By Will Ferguson
Canongate; 309 pp.; $24
From the very opening line of this novel's disclaimer, the reader knows where he or she stands:
"This is a book about the end of the world, and as such, it involves diet cookbooks, self-help gurus, sewer-crawling convicts, overworked editors, the economic collapse of the United States of America and the widespread tilling of alfalfa fields. And I think one of the characters loses a finger at some point, too. This is the story of apocalypse: Apocalypse Nice. It tells of a devastating plague of human happiness "
In other words, this is satire with a capital S. It's the kind of book Tom Robbins used to write when Tom Robbins was still funny.
Will Ferguson, who lives in Calgary "in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies," is the author of several nonfiction titles, including Why I Hate Canadians. In this, his first foray into fiction, he has created a protagonist who is an assistant nonfiction editor at Panderic Press (adversary of HarperCollins and Random House): cynical, jaded Edwin de Valu, a man who kicks cats and hates most of what he edits. When a monstrous self-help book called What I Learned on the Mountaintop by Tupac Soiree appears in his slush pile, he sniffs at it, belittles it, fumes over it, and junks it. Then his boss surprises him, demanding that Edwin fill a hole in the fall catalog with -- guess what -- a self-help book. Edwin promises him the very manuscript he just threw away, only to discover that it's already gone to the city dump.
What follows is a hilarious send-up of publishing, self-help books, authors, editors, wives, mistresses, sages, seekers, get-rich-quick schemes, and save-the-world dreams. But as Edwin bounces around unproductively, Fate waits in the wings with a mission for him.
Bitter Edwin's life isn't going so well. He hates his boss, Mr. Mead, an ex-hippie whose whole generation Edwin disparages, saying, "The sixties never died, they just got really, really boring." Edwin's also ghostwritten an unpublished book called Die, Baby Boomers, Die! He calls his wife Hun, not short for honey but as in Attila. And he's in love with a co-worker, the ever-dieting May, who alternately adores and hates Edwin.
So when he's responsible for publishing that self-help book, a book that changes the world, he is, at first, elated. But as he comes to see the vapidity behind it all, he is, eventually, appalled. He says, "It's like reading the mad ravings of a lunatic. Someone locked away in a padded cell, someone who has read far too many books. Or maybe the mad ravings of a genius." The book's mind-numbing simplicity, its "Live! Love! Learn!" message, of course, catches on like a cure for headaches. Chaos ensues. First the tobacco industry then the alcohol distilleries then the 12-step programs are put out of business. Business is put out of business. And Edwin, poor schnook, believes he has to do something about it.
Edwin, who loves a good Latin quote, quips that the country's rallying cry has become "Credo quia absurdum." I believe because it is absurd. He calls it the basis of every religion and the New Ager's article of faith. Edwin despairs. Is he the only rational man left on the planet, the only one who sees through What I Learned on the Mountaintop? He sets out to find Tupac Soiree, who has sequestered himself away from the world under armed guard. The book's denouement is unpredictable, in keeping with the plotline.
It's hard not to admire the author's sustained inventiveness. The book never flags but rolls along, cockeyed and wobbly, on its own outrageous course.
Will Ferguson is not the greatest stylist among writers, but the comic verve of Happiness more than makes up for it. This is an inspired, occasionally mean-spirited, anything-goes satire that is so over-the-top, there is no top. If Monty Python collaborated on a book with Terry Southern, this might be the result. "Nemo saltat sobrius," Edwin says. Sober men don't dance.
Which makes just about as much sense as the "wisdom" in What I Learned on the Mountaintop. -- Corey Mesler
Letters To a
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Farrar Straus & Giroux; 128 pp.; $17
Why is it that human beings are drawn to storytelling? Whatever the answer, it seems to be an inherent need that can be traced to the very origin of human society.
Arthur Koestler, in Acts of Creation, suggested that audience and creator alike long for a place "remote from self-interest" where they can transcend the limitations of space and time. Jean-Paul Sartre, in What is Literature?, posited that writers are driven by the need to see themselves as "essential in relationship to the world."
Now comes Mario Vargas Llosa, the esteemed Peruvian novelist, who, in this short collection of essays, Letters To a Young Novelist, argues that creation is a form of protest against the way things are. Audience and storyteller alike seek to escape the hard road that inevitably reduces life to a tearful journey.
With this motivation in mind, Vargas Llosa takes us, step by step, through the issues that confront the would-be storyteller. He is an able teacher. A successful author, most recently of The Feast Of the Goat, Vargas Llosa has tackled this subject matter before. In The Writer's Reality, he explored the work of his favorites, writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Sartre. This latest work puts that foundation to good use as he tackles the technical issues of storytelling. He devotes each "letter" to a single topic -- the use of time, for example, representations of reality, what has traditionally been called "point of view" (the perspective of the storyteller within the context of the novel).
Vargas Llosa draws on the breadth of his reading to illustrate the creative power of these ideas. One interesting example is what he calls the shortest story ever written -- a one-sentence classic by Augusto Monterroso: "When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there." (Imagine waking from a nightmare only to find the nightmare breathing on your face. Terror is followed not by relief but by more terror. There is no escape from the haunting if fragmented imagery that lives in the subconscious.)
Good storytelling can take you to these fantastic levels, as Kafka and Borges, the most renowned of the fantasists, often did. Then there is the issue of time, sometimes only an element of a story and other times the focal point. Vargas Llosa illustrates using the Ambrose Bierce short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," in which a Civil War saboteur is about to be hanged. At the moment of his execution, the rope breaks and the man drops into the river below. The rest of the story follows his flight back to home and wife. He is just about to embrace his wife when -- shocker -- the rope tightens around his neck and the man dies. The entire story, then, has unfolded, in a matter of seconds, only in the mind of the doomed man.
If nothing else, this little book will introduce readers to some writers not widely known to an American audience. And for those ambitious enough to tackle writing a novel, it might contain some helpful hints on how to navigate the many issues that can make or break your creative effort. -- George Shadroui
Republic Of Dreams:
The American Bohemia, 1910-1960
By Ross Wetzsteon
Simon & Schuster; 617 pp.; $35
Greenwich Village is thought of as that place where the misunderstood gather and others (the understood?) look in from the outside. Few writers have tried to pierce the curtain surrounding the Village, perhaps because similar communities, once shed of mystery, begin to resemble blocks of overpriced apartment buildings with Starbucks coffee shops downstairs. Or perhaps because the Village's history is too long and complicated to attempt, what with its who's who of literary lights like Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, William Carlos Williams, Thomas Wolfe, Stephen Crane, and Allen Ginsberg among the dignitaries.
A Village history would also have to capture its frenetic energy, its multiple personalities, and its dynamic between the hip and the commercial. Luckily, the late Ross Wetzsteon, who was with The Village Voice for 35 years as a writer and editor, shows himself capable of just such a feat in his Republic Of Dreams, which focuses on the Village from 1910 to 1960.
Wetzsteon summarizes much of the Village's history in the introduction and spends the majority of his book concentrating on the major players in Village folklore. He spends chapters on Williams, Wolfe (and Wolfe's lover, Aline Bernstein), abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, and Joe Gould, whom Wetzsteon calls "The Last Bohemian."
Gould, a Harvard man who graduated with T.S. Eliot, was a Village bum who "remained an unchanging fixture on the scene mumbling to himself as he scratched his ribs and armpits and rummaged through garbage cans, leering at old friends or strangers as he asked for a handout. [Gould] fascinated Villagers with the purity of that achievement, his rejection of middle-class life, refusal to adjust or compromise or even 'make a living.'"
Wetzsteon uses Gould (among others) to highlight one of his more interesting ideas: that the culture of the bohemian is necessarily one of failure, not so much in that the bohemians produced bad art, but because "rejection by the middle class has been regarded as the surest validation of vision, acceptance as the surest sign that it has failed to achieve its goals." That the work of the bohemians is not mainstream and, therefore, all non-mainstream (and non-profitable) work must be bohemian, Wetzsteon is quick to point out as a fallacy, and he also shows how this culture of failure both validated and detracted from Village culture.
A major strength of this book is that the author refuses to romanticize the notion of the pauper artist or the unappreciated genius. Rather, his tone throughout the text is playful, pointing out the ridiculousness of failure as a virtue. "Joe Gould wasn't just a bum," he writes, "he was a bum of a certain genius."
While Republic Of Dreams successfully captures the richness and color of Village life, the litany of names and characters can unfortunately become monotonous. Wetzsteon uses the scene of poor drunk but good-hearted poets passionately spinning bad verse more than once, and his brief appraisal of each artist's work does not always give justice to the artist.
But maybe I'm missing the point. Because, after all, if the Village is about dedicated but poor artistry, then perhaps Wetzsteon didn't want to be too harsh a critic. Instead, he wanted to shine some needed light on America's most famous village, Greenwich.
-- Chris Przybyszewski
By Lillian Ross
Counterpoint; 292 pp.; $25
"This book is about the journalism that I love and work at. Journalism to me is factual writing, and the highest kind of it comes in the form of good writing, and often writing that, at its best, is witty. But I also enjoy the challenge of pushing traditional structures. For me, there has always been satisfaction and joy in finding or even inventing new ways of telling a story," writes Lillian Ross in her latest book, Reporting Back: Notes On Journalism.
Here, Ross, who has worked for The New Yorker for more than half a century, gives us a glimpse into her life as a writer. It is as much a piece of history as it is a book about observing and revealing.
"I have consistently learned more and more about writing from all the great writers I admire. ... One learns from them but is never compelled to imitate them. When an original piece of writing is imitated, the telltale imitation hangs on that writer the way a string bikini would hang on Mother Teresa," according to Ross.
But Ross doesn't write for writers only. She is a journalist through and through: "Creating a story, especially about real people and real events, is as necessary a part of my life as breathing, eating, walking in Central Park." And this makes her a storyteller. She writes for readers first. And she wrote about Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Chaplin, and Hemingway, to name a few. What makes Ross' stories unique is her angle on them.
"I believe that every new story a reporter takes on about any subject -- especially about famous world figures about whom millions of words of one kind or another are published daily -- should be fresh and alive and worth doing," she writes.
How did Ross do it? She pretty much stayed away from the important people until they weren't that important anymore, and then she wrote about them. She tried to get "past the image of a public person, no matter how fixed it might be" and see where her own curiosity would take her. She doesn't try to compete with the journalists from The New York Times or other major newspapers; she admires them, and she uses them for background, but her stories lead away from mainstream reporting, which makes them truly timeless.
Reporting Back is for anyone who likes to read good nonfiction and who'd like to discover just what makes it good.
-- Simone Barden
a Street Addict
By James J. Cramer
Simon & Schuster; 339 pp.; $26
Terry Keeter, a fine and crusty reporter at The Commercial Appeal for many years, used to have a scathing putdown for anyone who ventured a first-person story in the newspaper. His suggested headline for such offerings was "My Amazing Story, As Told To Me By Me."
That wouldn't be a bad title for James J. Cramer's book Confessions Of a Street Addict. Cramer, whose burning eyes and full mug grace the cover, loves action, loves Wall Street, loves trading stocks, and loves to talk about himself in newspaper columns, on CNBC and CBS Market Watch, on TheStreet.com, and now in this book.
I'm sorry to say that I liked it in spite of myself. Cramer was on the cutting edge if not over the edge of financial journalism for 15 years as both a reporter and a money manager and trader. To an avid Wall Street Journal reader like me, Cramer's career is interesting. Granted, the same could be said for bank robbery or prostitution, but those things are not the foundation of American capitalism.
Cramer was early to see the possibilities of business journalism and financial punditry as well as the Internet as a way to peddle stocks and investment advice. He got in some trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He is a very good writer. Add all that up and it makes for a book very much in tune with today's headlines about corporate scandals and crashing stocks.
I did not, however, find Cramer's personal story of addiction and redemption entirely persuasive. He describes his temper fits, compulsiveness, and neglect of his family life in detail. There is an especially memorable description of his getting drunk and throwing up all over his friends at his surprise 40th birthday party. In the concluding chapter, Cramer reflects on the friends he lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center and their obituaries in The New York Times. "I can tell you that had it been me in those towers, up until this year there wouldn't have been anything about me in my thumbnail that anyone could be proud of," he writes.
A market bull for years, Cramer turned into a bear last year. "You can knock me for thinking that stocks had replaced baseball as America's pastime. They can't; they lose you much more money than baseball can and they can break your wallet and your heart even more than the Red Sox can."
Now he tells us.
The James Cramer I remember goes back another 10 years. I was a charter subscriber to a magazine called Smart Money, which was connected to The Wall Street Journal and was full of useful advice about investments, travel, and spending money. Cramer was a columnist. After a couple of years, I dropped my subscription for two reasons. One was the magazine's cloying way of dressing up mutual-fund managers as celebrities and rock stars. The other was Cramer's column.
To anyone with the slightest background in journalism ethics, it was clear that Cramer was using his podium as a columnist to tout stocks in which he owned large positions as a trader and fund manager. In thinly traded small companies, Cramer could and did move the price of the stock upward. His personal stake was not always disclosed. That is what got him in trouble with the SEC and cost him his credibility with many of his peers. His explanation is lengthy, self-serving, and unconvincing.
And, to me at least, so is his inner nice guy.
-- John Branston
The Sexual Life of Catherine M.
By Catherine Millet
Grove Press; 209 pp.; $23
"Today I can account for forty-nine men whose sexual organs have penetrated mine and to whom I can attribute a name, or at least, in a few cases, an identity. But I cannot put a number on those that blur into anonymity."
This confession is made in the first pages of The Sexual Life Of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet, editor of the French magazine Art Press and author of several books on art. Millet writes autobiographically and as if she were talking to her therapist -- at times coherently, at other times interrupted by a sudden train of thought, which may or may not lead us back to the main event. She describes these events in a highly analytical tone, emotionless, like someone writing a report on the mating behavior of frogs, and it's disturbing.
Millet divides her narrative into four sections, and sex is the focus of all of them -- Millet screwing or being screwed by countless men. Millet at orgies with "up to about 150 people." Millet taking it from the front, from the back, in her mouth, and up the ass, a practice she preferred until a painter made a point of teaching her to put herself to better use. "He talked to me," Millet writes. "He told me extremely persuasively that one day I would meet a man who would know how to take me from the front and bring me to orgasm that way, and that it would be better than the other."
Nothing too unusual here, though. Nothing too shocking, really. Millet could be your next-door neighbor, your sister, or your best friend, someone who likes a lot of sex. But there are only so many variations on this subject and only so many ways to write about it, except perhaps for one variable: men's "members" -- small, hard, large, full, filthy, limp, and so on and so forth. Boredom creeps in halfway through the book, and after an unspectacular ending, you may well wonder, What does Millet want to tell us? And why?
The author, now married, has been monogamous for eight years. She has closed one chapter of her sexual life, and this book is its lid. As to the book's value, you can get out of it what you want out of it. And if you're not totally desperate for sexual revelations, you can read between the lines and pay attention to Millet's true confession. What you'll discover is a very sad book written by an intelligent, well-educated woman who was carried through her sexual life like a leaf in the wind.
"I feel more like a driver who must stick to the rails than a guide who knows where the port is," Millet writes. "I've fucked in the same way." Completely available all the time, not so much wondering about her own pleasure but far more absorbed by the fantasies of men.
"I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said that until I was about thirty-five, I had not imagined that my own pleasure could be the aim of a sexual encounter," Millet goes on to write. "I had never understood that."
This is no "look what these bastards forced me to do" book. Millet wasn't forced to do anything. This was her life, her sexual life. This was what she wanted. Why is she telling us about it? In an interview in a German magazine, Millet said that books are mostly read by women and, at last, she wanted to talk to women about sex. The Sexual Life Of Catherine M. is her attempt to talk to as many women as possible.
-- Simone Barden
This Dark World:
A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost
By Carolyn S. Briggs
Bloomsbury; 304 pp.; $25.95
Sometimes, it just withers and falls away. Religion, that is. That's the story here. What remains is life and the occasional nonspecific religious feeling. For Carolyn Briggs, who spent over two decades pursuing a very rigid Christian identity, that's enough now.
How she fell into fundamentalism and how she eventually drifted away is not a dramatic tale but more a story of cycling in and out of a faith that no longer seemed believable or functional. Her book This Dark World gains impact by not dwelling on the dramatic but by opting for a gradualist approach more in keeping with the chronology of what she went through. If you're looking for a born-again atheist rant, look elsewhere. Briggs was what they call a committed Christian. She may no longer be one, but that doesn't mean she excoriates her former beliefs by writing a Christian-bashing book.
However, there are plenty of surreal and funny moments from her life among the true believers described here. She doesn't caricature or exaggerate to make the point that some of her thoughts and actions during that period were, well, a little extreme. Perhaps the book's funniest moments come when she recounts a session she had with a Christian couples counselor (get thee back under the sacred yoke, unfaithful woman) at a time when she was separated from her husband Eric because she no longer held the same beliefs as he. (That, plus the fact that she simply couldn't stomach him anymore.) This anointed therapist was not only appallingly sexist but also a complete doofus, a ripe target for lampooning. Again, Briggs didn't have to do any stereotyping. The counselor himself took care of that.
The author was not your typical candidate for conversion to radical Christianity. Neither of her parents was a rabid churchgoer, and Briggs' church involvement as a child and teenager was kind of spotty and vague. It just didn't seem like she was headed in a born-again direction. As a high school student, she and her music-playing boyfriend, yes, Eric, experimented with alcohol and premarital sex, and Briggs eventually got pregnant after finishing her senior year. She and Eric agreed on a kind of genteel shotgun wedding and ended up living in a trailer park on the edge of Des Moines, Iowa, in the mid-1970s. A high school chum "turned her on to the Lord" in a mild way by witnessing to Briggs on a few occasions. Out of curiosity, one day Briggs bought a paperback paraphrase of the Bible, The Way, at Walgreens, and both she and Eric started reading it in their little trailer.
With that simple purchase, they were off and running: Bible study, forming a church, speaking in tongues, the whole "Jesus trip." What finally led her out of the light and into rational doubt was a confluence of factors -- her crummy marriage, leaving Iowa, attending the University of Arkansas, and, finally, simply paying attention to the things that didn't make sense. In that sense, This Dark World's more a coming-of-age story than a tragic tale of lost faith.
-- Ross Johnson
Portrait Of a Burger As a Young Calf
By Peter Lovenheim
Harmony Books; 263 pp.; $23
By William Grimes
North Point Press; 85 pp.; $15
In his office in Rochester, New York, Peter Lovenheim takes a container of cottage cheese and dips a spoon into the as-yet-unmolested curds. With the first spoonful swallowed, Lovenheim wonders if he knows the cow who was the source of his snack.
South to Queens in New York City, William Grimes sticks his fork into an omelet he's made in his very own kitchen. No doubt where the eggs came from for his breakfast: They're from the chicken in his backyard.
The former is a scene from Lovenheim's memoir Portrait Of a Burger As a Young Calf, a story of a dozen or so cows and a moral dilemma. The latter is from My Fine Feathered Friend, an extended anecdote from Grimes, a New York Times restaurant critic, that is simply, and happily, about a single chicken.
Lovenheim, a mediator by trade, stumbled upon the idea for his book while watching his young daughter eat a McDonald's Happy Meal hamburger while playing with the toy that came with it -- a Beanie Baby cow. He realized she didn't have a clue where her burger or the billions sold came from, and neither did he. So Lovenheim decided to buy a cow and follow it from "conception to consumption."
Meanwhile, there are no decisions for Grimes. The chicken, whom he ends up calling the Chicken, just appears one day. No note, no nothing. He first suspects his Bangladeshi neighbors because of the smells from their feasts. But it wasn't them. Go figure. Grimes has a chicken.
Bonanza, Lovenheim's semen donor, delivers, as does #4923, and it's twins, a girl and boy. Lovenheim buys the pair plus a backup in case one of the calves dies before slaughter. And he watches them. The backup dies, and the girl and boy, #7 and #8, respectively, shiver in their hay bunkers during the winter and are kept out of the pasture so they won't run and develop muscles, which would make their meat less desirable.
And Grimes? The Chicken holds his own against the neighborhood cats. His family gets written up in the newspaper for having a chicken in Queens. He looks into chicken history and has his mother send feed all the way from Texas.
Lovenheim's book is hell on meat-eaters, not to mention dairy consumers. He watches as cows are poked and burned, killed at just days old or because they produce only 30 pounds of milk a day when 32 is the break-even point. He considers the farmers' lives; those who do very well with 1,000 head and those who have to have food stamps to get by. Lovenheim's only crime is the effort he makes to look like a good guy. He is, but who cares about him when cows are being stuffed with corn to fatten them up to be slaughtered at less than 2 years old, though they might as well be killed, since the corn diet plus the antibiotics and growth hormones would surely do them in around the same time anyway?
And speaking of caring the Grimes book? The author's fans will be happy, serious readers will be perplexed, and everyone else will surely be none the wiser of the restaurant critic and his chicken.
-- Susan Ellis
Castaways Of the
By Geoffrey O'Brien
Counterpoint; 256 pp.; $26
The editor-in-chief of the Library of America, Geoffrey O'Brien is one of our finest contemporary pop-culture critics, a competitor to Greil Marcus who is more rigorous and less given to hype and whose myriad interests are rooted in film rather than rock-and-roll. Castaways Of the Image Planet collects short-ish criticism (pieces ranging from two to 20 pages) written by O'Brien over the past 16 years and originally printed in publications such as The New York Review Of Books, The Village Voice, The New Republic, Film Comment, and The New York Times.
O'Brien maintains that all writing on film and related fields is "shifting and unreliable," a subjective enterprise affected by the vagaries of time, place, and mood. Given that, the writer must contend with his or her own relationship to the "unstable past" that film and television create. "Those people keep being alive back there," O'Brien muses, "with no visible diminution of energy; it is only we who have edged away, perhaps, from the intensity of the primal moment when our eyes first made contact with them." "A century ago nobody knew what it would be like," he later writes, "this curious long-term connection that the sciences of reproduced image and sound have made inevitable for us. We become the creatures of fictions that were made for other eyes than ours."
With this overriding ethos in place, Castaways Of the Image Planet traces a "series of encounters" with a variety of subjects, including filmmakers (Orson Welles, John Ford, Michael Powell), films (The Searchers, Vertigo, A.I.), performers (Marlon Brando, the Marx Brothers, Bing Crosby), and other forms (Mad magazine, Seinfeld, Bill Clinton's "Show Trial"). O'Brien's essays are open-ended and exploratory, scholarly yet extremely readable.
Brilliant essays on Preston Sturges ("The Sturges Style," 1990) and Seinfeld ("The Republic of Seinfeld," 1997) unintentionally comment on each other and together illustrate O'Brien's talents. O'Brien nails the wonder that Sturges' 1940s comedies (and other films of the milieu) inspire today by remarking on their "Elizabethan richness and strangeness." The article offers a detailed description of the way Sturges uses dialogue, identifying an "unbroken undercurrent of gathering hilarity" that is "indistinguishable from the onset of an anxiety attack" and concluding that "what lingers finally from his movies is not their wildness but their unsentimental rigor."
"The Republic of Seinfeld" begins with a lengthy consideration of the show as cultural touchstone and obsessively covered media topic. Then O'Brien refreshingly segues into an in-depth, detailed consideration of the show's art that is as termite-like as the show itself. It is here that the tremendous focus and depth of O'Brien's criticism is apparent, going so far as to analyze the facial comedy of Julia Louise-Dreyfus in slow motion: "Her shifts of expression are revealed as a complex ballet in which eyes, nose, mouth, neck, and shoulder negotiate hairpin turns or spiral into free fall. The smirk, the self-satisfied grin, the effusion of fake warmth, the grimace of barely concealed revulsion: Each is delineated with razor precision before it slides into a slightly different shading."
And all of these essays are marked by a similar obsessiveness, an intensity of concern that O'Brien explains beautifully in the book's introduction: "Together we construct a history of our lives as we go, and, whether we wish to or not, turn movies and comic books, exotic postcards and billboards and television commercials into materials for that unfinishable and never quite settled chronicle. They haunt us because they don't go away, and we do." -- Chris Herrington
The Graphic Genius
By Jacques Boyreau
144 pp.; $19.95 (paper)
The poster for Black Cobra -- an attractive blonde wearing little more than a boa constrictor and carrying the tagline "How Much Snake Can One Woman Take?" -- is indeed eye-catching. And the colorful one-sheet for The Thing With Two Heads, which helpfully explains, "They transplanted a WHITE BIGOT'S HEAD onto a SOUL BROTHER'S BODY!" (the former played by Ray Milland; the latter played, inexplicably, by Los Angeles Rams star Roosevelt Grier), certainly suggests a high-water mark in American cinema.
But the trouble with Trash is that too many of the posters (or the movies themselves) don't come across as all that trashy. After all, what is exploitative -- oops, I meant Xploitative -- about such cult classics as Vanishing Point, Willard, Bullitt, Deliverance, or even Clint Eastwood's The Gauntlet?
Perhaps part of the problem is that author Jacques Boyreau, co-founder of a cult-movie theater (and "beatnik space lounge") in San Francisco called the Werepad, doesn't really explain what Xploitation means. At least I don't think he does. "Xploitation offers a naiveté and dependability I find fascinating," he writes in a brief introduction. "Seek its silly charms and cheap passageways, its many jugs of innocence, and the way it pops your guts." Later, when introducing the section on horror-trash movies, he adds, "It pours over our body politic and through the dams of our subconscious, continuously tapping who knows what except it must scream or snort moistly." Snort moistly? Huh?
The 150 or so posters in Trash, described as "masterpieces of twisted brilliance," are culled from Boyreau's own collection and arranged into five genres: sex-trash, action-trash, horror-trash, groovy-trash, race-trash, and docu-trash. Text is kept to a minimum (probably a good thing). Except for half-page introductions to each section, all written in the same breathless, I-just-took-LSD style as the quotes above, the only information provided is each film's title, date, and production company. A little more commentary would have been interesting, if only to point out, for example, that Larry Hagman, perhaps best-known for starring in the hit TV series I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas, at a low point in his career directed and starred in a 1972 horror-trash thriller called Son of Blob ("It's Loose Again Eating Everybody!"). Or that Jonathan Demme, who directed Silence of the Lambs, was responsible for the 1974 sex-trash women's prison movie Caged Heat ("White Hot Desires Melting Cold Prison Steel!").
Despite these quibbles, there are enough great posters here to: 1) keep you entertained for a half-hour or so, and 2) make you want to rush to the nearest video store. I, for one, won't rest easy until I take a peak at Six Pack Annie ("She's The Pop-Top Princess With The Recyclable Can!").
-- Michael Finger