacklustre prose style – offers no support for that theory. The more likely explanation is that the first-time author simply sought to dodge the rigours of reporting events as they happened, of getting the details right. Why sweat that stuff, when instead you can rely on the kind of invented flourishes that made you a hotshot reporter in the first place?

There is nothing inherently wrong with that decision. But it means that the reader of The Fabulist ends up feeling like a New Republic fact-checker going back to one of Glass’s phony stories, constantly separating the verifiable bits from the implausible details. An unfair way to read a novel? Maybe so, but given the book’s marketing strategy, I don’t think Glass or his publisher can get away with that complaint.

In any case, the larger problem is that in The Fabulist, Glass consistently puts the freedom of fiction to misguided and self-serving uses. Take his frequent reliance on outlandish set pieces: in one, he slaps on his girlfriend’s makeup to get “in character” while inventing a fake source; in another, he pretends to be deaf to avoid an awkward moment and is forced to maintain the deception throughout an airline ride. These episodes strain desperately for comic effect and usually fall flat.

More troubling are the portrayals of Glass’s fellow journalists. After Glass is fired, he and his family and friends are stalked mercilessly by scoop-seekers. Even as our hero professes remorse for his own sins (to us, anyway – never to those he’s actually sinned against), his tormentors are invariably shown to be mean-spirited, sanctimonious, and hypocritical. Robert Underwood, for example, parlays the Glass scandal into a book deal for himself; I’m not aware that his real-life counterpart did any such thing. In the climax of The Fabulist, one former friend is so desperate for a quote from Glass that he invades a veterinarian’s office and threatens a sick dog.

Like much of the book, this would ring false – contrived and cheesy – even to a reader who knew nothing of the author’s past. But it’s also worth noting that had Glass written a non-fiction book, it’s doubtful that he could have pointed to any real incident that would have made his foes look so pathetic. And he certainly wouldn’t have been able to give himself this climactic pseudo-insightful speech in a moment of crisis: “[A]ccuracy’s not all that you’re looking for. Journalists always say it is, but it’s almost never true. You’re looking for a good story; accuracy’s only half of it.”

And what of Stephen Glass? The obvious appeal of a book like this is the chance for an inside glimpse of the mental processes that led to his elaborate deceptions. But after five years of reflection, Glass’s epiphany is strictly banal: he just wanted to be loved. The Fabulist fails as a novel, to be sure, but if it really does represent everything its author has learned about himself, then it seems to have had little therapeutic value either.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Review of Nicholson Baker’s novel Checkpoint; Toronto Star, spring 2004.

Of all the writers who’ve lately run afoul of the do-as-we-say types on the American right – writers like Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Gore Vidal – Nicholson Baker may be the least likely culprit.

Sure, he earned some notoriety back in 1998, when it came out that his phone-sex novel, Vox, was on President Clinton’s reading list, courtesy of a certain intern. But in general Baker is known for cheerful fiction that, in the Seinfeldian phrase, is about nothing. Such early novels as The Mezzanine offer lengthy riffs on shoelaces, milk cartons and escalators – not exactly power-to-the-people stuff. Even when Baker did turn to public activism, in the mid-1990s, his cause of choice – preserving library card catalogues – was hopelessly nebbishy.

All that has changed with Baker’s new book, Checkpoint. Set in real time in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, the novel recounts a conversation between two men. One of them is planning to assassinate the U.S. president; the other is desperately trying to talk him out of it.

That the novel has drawn fire even before its publication is no surprise. After all, Don DeLillo took political flack for fictionalizing the JFK assassination 25 years after the fact in Libra – George Will accused him of “bad citizenship.”

Checkpoint is bolder. It discusses the logistics of killing a sitting president, repeatedly identified as George W. Bush, and its publication comes in the middle of the most divisive election year in decades.

This is a slim book – at 115 pages, it may be the thinnest of all Baker novels, which is saying something – and there’s an inescapable air of the stunt about it. At the very least, it’s intrinsically tied to its time, and while we can fervently hope that “its time” passes after the U.S. election in November, Checkpoint may well stay au courant for another four years. Beyond that, though, its shelf life is unclear.

The novel’s only characters are Jay and Ben, two middle-aged friends who have fallen out of touch in recent years. Jay has summoned Ben to D.C. with a vague plea to talk him through some life crisis. Upon Ben’s arrival, Jay gets a tape recorder going, and Checkpoint takes the form of a straight transcript of their hotel-room dialogue.

Almost immediately, Jay confesses his plans to take out George W. Bush later that very day. Ben is properly horrified, and thus ensues a conversational dance in which the two share their political outrage over recent current events while arguing about how to express that outrage, Ben ever trying to lure Jay away from his murderous intentions.

Their talk touches on their personal history (Jay has drifted from job to job and woman to woman, while Ben is a comfortable academic, married with two children) but mostly dwells on the abysmal state of the union, ranging from conspiracy theories to past CIA transgressions to the use of napalm in Iraq to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Many of Baker’s novels are defined by a strange friction. They take a restless approach to storytelling conventions (footnotes that intrude upon the main text, a disdain for drama or incident) even as their content celebrates musings that can only arise from complacency. After all, fussing about the problem of floating drink straws and other intricacies of industrial design is a privilege of the comfortable, no less so just because most of the Western world shares that comfort.

Yet at its best, Baker’s work has a mesmerizing quality that’s absent from the new book. In Checkpoint, the usual tension has been reversed: the subject is deadly earnest and the narrative approach familiar rather than fresh. So for all the weightiness of theme, the book feels like an inessential addition to the Baker canon.

In form Checkpoint closely resembles Vox, Baker’s other all-dialogue novel, though here the dialogue is more clipped, less leisurely. Baker aims for psychological suspense: When Jay talks of killing Bush with radio-controlled flying circular saws and guided rolling boulders, the reader wonders just how deranged the would-be assassin is, and just how serious. And there are clever and subtle touches: At the outset of the novel, Jay notes that Ben’s glasses were made in China, setting up a much-later riff on the exodus of manufacturing from the U.S.

Mostly, though, Baker’s novelistic aims are overshadowed by the urgency of his subject. Many, in fact, will doubtless read Checkpoint as a Fahrenheit 9/11-style political treatise, but Baker’s intent lies elsewhere. Most of the anti-Bush arguments that Jay and Ben trade off are about as cogent as Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” and if Baker wanted simply to denounce the administration, he’s a thoughtful enough writer that he could have done a better job.

No, his real interest is in making a point about the helplessness of the American people in shaping the political life of their country. An important theme, to be sure, but Checkpoint expresses it a little too baldly, and is a little too light on other rewards, to be a lasting novel.

The Headmaster Ritual

Review of Taylor Antrim’s debut novel, The Headmaster Ritual. Was in the Toronto Star last summer.

Even more than a regular high school, the boarding school must present an alluring setting for novelists: the usual teenage bellows and whimpers echo all the louder through close quarters, the air of oppression is all the thicker, the yearning for escape even more intense. So it goes in those old standbys A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye, and – more recently and more Canadianly – in David Gilmour’s 1999 novel Lost Between Houses. In the typical boarding school tale, teachers and other adults are distinctly secondary players, there to encourage or to oppose; the implication is that the kids are the really interesting ones, since their personalities and ethics are still in the process of solidifying.

The Headmaster Ritual, the debut novel from American journalist Taylor Antrim, is a typical boarding school tale in many ways. It takes place at a tony Massachusetts institute, and one of its major characters is James Wolfe, a shy, sensitive senior who’s bullied by his yahoo jock classmates and yearns for an unreachable popular girl – and who also happens to be the headmaster’s son, however chilly and distant his relationship with dad may be.

The other major character, though, is a teacher, Dyer Martin. When we meet Dyer in a prologue, he’s not long out of university, he’s living in Los Angeles, and he’s working for his girlfriend’s father’s real estate firm as an apprentice dealmaker. But he’s just been conned into committing half a million dollars of his company’s money for a worthless patch of land, and he fears he’s about to be fired. So Dyer runs: he leaves the job and the girlfriend and flees across the country to an entry-level post as a history instructor at the Britton School.

As that suggests, Britton’s rookie teacher is pretty callow himself, still finding his way in the world. He also has hs own daddy issues, having been raised by his mother after his father abandoned the two of them. So The Headmaster Ritual is a coming-of-age story, but a dual one: over the course of a year at Britton, both Dyer and James endure ordeals and embarrassments that eventually make them stronger. Some of the book’s most affecting scenes are near-stock scenarios of swaggering students bullying sensitive ones in the classroom or on the soccer field – but they’re presented from Dyer’s point of view, capturing his bewilderment and helplessness.

Antrim also plays with conventional notions of the boarding school as some cloistered environment that magnifies petty personal dramas while holding off the wider world. The novel’s action takes place amid news headlines about nuclear posturing from North Korea and vague threats of repercussions from the U.S. Antrim walks a couple of careful lines here: the political stuff gives the book a timely frisson without unduly tethering it to the headlines, and the geopolitics aren’t there just for texture, but are integrated into the main action. That’s because Edward Wolfe, Britton’s headmaster (and James’ aforementioned aloof father) is an aging lefty radical – and an open and fervent North Korea sympathizer.

Wolfe is an enigmatic and imperious presence, with an agenda that pulls in both Dyer and James and drives the novel’s main engine of suspense. The headmaster takes a special interest in Dyer’s senior world history class and press-gangs the young teacher into recruiting several students – including James – to form a delegation for a mock United Nations conference in New York City. Wolfe then ensures that the Britton group will represent North Korea at the event, and as it draws nearer he appears to be having secret meetings with a mysterious Korean man.

All this political intrigue is well paced and well played. I’ll avoid spilling further details, but suffice to say that the conspiracy of course comes to a boil at that mock UN meeting. And while the climactic events are a little outlandish, they don’t overpower the characters’ stories, but rather complement and bolster them. James’s flickering allegiances and resentments in particular are well handled throughout the novel: he’s tormented by an unfulfilled crush and by a tough-guy friend who acts alternately as bully and protector. These relationships play out in intriguing ways, and Antrim resists the temptation to simplify things for the sake of resolution.

He has a little more trouble with his older protagonist, though. Dyer’s relationship with his mother and abortive romance with a fellow teacher seem stiff, perfunctory. And in spots like that, the novel especially suffers from Antrim’s workaday prose, which lacks a certain unpredictable spark. Overall, though, The Headmaster Ritual is an unusually satisfying first novel.

Ghost Town, Robert Coover, Prop.

A Robert Coover interview/profile, done way back in 1998 on the occasion of (a) a new novel, Ghost Town, and (b) an appearance at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. (For some stupid reason or other, I ended up missing Coover’s IFOA appearance.) This is the long version, which ran in my friend Dave’s fanzine Filler; a shorter one ran in eye weekly.

Grand success stories like David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest may have sparked a minor resurgence in form-stretching fiction, but that hasn’t much changed life for old-school postmodernist Robert Coover. Ghost Town, Coover’s most recent novel, was published last September to little of the fanfare that accompanied, say, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, and Coover’s first visit to Toronto — he read at the annual International Festival of Authors in October — was likely unremarked by many of the same readers who had lined up for, say, Don DeLillo the year before.

With or without a sizable audience, though, Coover has been pushing fictional boundaries for over thirty years. His first novel, 1966’s The Origin of the Brunists (about a weird religious cult in a small mining town), won the William Faulkner Award, and since then he’s produced a savagely satiric body of work — sometimes dense and confrontational, sometimes compulsively readable. Coover is probably best known for the oft-anthologized short “The Babysitter,” with its dizzying twists in chronology, and the lit-course mainstay The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., which lends new creepiness to the term “fantasy league.” Those who delve further into his career, though, will find everything from eroticized odes to power politics (Spanking the Maid) to fresh takes on old fairy tales (Pinocchio in Venice, Briar Rose) to mammoth political epics that marry historical fact and ludicrous fantasy (The Public Burning).

An Iowa native, Coover attended university at Southern Illinois and Indiana before heading to Chicago for graduate work. He reports that although he’d been interested in writing all his life, he didn’t consider it a vocation until the summer after he got out of the Navy, when he “holed up in a cabin, out on an island near the border of Canada and the U.S.” Here he hit on what would be a career-long interest in “all the stories we get from early childhood on: fairy tales, religious stories, patriotic stories, family stories.” Asserting that “stories and language and how we tell a story are all significant,” Coover confesses to a fondness for “disturbing the waters” of various narrative archetypes — “whichever one catches my fancy from time to time.”

This willingness to “stir things up” has occasionally produced brief flashes of controversy. Spanking the Maid, the cyclical, dreamy tale of a man who begins each day by, well, spanking his maid, sparked feminist protests in New York upon its 1982 publication. And the release of The Public Burning (1977) — a cartoonish reimagination of the 1953 execution of alleged Communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, complete with “narration” from then vice-president Richard Nixon — was delayed, in circumstances that are still obscure; it is believed that publishers feared legal action from the Nixon camp. (The experience was clearly nightmarish for Coover, though he notes happily that a similar book written in 1999 would likely not encounter such problems. “I wrote The Public Burning before Saturday Night Live,” he says, “and there’s been so much opening up of political satire since then.”)

Spanking the Maid and The Public Burning represent two extremes in fictional scope: the former is short and compressed (more of a novella, really), the latter long and epic. Since Coover’s books have varied greatly in length throughout his career, one wonders at the writing process: Are the shorter books products of extensive cutting? Does Coover know, when he sets out, whether he’ll be running a sprint or a marathon? No to both, as it turns out. “I think my preferred length,” says Coover, “the one that I’m happiest with, is that of Spanking the Maid or Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears — that sort of novella-length work.”

However, once he starts writing, Coover often finds that he has little control over the matter. “I often think I’m writing a one-pager, or something very short, and it’s only when I sort of open up the story, and see what’s inside it, that I see what it’s trying to tell me.” His works in progress, Coover claims, inevitably follow surprising directions. “I may do a lot of structuring — I write out outlines, how it’s going to move, what all’s going to be in it — but those things get overwritten quickly enough as the text begins to take off on its own. And sometimes I think I’m going to have a big piece and it just suddenly finds a way to come to a natural end much sooner than I thought — that’s rare, but it’s fun. The more natural tendency is to keep going, becoming massive and challenging.”

Whether or not Coover is being disingenuous when he describes his projects taking on wills of their own, this, er, organic view of the composition process would seem to resist extensive editorial collaboration — a suspicion Coover confirms. His best editors, in Coover’s view, have been the ones “who’ve known how to just do the best for the book once they’ve decided they want to do it.” Changes made during the publishing process have been limited to “very minor copyediting alterations,” with more structural or substantive revisions unheard of. “I spend a lot of time going over and over these texts,” Coover says, “and I haven’t found anybody in the industry sharp enough, or literarily-minded enough, to make judgments like that.”

Not surprisingly, Coover’s penchant for demanding prose has occasionally run him into trouble with the accounting departments of publishing houses. “My work has never been best-seller stuff,” he says, which makes for a career of small advances and limited financial recompense. (Coover reports that even the income from The Universal Baseball Association, arguably his most popular book, has been minimal.) Not that he’s complaining. “I count on a continuity of readers, rather than a broad base of readership at any given time. A best-seller is a book that gets to a lot of people who just aren’t readers. That’s certainly the case with Cold Mountain [Charles Frazier’s wildly successful 1997 novel] — although I think it will have a lasting life, I know it’s being read by a lot of people who haven’t read a book in years. That’s a remunerative readership, but it’s not a very rewarding one.” With his current publisher Henry Holt, Coover has at least found some measure of stability: Ghost Town is the first of a contracted three books.

Perhaps Coover’s future royalty statements will benefit from the recent renewal of interest in experimental fiction. Big, attention-grabbing books like Wallace’s, Pynchon’s and DeLillo’s seem to have reawakened the reading public’s appetite for fictional worlds unlike the quotidian ones of, say, Raymond Carver or Richard Ford. “I never really saw it go away,” Coover says of the apparent revival of the postmodern impulse, “but then I was close to young writers, and I could see a continuous interest in disruption of form. Minimalism and dirty realism got big press because they were easy to read, easy to review, and easy to sell, but I could see that all along that there were people like Wallace.” Still, Coover’s own recent work, like that of his contemporary John Barth, remains largely ignored by the mainstream media.

However, financial pressures must be eased by Coover’s full-time gig: for 20 years he has taught creative writing at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Coover specializes in hypertext, the study of computer-driven reading and writing, in which narrative flow is nonlinear and interactive — indeed, often controlled by the reader, not the author. “It’s an essential creative difference in form,” says Coover. “You can move any book into the computer, but you can’t move just any text out.” Coover’s interest in new technologies and their application to storytelling dates back to the ’60s, when he made a short documentary film “just to understand the process.” He also embraced word processing very early, one of the first in the Brown community to do so: “I used to sit and work in a room next to the mainframe itself.” (Interestingly, though, Coover says computer composition did nothing to actually influence the way he wrote, conceding only that “it made a lot of things I wanted to do easier” in terms of cutting and pasting text.)

As for the technology that has wrought hypertext, Coover felt early on that those who ignored it would end up “disenfranchised, illiterate, disempowered.” Still, he does acknowledge the validity of some concerns, both practical and aesthetic. (Chief among these, at least to my mind, is the lack of evidence that most readers actually want to usurp the author.) And the rise of the Internet seems to have even Coover fearing for fiction’s future; he sounds almost nostalgic recalling the days when hypertext meant “dealing with diskettes and CD-ROMs,” and admits that “text’s future is not as clear as it was to me three or four years ago — what looked very promising looks less so now.” Still, says Coover, “you do worry about the loss of the reading experience, but I think it’s wrong to put your head in the sand.” Accordingly, he is helping to organize a conference at Brown — slated, he says, for sometime in the spring of 1999 — with the objective of arriving at “some sense of how words of how words are going to survive.” Besides international poets and writers, Coover hopes to also attract attendees from the technological industry — say, represntatives of Intel or Microsoft.

For now, Coover still publishes in the old-fashioned way, and Ghost Town, his third novel in two years (following John’s Wife and Briar Rose, both in 1996), is a compact, compressed sendup of the conventions of the western genre. Beginning with a lone drifter atop a horse, the novel charts a haphazard narrative course through a hallucinatory, anarchic world of cattle rustlers and lynch-happy posses, rowdy barrooms and deserted banks, stern schoolmarms and scheming whores. Distinguished by non-sequitur plot turns and Coover’s demanding virtuoso prose, Ghost Town is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, the stock settings, the splashy cartoon violence (including surprise resurrections), and the protagonist’s ever-shifting goals often produce a disconcerting literary-video-game effect. “That’s the metaphor of the ghost town,” says Coover. “Things are never as they appear.”

Coover’s work within the western format dates back to his 1972 play The Kid (which he cites as Ghost Town’s direct antecedent). Driven since then to produce “a massive epic” containing “all the various characters in the west,” Coover began only after conceiving the book’s central image: the ghost town gliding past the lone rider on the desert plain, overtaking him from behind. “As I followed the impulses of this visual image,” he says, “everything got crushed into this quite short narrative.” He was still driven, though, “to make sure every element of the western was tucked in there somewhere, even if only a mention.”

Coover’s perennial interest in genre will also inform his future work. He describes his next book as “a collection of short fiction dealing with children’s themes,” and he’s also working on a long novel premised on yet another cultural institution: the porn film. Centering on a character dubbed Lucky Pierre (Coover won’t divulge the working title, but he does give me that much), the book will comprise nine novella-length sections, “representing nine reels, and nine filmmakers.”

While we’re on the subject of titillation, I have to ask the author of The Public Burning — in which Richard Nixon trysts on the death-house floor with condemned spy Ethel Rosenberg, before being sodomized by the ghostly national mascot Uncle Sam — what he makes of Washington’s annus horribilis. Not surprisingly, Coover considers the situation more ludicrous than anything in his own fiction. “It’s pathetic, a case of Congress dropping its pants in front of the public, in front of the world. It’s silly, it’s funny.” Coover doesn’t rule out the possibility that the events in question may one day engage his own imaginative impulse, but not in the foreseeable future. “I think you have to let these things settle into the context of the time before you can manage them.”

Mark Haddon Q&A

In summer 2006, I did an e-mail interview with Mark Haddon, whose second novel, A Spot of Bother (the follow-up to the massive hit A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), was coming out that fall. My questions were strictly straightforward, but he was generous with his responses. Since this was for a Chatelaine front-of-book piece, said responses were then broken into tiny shards, two or three of which were picked up for publication. But here it all is in full.

After the huge success of Curious Incident, did you feel any pressure – from publishers or from yourself – when writing your second novel?

Obviously I felt some pressure after Curious Incident spread round the globe like a benign plague. Thankfully, however, it all came from me (my agent and publishers were blissfully unpushy). And that pressure was less a pressure to write an equally successful book, but to understand precisely why Curious had been so successful in the first place. It was a very peculiar novel. Consequently, unlike most novelists, I couldn’t simply write another book in the same genre, or the same voice, or with the same setting. But I did want to carry over something from one novel to the next. And I knew that once I had solved this puzzle half the job would be done.

In the end I decided that what made Curious work so well was a quality of empathy, a kindness, an interest in other human beings, not in spite of their failings, but because of them. And it is this, I think, which connects Curious Incident and A Spot of Bother. As Dan Franklin, my editor in London, said after reading the new novel, it’s like being in a different car going to a different destination, but you know that the same driver is at the wheel.

Because Curious Incident was such an unusual, one-of-a-kind novel, do you feel there’s more pressure with the second novel to establish “what kind of novelist” you are or anything like that?

It took me a long time to admit that Curious Incident was a good novel (it’s fantastic having written a bestseller but it’s hard to silence that nagging, doubtful voice which keeps asking whether you’ve written something that’s simply entertaining and easy to read). There’s a world of difference, however, between writing a good novel and being a good novelist. I’d love people to read A Spot of Bother and think I’ve managed to cross that divide.

You’ve said Curious Incident began with the image of the dead dog. What was the starting point for A Spot of Bother?

Actually, it’s not strictly true that Curious Incident began with the image of the dead dog. It began with many things coming together, as all half-decent novels do. The image of the dead dog was simply one of those things. It also happened to be the pithiest and funniest answer to a question I was asked several hundred times. And the one people remember most clearly.

As for A Spot of Bother, well, I wanted to write about nervous breakdown, I wanted to write about older people having sex, I was bored of reading novels in which gay men have perfect dress sense and thrillingly promiscuous lives, I liked the idea of writing in a way that was quite complex but seemed utterly artless....

From there, how quickly did you realize you wanted to write about various members of a family?

It was Donna Tartt, I think, who talked about novelists writing for a single voice, then writing for a group of voices and moving towards writing for the whole orchestra. Curious Incident was a piece for a solo instrument. A Spot of Bother is a quartet. Maybe the next novel will be a concerto.

Which character did you feel closest to as you were writing? Which did you feel least close to? (Or did you not think in those terms?)

I began with George’s story and initially I felt closest to him. But as the novel progressed I realised that I had to give equal weight to all four members of the family. And that it would only work once I had fallen in love with all of them.

George’s bout of mental illness is one of the major engines of the novel.What attracts you to that as a subject?

Show me the novelist who is not interested in the failings of the human mind.... We all spend a great deal of time in our own company, lying on the sofa thinking about what is going through our heads, and what might be going through other people’s heads. I’d go so far as to say that you can’t write a literary novel with being slightly obsessed with the way the mind works. And like all complicated machines, it’s only when it breaks down that you really begin to understand how it operates.

You’ve written children’s books, and Curious Incident was marketed to both adult and young-adult readers. Was there anything particularly liberating – or particularly challenging – about writing your first novel aimed solely at adults?

No, is the short answer, for the simple reason that when I wrote Curious Incident I thought I was writing for adults. The (rather brilliant) marketing strategy was something dreamed up afterwards by my agent and publisher. On the other hand, I am secretly looking forward to the fact that some fans of Curious will be, let’s say, “challenged” by some of the material in A Spot of Bother. I think all good art is slightly disturbing as well as entertaining.

Both your novels mix comic set pieces with dramatic, serious moments, to great success. Is that the kind of approach you most enjoy as a reader, too?

To be honest, I usually steer well clear of novels described as “comic.” “Experimental,” “dark,” “difficult,” those are the words that I find tempting on a flyleaf. I’ve just started reading The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, and I’ve recently finished reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte (a novel which doesn’t really get going till, ooh, about page 250).

Though I guess you could describe my favourite novels (Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, Bleak House...) as comic in the broader sense of the word. None of them are going to make anyone laugh out loud, but they are imbued with a profound generosity and good humour. All of them are aware of the cruelty and harshness of the world but they never allow themselves to be poisoned by those qualities.