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.

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.

Truthout Reprints My Tribute To Gore Vidal

Truthout, the popular news and politics website, has reprinted my eulogizing tribute to Gore Vidal. The essay – “The Love of Light: Gore Vidal, 1925 – 2012” – was originally published on PopMatters.

Gore Vidal, more than any other writer, influenced me to become a writer. As I make clear in the essay, I entered the life of writing with the firm belief that I would never be as good as Vidal, but that I could spend my life trying. Nearly ten years later, I’m still trying, and I still believe that such an effort is one of nobility and integrity.

Readers of Gore Vidal know that his talent and intelligence extended far beyond political analysis. In my essay, I spend a great deal of time talking about his most inventive novels – many of which had little or no political implications. Vidal is, however, for better and for worse, most famous as a historian and social critic.

In the weeks since his death, I’ve found myself longing for Vidal’s brilliant, tough, and funny voice. I’d like to hear him turn his weaponry of wit and wisdom against the insanity of the current Presidential election, and I’d like to hear his insights – memorable and provocative to be sure – on the visible decline and decay of American civilization that he predicted throughout his career.

PopMatters has a smart audience drawn to its cultural commentary. I’m grateful for my post as PopMatters columnist, but I am also glad that Truthout – a website dedicated solely to politics – has reprinted the essay. I hope that the essay will encourage the Truthout audience to take accurate measure of the loss American political culture suffers in the absence of Gore Vidal.

The title of my essay, “The Love of Light,” comes from his extraordinary historical novel Julian:

“The spirit of what we were has fled. With Julian, the light went, and now nothing remains but to let the darkness come, and hope for a new sun and another day, born of time’s mystery and man’s love of light.”


I Interview Best Selling Author and Noir Master James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke is one of the best writers in America, and one of the true masters of the crime novel. His stories about homicide detective and recovering alcoholic Dave Robicheaux, set in New Orleans and New Iberia, along with his books about Texas Sheriff Hackberry Holland, effortlessly weave noir, mysticism, and politics to present a panoramic view of the American flesh and the human spirit. The genre in which he casts his seductive spell may be crime, but his masterful prose and penetrating insight elevate his work far beyond any genre, making him a literary treasure.

I discovered James Lee Burke after watching the film In The Electric Mist, starring Tommy Lee Jones as Dave Robicheaux, and based on Burke’s novel, In The Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead. Within days, I was reading Burke’s books, and since then, I’ve devoured much of his bibliography. I’ve also enjoyed listening to a few of the books on CD. The narration of Will Patton, who has starred in such movies as The Client, The Postman, and Brooklyn’s Finest, makes Burke’s soaring prose seem as if it was written for the stage, and not the page.

I recently had the pleasure and privilege of talking on the phone with Burke for an hour and twenty minutes. Writers often acquire the reputation of being reclusive, inhospitable, and cantankerous. Burke, however, was a largehearted gentleman. Our conversation ran well over the thirty minutes arranged by his publisher, and much of that was due to his genuine interest in my interpretation of his work and my ideas regarding its dominant themes. The final twenty minutes of our discussion involved a role reversal in which he asked me questions about my work and my life.

Burke’s work is important, because it is high quality literature. Excellence and greatness provide their own justification. Anyone who reads the soul-stirring, thought-provoking, and heart-pounding stories of Burke will intuitively understand how he fulfills the calling of the artist and strengthens his medium.

There is another component of importance to Burke’s novels, however, and it centers on the unique vision of life – especially American life – he brings to bear on modernity. The American Empire is collapsing, and the American economy is crashing. Burke surveys his surroundings, and righteously responds with a Leftist Christianity that, somehow without paradox, blends realism with mysticism. His voice is one calling for justice in the face of widespread exploitation of the poor, the environment, and weak by the powerful forces of greed, cruelty, and iniquity.

The Los Angeles Review of Books – a fine literary publication – allowed Burke and me to explore his career, philosophy, and vision of America by taking a journey into what I call the “noir mystic.” Asking Burke good questions was easy. Reading his work sharpens the mind. Burke’s answers make the interview, titled “Into The Noir Mystic: A Conversation about Injustice, Evil, and Redemption with James Lee Burke”, essential reading. In addition to his own work, we discuss how the U.S. government – at the state and federal levels – has become a distributor of vice, war, Christianity, the increasingly hostile character of American life, and the loss of “Edenic America.”