Monday, March 26, 2007

Guilty Pleasures: Deal or No Deal

Can you imagine the meetings that must have gone on to come up with the premise for this inexplicable hit show? Boorish Television exec 1: "People liked that Millionaire show, but I think the question and answer aspect was a bit too heady." Boorish Television exec 2: "You are so right there. What if we just cut out the entire game component and cut straight to giving away the money? That's what these idiots want to see: cold hard cash changing hands. Without , you know, all that information getting in the way." Boorish Television exec 1: "Great idea. What else do people like? Got It! Follow me on this one: sexy…women?" Boorish Television exec 2: "Perfect! Sexy women! And we'll need someone to play the Regis role. The loveable buffoon who can crack wise with the Arizona grandmothers and goofy jr sales execs, and yet still give off a paroled sex-predator vibe… I got it! Howie Mandel! He must not be doing anything else." And so my new favorite game show was born. I can't turn it off, and with every call to the banker (spooky!) and every glint off of Mandel's skeevy shaved head I grow just a little bit dumber by the second. But I suppose that's what TV is for.

How to Behave

I spoke with a bunch of local rock club bookers and doormen to find out what are some of the most annoying things people do when they come to the club. Check it out in some exclusive Ethical Scumbag material. Now you can die happy.

Sometimes even those of us who live in the rock clubs can forget how to behave ourselves. Maybe it’s some strange alchemy of alcohol and entitlement. Maybe it’s a vague attachment to the spirit of “punk rock.“ Or maybe it’s just plain rudeness. Just in case, here’s a brief refresher course on the things to keep in mind from people who know best: the ones that work there.

1) Keep Your Hands to Yourself

"One couple was asked to leave a show because they were both fall-down drunk,” says Kevin Hoskins, talent buyer/booking agent at the Middle East in Cambridge. “When the man got to the door he tried to convince the door people to let him back down…He realized he wasn't getting anywhere, and he took it up with one of our detail officers. When he didn't get the answer he wanted, his girlfriend decided to slap the police officer. Never a good idea."
Iann Robinson, promoter at the Reel Bar in Allston puts it a little more bluntly. “The single most annoying thing at pretty much any show is the whole tough guy bullshit. You know, I get it, you're tough, very masculine. I totally understand, now fuck off. In my club the space is so small that when they dance or get macho they really ruin it for other people. Even in big venues, it’s dumb. The pit’s time has passed, just let it die. “The most bizarre thing that ever happened to me” says Scott Janovitz, who worked as a bartender, doorman, and sound tech at the Lizard Lounge, “was the guy from the Lizard Lounge poetry night who brought his own beer in. I had to take the beer he was drinking and asked him to not do it again. I explained, you know, ‘the law’ and all. Anyway, some time went by and he came over and asked me to talk to him outside. Before we got outside, he turned and grabbed my throat, screaming, "Don't you ever disrespect me!" That was awesome. We ended up screaming at each other in the street. My toughness, however, was undermined by my beige cardigan. And also by the fact that I'm not tough. It's too bad, because his poetry was great. no, I’m kidding, it was terrible.”

2) You’re not a Conman

People forget that folks at clubs have literally seen it all, says Joanne Miller, who works the door at both the Middle East and TT the Bear‘s. Saying you have "permission from the manager to sit in and play the ‘harp’ with any band you choose” surprisingly doesn’t always work. “Asking if they can just go into the bar side,” says booking manager Tony Confalone at PA’s Lounge in Somerville, “when in reality they are there for the show and trying to get in for free never works. But it causes the staff a huge hassle every time.”

3) No ID? No Drinks

“People don't realize that if they try and vouch for a friend that doesn't have the right I.D., it's a pain in the ass for us to have to explain and re-explain the laws,” TT’s booking agent Randi Millman says. “People think we make things up as we go along and that there aren't licensing laws we need to adhere to. Nothing is worse than someone that goes to every staff member to argue a point. We all back each other's decisions up, so they're not going get anywhere yammering on and on.”

4) Always Tip Your Bartender
“The most annoying thing you can do to a bartender is to not tip,” says Janovitz. “But,” he added, “there are a lot of variations of that. There are the people who tip with change amounting to less than a quarter. No self-respecting bartender would even touch that. I've watched twenty cents sit on the bar for hours before finally being knocked to the floor while cleaning at the end of the night. That's the bar equivalent of blood-money right there. There are also the people who don't tip and keep coming back up, to the same bartender, when they're maybe one of fifteen people in the bar, and then act annoyed that they're not getting the attention they want. Ignoring those people becomes a sport in itself.

5) Let Them Help You, but Use Common Sense
“There are no stupid questions,” says Hoskins, who has infinite respect for his guests. “But, you have to guide people. People forget their tickets at home and you have to tell them to get them. People will stand directly in front of a restroom sign and ask where the bathrooms are. One guy stood at the bottom of the stairs and asked, "Do these stairs go up?"

6) Don’t Demand Special Treatment
“One example of ‘how not to behave’ pops immediately to mind,” says Steve Mcdonough, who has worked as a bouncer at O’Briens in Allston. During a week long residency for the popular Boston band Darkbuster, he was instructed to give no free admittance. “Despite that,” he says, “I tried to give breaks to people who came to every show, and also to those in the bands who played the show one night, but came to see the show another night. “One of the busiest nights that week, one of the bands who played showed up with their girlfriends. I recognized them, and already knew I'd give them 2-for-1 admittance, at least. But before any of the guys stepped up, a couple of the girls (real annoying Lansdowne St.-on-Saturday-night bimbos) stepped up and asked about the cover. I told them $10.00, and they started to complain. They started in with the "It doesn't cost this much to get in to Avalon!!" bullshit. First I knew it was a lie, second it was obvious they were used to getting breaks due to their looks, and thirdly, they persisted for like 10 minutes!! Clogging the doorway, being bitches and pissing me off. “So they're insulting both my intelligence and my sense of fair play. I charged them and their boyfriends and everyone who even appeared to be with them full price. The guys were unhappy, and I felt bad charging them. But had they just kept a leash on those [their friends] and discreetly and politely asked me to give them a break, I'd have saved the group a fistful of cash.”

7) Don’t Be “That Guy”
Says Confalone: “If a drink is served past last call, it's polite to finish it quickly and split. The bar-tender just did you a favor by serving you after last-call, so you in turn owe him/her the favor of making it a fast one. Keeping an eye on a drunken friend who is getting out of hand and getting them out if they are causing trouble. Not unplugging the bands' equipment. Just being friendly and not bugging other customers or band members. Everyone is there to have a good time. 99.9% of the time people are totally cool. It's usually just one bad apple that turns things into a nightmare.”
Adds Janovitz, “All someone has to do to make me glad to be helping them is to be civil and tip when appropriate. It really doesn't take much. Oh, and don't try to choke me to death.”

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Son Volt: The Search

On "The Search," Son Volt offers up a collection of highly listenable roots-rock tunes that stray little from its longtime formula. As ever, the band's forlorn acoustic yarns and pretty little piano ballads are dirtied up by the strain of Jay Farrar's lilting voice and the grubby detail of some not-so-pretty lives. They land a few memorable hooks on songs such as "Circadian Rhythm" in a winning style reminiscent of REM's country-tinged uplift, but it's Farrar's attention to character detail that carries the water here. "Methamphetamine," in its resounding open chords and melting slide guitar, is a standout. "I took a night shift/ Another nickel and dime/ Still waiting to meet the next ex-wife," he sings. There's a brittle and beautiful contrast between the wide-open exuberance of the instrumentation and the worn-down acceptance of the lyrics. It's nothing we haven't heard from Son Volt and a dozen other imitators before, but "The Search" has a lived-in quality that's impossible to fake. It's a story, much like Son Volt, that seems contentedly rooted in the past.

Originally published in the Boston Globe.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Will Dailey

Will Dailey is one of those rare guys in any given rock scene where nearly every one you meet says he's a nice guy, and people seem to genuinely want him to succeed. That's a departure from the normal infighting and back-biting of course. My old band, The Good North used to play with his old band Mapparri back when. We hate it when our friends become successful, but not so much this time. This is an interview I did with Will for the Boston Metro with some extra questions that didn't make it to print. Dreadfully short word count over there.

Most people who go out to LA to “make it big time” come back soon thereafter missing their ego. Brookline singer songwriter Will Dailey came back missing his appendix. After a brief medical leave, and having gone through what he calls, “the whole major label showcase and power lunch hustle” Dailey’s lifelong tenacity paid off. He recently signed a deal with CBS records, who will re-release his record Back Flipping Forward, a collection of breezy, tuneful and tastefully understated acoustic love songs.

It’s been a big year for you. You won the Boston Music Award for best singer songwriter, and were signed to CBS records. Which felt better?

I think I have to say the BMA. It was instant gratification. Signing with a giant company is as exciting as it is ominous. But ask me the same question next year and it’ll be interesting to see the answer.

Tell us more about the label, it’s a reincarnation of the old CBS records?

Yes. But it is striving to jump out and be the new paradigm for music industry. Utilizing the new relationship between TV and music and the whole digital world. Most releases will be digital at first. At the same time they poised themselves more like an indie label and less like the labels that send limos and have power lunches. Something has to give and hopefully this will be a nice turning point.

Your songs have appeared in some interesting places, from MTV to commercials. The Red Sox commercials must have been the most exciting though, right?

Yes. But most recently I’ve had some songs in the shows ‘Jericho’ and ‘What about Brian’ and when that airs your phone lights up and you find out exactly what your friends are doing with their evenings.

I’ve seen you in some pretty, um, interesting photo shoot scenarios. You ever find yourself doing something that was just too corny for promo where you had to draw the line?

In the past, sure. But I think we would all be remiss without a compromising photograph. Photographers are constantly trying to raise the bar themselves. Drawing the line is hard ‘cause I like to try new things. Candid, corny and creative are all concepts that belong to endless debate. We can all get caught being corny if there is a camera around. I’d find someone void of the occasional corniness a little suspect anyway.

Speaking of that, what’s with those striped purple pants you’re wearing on the website? Part of the label deal?

No! Those are my favorite brown wool pants! I guess your computer screen adds purple. Wool has many benefits. For one it’s temperature controlled: warm in cool weather, cool when it’s warm. You stay dry with wool and won’t feel damp or chilled because wool draws moisture away from your body. And stripes naturally blend you into horizontal design patterns. They really are great pants! Now that you mentioned them I’ll have to wear them at the Paradise show.

Read Yellow


I wasn't entirely happy with the edit of this piece in the Weekly Dig, but perhaps I'm wrong. Anyway, this is the way they ran it. Read Yellow were a pretty cool band, and Boston -- and wherever else for that matter -- are worse off without them.

For those about to stop, we salute you

There are many standards we use to measure a band’s relative success or failure. Among them: how many units moved; where they’ve played and with whom; the frequency of media exposure; the passion (and size) of their fanbase; and, for lack of a better way to put it, the magic that allows some bands a longer stay in our entertainment consciousness. By nearly anyone’s measure, Boston’s scrappy, screamy anti-heroes Read Yellow have fared pretty well, given this peculiar calculus—what with the international tours, coveted supporting slots for minor superstars, a prestigious Peel Session, good reviews, and fans scattered all over the globe, sweating along to their high-energy shows.

Almost since their inception, Read Yellow have hovered near the top of pretty much every “next big band from Boston” list. The praise has always been justified, yet they’ve remained consistently on the fringe—they’ve even started to seem at home there. Neither hyper-polished enough for commercial stardom, nor indie-quirky enough to carve out a fetish genre, nor dumbed-down enough to galvanize the usual masses in Boston, Read Yellow have created their own chaotic, thrashy space. But that space will soon be vacant: This week, Read Yellow play their final show.

It’s safe to expect a decidedly more organized affair than the band’s first show six years ago (then again, maybe revisiting their old-school disorder is in order). “Our first show was in the basement of Greenough Dorm at UMass-Amherst,” says guitarist/vocalist Evan Kenney. “It was actually pretty incredible … we were horrible, though. God, did we ever suck. We just turned up as loud as we could to drown out our lack of rehearsal.”

You’d have to be suspicious of the band that doesn’t suck at their first show. Of course, Read Yellow must have improved substantially between playing the dorm basement and performing at the Reading and Leeds festivals in the UK and opening for Thursday or Radio 4.

“I’m pretty sure we knew from the start that we all wanted to ride this beast for a while,” Kenney says. “It felt right for the four of us to be playing together. We had a great chemistry. For me, I think once I heard one of our songs being played at a dance party, I knew that Read Yellow was going to be around for a while. It was good to see people move their hips to your music. It feels amazing.”

It was an experience that became both increasingly familiar and exotic over years of touring. “Being on the other side of the world with your best friends; playing to kids who don’t speak English, yet are singing the words to your songs … that was an experience that I could have never dreamt of,” says Kenney. “I guess you can call me a hippie, but I find the idea of a bunch of strangers dancing and singing together both beautiful and romantic.”

If there’s anything for this hippie to regret, it’s that the band won’t get to ride out the potential storm of their latest recording, Gang Violins. “I would have liked to see what kind of reaction Violins would have received had it been released,” the singer says. “That album is our baby, and it really is a shame that it won’t be heard by many people. Other than that, I have no regrets with this band. This was the best six years of my life.”

The album is an explosive storm of vicious, vibrant punk gems that somehow never lose their sense of melody. “Gang Violins is basically a soundtrack of the beauty and ugliness of the human condition; how love can be just as dangerous as hate,” Kenney says. “However, the vibe of the album is positive when listened to [from] beginning to end. I hope our fans get to hear it, I think it would really speak to them. Read Yellow is a weird group. A lot of people never got it and probably never will. For those kids who did get it … I think we became very important to them as a band.” He adds, “And those kids will forever be important to us. We want to be your band. I think in about 10 years, people will just be discovering Read Yellow and be wondering why it was so underground. I’d be completely satisfied with that.”

He’s probably right. In the meantime, disappointed fans can look forward to a few new side projects—maybe something to tide them over, right? You’re shit out of luck, says Kenney. This breakup is for real.

“We are taking a step back from it all. We are going to sit back and become fans of music once again,” he says. “We are still four best friends, and that will never change. The Read Yellow party is over."


I'm going to see Explosions in the Sky tonight at the Middle East, which is sort of a blessing and a curse. On the one hand I'm looking forward to some overwrought instrumental emo for hard and for serious, but on the other hand something about the idea of getting on the bus and then the train and riding on the train to Central Square, then getting out in the cold night and getting hit in the face with the essence of Central Square (weirdos, scary dudes, drunks, too many buses, soggy newspapers littering snow piles, gentrified chic clubs juxtaposed by urban fast food culture) and then walking into the fluorescent light of the Middle East, and then standing in a line and then looking around to see people I hope I don't see and then feeling weird when I don't see anyone I know makes me really lonely.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dear Leader


Mad good; emphasis on mad

The power of Aaron Perrino’s voice is legendary in Boston. The Dear Leader frontman has been leveling audiences with his vocal hurricane for over a decade. But all of the accolades he and his bands have received—an impressive list—don’t even begin to capture the real magic at work on their new record, The Alarmist.

It’s the rare singer whose delivery can sell the conviction of his lines, and even rarer is one whose lines are worth paying attention to in the first place. So when Perrino bellows "We sing for our lives" on "Nightmare Alleys," it sounds like he really means it; it sounds like the truth. "These are dangerous times," he screams. "Your voice is like a knife." It’s an explosive performance; a swirling, mid-tempo shoegaze anthem, all feedback and effects with a scorching, politically charged lyric about what he calls "the ‘nation of fear mentality."

"I think this song was partially inspired by Team America," he jokes. "’Hey terrorists … terrorize this!‘ I wanted to write a song that combined My Bloody Valentine guitars with the rage of Reagan-era hardcore."

Affecting the emotional frustrations of the political while screaming defiance against widespread cynicism has long been Perrino’s M.O. Each Dear Leader record sounds more and more like a rock & roll State of the Union; and this approach is especially apparent in the 11 songs that comprise The Alarmist.

"The older I get, the more I’m drawn to politics," Perrino says. "At this very point in time, it just seems like, how could you not write about it? On a local level, you have the whole Kerry Healey smear campaign, and reading the Drudge Report every day like I do doesn’t help matters. When I describe Dear Leader to people, I just say we are a socially and politically motivated stadium-rock band."

That’s as accurate a distillation of the band as any. But longtime fans of Perrino from his days with The Sheila Divine—the only Boston band ever to have released an absolutely perfect record, The New Parade—will also pick up on Perrino’s increasingly complex relationship with success, along with the hopelessness of celebrity. "I will say that after the demise of my previous band, I was very bitter about the music business. We put every ounce of energy and passion into the band, and when we decided to end it, we were left with just the memories. Time and perspective change your views, and I have no regrets or bitterness about music, although I do believe it’s a young person’s game. The culture we live in really loves to prop up and tear down celebrities. I personally just find it to be fascinating fodder to write about. I mean, what does Paris Hilton really do besides—you know?"

Every time I’ve spoken with Perrino, this frustration seems about to win out; but before too long, another recording emerges, and he seems re-energized. "I always seem to act like I don’t care about [the band]. It must be a defense mechanism so that I don’t get jaded," he says.

Jaded or not, it’s hard to accuse him of sounding happy. Even on the triumphant "Raging Red" from their last album (All I Ever Wanted Was Tonight), perhaps the band’s biggest success to date, Perrino manages to sound miserable. "Music is emotional," he says. "I love pop music, but for some reason, I usually am drawn to the dark side.” It’s a beautiful sadness, the type people go out of their way to find; and it’s abundant on The Alarmist, coming through in the range of Perrino’s voice, which runs the gamut from a romantic croon to his well-worn, devastating scream.

He describes his various vocal approaches a bit differently. "I have the Johnny Cash Rip-Off," he jokes. "That’s my new favorite. I have Pantera Scream, the Chris Martin Bed-Wetter Falsetto, and my Anthem-Rock Messiah voice. Four voices, I suppose."

The Messiah and the Bed-Wetter come into play on "Radar"—a classic in the vein of Perrino’s best work, with its densely layered guitars and stop/start drum builds. "In my comeback, I’m gonna play it safe / Feels like forever and a day," he sings.

It’s the type of song that will probably net Perrino and Dear Leader even more local love—even though they’ve won pretty much every award Boston has to offer. "It’s always nice to be recognized for what you do, but you hate to take away the thunder of younger bands who are trying to make it."

By the sounds of The Alarmist, most of these kids still don’t stand a chance.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Marisha Pessl: Special Topics in Calamity Physics


Setting aside the somewhat sexist implications of a term like "chick lit," a subject that’s sparked much debate in the publishing world (as well as in these pages) of late, many publishers seem convinced that the skim-milk adventures of zany but loveable girls fumbling toward some marketing-tested marriage of love and consumerism is the only thing that will sell books right now. It’s much like the clumsy, gluttonous signing period following an exciting new rock band’s debut. The original may have been catchy and seemed groundbreaking and refreshing at the time, but now the scores of imitators—although long of hair and disheveled just so—are short on teeth, short on punch, thrice duplicated.

It wasn’t until about halfway through Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics that it occurred to me that this is what I was dealing with. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to my obliviousness, or to some skillful publisher’s packaging sleight of hand. What they’ve done, you see, is taken a harmless piece of so-called "chick lit" and dressed it up in (big L) Literature’s clothing, then smuggled it across the border of my bullshit detector. The book is a stomach-turning blend of conflicting styles. It’s Frankenstein’s monster in a novelty tuxedo T-shirt.

I suppose I should have realized what sort of book I was reading when chapter after chapter continued to detail the ins and outs of a precocious high school girl piloting her confused, (but highly intelligent!) pubescent hull through an exclusive (yet mysterious!) social circle, and the attenuating social dramas, stigmas and crises of materializing and dematerializing friendships that ensued. But I expected more. After all, the New York Times Sunday Book Review had been so triumphant in its coronation of Pessl as The Next Big Thing. "Nabokovian," they said. It is no such thing.

None of this would be a problem if Pessl didn’t seem to have fallen for her own marketing hype. Calamity Physics is an innocuous coming-of-age story that barely succeeds as genre fiction. Nothing of consequence happens until some 300 pages in (one character’s introduction and subsequent death comes so quickly that the reader, not to mention the characters, barely have time to even register why we should care).

This book is impressive in its scope of failure, actually. Even as a voyeuristic look into the lives of high school students, it falls short. What little sex and drug use there is seems like something stitched together and thumbtacked to a dorm-room corkboard from articles torn out of Jane magazine. Elsewhere, it’s overburdened with metaphor. One potentially steamy make-out scene cuts to one character’s thoughts about archeological digs in Aztec ruins. Sexy! Pessl is only in her 20s, but she seems so far removed from actual high school conversation and behavior, it’s perverse. At times, it’s like watching MTV with “cool” grandma.

But even more problematic, the book is thick on the page with incongruous literary allusions, cinematic cross-references and set pieces culled from famous works of art. These are devices that sound intriguing in theory, but Pessl flubs it. The protagonist’s every thought is cluttered with so much highbrow meandering, it becomes impossible to spot the line where genuine emotion blends into meta-ironic, extra-literary horseshit. The anorexic plot is incapable of bearing the weight of its ambitions. Pessl spends at least a quarter of her sentences on puffed-up would-be dazzling metaphors that stink up the room. She simply can’t get out of the way of her own wagging tongue. Another quarter of her text is wasted on faux-academic journalistic cross-referencing:

"When we go in March, there won’t be any bugs. And if there are, I’ll drown you in Off," Hannah said in a severe voice (see “1940 publicity still for Torrid Zone,” Bulldog in a Henhouse: The Life of James Cagney, Taylor, 1982, p.339).

No. I won’t see that. That sort of thing yanks the reader right out of the story, such as it is.

On top of all that, every chapter of the book shares its title with a great work of literature: Moveable Feast, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Trial, etc. You could check the books and try to figure out the connection, but the story itself doesn’t inspire that sort of investigation. And after having read it, I frankly doubt there is much to search for in the first place. Instead, the effect is like a horrible local rock band releasing an album with songs called “Sgt. Pepper’s,” “Pet Sounds” or “Blood on the Tracks.”

Relying heavily on commentary from the protagonist’s grandiloquent windbag of a father for her heavy lifting, Pessl unwittingly distills the foul essence of Calamity Physics in one of that character’s numerous remembered digressions:

"One can only take so much inflated self-importance before one feels ill … This morning, when we went to the Sorbonne, me with my briefcase full of notes, essays, my résumé—like a fool—it turned out there was no job opening as he’d led me to believe … I was trapped in her crypt-office for hours.”

Originally published in the Weekly Dig

Thomas Pynchon: Against the Day

There’s nothing particularly great about this would-be Great American Novel, save perhaps its size (1,085 pages). In fact, Against the Day barely even qualifies as a novel. Its sprawling “narrative,” cast of hundreds and loosely intersecting series of coincidences read more like an encyclopedia of obfuscation techniques—riddled with lectures on history and physics and with hordes of horrifyingly offensive and/or flat, lifeless characters. The only thing more stunning than the obvious ambition with which this “big idea” book was written is the degree to which it misses its mark, and the utter dearth of ideas, big or otherwise, that the reader will take from it.

To call reading this book a waste of time is almost an insult to activities like picking your toes and staring at the wall. It covers so much temporal ground (the novel begins around the events of the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and ends after World War I), with a few diversions into time travel, geographical space (nearly every continent, as well as some supernatural ones), and so many fictional, historic and fictionalized-historic characters that it’s nearly impossible to piece together any sort of consistent plot, much less a theme.

The wide focus wouldn’t be a problem if each shift didn’t bring with it such a stark contrast in style and tone. At once the book is an Old Western revenge tale, a boy’s comic book adventure, a dystopian science-fiction parable, a ghostly tale of horror, a pulpy detective story, an apocalyptic nightmare, a contemporary political allegory, a mathematics and science tract, and everything in between, all interjected with a randy grandfather’s idea of sexy double entendres. Just awful. Some passages shine, but there is so much stuff larded in between that it’s almost impossible to keep track or, ultimately, to care. When it takes 600 pages for a main character to show up, you start to get the feeling you’ve been had.

Making matters even worse is Pynchon’s trademark reliance on character names that seem so willfully obscure they succeed only in taking you out of the story. The more ridiculous, punning and awkwardly metaphoric examples include Merle Rideout, Professor Heino Vanderjuice, Fleetwood Vibe, Dodge Flannelette, Dr. Templeton Blope, Hastings Throyle, Nicholas Nookshaft, Wren Provenance, Booth Virbling, Miss Oomie Vamplet, Gideon Candlebrow, Captain Q. Zane Toadflax, Yashmeen Halfcourt, Cyprian Latewood, Chick Counterfly, Linday Noseworth and Darby Suckling. Each one worse than the last.

Everything else aside, it’s the Chums of Chance—boy adventurers who travel the world by hot air balloon—who serve as the absolute nadir of the book, and perhaps all books everywhere, ever written, in history. If it’s hard to care about most of the stony, emotionless caricatures elsewhere, it’s the insufferable affectations of this airborne Boy Scout brigade and their hammy 1920s-newsies-style jargon that bring every chapter they coincidentally float into to a crashing, catastrophic halt. You’ll want them to die. I’m not exaggerating.

That said, there are still moments of sheer genius at work here. This is Pynchon, after all. One could certainly piece together an interesting short novel or three from the disjointed parts. The closest thing resembling a plot comes in the story of the murdered anarchist bomber Webb Traverse and his vengeful sons. Pynchon wrings some genuine emotion out of Reef Traverse’s dutiful descent into the hellish town of Jeshimon to retrieve his father’s body. It’s an absolutely beautiful, chilling set piece. A nightmare come to life. The description of the tortuous cemetery town’s governor (your guess who he resembles) is one of a few instances of virtuosic writing:

“ … Something wrong in his appearance, something pre-human in the face, the sloping forehead and the clean-shaven upper lip, which for any reason, or none, would start back into a simian grin which was suppressed immediately, producing a kind of dangerous smirk that often lingered for hours, and which, when combined with his glistening stare, was enough to unnerve the boldest of desperadoes. Though he believed the power that God had allowed to find its way to him required a confident swagger, his gait was neither earned nor, despite years of practice, authentic, having progressed in fact little beyond an apelike trudge.”

Passages like that, and the description of an unearthed ancient spirit sowing destruction upon a city, work well as political commentary, and as examples of the type of effortless brilliance one might expect from an author of Pynchon’s stature. But they are too few and far between, lost amidst the clutter of a thousand-plus pages of fits and starts, bold ideas and immature diversions. The novel that tries to be everything ends up being not much of anything at all.

Originally published in the Weekly Dig