First, a public confession: as several readers pointed out, I made a disgraceful error in my article "Frey's Fall" (eXile #230), when I mis-identified Ralph Wiggum as "Ralph Wiggins." There is, of course, no "Wiggins" in the Simpsons. There can be no excuse for this sort of failure. The only question is deciding my punishment. If I were a Frey-sized target, we could ask Oprah to have me on, so she could spit in my face in front of a live audience. But as many Frey fans were at pains to remind me, I don't deserve an honor like that, because I'll never sell enough books to merit Oprah's spittle.
Noah Cicero's book Burning Babies will probably never make it onto Oprah's list. Cicero, thank God, isn't uplifting. His characters don't learn. Or change. Oprah's fans want transformations, plausible or not.
And after reading Cicero's stories of life among the drooling idiots who inhabit his home town of Vienna, Ohio, you have to sympathize with Oprah's fans. If you spent your life with these pigs, you'd have a pretty good reason to dream of characters getting reformed, redeemed, reconciled, indeed any "r" word except "reality." Cicero's setting is white-trash middle America, and although he could easily slip into the sentimental vogue in "working-class" bathos he never does. He has, instead, a healthy lack of respect for the mean, stupid people of the Heartland. When he describes his trip to a hometown bar, you're initially puzzled and annoyed by what seems disingenuously naive, simple narrative:
"Burning Babies" - by Noah Cicero Undie Press 2005
"How to Handle A Crack Head
Last weekend I went to a bar in my hometown.
Which isn't very far from where I am now.
But I never go there anymore.
The last time I went there my tent,
sleeping bag and two books got stolen out of the backseat of my car.
I've been pissed at my people ever since."
This sample shows how slowly Cicero's stories start, and how irksome his poetry-style linebreaks can be. What keeps you going is a wary fascination, playing along to see what the catch is, what the punchline's going to be. As it turns out, there's rarely a single big punchline, but there are smaller jokes growing out of the very staleness of the story, like that line "I've been pissed at my people" with its Prophet-like judgment of the tribe for the theft of a tent, sleeping bags, and two books from Cicero's car. This is a tale told by an idiot, only the idiot's not as stupid as he looks. He seems to be blathering aimlessly, but toward the end, his Ralph-Wiggum sounding pile of sentences suddenly zaps into a very clear, cruel picture of life in Vienna, Ohio. So, in "How to Handle A Crack Head," Cicero belches sentence after sentence at you-you can almost imagine yourself nodding awkwardly at this bleary drunk's carefully-piled assertions. But by the time you finish the story, or poem, or whatever he wants me to call these things, you've been inside that bar, you will remember the "Crack Heads" who talked to him, and you will never think of rural Ohio the same way.
Cicero also has enough sense not to overload his stories. "Crack Head" ends like most of these pieces, with precisely-recorded whitetrash dialogue, sly deadpan humor, and self-conscious awkwardness at having to end the story:
"I stayed in the bar, eventually Mike came back in and said, 'Dude, I wanted to sing for
you. I can sing Metallica, early Korn, all kinds of shit man."
I fucking told you.
I told you he was going to annoy the hell out of me, and for sure ask for money.
The band went on and Mike and I watched.
Between each song break he sang to me, a pretty good singer.
There was a lot of truth in that bar.
That's all I want to say about that."
If you have any ear for prose, you've heard the wrenching awkwardness of those last two lines. Until then, Cicero's voice is perfect; earnest, flat, grimly fair ("a pretty good singer"). Then he hurts your ear with two lines displaying amateurish writhing in an attempt to end the story--first the pompous non sequitur "There was a lot of truth in that bar" and finally the meat-chopper desperation of "That's all I want to say about that," brought down like a big sign saying "The End" behind which the squirming narrator can flee.
As usual, the simplest way to see what these lines do is to put your finger over them and see how the ending would read if they were gone. When I try that, I realize that if the story ended at "...a pretty good singer," Cicero would stand revealed as a proficient writer, ending on a light touch of compassion for the idiot who annoys him to death with his pointlessly good voice.
Now take your finger off and read the story with those last two lines. You'll notice that they have a remarkable effect on the way you finish the story, distracting you from that sad encounter with Mike's singing and forcing you to watch the seemingly amateurish narrator squirm out of the spotlight.
It's a good strategy, and Cicero is remarkably proficient in it. That's not to say that he sits around thinking, "Aha! I'll hide the pathos by staging an awkward exit from the story!" Writers just play around with variants until they find one they like; only a fool would try to bring to consciousness all the reasons one ending works better than another. But conscious or not, this guy knows how to throw his voice.
And he's ruthless, as a Celine fan should be. Cicero's first story describes his brother Josey's very unheroic suicide. Josey finally shot himself after flip-flopping on the big decision while driving home to Ohio in an ugly gray van, one hand on the wheel and the other holding a cellphone into which he screams pleas for help to his selfish, stupid mother. Cicero has no mercy on his dead brother or his worthless mother, subjecting them both to his carefully-timed deadpan humor:
"So there was Josey a thirty-year-old man wearing dirty underwear, jeans with holes in them, a mullet, and shirt with beer and coffee stains on it driving a shitty fucked-up looking van down a shitty highway to his shitty home where no one cared he existed.
Josey continued to scream and holler at the top of his lungs while running the thoughts through his head.
Should I kill myself!
Should I not kill myself!
Josey didn't recite Hamlet's speech through his head, but it resembled it. Hamlet's speech is in no way special; it is what all humans who kill themselves say in their head while deciding to pop a cap in their face."
What saves this piece is timing, humor. Even those annoying hanging indents help, by slicing through the pathos of the suicide with irksome reminders that this is one of the lamest, most flatfooted laments for a dead brother ever written. Or so it wants to seem. Actually Cicero uses his lame bits to keep you off-balance, distract you from the very skillful sketches he does while you're gawking at his narrator's hick fumbles. When his diction makes you wince, you will almost always realize on closer inspection that he did it for good reason. Take that crummy Tarantino phrase, "pop a cap." Lousy wigger-swaggering diction. But it works here, because Cicero smears it over Hamlet's overdone face, making the famous Soliloquy look hammier than Shatner.
Even when Cicero mispunctuates, as he does with the exclamation marks in Josey's final questions, he knows what he's doing. Josey, after all, is an idiot, and utterly hysterical. He would use those big loud exclamation marks, because he's not really asking anybody anything, he's screaming like a rat in a trap-which is what he is. When it suits his purposes, Cicero can make very smart, confident comments on high culture, as in his very funny, brilliant dismissal of Hamlet's meditation. Suddenly there's the Bard's most tedious hero, bouncing along in Josey's shitty van, unable to get an iambic-pentameter word in edgewise as Josey screeches at his mom. That's confidence, the ability to go high and low at the same time. Hick my ass. This guy is smart. And, as I noted, ruthless, sacrificing Josey in his first story the way the Ancients used to bury a few of their kids in the foundation of important buildings.
Actually, Cicero's merciful to his dead fool brother compared with the way he pisses on his dear old Mom. He finishes the story by shifting the blame for sacrificing his brother to make prose:
"My mother always said to me, 'Monco, when starting a book, always start with a
suicide, a murder, or a rape.'
So, I started the book with suicide; it's her own sons, so I hope she's not mad. But
since I had the chance of impressing her by using her advice I did it anyway.
I hope she is very happy with that first chapter."
Now that's an ending. It's so messed-up, such a triumph of Cicero's talent for misdirection, I'm in awe, not to mention at a loss to catalogue its many fine tricks. First there's the very sly, efficient hint that whatever killed Josey damn near killed Cicero himself (note the sloppy-like-a-fox plural in "it's her own sons"). Then there's the last line, another classic of painfully bad, amateurish ending-technique, making you wince and hurry on, rather than question the seemingly naive voice. My favorite among the many strange moves Cicero makes here is his apparently frank admission that he used his brother's corpse to help make his book: "So, I started the book with suicide...." If this is naivete, then James Frey is a tough guy. On the contrary, Cicero intentionally repels the reader with this loathsome confession, while confusing you with his stylized incompetence, at the same time hinting at a horrible past and blaming, by way of crediting, his mother for the whole idea. If this guy were talking to you, you'd run, or faint, or give him money to go away. Since you're only confronting him in print, you can afford to keep reading, trying to figure out if he's crazy, stupid, kidding or all of the above.
When Cicero's bag of tricks fails, I'm inclined to blame that macho poser Bukowski as the malign influence behind the debacle. There are two bad angels on Cicero's shoulders: Celine is the good bad angel, as it were, whispering, "Pile on the dull shit, boy, keep it funny, and never play the tough guy!" On the other shoulder perches Bukowski, with some decent tips on timing and the many disingenuous applications of the ingenuous but prone to macho bullshit, mumbling, "Y'ever been in a fight? Write fights, kid, and be sure to put in death scenes, that shit, and ya gotta drink, go in bars, lotsa bars:."
The last story in the book reveals the Bukowski angel ascendant, as Cicero wastes several pages describing a bar in NYC that hassled him about using the toilet and then didn't have any of the three kinds of whiskey they drink in Vienna, Ohio. This one made me wince at Cicero rather than at his command. He swaggers out of the bar saying, "Well, I guess I ain't drinking here." Bukowksi, the old braggart, no doubt cheered, but Celine, a much badder (in every sense of the word) bad influence, spat in disgust and went to play sewer-muse to some other aspiring nihilist.
That's not to dismiss Bukowski altogether. I wish one could, but that would be dishonest. At least he wrote clearly, and that is nearly everything. Pretentiousness kills a hundred young writers for every one ruined by all other pitfalls combined. I should know; it killed me and most of the young writers I knew at Berkeley. All our work is worthless crap, carefully written so as to be unintelligible and all too successful in managing it.
If Bukowski helped Cicero avoid pretension, then all honor to him. (Besides, without Bukowski I wouldn't have been able to hear Mickey Rourke do one of the weirdest voices in film history in Barfly.) But a little Bukowski goes a long way toward ruin via the freeway to macho bullshit. We'll have to wait to see where Cicero goes. My hunch is that Cicero is a very smart, determined writer, who'll drop Bukowski in the bin with his Mom, whose advice sounds pretty Bukowski-ish anyway.
What worries me more about his writing is this Midwestern poetic, graphically revealed by those irritating hanging indents. At the moment, Cicero's using them, but they could easily end up using him, forcing him to play dumb forever in imitation of Sherwood Anderson's retarded protagonists. Don't do it, Noah. You should keep playing with the reader, slapping us around and tripping us up. That stuff's essential. Never give a reader an even break.
But don't get committed to simple. Simple can bloat into disgusting self-indulgent lying. Simple can end up boasting that it learned everything it needs to know in kindergarten. Simple is what stupid people call themselves, and they're proud of it.
Better to risk funny, smart and true. That's your best move. Does the most harm, too. Like Mr. Wiggum's Leprechaun muse would advise you: burn'em, laddie, and keep us laughing as you fork in those babies!
John Dolan is the author of Pleasant Hell, published by Capricorn Publishing. Buy his goddamn book.