Kerry Howley’s “Thrown” is the most fun I’ve had reading in a while.
And so, right, I’m writing a little essay. But I’ve gotta warn you in advance: the essay is going to be bad. I’m sloppily dashing it together – the whole reason for this essay to exist is so that I’d have an excuse to put in that sentence about her book being great and tell you that you ought to read it too.
From her book:
Inside the room the lights were dim but for a great spotlight lofted above an octagonal dais, lined on all sides with a six-foot chain-link fence. A hundred male Iowans gathered in the dark on benches. Through the fence I saw that one man was beneath another like a mechanic under a truck, and the man on top had a full set of angel’s wings tattooed down the length of his back. Inked feathers rippled as he punched the face of the man lodged under his stomach. A red stream dribbled down the other man’s forehead, onto the canvas, where their conjoined writhings smeared the blood like the stroke of a brush. Seconds later a single hand fluttered out from beneath the wing. His fingertips touched the canvas with extreme delicacy, as if to tap a bell and summon a concierge. There was no one to inform me that this meant he had given up, so I assumed some sort of grotesque exhibition had merely run its course.
“I suppose this gives us a new perspective on angels,” I remarked to my nearest, cologne-soaked neighbor, “or perhaps a very old perspective, given their not unthreatening depiction in the Old Testament.” He stared at me and walked off, though I still think the point astute. When he returned, it was to a different part of the bench.
That last sentence caught me and reeled me in. I really like the conceit of author as jerk. Howley injects herself – or at least a person in seemingly similar circumstances with a very similar name – into the ostensibly nonfictional narrative, and she makes herself look bad so well.
Like, sure, Hunter S. Thompson makes himself look bad sometimes; here’s a passage from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:”
“Where’s the ether?” said my attorney. “This mescaline isn’t working.”
I gave him the key to the trunk while I lit up the hash pipe. He came back with the ether-bottle, un-capped it, then poured some into a kleenex and mashed it under his nose, breathing heavily. I soaked another kleenex and fouled my own nose. The smell was overwhelming, even with the top down. Soon we were staggering up the stairs towards the entrance, laughing stupidly and dragging each other along, like drunks.
This is the main advantage of ether: it makes you behave like the village drunkard is some early Irish novel… total loss of all basic motor skills: blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue–severance of all connection between the body and the brain. Which is interesting, because the brain continues to function more or less normally… you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can’t control it.
You approach the turnstiles leading into the Circus-Circus and you know that when you get there, you have to give the man two dollars or he won’t let you inside… but when you get there, everything goes wrong: you misjudge the distance to the turnstile and slam against it, bounce off and grab hold of an old woman to keep from falling, some angry Rotarian shoves you and you think: What’s happening here? What’s going on? Then you hear yourself mumbling: “Dogs fucked the Pope, no fault of mine. Watch out!… Why money? My name is Brinks; I was born… born? Get sheep over side… women and children to armored car… orders from Captain Zeep.”
Ah, devil ether–a total body drug. The mind recoils in horror, unable to communicate with the spinal column. The hands flap crazily, unable to get money out of the pocket… garbled laughter and hissing from the mouth… always smiling.
Ether is the perfect drug for Las Vegas. In this town they love a drunk. Fresh meat. So they put us through the turnstiles and turned us loose inside.
…but when Thompson does it, to me it still feels like he’s trying to look cool at the same time. Like, yeah, he sometimes acts like a jerk, but the above passage seems like the sort of story somebody could tell at a party while trying to seem cool. Whereas Howley presents herself with an earnestness that’s distinctly un-cool, in a way that seems almost reminiscent of the mentorship speech given by Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous.”
And, sure, other authors writing this type of nonfiction also work the author as jerk angle. There’s David Foster Wallace watching “Jurassic Park” so that he won’t have to leave his room and interact with the other passengers on a cruise ship. Or Geoff Dyer, petulantly staying inside a somewhat less nice room in his “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It”:
I had eaten — more accurately not eaten — foul food before, in Romania, for example, but in Romania there was at least the option — obligation, practically — of getting blind drunk. Here I was in a state of ultra-high alertness and there was no prospect of oblivion. Full of nutrition-free bread, I signed for the non-meal and returned to my room. Now that dinner, the highlight of the day, was over, my room seemed grimmer than ever. The air-conditioning was making a fearsome racket even though I had turned it off earlier in the evening. After fiddling with the thermostat for ten minutes I came to the conclusion that it was impossible to turn off the air-conditioning. I called reception and eventually someone came up to fix the thermostat. His approach was nothing if not direct. Having examined the thermostat for a few moments, he simply tore it out of the wall. It was easy to see why the country relied so heavily on foreigners to carry out work in telecommunications. The thermostat, however, was nothing if not resilient: although it was hanging from the wall by only a few wires, the air-conditioning continued to thump and clatter. The man used the phone, calling, evidently, for back-up. Within ten minutes a colleague arrived, equipped with a stepladder. The first man duly mounted the steps and began taking panels out of the ceiling. My mood had improved somewhat because I was at least subjecting my hosts to considerable inconvenience. Then a panel crashed to the floor in a cloud of what I took to be asbestos dust. I didn’t care. The man on the steps fiddled with the exposed plumbing, and suddenly there was silence. The ceiling panels were replaced and, having lived up to their name, the maintenance men made their exit.
And, yeah, that’s nice writing… but dude still makes himself look good. I feel like Howley does a better job of letting go, making herself / her narrator look worse in order to make her book great. And it is great. Really, you should read it. Like, look, here’s more beautiful writing, still from just the first five pages – just look at these verbs!
For three long and bloody rounds I watched Sean play fat slobberknocker to another man’s catlike technical prowess. Jab after jab Sean ate, and with each precisely timed shot to his own mouth Sean’s smile grew, as if The Fire were carving that smile into him. All the while, watching, I had the oddest feeling of a cloudiness momentarily departing. It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses, such that thoughts could whip and whistle their way across my mind without the friction I’d come to experience as thought itself. I felt an immense affection for the spectacle before me, but it was as if the affection were not emanating from anywhere, because I had dissolved into a kind of mist and expanded to envelop the entire space that held these hundred men.
So, you should read her book. Go on, do it. You know you want to. All the cool kids are doing it.
UPDATE: I’m not sure how I managed to write an essay about creating a jerkish author figure for narrative nonfiction and yet left out Mark Twain. He was, obviously, a king. And though I don’t know enough history to be able to argue one way or the other whether he was a primogenitor of this style, he’s certainly a rarely surpassed practitioner. Here’s a golden nugget of authorial bad behavior from “A Tramp Abroad:”
About nine miles from St. Nicholas we crossed a bridge over the raging torrent of the Visp, and came to a log strip of flimsy fencing which was pretending to secure people from tumbling over a perpendicular wall forty feet high and into the river. Three children were approaching; one of them, a little girl, about eight years old, was running; when pretty close to us she stumbled and fell, and her feet shot under the rail of the fence and for a moment projected over the stream. It gave us a sharp shock, for we thought she was gone, sure, for the ground slanted steeply, and to save herself seemed a sheer impossibility; but she managed to scramble up, and ran by us laughing.
We went forward and examined the place and saw the long tracks which her feet had made in the dirt when they darted over the verge. If she had finished her trip she would have struck some big rocks in the edge of the water, and then the torrent would have snatched her downstream among the half-covered boulders and she would have been pounded to pulp in two minutes. We had come exceedingly near witnessing her death.
And now Harris’s contrary nature and inborn selfishness were strikingly manifested. He has no spirit of self-denial. He began straight off, and continued for an hour, to express his gratitude that the child was not destroyed. I never saw such a man. That was the kind of person he was; just so he was gratified, he never cared anything about anybody else. I had noticed that trait in him, over and over again. Often, of course, it was mere heedlessness, mere want of reflection. Doubtless this may have been the case in most instances, but it was not the less hard to bear on that account — after all, its bottom, its groundwork, was selfishness. There is no avoiding that conclusion. In the instance under consideration, I did think the indecency of running on in that way might occur to him; but no, the child was saved and he was glad, that was sufficient–he cared not a straw for my feelings, or my loss of such a literary plum, snatched from my very mouth at the instant it was ready to drop into it. His selfishness was sufficient to place his own gratification in being spared suffering clear before all concern for me, his friend. Apparently, he did not once reflect upon the valuable details which would have fallen like a windfall to me: fishing the child out — witnessing the surprise of the family and the stir the thing would have made among the peasants — then a Swiss funeral — then the roadside monument, to be paid for by us and have our names mentioned in it. And we should have gone into Baedeker and been immortal. I was silent. I was too much hurt to complain. If he could act so, and be so heedless and so frivolous at such a time, and actually seem to glory in it, after all I had done for him, I would have cut my hand off before I would let him see that I was wounded.