Trapped in Purgatory with Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren

“Hell is other people,” according to the three characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. In Sartre’s vision, eternal damnation is mental, rather than physical, torture. Inez, Garcin, and Estelle have been selected to antagonize each other. Stuck in a gaudy, cramped room without any glass, they become each other’s mirrors. Inez is cunning and abrasive. Garcin is pensive but frail. Estelle is vain. They are terrible people, but terribly entertaining characters. Sartre uses each character’s anxieties as weaknesses. Inez hates Garcin because he is a coward. Inez lusts for Estelle, but Estelle only has eyes for Garcin—merely because he is the only man available. Garcin is too busy thinking about what is happening on Earth to pay attention to Estelle, and she loathes being ignored. Their methods of torture are simple, cyclical, and eternal. Each time I read Sartre’s claustrophobic play, I wonder: who would be my torturers? I won’t admit the two actual people who would vex me in a Sartrean Hell, but I will admit the two characters in literature who would annoy me forever: Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren. If I were stuck in a Second Empire drawing room with no exit for all eternity, my torturers would definitely be Stephen and Anse. I love both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and As I Lay Dying because I detest the central characters of both books. Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces Stephen’s development, the text hews to his melodramatic sense of self. James Joyce’s method is sound—Stephen’s acquisition and mastery of language, as well as his skepticism toward his surroundings, are captured in the novel’s narrative style—but Stephen is taxing on the reader. He’s a jerk. He writes a noxious villanelle (“Are you not weary of ardent way, / Lure of the fallen seraphim.” Really?). Each prosaic moment of his existence must reflect some ancient Irish myth. What irks me most is his glib disbelief. I’m a Catholic who knows that doubt is endemic to faith, but Stephen’s rejections—“I will not serve”—are couched in language that elevates his importance. He renounces God because he thinks himself to be God. He has become his namesake, the great artificer. Like many lapsed Catholics, Stephen is—in the words of his friend Cranly—“supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” But Stephen dismisses that belief as a stepping stone toward his real goal: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode or life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” I can’t stand him. This was all Joyce’s intention, of course, but that doesn’t diminish how much I hate Stephen. I imagine him leaning against a bookcase, arms crossed, huffing well actually forever and ever while the door to my Hell remains shut. Anse Bundren is also terrible, but for different reasons. He’d sit in the center of the only couch in Hell, and spread his knees so that nobody else could fit. He’s selfish, lazy, and a hypocrite. His inert state is such a perfect contrast to William Faulkner’s profluent story in As I Lay Dying—a tragicomic journey story. He begins the book sitting on his back porch, “tilting snuff from the lid of his snuff-box into his lower lip, holding the lip outdrawn between thumb and finger.” Behind him, his wife Addie is dying. In front of him, his son Cash is building Addie’s coffin. Anse is full of excuses: “he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die.” He’s also full of complaints, calling himself a “luckless man.” He promised Addie that he would bury her in Jefferson with the rest of her family, but it soon becomes clear that he has other reasons for making the trek. His children don’t respect him because he doesn’t deserve it. And he’s quick to offer empty religious intonations: “The Lord will pardon me and excuse the conduct of them He sent me.” Get over yourself, Anse—and quit jabbering about your new teeth. Certainly the central traits of Stephen and Anse that I most detest—self-importance and selfishness—are the two traits I pray that I never hold myself. Great literature has a way of making us recognize our own faults after we’ve first criticized them in others. Who would be your literary torturers in Hell? Image Credit: Pixabay.

That Glorious Syllable: On ‘On’

Whether introducing a charming essay or slim monograph, a witty epigram or stately sonnet, on is the most accommodating of words: the eternal handmaiden, the chivalrous cicisbeo, the dutiful emcee welcoming the main topic on stage. Though it plays this obliging, some might say servile role impeccably, it is high time that on emerge from the syntactical shadows to bask in the light of its lapidary splendor. To be on is to be alive, energetic, aflame, to display one’s best self. Similarly, on is language’s best self, demonstrating how much can be done with so little. Compact, suggestive, manifold, on is the preposition that launched a thousand idioms. Derived from the Proto-Germanic ana, on conjures up Iron Age images of unruly beards and makeshift encampments: the terse utterance of a culture hardened by the elements. These rude forbears, emerging from their mist-shrouded forests to rampage across Europe, were not prone to reflection. No Teutonic Hazlitt composed his lucid thoughts in essay form (e.g., “On Pillaging”). Rather, these restless warriors were in thrall to their wanderlust. On, on! we hear their guttural voices echoing through the millennia. And yet we would be neglecting on’s suppleness were we to focus solely on its muscular genealogy. In its imperative form -- on! -- it is certainly a spur to action, but when reversed, a brake: no! Moreover, on displays a nobility of spirit, charitably lending its services to other nouns (onlooker) or prepositions in need, either supporting them from behind -- “onto” -- or lighting the way forward—“upon.” It can introduce the most heartbreaking of topics, such as Ben Jonson’s elegy to his son, or, from the same pen, a Rabelaisian bibelot: “On Gut.” (The poet was even said to have written a jeering missive to a deceived husband, “On Thy Wife,” but that bit of doggerel has been lost to time.) A preposition wrapped in an adverb wrapped in an enigma, on is a tiny word, yet it contains multitudes. Its deceptive modesty could even be said to conceal the most fundamental of our drives. After all, what is the coupling of one vowel and one consonant but a chaste replication of the sexual act? And lest I be accused of overanalysis -- as I often have been by blinkered partisans of under or beneath -- consider on’s entanglement with the mating ritual: courtship is initiated with a come-on, which, if accepted, leads to both parties being turned on, and, if all goes well, a hard-on, and then…but enough. In the interests of decency, I won’t go on. Any scholar of Shakespeare’s sonnets will gladly explain the equally bawdy potential of on’s chief rival, in, which the perceptive reader has noticed I have avoided mentioning till now. While the two words do occasionally tolerate proximity -- e.g., come on in, in on it -- tolerate is all. How it pains me even to type those shoddy combination of letters, so similar and yet vastly inferior to the virtuous one under review. Replacing on’s lovely o, a perfect form, with i, that impudent, egotistical erection, in is boorish, vulgar, so denotatively and connotatively crass that the mouth seems to resist pronouncing it. Compare the generous, open pronunciation of on, the mouth expanding to greet the world -- all its marvels and follies -- in blissful communion. “Come one, come all, and feast,” it seems to say, “dinner’s on me.” On, on! The next time you encounter on beginning a title, ignore what follows. Recite the glorious syllable to yourself in stentorian tones, revel in its wondrous reverberations. Let your eyes linger on its elegant appearance, take in its curves, appreciate its eternal form and endless content. Soon your own love affair with the sublime word will commence, a romance that, unlike ephemeral passions, will go on and on, powering an inner light that will never turn off. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Trump in the Bardo

Picture, as a backdrop, one of those primitively drawn 19th-century mourning paintings with rickety white gravestones and age-worn monuments standing under the faded green canopy of a couple of delicately sketched trees. Add…some Edward Gorey-style ghosts, skittering across the landscape -- at once menacing, comical and slightly tongue-in-cheek — From The New York Times Review of George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo It was an uneventful evening, much like any other. roger bevins iii Mr. Bevins and I were reflecting upon the sounds the branches made as the night wind gusted through the premises. hans vollman Quite dull, really. roger bevins iii As we spoke, Mr. Bevins held up a hand, bidding me to fall quiet. A number of his ears seemed to strain. Someone is coming, he said, his voice low. And I, too, heard a visitor’s approach. hans vollman It was a man, not young, rambling down the path in a state most aggrieved. roger bevins iii It was clear to Mr. Bevins and I that he was from the other place. hans vollman Even from a distance, I comprehended that I had never seen a man such as this. roger bevins iii As he neared, we were able to hear his diction, such as it was, with greater clarity. hans vollman Gotta get out of there, he said, struggling for his wind. Gotta get away from everything. Mr. Vollman and I looked upon one another with bemusement: get out of where? What was meant by gotta? roger bevins iii He sat heavily upon the steps of Mr. Carroll's white stone home, emitting a sound of pained satisfaction. hans vollman I heard the commotion and run-skimmed to Mr. Bevins and Mr. Vollman as rapidly as I could manage. When I arrived, they were standing before a most disagreeable creature. the reverend everly thomas Even in the gloom, his skin held an unhealthy rusty glow; his hair, if one might call it that, had an aspect of spun sugar, though it did not appetize. hans vollman There was the look of the beast about him, but there was little in his eyes. the reverend everly thomas Smell of stale perspiration and soured milk. hans vollman Necktie so long it seemed an extra shirtsleeve. roger bevins iii We regarded him with cautious wonder. hans vollman We have witnessed many visitors, but there was something unsettling about this one. roger bevins iii From his suitcoat, he retrieved an object the likes of which I had never before seen. hans vollman A glowing, black-edged thing, the size of a pocket-Bible, though thinner. the reverend everly thomas I’ll tweet at those bastards, he said, and I thought he might commence a little birdsong, right there, on the steps of the white stone home. roger bevins iii I moved towards the man, my better instincts failing me. In the light radiating from his -- what was it? A hand-lantern of some kind? -- in that light, his countenance was positively mad. hans vollman Mr. Vollman stood above him, looking down at the queer little lamp, and said, He appears to be writing a missive of some kind -- directly upon the light! the reverend everly thomas What a marvel! I leaned in, further laying aside my native revulsion, to obtain a more advantageous view. What I saw staggered me: he used his thumbs, it seemed, to rap out a series of words -- right upon the glowing pane! How could he hold such an object, I wondered, without burning up his palms? hans vollman Given Mr. Vollman’s intrigue, the Reverend and myself dared to gather near, taking care to ignore the rankness of the man’s odor. roger bevins iii Though it was difficult to keep my eyes upon the fire-bright band of light, I discerned the following words as they flashed forthwith: When Russia fake news goes away, I will make America great! As promised! President of the people! The man then said Tweet! — again bringing to mind a horrible overgrown bird — and slid the thing into his suitcoat, muttering all the while. hans vollman He seemed to be laboring under a great strain. Yet I found I could not pity him. the reverend everly thomas His lamp safely stowed, blessed darkness returned. roger bevins iii What was that thing? Mr. Bevins asked. And whatever is Russia fake news? the reverend everly thomas Something to do with the Emperor Nicholas? I ventured, yet my answer did not satisfy. We watched the visitor, in hopes that he might resolve our queries, but he remained in a sitting position, inspecting a nostril with what I judged to be an unusually short index finger. hans vollman Given the overall size of him, you see. Proportionally. roger bevins iii After a period of silence, Mr. Vollman whispered, Who would make America great? Who is the President of the people? We mulled this over for a time. the reverend everly thomas Zachary Taylor was President; it could not be this man. roger bevins iii The President was Polk, of course. Of that much I was certain. hans vollman It was then that our visitor drew forth his hand-lamp and, again using his thumbs, pressed more words into being. the reverend everly thomas It’s hard to be President, he wrote. President written with two t’s. hans vollman The words It’s hard to be President leapt upon his strip of light. I believe he wrote President with an extra t. roger bevins iii It’s hard to be President was the phrase I saw. President was misspelled. the reverend everly thomas Then he again called out, Tweet! And again slipped the peculiar object into his suitcoat. roger bevins iii He lay against the wall of the white stone home and hummed a tuneless little song, again picking at a nostril, this time with his pinky-finger. hans vollman Is this man… Mr. Vollman trailed off. the reverend everly thomas You don’t suppose, Mr. Bevins asked. hans vollman It wouldn’t be possible that… the Reverend said. roger bevins iii Our visitor gazed up at the stars, at one point placing the contents from his nostril directly upon his tongue, seeming to savor the saltiness of the morsel. hans vollman Plainly, this was a low breed of fellow. the reverend everly thomas Could he be… the President? Mr. Vollman said, utterly incredulous. After an uneasy period -- the only sounds the water rushing through the creek and the incomprehensible murmurs of our visitor -- I replied, with equal incredulity, that it must be so. roger bevins iii I gazed at the fool before us, and thought with sadness of Presidents past. George Washington, John Adams. It could not be helped. hans vollman Could this man occupy the same lofty position as Thomas Jefferson? James Madison? roger bevins iii Why had he, above all others, been thusly elevated? the reverend everly thomas Wish I could just go back to my tee vee show, the man moaned. roger bevins iii Whatever that meant. hans vollman Being the President is no fun, the man said with a petulant whimper. roger bevins iii It was thus verified: this was America’s President. hans vollman We were thunderstruck. roger bevins iii What, by the grace of God, was transpiring in that other place? the reverend everly thomas For the first time since I had come to know him, Mr. Vollman’s impressively engorged member began to lose its heft. roger bevins iii I understood that when I returned to health and rose from my sick-box, this man would endeavor to be my leader, and the leader of my fellow-men. The sadness went all through me, including my protuberance. hans vollman Our visitor sat, the three of us hanging about, for what might have been minutes, or perhaps even hours. He took out his hand-lamp a number of times, as if compelled, staring at it, making shapes move with his thumb. At one point he offered an opinion, aloud, about people of the Muslim faith that I shall not repeat. the reverend everly thomas He struggled to his feet, loosing a great burst of flatulence. roger bevins iii Back to the G—damned White House, he said. What a bunch of s—t. And then he stumbled off. hans vollman I have never been more pleased to witness the departure of a visitor. the reverend everly thomas I felt sullied somehow, just having been in his presence. roger bevins iii The Reverend, Mr. Bevins and I were at a loss for words. I was again aware of the wind rustling through the trees. hans vollman After a time, Mr. Vollman said, If that man is the President, I believe I would prefer to stay on here. To remain within my sick-box, apart from the other place. The Reverend and myself, I am saddened to report, were obliged to agree. roger bevins iii   Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Guy Who Wants His Friends to Read the Book He Wrote: An Oral History

Jeff: So, yeah, I wrote a novel called Tender Moments -- or at least that’s its working title. I also might call it Eternal Remembrance or Hey, It’s Gary Time! But that can be sorted out later, by Random House or Knopf or whoever winds up publishing it. Steve, friend: I knew that Jeff was working on something, and I knew he liked to write. Like, his Facebook posts are usually kind of funny, I guess. But I was surprised when he told me that he’d written an actual book. He never struck me as the creative type. Jeff: It took me about seven years to write -- you know, whenever I had the time, or whenever I couldn’t find a show to watch. I definitely took a break when Stranger Things started streaming. There was also a couple of weeks when I watched every episode of Chicago Hope. It was pretty weird. But, long story short, it’s finally done! It’s 171 pages long --  y’know, with the double-spacing and the margins and everything. Amy, ex-girlfriend: He was working on it when we were going out, but I think he was sort of embarrassed by it. Every once in a while, he’d take the laptop into the bathroom, very quietly, that sort of thing. Jeff: I think I read somewhere that Philip Roth did most of his writing in the bathroom, although I might’ve gotten some of the details wrong. Maybe it was John Updike? Steve: When he first told me about it, I’d have to say I was…a little bit confused, based on his description of it. I just couldn’t understand what it was about. And I don’t think that he knew what it was about. Amy: At one point he told me it was, like, a crime thriller? Like Elmore Leonard? But then at another point, it sounded like he was writing a comedy, but with sports in it. And then he said it was an “elegiac meditation on life,” but when he said it, I’m pretty sure he mispronounced “elegiac.” Jeff: I had a little trouble keeping it focused, sure. But to me, that’s part of its charm. It’s “sprawling” -- like David Foster Wallace or something. Steve: When he was talking to me about it, it just sounded like a fucking mess. Like David Foster Wallace or something. Jeff: When you get right down to it, the book is about my relationship with my dad. [Pauses, becoming emotional.] We’ve always had kind of a…a difficult relationship. [Gathering himself.] And it’s also about pee-wee football and the government’s abuse of power. Kyle, co-worker: I didn’t know what to think when Jeff asked me to read his book. We don’t really talk that much, but I guess he’s seen me reading in the breakroom and whatnot. To be honest, I barely know the guy. But I figured, what the hell, you know? How bad could it be? Amy: Jeff and I are on good terms, even though I broke up with him, so I was happy to read his book. Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the right word. “Willing?” Maybe that’s more accurate. “Begrudgingly willing?” That feels right. “Begrudgingly willing.” Steve: When he told me he’d finished it, I was like, “Hey man, great, that’s awesome.” But the whole time, I was like, Fuck, please don’t ask me to read it. Jeff: Everyone seemed pretty eager to get their hands on it, I think -- y’know, to see what I’d been working on for so long. It was kind of validating. Brent, Amy’s current boyfriend: I saw it on her nightstand and I was like, “Tender Moments? What the hell is that?” And she goes, “Oh, it’s a book Jeff wrote.” And when she said it, she seemed a little sad. Amy: Jeff doesn’t have any formal training as a writer, and I know that’s not always a bad thing. But, you know. It’s not always a good thing, either. Kyle: Actually, the first chapter started off okay. It was about this guy named Gary whose girlfriend had just broken up with him, and he was all upset. And so Gary goes to visit his parents, and then his dad tells him that he was adopted. I think that’s when it started to go off the rails -- that was probably around page four. Steve (reading from book): “‘Gary, you’re adopted,’ his domineering father said harshly, taking a hearty drink of the beer that he always had on hand, due to his alcoholism. ‘And also, this whole time, I haven’t been who you think I am. I’m a CIA agent, Gary. So there’s also that, as well.’” Jeff: So the hook is that Gary learns that his dad is a secret agent in the CIA. I thought it was a cool metaphor for how, like, people aren’t really who you think they are. Brent: I read the first 10 pages, just out of curiosity, and…holy shit. For one thing, why was Gary’s response to finding out that he’s adopted -- and that his dad is a CIA agent -- to start coaching a Pop Warner football team? Jeff: My elevator pitch when I was first writing the book was sort of, like, Friday Night Lights meets The Bourne Identity -- but without all the amnesia stuff. But also, it deals with adoption. And then, obviously, there’s all the deep-sea fishing towards the end. Steve (reading from book): “And as Gary looked out upon the grassy football field, a tear came to his eye and rolled down his cheek like a liquid raisin of sorrow. A great emotion swelled in his breast, and he thought, ‘What is grass? And why must it be so emerald?’” Jeff: The grass is a metaphor for his birth parents. It’s kind of a thinker, but it works. Amy: It’s the…I don’t want to say it’s the worst book I’ve ever read? But at the same time it’s…okay, it’s the worst book I’ve ever read. Steve: I love Jeff, I really do. I’ve known him for years. But I’d rather undergo a back-alley colonoscopy than have to read that thing again. I’m fucking serious. Even a page of it. Kyle: He gave it to me two weeks ago, and I’ve only been able to read maybe…I don’t know…30 pages? And the worst part is, I’ve had to avoid him at work. Instead of going to the breakroom, I’ve been eating lunch in my car. I put the sun visor over the windshield, just in case he walks past. Amy: Tender Moments, or whatever he calls it…it just doesn’t make sense. And not in, like, a cool William S. Burroughs way. It doesn’t make sense in the way that a toddler doesn’t make sense. It just goes from one thing to the next. Steve: I’ve been avoiding his texts and calls for the past couple of weeks. My doorbell rang the other day, and I had to Army-crawl around my living room because I thought it might be him. It wound up being the UPS guy, but I was still pretty freaked out. Jeff: I’m really looking forward to hearing what everybody thinks about Tender Moments. I’m sure I’ll have to make a few changes here and there, which is fine -- I’m not going to be precious about it. The important thing is that it’s almost done, and I can get it out into the world. Kyle: I hate to say this, but he should delete the file, burn any printouts he’s made, and start over. Or maybe he could find something completely different to do. My dad used to have model trains in the basement. Maybe Jeff could do model trains. Or woodworking. Or anything besides writing. Steve: I had a dream the other night where Jeff had both hands bitten off by a shark, and he wasn’t able to write anymore. It was sort of scary, but when I woke up, I was kind of disappointed that it hadn’t actually happened. Jeff: Right now, I’m just a guy in a cubicle, y’know? But when my book comes out, all that’s gonna change. There’ll be a book tour…maybe a movie or a TV show. To be a published author is going to be amazing. I just need to tighten it up a little, get an agent, and find a publisher. I guess I’ll need an author photo, too. Maybe I’ll ask Amy to take one for me the next time I see her. Although it’s weird: she’s not responding to my texts. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The League of Extraordinary Critics

Before the summer onslaught of comic book movies featuring X-Men, Avengers and Justice Leaguers, let us pay homage to a cadre of merely human, though still valiant, book critics who have attained something like superhero status themselves. Though they adopted radically different methods, and were bickering among themselves more often than not -- and one of them is currently incarcerated -- so strong was their shared devotion to the sacred duty of criticism that future generations will surely say of them: Such once were Criticks, such the Happy Few Athens and Rome in better Ages knew. Rex Hume: The Highbrow Hound Rex Hume, the famed allusion-hunting critic known as “The Highbrow Hound,” “The Tweedy Truffler,” and “Causabon 2.0” has been universally praised for his “near-sensuous pedantry.” Whereas some of our more conscientious critics take it upon themselves to read the whole of an author’s oeuvre before reviewing his or her latest, Hume, lest he miss one literary reference, thematic reworking, or subtle resonance, re-reads the whole of the Western Canon. Famously averse to new works, the reactionary Hume cultivates an irascible persona. Nearly every publicist has received one of his dreaded form replies to notices touting a debut effort: “If it were that good, wouldn’t I have seen it alluded to elsewhere?” Hume’s allusive obsession stems from an adolescent trauma. One spring, that season when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, he asked a young lady, handsome, clever, and rich, to the prom. She curtly referred him to “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The prancing, yellow-stockinged swain hurried home, hoping to find in the story an invitation to come live with her and be her love. When instead, he read those devastatingly demurring words, his eyes burned with anguish and anger. He awoke the next morn a sadder and a wiser man and vowed to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield in his quest to shore each and every fragment against his ruined ego. The path was not easy. Medical setbacks dogged the bookish lad from his college years, when Hume’s brain literally exploded -- or so his detractors quipped -- after Planet Joyce first swam into his ken. (Though his doctors maintained that it was nothing more than an “Oxen of the Sun”-induced aneurism.) Hume’s mania has also landed him in legal trouble. He was sued after putting George Plimpton in a chokehold, convinced that one of the dilettante’s witticisms was cribbed from a Martial epigram. Hume wouldn’t release him until two Commentary editors and William Styron assured him that the bon mot was most definitely a Plimpton original. Hume’s dogged sleuthing lent his reviews, essentially scorecards of real or imagined literary references, a bizarre quality. One cannot, though, argue with the lapidary precision of his assessment of Bonfire of the Vanities: “Dickens (42), Trollope (28), Fitzgerald (11), Dostoyevsky (8.33), Baudelaire (p), Dumas (1)…” After readers began to demand more expansive considerations, Hume’s editor steered him away from covering allusion-rich literary novels and towards romance fiction. However, these peppery tales only stimulated the Hound’s nose, detecting as he did the soupçon of a Rabelais, a pinch of Rochester, a tang of Sade, a dash of Nin, or the perverse wafting of Jonathan Edwards in each concoction. And so Hume was finally assigned to his current post, covering children’s picture books. He has yet to produce a review, as he immediately enrolled in the Columbia Art History graduate program. But colleagues report, whether with dismay or eagerness is unclear, that he has been holed up for weeks with Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a Biblical concordance, and Go Dog Go. Sydney Duff: A King on His Throne Blessed with incredible stamina and a prodigiously broad backside, Sydney Duff has never reviewed a book he couldn’t read in one sitting. He burst onto the scene with his review of The Corrections -- “I read it in one sitting” -- which he finished while riding the A train end-to-end throughout the night. Another one of his famous pieces came during a 100-mile charity bike ride through the Hudson Valley -- White Teeth perched on the handlebars -- in support of deep vein thrombosis research. “I read it in one sitting,” he raved, “and raised money for a great cause!” And who could forget the scathing review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “I read it in one sitting, though at times I was tempted to put it down and stretch my legs.” The young Duff could be brash and insensitive, universally reviled for once accusing a wheelchair-bound colleague of impinging on his brand. In another notorious incident, he was so enraged at the mere sight of his assistant’s standing desk that he threw it out the fifth-story office window. Such anecdotes reveal the latent dynamism of the sedentary creature. Then there was Duff’s daredevil affair with Rex Hume’s wife. Having cracked open a novel shortly after their adulterous afternoon assignation, he refused to leave his lover’s bedroom until he had finished it. Hume, who had been out hunting truffles, eventually returned home, but luckily headed straight to his study to reacquaint himself with Flaubert. When Duff snuck out that night, the Highbrow Hound was none the wiser. Duff mellowed with age, perhaps drained by his near-continual feats of biblio-endurance. The ravages of time lent an introspective air to his work as Duff grappled with his own mortality. Consider the terse pathos of his reassessment of Proust: “Though the bed sores almost derailed me, I read it in one go. For a long time it was painful.” Those curious about what the photo-shy Duff looks like need only visit the Tate Modern, which houses the portrait Lucian Freud painted of the corpulent critic, toilet-bound and reading a copy of The Portrait of a Lady. As Duff put it in a rare cross-disciplinary review that demonstrated the full range of his aesthetic judgement: “Both the novel and the portrait were completed in one session.” Duff retired some years ago to fully devote himself to activism. He is not fond of marches or picket lines -- or progressive causes truth be told -- but whenever a group of young idealists gathers at a statehouse or university president’s office, they can count on the old lounger, book in hand, for support at their sit-ins. Aristophocles: Two-Faces, One Name Some swear that the one-named critic Aristophocles is the merriest man alive. Indeed, many a witness could testify -- and many a review confirm -- that the one-named critic never sat in a café, enjoyed a sunny day in the park, or infuriated fellow passengers in the Amtrak quiet car, without his distinctive cackle echoing round. And yet similarly upstanding citizens aver that at the same cafés, on the same country greens and in the same quiet cars, could be heard the guttural sobs of a profoundly moved reader. So which is it? Does Aristophocles, who emotes so fulsomely in public spaces, wear a tragic or a comic mask? Identify with l’allegro or il penseroso? Simple questions for a complex man, torn between vain deluding joys and loathed melancholy. The hint of a pun produces peals of mirth, and the mere premonition of loss cues the waterworks. He is a creature supremely attuned to the jollity and sorrow of literature, and didn’t hesitate to show it. As he put it once in his full-throated defense of affective criticism, “I Laughed, I Cried, Then Criticized: “If one emotes in the forest, and no one hears it…[sobs]…Excuse me, the mere thought of a lone emoter emoting on his own brought tears to my eyes. How silly of me. [giggles]” He never chortled but guffawed, never teared up but wept, for such beings as he were made for more intense feelings, and there were so many feelings. (It must be noted that some cynics doubted his overzealousness, claiming that he never left home without an onion in one pocket and a nitrous oxide canister in the other.) Aristophocles does not do well at poetry readings; unsure whether to laugh or cry, he merely ejaculates strangled whimpers from time to time. He likes his genres well-defined. Family and friends, seeing him swing so violently between giddiness and agony, had him institutionalized when he attempted to review a tragicomedy. Fortunately, he was released shortly thereafter, greeting his fans with tears of joy. His performative antics have rubbed more than one colleague the wrong way, Sydney Duff among them. In one encounter, Aristophanes and Duff squared off in a hotel lobby at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Duff, so the story goes, had been in the lobby for hours with a copy of The Wallcreeper, but was having trouble finishing the last chapter because Aristophocles, reading the same novel, had taken the seat across from him. “I read the novel in one sitting, despite the tittering simpleton impeding my best efforts,” read Duff’s subsequent piece. As for Aristophocles’s competing review: “I laughed so much reading this rollicking debut that Sydney Duff almost got off his ass for once in his career.” Quentin Dent, Proud Blockhead: To have one’s book reviewed by Quentin Dent is, as any author will attest, a gratis psychotherapy session, an X-ray of one’s creative soul. Other critics might describe, explain, and contextualize the work, tease out patterns of imagery, grapple with its philosophical claims, or delve into the author’s biography. Worthy endeavors all, but how much cleaner (naysayers would say lazier) was Dent’s method: let the text speak for itself. Having taken his mentor Cleanth Brooks’s coinage “the heresy of paraphrase” rather literally, he steadfastly refused to paraphrase, or analyze, or do much of anything really. Dent’s reviews even dispensed with the author name and book title. He filled his column instead with three well-chosen block quotations, which were typically introduced with “To wit,” “Consider,” or, “Regard.” At the end of each passage would follow a closing statement, perhaps “Indeed,” “Hmm,” or, were he in a gushing mood, “Quod erat demonstrandum.” A sample essay, on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: Take: Maria’s notion on the subject were more confused and indistinct. She did not want to see or understand Quite. Ergo: “How kind! How very kind! Oh! Mr. Crawford, we are infinitely obliged to you. Dearest, dearest William!” she jumped up and moved in haste towards the door, crying out, “I will go to my uncle…” Und so weiter. To conclude: "It was a silver knife." Sharp. A cult of fervent believers, the Blockheads, extolled Dent’s mystical abilities to see into the heart of things. They would pore over Dent’s passage selections like ancient priests sifting through entrails. Why these three? Were they merely chosen to hit the requisite word count -- or could some deeper insight be divined? If one could only uncover the secret, so the ephebes thought, one could eventually learn to sustain the fevered pitch throughout the whole book. Anti-Blockheads wryly pointed out it that his selection of key passages was less insightful than haphazard -- a case bolstered by the high percentage of selections from page 22 of the books in question. For longer pieces on multiple works or multiple works by the same author, Dent would simply lay out more quotes, the theory being that to butt in with an attempt at synthesis would merely interrupt a mellifluous conversation in progress. A much-anticipated comparative study of the novel has been delayed for years because of fair-use problems. Valerie Plume: Critical Agency Quentin Dent’s longtime wife, Valerie Plume, has led the most novelistic life of any of the aforementioned superstar-critics. As a spy rising through the ranks of the CIA during the Cold War, she drew on her English major background to funnel money to literary magazines through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. She was in line to make station chief somewhere, but was burned after the Paris Review accepted a poem of hers and ran the following bio: “A cultural attaché living in Paris, Plume is the author of thousands of classified memoranda.” Plume was livid but ultimately relieved, since having her cover blown allowed her to pursue her true passion: poetry criticism. The Paris Review, sheepish after the faux-pas, was all too happy to launch her career with a column. At the outset, she relied on her close reading skills to confront the often thorny works under review. But Plume was incapable of remaining content with half knowledge, as Keats put it, and she soon decided to dust off her old spy-craft toolkit for her new mission. And why not? Espionage and criticism are both, broadly speaking, intelligence work, and in intelligence work of any kind, one cultivates assets and secures information. An offhand remark, discarded draft, pilfered dream journal, or juicy bit of gossip could unlock a hidden symbolic world. Therefore she had the Yaddo retreat bugged; placed one mole on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty and another as an assistant librarian working under Philip Larkin; had an intern root through Anne Carson’s dumpster; and tailed Czesław Miłosz through the streets of Berkeley, though the wily Lithuanian, no stranger to such solicitude, quickly dropped her. Such methods were bound to catch up with Plume. She was excoriated by PEN America  after she scooped John Ashbery off the street, shot him up with truth serum, then grilled him about the meaning of his work in an abandoned squash court. Despite the outrage, she justified her tactics as necessary when interrogating refractory postmodernists. In Plume’s defense, however, it must be said that even during the excesses of the Bush administration, she was firmly opposed to waterboarding poets. Plume’s career came to an ignominious end after it was revealed that she had returned to spywork, this time for the enemy. It was alleged that she was using her husband’s book reviews to pass coded messages to the Russians. Authorities couldn’t get anything out of the steely Plume, but Quentin Dent buckled almost immediately, admitting that his wife had chosen his block quotation passages for years. Epilogue: Hume, Duff, Aristophocles, and Dent visit Plume in prison every week to discuss literature and debate whether “greater Want of Skill / Appear in Writing or in Judging ill.” The lively gatherings, whose attendees are known in publishing circles as “The League of Extraordinary Critics,” only rarely necessitate intervention from the jailhouse guards. Illustrations courtesy of Zane Shetler, who lives and works in Durham, N.C. He specializes in drawing fictional book critics in their bathrobes.

Like a Fried Egg Sliding off a Fat Man’s Naked Thigh: 18 Incredible Fair-Use Similes

Writing is hard. Everybody knows that. And one of the hardest things to write -- and write well -- are similes. So, as a public service, I’m supplying the general public with the following fair-use similes. That’s right: these are 100 percent free to use. Sprinkle them throughout your own writing -- your emails, your letters, your ham-fisted dystopian romance novels -- and be amazed by the lift in the overall quality of your work. You can thank me later. 1. The sun descended toward the horizon like a fried egg sliding off a fat man's naked thigh. 2. Her smile was as wide as the Mississippi River, with none of the intractable benzene pollution. 3.They made love as frantically as a weasel trying to escape from a linen closet. 4. The child, in knee socks and culottes, was as carefree as Ed Gein before he exhumed all those corpses to make pajamas from their skin. 5. He felt as hopeless as a fishmonger at a Missouri nudist colony. 6. His love for her was as true as a correct answer on a true/false test about truth. 7. His penis stood at attention like a nervous soldier on his first day of basic training. The penis even wore a tiny camouflage helmet and, somehow, combat boots. 8. "How dare you?" he exploded, like a rotten cassava melon thrown at a passing tram. 9. The dog tilted its head quizzically, as addled as a sleepy toddler in a Yale robotics colloquium. 10. His voice cracked like an egg that would then be fried and inexplicably placed on a fat man's naked thigh. 11. The room grew as dim as the dark side of the moon, which is also the title of Pink Floyd's best album, and if you're going to say Wish You Were Here is better, man, go back and listen to Dark Side. I mean, do yourself a favor and really listen to it. 12. The moment was as disappointing as arriving at the Sizzler hot bar with an empty plate, only to find that the whole damn place is plumb out of corn fritters. 13. His shoes squeaked on the tile, as distracting as a dreadlocked busker playing ska-inflected Dave Matthews covers at your great-aunt’s funeral. 14. Sadness ripped through him like that weird chest pain you always get after one too many gluten-free toaster waffles. 15. He stood tall as he glided confidently across the crowded room, like Manute Bol on rollerblades. 16. It was eerily quiet in the forest clearing, as if God himself had been all, like, "Dude, shut up, I think my parents are coming!" 17. The emotion that filled his heart was as pure as water poured from a PUR 7-Cup Water Pitcher. (This simile brought to you by PUR.) 18. Shaken, she felt as fragile as an egg that would then be cracked, fried, and inexplicably placed on a fat man's naked thigh. Image Credit: Pixabay.

The Five Scariest Books Ever Written

With Halloween upon us, now is the perfect time to curl up with a good, scary book. But if you’ve already read such standbys as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Shining, you might be in need of a suggestion. With that in mind, here are five absolute chillers that will have you turning pages deep into the night -- and are guaranteed to have your teeth a-chattering as you pray for the sun to rise! Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom The elderly, disease-wracked Morrie is dying -- immobile and helpless in what is soon to be his deathbed. Outside his New England home, the pained echoes of atrocities past --- witch burnings, the slaughter of native peoples -- can still be faintly heard. Once each week, as regular as the doomsday clock, he is visited by a much younger man -- a man known, terrifyingly, as “Mitch” -- who has arrived from the murder-pocked wastelands of Detroit. Mitch hovers above Morrie’s bed, extracting stories, memories, and anecdotes from the elder as if withdrawing his very blood. Morrie, unsurprisingly, withers as Mitch’s visits mount. Is Morrie’s terminal illness sapping his will to live? Or is he a victim of Mitch’s vampiric need for enough material to fill an easily giftable book? It’s All Good by Gwyneth Paltrow In It’s All Good, a pallid wraith of a woman named Gwyneth, all eerie eyes and jutting bones, drags us into the depths of her madness -- a state in which simple, good-hearted folk might gobble down such witchy horrors as preserved lemons and quail eggs. Early on, we learn that Gwenyth shuns red meat -- it is, perhaps, too close to the taste of human flesh -- and any poultry raised inorganically. Her goal, she proclaims, is to “cleanse” her “system.” This obsession with scouring her bowels of the merest impurity raises a troubling question: what is so vile within her that it must be so harshly scrubbed away? And if we read her book, are we just as poisoned as she? Crippled America by Donald Trump In Crippled America, a glaring, angry madman called Donald guides us through a harrowing realm of poverty, violence, and ruin -- a shattered deathscape that, if viewed through a certain prism, can begin to look like our own. As in other works of dystopian horror, Crippled America is vague on what has brought such pestilence, and at times Donald’s prose, as H.P. Lovecraft’s, becomes difficult to follow (“If you have laws that you don’t enforce, then you don’t have laws,” he writes. “This leads to lawlessness.”). At other times, however, he is as convincingly menacing as the Cryptkeeper himself -- as when he declares his lunatic intentions to rule this ravaged land. It’s a far-fetched bit of plotting, to be sure -- but just plausible enough to send a shiver down your spine. Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen Like Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Chicken Soup for the Soul is a collection of stories that, taken as a whole, form a mosaic of punishing psychological horror. Taking place in an eerie world in which humanity’s quirks and edges have been worn away -- shades of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives -- Chicken Soup for the Soul pounds the reader with sun-dappled tales of love, flowers, and workplace hugging. Chicken Soup for the Soul succeeds in terrifying by relentlessly piling false “goodness” upon false “goodness” -- and for the quivering, goose-pimpled reader, the effect is that of being forced to eat an entire sheet cake at riflepoint. The Carrie Diaries by Candace Bushnell A modern classic of terror, The Carrie Diaries tells the story of Carrie White, a fragile teenager who is born with telekinetic powers -- powers that, as she matures, will allow her to avenge the high-school abusers who torment her endlessly. Bushnell controls the action with a firm and expert grip, allowing the horror of The Carrie Diaries to slowly build, a sense of dread permeating each page, until a catastrophic climax that stands as one of the...wait a minute — what? Oh. Really? Oh. Okay. So then..what’s The Carrie Diaries? Oh. Like a Sex and the City prequel? For fuck’s sake. That’s even scarier than whatever the hell it was I was originally talking about. Image Credit: Pixabay.

Fates and Furies on Twitter

Lauren Groff's Fates & Furies, just out in paperback, tells the story of a marriage. The first half of the novel is from the perspective of the husband, Lotto, who sees marriage as, “a never-ending banquet, and you eat and eat and never get full.” The second half is from the perspective of the wife, Mathilde, who says of marriage, "Kipling called it a very long conversation." Fates and Furies shows how two people can misunderstand each other over time. Lotto and Mathilde live their lives together, but they inhabit completely different worlds. In this way, the novel has a similar dynamic to Twitter. People tweet messages at each other while also inhabiting completely different worlds. Though on the social network major miscommunications take only 140 characters to unfold, in both a true connection remains elusive. So what if Lotto and Mathilde were both to tweet? Without the luxury of 400 pages in the novel, Lotto would need to activate all his advantages given the limited space, whereas Mathilde would need to cut short her passive aggressive ways. If you have read Fates and Furies, you might question whether a private person like Mathilde would ever expose personal details in a forum designed for public consumption. Under usual circumstances, she would not. But she's always made an exception for Lotto and his wicked sense of timing. And he, in turn, has made a life of luring her in. But would high-born Lotto join Twitter? I’ll remind you that he is an actor in a playwright’s hide. He’ll never not be vain. ___  

A Fourth Time, I Ask: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?

On three previous occasions, I have confronted the thorny -- yet seemingly obvious -- question of whether or not picture books are leading our precious, innocent, impressionable, doe-eyed youth down a skull-strewn path to ruin. I had (naively) thought that three installments would be enough to successfully confront the problem -- yet, alas, there are simply too many books on our children’s shelves that, through deceptively cheery artwork and sly subversion, are destroying our tots from within. Here are four of the worst offenders I’ve recently had the displeasure of reading. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury At first glance, this rollicking chant-along seems inoffensively silly, as it follows a family’s “bear hunt,” its sights set on catching “a big one.” But the merest analysis of the story is enough to make one’s blood run cold: a father has recklessly dragged his four young children (and seemingly terrified dog) along with him -- yet has brought nothing to defend them with once their quarry is reached. They trudge through woods, mud, high grass, and shallow water on their idiotic mission, and are woefully unprepared for each. When they finally reach the bear’s cave, they are chased back the way they came, frantic and breathless, violent death certain for any family member who happens to fall behind. The story ends with the relieved, chastened hunters hiding beneath a blanket in their safely-locked house -- as if all is now somehow well. But what scarring and post-traumatic stress have the children suffered at the hands of their sociopathic father? And is it any wonder that their mother has abandoned him? Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats has the distinction of being this country’s longest-running in-print children’s book -- and it also has the distinction of being the most hellish murderscape to ever plague the minds of America’s youth. When a lonely elderly man surprises his equally lonely wife with “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats,” it seems that the couple will live out their days in a state of fuzzy kitty bliss. But this is not to be. The felines, whipped into a frenzy by the question of which of them is “the prettiest,” proceed to slaughter one another until only one remains. Though Gág shrewdly omitted steaming mountains of viscera-strewn cat carcasses from her crude illustrations, the reader can’t help but picture the mind-bending kill, the simple fields and hillsides soaked with calico gore. The reader is invited to rejoice in the remaining kitten -- but how can one rejoice in the wake of such annihilation? Did the lone survivor of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre later see her time in Leatherface’s femur-hung terrorhouse as somehow heartwarming? Sadly, Gág died in 1946, so we can never ask her that question -- but after enduring her relentless horrorshow, one suspects that her answer would be yes. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst Is there any character in modern literature more detestable than the sulking, selfish, egomaniacal Alexander? Why would any parent read this petulant saga to his or her child? As the monstrous title character stomps through his miserable day, he subjects the reader to a litany of problems that are nearly all of his own making. They include -- but are by no means limited to -- sleeping with gum in his mouth and waking with it in his hair; being criticized for not participating in class; being told that he has a cavity -- perhaps because he sleeps with fucking gum in his mouth -- and angering his father by visiting his office and destroying everything in his path. To Alexander, the day’s greatest indignities are that a schoolmate demotes him to his fourth-best friend, and that the family cat chooses to sleep with his brother instead of him -- as if there is any reason for anyone to cozy up to such a vile little turd. Throughout, Alexander keeps threatening to move to Australia, to which I say: fucking go! Half a world away seems a sufficient distance from this disgusting brat’s scandalous self-absorption. Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi Apparently, some believe that Everyone Poops is a simple masterpiece of early-childhood body-awareness, as it teaches youngsters that there is nothing shameful or odd about defecation -- as “everyone,” Gomi tells us, from mice to whales to humans, does it. But here’s the problem: everyone does not poop. I, for one, am 37 years old, and, to my knowledge, I have never felt the urge to do that filthy bit of business. I suppose it’s possible that I may have “thrown heat” as an infant -- nobody’s perfect, after all -- but for as long as I can remember, my body has converted its waste into pristine, renewable energy. So while I may tolerate the practice by my family members and peers, I see nothing to praise in it. Am I simply a missing link, a representative of a brighter, less-malodorous future? Probably. And in light of such advances, Everyone Poops seems akin to celebrating the burning of coal or the extraction of Canadian tar sands. We can do better than poop -- of that I am certain.

The Art of Compassion: On Donald Trump’s Hats

1. Make America Hats Again It’s the type of hat old men wear while pruning or in the swimming pool after a melanoma diagnosis. High-crowned and of a dependable fabric. It is the hat of an Iowa corn farmer. That is where he first sees them. In Marshalltown and Council Bluffs. Dubuque and Davenport. He doesn’t wear sunglasses, not ever, and he’s noticing -- as his jet touches down and he walks out into sunlight reflecting off the gold of the crop surrounding municipal airports, these silly airports which are neither tremendous nor luxurious, I mean, look at ‘em, will ya?, crops on all sides, threatening to storm the concrete borders—these men on John Deere’s never having to squint. “I need one of those,” he tells a staffer. His enemies and rivals, of which there are scores, believe he is intractable, nasty to the core, self-involved, arrogant, unable to laugh -- nobody has seen him laugh. They believe he cannot listen to others. But it isn’t true. In fact the opposite is the case. Men like him listen. They recall every word uttered. It is nearly maddening, this inability to unhear or to forget. He doesn’t drink. He avoids pharmaceuticals as much as possible. To this end, he rarely sleeps, and as nights bleed into days he finds himself recalling what a journalist once said about his fingers, and he spends hours finding a photograph of his fingers -- the right photograph, the one that also allows them to be seen in-scale -- and, with a gold Sharpie, he writes SEE NOT SO SHORT!! He never forgets. He has incredible recall for 70 years old. He’s always learning and reconfiguring. And what he’s learned here in Iowa is that farmers wear a particular kind of hat. His staffer does a quick search. They find Cali Headwear, a manufacturer of some of the most generic clothes conceivable. The Make/Model of the Iowa-farmer style hat is known as the 5-Panel Patriot -- PAT15: Stayfront rope. High crown kept high by a strange mesh lip on the interior. He’s in Laredo, Texas, when the hat arrives. Overjoyed by its simple design and by its height, which affords his wild hair a place to nest, he calls his daughter. His daughter. Young and smart, the princess of the family. She has ties to the fashion industry and he’s essentially placed her in charge of the whole enchilada, and yet when her teeth appear on FaceTime, he can’t contain the glee. “Look, honey, isn’t it tremendous?” It isn’t tremendous. The daughter blocks the camera long enough to roll her eyes. Thirty-four and still embarrassed by Dad. But this is his time. Let the old man have this one. Sure, she tells him. It’s tremendous. It’s as tremendous as your vision for this world. 2. Hats Make America Again He bought the plane, a Boeing 757, from a software-monger with I mean zero sense of luxuriousness, okay people? Now look at it. The seatbelts are plated in 24-karat gold, as are the bathroom fixtures, the sconces in the guest bedroom, even the silk on the master bedroom duvet. The engines are Rolls Royce, and it costs $10,800 for every hour it is in the air, and it is in the air a lot, like this evening, racing at 500 mph and tearing through the sky above the hinterlands. It is here, alone in the dark and quiet, floating above the nation, where he does his best Tweeting. And because he does not drink or take pills, because he cannot sleep, he spends hours reading the responses. He reads every one of them -- every piece of love or vitriol hurled his way. @PedsforGuns has written: Terrible! Only ‪@realDonaldTrump can stop this kind of barbarism. The link is to a video of the Taliban destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan. People, apparently, are still outraged or else they have confused the Taliban with ISIS. He watches the video over and over, trying to find within himself an inkling of ire or despair. The captain comes on the PA and warns him of a storm building; they’re flying straight toward it. Perhaps it’d be best to redirect to Evansville and wait it out. “On to Carolina,” he tells them. When he purchased the Bonwit Teller building he promised some artsy bozos he wouldn’t destroy the Art Deco limestone reliefs. He’d donate them to the Met. He’d been told they were invaluable, and he’d stood outside on 5th Avenue and stared at them and wondered what this word, invaluable, meant. And when he was told by his super that to preserve the reliefs would delay building of his own Tower by 10 days, he had workers jackhammer them into shards. And when the art bozos talked bad about him, he told New York that the Tower would be replete with gilded ornamentation -- “real art, not like the junk I destroyed at Bonwit Teller.” “Sir?” the captain says. “It’s getting real bad up here.” He hasn’t noticed, but the plane is rocking. The turbulence is severe. He can see lightning in the clouds outside the window. “On to Carolina,” he tells them, and locks himself in the bathroom. He is a man who forgets nothing. “What do you think?” he asked a writer featuring him for Vanity Fair.  “Do you think blowing up the sculptures has hurt me?” “Yes,” the writer had said. “Who cares?” he said. “Let’s say that I had given that junk to the Met. They would have just put them in their basement. I’ll never have the goodwill of the Establishment, the tastemakers of New York. Do you think, if I failed, these guys in New York would be unhappy? They would be thrilled! Because they have never tried anything on the scale that I am trying things in this city. I don’t care about their goodwill.” He watches the video of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. He listens, feels, the shaking of the Boeing -- of the sky opening up and threatening to swallow him whole. It will not, of course, because even the heavens cannot stop him. He stares at himself in the mirror and, with his bottom teeth exposed, he repeats: Total. Disaster. Total. Disaster. Total Disaster. 3. Make Hats American Again By all accounts, the hat itself is apolitical. It has never declared a party affiliation. It has never pulled the curtain behind itself in a voting stall and de-chadded a ballot. The hat was born in Carson, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles. The hat has 35 siblings, since Cali-Fame’s smallest possible bulk order, known as the “Quick Strike,” requires a 36-piece minimum order. There is no known scientific term for 36-tuplets, though 36 is the ASCII code for the symbol ‘$.’ Gold on White. White on Blue. White on Red. Later, OSHA orange on Camouflage. The hat doesn’t understand why, a day after Laredo, it makes news in both the mainstream and in fashion circles. Nor does its wearer understand; he only wants to keep the sun out of his eyes -- in a tremendous way. His daughter is horrified. She knows, as all of us do, that Jack Kennedy killed the hat. Kennedy never wore a fedora; he broke the tradition -- from Lincoln’s top hat to Zachary Taylor’s straw brim. Kennedy went naked, and in response, there are rumors, true believers, that the John B. Stetson Company hired Lee Oswald for retribution. The man’s daughter believes the hat could sink the campaign. She does not understand irony. And so she is shocked when hip kids one borough over begin requesting the hat. Gold on White. White on Blue. White on Red. In Carson, another Kennedy, Brian, born to the wrong clan, a family who could no longer endure the frigid New England winters and so went west, finds himself president of Cali-Fame. “We’re not political,” Brian Kennedy tells his workforce, of whom 80 percent are Latino. “We’re here to work.” And work they do, day and night, bringing in nearly $300,000 in one quarter. It’s enough money that Brian, at night, pours himself a stiff brandy and sits and wonders just what exactly is going on. 4. [Let's] Make Hats Hats Again It’s a stupid thing to say -- that you’ve got the best words -- but you’ve said it, and you never concede or apologize, and anyway, perhaps on some level, it’s true. You’re in Hilton Head five days after Christmas, speaking to men and women in a strange mélange of bathing suits and sweaters, golf attire and scarves. It is sunny and fair, but so often the wind off the Atlantic whips through this resort, sending the elderly in search for mittens. You’ve got the best words, you tell them, and they believe you. Why not? You took Reagan’s slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again” and dropped the ‘Let’s.’ Let’s, of course, means let us, which means to allow us, which is to ask for permission -- to concede power. You do not concede power, which is why you don’t drink or laugh or smile or nod when somebody is speaking to you so as to give a nonverbal queue of agreement or understanding. To laugh is to acknowledge another’s ability to impact one’s self. No, thank you. The Art of War. The Art of the Deal. Make America Great Again is a command, not a request. You’ve got to get back to Manhattan. Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. You’ve got a tremendous view of the party. In the car, on the way to the airport, you place the hat back on your head, careful not to mess with your hair. Reagan dyed his. You do not. Don’t believe me? Touch it. Touch my hair. C’mon, I’m being serious. Touch my hair. Do it. A wind picks up and blows an inflatable nativity scene off the lawn of the Anglican Church of the Redeemer and into the road. Traffic is stopped. The limo is stopped. You watch frantic citizens rush from their cars to tackle donkeys and sheep. A retiree subdues one of the Wise men by sitting on it until the figure deflates into a pool beneath him. A staffer says, “It’s funny, don’t you think?” Humor. This thing people are always going on about. You stare out the window at the chaos and try to understand. Is it funny? What is funny? What is invaluable or art or compassion? What are all these words people are always going around spewing? You have so many questions. Is it possible to love a woman, a daughter for instance, without sexualizing her? What is with people’s feelings? Why can’t they get out of your way? And with that, you try your hand at humor. You roll down the window and point to the retiree, the guy struggling with the wise man, and shout, “Hey, you! Get the fuck outta here, okay? Who cares! I’ll deflate ‘em for you!” and you tell the driver to drive, and he does, and you turn to your staffer and smile and laugh. But he’s not laughing at all. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.