This is a heartbreaker, and it makes every one of the male loser hits of the last decade — Radiohead’s “Creep,” Offspring’s “Self Esteem,” Beck’s “Loser” — come off like pickup lines. The snap of Pink’s rhythm sense makes you almost certain the woman whose story this is will get out of it — out of her own skin — but around every sharp turn is the voice of self-hate, the only thing her parents ever taught her, and then you just don’t know.
Most of the stories in this first collection originally appeared in such prestigious quarterlies as Missouri Review, Ploughshares and New England Review; that the two best, the title piece and “How to Love a Republican,” were first published in Playboy is no accident. “This, it would turn out, is the main thing we had in common: a susceptibility to the brassy escapism of myth,” says the narrator in “Run Away, My Pale Love.” Almond’s first-person narrators are always saying embarrassingly arty things like that. Though they’re not the same people, they talk as if they are, one character after another indulging in the same effete verbal tics (“taking” lunch or “supper” rather than eating it, the implicit entitlement in the phrase not fitting the people talking). Almond can’t write dialogue by instinct, and he doesn’t think his language through. When the narrator of “The Body in Extremis” describes a woman with “Behind this posed sangfroid, of course, was the inner panic nurtured by ambitious immigrant families,” Almond doesn’t seem to realize that his “of course” turns what’s supposed to be a character into a type, and that he’s just dismissed the person who’s going to have to carry the story. But “My Life in Heavy Metal,” the memoir of a cheating love affair carried on by a newspaper rock critic in El Paso, is always alive (“Jo looked like she’d been struck in the back of the head with an eel,” he says of his girlfriend at a Mötley Crüe concert), and “How to Love a Republican” starts off creepy and only gets worse. It’s 2000, and a bearded liberal working for Citizen Action meets a blond McCain volunteer who works for the Heritage Foundation. She takes him to hear George Will speak on “the deracination of moral authority” and to meet her mentor (“It occurred to me that Trent had served in the Armed Forces,” the narrator says of shaking hands with the guy, “possibly all four of them”). She ends up in the Bush camp; he votes for Nader. What happens next may stand as one of the truest nightmares of the post-election, when sex dissolves into events and lovers into the public choices they thought they could keep separate from their private lives. For the only time in the book, Almond pulls no punches. He comes to life as a writer, not as an orchestrator of attitudes and skits, and the reader goes down with his hero.
4) Rosalie Howarth, back-announcing “Friday I’m in Love” (KFOG-FM, San Francisco, March 1)
“The Cure! The Antidepressant Years!”
5) “Young Elvis: The Man and the Movement,” with Michael Anderson, Peter Guralnick, William P. Kelly and Camille Paglia (Graduate Center, City University of New York, March 18)
Sarah Vowell reports: “What a pleasure to listen to those who know things. Peter Guralnick knows things about RCA engineer Steve Sholes or how the archival record makes clear that Vernon Presley always paid his bills, and Camille Paglia can answer a question about Elvis impersonators by bringing up ‘ancient mystery religions’ in which ‘the devotee becomes the god.’ Walking into this panel discussion on the early Elvis, I think I was afraid the notoriously chatty Paglia might bully the mild-mannered Guralnick, but it was more than a real conversation. They were the million-dollar duet. In blue shirts and black blazers, from the waist up, they were even dressed alike. She recalled being a teenager in the ’50s calling in to a radio station to vote for Elvis against Pat Boone; he reminded her that Elvis loved Pat Boone. She thanked him for researching the costume design of Elvis’ 1968 black leather suit; he grinned big as she riffed on the eroticism of Elvis’ Southern diction, ‘Dropping off the consonant at the end was so sensuous. Eating, drinking, talking, sex — it’s all the same thing.’
“Guralnick, it turns out, was the shocking one, surprising Paglia twice. Since the panel is part of a [New York Times-sponsored] series on the 1950s, there was a lot of talk about James Dean and Marlon Brando and the parallels between the pared down recording methods of Sam Phillips and method acting. After Paglia had returned again and again to the subject of Elvis as a ‘method singer,’ Guralnick informed her, ‘Elvis read Stanislavski.’ To which Paglia girlishly replied, ‘For heaven’s sake!’ Guralnick added that, ‘Unfortunately, you don’t see anything that bears that out in his future [film] performances.’ Then Paglia practically fell out of her chair when Guralnick said that the so-called ’68 Comeback Special leather pants had to be dry-cleaned because Elvis, who ‘told June Juanico that being onstage was better than sex,’ climaxed at the show’s climax. I’m sure my mother would be so proud, but I actually stood in the book signing line afterward to ask Guralnick why he edited this juicy tidbit out of his book ‘Careless Love,’ and he said that he didn’t, it’s just subtle. I looked it up, and he’s right: The book quotes a crony who says, ‘After he finished singing, he was literally spent.’ When I read that the first time around I must have thought Elvis was just real tired. I did, for purely journalistic purposes, pop in the tape of the special and carefully watch all the leather segments to see if I could find the exact moment when Elvis peters out, but that damn guitar is in the way the whole time.”
6) Selby Tigers, “The Curse of the Selby Tigers” (Hopeless)
Despite such all-American titles as “Cheerleading Is Big Business,” the St. Paul quartet, in moments the truest rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet, reinhabits the music the Adverts and X-ray Spex left behind in London a quarter-century ago more fiercely than ever — until on the ’50s-style teen-dream “The Prom I Never Had,” they take off their black clothes to reveal the rented pastel tuxedos and gowns they’ve been trying to get out of since high school.
7) Suzzy and Maggie Roche, “Zero Church” (Red House)
Prayers set to music, and unspeakable, especially on the Shaker song “This Gospel How Precious.” The version recorded in the 1960s by Sister Mildred Barker of Sabbathday Lake, Maine (collected on “Early Shaker Spirituals,” Rounder), is all you need to know: It’s distinguished from the Roches’ version precisely by not being precious. Barker’s unaccompanied singing doesn’t call attention to its own perfection — which is what the Roche sisters have been about since the release of “The Roches” in 1979, for which New York critics unanimously creamed in their jeans. Barker’s performance is unpretty but anything but artless; it’s an event, and it’s hard to picture anyone singing the song the same way. The words “I know how to pray/I know how to be thankful,” are scary, because Barker makes you realize what a huge thing that is to know how to do. The Roche sisters sing as if they know how to sing prettily, and as if that will suffice to get God’s ear. After all, as they insist on their 9/11 special, “New York City,” “New York City is down on her knees,” and guess what it’s doing there? “Prayin’/Together with you,” whether you are or not.
8) Robert Warshow, “The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture” (Harvard)
Warshow (1917-1955) was the popular culture man in the milieu of the postwar New York intellectuals, and this book, now augmented with eight previously uncollected essays and worshipful new commentaries from film critic David Denby and cultural theorist Stanley Cavell, is a legendary manifesto. Today it’s also dull. Famous-by-reputation pieces such as the 1948 “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” which at seven pages smacks of get-it-over-with, may have had its influence on Pauline Kael’s 1955 “The Glamour of Delinquency,” but only the latter still has any blood running through it. Much is made of Warshow’s “immediate experience” credo — “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man” — but there is no man in the seat in these pages. Warshow pointedly rejects irony as a mode of both experience and criticism, but it is all too telling that his writing is littered with scare quotes — with countless crudely ironic references to the likes of “‘typical’ American experience,” “the operation of ‘simple’ and ‘American’ virtues,” “a ‘typical’ American town” where “all ‘real’ Americans live.” I am not fooled, this man says, and critics have to be willing to be fooled. That is what being “that man” is all about.
9) Shocker of the Week (from “Lucinda Williams: What I’ve Learned,” interview with Brendan Vaughn, Esquire, April)
“Some of my best friends are music critics.”
10) “Enronomania!” (American Folk Art Museum, New York, opening April 1, 2009)
There’s the short con, which is no more than claiming the 10 you gave the clerk was a 20, and then there’s the long con, a true native art form. “Enron had its own myth-making machinery, recruiting employees as actors to fake out Wall Street analysts when they came to call,” Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times on March 2. “The hoax even extended to the building of a Hollywood-style ‘trading room’ set in Enron’s Houston skyscraper.” But a reading of linguist David W. Maurer’s 1940 “The Big Con” (republished in 1999 with an introduction by Luc Sante) makes plain that the Enron scam was merely a billion-dollar revival of “the rag,” a con Maurer traced to Cheyenne, Wyo., in 1867, when a three-card monte dealer named Ben Marks opened the Dollar Store, with trinkets in front to draw the marks to the barrels in the back. Not long after the turn of the century the innovation had led to the Big Store: the phony fight club, the phony horse-race parlor and then the rag — the sham brokerage.
“The victim first bets with money furnished by the con men, is then sent home for a large sum of money and is fleeced,” Maurer wrote. “For the rag the store depicts a broker’s office complete with tickers, phone service, brokers, clerks and customers. The same board which did duty for the races is often turned over to reveal a set-up for recording stock prices.” The Big Stores were “manned and furnished” with such realism “that the victim does not realize that everything about them — including the patronage — is fake. In short, the modern big store is a carefully set up and skillfully managed theater where the victims act out an unwitting role in the most exciting of all underworld dramas. It is a triumph of the ingenuity of the criminal mind.” Or, really, of the American mind: “For mere money, a thing useless and meaningful in itself,” Jim Thompson wrote in 1963 of Cole Langley, the tragic hero of “The Grifters,” “he traded great hopes and a new perspective on life. And nothing was ever managed so that the frammis would show through for what it was. Always the people were left with hope and relief.”