New Essay at the Federalist – War Stories: An Interview with David Mamet

It is nearly impossible for me to measure the influence that the work of David Mamet – one of America’s greatest writers – has had on my thinking, my ideas, and, I hope, my writing.

Needless to say, I was thrilled and honored to spend 90 minutes with the literary genius and giant on the phone. The Federalist has published the result of that conversation – an essay that ranks among my best work, and one that I am very proud to have written.

The essay, because of Mamet’s brilliance and wit, contains so many gems of insight that it really becomes required reading.

I am particularly happy with the essay, because it truly gets to the essence of Mamet’s philosophy and personality. We spend time discussing his greatest work – Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Edmond, The Verdict – along with his newest book, Three War Stories.

We also spend time on his political conversion from liberalism to libertarianism, which is similar and influential on my own same ideological travel route, and on his early life on the streets and in the theaters of Chicago.

It is my hope that the large swath of people who will continually find Mamet’s work worthy of study will use my interview and profile as a source of knowledge for many years.

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Interview with Mondo Film Podcast on the Norman Mailer Novel, An American Dream

I was happy to participate in an episode of the excellent, Mondo Film Podcast, on the Norman Mailer novel, An American Dream.

As a member of the Norman Mailer Society, I was flattered to receive an invitation to participate in a conversation on one of Mailer’s greatest novels. Listen to the entire program at the Mondo Film Podcast website.

I will also contribute to the next episode, which focuses on Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize winning work of literary journalism, The Executioner’s Song.

New Essay at The Daily Beast: Books to Transform Your Sad Life

In my new essay for the Daily Beast, I offer a syllabus for self-transformation. From my introduction to the book list:

As the New Year dawns, let’s admit that the American psyche is a dilapidated maze of funhouse mirrors that leads nowhere. It should not shock even the most credulous patriot that many people who spend their internal lives within this maze of narcissism and dysfunction have major problems. One in five Americans suffers from some kind of mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The New York Times recently reported that suicide rates are rising so rapidly and steadily that more Americans now die of suicide than in car accidents. In a turn that vindicates Aldous Huxley, one in ten Americans ingests their daily Soma supplement in the form of antidepressants.

Many Americans are like Soren Kierkegaard’s allegorical corpse who did not realize he was alive until the morning he woke up dead—aimlessly wandering around in a drug addled haze, indulging smart phone addiction, disconnected from reality and community, while wondering why they feel unhappy and unfulfilled.

To worsen their condition of alienation and dejection, many Americans, in an attempt to feel better, read books that manipulatively sell mindless optimism and pathological hope. The cult of positive thinking turns out one hit after another, both secular—The Secret—and Christian—Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel. The delusion that changing a life is as simple as believing it will change, and the poison that pretends God wants people who pray early and often to win the lottery, only raise expectations to unrealistic heights, and set desperate people up for a crushing fall with a crash landing.

Since Americans seem to love making New Years resolutions, now might be a sensible time for many to resolve to gain maturity and perspective in 2014. Such a process of self-education can and should begin with the close reading of books containing wisdom that will alleviate their anxiety, provide edifying purpose, and begin to transform their minds from circuses to cathedrals.

Check out my ten book recommendations, including Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Gore Vidal, American history books, sexual advice, and a “loafer’s manifesto”, at the Daily Beast.

New Essay at Splice Today: A Cozy Allegory in a Cozy Mystery

Tim Hall is a man with answers. He is a man with humor. He is a man with guts. He is a brilliant writer. He is a friend of mine.

I’ve written about his work before with an essay about his autobiographical novels and a review of his collaboration to create a web comic.

In my first essay for Splice Today, I review his new mystery novel, Dead Stock. Dead Stock is a book that will make any lucid reader laugh, but the book is so full of insight and inspiration, that in between belly laughs, it will hit you in the same region, provoking introspection and examination of the culture in which Dead Stock‘s unlikely hero – Bert Shambles – lives.

Dead Stock

New Essay at The Daily Beast – The Legend of Brown Dog: A Great American Hero Gets His Due

My favorite literary character is Brown Dog. Brown Dog is the libidinous trickster, the quiet hero, the ribald dreamer, and the aggressive life lover from the mind of one of America’s greatest writers, Jim Harrison.

Brown Dog manages to challenge the pedestrian pettiness, the boring moralism, the Puritanical asceticism, and the politically correct conventions of American culture. More importantly, he has fun, and he lives according to a code of compassion, while doing it.

I recently had the pleasure and privilege of writing about Brown Dog for the Daily Beast. The resultant essay is one of my personal favorites. I hope that readers who already admire the work of Jim Harrison find it insightful, and that readers just making an introduction to Harrison and Brown Dog use it as motivation to pick up the books.

As I write in the essay, “Any American in desperate need of rescue from long commutes, cable news, shop talk from a cubicle, dreary suburban sprawl, and the contrived sexuality of predictable pop culture, would do well to sit down with Jim Harrison’s Brown Dog, and meet a new friend who will graciously give him a tour of a wonderfully debauched and always inspired life of energy, mystery, and avidity.”

The tour can start here.

New Essay for The American Conservative: Are Video Games the New Novels?

In my recent essay for the American Conservative, “Are Video Games the New Novels?”, I answer with a resounding and unequivocal “no.”

The essay is largely a response to an article by Nick Gillespie in Time in which he praises video games as the most important art form of the 21st Century, and compares them favorably to the novels of Charles Dickens. Gillespie is a journalist and polemicist I greatly admire. His libertarian activism and advocacy with Reason magazine is of crucial importance in a political arena hosting a brawl between one wing that wants to rob America’s liberty and another wing that wants to revoke its freedoms.

His argument in support of grown men and women wastefully idling their hours on toys designed for children is dreadfully unconvincing, however.

beavisandbutthead-volume4-08In my essay, I argue that video games are damning evidence of how American culture has undergone a process of juvenilization (it has become difficult to find real adults), which I also wrote about for Front Porch Republic and True/Slant, and I rely on Marshall McLuhan to explain that electronic games, despite their content, are bad for the attention span and inferior to literature. “The medium is the message,” as the old dog put it a long time ago.

On an interesting side note, followers of my work are well aware that I tackle many controversial political, religious, and cultural issues, but never do I attract scorn equal to that of the adult video game player. The gamers come out of their rooms to attack anyone who will question their favorite hobby. It often seems to me that they protest too much.

The Atlantic Runs My Interview with Historian and Cultural Critic Morris Berman

Morris Berman is a starry eyed realist whose message is not for the faint of intellect or hardhearted. He is an important and wise historian whose trilogy of books on the decline of America (The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed) takes the unpopular, but serious and persuasive view that the American economy and empire are in freefall, with no hope for recovery.

Followers of my work should remember that I wrote an extensive review of Berman’s trilogy on America that Truthout published under the headline, “America: What Happened?”

I make the argument in that essay, as I do in my introduction of my new interview with Berman – “How America’s Culture of Hustling is Dark and Empty”, that his work is of profound, and also, because of his tough, challenging, and realistic message, singular importance.

I recently had the opportunity to meet Morris and share a few drinks with him in a quiet, Grand Rapids, Michigan bar. It delighted me to discover that his sense of humor, easygoing camaraderie, and generous disposition, makes him more likable, and his work, more appealing.

Soren Kierkegaard summarized the consequences of the unexamined life by telling the story of a man who never realized he was alive until he woke up dead. Berman worries that many Americans find themselves in the position of Kierkegaard’s corpse. He also admits that he was once there – caught in a tedium of pursuits (a bad marriage, the hustle for tenure) he now calls “unnecessary,” “wasteful”, and “stupid.”

In Berman’s new book – Spinning Straw Into Gold – he examines his own life, and ruminates on what finally provided his life with meaning, purpose, and peace. He leads by example, and through his personal and profound rumination on his own life, he gives readers challenge and inspiration to find the meaning of their own lives.

It would be wrong to call Spinning Straw Into Gold “self-help”, except only to say that it reinvents the self-help genre. It liberates it from the hollow clichés and boring platitudes of the Joel Osteen or Rhonda Byrne bestseller, and returns it to the enlivening, enlightening, and enchanting world of philosophy.

I interview Berman on the new book for The Atlantic.

ssigIf you take a moment to read the comments after the interview, you’ll treat yourself to a great display of existential meltdown. In the interview, Berman states that most Americans are “afraid, angry, and desperate.” American commenters, in an attempt to refute Berman’s analysis, then proceed to unleash a torrent of invective, vitriol, and mean spirited attack on the author, about whom they know they little.

One particular strain of comments, I feel, deserves a moment under the spotlight, if only to embarrass and humiliate those responsible for it.

Many readers attempt to rebuke and ridicule Berman and his argument about the emptiness of American culture, and the search for meaning and authenticity, by making the claim that his “privilege” nullifies his work. Here is an example of such brain dead reasoning:

“Interesting perspective for the single mother to mull while in line at Walmart. Maybe once she ontologically knows herself she can quit at least one of her part time jobs to find something which enchants her.”

First, Berman is not rich, but he is successful. Success demands respect, not condemnation. Second, and more important, taking this argument to its logical endpoint would require the dismissal of all philosophy. Philosophers always come from a certain place of “privilege”, because without it, they would not have the time, energy or ability to lecture, write, and contemplate the world.

Wasn’t Socrates just rambling about esoteric bullshit while there were slaves struggling to survive in Greece? Yet, no one would respond to the Socratic method or Socratic intellectualism with the sanctimony of  “Interesting perspective for the slave to mull while building the monuments.”

Identity politics and insulting people for their success are two contemporary distractions from the larger questions of American identity, meaning in an increasingly meaningless culture, and authenticity in a artificial society. These are the questions Berman tackles in his new book, and the questions we consider in our conversation.

New Essay at The Daily Beast – “Where’s The Faith? Try Crime Novels”

In the fall, at the University of St. Francis, I will teach a course on crime literature and film noir. Too long relegated to the ghetto of “genre”, noir actually possesses deep and profound insights into human nature. Novelist James Lee Burke, the greatest contemporary practitioner of noir, said in an interview I conducted with him that he uses the word “noir” to capture a “Darwinian world in which all the parameters that we convince ourselves we obey and to which we conform have no existence at all.”

In my new essay for The Daily Beast, “Where’s The Faith? Try Crime Novels”, I write that “Crime and noir have always told the story of people who decide to cross an invisible but palpable moral line. It then measures the wreckage—physical, emotional, and spiritual—that results from the voluntary crossing over into another ethical universe—a colder, tougher, and uglier universe. These same questions haunt the tales of the Bible and the lives of the saints.”

OUT OF THE PAST / BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGHOne of my many intellectual obsessions is noir. Philosophically and stylistically it manages to capture the depths (depravity, weakness to temptation, lust for power, greed, and sex) and heights (heroism, enforcement of moral codes) of human nature through its tough themes and Jungian interplay of shadow and light.

In “Where’s The Faith?” I I weigh in on the ongoing literary discussion of whether or not God is dead in contemporary American literature. I submit that the most engaging and compelling themes of religion, spirituality, and morality are to be found in crime literature, especially that of Walter Mosley, Michael Connelly, and above all, James Lee Burke. The essay contains a quote from Burke that I obtained in an email interview for the article, and it offers new perspective on a smoldering literary debate.

New Feature at The Daily Beast – “The Jesus Novels”

James Lee Burke said when I interviewed him, “Find a metaphysical story you like and stick with it.” I like the story of Jesus and I’m sticking with it. As much as it sustains, empowers, and inspires me, I often find fault with the Biblical rendering of the narrative. Norman Mailer had the same criticism, claiming that the story of the Christian Messiah simultaneously living as God and man was indeed the “greatest story ever told”, but that it was not told in the “greatest way.” Mailer’s Jesus novel, The Gospel According to the Son, in which Jesus tells his story in the first person is a book that I turn to more than the Synoptic Gospels. It is a book of mystery, majesty, and magic.

My newest feature for the Daily Beast is a short run down of some of the best and most interesting Jesus novels. I offer barely more than summary of each book, but the article gives a good introduction to readers looking to read the Jesus story as shaped by the delicate hand of the novelist. In addition to Mailer, I give Fulton J. Sheen, Anne Rice, and Nikos Kazantzakis the most praise. Deepak Chopra is not much of a novelist, but I also compliment his surprising, insightful, and unconventional effort of speculation on Jesus’ teenage years and twenties.

Jesus NovelsChristians looking for a reminder of the Jesus story’s power will find any of these novels a good place to start, and nonbelievers will also enjoy them. As I point out in the article, the Jesus novels provide “artistic means of accessing a tale containing all of the most effective tools of drama—pity, terror, sadness, heroism, tragedy, and redemption.”

New Essay on the Daily Beast – “David Foster Wallace: The Postmodern Traditionalist”

David Foster Wallace has received such deserved praise as “genius” and “the most important writer of his generation.” He and his work have been the subject of several books, and an assortment of critics, scholars, and journalists have spilled ink and dedicated digital pixels to scrutinizing, analyzing, and criticizing his work. Given the abundance of attention that the late writer regularly receives, I am often surprised that many people seem to miss one of the most important points of his work.

I discovered David Foster Wallace through his collection of essays, Consider The Lobster. The opening essay – “Big Red Son” – features David Foster Wallace taking readers through a tour of the industry of pornography – “adult entertainment” as insiders call it. Wallace attends a convention for porn fans to meet starlets in Las Vegas, interviews Max Hardcore – one of the most vile pornographers who specialized in the simulated rape of young women made to appear underage before he was sentenced to prison – and acts as correspondent at the AVN Awards – the Oscars for porn. After reading it multiple times and listening to Wallace’s narration on the audiobook a few times, I concluded that it is the greatest work of literary journalism ever written, and possibly the best essay ever written.

Wallace’s nonfiction taught me a new way to write about experience – a way that is vibrant, alive, and personable, but also intellectually tough, complicated, and brave. He also showed me how to be funny without being silly, and without being insulting.

Years after reading Consider The Lobster, I’ve devoured all of his work – fiction and nonfiction alike – including the massive masterpiece Infinite Jest. His nonfiction, however, is the subject of my new essay at the Daily Beast. Focusing on his soon-to-be-released collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, I purport the original theory that Wallace was a traditionalist in postmodern drag. He donned the costume of a postmodernist to gain entry into a world of liberal, sophisticated urbanites, and once inside the club, he distributed his traditionalist message of limits, loyalty to place, and elevation of human scale community. He prioritized spiritual values above marketplace principles, and he opposed the detached irony, libertine lifestyle, and secular cynicism of much of his generation. His nonfiction provided revelatory clues into the mysteries of his fiction. Realizing that his nonfiction bears philosophical resemblance to Christopher Lasch, Jimmy Carter, and G.K. Chesterton makes it much easier to understand why, for example, the hero of his last novel The Pale King is a Jesuit Priest who teaches tax law at Depaul University.

My essay is highly compromised. The original draft was about twice the length, but I am glad that I had the opportunity to promulgate my theory for an outlet as widely read and widely watched as the Daily Beast.

Many critics seem to deliberately miss what Wallace was saying by myopically focusing on how he was saying it. This is why so many reviewers were obsessed with Wallace as a humorist. It’s easier to laugh at the jokes – and the jokes were great – than to wrestle with the meaning.

In two essays, the first for PopMatters and now the second for the Daily Beast, I’ve tried to wrestle with the meaning of Wallace’s work. It is a challenge that is intimidating and threatening, but deeply important.