In the postscript to his stand-alone short story, “Clowns,” FP Dorchak, author of five novels including Sleepwalkers and Voice, explains that he wrote the short story in 1987 and only recently rediscovered it. One imagines him opening a drawer somewhere and stumbling upon the old manuscript. Maybe the letters are the dot-matrix approximations of the alphabet we thought were so high-tech back in the ‘eighties, or maybe they’re the smudged and smeared characters from a creaky Remington or Underwood. Whatever the case, the story was presumably sitting in the darkness, lying in wait for a long time before fate brought it back into the light — a fitting image, it turns out, as the story begins with a toy clown springing to life with plans to violently wake a young boy from his sleep. From there, needless to say, things gets a little creepy. The story itself is short (“very short” as the title page notes), but it’s also the stuff of nightmares. It’s easy to imagine “Clowns” in the pages of Weird Tales or as a “TZ First,” the forum that the old (and much missed) Twilight Zone magazine once dedicated to first-time authors. The good news for fans of Dorchak’s fiction is that he plans to gradually bring more of his shorts out over the next year or so on his Wailing Loon imprint and then gather them together in a single collection. Given the intense creep-factor of “Clowns,” the proposed collection is bound to terrify.
Books about the Beach Boys tend to focus on Brian Wilson, depicting him as the “mad genius” behind the band’s music. Such accounts trace his evolution from a surf-pop wunderkind to the architect behind the masterful Pet Sounds album, then dwell almost lasciviously on the mental breakdown surrounding the recording of the long-deferred Smile album before turning to his struggles with addiction, mental illness, and the troubling relationship with the Svengali-like therapist who took over Wilson’s life. While such narratives are certainly valid, they tend to ignore other members of the band—in particular Carl Wilson, the youngest of the brothers who formed the heart of the band. In Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul of the Beach Boys, Kent Crowley aims to correct that.
Less of a counter-narrative than a complementary one, Crowley depicts Carl Wilson as the emotional and musical center of the band, particularly during the years when Brian’s contributions were negligible. In Carl’s early childhood, he was a somewhat reluctant partner in his older brother’s musical machinations, only singing along with Brian under duress and as a result of maternal intercession. Yet as the band started coming together, Carl’s talents as a guitarist and his natural ear for music made him Brian’s closest confidant and later ensured his role as the band’s musical director as the oldest Wilson brother drifted further out of the picture.
As Crowley makes clear throughout the book, a combination of talent and compassion allowed Carl to hold the Beach Boys together through some of the band’s leanest years. Yet even in these lean years, Carl emerges as somewhat of a creative dynamo, crafting some of the finest, albeit most obscure, music the Beach Boys ever created. Indeed, part of the heartbreak of reading Crowley’s account of the band is seeing Carl’s desire to push the band ever forward on the artistic front while personal, financial, and cultural concerns gradually transformed the band into a nostalgia act built almost entirely on the legend of Brian’s genius.
Needless to say, Brian Wilson casts a long shadow in Beach Boys lore. While Crowley’s extensively researched and emotionally sensitive biography can’s fully extricate Carl from that shadow, it succeeds in shining a well-deserved spotlight on the brother whose love for his family and the beautiful music they created together kept the band alive when the rest of the world appeared to have given up on them.
Publisher: Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
Bonus content: Q&A with author Leland Cheuk
The title of Cheuk’s new book, and many chapters within, contain the word “misadventures,” but I’m confident I could run a “find and replace all” of that word with the phrase “fuck ups” and no one would be the wiser. The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is a Chinese American’s tale of trying and failing to remove himself from the fate of becoming another man in his family with nothing but a life full of “misadventures.”
Sulliver narrates the bulk of his story from a prison cell in Bordirtown, a desolate Anytown, USA that reeks of cow patties and chemical pollutants, and was christened its phonetic name by an illiterate great grand uncle. Serving 18 months on a 4 year sentence, Sulliver documents his story in a manuscript that he hopes will lead to his release. In his cell with rats and uncouth cellmates, he defends his innocence by recounting not only his own “misadventures” but those of all his male predecessors made up of every variety of loser, criminal, and sociopath from murderers, pimps, drug dealers, wife beaters, and politicians. Among them, the occasional ordinary citizen like a pastor or hard working husband, but these are rare, as if being a normal functioning human being is a genetic mutation or a gene that skipped not one, but every two generations.
What Sulliver wants us to believe (or perhaps he’s trying to keep himself convinced) is that he tried his hardest not to become another link on a dysfunctional family chain—he left as soon as he could, moved to Copenhagen, and married outside the Bordirtown community. However, a few years back, he was beckoned home to care for his mother, and with nothing better to do than mooch off the “sweet, sweet Danish” unemployment, he returned to Bordirtown only to find himself snarled in a toxic suckhole of family drama. He carpet-bagging-ly ran for town mayor against his father out of pure spite, a hilarious satire on politics since father and son Pong are not only least qualified and terrible at managing their own lives, but both believed that battling each other for public office would miraculously result in a positive outcome for everyone, including the townspeople and spouses caught in the middle.
From the beginning, Cheuk brilliantly illustrates unyielding familial and marital tensions. Sulliver is not only torn between his wife and his duties as a son, but also the life he started in Copenhagen and the mess he left behind in his childhood home. Subtle bitterness bubbles from every interaction and confrontation, and the dialogue is laden with passive-aggressive undertones, and the novel itself ceaselessly maintains the tension and conflict (simply because these people are so hopeless). From an outside perspective, the answers to the Pong family problems are obvious: someone needs to do more than just move to another country to break the cycle of dysfunction. Someone’s gotta kill someone, breed outside the bloodlines, get divorced, or find a life coach, but naturally, these people aren’t going to miraculously get their shit together, save themselves, and then go on to save the world. Quoting Sulliver’s public defender, “you come from generations of idiots and jerks,” and there’s no way the Pongs are going to change overnight without drastic intervention, and this is precisely what maintains the novel’s unbreakable connection to the major dramatic question. This powerful literary tool becomes a perfect Petri dish for the multiplying family dramas.
Cheuk also leverages the human power of denial, especially when it comes to Sulliver who staunchly believes that he’s always chosen the higher path and has done everything to prevent himself from becoming another “degenerate” (his word, not mine). The evident disconnect between his observations and reality is uncanny and the only thing he manages to perfect is the art of whining about how his life never works out because a series of unfortunate events. In reality, he rarely makes any selfless or good decisions unless forced into a corner, and although he may believe that his life’s just been a tidal wave of bad luck, he drains his wife’s inheritance money to fund his campaign for mayor and he has his cell mate killed because of a few annoying habits. This is not bad luck; this is being a total asshole.
However, this schmuck can’t be totally blamed for the way he turned out, after all, he grew up watching his father and mother act like that raging high school couple we all know, the king and queen of drama who just needed to break up to save everyone the headache. Classically codependent, this husband and wife are a train wreck that derailed into a minefield, and both refuse to divorce each other. His father refuses because he doesn’t want it to tarnish his political image and his mother refuses because she doesn’t want to have to “find a job.” As individuals, they’re self-serving and abrasively obnoxious. The mother character has a bottomless barrel of harping in her reserves with a keen ability to hurl insults at the drop of a hat. The father, Saul, is definitely a piece of work and seemingly worse than all Pongs that preceded him, even his illiterate brothel-owning prostitute-murdering uncle. There’s the small stuff like making his secretary ask his own son to answer a series of security questions before wiring him through, but add in his hobbies of fathering families all over the globe like an international man of polygamist mystery, brothel-owning, wife-beating, and scheming, and he makes for one fantastical character. His own father once referred to him as a demon child, who at age five, “was bilking neighborhood girls out of their money by selling piss and water as lemonade.”
Occasionally, the narration is disorienting—it’s one thing to narrate the past from the present, but Sulliver bounces to and from stories of past Pongs, from great-great-uncles to great grand fathers. He also rambles to himself in a “but what? What was I planning to do?” sense and injects random details that don’t add much value. And the quantity of Pongs in this story who were made out to be low-class, violent, racist, and dishonest clowns all tied up in antisocial behaviors be it drugs, pimping, scamming, philandering, and/or wife beating is uncanny. After reading through countless generations of the Pongs’ “misadventures,” it is difficult to like anyone, even in a “like to hate” sense. At times, the never-ending stream of fuck ups was miserable to endure, and read like a bad cocaine crash while walking uphill in a torrential downpour of acid rain.
There are a few uplifting moments such as father saying to son (Saul saying to Sulliver), “Learn only the good things from me, not my bad,” and quieter passages where beautifully sad details twinkle through the grit like a silver dollar in gutter muck. In a flashback of Sulliver’s great granduncle, Pariss, an illiterate brothel owner who beats and murders the prostitutes, we learn that he grew up watching his mother sell herself and take beatings from her clients, and how, as an adult, he only felt a connection with someone when his fist connected with their flesh. Moments like these remind us that the men in this family are still human, and perhaps better influences and upbringings might have spared them a lifetime of “misadventures.” These redeeming moments are rare though, and most of the time, everyone is acting like a total jackass and dragging down the innocent.
All in all, Leland Cheuk’s new novel is a fast-paced and detail-laden read about a family still struggling to make a positive impact on the world. Painfully dark but darkly humorous, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is a dysfunctional tale about one man’s fight to conquer his personal demons and pursue his own version of the American Dream.
Q&A with Leland Cheuk
Lavinia: You dove into the history of the Pong family bloodline, back into the 1800s. What research did you do to make the scenes and predicaments historically accurate?
Leland: I didn’t go much further than Google. At first, the book was just Sulliver’s story, but my agent at the time asked me to add the stories of the ancestors, and he made it sound like he was ordering extra onions with his burger. No big deal, right? In the end, I was really happy he did, because it added depth to the book and it was a challenge to write what was essentially comedic historical fiction. There were characters that I personally loved, specifically slow, but good-hearted Millmore and Robinson the frustrated artist. Because Sulliver’s story was already written and the characters were all going to have a sliver of Sulliver and his father in them, my research was basically fill-in-the-blank. What did the characters wear back then? What did they do for work? What were the family units like? All that stuff is readily available online if you look for it.
Lavinia: Which character do you identify most with, and why?
Leland: It would have to be Sulliver. I started this book in the mid-oughts, so I was in my late-twenties, and my parents had just had this huge blow-up. My mom caught my dad with another woman–Cheaters-style. She trailed him with a car and everything. She was calling me all the time, emotionally wrecked, giving me the play-by-play like I was her best girlfriend. Eventually, I got my mom a divorce lawyer in San Francisco, and I was sitting there between them in the lawyer’s office. I was divorcing my parents. It was terrible for everyone involved. But my mom never pulled the trigger. She chose unhappiness in exchange for stability. The thing I’ve never understood: why was she so wrecked then? I remember my parents fighting about my father’s philandering way back when I was in grade-school.
Anyway, the whole experience led me to question whether I was infected with the worst traits of my parents, despite consciously making choices that were the polar opposites of all of the choices my parents made.
Lavinia: Sulliver ditched his home of Bordirtown for Copenhagen. Why this city and not another? Is there a significance or symbolism?
Leland: I studied abroad for six months in Copenhagen in 1997. I was at undergraduate business school at UC Berkeley (thanks to my caving to parental pressure) and hated it. I was going through a lot of angst and needed a break. It was the first time I was away from the Bay Area for an extended period of time. My parents couldn’t even call me easily. Copenhagen was where I came of age. I learned some Danish, visited Christiania on a daily basis, met people from all over the world who were different from me (certainly different from the type of people who go to business school at UC Berkeley), and I traveled all over Europe. I got into Danish film (that was the heyday of Dogme 95). There’s a terrific film entitled Inheritance, directed by Per Fly, starring Ulrich Thomsen, and the broad plot strokes are essentially Sulliver’s story. A prodigal son and successful restaurateur is happily married in Stockholm, but when his father commits suicide, he’s ordered back home to Denmark by his mother to be CEO of his family’s struggling steel corporation. Once he returns home, his morals and his marriage slowly disintegrate, and by the end, he’s a drunk, alone in a giant French villa, contemplating whether to rape the housekeeper. I mean, yeah, it goes super-dark.
And of course, Denmark is the setting of the ultimate dysfunctional family drama: Hamlet.
Lavinia: Any real place an inspiration for Bordirtown, the city that reeks of cow patties and chemicals?
Leland: El Paso. I visited a high school friend who was a medical resident there in the mid-oughts. It is indeed a scary border town. For whatever reason, Mexico looks extra scary from El Paso. There were always dark clouds over Juarez and black hills. For a kid who grew up in the pristine Bay Area, El Paso resembled Mars. My brother, who made my awesome book trailer, actually went to El Paso and got footage for me. A lot of his shots were actually images in my head when I wrote the book.
Lavinia: What are you working on now?
Leland: I plan to put out another book with CCLaP in 2017. It’s a story collection entitled Letters From Dinosaurs that has a lot of the pieces I’ve published in journals. For the past five years, I’ve also been working on a novel about the brief and wondrous life of a fictive famous Chinese American standup comedian (think Chinese American Chris Rock). I hope I’ll be ready to shop that this spring.
Leland Cheuk is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and is always working on a novel and a collection of stories. His novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is forthcoming in 2015 (CCLaP Publishing). Cheuk has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies at the MacDowell Colony, I-Park Foundation, and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. Cheuk’s writing has also appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Lunch Ticket, and Pif Magazine. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University.
Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer born and raised in the Bay Area, California. She currently divides her time between San Francisco and London. Her debut novel, alt.punk explores the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. On March, 1st, 2016, Casperian Books will release her sophomore novel, Single Stroke Seven, a narrative that sheds light on independent artists of a shipwrecked generation coming of age in perilous economic conditions. Her other small press book reviews have appeared in The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Entropy Magazine, and American Book Review.
If you’re looking for a somewhat off-the-wall gift for that special somewhat off-the-wall person on your holiday list this season, Contemporary Krampus may be exactly what you’re looking for. Curated by Mike Drake, this volume offers a wide range of contemporary depictions of Krampus, the “Christmas Devil.” Along with paintings and drawings that range from charming to creepy, Contemporary Krampus also includes brief bios of the artists who produced the works. While the typesetting is a little odd (with text running almost to the edge of the page) and the bios are somewhat uneven (reading like they’ve been taken directly from the artists’ webpages without any editing), the art is what makes this volume particularly enjoyable. With that in mind, here are a few samples…
Trying something kind of new… I’ve reviewed music on this blog in the past, but I’m thinking it might be nice to share bands that I discover as I explore sites like Bandcamp and SoundCloud and other services that smush two words together to make one. First out of the gate is Tiger Left, Tiger Right. On this album, their Demo Recordings, I’m hearing a chugging proto-punk rhythm guitar and a melodic lead guitar line with some nice harmonies and a suburban drawl reminiscent of Ben Folds. And if you’re wondering, the band’s name may or may not be a reference to an episode of The Fugitive.
Peter Baroth lives in Media, Pennsylvania with his partner, the poet and professor Courtney Bambrick. He is a writer, visual artist, musician, and sometime editor. He’s recently published his first full-length book of poetry, Lost Autographs, with Moonstone Press. His poetry, short stories, and artwork have appeared in a variety of print and online journals including Philadelphia Poets, Mad Poets Review, Apiary, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and elsewhere. Baroth also published the novel Long Green with iUniverse in 2003 and three poetry chapbooks between 2001 and 2005 – Mounds of Sounds, Sessions, and Ski Oklahoma – all with Wordrunner. Of Baroth’s work, Mad Poets Review Editor Eileen D’Angelo has said: “It’s St. Louis. Oklahoma. Chicago. Philadelphia. It’s Blues and Jazz, Coltrane and Miles, dark glasses, smoky bars. All words and music rolled into one.”
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the poetry collection. Can you tell us about the book’s journey?
Peter Baroth: Although it really started out as a sort of “Best Of” collection of my work since my last book of poetry published in 2005, Lost Autographs developed a pretty definite autobiographical shape, or arc, as it evolved. The book is broken into three sections: “origins,” “end/beginning,” and “travels.” But this is actually something that came together after the fact – after I had written most or all of the poems that comprise it. And it happened almost as if my unconscious had been planning this structure. So, really by good fortune, I ended up having a manuscript in my hands which spoke to a family past, then through my youth and formal – as well as informal – education, and onto some of my adult experiences. And I feel pretty good about the way it fell together and also really good about the fact that a version of it was recognized as a finalist in the Mad Poets Joie de Vivre manuscript competition.
CS: What poets have had the biggest impacts on your work? What about their work speaks to you?
PB: Well, there is definitely the big “Beat” or “Jazz Poet” element to my work: Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen being very influential. I think a lot of that has to do with the Beats’ place so immediately after WW II. Ferlinghetti served as a Commander of a submarine chaser during the war but emerged from the experience as an avowed Pacifist. To me, so many of the Beats were important in defining that great postwar consensus in the arts and culture which began to say, “no” racism and “no” to war because, I think, the creative community had directly or indirectly observed the worst in humanity in the war and so much of the human race was chastened. And here I was, born in 1963 in Hyde Park, Chicago into this emerging “mélange” of American sub-cultures. And it really wasn’t a reach to fall in love with – and be moved by – Jazz at that point. It was there. And the Beats embraced it. Embraced virtually all of life. Today, there is, perhaps understandably, more of a Balkanized cultural environment, but there, in the mid-‘60s there was this emerging organic smorgasbord that was America. The Beats weren’t perfect, no. And by ’68 I was living in Norman, Oklahoma – which is another chapter. But the Beats speak to what was really in my bones by age 5 – an inchoate loosening of the breath.
CS: I’m always curious about a writer’s process. Can you tell us a bit about yours? Do you write every day? In spurts? Do some pieces come easily while others need to be wrestled with for months or years?
PB: When I look back at the poetry that I wrote in my 20s, I think it really leaned toward the mystical and the visionary – and a sense of nostalgia, almost. I was kind of like a frustrated movie director but without the means or tech skills for film school. And I think that I did write in sort of spurts with the idea that the first “take” was the best. But taking workshops with Leonard Gontarek, Paul Martin, J.C. Todd, and the late Len Roberts really taught me the importance of incorporating revision. And while I’d always been a bit of a Luddite, using the computer – not to compose but to revise – helped me to work more intensively on one poem – with a little bit more of a work ethic – but still not more than three hours a time, max. More than that was one way to risk overworking. I did write every day for 5-8 hours when writing my novel back in the ‘90s. And what really prepared me for this was writing an honors thesis as an undergrad at Wash U in St. Louis. The thesis wasn’t necessarily a masterpiece but it did really stretch me and my prose writing through to a longer sort of form.
CS: I was drawn to your poem’s deeper backgrounds—their sense and utilization of history—not just personal histories but also the history of nations. Are you a history buff? What about this kind of background and deep focus appeals to you? What does it bring to your work?
PB: Well, I almost had to become a history buff in order to be able to write, at least the “origins” section, of Lost Autographs. My parents are both immigrants. My father came to the U.S. from Hungary in 1947 – Jewish and a Holocaust survivor. He got his Bachelor’s in Industrial Design and served as a naval officer – both in the U.S. My late mother, a gentile, who was nearly five years older than my father arrived in America in 1957 from Germany. She had worked at the American headquarters in Heidelberg and from what I understand, just sort of became fed up with German culture. They met and married in Chicago. At a certain point in my adolescence things started happening to me which heightened my curiousity about my family’s past, and more broadly, that of European history in general. And I found that, for instance, my maternal grandmother – a German non-conformist in the dangerous ‘30s – and my paternal grandfather, a Budapest lawyer ensconsed in the upper bourgeoisie who didn’t survive the war, were alive in the sense that they were holding messages for me. That if I understood their situations and historical contexts I would understand those messages better. So I majored in Literature and History in college and then went onto law school – that second part as sort of a way of following my grandfather’s footsteps. But one of the elements of these “messages” that I mention is that the world can be a very, very dangerous place. Whether you aspire to just “fit in” as a Hungarian professional or follow the path of rebellion and resistance, as my grandmother did (though she was also a pharmacist). My German grandmother actually died in a motorcycle accident well before the war. Studying history was a way of turning a corner and understanding these people. It became a task because turning that corner wasn’t just a physical corner on the way to Pop-pop’s house. I had to cross oceans to understand – maybe a little bit like Obama had to. Anyhow, I feel like this has endlessly enriched my writing as well as my self-understanding.
CS: Another aspect of your work that interested to me was your use of place and geography. Perhaps that goes hand-in-hand with the history angle, but I found it very grounding and satisfying. Is the use of this a conscious decision? Can you share what this adds to a poem?
PB: Part of my parents’ immigrant experience was that they were very curious about this new country that they had both come to. So they, along with my sister and me – did a lot of traveling in the United States. Moving to Oklahoma – where I lived from age five to 22 (minus time away at college) put us in the middle of the country which made the West accessible along with the East – where we had relatives – and the Midwest. Later on, since I skied, I went on a lot of ski trips to places like Colorado, Vermont, and Canada. Later on came Europe. When things aren’t going well for you in one place – such as when I failed the PA bar exam a number of times – it is a great salvation to travel in your mind to somewhere else. Somewhere where you might have memories. At times I’ve thought of myself as a bit of a drifter with a law degree. In this way it consciously and unconsciously seeps into my writing. And it can buoy you. If your day didn’t go very well in Philadelphia – or Media – it’s an escape to think about –or write about – the maid in Summit County, CO or the activist in St. Louis, or the musician – or the soccer game – back in Oklahoma, where I spent a lot of time driving around delivering pizza. Or the castle in Budapest. What this can add to a poem is that the “then” and the “somewhere else” can well become a subversion of the oppression of the here and now. And that is freedom – going places. I love maps – especially of the U.S. There is a message and a drama to them – and in another life I could well have become a geography professor.
CS: You write and publish fiction as well. I’m always fascinated by authors crossing genres. Which came first for you? How does your background in poetry influence your fiction—and vise versa?
PB: One thing that I haven’t touched on has been my art and my music. I grew up playing the cello and planning on being a professional artist or designer. Thus, I had a good bit of grounding in a couple of the arts before I started doing creative writing semi-seriously in high school. There I remember almost simultaneously writing a couple of short stories and getting poetry published in the Norman High School anthology Soupstone. But I mention music especially because I think that that background has influenced both my poetry and my fiction. A reviewer, Pat King, called the prose in my novel Long Green “musical.” I think that it was as a cellist that I first wrestled with the concept of virtuousity. Playing with vibrato, having an ear, playing through crescendos and diminuendos, bowing those exquisitely rich mid-range tones – the cello, with its Renaissance origins, is a beautiful instrument. And while I’ve played the cello maybe once in the past 35 years, it still influences, first, my poetry. And because I don’t think that my prose is ever completely divorced from poetry, it then influences my fiction. Plus, I think that I’ve written two line poems about huge things and long short stories about very small things.
CS: What’s next?
PB: I’m hoping to have a formal launch for Lost Autographs. And then maybe trying to set up a small tour to get the word out about it.
Curtis Smith’s latest books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Communion (essays, Dock Street Press). His next book, a series of essays about Slaughterhouse-Five, will be released by Ig Publishing this coming spring.