Sat Feb 12 11, Capitola
“Esmerelda is in an underground extreme food training ground compound in Marin …”
“This will not help your appetite, whatsoever…”
Prepare to be shocked. Trust me, it will happen. In fact, I’m warning you now, if you are easily offended, then be cautious with Joshua Mohr’s reading. It’s raw stuff. But, like Matt Stewart’s reading, it is tear-jerkingly hilarious. These are the kind of readings that sell books, and they did sell books at the Capitola Book Café. So, wherever you are, please hold off on buying these books long enough to go to a local bookstore and get them, or order them. I know what you will want to do for that immediate gratification.
Gratification is indeed the topic of these two live readings. In the first place, it was gratifying for the audience to hear such great performances. Both writers are natural actors and their readings are beyond lively. Matt starts things off with an appropriately culinary episode from The French Revolution. To my mind, this passage really captures the anarchic feel of the book, the way that Stewart’s prose mirrors the chaotic lives of families. And I will dare to say that you will laugh out loud, often, as you hear him read. Try not to embarrass yourself.
You can leave the embarrassment up to Joshua Mohr, who reads a passage from Termite Parade. This is a hilarious book; but it is also a bad book, bad in way of bad behaviour, bad attitude, the kind of snarky smart-ass that gets you thrown out of class in school or dirty looks in business meetings. I have to admit that as I heard Mohr start reading his passage at the Book Café, I sort of cringed. I knew what was coming, and I just hoped my audience at the Book Café was as open-minded about this as I was. Happily they were, because you can hear them laughing when they are supposed to and imagine the cringing as well.
I’m happy to report that it is still perfectly legal for those of you who listen while you drive to both laugh and cringe while you drive. I’m guessing you will do both early and often when you follow this link to the MP3 audio files.
Rick Kleffel’s reviews of The French Revolution by Matt Stewart and The Termite Parade by Joshua Mohr
The French Revolution
Let Them Eat Laughter
We usually think of families as collections of people related by birth, marriage or long acquaintance. Our mothers and fathers, our husbands and wives, our children, the friends we’ve known forever, individual humans you can put in a room so that they will fight, make love, argue or watch television together with a vacant look in their eyes and as a companionable silence settles. But families consist of more than just the humans who have the same or different names and addresses. In many ways, families are not people; they are stories.
When you think about family as story, you begin to realize the common thread that unites all families, because the humans and their lives fall all over the map. Any family is made up of humans who could not be more different, humans who may be utterly in love or bare able to tolerate one another. But family stories unite us; because every family, without exception, has a weird story.
Matt Stewart distills the particular weirdness that is Northern California, and more specifically, San Francisco in his novel The French Revolution (Soft Skull Press; June 15, 2010 ; $15.95). His family epic begins in 1989, with Esmerelda Van Twinkle, an eccentric example of Northern California culture. She’s destined to give birth to twins on Bastille Day, and names her children Robespierre and Marat. And thus begins the French Revolution—a family story.
Stewart drives his family story with great family stories, written in prose that captures the essence of family storytelling. There’s a baroque, detail-stuffed feeling to the writing here. It’s like opening up the junk drawer in your parents’ kitchen, and having all the wildest stories about your family and their excesses spill out at once. Stewart knows how to turn the American family up to eleven. His sentences have that shaggy-dog, what-the-heck quality that the best family stories have. He has an uncanny ability to surprise the reader with words.
Stewart’s plot echoes the odd arc of family epics; one sibling is straight and normal(ish) the other bent out of true, but both seem to reflect their parents. What Stewart does amazingly well is to capture the feel of an American family and turn it into gripping reading. Artists, entrepreneurs, stunning successes and spectacular failures strut the stage in Stewart’s stylish prose. And he never loses track of the idea of family as story and history, which he cleverly tracks but does not mirror. One of the characters in here becomes a musician, and there’s a very loose, jazzy sort of musical feel to the story.
There’s a phrase that is often used to describe old, close friends—”the family that we choose.” But that’s a lie. Stewart’s knows that family is destiny, whether it is the family you are related to or the family you simply relate to. The French Revolution shows a free-wheeling family spinning out a wild story as America moves from one century to the next. They’re really odd and might seem like the sort of people you’d hear about but never meet. Stewart’s real achievement is not just the creation of a family you will never forget. This is also the family and the novel that feel like home.
The Enemy Within
Most of us, at some point in our lives, learn what it means to be your own worst enemy. The key word in the previous sentence is learn. Because if we learn, then we do not repeat the mistakes that wrap themselves around the phrase “your own worst enemy.” If we do not learn, then we get to experience something that is happily not quite so common—the personal apocalypse.
Joshua Mohr’s Termite Parade is indeed a parade—of mistakes that do not serve as teaching moments, of compound interest that accumulates daily, of men and women who do not see themselves or others clearly—or all too clearly. These are small lives in San Francisco, the sort of people you know or meet who are friends of friends. Joshua Mohr takes you up close and personal with the people whom you hope will not enter your life. Unless of course they are already there. Or, you are one of them.
Termite Parade is told in three points of view; there’s Mired (rhymes with wired), who starts the novel telling us, “My life was in the toilet. I was right where I belonged.” This is a woman with some pretty serious self-image problems, who has a bad time at a party, with Derek, her boyfriend. Derek, who tells us most of the story, is a mechanic, and probably not such a bad guy after all. But a single decision can turn not-such into a real shit. And once in a while, you get to hear from Frank, Derek’s brother. He’s a video editor with delusion of artistry. Or if not delusions, inclinations towards artistry where none is required. It causes problems.
Told in short, staccato chapters, Termite Parade is a grotesque evocation of dissolution and redemption, of lies and truths, and of people who are pretty much all their own worst enemies. None of these people will ever be famous, and none of them are likely to be rich. These are some of the most realistic characters ever to walk off the printed page and into your life. Mohr’s episodic style is consistently hilarious. There’s pretty much an unstoppable laugh in every chapter, on every page. Whether it is his characters’ deeply-seated badness, or the awful situations they manage to work themselves into or the shocking honesty with which the book is written, you’re going to laugh.
Of course, some readers may find this book a bit too raw for their tastes, and that’s understood. You were warned, not of the rawness, anybody can handle that, but of what you might miss. Mohr has a penchant for making smart observations about our stupidest behaviour. He can write a sentence that will knock a couple of teeth out, then put it in a scene that will kick you in the face. He’s an expert at using blue language to make you laugh to make you really, really see these people.
This is not a book of comfort, though there is a lot of joy. Mohr clearly loves life, even at its roughest, lowest point. Termite Parade is a novel that you will rip through in a few moments, with scenes you’ll never forget. Mohr writes with authority about really awful things you just might experience, if you have a really bad night followed by a worse day. Reading Mohr’s evocation of this kind of reality might be the only thing that could compensate for this kind of reality. Reading about it is much, much better.