(1) Percival Everett, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (Graywolf Press). “Two black men walk into a bar and the rosy-faced white barkeep says we don’t serve niggers in here and one of the men points to the other and says but he’s the president and the barkeep says that’s his problem. So the president walks over and gives the barkeep a box and says these are Chilmark chocolates and the barkeep says thank you and reaches over to shake the president’s hand. The president jumps back, says what’s that? And the barkeep says it’s a hand buzzer, a gag, get used to it, asshole.” And in this novel, that’s just the first chapter.
(2) Bikini Kill, Bikini Kill (Kill Rock Stars, 1992). The hurricane riot grrrl band will be reissuing all of their 1990s records. After their demo cassette, Revolution Girl Style Now! this five-song EP was their first formal release. With “Liar,” a snakepit redo of “Give Peace a Chance,” and “Suck My Left One,” which is both a declaration of independence and a girl’s account of how her big sister protects her by giving herself up to their father every night, it’s funny and harrowing, sometimes with no line, and no time, between the two. But it’s also only a hint of how radical the group was onstage. A YouTube clip—“Bikini Kill wdc 1992”—shows lead singer Kathleen Hanna, bassist Kathi Wilcox, guitarist Bill Karren, and drummer Tobi Vail as Hanna stamps out “Girl Soldier,” the word fuck used for percussion as much as anything else. And then Vail—from her haircut to her T-shirt to her skirt looking exactly as Thora Birch’s miserable punk Enid would in Ghost World almost ten years later—gets up from behind her drums as Karren sits down at them. She strides up to the mike, grabs it as if it’s the only thing left to hold on to in the midst of a storm, and then she makes the storm. She releases a flood of glossolalia, or dada sound poetry, or a rage beyond language so fierce you can barely believe what you’re seeing. Then she goes back to her drums as if what she just did was merely a passing moment of everyday life—which was the Bikini Kill argument about what life is.
(3) Rihanna, “Stay,” on Saturday Night Live (November 10, 2012). Torch song: small to start with, even on the big notes her voice thins as the song goes on, but the moral force behind it seems infinite.
(4) Tracy K. Smith, “Alternate Take (for Levon Helm),” from Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011). A slowly building poem in which the writer (“I’ve been beating my head all day long on the same six lines”) wants nothing more than to feel like the singer must have felt as he sang—what would it have been? “Chest Fever”? “The Weight”? “You know how, shoulders hiked nice and high, chin tipped back / So the song has to climb its way out like a man from a mine.”
(5) Jess, “Tricky Cad” in O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica, ed. Michael Duncan (Siglio Press, 2012). Jess (1923–2004) was a San Francisco painter and collage artist. From 1952 to 1954 he clipped Dick Tracy comic strips out of the Sunday papers and cut them up and scrambled them, until people changed heads and dialogue fractured. This marvelous book—full of more conventional collages made of advertisements and nudie magazines so detailed it would take weeks to decipher them—collects all five extant Tricky Cad casebooks (three are lost). Dick Tracy itself, Jess said, was “dramatic serious nonsense of the highest order, like Krazy Kat”; Tricky Cad was “a demonstration of a hermetic critique self-contained in popular art.” As in Case 1, the page titled TRICKD, with Tracy running a lie-detector test on a middle-aged woman with a white ponytail. She’s furious and hysterical by turns; “TELL THE LION AND THE SHIP TO COME IN,” Tracy says. Two panels later her face is doubled by a younger version of herself, with another older version in the background, as she shouts, “WHERE DID YOU FIND IT?” at Tracy—over a severed hand, still in its shirt cuff, lying on a steel table. “A CROSS DIDN’T DO IT!” she screams from a jail cell. “LET’S HEAR IT ALL, PUNY,” says a cop. “I’M SCARED TO QUESTION YOU ABOUT ANOTHER SUBJECT, EVER!” says Tracy. Followed by a series (“KIT CARY,” “CRACKY I,” “IKICK ART”) involving a woman smothering a man with a pillowcase, broken teeth, a missing baby, and a woman, the murderer, sentenced to a year in prison not for the killing but for “living at home.” And then it gets complicated.
(6) Cleve Duncan, July 23, 1935–November 7, 2012. Soaring over the skipping piano triplets as if he didn’t hear them, Duncan was the lead voice in the Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” in 1954 one of the first Los Angeles doo-wop singles—a record that has proved as enduring as anything else America has turned up over the last sixty years, including Martin Luther King’s address to the March on Washington, which was its own kind of music, the legend of Sylvia Plath, or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. The song came down to earth—and lived as true a life as in any other place or time—in Philip Roth’s 1962 Letting Go, when it played behind what might be the saddest line he ever wrote, and this time you could imagine that Duncan did hear Roth’s young woman, just the sort of person who would have loved the song: “She could not believe that her good times were all gone.”
(7) Michael Robbins, Alien Vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012). Robbins’s poetry is quick as thought, as Constance Rourke might have put it, if he’d been around in 1931 for Rourke to include him in her American Humor: A Study of the National Character. With Davy Crockett–Mike Fink brags brought up to date (“I clear the jungle with the edge of my hand. / I make love to an ATM. I enrich uranium,” followed by the perfect capper: “I’m uninsured”) and pop songs bouncing off a nineteenth-century novel (in “Self-Titled,” I can’t tell if I like “This is Uncle Tom to Ground Control” more than “I just died in my arms tonight”), it might be more true to say Robbins’s poetry is thought, or rather a mind alive but not thinking at all, a jumble of memory and stimuli and distractions and it’s-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue, never mind, a roaring in the head of someone talking to someone else while what he’s really doing is talking to himself, but barely listening, and having the time of his life.
(8) Nick Cave and Warren Ellis Present Lawless Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Sony Classical). On covers of Link Wray’s 1971 “Fire and Brimstone” and the Velvet Underground’s 1968 “White Light/White Heat,” Mark Lanegan, leader of the 1990s Seattle band Screaming Trees, might be acting out the titles. He dives headlong over words, chords, rhythm changes as if speed is its own reward—and for a 2012 bootlegging movie set in the 1920s, music from forty years later couldn’t hit harder. On the other hand, the bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley was born in the Virginia mountains where the movie is set, in the ’20s, when the music that later made his name was already old—and his covers of the same songs sound like shtick, because he’s a shtick singer.
(9) On the Road, directed by Walter Salles, written by Jose Rivera (IFC). Jack Kerouac was casting the movie of his novel before it was published (he would star); finally, fifty-five years later, with the book still selling 100,000 copies a year and Kerouac dead since 1969, here it is. Except for Kirsten Dunst, who has nothing to do but act pissed off, the women—Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss, Kristen Stewart—hold the screen, even if they have only walk-through parts. The men flop. Sam Riley, so fierce as Ian Curtis in Control and Pinkie in Brighton Rock, is vague and scattered as Sal Paradise (Kerouac); Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty tries hard, throwing himself at the story, but his features are too soft and rounded to give even a hint of why Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg couldn’t take their eyes off Neal Cassady. There is one killing scene, at the end. In New York, Moriarty comes out of the night, approaching Paradise, who’s dressed in a coat and tie and surrounded by friends; they haven’t seen each other for a long time. Hedlund reaches out, but he seems addled, damaged; you can almost smell his desperation, his loneliness, and you can see Riley smell it too, and step back. “Duke Ellington won’t wait,” says a voice behind Riley, and he turns away. “I love you as always,” Hedlund says, and he’s left in the shadows, like Paul Muni at the end of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, slipping into the dark after seeing his onetime lover Helen for the last time. “How do you live?” she asks him. “I steal,” he says.
(10) Rick Perlstein, “The Long Con: Mail-Order Conservatism,” the Baffler #21 (Fall 2012). “It’s time, in other words, to consider whether Romney’s fluidity with the truth is, in fact, a feature and not a bug: a constituent part of his appeal to conservatives. The point here is not just that he lies when he says conservative things, even if he believes something different in his heart of hearts—but that lying is what makes you sound the way a conservative is supposed to sound, in pretty much the same way that curlicuing all around the note makes you sound like a contestant on American Idol is supposed to sound.”
Thanks to Allison Kirkland