Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts

Friday, November 11, 2022

Book Review: Down and Out in Paradise by Charles Leerhsen

Down and Out in Paradise
It seems to be a trend. A celebrity dies, and within six months, half a dozen biographies are published. Most of them are subpar, and at worst paraphrased boilerplate from various websites.

This trend played out following the death of Anthony Bourdain in 2018. A handful of books were quickly released, most of which can be classified as hagiographic horseshit. With the release of Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain by Charles Leerhsen, we finally have a legitimate biography. Leerhsen’s book is nuanced, well written and not afraid to offend Bourdain's fans and the people in his inner circle who can benefit financially from the work he left behind.

After reading the book, you may come to the conclusion that Bourdain evolved over time from a naive asshole to an entitled asshole ill-equipped to deal with the pressures that come with fame. If you accept one narrative presented in the book, Bourdain was a monstrously self-absorbed weakling who killed himself when the going got tough. After decades of attacking others and speaking about 'authenticity,' Bourdain was in reality shamelessly inauthentic. Or perhaps the simple, black and white assessment of others and the temptation to attribute motives to their actions and come up with half-baked, reductionist theories about their lives can't help but highlight them as hypocrites in the end. Regardless, after a careful reading of the book together with checking your own biases at the door, you will probably have more empathy for Bourdain and know more about his life.

Leerhsen details Bourdain's early years in Leonia, an upper middle-class neighbourhood in New Jersey. Thankfully, Leerhsen spares readers in-depth bios of Bourdain's parents and grandparents. It's de rigueur in most biographies, and many people may like that kind of completist rendering. But here we get just enough about Bourdain's parents and their back stories to understand how they came to their places in life before raising their two sons.

Bourdain is painted as a poser while growing up. He often walked around town in a trench coat with a sword or a pair of nunchucks hanging from his belt. Like many youngsters from middle-class homes, he likely didn't know how good he had it. It seems like one of his biggest grievances growing up was that he didn't have more tangible reasons to be angry at the world. He started to use drugs at a young age and never really stopped. We also learn that Bourdain's mother was somewhat domineering and, at times, a rather unpleasant person. On the other hand, Bourdain's father was more easygoing and probably happy to let his wife take the lead on many things. An anxious, doped-up individual who never learned to deal with problems—in a nutshell, that was Bourdain at a young age. The same problems plagued him for the rest of his life and ultimately contributed to his suicide.

Anecdotes from high-school friends and anonymous sources detail Bourdain’s rather pedestrian early years. We learn about his first experiments with drugs and an interest in edgy, angst-ridden musicians and writers. In some ways Bourdain never got over that adolescent phase. It seems he was forever trapped inside the black-and-white bohemian poster that hangs on every under-grad’s dorm-room wall.

The story then moves along into territory many readers are familiar with: Bourdain’s time at the Culinary Institute of America, his various jobs as a chef in New York and his addiction to drugs. Like many people, Bourdain engaged in myth-making about his own life, including those early years in Leonia and his time as a chef. Other people’s memories often don’t line up with Bourdain’s public pronouncements, but other times, they do. Leerhsen includes numerous quotes from friends and former classmates and contrasts those memories against Bourdain's previously recorded thoughts and observations about his early life.

Leerhsen details in a very believable way the slow-motion demise of Bourdain's marriage to his first wife, Nancy Putkoski. A relationship, if not founded on, then at least hardened and later petrified by mutual addiction and all its attendant dysfunction and destructiveness. When Kitchen Confidential hit, Bourdain's life started to change, and he wanted to embrace it all. But according to Leerhsen (and others) the celebrity lifestyle and related opportunities and travel did not appeal to Putkoski. And no doubt Bourdain pushed the relationship to its conclusion by his desire to sample everything that was on offer at the time. After Putkoski and Bourdain divorced in 2005, the remainder of his life would be dominated by two relationships with much younger women. Both were Italians of a more basic type, one generally good-natured, the other slithery, self-absorbed and the worst possible partner for someone like Bourdain. I get the feeling that Putkoski is probably one of the people who best understands Bourdain and maybe wasn't as surprised as others by his suicide. She seems a rather private person, though perhaps she may provide the final word on Bourdain's life one of these days.  

Though Bourdain tried to cultivate an image of himself as someone who always thought of the little guy, his actions don't always bear that out. In one of many anecdotes in the book, a former colleague of Bourdain's recounts how he, the former colleague, had fired another chef who worked alongside Bourdain. The fired chef went on to kill himself, an outcome the person who fired him had feared. Bourdain mocked the man who had taken his life as a weakling. 

In a similar vein, Bourdain seemed impressed by experiences with various tyrannical managers and restaurant owners who treated employees badly. They got what they wanted through manipulation and intimidation and that seemed to have a profound influence on Bourdain. Of course, Bourdain could have been both things at the same time: an admirer of honest, hard-working people, and someone who thought it was acceptable to step on others to get what you want. People are a mess of contradictions and our impressions are formed based on situational factors, when we knew the individual and many other things. Any person who has his life flayed open for public examination probably won't come out looking too good. The problem with Bourdain was that a big part of his schtick was judging others. Highlighted against that tendency, his hypocritical behaviour tends to turn people's guts more than it might otherwise.

That dichotomy between Bourdain's publicly cultivated image and the reality as witnessed by those around him dominates much of the book. It's the chronicling of a descent into near madness. The chasm between who Bourdain wanted to be seen as and who he really was became wider and wider until, hanging by his fingers on one side of the canyon and his toes on the other side, he could no longer perform the trick. It is pitiful, painful and, at times, repellent to read. The self-destructive behaviour and accompanying arrogance increased at a rapid clip as Bourdain inched closer to oblivion.

Probably the most frustrating aspect of Bourdain’s downfall was his attraction and warped fealty to Asia Argento. A pussy-whipped man elicits viscerally repugnant feelings in others. Maybe mostly in other men. Yes, it’s easy to judge. But, damn! That type of male weakling who is so incapable of eliciting admiration or respect is even more vomit-inducing at the age Bourdain was when he fell under the spell of that unremarkable, superficial, fame-obsessed woman. Worse, Bourdain seemed to know what a castrated, mewling fleck of weakness he had become. But he just couldn’t make the break.

Argento is one of the people credited with starting the #MeToo movement because of the treatment she suffered at the hands of Harvey Weinstein. Which makes the claims against her by a seventeen-year-old and the blackmail payoff  by Bourdain as  reported in the book, all the more repulsive. How much did Bourdain’s involvement in the sordid affair lead to his suicide? Impossible to say. As readers, we of course know where this story ends. That horrible final act by Bourdain is in the foreground throughout the book and further takes centre stage as the narrative nears its conclusion.

As an accomplished writer with many successful books under his belt, surely Leerhsen must understand the concept of giving important events a detailed rendering. In other words, major turning points and profound life situations deserve more words. So the fact the ending has a rushed feeling is  surprising. Bourdain's a corpse in a hotel room and then, not much else. We get some details of Bourdain's memorial that took place a few months after his death. But no real final ringing testament to Bourdain's life. Perhaps that was intentional. An attempt to show how pointless and depressing everything was near the end. And to show how there were very few people left whom he hadn't alienated. Still, I think it could have been handled better. There must be some people left who could have rhapsodized poetic about Bourdain's life and death. (To be fair, Leerhsen himself does pay tribute to Bourdain’s legacy throughout the book in some very memorable passages.)

On the other hand, at least Leerhsen didn't go too far in the other direction. He didn't give voice to the sentiment popular in the last few years that suicide is a contagion floating through the universe which latches onto people and turns them into automatons incapable of thought or free will. Bourdain ended his own life. He killed himself. He wrapped a belt around his neck, let himself fall forward and entered eternity. An unspeakable tragedy that nonetheless does not benefit anyone from being given the fairy tale treatment. I noticed that some other media outlets went with the traditional 'committed suicide' or 'killed himself' instead of the more politically correct phrasing that has gained traction recently. 

I don't want to suggest that suicide isn't one of the most horrible and destructive acts imaginable. The despair and terror  people experience before taking their own lives is real, and they deserve as much empathy as any human can muster. And the pain caused by suicide will haunt the people left behind for however many decades they continue to exist. But the trend in the past few years of elevating those who commit suicide to sainthood is quite dangerous. A pedestrian telling of the final hours and minutes, replete with the banal minutiae and existential dreariness of an anonymous hotel room, hopefully removes the romanticization often associated with that irreversible and horrific decision. Again, maybe that was Leerhsen's intention all along.

And, thankfully, Leerhsen avoids the selfish/not-selfish debate that often accompanies the aftermath of a suicide. Perhaps some anonymous sources in the book veer towards that tired discussion. But it is generally left unexplored by Leerhsen. Humans are selfish by their very nature, though everything is about degrees. Different people and actions can be ranked on a scale of selfishness. But I believe that suicide is usually an irrational act committed by someone in a state of overwhelming despair and mental exhaustion. A person's  state of mind at that moment is compounded by what they've done in their lives and what has been done to them. In Bourdain's case, like with many others, his brain had been corroded by a lifetime spent consuming drugs and alcohol. Perhaps he was sickened by what he had become and couldn't imagine mustering the energy to move on from his destructive relationship with Argento. As someone obsessed with crafting a public image, the fear of being found out for all his weaknesses may also have spurred him on. Or perhaps a moment of clarity and an inescapable world-weariness combined to form a toxic mix that pushed him forward. And so he performed the ultimate act of self-criticism and gave up any hope of ever again achieving peace of mind.

Leerhsen swats away any thoughts that Bourdain may have died of auto-erotica asphyxiation. The question is always raised when someone, especially high-profile, dies by hanging nowadays. It's a legitimate consideration. I'm not sure if Leerhsen's confidence in the absence of any evidence of auto-erotica asphyxiation is well founded. Since most people who die this way are also naked, the thinking goes, then someone fully clothed couldn't have died that way. I don't buy it. If there are enough freaks willing to get off in such a dangerous way, surely it's not a stretch to imagine an added kink of doing it while fully clothed. Or, more likely, being fully clothed might indicate the fear of dying and the (never-to-be experienced) embarrassment of otherwise being found naked. To be clear, there is no evidence, beyond the fact he hanged himself, that Bourdain died while engaged in such an activity. But the lack of critical thinking by Leerhsen on the matter is disappointing.

Since Bourdain was apparently a whore-monger, why not at least talk to some of the prostitutes he paid over the last few years of his life? Surely they could provide some insight into his kinks and whether he may have died in that most shameful and sordid way. Or even ask anyone in his life about whether he talked about that part of his life. Regardless, it's surprising that Leerhsen didn't at least track down some of the prostitutes for insight into Bourdain's overall state of mind. He doesn't pull many punches nor avoid any other seedy aspect of Bourdain's life, so why not explore that dingy avenue as well?

This is pure speculation, but perhaps Leerhsen agreed not to divulge or explore some aspects of Bourdain's life in exchange for information. A quid pro quo that might not make sense at first. If someone was willing to provide details about private matters related to Bourdain's final years, why would they want some aspects to remain secret? Who knows? People are complicated. But again, this is all speculation. Another 'lack' that may support the theory that the narrative was shaped to satisfy sources is the fact that the extent of Bourdain's estate is not discussed in any detail. Though Leerhsen does at least discount the belief, widely circulated after Bourdain's death, that he was only worth a million dollars or even less. Bourdain had probably accumulated far more than that.

Your opinion of this book well may be shaped by your opinion of Bourdain while he was alive. I read Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential shortly after it was released in 2000. It's a fantastic book. But he never wrote anything else that came close. I watched a handful of episodes from his travel shows over the years, but they didn't appeal. It's easy to say after the fact, and even easier because Leerhsen's book validates this claim, but I always thought Bourdain was a bit of a fraud regarding the image he presented to the world. This article I wrote over ten years ago at least demonstrates this isn't an opinion I came to recently. Perhaps it's because I've spent most of my adult life living in foreign countries. Bourdain's schtick may have appealed to people who will never travel to the locations featured in his travel shows. And in Kitchen Confidential, he wrote more than a few times about the 'rubes' who haven't got a clue. Bourdain was a person who loved to judge others but acted like a class-A asshole for much of his life, always justifying his behaviour. His justifications often came down to the same basic premise: he felt he was hipper and more sophisticated than the people he was treating like shit, so it was okay.

To be clear, this is not a book-length assault on Bourdain’s character. Far from it. Leerhsen praises Bourdain often regarding his accomplishments. He also gives plenty of space to people who have good things to say about Bourdain. The harshest reading of Bourdain near the end of his life is that he was a 61-year-old punk, and not the kind related to the music he often listened to. The truest kind of punk—the kind who thinks he knows more about the world and himself than he really does. But there was far more to Bourdain than his shortcomings, and Leerhsen, I think, allows those positive traits to come through in his telling.

What about the quality of writing in Down and Out in Paradise? Leerhsen has the tendency to write passages full of overly long sentences. As a result, there are more than a few garden-path sentences, too. But there are many other sections which really sing. Many memorable lines throughout. In this passage, Leerhsen writes about Bourdain and his life-long habit of being condescending and arrogant:

If you were charismatic enough, he had long since discovered, you could, if you were so disposed, conduct what was essentially a constant, low-grade hazing ritual that kept people discomfited while simultaneously making them feel like they were on the verge of being admitted to a very exclusive club. And people, being people, would love you for doing that to them.

To steal one of Leerhsen's own sentences (he was, of course, writing about Bourdain) and change it a bit: He (Leerhsen) is a very good, but not great, writer. 

I encountered about ten or more mistakes in the book, most of them of the missing-word variety. That comes from sloppy editing. By today's standards, it's not a badly edited book, but it's not well edited either.

Other so-called revelations hyped up before the release of Down and Out in Paradise actually receive very little attention in the book. Bourdain's supposed use of steroids was highlighted often in the pre-release publicity. But Leerhsen only mentions this habit, apparently acquired fairly late in Bourdain's life, a few times, almost in passing. When did he start using steroids? Where did he get them? What were the results of his steroid use? Did he talk about his decision with anyone? Did he suffer any side effects? Zero information appears in the book regarding any of those questions.

The fans who like their idols immortalized and any shortcomings air-brushed out of the picture won't appreciate Down and Out in Paradise. But they likely won't read it in the first place anyway. For the rest of us, Down and Out in Paradise provides more insight about Bourdain's life than any other book released since his death. An attempt at a tell-all that doesn't quite go far enough, but still gives us a believable glimpse into the life and death of Anthony Bourdain, a person whose remarkable final third of life was acted out on the public stage. When fame, money and the the shortcomings that haunted him all along ratcheted up the pressure beyond a level he was capable of dealing with, he checked out of life and journeyed into the unknown.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman: Controversial Book Stands the Test of Time

The Lives of John Lennon
If John Lennon had lived, October 9th, 2020 would have been his 80th birthday. December 8th, 2020 will mark the 40th anniversary of his murder in front of the Dakota building in New York. He has now been dead as long as he was alive. How time flies. I still remember that day in 1980 when the report came over the radio in the kitchen of my childhood home. 

John Lennon is one one of the most written about rock stars of the 20th century, and even the most ass-licking, sycophantic biographies paint him as a nasty piece of work. Violence against women was probably his worst sin. He assaulted most, if not all, of the women he was involved with during his life. He spoke openly about this fact.

And most people who've read even a modest amount about Lennon's life would classify him as a weakling when it came to his relationship with Yoko Ono. He seemed to accept the complete hold the fame-hungry Japanese woman held over him. 

While all serious books about Lennon touch on those aspects of his life to some degree, no other book has raised the ire of the Beatles' franchise and the band's legions of followers more than The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman. When released in 1988, it was immediately attacked as a complete fabrication. Paul McCartney, Ono and the rest of the heavy hitters tasked with keeping their own and Lennon's reputation as mythical and unsullied as possible railed against the book in uncommonly harsh terms.

The claim disputed the most in articles that followed the book's release was the suggestion by Goldman that Lennon had a homosexual affair with the Beatles' first manager, Brian Epstein. Rumours had long circulated about the two, and Lennon had made numerous cryptic comments over the years. But Goldman comes out and states it directly based on interviews with some people who had been close to the Beatles at the time. 

Goldman holds no punches and goes into the intimate details, claiming that the height of their intimacy was when Epstein "had given John a blow job." Goldman also claims that Lennon tried to rape Epstein and was only stopped when Epstein's mother walked in the room and then phoned the police. However, that episode rings less believable than the other details about Lennon and Epstein's involvement. Goldman repeats the claim about their affair as fact throughout the book.

Most biographers use all sorts of qualifying statements when writing about their subjects: "possible" "seems likely" "hard to confirm for certain." Writers straddle the line between rumour, speculation and fact under the guise of due diligence and being charitable. The more likely reason is to avoid lawsuits. Goldman doesn't waste time with such niceties. With six years of research and 1200 interviews (many done by his assistants), he puts together narratives about Lennon, makes bold claims and then hammers the points home repeatedly.

Another claim by Goldman: Lennon kicked original Beatles' bass player Stuart Sutcliffe in the head during a fight, and the kick may have led to Sutcliffe's death. Goldman states that Lennon continued for the rest of his life to blame himself for Sutcliffe's death. 

Many of the other facts included in the book have been written about by others. But Goldman provides plenty of new details and fleshes out periods of Lennon's life that would have otherwise remained relatively unknown. Others have stated we probably know more about Yoko Ono from The Lives of John Lennon than from any other source. 

John Lennon 80 years old

And what readers learn about Ono isn't pretty. According to Goldman, her shamelessness knew no bounds. Among the claims that Goldman makes about Yoko Ono: she was/is a talent-less hack whose only skill was conning people; she was a negligent mother, both abandoning her first child Kyoko, and leaving the raising of Sean Lennon to others; at various times in her life she seemed to prefer living in squalid conditions no matter how much money she had; before she was married (Lennon was her third) she had numerous abortions, essentially using the procedure as birth control; she suffered very little because of John Lennon's death and instead used it to profit; within six months or so of Lennon's death she remarried and had her new husband dress in Lennon's old clothes. Many of those claims have subsequently been corroborated over the years by other sources. But never recounted in such harsh terms.

And I suppose that's what really enrages so many fans and critics: the tone of Goldman's book. When he really gets going, you can't help but feel that he had a deep-seated, neurotic loathing of Lennon. He previously wrote a number of other biographies, including one of Elvis Presley and another of Lenny Bruce. The Elvis biography is considered by many to be the most comprehensive to this day. 

Goldman claimed that, just like the apparent viciousness in the Elvis bio, he never set out to do a hatchet-job on John Lennon. The interviews and other research simply led him to unavoidable conclusions. And so he runs with it, gleefully carving up Lennon at every turn.

Sometimes the claims are ludicrous and just plain mean-spirited, such as when Goldman speculates about what Lennon might have done on a supposed trip to Bangkok in October, 1976 (part of a 'mysterious' trip to Asia that Goldman writes about):

John's girls would be reluctant to do anything kinky but would be eager to whack him off, blow him, or have intercourse. The cost of the toss was about the price of a movie ticket. John might have also indulged himself with a Thai boy, who enjoys precisely the same reputation among sophisticated homosexuals as do the girls with straight men.

Not only is there no evidence for these specific suggestions (or fantasies on Goldman's part), but I can find no other indication that Lennon even set foot in Thailand (though it does seem likely that he travelled to Asia alone in 1976). An infamous massacre took place in Bangkok in October, 1976. I find it improbable that Lennon would have been there at exactly that time (or very close to it) and never have subsequently spoken of it. Not only that, but could a visit by someone like him have gone unreported in Bangkok (or indeed, could it have been kept secret)? Probably not. Though stranger things have happened.

But the book does not only assault Lennon's character. In numerous passages, Goldman also praises Lennon for his talent and hard work in the early years when the Beatles were playing clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg. Goldman also attempts to understand Lennon, and he often slips into lengthy passages of fawning empathy. For example, Goldman paints Lennon as a tortured soul who could never embrace his true self. But the sympathetic treatment rarely lasts for longer than a few pages at a time.

Perhaps most people are so used to the sycophantic style evident in a lot of music journalism that this type of biography rattles them. Just like mainstream media, those other, more polite books create an alternative reality absent the nastiness and harshness most people have experienced in their own lives. For many people, it seems, unpleasant things just aren't supposed to be talked or written about that way. So the 'public face' of the gritty side of life is often favoured by most writers and readers. Especially ones who like to elevate exceptional people to god-like status.

Regardless of Goldman's editorializing and tendency to be blunt, can his account of Lennon be believed? One fact weighs heavily in his favour. Despite the onslaught of criticism at the time of the book's release, no one sued him for libel. The excuse offered by Yoko Ono at the time—that her lawyers advised her not to sue because it would simply attract more attention— rings false. It's a corollary of the "I'm stepping aside to spend more time with my family" nugget of horse-shit offered up by every creep fleeing to the hills for all sorts of nefarious reasons. 

Instead of challenging the claims made by Goldman, Ono and all the remaining Beatles chose to let this massive volume stand for all time. A book they said was a complete fabrication. McCartney told people to boycott it. But no legal challenge was ever made. And so it remains, much of it unrefuted in any detailed or meaningful way. Some of the people interviewed for the book came out and tried to backtrack after the outrage exploded. But none of them launched a legal challenge either. Perhaps the interviewees were leaned on (or offered incentives) by the other side in exchange for their reversals.

The naysayers offer other arguments against many of the claims made by Goldman. One argument is the fact that some of the interviewees had previously fallen out with Lennon and therefore had reason to lie. This is a very flimsy argument. If accepted, it would cast doubt on the believability of anyone interviewed for any biography. Wouldn't someone who still had a strong relationship with Lennon have greater reason to lie with the intent of burying unpleasant truths? Perhaps someone with no ties left to a biographer's subject is the most believable of all.

Finally, the inevitable parsing of the facts and minutiae in any lengthy biography was undertaken by fans and critics. And yes, there are numerous factual errors; as many as a few dozen. These are mainly regarding mistaken names and dates. Any biography of any length will have such errors. They're impossible to avoid. People's memories are fallible and the writer will unintentionally insert errors by mixing up names and faces. All non-fiction writers strive for accuracy. But whether Lennon was wearing a plaid shirt or a black shirt on a particular day in 1969 doesn't cast doubt on every other, often well substantiated, claim.

Since the book's release in 1988, societal views have progressed a great deal. What about that rabid insistence that Lennon did most certainly not have an affair with Brian Epstein? The upstanding, honourable Yoko Ono, who would never shamelessly try to attract attention, came out in 2015 and said that Lennon indeed had a "desire to sleep with men." Isn't that interesting? Of course, she could hardly contradict her past denials and endorse the claims made by Goldman about Epstein. Even shamelessness, apparently, has its limits.

Many of the other claims in the book are irrefutably true, and Goldman simply provides more details, often from people who were directly involved. Lennon and Ono were indeed arrested for kidnapping Ono's daughter, Kyoko. Lennon and Ono were both junkies at various times, though Goldman suggests they were both hooked for much longer than has been reported elsewhere. 

Perhaps the willingness of a reader to entertain the claims or simply to enjoy The Lives of John Lennon is dependent on his view of the world. Some people embrace the hard, unflinching truth and see beauty in ugliness. Some are even willing to apply the same standards when thinking and writing about themselves. Others can't give credence to harsh claims about someone whose music may have been an important part of their lives for many years.

What about Goldman's writing style? He goes out of his way to choose unique phrasing over cliches. Invariably, writers who strive for a memorable writing style won't always hit the mark. Many claim he veered into purple prose in The Lives of John Lennon. I maintain a lot of so-called purple prose has its place and can often be entertaining. Perhaps some writers even write the occasional absurd sentence or two for effect. But then, the term "purple prose" is subjective. In my opinion, Goldman's writing works for the most part, and is even appropriate for the often freakish and voyeuristic subject matter.  

As the things Lennon admitted he did (such as violence against women) become more universally condemned, and the most neurotic and obsessed Beatles' fans slip into eternity, I believe Goldman's book may be one of the Lennon biographies that stands the test of time. When you near the end of The Lives of John Lennon, you're not even surprised when the chapter detailing Lennon's murder is entitled "Bang! Bang! You're Dead!" It's a long, informative, unsettling journey. And by the end, you feel just a tiny bit soiled and disenchanted about life, the world and John Lennon. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Fictional Reportage

Most people are familiar with the non-fiction writing style known as creative non-fiction. It has also been referred to as the new journalism or literary non-fiction. The idea is fairly simple: non-fiction in which many techniques more commonly associated with fiction are utilized. Scenes are reconstructed using dialogue, characters are fleshed out, and themes are developed. The result is a much more emotional and engaging reading experience. People may disagree on what exactly qualifies as creative non-fiction, though one of the determining factors seems to be that the quality of writing is exceptional.

Creative Non-Fiction Classics

Some creative non-fiction classics are Hiroshima by John Hersey, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer. Another lesser known but superbly written example of creative non-fiction is Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land by David K. Shipler. All of these examples focus on either war or crime, though those topics are certainly not the only ones which have yielded fantastic results in the right hands.

Hiroshima by John Hersey
Compared to creative non-fiction, writing which simply delivers the facts can be bland and unreadable. Of course, books dense with citations and few evocative descriptions of real-life characters or settings can be enjoyable and informative in their own way, but are usually not as appealing to the average reader as creative non-fiction.

Critics of the style exist. No doubt the word "creative" suggests embellishment to some people. I would argue that believability is at the core of all criticism of non-fiction writing. Every writer is susceptible to bias, editorializing and in extreme cases, brazenly misleading readers. Of course, some of the best creative non-fiction is completely absent any editorializing whatsoever and instead relies on the "camera as reporter" style of writing which many people believe is the closest thing to objectivity. And yet, critical thinkers will point out, accurately, that the details a writer chooses to focus on is a form of editorializing.

Fictional Reportage

The flip side of creative non-fiction is a writing style I call "fictional reportage." It is fiction that reads like non-fiction. Or, more accurately, fiction that reads like creative non-fiction. One example is Bomber, by Len Deighton. It's the story of a British bomber flying its last flight over Germany during the Second World War. It spans a period of 24 hours and includes time stamps for many of the chapters. The book still contains plenty of dialogue, but something in the moment by moment action and descriptions has the feel, at times, of well-written creative non-fiction.

Bangkok Filth by Ken Austin
Bangkok Filth also contains many stories that qualify as fictional reportage. Like most people who write fiction, I had previously written countless hundreds of thousands of words of non-fiction, including essays, political rants, travel writing and book reviews. Yet I found myself wanting to insert made-up passages into non-fiction pieces for no other reason than the desire to try something different. The results were mixed, but I always found the fictional reportage mindset made the writing easier than when I wrote more traditional fiction.

Do works of non-fiction that turn out to be largely fabricated qualify as fictional reportage (think A Million Little Pieces by James Frey)? I suppose they do, at least the fabricated sections. The point is, a certain writing style has to be maintained throughout the book. The author has consciously done something to give those made up a passages a certain feel he may not have brought to his other fiction writing. As mentioned, the question of authenticity has always plagued non-fiction writers, and some take more liberties than others. Of course, most fiction will inevitably contain some scenes cribbed from the writers' lives, though there is normally little outrage, even if easily recognizable characters are obviously real people plucked from the author's life.

So what exactly is the criteria for classifying writing as fictional reportage? Just as with creative non-fiction, the definition is subjective. It's more about degrees. For my own fictional reportage, detailed descriptions of places that exist in the real world interwoven with fictional characters and storylines are the most common features. Authorial asides, or passages that have that feel, may also show up in fictional reportage. Not surprisingly, sometimes fictional reportage will feature writing that employs turns of phrase or methods more common in newspaper reporting. But as with creative non-fiction, the determination about what qualifies as fictional reportage will often be up to the reader. Fictional reportage will hopefully hit readers differently than other fiction, and may even make them question whether what they are reading is factual or not.

I urge writers with a lot of non-fiction writing under their belts, but who want to try fiction, to consider consciously approaching their first fiction writing project with this frame of reference. You may find it easier to get the words flowing, and in the process you might embrace a writing style that works for both you and your readers.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book Review: And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On book cover
And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts, details the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US. Shilts focuses on a number of different groups and highlights their negligence in providing the funding to research the disease and their shameless indifference and lack of urgency in alerting people to the dangers of the disease. Specifically, Shilts looks at politicians, the media, the scientific community, the blood industry and the people who were affected most by AIDS (gay men, intravenous drug users, and haemophiliacs and other blood transfusion recipients).

This book is written in the reportage style (appropriate, as Shilts was a reporter) that results in, what I believe, is the type of non-fiction book that most people find the most entertaining and readable. In other words, real-life characters are developed, situations and dialogue are recreated, and tension is built up, despite the fact that the majority of readers know, in general, how things play out in the tragic saga of the AIDS epidemic. Shilts made no attempt to be objective. He editorializes heavily, or as some like to call it, offers up the "muckraking" style of reportage. His blunt assessments and judgmental asides are quite enjoyable most of the time. And the method gains credibility by the fact that he lambastes everyone with (almost) equal vigour.

Shilts was a gay man and lived and worked in San Francisco as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. But, in And the Band Played On, he does not hesitate to go after many in the gay community for their stubborn refusal to alter their behaviour as details of how AIDS was spread came to light. As Shilts states a number of times, many gay men literally "fucked themselves to death." He also heaps hammer-blows of well-deserved criticism on owners of gay bath houses, which Shilts refers to as "biological cesspools," and provides the kind of stomach-churning details that may be too much for some readers (think Crisco and limbs disappearing up...well, you get the picture).

As a result, Shilts was vilified by many in various gay communities throughout the US. Still, I can't help but feel that in some ways, he didn't go far enough in his criticism. For example, as the book moves into the early 1980s and the first instances of blood transfusion AIDS cases surface, Shilts rightly rips the arrogant executives of the blood industry for failing to take action to properly screen donors.

Yet, Shilts indicates that, for whatever reason, gay men donate disproportionately more blood than most other demographics in the US. They apparently continued to donate heavily as questions about blood safety were raised, and Shilts even mentions a phenomenon that he claims to have existed among some gay men: that they continued to donate blood as if the very act was a way of convincing themselves that they couldn't possibly contract AIDS.

So surely the question will rise up in the minds of many readers: does the gay community, or at the very least those infected men who donated blood, not bear some culpability in the horrible deaths of the many innocent people who died as a result of tainted blood transfusions? But Shilts never really goes near this angle and instead reserves the majority of his wrath regarding tainted blood for the money-grubbing scumbags in the blood industry who were apparently more concerned about the costs of implementing new screening procedures than the possibility of heading off the impending disaster.

Similarly, while Shilts despises the rationalizations and self-serving excuse-making of many in the gay community and other politically correct enablers in society (he calls their mealy-mouthed bullshit "AIDS-speak"), at times he seems to veer into that same territory himself.

Also, Shilts cannot resist the urge felt by so many non-fiction writers and engages in some myth-making. This is with regards to an early AIDS patient named Gaetan Dugas who was labelled "patient zero" for the apparent fact that he infected so many other men through his reckless sexual activity. This notion of a patient who caused the disease to spread faster than it otherwise would have has largely been debunked.

The storyline of Dugas features quite significantly in the early part of the book, replete with apocryphal anecdotes of Dugas happily informing other gay men that he has just infected them with AIDS. Also, Shilts builds Dugas up as being attractive in some kind of otherworldly way. But a Google image search turns up photos of a relatively average-looking dolt. I believe that Shilts knew how such a narrative would appeal to so many people's sense of the sinister and so he ran with it. However, to be fair, some researchers at the time also floated this idea of "patient zero" and gave some credence to it.

Shilts and the characters in the book rail against and righteously bash various levels of government, with the federal government under Ronald Reagan coming in for the most well-deserved and complete pasting. It's hard to believe how short-sighted and petty the Republicans were and how many lives were lost (e.g., limited funds for research and nation-wide information campaigns) due to foot-dragging and sometimes outright hostility. Reagan did not utter the word “AIDS” publicly until about 1986 or 87.

The book is prescient in many ways, especially in debunking the early propaganda that heterosexuals in North America should fear AIDS in the same way that homosexual men eventually did. And the Band Played On was first published way back in 1987 but Shilts already saw that kind of talk (i.e., that non-drug-using heterosexuals were at risk to the same degree as intravenous drug users and gay men) as fear-mongering and an attempt to get more people concerned about the disease and thus increase government funding. This was a number of years before the one-man North American heterosexual male epidemic hit in the form of Magic Johnson and before such shrill proclamations by the likes of Oprah Winfrey that heterosexuals in the US would be devastated by the disease in the same way that gay men had been. Of course, that has never happened.

Finally, I don't believe what Shilts says regarding those who died of AIDS; that they were heroic in the way they died. People beset by tragedy cope in any way they can because there is no other choice. Just as the word "hero" is tossed around casually in war, the reality is that, just as with millions who have already perished from AIDS, a much better description is “tragic waste.” However, I agree that people who had AIDS and spent their remaining days risking arrest during protests and did everything in their power to increase awareness and funding deserve a great deal of praise.

Despite some of the criticisms mentioned above, And the Band Played On is an informative and epic chronicling of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US and other parts of the world. While many people may have a general idea of how things transpired, they will undoubtedly learn a great deal about the disease and the numerous obstacles faced by scientists, activists and the people who were infected. Sadly, Shilts was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1994. He leaves an impressive legacy with And the Band Played On.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Most Unique Quit-Smoking Book Ever Written

A few years ago, I wrote and self-published a book entitled Tough Love for Smokers. While it wasn't the most successful quit-smoking book ever written, I can confidently state that it is probably the most unique attempt ever made at trying to help people kick the habit.

Tough Love for Smokers
When I was writing the book, I really did believe that my one-of-a-kind approach might strike a chord with people who had tried other more traditional methods of quitting smoking. However, I can't honestly say that the completed book was exactly what I had in mind when I started writing. Most writers will tell you that a book rarely turns out exactly the way they had envisioned when they first started writing it. That fact is exaggerated in the world of self-publishing where anything goes and there's no editor or publisher to veto extreme language and experimental ideas.

So when I started spewing vitriol in an attempt to demonstrate to smokers just how much they are loathed by so many people, it really did feel good. And it just kept coming. I remembered my own personal history and the interactions I've had with smokers over the years. For example, the sneering punks who took up smoking when growing up. While they weren't all low-bred, white trash, many of them were. Was an association planted early in my childhood in which I connected aggressive, nasty sons-of-bitches to the smoking habit? Maybe. Of course, I've had numerous friends over the years who were smokers, and many of them were intelligent, well-educated, successful individuals. But there were other memories.

The attractive girlfriend who was a heavy smoker, and who, at the age of 29, was already starting to show signs of premature aging—the haggard face, the tiny little lines forming around the mouth and eyes. But the nasty, reeking stench was the worst part.

Then there was the fat, slovenly oaf who vacated an apartment just prior to my moving in. Whenever I think of the cigarette-smoke filth he left behind, I truly hope he suffers a nasty end. Of course, the owners of the apartment should have cleaned the place for me after he left. But they didn't, and the piece of garbage who moved out certainly didn't consider cleaning up his wretched, vomit-inducing mess. If I could have scraped off the yellow, stinking cigarette scum that had been caked onto all the walls and ceilings, fashioned it into a ball and driven it down his fat neck and watched him choke to death, I believe it would have been a just ending.

The shamelessness and the filth. That sums up so many of the feelings I have had towards smokers over the years. The countless tons of cigarette butts that scar every last public space in the world. The smoke blown in faces. The dozen or so minor burns suffered over the years from careless pieces of shit who have brushed up against me in public places. In fact, it was a specific incident that took place in Ottawa, Canada, which motivated me to write Tough Love for Smokers.

I was walking home from work one day when a still-burning cigarette landed at my feet. I looked up and saw a sneering little puke exhaling smoke while turning to walk into a building. The security door closed behind him, but he surely heard the verbal abuse I directed at him. That night, I wrote out an email detailing what had happened, and was all set to send it to the head office of the organization I was sure the smoker worked for (the information gleaned from the sign on the glass door of the building he had entered). But I decided against it and instead turned the email into a rant against smokers. A few years later, that rant was the beginning of Tough Love for Smokers. So while the book is ostensibly about helping people quit smoking, it also ensures that I will never stomp a smoker to death. Now whenever I experience a flash of rage against a shameless smoker, I just tell myself "It's not worth it. After all, I've already written a book about it."

But did the words in my book have their intended effect? Did they really help people to stop smoking? Here's a sample from the book:
When comparing the smell of cigarette smoke to other things in our world, excrement—human and otherwise—naturally comes up. Shit and cigarette smoke. Shit is the only thing that comes close to equalling the unappealing and visceral smell of the emissions from a toxic cigarette. Of course, shit isn’t nearly as bad. Because the reek from shit can’t kill you. (OK, after a night of Guinness and Mexican food, it could probably come close.) So shit in all its forms doesn’t stink as much as cigarette smoke. What else doesn’t equal the nasal contamination of cigarettes?
  • Rotting vegetables 
  • Rotting corpses 
  • Animal and human farts 
  • The belch from the mouth of an 80 year-old man who hasn’t brushed his teeth since the second World War, and who survives on a diet of diseased rats marinated in the pus extracted from the weeping anal sores of a Sing-Sing cellblock queen originally locked up in 1956 and still there to this day—all boiled in sewage run-off from a leper camp.
And this excerpt, from a passage on "addictions":
Still, let’s swat the jackass assertion out of the way. Here it is. Read carefully smokers. You see, cancer patients cannot just decide that they have had enough of the disease that is eating away at their body and dragging them into nothingness. On the other hand, you have a choice, you fucking mules. There, we’ve dealt with the “smoking is a disease” canard in about 30 words. But that doesn’t matter. Believing in the lie is still so easy for many that they will continue consuming the steaming shitpiles of pseudo-science telling them that as their thick peasant fingers reach for another cigarette and cram it into their hole for a good suck, it is not their fault. It is the mystical disease known as addiction.
I knew when I was writing the book that people rarely change their minds about something they feel passionately about. At least, they rarely change their minds on the spot. And the likelihood that they will change their minds is often reduced if they feel insulted or condescended to. But remember, I wanted to use black humour and appeals to emotions. And that very same notion about a supposedly harsh tone decreasing the chances of reaching someone also states that an idea or image may insinuate itself and then later gain traction after weeks or months of percolating. And some people were certainly enraged by what I wrote. Whether or not those ideas ever did take hold after the first shock, at least they proved that my writing accomplished the one thing most writers hope for: it had an effect on people.

Some of the wackos who read my book felt such intense rage that they wrote blog posts about me and made all sorts of wild claims. I won't give these unhinged individuals any direct publicity, though you could easily find their libelous attacks online. Maybe even some of those freaks—the kind who genuinely insist there is no link between smoking and lung cancer—later had second thoughts about their habit after reading my book. Likely not, but without a doubt I crawled up inside their heads and settled in for the long haul.

Another theme that I consciously thought about before writing the book and which became more pronounced as I neared its completion was self-delusion. People will make a virtue out of anything. To the hard-core smokers who will never quit and who have no intention of every trying, the danger of smoking makes them feel like hard cases. This aspect of smoking will always appeal to smokers, and especially youngsters who take up the habit. This thrill at engaging in risky behaviour that is despised by many in society has become more nuanced and multi-layered over the decades, but it will always be an invincibly reassuring way for smokers to make themselves feel better as they march towards their early deaths.

Finally, by writing a quit-smoking book that is completely different than anything else that has ever been written, I hoped to appeal to the demographic that could benefit most: young people. Is a 15 year-old going to read one of the more popular quit-smoking books that have been published? A book that is written in the new-age, psycho-babble, desperate-to-coddle style that is so popular in most of these books? Possibly. But maybe the content and tone of Tough Love for Smokers is so different that it might make that 15 year-old see the stupidity of his smoking habit for what it is.

This final excerpt is from one of a handful of short stories that appear in Tough Love for Smokers:
The wretch experienced a jolt of fear at the sudden turn of the conversation. He felt he had to stand up to face the man to prove that he wasn’t as scared as he felt. He moved from his sitting position and started rising up from his haunches when the man lifted a solid kick into the wretch’s gut.

“Ooomph! What the hell was that for?” The wretch curled into a fetal position and held his hands to his stomach. He looked up at the man. “I thought you were an angel. When I took a swing at you before, I couldn’t connect. What the hell?”

“That’s not the way it works, boy,” said the man. The wretch struggled back into a sitting position with his back against the wall.

“This whole thing makes no fucking sense at all! You telling me you’re an angel, but you want me to keep smoking, and you want as many new people to start smoking as possible? That just makes no sense at all,” the wretch said as he held his guts.

“Ah, but you assume that angels only come from one place,” the man said as he started to laugh.