baileyWhat made you want to write a book about the drinking habits of classic Hollywood stars?

We had published an earlier book about the drinking habits of famous American writers. This was in part because I was a writer who drank and because my creative partner—the wonderful illustrator Ed Hemingway—is the grandson of a very famous writer who drank. You can guess who that is.

The book was called Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide to Great American Writers. Everyone seemed pleased with it, so we decided to do a follow-up book. Since I am also a screenwriter and had by then moved from NY to LA, we landed on Hollywood and its movie stars as the next area of exploration. It turned out to be a much bigger subject than we had anticipated—a lot of boozing has gone down in this town.

Frederick-BarthelmeFrederick Barthelme is the author of fourteen previous books of fiction. Until 2010, he directed the writing program at the University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi Review. He now edits New World Writing, an online magazine started in 1995.

I’ve known Barthelme for about twenty years or so, more or less to the day, which would be the day I showed up in Hattiesburg to interview him. Two hours before our scheduled interview I was still scratching out questions in a battered notebook, distracted by a gaggle of teenaged girls tugging at pale bikini tops, USM first year students who I was pretty sure would not wind up in any of his classes but could easily show up somewhere in one of his novels, wisecracking their way through another scene of exquisite and heartrending longing, dialogue going off like cherry bombs through the junk landscape of the Mississippi coast. Later, I’d come on board the old Mississippi Review, which morphed into New World Writing, with brief layovers in something called Rick Magazine, later Stand Away from the Vehicle, and Blip. With the help of some of his former students we’d also put together a private journal of opinion called Public Scrutiny, which died a dignified death some years back. I’m saying I’ve known Barthelme a bit, and publicly raved about his work in various places, particularly his novel The Brothers, featuring Del Tribute and his much younger sidekick Jen, two of his most memorable characters, who team up again in Painted Desert.

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So, you wrote about the dead guy again.

You mean my best friend who died five years ago in a mountain climbing accident nearly ten years to the day after he’d been mauled by a grizzly in Yellowstone Park? Yes, I did write about him again. The book is called Altitude Sickness.

 

Why?

Well, we were best friends for over two decades and, like I say in the book, we got together and broke up more times than the earth has rotated the sun, so I’d say his sudden death at the age of forty-two was fairly earth-shattering. We loved each other deeply and his death nearly destroyed me. And I’ve been a writer most of my professional life, so it’s kind of hard to bypass all this.

COVER Altitude Sickness“That funeral ate balls,” my brother Gus said as we walked through the Seattle rain to his car. He unlocked the doors and Dad got in the passenger side, while Mom sat in the back with me. I can be a tad verbose, but couldn’t speak. My mouth, like my heart, felt cauterized.

Mom reached for my hand. “Oh, honey,” she said. “I know this is awful.” She paused. “Where should we take you to eat?”

Usually I’d tease her about Greek protocol, how we hone in on food no matter the circumstances. We’d just left my best friend Neal’s funeral, though, and everything seemed absurd, but not in the funny way.

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A review of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction by Chris Andrews (Columbia University Press, 2014), Bolaño, A Biography in Conversations by Mónica Maristain, translated by Kit Maude (Melville House, 2014) and A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions, 2014)

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Some readers turn to fiction to find not a mirror of the world they live in with all its ambiguity and ugliness, but a comfortable construct where beginnings are followed by middles and conclude with at least moderately-happy ends. The bad earn their comeuppance, while the good get the girl/win the man/score the job/enter heaven. It’s a version of the Elizabethan worldview, where a society riven with murder and incest and terror always rights itself in the end. “The time is out of joint,” Hamlet says early on the play, and at the end young Fortinbras will ride in to reset the clock. A broken world always ended up mended, all its gears and springs put back in place. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the wayward quality of our lives. We tell stories to soften the painful edges and pull the sting out of the bad moments we wish had never happened. We tell stories because we always want everything to end happily ever after, just like we were taught as kids, when the big people read to us. Even our memories get a little soft and rounded over time, just to shine a kinder glow on ourselves. But the twentieth century also made vividly clear just how chaotic and uncertain life is. Evil can rise up in the pathetic guise of a nondescript German corporal, or of a skinny disaffected ex-Marine in his Texas backyard with a mail-order rifle, not to mention—going back a few centuries—the pious crucifixed footmen of the Spanish Insurrection who promised you heaven and then broke your legs. It’s the smiling soldier who marches you under the sign that claims Arbeit macht frei, or the man who calls you out of the dark doorway and draws you into the Mexican desert with his guarantee of mercy and salvation. This is the world of Roberto Bolaño; this is the carnival of wandering troubadours and lost souls.

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TNB, The Rumpus, and Hot Dish reading series proudly present…

Nerdy, Wordy, & Dirty

An off-site event to help kick off the LA Times Festival of Books weekend!  Live readings!  Comedy!  Music!  Beverages!  Friendly banter!

WHEN:

Thursday April 10, 2014
Starts at 8 p.m.

WHERE:

Bootleg Theatre
2220 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90057

WHO:

Readings by Gina Frangello, Dana Johnson, Jerry Stahl, and xTx!

Comedy by Ted Travelstead!

Music by DJ Mira Gonzalez!

Hosted by Brad Listi, J. Ryan Stradal, and Zoë Ruiz!

See you there!

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Original poster art by Lyndsey Lesh.

Furious_Cool_Richard_Pryor_and_the_World_That_Made_HimThe first time Richard showed up for Miss Juliette Whittaker’s Youth Theater Guild at Peoria’s Carver Community Center, they were in the midst of rehearsing a play based on the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. All the parts had been cast, but Richard was so eager and insistent, Miss Whittaker gave him a role as a servant.

He was a “skinny little kid” in his mid-teens, she remembered, although “he looked about nine.”

One day, the boy playing the king was absent and Richard begged her to let him fill in. He knew the king’s lines. He knew everyone’s lines. “The other kids just broke up, he was so funny. When the original king returned, even he had to admit that Richard was better in the part. “So Richard stayed on the throne,” she was fond of saying, “and he hasn’t come down since.”

29book"COLLISION LOW CROSSERS" by Nicholas DawidoffThe year really began in the last days of February, at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. The Scouting Combine is an annual invitation-only event at which more than three hundred of the country’s most promising draft-eligible college football players gather to audition for NFL teams by running, jumping, lifting weights, taking intelligence tests, and sitting down for private interviews, where each one might be asked about almost anything, including his injured shoulder, his bar brawl, his decision to save himself for marriage, and, as had happened the year before with the receiver Dez Bryant, whether his mother was a prostitute. When Eric Mangini led the Jets, he sometimes began a Combine interview by requiring the ten or so people in the room to introduce themselves to the player, after which the coach turned to the player and asked him to repeat all the names he’d just heard. This did not always go over well. LSU’s Dwayne Bowe, now a Chiefs receiver, believed Mangini was trying to humiliate him, and he shut down, producing a lengthy awkward moment that Jets officials still can’t recall without shuddering.

The-Best-Food-Writing-of-2013I made it through 32 years without tasting a McRib. Over three decades spent tasting and eating all other manner of offensive foods—yet a McRib had never passed my lips, until last Thursday. I can’t say I regret my meal. It goes deeper than that: a sense that I gave in, sheeplike, to a national phenomenon whose promises—no matter how meager—were always going to fall short of my expectations.

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (2)In Matt Bell’s debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (Soho Press), we are lured into familiar territory—the world of fables and tall tales, where our expectations of the surreal, the grotesque, and the magical are fulfilled in ever-expanding layers. But beyond the illusions, beyond the world building, darkness, and the unknown is an allegory—a harsh yet beautiful lesson on what it means to be a man, a father, and a husband; to be a woman, a mother, and a wife. Told in layers, fractured into sections, unfolding in a grand tapestry that weaves emotions and actions into a complex series of destinies and consequences, this novel is not an easy read. But the reward is dense prose, powerful psychoanalysis, and the unsettling feeling that our own actions today—many miles from the woods with its failing bear, and its lake with its undulating squid—might be bound by similar rules and outcomes.

Lindsay Hunter owes as much to Denis Johnson as she does to Mary Gaitskill. Her short stories, collected in Don’t Kiss Me (FSG Originals) do not hesitate to descend into the primal urges and dark, lusty behaviors that make us all animals at our core, but they also shine a light on the truth, a nugget of goodness at the center of what is quite often a lonely, depraved and tragic journey, one blanketed in a desire to be seen, to be loved—no matter who we are, or what we’ve done. Hunter’s characters work at diners and long to be included, they take care of their children while embracing their shortcomings, they chase boys into cornfields and kiss their best girlfriends, all the while longing to feel special and included.

0513-red-moon-book-coverRed Moon is not merely about the werewolf, that familiar history and archetype—no, Red Moon (Grand Central) by Benjamin Percy is a brilliant blend of genre horror and literary poetics that reveals the creature in us all, and a debate about what it is to be human and where our priorities rest. Weaving a hypnotic tapestry of connected stories, Percy allows us to follow a cast of characters, good and bad, on an epic journey that distills the heart and soul of other classic post-apocalyptic tales such as The Stand, The Road, and Swan Song. Part of the new movement of genre-bending work that is dominating publishing today, Percy has written a novel that is approachable and yet layered, familiar and yet unique, ancient and achingly visionary.

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I was driving to Adelanto listening to some comedy radio show. There’s nothing in Adelanto. At least nothing anybody wants. Just a collection of old cracked streets and faded one-story businesses. The people on the radio show were asking the audience:  What would people find in your drawers if you died unexpectedly? Your closet? They weren’t interested in the collection of Christmas sweaters or the stacks of family albums—they were interested in the dirty things, the things you don’t want anybody to see or know about. The naked pictures. The sex toys. The raunchy.

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Well, Library Boy,  I’m surprised you had the stomach to show up for this, given the—well, maybe you should explain.  Anything you’d like to tell the readers about the person who wrote this book called The World’s Strongest Librarian?  Like, oh, I don’t know, about the librarian in Tennessee who can deadlift more than you can?

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If your best chance of securing a future is to fight in a “Donnybrook,” a three day fighting match where ponying up $1,000 gets you in, and your chances of getting out in one piece are slim, then maybe you need to reconsider the path you have chosen. Frank Bill’s gritty, violent, and grim debut novel, Donnybrook (FSG Originals) is not for the faint of heart, as the body count is high, and the actions desperate and brutal. But buried in the bruised flesh are the stories of Jarhead, a desperate fighter, Angus, a drug dealer, and Fu, a martial arts enforcer—men with a strange sense of honor that lurks beneath their questionable actions, doing what they have to do in order to survive, to protect their own, and to please their employers. Meth cookers and dealers, drunks and addicts, whores and hustlers, they all scrounge for a meager existence, one that inevitably leads them to the Donnybrook.