Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Book Review "The Enchanters Vs. Sprawlsburg Springs"

Yep, even the title of the book has a halfassed, halfbaked, 100% unfunny joke in there, a soft fumbling prod masquerading under the context of a sharp jab. The eponymous Florida neighborhood is given the fictional title of 'Sprawlburg'* in 'writer' Brian Costello's toothless attempt at raging against, and lampooning the mediocrity of American suburban cookie cutter culture. It's ironic, because his book is just as benign, and predictable as any committee designed corporate slice of pap. I'd say it's the literary equivalent of some quickly erected boring suburban house, with nothing special to distinguish it from hundreds of thousands of others in American's never-ending sprawl. But building a house, even a lousy one, is an accomplishment. But writing a novel that is this bad? No dice, slick. Take a clichés plot, obvious observations, poorly rendered characters, bad jokes, top it off with some badly written romance, some repetitive wanna-be Steadman illustrations to fill some space, a hearty dose of masturbatory back slapping, a giant dose of childish sentimentality, and you're in the neighborhood of just what you're getting into if you make the grievous mistake of opening this book's cover. You know that box in 'Hellrasier', when you open it, and a thousand hooks come out and tear you apart while demon's that specialize in torture come out and take you into realms of pain that no mortal has ever had to experience? Well, you're better off opening that box then this book. It's far more pleasant.

In elementary school, I was told the title is supposed to tell the story of the book. We all (except possibly, Costello) know that's not necessarily true, but in this case, it's 100% true. There's a weak joke in the weak title of a weak book that you could easily extrapolate to be a one phrase telling of a weak story with weak, overdone themes. You'd think he would put a little more thought into the title of his debut, especially considering, by his own admission, that it took him "ten years" (page 192, part of his name dropping, self aggrandizing afterward) to write. Let's see, ten whole years? 3,650 days? To write a book, that including the liberal use of (bad) illustrations, and a two page afterward, is still only 193 pages long? So, it took him, 18.9 fucking days to write each page? So, this passage, on page 38:

The Blue, white-lettered sign announcing the entrance to the city limits came into view, a sign that should have read:


...but in a time-honored tradition, the newest generations of civic-minded prankster teenage geniuses changed it with blue spray paint so it always read:


That takes up about a quarter of the page, took 4.7 days to write? That joke took days to craft? To think this guy once accused me of being someone with nothing to do.

Pull up a chair and take a long hard look at some of the store names Costello's got under his sleeve:

Deep Dark Tan World
Poppyseed Bagel World
French Cafe Oui! Oui! World
Asbestos Removal World
Thin Crust Pizza World
Tattoo World
All-American Bigass Butterburger World
Canadian Meat Pie World
Liquor Time World
Compact Disc World
Air Filter World
Frozen Fishstick World
Worldly Pancake World
Cockring World
Australian Map World
Good Time America Family Restaurant World
Bitchin' Car Stereo World
Giganto Right Wing Video Chain World
Mr. Baked Potato World
Riboflaving Vitamin World
Roast Beef Au Jus World
Yer Basic Chicago Style Pizza World
The Wisconsin Universe of Cheese Castle World
Planet Clitpierce World
Gong Happiness China World
El Huevo Loco Costa Rican World
Mountain Oyster King World
Malibu Beach Surf n' Turf World
Iowa Hot Buttered Corncob World
Yee-Haw Wyoming Big Black Angus Rump Roast World
Nuthin But Cranberry Sauce World
Loud Willie's BBQ and Blues World

or where the climatic, 'Day Of The Locust' styled climax, only without anything interesting, cathartic, plausible, or amusing occurring, takes place: Latent Republican Hipster Music Club World.

What a side splitter, eh? I can picture the author, surrounded by dog eared copies of Hunter S. Thompson, Bukowski, Bangs and Kerouc books that you should get out of your system before you hit your twenties, smiling inwardly at his wit. Imagine how horrible that scene would be to watch. Now imagine how it is to read. It's even worse. There's nothing a matter with that kind of humor. The Simpsons are great at creating fake store names, riffing on the ever smaller gap betwixt complete absurdity and the manufactured reality, but then, The Simpsons has dozens of talented writers. 'The Enchanters' doesn't even have one. Furthermore, it doesn't even remain consistent, Sprawlburg is supposed to be an uptight, tightass town chock full of conservatives and rednecks, and the whole town goes into a world class tizzy over one punk band, but they still have retail establishments that specialize in piercing clits and selling cockrings, and cockrings only. So, rather then keep a relative consistency to the book, the writer goes for a horrible joke. This is fiction grounded in reality, so any Meltzer Dada spew as an alibi for some really poor humor isn't going to fly with me. Even the narrator, who goes by the name of Shaquille Callanhan, works as a squid cutter at an establishment called "Cleveland Steamerz Good Time Bar and Grille World". Get it? A Cleveland Steamer, for those of you who do not know, is when one party defecates on the chest of another, then sits down, and rocks back and forth on the excrement. Pretty funny in itself, right? That's a four alarm knee slapper, and if you don't think so, you must be uptight or something. in fact, to use a phrase straight from the book "I don't even know what to do with you", of course, the fact that the PLACE where he WORKS, has the SAME NAME, well, that my friends, that's comedy.

Full disclosure time, ladies/gents/boys/girls - I've had a run in with Costello before. Not in person, mind you, (I have standards), although I did see his 'band', which sounded like the type of generic hardrock masquerading as punk I've been putting up with, sitting through waiting to finish, or diligently putting in my 'sell' pile since I started listening to the music in the first place. Paying lip service to the Germs and Electric Eels, while wearing your best '77 styled threads, appropriating some kind of attitude, and then playing the same generic four chord snooze, doesn't make you especially interesting. Anyway, I made a mention in this here blog, saying that I found his band to be 'mediocre'. For his band, that’s a compliment. A few days later I got a lengthy, indignant email, from the writer of this very book, and some upset comments from Mister Costello on Christmas day, a few years ago, some of which I responded to. Much of his anger, besides being quite upset over his nasty diaper rash, was over my negativity regarding rock bands. Occasionally, I would read one of badly written, ego saturated columns online at Terminal Boredom, and I once got an email, describing another, alleged hissy fit the writer had when someone heckled him onstage at his talkshow. Which made this excerpt of pages 84-86, which, by my calculations, must have taken roughly twenty days to write, apropos:

God, they were awful. Bland 1990s self-absorbed go-nowhere noodlings, where everything's so self-conscious and arty, so "pretty picture," so cold and prefabricated. Like everything else about our town, we'd wonder if we were the only ones who saw it, because if you stripped away the hoo-haw, there was nothing but pretentious bullshit hipster types were too dumb to suss out. [Note: Pot? Kettle?]
Reneee threw her wine glass at the diminutive guitarist's feet. It shattered louder then the music they played. "This band's [italics] terrible."
"Yepper." I threw my wine, then a couple other drinks from a nearby table. They arced beautifully and splashed into the eunuchy lead singer's pensive face. Nobody in the audience had the guts to stand up to us, because we were The Enchanters, and we had an unearned reputation as total psychopaths.
After sitting through half of their boring set just wanting to go to sleep, I daintily cursed at the band.
"You lousy limpdick asshole fucks!" I screamed, picking up food from tables and hurling chicken wings, shrimp, lemon wedges, potato wedges, everything landing on stage or on the performers, who didn't respond to our attacks, trying to remain above the fray while looking around wishing somebody, anybody, would deal with us. This reaction to us just made sense after drinking two bottles of wine each.
"You guys stink! Go back to Chicago!" Renee screamed. I made to throw a chili dog at the showoffy overly syncopated drummer, armed arched back like Joe Montana, but was sacked and grabbed, and my throwing arm was forced behind my back. Some goon bouncer with chocolate pudding ring facial hair threw me out, promptly followed by Renee, who landed next to me on the sidewalk, and inside, we could hear, for the first time, a gut reaction: applause.
"It's about time you showed some humanity, you fools!" Renee yelled inside, standing up and extending a hand to pull me up.
"I was only dancing," I slurred, as I rose to my feet. "Why would they kick us out?"
"Oh, don't worry about them," Renee said as we walked to where we parked the van. "But my neck is sore." She looked up to the sky like a soldier waiting for the freedom bird that's gonna take him back to his hometown. "Hint. Hint."
I laughed and rubbed her neck as we walked down Apple Avenue, past all the lame dance clubs and theme bars blaring their synthetic house noise out onto the street, through and past the armies of black-silk-shirt-wearing, gel-headed club dudes and their scantily clad silvery sparkled women. We had put on a good show back there, and I was proud.

Yeah, so the dealings with my guy were negative, and he implied that if I ever met him face to face, he just may want to punch me. But, I'm telling you, honestly, reader. If Costello and I were inseparable bosom chums, close since childhood, the whole 'two souls inhabiting one body' guff, bigtime best friends, it wouldn't change my opinion of this book one iota. It's terrible.

Plot goes thusly: lead character, too big for his britches dumbfuck that thinks he smart, in terms too lame to discern if it's strictly satirical, but too mundane to be considered absurdist, wages war against the humdrum walls of everyday small town Florida life. He does this by joining a band as a drummer, immediately bedding the female lead singer, romance ensues, as the band, increases in popularity, reaching critical mass and imploding before everyone goes back to being the same numbskulls they were before, yet changed. Newsflash: this kind of drone has been done to death, and these obvious observations under the pretense of being some kind of actual insight is a bore. So the theme falls flat, and the author's (I hesitate to use the term 'writer') attempts to struggle with it are like watching a stand up comedian bombing badly and trying in vain to salvage some dignity. One of the problems, is the central conceit of the book, the Enchanters are one of those monumental bands that rarely graces humanity, and inspires the people around them. In the opening pages, describing the narrators first show with The Enchanters, he looks at the various party guests, and then in one of the books numerous lapses into confusing chronology, goes on to describe the bands the guests later started, The Enchanters as a facsimile for the oft-repeated 'everyone that saw them went out and formed their own band' maxim attributed to the Velvet Underground. Problem, is, the writer is not skillful or evocative enough to ever make the Enchanters sound interesting, intriguing, or worthwhile, much less monumental. Then, the descriptions of the bands that formed in The Enchanter’s wake supposed to be, rib ticking nyucks, is just satire that not quite there, and doesn’t work. Within the first few pages the writer's intentions are horribly muddled. Are we supposed to think the bands are good? Bad? Coattail riders? We're not talking deliberate ambiguity, just poor writing. We get name dropping left and right, The Stooges, The Buzzcocks, Black Randy, Lou Reed, etc., all part of the hodge podge of influences that The Enchanters utilize, but again, the description of the music, which the body of the novel rests on, is so poorly done it makes the entire thing fall apart. As the band gains popularity through it's house party live shows, record store clerks at 'Obscure Pop Culture Reference CD and Record Review World', "ordinarily snooty clerks lost their cool, begging us to put out a record”, the local television station does a special on the band, where their impact, albeit locally, is compared to Elvis and The Beatles, and the one good local rockcrit, a throwback to the glory days, describes the band "MOST IMPORTANT thing I've seen since seeing the Germs back in '79 (which didn't feel that important really at the time) and maybe even Altamont in '69 ...yeah, they're THAT good, kids." One, consider the implications of the drummer in a band as thoroughly boring as the Functional Blackouts, writing a book about, in first person, about the drummer of a band, and saying that said band is that good. Does that make anyone else's head reel?

Listen to this rehashed 60's rebop, during one of the descriptions of an Enchanters live show:

We were winning, and it wasn't political-that's always the last thing to change-no, it was energy. Something bigger then was opening before us in our minds (assuming we didn't suffocate ourselves at these parties), the very possibilities of what life could give us. It was no longer, just school or work, then home to the TV. We had reclaimed our lives, and while we didn't have the numbers, much less the guns, we at least had each other, and we at least had these shows.

What are The Enchanters like?"[They] wanted to stand out, tired of the same old boring retrograde nonconformity". They do so by dressing in identical costumes (football helmets) and wearing identical orange face paint. When "None of the old rebellions worked anymore at freaking squares" they dangle hand lotion under their nostrils to resemble snot, and write absurd slogans on their t-shirts. The book has no real forward momentum, as Costello describes various episodes of their lives. It doesn't go anywhere, offers no real insight into character, it just kind of lurches around.

As for the love story, it starts of pretty quick. Narrator falls for the lead singer, who deep-sixes her no dating anyone in the band rule ‘cause he is just the appealing, makes out with him on the porch at the show, and goes and fucks him that night. She's a poorly written, unrealistic tramp, that reads like wish fulfillment fantasy of a fifteen year old punkers ideal women. You don't believe the love affair for a second, or even that she is something resembling a real person, so any romance or pathos when it goes to shit, it all goes right out the fucking window. As for the narrator, he throws a glass of wine at his beloved when she has the gal to ask him how stupid he can be when he fucks up cooking pasta, then he slams the door, and runs off and cries. I'm not making that up. When she opens her heart to him, in what is supposed to be a touching episode, revealing how her mom went gradually batshit, leaving her emotionally scarred, Costello gets to the reason. The character's Mom used to tape record her own bodily noises. Yep, comedy and tragedy, they are inseparable, aren't they? The book lurches around, tales of love and the band rubbing elbows until it concludes with their first big show, at the club the band previously had too much punk rock scruples to play. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I will let you know you’re not missing much. But the hoary old plot contrivance of the band needing money, and having to play THE BIG SHOW, comes into play. Yep.

The book’s got some quotes on the cover; some from people outright praising it, like Todd Dillis, who edits things I don’t read. Or Shawn Shiflett, an author I’ve never heard of, and I read a lot. I can’t believe it got published, and I’m even more flabbergasted people liked it. I’m not at all jealous, because I’d rather have a terminal disease then have written a book this terrible, but that something this unnotable, and unfunny, can actually garner any praise, much less a publisher, is truly sad. Even worse is the two page, back slapping acknowledgment that ties up the end of the book (note: can we please not have writers thank a dozen people and talk about themselves and the context of which they sat down and wrote something anymore?), giving a final gust of hot air and ego before it mercifully finishes. Get this: Costello actually teaches fiction writing at Columbia College in Chicago

It's the kind of book you imagine a junior high school kid writing. A kid with ambition and unwarranted self confidence - probably the offspring of supportive parents who never gently let their untalented progeny know that they are probably better off working as desk jockey that pursing a dream they are too boring and lack the skill to accomplish. His friends laugh, happy that their buddy wrote a book. His parents encourage, happy that they took the time to sit in front of his PC and try to creatively express himself. Some second rate blogs, and tiny little literary outfits catering to a more counter culture crowd might unload a little praise here and there, but the purpose of criticism isn't to pat everyone on the back. This is the real world, so let's call a spade, a spade. Or in this case, a smug, self satisfied masturbatory amateurish waste, a spade. But let me clear something up for the easily confused out there: writing a book is not much of an accomplishment. Anyone can do it. Big fucking deal. Spending years crafting something? So what? If the said book isn't very good, then the writer's time, and by extension, mine (which I have to admit, isn't very valuable), was completely wasted. This juvenile ode to nonconformity, poorly rendered romance, sophomoric punk rock ethos and naive optimistic humanism strikes me as bullshit. Not to mention the fact that the prose chomps. Skip it, there's more literary value in reading a street sign.

*The NAME OF THE BOOK is misspelled on THE FUCKING COVER. You get the idea of what kind of literary geniuses we're dealing with?

I was going to send this email, to the head of the writing department where Mister Costello teaches, but decided not to. Anyone that employs this writer, as a writing teacher, is a monster, and obviously capable of anything. I don’t want to cross them.

To: [name excised, easily found on the internet]
From: philhonolulu [at]
Subject: ‘The Enchanters Vs. Sprawlsburg Springs’

Dear Mrs. ---- ------

I recently read the novel "The Enchanters Vs. Sprawlsburg Springs", and I have to say, and forgive the superlative, but I am being truthful: it is it one of the worst novels I've ever came across. After slogging through it, I discovered that the writer actually teaches at your establishment, furthermore, teaches WRITING. I wanted to register my displeasure that your department actually has the gall to employ someone that writes so poorly. What wisdom can he possibly impart on his students? What insights are they going to receive? What can they possibly learn? Have you even read the abomination in question? If I was a parent, and my offspring was in your writing program, I would be appalled. Not because I found anything in the book objectionable thematically, or because I found the book to be offensive... No, simply, put, it was just so horribly, amateurishly written, that the fact that you would have this person teach at your establishment is black eye on your entire college, and to my thinking, makes your entire department a joke.