20 August 2012

"Hilarity Ensues," "Moneyball," "John's Story," and "Rob Roy."

Hilarity Ensues, Tucker Max
Moneyball, Michael Lewis
John's Story, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
Rob Roy, Sir Walter Scott

Hilarity Ensues, Tucker Max 

Physicists have theorized about the heat death of the universe, if it continues to expand.  In this vision of the future, the stars bloat into red giants and then are extinguished, to drift as cinders in the endless cold.  All matter will decay into dust and ions.  The universe will be still and frozen, with not even an electron to shiver.  There will be naught but a vast nothing.

But I believe that even then, Tucker Max will survive.  He will still be writing his vile books.  His particular brand of coarseness (masquerading as frankness) and his emetic storytelling (which has the same value as a Funniest Home Videos shot to the testicles) seems to have an unlimited power of persistence.  Deep in the black night, spinning in a void, there will be a vomitous echo of Tucker Max:  "And then I put it in her BUTT!  Haw haw!"

Still, when I saw this book, I felt sympathy.  I didn't feel bad for Tucker Max, whose previous book I dubbed worst of 2011.  I didn't feel bad for his associates and friends, who seem to dredge out some mysterious value from his acquaintance.  And I didn't even feel bad for his readers, who - like me - surely know what they must endure.  No, I felt bad for the institution of the book.  Tucker Max sullies the very printed word.

As with I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Assholes Finish First, this text is structured as a series of anecdotes about Tucker Max's adventures with alcohol and sex.  In Hilarity Ensues, many of these stories are the same random mishmash as before, but there is also an extended account of Tucker's time with the cast of the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch.  In three places in the text, there is an additional set of "sexting" excerpts, where we see text message conversations between him and some of his fans.

The anecdotes rely heavily on gross-out humor.  This is the sort of book where an entire story can be easily summed up with the "punchline":  "Oh my God—you farted so hard it made your nose bleed!"  If this sort of thing intrigues you, resist the urge - that's not the grand summary of some epic story.  That's all the story there is: he once saw someone fart really hard and their nose started bleeding.  It is exactly as fascinating as it would be if someone cornered you near the water cooler and started telling you about their cat's lymphoma.

Another example:
He just sat there for what seemed like forever with his mouth open, drooling bile into his hat, which was completely full. Like a bowl of soup, except it was vomit. He eventually sat up, drank some water, and started to actually look like he had some life back in him. Then he got up, reached down for his hat and, having forgotten that he threw up in it, put it back on his head.
The problematic tone of the book is worsened by Tucker's insistence on his own amazing wit.  While his hyperbolic claims of brilliance might have been mildly amusing initially, in contrast with his actual output they began to seem sad and tiresome.  Tucker's descriptions of his own success soon begin to sound like the ludicrous claims of a teenager.
Released from any focus on the outcome, not caring about anything other than entertaining myself and having fun, I started fucking with her and saying completely ridiculous shit just to make everyone laugh and put her in her place:
“My penis is going to be in something tonight. The more you talk, the less likely it’ll be you.”
“When you talk, I have to block out what you’re saying and replace it with thoughts of what you could be saying. That way, you’re still attractive.”
“What do you think is more disgusting: what they put in hotdogs, or what a hotdog would taste like after it’s been inside of you?”
And then everyone at the party just burst into applause and said how great Tucker was, and Sylvester Stallone came by and gave him a sweet high-five and the girl admitted that she was dumb and that Tucker was so right.  It was awesome.

There are a few funny jokes.  I chuckled when I read, "My head was killing me, and I wasn’t excited by the prospect of fully waking up and dealing with the worst hangover since Jesus woke up on Easter."  But these jokes are few and far between - and by that, I mean that there are five funny things in the entire book.  Far more often the "hilarious" things that Tucker does amount to the tedious antics of a drunken child:
You found a bag of ice, and you carried it around the party yelling out, “I’m so hot, I’m gonna melt all this iiiiiiiiccccceee! Look at the ice melting … because I’m so hot.”
You complimented a girl on her costume and said she did a really good job with it, and she thanked you. Then you said, “I assume you were intending to come as a piece of shit, right?” I apologized to her for you.  ...
We met a very nice man who was an African-American and a homosexual. You called him a “blaggot.” He thought it was funny. 
(And in case it isn't obvious: the book is shockingly racist, misogynistic, and homophobic.

Example: “Hold on—you’re a black guy from Mississippi, you can read AND you have a job? You must be the star of the state. They must have a statue of you down there.”

Another: "What kind of greedy, selfish, entitled bitch takes not just two, but THE LAST TWO rolls from the roll basket when it’s clear not everyone has gotten one, and then just eats the center out of both?? I could tell you what kind, but I’m tired of getting emails from the Anti-Defamation League.")

And the writing.  How can I describe the writing?  It's difficult, but here goes:

Hilarity Ensues is gonorrhea on the page.

Not just once, but multiple times, the success of a joke is indicated with this sort of line:  "Friend: 'HAHAHHAHAHAHAHHAHAAHHHAHHAHA.'”  Here's a writing tip, folks: any time your technique requires you to hold down Shift and mash two keys a lot, you're doing it wrong.

But even worse than this sort of writing is when poor Tucker really tries.  Most of the book is a wearisome assembly of the words "whore," "booze," "fuck," "awesome," and "totally."  But at two or three points, he actually attempts to put together a coherent paragraph.  This is Tucker at the peak of his effort:
I could probably write a 20,000-word article just about Dutch Harbor, and the city of Unalaska that surrounds it. It’s one of the most contradictory and compelling places I’ve ever been. It’s both completely modern and really old at the same time, but in weird ways. For example, it was an important base during World War II (it was the only place in America other than Pearl Harbor that the Japanese bombed). The island is covered in all sorts of abandoned, overgrown pillboxes and bunkers. Many of them sit next to huge logistical cranes used to load massive freighters. It’s the largest fishery port in the United States; the island is basically nothing but boats, warehouses, and processing buildings. But only about 4,000 people live there year-round (the population more than doubles during certain fishing seasons, due to all the people who fly in to work at the processors). There are only seven miles of paved road on the whole island, but there are at least a thousand vehicles there. The airfield is so small they have to close the road that runs next to it when planes take off, so they don’t clip passing cars. There are only two bars, but they’re always packed. The island is incredibly naturally beautiful and filled with all sorts of endangered and protected animals that all but interact with you. We would eat breakfast every day next to an inlet where otters were diving for shellfish and dozens of eagles would perch not even ten feet from the windows.
There are some serious problems here, and they reveal Tucker's fatal flaw: he is incapable of showing us anything.  He can tell us about things, but he lacks any sort of narrative ability or descriptive power.  We're instructed that the island is "incredibly naturally beautiful" because he is unable to describe incredible natural beauty.  And while he seems to understand the strengths of paradox - old and new, endangered but accessible - he cannot put it to use except in the crudest way.

This is all the sadder because he considers himself a "writer" rather than the literary equivalent of Snooki.

After Tucker was fired from his summer internship and found himself unable to get a job as a lawyer, he flew down to Florida and began working for his father, Dennis Max, who owns several restaurants.  Tucker was so shockingly incompetent that even his father was forced to fire him, as related in Hilarity Ensues.  He started blogging.  Within the year, he was being sued, and Tucker pled for his father to give him money to cover his lawyer's retainer; his father agreed, but only if Tucker was willing to take the bar exam (Tucker took the money, then refused to take the exam, because he is a class act).  Since then, and for more than ten years, he has made his living as a "professional writer."  He has written six books, and is working on his seventh.

But despite all this time and no matter how much he tries, Tucker Max is a terrible writer.  Hilarity Ensues is so bad it actually qualifies as a sort of epic achievement.  I picture it being launched into space in a black casket, landing on some distant shore, and teaching a hooting band of green-skinned alien primates the money-making opportunities in describing your own poop.

Do not read this book.  Do not buy this book.  And if someone tries to give you this book as a gift, you might have grounds for a lawsuit.

Moneyball, Michael Lewis

Along with The Big Short, this is the book that made Michael Lewis' name. It's interesting- the subject of Moneyball is baseball, but I never would have imagined such a gifted economic reporter as Michael Lewis tackling a tale of sports.  But he does so here with the clarity, grace, and humor that found a narrative in the depths of the subprime mortgage debacle.

It might seem like it's easy to write the story of the unlikely success of the Oakland Athletics under manager Billy Beane.  Despite being one of the poorest teams in Major League Baseball, they kept making the playoffs, year after year.  In a game that appeared to run on a simple formula - more money, more wins - their odd winning streak demanded investigation.  But noticing the possibilities in a topic are not enough, as we saw in the disastrous No Bone Left Unturned.  You also have to present the story in a way that is clear, interesting, understandable, and insightful.

I believe the key to Lewis' success lies in two places: his organizational skill and his solid craftsmanship.

This latter is the easy to see.  Lewis' clear prose is fluid and direct.  There is not much art, and no pretense to it: this is storytelling, flat and strong.
The A’s leadoff hitter, Jeremy Giambi, steps into the box. The one talent every fan and manager in the game associated with a leadoff hitter was the talent Jeremy Giambi most obviously lacked. “I’m the only manager in baseball,” A’s manager Art Howe complained, “who has to pinch-run for his leadoff man.” Sticking the ice wagon in the leadoff slot had been another quixotic front office ploy. What Jeremy did have was a truly phenomenal ability to wear pitchers out, and get himself on base. In the first regard he was actually his brother’s superior. He draws a walk from Mike Stanton and ties the game at 5–5. Inside the video room, for the first time, we can hear the crowd. Fifty-five thousand fans are beside themselves. The pleasure of rooting for Goliath is that you can expect to win. The pleasure of rooting for David is that, while you don’t know what to expect, you stand at least a chance of being inspired.
The other elements only come into focus when you consider the whole book.  In organizing the text, the success of the A's under manager Billy Beane is set against Beane's own disastrous career as a player.  Lewis uses Beane to illustrate some of the many problems and inefficiencies in the methods of baseball scouts and managers: how they value the wrong traits, bet on the wrong players, and turn a promising young athlete into a ball of seething frustration.  With this tragedy described, Lewis has simultaneously set the stage for the dramatic triumph of Beane, and given personal dimensions to the otherwise dry topic of market forces in baseball.  It's masterful and invisible.

I recommend this book, even if you (like me) don't care at all about baseball.  It's an interesting story in its own right.

John's Story, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins

I have been very hard on LaHaye and Jenkins.  I mercilessly reviewed each book of their end-times series Left Behind, and lost no opportunity to skewer its nonsensical plot and abysmal writing.  But I am also proud to admit when I have made a mistake.  There are times when an author reveals that they have learned over the years and solved their problems.  Their book is not just readable, but surprisingly good.

This is not one of those times.  John's Story is not good.

The story is a first-person description of the end of the life of John the apostle.  Old and infirm, he writes first the Gospel of John, his Epistles, and later the Book of Revelations.  During this process, he is arrested, sent to Patmos and imprisoned, and must deal with the heretic Cerinthus.  But these latter elements are not really very important, except as a vehicle to allow Jerry Jenkins to deliver Tim LaHaye's interpretation of the Gospel and Revelations.

I am not going to go into the doubtful aspects of the accepted history, and why this is probably not true.  I'm not even going to touch on whether it is likely that the author of the Gospel could have personally known Jesus.  All of this, and the veracity of the Jesus myth, I'm going to just take as read.

If we cede all of this dubious things, that leaves only a narrow gap for the actual book: how effectively does Jenkins communicate the preaching?

Not well, as it turns out.
"Excuse me," came the voice of a young man John knew was still in his teens.  "I know you wish to press on, but plainly we must understand these four horsemen."
Polycarp looked at John, who stood again.
"When I saw the rider of the white horse with a bow, there is a reason I did not add that he had arrows, for he did not.  This is a proclaimer of peace, but it is a false peace.  Someone has crowned him and he goes out to conquer, but his battles will be bloodless and true peace only artificial."
Golly, that sure sounds a lot like another interpretation of the end times... now where did I read that?

Yes, that's right.  Much of John's Story is a justification of Left Behind, that terribly-written pile of nonsense.  The authors must have tired of enduring challenges to their ability to interpret Revelations, so they trotted out a fictionalized John to prove themselves right.

"See!" they say, jerking the strings of their prophet-marionette, "We were right all along!  John even agrees!"

But even worse, all of their lengthy (LENGTHY) experience doesn't seem to have much improved their abilities.  Secondary characters twitch and stagger, responding woodenly to the demands of a cursory plot.  The antagonist, bulky and stuffed with straw, swings around bonelessly.  The puppet show is wholly artificial.

Perhaps the worst part, though, are the lengthy paraphrases of scripture, when Jesus' life or the weirdness of prophecy are rehashed in a clumsy fashion.  In comparison with these ham-handed fumbles, even the dancing of the puppet enemy Cerinthus is interesting, despite arguments that are about as sophisticated as those of a child.

John's Story is an extremely boring exercise in self-justification.  No one, Christian or otherwise, should waste their time with it.

Rob Roy, Sir Walter Scott

One of the interesting things about Sir Walter Scott is his ability to describe virtually any incident in extraordinary volume, without being boring.  It's hard to even know where all the words go - Scott might spend thirty pages in relating the protagonist's selection of dinner fork, yet somehow no space is wasted on irrelevancies.  I had previously encountered this with Ivanhoe, his marvelous medieval tale, but found it held true in Rob Roy as well.

The plot is a relatively simple, despite the numerous small occurrences that crop up as it goes along: young Frank Osbaldistone is unwilling to be a banker, so he goes north to his estranged Scottish (very Scottish) cousins.  There he falls in love with a distant relation, and is caught up in the Jacobite intrigue of one particular scheming and hunchbacked cousin, who conspires to ruin Frank's father, marry his love, and topple the King.  During the wandering and adventurous experiences of Frank, a heroic Scot named Rob Roy frequently intervenes, simultaneously putting on a display of manful Scottish independence.  And throughout: thick and dense dialect:
"Naething mair easy," Andrew observed; "he had but to hint to his cousin that I wanted a pair or twa o' hose, and he wad be wi' me as fast as he could lay leg to the grund."
The protagonist, Frank, is pleasantly pompous.  He prefers to be a poet, and punctuates each chapter of his narrative with a quote from a famous poem or book.  He's also continually condescending to anyone lesser than himself - especially his father's business associates.
The dictates of my father were to MacVittie and MacFin the laws of the Medes and Persians, not to be altered, innovated, or even discussed; and the punctilios exacted by Owen in their business transactions, for he was a great lover of form, more especially when he could dictate it ex cathedra, seemed scarce less sanctimonious in their eyes.
Yet for all his amiable superiority, much of the story is about how Frank finally learns to be a man, once he is well away from the influences of his French education and in the stolid heartiness of the Scottish countryside.  And the romance between Frank and Diana is extremely well-rendered: the tension of contemporary sensibilities, where even being alone together was a transgression, is employed with well-wrought gusto.
We stood in a singular relation to each other,—spending, and by mutual choice, much of our time in close society with each other, yet disguising our mutual sentiments, and jealous of, or offended by, each other's actions. There was betwixt us intimacy without confidence;—on one side, love without hope or purpose, and curiosity without any rational or justifiable motive; and on the other, embarrassment and doubt, occasionally mingled with displeasure.
Be prepared for a lengthy read, but Rob Roy will appeal to anyone who likes voluminous prose and high-falutin' adventure.  I would recommend Ivanhoe for the first-time Scott reader, however.

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