Barbarian Days: William Finnegan’s Joy-Drenched Reason to Live

No matter what we tell ourselves, we all secretly want to live forever. It follows that a good memoir serves as vicarious life extension, toward this eternally minded, unachievable end. A glimpse into an alternate possibility. Between the pages unfolds what could’ve been — if. If we were born at a different time. If we had different circumstances. If we had different interests. If we were altogether different people through any number of natural or nurtural deviations against our norm.

I’ve long been obsessed with those whose lives are lived on the rough and ragged edges of society. The way in which William Finnegan splits his time between war correspondence and surfing — two extreme lifestyles on their own, together in one individual — was properly interesting. His clean prose and serious storytelling chops certainly didn’t hurt either. There’s a very good reason this book won him a Pulitzer.

Throughout his childhood in Hawaii, he didn’t fit. An outsider, ethnically and socially. As a child his whole personality seemed to ricochet off of the locale, grasping at a world filled with violence for a handhold to guide him. The time period in which he came of age added to his dissociation among his peers. Eventually he found surfing as a wild, violent, introverted escape from his lack of acceptance. It held just enough of a loner mentality to capture those with similar social needs. This conglomeration of loners he met while chasing waves became his friends; a tertiary social net composed of outcasts.

 

“We were fellow skeptics—rationalists, readers of books in a world of addled, inane mystics.”

 

He describes surfing as “a consuming, physically exhausting, joy-drenched reason to live”. One that had a “vaguely outlaw uselessness” that “neatly expressed one’s disaffection.” Who doesn’t want something like that in their life? It’s the reason people free climb, skateboard, race motorcycles, and spend time in the woods, running themselves to exhaustion. It’s why marathons are a thing, bull-fighting, spelunking.

Throughout Barbarian days, Finnegan contrasts the intensity of a life spent surfing, with that of a life spent chasing stories across war-torn countries. These are the divisions that comprise his whole. He sees himself as a man who needs to chase danger, and can only relax after having exhausted that part of himself. I can relate to a tiny degree. He can only be calm when he has faced his intense, possible death. I can only truly rest when I’ve exhausted my dual needs for effective productivity and creative endeavor. I need to see evidence of my existence in the world or I can never be still.

Eventually he would settle down: marriage, children, home ownership, and moving to New York City did indeed soften him somewhat, but the fire at his core was never extinguished. It only sat at a simmer, waiting to be flooded with the particular brand of fuel needed to burn up the excess energy of his life.

After writing up a report of those around him — including other reporters — dying in the act of journaling the insanity they were embedded in, he would surf. Every chance he got, he would surf. The fervor with which he expressed his desire to surf, was never repetitive. Surfing, it seems, is part addiction, part meditation. A calming obsession for the soul.

Being not remotely interested in surfing, or living that kind of life, I was still fascinated to see the myriad ways something I had previously thought extremely repetitious — the act of waiting for a wave, catching it, riding it back to shore, again and again — was instead full of rapturous intrigue, and a kind of fascination that I had not previously known associated with any sort of sport.

My favorite parts of this book, again having no interest in surfing myself, were the human moments between surfing sessions. The characters that populate this memoir, were so interesting, simply because they weren’t normal people. They live intense, chaotic lives, left of center, unstable, but full of passion. Something most of our stable, silly lives could use a lot more of.

A life in vans, sleeping on beaches, running from cops, defrauding American Express to pay for hospitalization due to malaria. These are wild lives. People who thrive only through chasing death, and therefore have a better grasp on what a good life might entail. Things most of us are far too cowardly to do ourselves—or I am at least.

 

“If this was a religion, perhaps it didn’t bear thinking about what was being worshipped.”

 

A particularly touching moment in Barbarian Days is when William asks his wife why she never gets angry about all of the “stupid risky things” he does. She responds that she simply assumed he needed to do them. “When things get bad, I think you get very calm,” she says. “I trust your judgment.” It’s such a tender moment that illuminates a relationship built on trust and mutual respect.

They all seem like intense people, even the girlfriends of his youth and his eventual wife. Artist to lawyer is not a normal career path to follow, but it makes sense for her. It shows an intensity in all things. A life full of passion. And who doesn’t want to read about passionate people?

Paying For It, by Chester Brown: Sex Work, Regulation or Decriminalization?

Paying For It, Chester BrownI have a lot of conflicting thoughts about this book. On the one hand, Paying For It is a fascinating memoir detailing Chester Brown’s time soliciting prostitutes in Toronto from the late nineties through the late zeroes. It brings up all kinds of noteworthy questions about sex work, romantic relationships and the different kinds of love we experience. I have no idea what the answers to these questions are, but I love the questions themselves. Questions are almost always more interesting than answers, and sex work seems like a topic we should be talking more about right now. On the other hand, the way in which Brown approaches possible answers to these questions is at times shortsighted and irresponsible, something I’ll elaborate more on later.

I’ve long thought that prostitution should be legalized and regulated in a similar manner as other “vice” industries: tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, etc. It seems strange that it hasn’t happened yet. Prohibition has a long history of causing more harm than good (see Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness for several examples). Paying For It is pushing a slightly different option for sex work legalization that Brown suggests would be better than regulation: decriminalization. Brown argues that regulation would bring more negatives for sex workers than positives, and that the eventual normalization of sex work after decriminalization would follow as a natural result, given enough time. I’m still not entirely sold on the idea that regulation is a bad option, as I found Brown’s arguments against it not always sound, not to mention a little self-serving. He does however make some very valid points in this always entertaining graphic novel; enough I think, to make anyone consider the alternative he’s suggesting.

Chester BrownThe main idea from this book that I still find intriguing a few months after having finishing it, is Brown’s suggestion that we should abandon the concept of possessive monogamy, or in other words, propriety in romantic relationships. Putting aside whether the idea has merit or not, if we are able to change this about ourselves, the problem then becomes: how should we value sex as a society if we decouple sexual propriety from romantic relationships? Brown suggests valuing it directly with money. While it is possible that money might be the best option, that option is not without its own set of drawbacks. Money, particularly when combined with free market capitalism, often has an insidious way of ruining everything it touches. This is a complicated sociological and psychological problem to tackle, but fascinating to read and think about.


I feel like the more interesting question is whether sex and love can even be decoupled from one another. Personally, I don’t think they can—not entirely at least. Like most of this book, it seems like a libertarian ideal that is decently sound in theory but falls apart in practice. Of course, that is just my subjective opinion, and speaking more in a sense of utilitarian ethics, I see nothing wrong with the separation; It may actually be better for the world, but I remain unconvinced of the concept’s large scale feasibility. On a case by case basis, sure, I can see it working for specific individuals, but beyond that, I think it wouldn’t be possible without a radical restructuring of western society.

Chester Brown, Paying For It
All of these questions are brought up and examined fairly well in the main narrative of the comic as Chester Brown introduces himself to the world of prostitution. In addition to this, about 1/5th of the book is a set of appendices and notes containing information and arguments against potential counters to the idea of decriminalized sex work. Unfortunately, the appendices are where you start to see some of the blind spots in Brown’s perception and reasoning. I think his argument would have been more effective without their inclusion. Most of the logic is sound, but several sections, especially the Drugs, Pimps, and Human Trafficking ones, are entirely too reductive on extremely complex, nuanced issues. At one point he dismisses drug addiction as a myth, and clearly has no solution to the issue of human trafficking, so he brushes it aside as a non-issue. This is insanely irresponsible.

Brown argues his point against easily defeatable straw men of his own invention. If often feels like he is more interested in being right than arriving at the best possible conclusion, which suggests he is someone who has too much personally invested in the argument. One aspect of sex work under decriminalization that Brown seems entirely blind to, is its potential for the emotional manipulation of sex workers as well as other psychological abuses. Brown appears to be a highly logical, reasoning person, which I believe partially blinds him to the reality and experiences of those of us who may be further toward the emotional, feeling side of the personality spectrum. I would love to read some perspectives from sex workers themselves on the different legalization options. Decriminalization vs. regulation arguments aside, Brown’s blind spots aren’t doing his argument any favors. Whatever the solution to the issue ends up being, it needs to first and foremost address the safety and security of sex workers. That is the priority and the entire reason for suggesting a change to the legal status of the oldest profession in the first place.

Paying For It, Chester Brown

All in all, Paying For It was a fascinating, thought-provoking read. I enjoyed the visual aesthetic provided by Brown’s minimalistic, clinical illustrative style. There’s a lot of cartoon sex, and after a while it became a little visually comical, but it is presented in such a straightforward manner as to never feel over-the-top or exploitative. It made me question several preconceived notions about sex work, love, monogamy, relationships, and other social norms and introduced me to several experiences and perspectives I have never considered. If you are interested in any of these topics, especially from an epistemological or sociological angle, it’s definitely worth a read.

Body to Job, by Christopher Zeischegg

“There was a momentum in the way we worked, fucked, and saw ourselves consumed by the world.”

Body to Job begins with the disclaimer: “The following stories were written between 2010 and 2016, and closely resemble my memoirs. They are also works of fiction.” Since reading Reality Hunger last year, I’ve been increasingly interested in the shrinking difference between memoir and fiction. I see it as this: To work in the adult film industry is to exist partially within the shared cultural fantasies of the populace. When your life has, to some extent, revolved around the fulfillment of fantasies for others, I would imagine it seems only natural to tell your story in the form of fiction. But fiction often carries within it a seed of truth.

These are brutal stories, and very well written. They are often heartbreaking, and deal primarily with Christopher’s experience working in the adult film industry, and the difficulties involved with that work. They also occasionally dip into the surreal, which is a nice reminder that there’s a dose of fiction present.

What most struck me about this collection, is the way in which Zeischegg presents everything with little commentary. The stories are raw and straightforward. As the narrative unfolds, things happen that are quite intense, and it’s up to us to interpret these events. People approach pieces of art with bias and preconception. Zeischegg seems aware that the reader will bring their own commentary, so he keeps his sparse. I think it was a wonderful creative choice, and added to the occasionally disturbing content of these stories.

“You know how every urban, twenty-something community is made up of broke-ass DJs, models, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, and writers? Add ‘porn star’ to that list. It’s become just as boring and pointless. And you’re always a stone’s throw away from someone unremarkable who will do the job for nothing.”

The book really starts to hit its stride when it begins dealing with the mundanity of the pornography business. The boring details, the ins and out of the creation of something made to entice and fulfill fantasies, were my favorite part of the book. It also deals heavily with the unique alienation and ostracization experienced by adult performers who work in both the “straight” and “gay” camps of pornography.

It’s a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it.

My Struggle: Book 5, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 5, by Karl Ove KnausgaardBook five details Karl Ove’s life from around age nineteen to thirty-three, but in a lot of ways it feels like the closing chapter of My Struggle. Of course there is still one more book coming in the pipeline; whose english translation I hear has been delayed again, this time until “Fall 2018” due to it being twelve-hundred pages and requiring an additional translator in order to handle the extra page load. According to Knausgaard, the forthcoming sixth volume is supposed to be more about his friends’ and family’s reception to their portrayal in the first five books. That should be very interesting.

This wouldn’t be a review of a My Struggle book if I didn’t mention how fascinatingly readable the prose was. I say fascinatingly readable because I have no idea why it is. I really can’t explain it, but his writing gets inside of me and latches onto something. He does such a fantastic job of relating the deep rooted sense of isolation we experience apart from, and along with the rest of humanity. We seem to keep two groups in our minds: the self (Us), and everyone else (Them). We are always alone even in company, because we can never truly verify that anyone else really exists.

“What was consciousness other than the surface of the soul’s ocean?”

More than any of the others this book is all about Karl Ove coming to terms with the realities of being a writer. At 19-20 he is in love with the mythology of writing, but not so much the actual act itself. He loves the idea but not the reality. He takes criticism of his work very poorly, very personally. He sees himself as not having the depth of soul to truly write like his influences. He feels that there is a chasm between him and others; that he is living a duplicitous life; that he is an imposter and everyone else the genuine article. I think that this ties deeply into his ultimate reason for writing My Struggle: I think he’s trying to demolish the barrier between his private and public life in a way so destructive, it cannot be undone. I think he needs that barrier to break down.

Karl Ove Knausgaard

He states several times that he feels he is a separate person internally than who he is perceived to be externally. He’s able to alleviate this somewhat through heavy drinking, but heavy drinking causes him insurmountable other issues. When he drinks too much, he’s finally comfortable, but he does all kinds of things that bring him shame, and this adds to his compartmentalization of his true self from his public self. In writing this 3600 page, six volume highly personal memoir novel, he is forcing his internal and external, depth and surface selves to intermingle and become one. Since he feels trapped in this situation, to me it seems like a way for him to force himself out.

The character of Karl Ove – I say character because he says over and over that he doesn’t remember much from the periods of time he’s covering, therefore there is definitely a percentage of events and memories that are invented – is the perfect anti-hero. He is often very abrasive to those around him, doing things that are terrible to those he loves, but we’re given so much of his internal thought process that we relate with the reasons for his actions. In a way, it’s more that he’s just very honest about his faults and shortcomings as well as his achievements. Usually when we tell our own stories, we leave out all of the rough edges, and paint ourselves in a much better light. Instead, he seems to be making an effort at self-mythologizing as objectively as he can. Worts and all.

Really, we are all anti-heroes in our own stories when we’re honest about both the bad and the good that we’ve done. I think this is why the concept of an anti-hero is so broadly appealing in stories; it’s really just a well developed character. If a character doesn’t have a little darkness inside of them, they don’t feel real to us.

In conclusion, I loved this book. It tightly wove together the disparate threads from the previous four books. It was also the first to move almost entirely in a linear fashion, which was a big departure from the others. Finishing it makes me want to go back and reread book two, which was previously my least favorite, but I think the additional insight and perspective gained from reading five would make it much more interesting. The main narrative of book two chronologically lands right after the events of book five. I think that book five could be read before book two, and might even be best experienced in that order.

Now begins the long wait for book six.

Man of the Year, by Lou Cove

Man of the Year, by Lou Cove

“Howie is right: if we’re all going to get whacked, what matters is who is standing beside you when the universe speaks your name. And it matters that you stand with them.”

Synopsis:

In 1978 Jimmy Carter mediates the Camp David Accords, Fleetwood Mac tops charts with Rumours, Starsky fights crime with Hutch, and twelve-year-old Lou Cove is uprooted from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Salem, Massachusetts– a backwater town of witches, Puritans, and sea-captain wannabes. After his eighth move in a dozen years, Lou figures he should just resign himself to a teenage purgatory of tedious paper routes, school bullies, and unrequited lust for every girl he likes.

Then one October morning an old friend of Lou’s father, free-wheeling (and free-loving) Howie Gordon arrives at the Cove doorstep from California with his beautiful wife Carly. Howie is everything Lou wants to be: handsome as a movie star, built like a god and in possession of an unstoppable confidence.

Then, over Thanksgiving dinner, Howie drops a bombshell. Holding up an issue of Playgirl Magazine, he flips to the center and there he is, Mr. November in all his natural glory. Howie has his eye on becoming the next Burt Reynolds, and a wild idea for how to do it: win Playgirl’s Man of the Year. And he knows just who should manage his campaign. As Lou and Howie canvas Salem for every vote in town – little old ladies at bridge club, the local town witch, construction workers on break and everyone in between – Lou is forced to juggle the perils of adolescence with the pursuit of Hollywood stardom.

Man of the Year is the improbable true story of Lou’s thirteenth year, one very unusual campaign, and the unexpected guest who changes everything.

You simply must read this memoir. It was fantastic, and genuinely one of my favorite reads of the year. It’s endearing and thought-provoking, and a great conversation about the differing degrees of honesty and openness required in different relationships.

Being a child of the mid eighties, and growing up in a tiny little (population ~2000) tourist trap meets hippie haven town in Northwest Arkansas in the nineties, I knew nothing of late seventies Salem, MA when I cracked the spine on this. My ignorance of the time period and the area, mixed with a killer synopsis established my initial intrigue, and the universal coming-of-age themes present in the narrative sucked me the rest of the way in. I ended up absorbing the book in a couple sittings.

Lou CoveThe cast of characters in the Cove family and extended family — as well as Lou’s childhood friends — are odd, vibrant and alive. Louis’ family and upbringing could not be more different than my own, but there are some things that are universal to all childhoods. As each event occurs in the story, I found myself comparing the reactions that my family would have had with the ones that Louis’ did. It’s great to read about people so different from myself and those I’m familiar with, but so similar in other ways.

A handful of times throughout the book, late nineteen-seventies Salem is compared to the Salem of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s day by way of some quotes from him regarding the city he loathed, and characters mentioning him and his works. What a brilliant way to contrast the seventies conservative crackdown on “smut” that was sweeping the area (and the country) at the time, with the narrative witch hunt of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, as well as the more literal witch hunt that is nearly eponymously associated with the word Salem.

It reads a like a first person novel, written from the perspective of a boy in his twelfth year. There is a tiny bit of unreliable narrator going on here as well, since a large portion of the story is about the goings on of the adults in Louis’s life, but told from a perspective that doesn’t quite yet understand that adult world. The hinting at the reality of each situation is handled with skill and finesse.

Ultimately, it’s a story about Louis having an adventure, growing up, or rather being forced to confront the adult world and coming out the other side a changed person.