Monthly Archives: October 2014

Reading Keeler: I, Chameleon

It’s been a long time since I last updated my Reading Keeler series. Quick refresher: Harry Stephen Keeler is one of the most bizarre writers of all time, a pulp thriller author whose books drive past odd, and past bad, and past perverse, into a land where no adjective can describe them. I’ve previously described him has having “a stupendous imagination and a total lack of good judgment.” Others have described him as the “Ed Wood/Tommy Wiseau of world literature” or “the worst writer ever.” Which is unfair: there’s a fine line between genius and insanity, and Harry Stephen Keeler is sprawled across it like a big weird starfish.

So this time around the book is a two-volume epic called I, Chameleon.

The Chameleon

Original 1937 book cover to Part II of the epic

I, Chameleon is not for the beginner, or for the faint of heart. It is, frankly, bewildering. I can’t pretend to understand many of the subplot details, in particular a baffling murder mystery case in which the victim was actually somebody else, and the murderer pretended he murdered the wrong man, or something. Who knows?

The concept is a daring experiment: our narrator pretends to be somebody he’s not. In every chapter. And it’s always somebody different. The narrator is a chameleon, working through over 30 fake identities in 306 pages. What’s especially baffling is he often tells his victims. At the end of the chapter, he’ll say something like, “By the way, my name’s not really McAllister Y. Thane! I made that up! Haha!” and then just leave.

The narrator is pathologically obsessed with his fakery. At one point, he stumbles on an opportunity to steal a famous philosophy professor’s identity. So he goes to a fictional version of the University of Chicago and delivers a whole philosophy lecture to the students. Wait, that doesn’t make clear just how ridiculous this is. He takes a couple hours to give a philosophy lecture disguised as a professor, while in a race against time to turn in a criminal by midnight in exchange for a cash reward.

Yeah. The plot is this: our lying friend met a dude named Sandringham. Later he found out that Sandringham was a homicidal maniac, escaped from an insane asylum, with a $100,000 reward on his head. (In today’s money, $1.6M.) But the reward was expiring that very night!–because Sandringham was presumed dead! So the chameleon narrator must use his 30 identities to track down Sandringham and lure him back to the nuthouse.

It is in that framework that the narrator takes time off to teach a philosophy class. You have to admire his confidence. He also spends a good amount of time getting a doctor to demonstrate an operation, for wholly unrelated reasons. He also causes that same doctor to commit suicide. And causes another guy to commit suicide. And kisses a nun. And blows up a safe. And writes a humor column for the local magazine.

It’s a strange book.

Because the plot leaves you in a perpetual state of bewilderment, this is not anywhere near top-shelf Keeler. Bold, yes. Silly, yes. But it lacks the nutty appeal and easy merriment of some of the other books.

There are still interesting things. You’ll learn interesting 1930s slang words, like this list of slang for “money”: “kale, scratch, mazuma or dough.” Kale? And there’s this classic line: “I don’t need to read it! It’s graven in neatly etched letters of immortal fire upon my quivering cerebellum.” My favorite moments were when our dear author turns self-aware: at one point, as he often does in his books, he has a character say that the events unfolding are “like a dime-store novel.” Plus: “It was plain, now, that mystery-novelists were painstaking artists after all–and looked up their stuff most accurately. If only, I reflected ironically, the readers thereof knew that what they were reading was, in most instances, fact–and not fiction!”

Sure. We believe you, Harry.

I, Chameleon may not be one of the medal-winners, but I’m going to keep reading Keeler’s wacky, woeful, wonderful novels–and paying for them with my hard-earned kale.

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The Next Big Movie Franchise

Marvel Comics is in the middle of making approx. 35 movies about Marvel cartoon superheroes, like Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk. DC Comics and Sony have recently joined the party; the J.R.R. Tolkein universe has somehow spawned a trilogy based on one book, The Hobbit; there will be a trilogy of Harry Potter spinoffs; and apparently there will now be a Lego movie franchise, based on the success of Lego Movie. Oh, and Avatar is currently being turned into a million sequels.

Forget all that crap. We all know what movie series America truly needs.

Theodore Roosevelt: the Movie Universe.

Theodore Roosevelt

“I think I’ll have the Incredible Hulk for lunch.”

The great thing about the TR-verse is, every single movie could be a true story. Here’s my chronological list of possible Theodore Roosevelt franchise films:

  • A comedy of difference/acceptance where a spoiled young Harvard brat moves to the backwoods of Maine and wins the trust of the locals
  • Drama centered on the single day when both his mother and his wife died
  • A classic-style Western about a cattle rancher capturing two hardened bandits and taking them on an epic journey to justice across the North Dakota Badlands
  • A tough new police commissioner of New York deciding to reform corrupt cops by going undercover himself on the city’s nighttime streets
  • The Spanish-American War: Rough Riders, invasion of Cuba, and heroic charge up San Juan Hill
  • December 1902: the hardball American president enters a showdown against Germany, the UK, and Italy, and narrowly avoids starting a World War where the Kaiser and England were united against the USA
  • Year-in-the-life movie about daughter Alice Roosevelt, who spent TR’s presidency romancing congressmen, jumping into swimming pools in front of foreign dignitaries, scandalizing Washington, and handing out medals at the 1904 Olympic marathon
  • Hell, what about an entire movie for the 1904 Olympic marathon, which was won by a guy who rode a car half the distance, and included a guy who poisoned himself with strychnine by mistake, plus a random mailman who stole fruit from orchards on the route and stopped to chat with fans–but still finished fourth
  • A courtroom drama about the Brownsville Incident, a shameful episode in American race relations
  • The wild, tense 1912 presidential election campaign, and the toll it took on all three candidates, two of whom were previously friends
  • The night when TR got shot in the chest and still gave a campaign speech, saying, “I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose”
  • A harrowing adventure thriller about the fatal trip down the River of Doubt in the Amazon jungle

Reminder: all those things are true. Theodore Roosevelt really was a crime-fighting cattle rancher. Theodore Roosevelt really did explore an uncharted Amazon tributary called the River of Doubt, with three crew members dying on the trip (and TR nearly dying, too). He really dodged starting World War I early. And a random mailman with a snack habit really did place fourth in the Olympic marathon.

Now, look. That’s twelve amazing-sounding movies, and I didn’t mention the Panama Canal. Or any of TR’s domestic policies. Or his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Or the fact that he forced his cabinet members to go skinny-dipping.

Theodore Roosevelt shooting an elephant

“I think I’ll have the Incredible Hulk for lunch.”

Theodore Roosevelt is the greatest character in American history. He’s one of our most complex, multi-sided, conflicted, and fascinating heroes. He’s a legendary badass, but also a severely flawed man who earned the hatred of Mark Twain. At times, he was even an antihero. The real challenge is not finding material: the challenge is finding an actor who can play Theodore Roosevelt.

John Alexander

Without yelling CHAAAAAAAAARRRRRRGE! in every scene and digging a canal in his mother’s basement.

And if you can even find such an actor, then you have to convince him to play the part for thirty years, so he can be young TR and old TR.

It will probably never happen. Which is too bad, because forget about comic book characters. Forget about Legos. Forget about blue aliens. Hell, forget about lightsabers. America has a glorious national epic, and that national epic is Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt shooting Bigfoot

At least this artist understands me.

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Hate Book Club: Real Marriage

Hate Book Club

Recently my friend Patricia and I hatched a crazy idea: a Hate Book Club, where we read books we think we’ll hate, to better understand our enemies and also to enjoy a little righteous anger. Then we’ll each write a blog post about the experience. Looking around for a first book to read, Patricia found disgraced Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll, who once called women “penis homes.” He has an entire book where he tells you how to have a happy, successful marriage to a penis home. It’s called Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship & Life Together. Yeah, there’s an Oxford comma missing in the title, but the insides of the book are worse.

Consider this my book report. At the end I’ll even do a little report card. Here’s Patricia’s version! Compare our hate levels!

Real Marriage

The cover, in case you want to avoid buying it by mistake.

First of all, the book is technically co-written by Mark Driscoll and his wife, Grace. How much this is truth and how much it’s a convenient fiction, I don’t know. I suspect Mark wrote more than he admits. Much of the time they write as one authorial voice. But sometimes the first-person narrator switches from “we” to “I”, with the “I” explained parenthetically. For example, “Were you hoping I (Grace) wouldn’t address this issue…” Confusingly, a third strategy is dropped right in without any explanation, set off screenplay-style with “Mark: [text].” It’s a clunky means of writing a book.

The issue of Grace’s involvement is notable because of the most horrible, hateable chapter of the book, which is not advice at all, but rather the couple’s life story. Grace explains that she had low self-esteem and self-worth as a child and teenager, prone to doubt and mental crises. (Later, we learn that she lost her virginity in an abusive relationship.) Mark sensed this weakness, made his move in high school, and started having sex with her. When he went to college their relationship turned long-distance. He was “born again” for Jesus, convinced her to move to his town, and then delivered the bad news that they couldn’t have sex until getting married. So they got married.

Surprise turn of events: suddenly the sex wasn’t fun anymore. Angry that Grace wouldn’t put out on demand, Mark turned cold and uncaring, killing the mood for years. Eventually, he had a dream that she cheated on him once in high school, and she confirmed it was true. What followed was, I am not joking, an entire decade where he seethed with resentment and anger over her teenage betrayal, while she raised their first child. Naturally, she spent that decade depressed and full of self-destructive thoughts.

And now they’re writing a book about successful marriages. Reading between the lines, you can see that they still don’t have one. In one of their “conversations,” Mark writes that he loves Grace. Grace replies that she “respects” him. Multiple times, Grace admits that the couple are “exact opposites.” When Grace talks about coping with the memories of her abusive high school boyfriend, she describes the fear and shame she felt at the time. But she also describes still having it, explicitly using the words “shame,” “confession,” “redemption,” and “repentance” to describe how she copes today. Redemption for being a victim. Mark shows compassion, but never tells her that a victim has nothing to confess or repent.

Mark and Grace Driscoll inflicting their book on “The View”.

Then there’s the chapter on sex, where it becomes clear that Grace never got over this trauma, but Mark is a total horndog. Her main goal in recovery has been learning to put out more. Check out the list of “Ways We Are Selfish Lovers”: “Rarely have sex,” “Take too little time and too little effort,” “Only have sex when we both feel like it at the same time” (which raises serious consent issues! Mark says “as [women] serve their spouses, God often awakens their desires,” which is a weird way of describing rape), “Rarely initiate,” “Have separate beds,” and “Intentional ploy[s] to avoid sex.” Never once does Mark acknowledge that he could be a selfish lover by demanding too much or being too pushy. Elsewhere in the book, Grace implies that she constantly struggles to will herself to service him. “I read somewhere,” she says, “that if you have sex more, it actually decreases the necessity for frequent sex over time for most men. I tried that but it didn’t seem to change anything for Mark.”

Mark has figured out another clever wheeze: he interprets the story of Sodom as banning homosexual activity, and making gay sex a sin, while letting a heterosexual husband and wife do as much butt stuff as they want. Gee, that doesn’t sound self-serving! In order to protect himself, Mark’s use of words like “reportedly” sharply increases in the section on anal play.

Mark Driscoll, presumably imagining butts.

Some of the advice is good, some of it amusing, and some of it dangerous. A lot of the good advice is basic stuff you could get from any reasonable person (as well as some unreasonable ones, like Mark Driscoll). You know: don’t beat your wife, don’t commit rape, don’t get addicted to porn, cultivate friendship with your spouse, make time for each other, plan smartly for the future you want, sex is not shameful. Good stuff. I should point out that (1) don’t commit rape is really in there, and (2) the reason for avoiding porn is that it will literally kill you. “You will get dragged to death.” “The pulling of death is unstoppable.” Craigslist “casual encounters” are “an on ramp to death.”

And there’s the elephant in the room: evangelical Christianity. The solution to everything is prayer. Even women trapped in abusive relationships are advised to simply pray and trust God. The Driscolls do not believe in divorce. If you’re in an abusive marriage, or you found yourself married to an alcoholic, or some other horrible situation, the Driscolls’ advice is so vague as to be useless: the couple should seek “professional help”. That’s it.

Of course, Jesus was anti-divorce. And the authors proudly quote the Apostle Paul saying this (NIV translation):

The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you” (1 Corinthians 7 4-6)

Paraphrased in the form of an explanatory flow chart:

Choose Your Own Adventure! Wait, can you play if you don’t have authority over your body?

Back to the Driscolls. Their prose is actually not terrible, and usually is clear and to the point. There are infelicities, of course, like the above-mentioned narrator problem, Mark’s off-putting sense of humor, or Grace’s tendency toward word vomit. At one point she uses the phrase “popular situational comedies on television”.

But that’s not as bad as some of the “regular people” that Mark and Grace talk to. Here’s the testimony of one woman: “In my own sin, I chose to falsely flatter that which wasn’t honorable in my husband, selfishly hoping I’d get a better experience. My sins of giving way to fear led me to submit dutifully while becoming more enslaved in my husband’s self-focused desires.” What does this even mean? What are they talking about? What were the husband’s desires and how did she plan to profit from them? This “story” is not even a story. It would make more sense if the government in 1984 had written it.

Conclusion
How does Real Marriage stack up as a Hate Book? Well, the parts that offer good advice are boring, mostly because it’s advice that literally anyone in the world could offer to you. In fact, you may grow depressed if you stop to consider why they needed a chapter on sexual assault being bad. Also boring are the frequent and lengthy discussions of prayer techniques and the usual confession, repentance, forgiveness formula.

On the other hand, much of the book veers from frustrating to outrageous. I’ll remember Mark’s enthusiasm for sex acts his wife sounds annoyed by; I’ll remember the one-two punch of an exhortation for husbands not to beat their wives followed by advice for women on how to obey their men. But most of all I’ll remember poor, sad Grace Driscoll, who is so blinkered by her naivete, so damaged by her experiences, and so limited by her chosen faith, that she can preach against abusive spouses without ever realizing that she has one.

The Worst Thing
Grace Driscoll’s life story, which gets more and more depressing as it advances to her present-day tragedy, a fate all the sadder because she thinks it’s okay.

The Best Thing
At one point Mark Driscoll compares a wife’s breasts to a “petting zoo”. After reading that chapter, I went with friends to the Texas State Fair, where they have an actual petting zoo. We went. I could not stop laughing. For the rest of my life, anytime anybody mentions a petting zoo, I will think of pastors getting handsy with their wives.

The GIF That Summarizes My Overall Reaction

This includes both of Colin’s expressions. But mostly Ryan’s.

Hate Book Club Report Card
(all scores on scale of 1-10, with 10 being most)

Hateability of message: 9
Hateability of writing style: 4
Pleasure derived from hating book: 6

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Texas State Fair Report

I’ve lived in Dallas for three Texas State Fairs, and this Saturday finally went. I should have gone sooner. The Texas State Fair is everything you could hope for: fun, silly, huge, full of unhealthy food and drink, and crowded but not scarily so. It was great.

It’s not cheap, however. I spent a total of $43.50, and could have easily dropped much more. That included a discounted entry ticket and 60 “coupons,” which you purchase with actual money and then use across the fair as currency. The purpose of coupons is, I assume, to dissociate you from questions of what’s a fair price. “The fries over there are 14 tickets and these are 12 tickets,” you might say, instead of the more reasonable “Seven bucks for fries?!?”

When friends Lindsay, Ethan, and I arrived, we began a casual counter-clockwise walk around Fair Park. Lindsay hadn’t eaten all day, so we bought her happiness in the form of a giant turkey leg, and then sidled up to the beer tent, which was offering a confusing-sounding experience: funnel cake beer.

Funnel cake beer

Here it is! Note the sugar around the rim.

Specifically, Community Beer Company’s Funnel Cake Ale, a special offering meant to taste like dessert, and served with powdered sugar around the rim. Now, at first the thought of this revolted me, but I realized: hey, you only live once.

Community Funnel Cake Ale, shockingly, does not suck. In fact, it’s not even desserty. “It tastes like beer,” Ethan complained. “I feel cheated.” I think there was a genuine attempt to add sweet flavors. (Community denies using actual funnel cake; their goal was just to get something light and refreshing.) However, the self-respecting brewmasters also added a ton of hops to make sure the sweetness did not run rampant. The combination of bitter hops and sweet sugar turned into an intriguing semblance of citrus, with an acid kick. As a result, when you’re out in the sun at the fair, Funnel Cake Ale is actually one of your more refreshing choices.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Cotton Bowl, all sorts of livestock were on display: horses, steers, mules, multiple aisles of llamas, and piglets.

Piglets

Piglets!

Stealing the show, probably, was Boris, the 1,270-pound boar. Boris didn’t do much. When we visited, he was lying down, fast asleep. Life is hard when you weigh 1,270 pounds, I guess. A posted sign announced that Boris is on a special diet.

There are more animal-based attractions. You can see the Ostrich Races, which are earnestly corny and feature an emu-herding sideshow and a hilarious race where small children attempt to “herd” ducks. The ostriches have actual adult jockeys who seem sincere when they congratulate each other on a race well-run. Next door is the petting zoo, which has zebras, a “teenage” giraffe, yaks, and several animals I have never even heard of.

The food court doesn’t have animals you’ve never heard of, but it does have animals you rarely eat. The New Orleans booth featured some totally delicious fried alligator, in a gloriously salty and peppery batter. I was unable to track down the critics’ choice for “best taste” (Gulf shrimp and all the traditional shrimp side dishes, smashed into a big ball and fried), but I was able to sample fried Sriracha balls, which are just stupendous. Speaking as a Sriracha skeptic, when you mash it up with corn, shredded chicken, and tomatoes, and then coat it in a crispy tortilla-chip batter, the result is delightful. It’s only medium-spicy, but the lady will hand you a bottle of hot sauce if you need extra heat.

Deep-fried sriracha balls. I will say that $1.50 per ball is not a bargain.

Deep-fried sriracha balls. $1.50 per ball is not a bargain, as shockingly tasty as they are.

Really, only one fried food I tried had a similar expectations/reality ratio. Mom, please sit down before proceeding.

Deep-fried pumpkin pie.

Deep-fried pumpkin pie

Somewhere under that golden crust is a small slice of pumpkin pie.

Oh my god. This is glorious. The pumpkin pie innards are gooey, intensely pumpkiny, the texture of a truffle. And the fried coating is sinful, excessive, ridiculous, and oh so good. Lindsay got the deep-fried s’mores, and I can confirm that this is also stupendous.

Disappointments? There were a few. The “auto show” was not vintage cars, but a shameless showroom of General Motors’ new models. We walked through a weird number of mattress store product-placement areas. The Texas wine booth confirmed my distrust of Texas wines, except for Messina Hof’s red zinfandel. And Austin’s own Eastciders Gold Top, the best hard cider I have tasted outside the United Kingdom, was represented–but $7.50 bought you a tiny little plastic cup, barely half a bottle.

If you get frustrated in your attempt to drink great cider, or your attempt to stand in line for a half-hour to try the deep-fried loaded baked potato and deep-fried bacon-wrapped cinnamon roll (those were served by the same stand), you can always fall back on the State Fair’s greatest pursuit of all: people-watching. It ought to be considered for some kind of People-Watching Olympics. From the dozens of llama owners to the guy who got on a ride twice to flirt with my friend; from the earnest folks with serious faces doling out fried Oreos to this guy who is super excited to meet a zebra…

Zebra

And he was a complete stranger. He just really likes zebras.

…the people at the fair are incredible.

In conclusion: the Texas State Fair is awesome. Next year I’m going back. And next year I’m going to try to do more.

Spinny carousel doohickey

But not this. I’m happy to just take pictures of this.

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