A German psychiatrist is trying to shut comic books down. He’s enlisting senators. There’s a publisher turncoat testifying against the other publishers in exchange for keeping himself out of jail. Two comic artists talk about taking a hit out on the “Kraut shrink” (Dr. Wertham, based on the real life Dr. Wertham). There’s a ball-busting wife, a mail-order bride, an orphaned black boy being raised by his older brother who is a prostitute even though he has a degree because this is the early ’50s in New York City and no one will hire him to teach. And somehow all these people are connected. You’ll see how. My god, it’s a PLOT! A lazy afternoon lying on the carpet in the sunshine just turning pages because you have to find out what happens next, and next, and next kind of plot.
That is Induction of the Sycophant by Tiger Moody (Kicks Books). Also thrilling me darkly is Conservatory Of Death by Hank Kirton (Antique Children Books). An overweight former fetish porn actress with a high baby voice and the father of her child (based on the story of Doug Clark and Carol Bundy, better known as “The Sunset Strip Killers”) decide together matter-of-factly to torture prostitutes and sell the videotapes of it. An elderly, delirious patient says disturbing things to her hospice caregiver that her husband tries to hush up, but upon investigation, the information turns out to be true. The caregiver’s brother produces horror/gore compilations. A seer in the desert predicts something gruesome. And slowly, disastrously, all THESE people intersect.
I forgot how very much I like unlikeable people in literature. I guess the hero of Induction is the pathetic, misunderstood, brilliant cartoonist, chronic eater Jack Coal. When he walks in on his wife cheating on him, he blames himself—for having brought her to this city: “a cesspool in cement, lice, blood, rape, rust, Communists, decay, maggots, vomit, tumors, stench, Jews, nausea, warts, corruption, disease, niggers, spics, wops, and rats.” (Forgot how much I like unlikeable places, too!) Almost everyone in Induction is racist and sexist because it’s set in the early 1950s, and almost everyone WAS. (I’m sure we are now, too, in our own way that we can’t see because we’re inside it.) In Kirton’s short stories collected in Bleak Holiday, there’s so much rape and incest and advantage taken—because there IS. I don’t get the feeling with Moody and Kirton I do reading Jim Goad, that the aim is to shock and titillate you. I feel like these characters say and do this stuff because that’s who they are, and Moody and Kirton just let them have their way with their own lives; they just follow and watch and report back without comment.
The text of Induction, oddly, is center-spaced. I asked Tiger why and he said, “The indenting was just something I did while typing up the story as a constant self-reminder that I was writing what is essentially a fairytale. The centered text kind of struck me as having a children’s book feel to it.”
I said, “But it really did happen. Senate hearings to blame comics for juvenile delinquency and homosexuality and to ban much of them.”
He said his book “does not purport to tell the truth about anybody (nor anything) in particular. There isn’t even a moral to the story, aside from perhaps that our general thoughts (as a nation) regarding morality itself are somewhat naive and/or shabby.”
When he said that, it made an explosion in my brain. I had forgotten that what we write is essentially a fairytale. I had forgotten that authors are supposed to get out of the way of the story and say what is, not demand what should be. Journalists, too. And scientists, and rabbis, and bloggers, and lovers whispering to each other. None of us are RIGHT; nothing we say is the correct thing no matter how many Likes and Shares it gets; we’re all telling fairytales. Stories is how humans communicate.
And it seems like writers have all become straight-ahead memoirists, and so we REALLY think our story is what happened, not a story, and the character of ourself in the story is a real person. (At least, I did, and I’m solipsistic.) Hank Kirton does this cool thing where, in some of his stories, he names the protagonist Hank Kirton, but there’s no way it could really be him—like, Hank Kirton dies, or he’s employed in painting portraits on live hornet hives and gets stung at least a dozen times a day, even in the eyes, and then goes back to work again tomorrow. In other stories, he claims someone else wrote it. Under the title are the words “by so-and-so,” some made-up author. In Induction, a rat narrates a chapter. He scampers off with the main character’s suicide note to line the nest and discovers his mate eating the babies (I’ve walked in on that scene more than once when I bred gerbils… it’s harsh)… what a way to tell us the suicide note.
My criteria with writing used to be easy: I had to make myself laugh. That’s all. I forgot that. Things started feeling urgent. I got strident. I thought I had to gather my people, to save and free them. Assuming they need saving, need freeing. That’s not very respectful. People need to laugh, that may be all they need. After you’ve had a good laugh, anything looks more possible. In Bleak Holiday, a man annoys his wife by answering her question about what his plans are by saying “plans.” Turns out he’s drawing up plans for new construction, so he really is planning plans, but somehow the joke is not at all funny to his wife. Then he goes out to the office, which is a stable, to talk with his best friend, who is a horse named Ed, who is wearing glasses and reading The Wall Street Journal. And that’s it. That’s the whole story. Now Kirton has annoyed US with his stupid joke. I paid 15 bucks for this book! Yes, that was a whole story just to tell a stupid joke. That stupid joke saved my soul. You DIE a little bit without enough stupid stuff that goes nowhere. My spirit was withering, and I don’t even notice. These three daring and hideous books were champagne up my nose.