Archives For review

Review: Bop Apocalypse

Martin Torgoff’s Bop Apocalypse (not to be confused with the similarly titled The Bop Apocalypse, by John Lardas) attempts to bring together the stories of drugs, jazz, racial identity, and Beat literature. It is a bold and fascinating book, which mostly succeeds in its aim. Continue Reading…

Review: Tales of Ordinary Sadness

Tales of Ordinary Sadness is a collection of fifteen short stories by Neil Randall, and its title is a reference to Charles Bukowski’s short story collection, Tales of Ordinary Madness. Sadness certainly is the theme of the collection, with each story acting as a study in the more depressing areas of modern life – this is a writer not afraid to deal with addiction, abuse, poverty, or disease. Randall provides an uncanny insight into the pitiful conditions of working class Britain in the twenty-first century, exploring how things got so bad. Continue Reading…

Review: Ambiguous Borderlands

In his new book, Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture, Dr. Erik Mortenson looks at the “paradox” of mid-twentieth century life in the United States, where there were unprecedented levels of comfort for many citizens, and yet the impending threat of nuclear holocaust. While people became wealthier than ever before, there came also a crushing pressure to conform or fit in with mainstream society. Mortenson argues, Continue Reading…

Review: The Ugly Spirit, by Steven La Vey

Steven La Vey’s The Ugly Spirit begins with a quote from William S. Burroughs, who also coined the term that give the book its title, “the ugly spirit”: Continue Reading…

Review: Paul Bunyan, by Larry Beckett

Larry Beckett is generally best-known as a songwriter, yet probably better known to Beatdom readers as the author of Beat Poetry – the first book entirely devoted to the poetry of the Beat Generation. Yet he has devoted much of his life to writing poetry, and earlier this year he released an impressive book called Paul Bunyan through Smokestack Books in the UK.

Paul Bunyan is part of Beckett’s American Cycle series of “long poems” concerning junctures in American history. In an interview with Shindig! Magazine, he explained:

When I started reading American literature, I looked around for its great narrative epic poem, and didn’t find it. So American Cycle is a sequence of long poems out of the American past: US Rivers: Highway 1, Old California, Paul Bunyan, Chief Joseph, Wyatt Earp, PT Barnum, Amelia Earhart, Blue Ridge, US Rivers: Route 66. I’ve been working on it for 45 years; I’m now doing research for the last section, John Henry. Each section is written in a form appropriate to its subject. Its themes are love, local mythology, history, justice, memory, accomplishment, time.

Continue Reading…

At the End of the Road: Jack Kerouac in Mexico

In 2013 I was asked to review a book called The Stray Bullet, about William S. Burroughs’ years in Mexico. I described it as “unreadable,” which made it rather surprising when, a year and a half later, the publishers asked me to review another book by the same author and translator – Jorge Garcia-Robles and Daniel C. Schechter – called At the End of the Road: Jack Kerouac in Mexico. Garcia-Robles styles himself as the “leading authority on the Beats in Mexico” and as with the first book, this concerns a major Beat figure in the author’s homeland.

Naturally, I found myself dreading this book, as reading the Burroughs one had been little more than a chore. When I opened the front cover and saw that they’d credited a photo to one “Allan Ginsberg” (sic), I was sure that I was about to slog through another entirely incomprehensible text. Continue Reading…

The is NOT an Anthology

In 1959, the painter, Brion Gysin, “accidentally” cut through a pile of newspapers with a Stanley Knife and changed the future of writing. William S. Burroughs, who would popularize this “cut-up method” would prefer to say that Gysin “cut into the future,” but regardless of semantics – “art is merely a three letter word, my dear” – that which was done could not be undone. Burroughs worked to hone the technique from purely haphazard to a careful, almost scientific, process wherein cut-ups acted as inspiration. Though it had, arguably, been done before by the founder of Dadaism, Tristan Tzara, the cut-up method became Burroughs’ obsession during the 1960s, spilling out of his prose and into the wider culture. Continue Reading…

The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico

In 1995 a scholar named Jorge Garcia-Robles wrote a long essay about William S. Burroughs’ time in Mexico, partly based upon interviews conducted with Burroughs and people that knew him during his time there. The essay was well-received and won the Malcolm Lowry literary essay award, and Garcia-Robles became the leading expert on the Beat Generation and their ties to Mexico.

Unfortunately this reviewer doesn’t speak Spanish and had to wait a rather long time for the book to be translated. Eighteen years seems surprising for such a highly regarded text to be translated into English. Having waited so long to read this book, and having had it sent all the way from the University of Minnesota (where it was published by the university press) to Cambodia (where your humble reviewer resides) just compounded my excitement.

From the moment I opened the packaging, however, I was disappointed. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – and you shouldn’t – but in this case the cover is just plain ugly. The repetition of one image across the front seems lazy, the text is hard to pick out, the spine colour doesn’t match either the colours on the front or the back, and the back cover makes it look like a children’s book.

The Stray Bullet

But, as I said, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Once you open the book, you can see some thought has gone into the layout, and it is mostly visually pleasing, although I would suggest that the text size and line spacing again make this appear like a children’s book – albeit an attractive one.

But I will stop criticizing the design now. That’s neither the fault of Garcia-Robles nor the book’s translator, Daniel C. Schechter, and, after all, some of Burroughs’ own books had ugly editions and that didn’t detract from their quality.

My ultimate assessment of this book – which I have put off now for too many paragraphs – is that it’s more or less unreadable. As I mentioned previously, I do not speak Spanish cannot pass judgment on Garcia-Robles, who by all accounts is a wonderful scholar and an invaluable contributor to Beat studies. So I have to say that the fault lies at the feet of Schechter, the book’s translator. The man appears to have had a tough task set out for him. The original Spanish – I’m told – was a playful, lively, and inventive narrative that fused the culture of Mexico with the research that the author had done. This has simply not come across in the English edition. My guess, as someone who does have experience in translation, is that Schechter has been too literal and too exact, and the result is very awkward and irritatingly inconsistent text. It feels at times as though the publishers simply fed the original text into Google Translate and barely spent an hour tidying up the resulting gibberish. After only a few pages, I found myself dreading the next paragraph as it had become such a chore to read.

In some ways, too, it appears that different writers have written different paragraphs or even chapters, as the chopping and changing of Schechter’s narrative continues to jar the reader. It becomes particularly convoluted when we move into chapter two and Burroughs’ arrival in Mexico. Once again I will give Garcia-Robles the benefit of the doubt and assume that his text read well in Spanish, but in English it’s nothing short of embarrassing:

Mexico City, mid-twentieth century. Maaamboooo… ah uh! Caberets everywhere, brothels on every corner, a vibrant nightlife. Big on the scene was Perez Prado, the pint-sized Cuban inventor of the mambo, with a face like a seal’s and a Luciferesque beard, deported for playing the national anthem in mambo style. Never mind: nothing could stop the fiesta. Cha cha cha… ah uh! It was madness. Aaron Copeland visits the Salon Mexico and is enchanted by the dance hall; the muses descend and he composes one of his greatest symphonic works. Miguel Aleman allowed everything. Hell, we could go all night, the clubs never closed: Ciro’s. Catacumbas. Las Veladoras. La Rata Muerta, Waikiki. Leda. Lola. Tato’s. The culture of the blowout – anything goes. The Mexican Revolution had played itself out, and everyone was fed up with packing pistols and taking up arms. Civilization, senores, civilization! And partying hard. Enough already with the revolutionary ideals, banditry dressed up as a noble cause. Mexico wants peace, progress, cosmopolitanism… ah uh! More madness. Girls girls girls.Tongolele wiggles her hemispheric hips. Ninon Sevilla, the Cuban firecracker, she of the enormous mouth and huge ass, the perennial bad girl of the movies. Su Muy Key, Kalantan, Mapy Cortez, M.A. Pons… glamour gals, happy Afro females, sweat-glistening models, caressable lubricated specimens of the torrid tricolor night. Aaaahhhh uh!

Here Garcia-Robles is attempting to describe Mexico City around the time of Burroughs’ arrival by conveying through prose the vibrancy of the culture and the sentiment of the people. In English, however, the result is a confusing mess of words. It goes on for another few pages, in some ways becoming worse and worse as repetition of phrases are used increasingly out of context (“aaaahhhh uh!” soon becomes as common a means of ending a sentence as a period).

Alas, while Garcia-Robles appears to have consulted some useful sources and provided a solid run-through of Burroughs’ time in Mexico, the book’s focus is too much on capturing the atmosphere rather than actually getting information across to the reader. Granted, the details of Burroughs’ own escapades already can be found in Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw and his thoughts on Mexico are pretty much stated in his collected letters, but there should be room to elaborate. Instead, the bulk of the book is given over to sidenotes and diversions. The author appears more interested in transporting the reader back in time and into a very specific place than to give a detailed account of this important period in Burroughs’ life. That’s not to say that there aren’t great nuggets of information hidden away, but this reviewer feels that Garcia-Robles’ book offers little more than existing biographies.

However, despite the many negatives in this review, and the use of the word “unreadable”, the book is not entirely without its merits. Certain sections, where the text is simple and to the point, are interesting and enjoyable to read, and add some background information to the story of Burroughs’ time there. For example, there is a short chapter on Lola la Chata that is engrossing and more or less devoid of the bizarre quirks throughout the rest of the book. The problem here, though, is that most of it isn’t directly related to Burroughs or his time in Mexico. It’s a footnote that overshadows the actual narrative. The section even ends with the acknowledgment that Burroughs never met la Chata but that he was interested in her, and ends with the dubious assertion:

No doubt, Lola, from the heavens, would smile contentedly upon learning of Burroughs’ interest in her.

There is also a lot of information on Burroughs’ charismatic lawyer, Bernabe Jurado, and even a short essay by Burroughs himself about Jurado.

Also of interest are hard-to-find photos, mostly relating to the death of Joan Vollmer. These might disturb some readers as two of them feature Vollmer’s body after she was shot in the head.

Altogether the English translation of The Stray Bullet should be a wonderful contribution to Beat studies, but instead it falls flat on its face. Any valuable information is obscured by crude writing and digressions. I am assured by friends that the Spanish version is indeed worthy of the praise it has garnered since its publication, but I stand by my unusually harsh judgment of Schechter’s translation. This book is virtually unreadable.

Guilty of Everything

Herbert Huncke was the man who brought the word “beat” to the Beat Generation. He was a New York hustler, the sort of cool street cat that these college kids needed to bring them in touch with reality. He was their gateway to the underground, to a world of crime and drugs.

He was also an artist in his own right. A natural storyteller, his friends pushed him to writing. In 1964 he wrote his autobiography, Guilty of Everything. He was an advocate of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose method – writing his stories in one go, with no revision. Like Kerouac, he had a great memory and could paint a scene with words.

His stories were composed in prison and on the street, and never for a mainstream audience. “[He’s] the greatest story teller I know,” wrote Kerouac. What was particularly wonderful about his brand of narrative was that he could sit and speak and captivate his audience for hours. And in 1987, he sat down in front of an audience and just talked… for two whole hours.

The result is this CD, also titled Guilty of Everything. It was recorded at In and Outs Press in Amsterdam, and only released 25 yrs later, long after Huncke passed away in 1996. The result is a stunning addition to Beat history. Huncke talks about, among other things, meeting William S. Burroughs for the first time. His style is engaging, impossible to walk away from.

Guilty of Everything: Herbert Huncke in Amsterdam come highly recommended by the editors of Beatdom.

Find out more here.

Beatitude by Larry Closs

I’ve been meaning to give this one a read for a while now but have been too busy with other projects. When I found the time to finally start the book, I read through it in a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

I didn’t know quite what to expect. The plot was summarized thusly:

New York City, 1995: Harry Charity is a sensitive young loner haunted by a disastrous affair when he meets Jay Bishop, an outgoing poet and former Marine. Propelled by a shared fascination with the unfettered lives of Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, the two are irresistibly drawn together, even as Jay’s girlfriend, Zahra, senses something deeper developing.

Reveling in their discovery of the legendary scroll manuscript of Kerouac’s On the Road in the vaults of the New York Public Library, Harry and Jay embark on a nicotine-and-caffeine-fueled journey into New York’s smoky jazz joints, dusty rare-book shops and thriving poetry scene of slams and open-mike nights.

An encounter with “Howl” poet Allen Ginsberg shatters their notions of what it means to be Beat but ultimately and unexpectedly leads them into their own hearts where they’re forced to confront the same questions that confounded their heroes: What do you do when you fall for someone who can’t fall for you? What do you do when you’re the object of affection? What must you each give up to keep the other in your life?

Beatitude features two previously unpublished poems by Allen Ginsberg.

It sounded interesting (especially the Ginsberg poems), but had the potential to be boring. I have read too many essays about men who read Kerouac and go on a road trip.

But the book is complex, and artfully woven from a number of threads. Yes, there is the story of Harry and Jay, two men united by a love for Kerouac, but rather than have wild kicks in pursuit of their own On the Road experience, their Kerouac-connection is merely what binds them together. Their story is a classic tragedy. Harry loves Jay, but the love is unrequited. Jay’s sexuality appears – as did many of the Beats’ – somewhat fluid, whereas Harry is gay.

Their story winds along against that of Harry’s other failed shots at love, and the difficulties that are placed upon Jay’s girlfriend, Zahra, as the two men’s friendship unfolds.

Against this we have some Beat Generation history. The book kicks off with the “discovery” of one of Kerouac’s scrolls at the New York Public Library, back when it wasn’t constantly on tour. There’s a meeting with Allen Ginsberg, and reading the book, I couldn’t help but see a little of William Burroughs in Harry – from constantly putting himself into relationships where he knows he’ll get hurt, to his fondness of cats.

**

Read it for yourself. Available on Amazon.