Writer of fiction, poetry and essays.

iwI saw this book after reading Jersey Ghost Stories, which Goats co-authored with Erren Michaels. One of the reviews of Incomplete Works likened it to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which in my opinion is one of the greatest comic novels ever written. I decided to give it a try, although I doubted very much that it could live up to such billing.

Within a page, I was hooked. The protagonist of Incomplete Works reminded me of Ignatius J. Reilly, the twisted but unforgettable lead of Dunces. I knew then that I was in for a treat.

Thornton Mordecai Lathrop is a student at Snaketree College in Buffalo Wallow, Wyoming. Coming from San Francisco, he is uncomfortable with life in the small, rural community, with it hard-drinking, bull-riding cowboy ways. Thornton is a bit of a snobbish dandy, whose letters home combine references to classic literature with pleas for money.

These letters are mixed with chapters of a book Thornton is writing—a fictionalized account of his own life, in which he has named his surrogate “Larry Lambert”. Larry’s exploits echo Thornton’s, though with various alterations. This ingenious device establishes him as an unreliable narrator early on, which I loved.

There are all sorts of humorous episodes and memorably over-the-top characters, most of which feel distinctly Wodehousian, from a zealously vegan love interest to a drunken ride on a mechanical bull. One dream sequence in the novel-within-a-novel, wherein Larry attempts to sell his soul to a demonic car salesman, felt like something from a Russian satire.

In addition to the hilarious setting and characters, Incomplete Works is brimming with clever turns of phrase, again very much in the spirit of Wodehouse. I rarely laugh out loud, even when I’m reading something funny, but there were a few lines of this that got me audibly chuckling. Goats has an immensely enjoyable wit.

I don’t want to give away too many plot details. Indeed, this book seems not to have much of a plot at first, but gradually the disparate zany characters and situations do tie together to a degree. It’s not as intricate as Wodehouse’s novels or the incredibly layered plot of Dunces, but it works pretty well.

I had a few nits to pick here and there—sometimes the structure of the novel-within-a-novel makes it a little difficult to keep track of who’s who. (Thornton changes the names of his roommate and his girlfriend, so names alternate between his letters and his novel.)

There were also a few typos here and there—mostly of the sort where it was obvious the spellchecker had automatically altered something (e.g. “dues ex machina”) I am always very sympathetic to this sort of thing in indie books—it’s something I’ve struggled with myself. This is why I so love the easily-correctable format of ebooks.

Despite the modern setting, Incomplete Works—like Thornton himself—feels like a throwback to an earlier era of writing. The abundant wit often relies on references to literary works that are hardly read anymore, and Thornton more than once uses expressions that sound like something Bertie Wooster would say.

To be clear, this is one of the most wonderful things about the book—its timeless quality. It feels like it could take place at almost any point in the past century, give or take a few passing references. And that was what made Wodehouse great, and what made Toole great as well. Anyone who enjoys those classics will likely appreciate this novel.

It’s a short read; only a few hours, and well worth the time. Incomplete Works is a delightful tale, ingeniously told. It was a pleasure to discover that people are still writing books like this—now if only more people would read them.

jgsThis is a delightful collection of ghostly tales set on the island of Jersey. Most of them follow classic ghost story archetypes—haunted houses, buried secrets, and wandering female specters, among other things. But each story is well-written, with carefully fleshed-out characters, so they always feel fresh, even if many of them hearken back to ghostly legends of the sort that can be found all across the globe.

I read a lot of ghost story collections like this when I was around 12 or 13 years old, and this one certainly ranks with the best of them. None of the tales are too gory, at least not by today’s standard, but they are certainly quite disturbing—with glimpses of horror that evoke more than is written on the page, just as a good horror story should.

“The Haunting of Longueville Manor” and “The House of Screams” were particular favorites of mine, but every story is creepy and effective. And it was nice to read stories set in a place that I was unfamiliar with—I learned something of the island’s history, in addition to getting some memorable scares.

This is a terrific Halloween read for anyone who enjoys good scary stories. It’s probably too disturbing for young children, but anyone 12 or older is bound to enjoy this collection.

[Many thanks to Twitter user @ESXIII for recommending this book to me.]

[Lyrics by Berthold Gambrel and Maxwell’s_Maximums]

Here’s the tale of Steve the Pumpkin–

Steve the Pumpkin was my friend.

But on October 31st,

Steve the Pumpkin met his end.

Steve was sitting in the field that evening,

In silent thought, as oft he did,

When he was foully apprehended

By a passing neighbor’s kid.

Then they took ol’ Steve the Pumpkin

And they carved ’em up real good.

And put a candle in his noggin

Just because the bastards could.

I swore that I’d avenge him;

So I dressed up like a ghost

And barged in on my neighbors

Demanding candy, tea and toast.

And that’s the honest story

Of trick-or-treating’s youth.

Others may say different

But Steve the Pumpkin knows the truth.

51Jxztd2h9LI heard about this book from my friend Pat Prescott’s review, and it sounded interesting, so I checked it out. I’m glad I did.

Oblivion is the name of a long-abandoned ghost town in New Mexico. A woman named Belinda finds it after walking out of her corporate job in frustration. In the town, she meets an artist named Ben and the two are immediately attracted, but initially are shy and afraid of one another.

Ben grows obsessed with Belinda and, at the urging of his friends, sells some of his art to raise enough money so he can buy the ghost town at auction, out-bidding the local tycoon, Cal Benton, the richest man in the country. Benton vows to get revenge, as he needs the land to build his business empire.

Ben and Belinda need people in order for the town to be recognized by local authorities, and so gradually draw homeless people, migrant workers, mystics, scientists and all sorts of colorful people into the town, gradually turning it into an experimental community. Benton and his family business, meanwhile, are gradually torn apart by their own attempts to destroy the community.

It’s very much a Utopian novel. Throughout the rebuilding of Oblivion, all the town’s residents are focused on environmental concerns. From scientists experimenting with solar energy to the mystics who seem to have supernatural power over nature itself, the book is a deep exploration of environmentalist themes, with the town and its inhabitants serving as models for these philosophies.

That said, some of the characters are more than mere puppets to act out the ideas. Cal Benton evolves quite a bit over the course of the novel, though the same cannot be said for his two hot-tempered sons. His daughter Brandy’s story is left unresolved, which is too bad, because in some ways she was the most interesting Benton.

There are a lot of odd characters espousing different philosophies in Oblivion, and it would take too long to summarize all of them here. For the most part, I enjoyed the colorful and diverse cast, though I did have a problem with one character, introduced very late in the book, and seemingly with no purpose other than to die. This character seemed like more of a caricature than the rest, and I felt the book would have been stronger had she simply been cut out entirely.

It’s in the descriptions that the book really shines, though. There are whole paragraphs describing the look of desert flowers growing over the abandoned buildings. Bruce has a knack for turning a phrase, and there were several times where I reread sentences just to savor how well-constructed they were.

The dialogue is not as strong. Possibly this is inevitable in a book where the main point is to communicate philosophical concepts, but often I found the characters’ lines just too awkward to be believable as things people would say to one another. 

There were a few typos, and in a couple cases, it was clear that autocorrect had just changed a character’s name completely, and no one realized it. I’m very sympathetic to this problem, as I know firsthand how hard it is to catch every typo. This is one of the great things about eBooks: it makes it relatively easy to revise such things.

The other technical flaw that bothered me was Bruce’s overuse of the passive voice. I am not an absolutist who opposes the passive voice always and everywhere, but it really was too much here. I lost track of how many times “a decision was reached” or “an apple was sliced”.  Maybe this was meant to create an effect, but it didn’t work for me.

Despite these reservations, Oblivion is a very interesting book, full of experimental, New Age ideas. I don’t agree with all of them by any means. Sometimes it seemed too idealistic for my tastes. But then again, I could just be a jaded reactionary.

The book it most reminded me of was Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes. Just as Hurst’s novel was a dreamlike, mystical love letter to the ocean with a strong environmentalist theme, so Oblivion is a love letter to the desert, and all the life that hides in the apparent desolation. It’s not as polished as Ocean Echoes, but that same compelling, dream-like quality is there. It’s clear the author has great passion for his setting. Oblivion has its flaws, but it’s still worth reading just for the ideas it explores.

I’ve been writing a long post about politics. It’s detailed, and wide-ranging, and it criticizes everybody in politics for various things, and I think it’s pretty much guaranteed to make lots of people mad.

I’ve been down this road before, though. I’ve written many, many posts like that over the years. Looking back, I’m not sure there was much point in it. I espouse my views, and in the best case scenario, the people who agree say “Yeah” and move on. The people who disagree keep on disagreeing. I don’t think anyone does anything different as a result of reading political blog posts. 

The other day, I jokingly said on Twitter:

I wrote that after watching yet another politician bemoaning the state of the country, for what felt like the millionth time. You could make same joke could about political blog posts, though. There are so many of them written every day. You’d think if things could be fixed by blogging, it would have happened already.

Longtime readers may have noticed I’ve dialed back the political posts a lot over the last couple years. It’s ticked up a bit again recently but it’s nothing like it used to be. Politics was nearly all I posted about back in, say, 2011. But lately, I’ve shifted to posting more about writing, entertainment, and criticism.

That’s not an accident. Those subjects produce far more rewarding and engaging discussions than political blogging does. And for a simple reason: people enjoy it more. Pat Prescott, my fellow blogger and longtime reader, can probably comment on this, since he’s been with me since the days when the blog was heavily political.

I used to enjoy writing about politics. Or I thought I did, at least. But at some point, once I realized I wasn’t really changing anything by writing about it, I started to lose my zest for it. 

The funny thing is, most people are way more open to new ideas, creative reinterpretations, and even harsh critiques, when it comes to the world of fiction and entertainment than they are when it comes to real-life politics. I include myself in that. There are people who lose themselves in the political intricacies of totally fictional worlds while holding the most simplistic and unexamined views of the world they live in. I mean, there are probably people who could tell you they understand both sides of the Geth/Quarian conflict, but couldn’t do anything beyond parrot the talking points of their preferred real-life political party.

That sounds kind of harsh, but I don’t actually mean it to put people down. People like what they like, and wishing they liked other things is like wishing we all had wings and could fly. 

Life is too short for petty, futile political disputes. If 2016 did nothing else, it taught us that you can spend your entire career studying politics and still get everything totally wrong. 

That’s why I decided it was time to shift my focus to things that were more rewarding, both for me and for my readers. Things like book reviews, and art, and writing fiction. (Now admittedly, I did put some allegorical references to my politics in The Directorate. I figured that way I could say a few things in a way that was entertaining rather than stridently preachy.)

Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and there’s no doubt that politics is inherently combative. Which means everyone tends to be in fight mode when talking politics. Sometimes that’s appropriate, but it makes collaboration nearly impossible. I sometimes think that asking for cooperation in modern politics is almost an oxymoron.

pastedGraphic.png
Scene from “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)

If you can get people out of the political sphere, however, you’ll usually find a lot of room for communicating, making deals, and exchanging knowledge that is useful to everyone involved. 

As a result of the shift from political blogging to topics like writing, I’ve met all kinds of wonderful writers and readers. And in many cases, I have an idea of their political leanings from following them on social media. I have readers and authors with widely diverging views—and I’ve learned plenty from each of them, especially the ones I disagree with.  

So it might be that that the key to improving political discourse is… not to engage in it so much. It’s easy to hate people when you know nothing about them other than their politics—but if you’ve already met through some other common interest, it becomes much easier to see their side of things.

I know I’ve said this before, but you can get a pretty decent overview of how government works by watching the BBC sitcom Yes, Minister. The series is premised on the conflict between the naïve, attention-seeking British Cabinet minister James Hacker and the cynical, experienced civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby. Most episodes follow this formula:

  1. Hacker comes up with some well-meaning but often-ill-considered policy reform to fix a problem.
  2. Sir Humphrey uses cunning, bureaucratic jargon, and his connections in the Civil Service to prevent any changes being made to government policy.
  3. Sir Humphrey explains to Hacker why things are better off staying as they are.

Because it was a sitcom, Hacker sometimes wins—usually by using Sir Humphrey’s own tactics against him. But the basic dynamic is what’s key here: the approval-seeking politician who wants to change everything vs. the entrenched bureaucracy that wants to keep things as they are until they can retire and collect a pension.

The thing is, it’s possible to cast either side’s motivations as good or bad: the politicians could be called heroes trying to do the work of the people, or attention-craving narcissists trying to get famous. The bureaucrats could be called lazy do-nothings stubbornly resisting change, or intelligent and competent administrators unwilling to bow to the fashions of the moment.

This is the same dynamic that’s at work when you hear people talk about the “Deep State”. It gets dismissed as a conspiracy theory, but that’s largely because of the terminology:  “Deep State” sounds a lot more sinister and intimidating than the more accurate label, “the permanent bureaucracy”. The former makes you think of shadowy figures in Deus Ex-style Illuminati conference rooms holding secret meetings. The latter evokes some balding pencil-pushers.

We citizens tend to think of “government” as the politicians we elect every couple of years. But they are only the tip of the iceberg—the real government consists of people working in various agencies to carry out policy. These people are, for the most part, not politicians at all, but simply technicians trying to keep the machine of bureaucracy running. And they don’t run for office.

Technically, these people work for the politicians. But that’s only in a nominal sense—in practice, someone who has decades of experience working at a Federal agency knows a lot more about the nitty-gritty details of governance than a newly-elected politician. 

Canny politicians know how to work the system to their advantage. For example, in the book Angler, Barton Gellman describes how then-Vice-President Dick Cheney contacted a relatively low-ranking official in the Department of the Interior in order to implement a change to government environmental policy.

Cheney had worked in government since 1969, and had a thorough knowledge of who did what, and which strings to pull in order to advance his agenda. Love him or hate him, he was an excellent example of someone who thoroughly understood the bureaucracy.

But most politicians aren’t like Cheney.  For one thing, he started out as a congressman from uncompetitive and tiny Wyoming, and didn’t have to spend a lot of time campaigning. Other politicians don’t have that luxury. They rely on other people to handle the bureaucracy for them. Besides, many of the politicians are in it because they love crowds and applause and power and prestige. The bit where you iron out the policy details is boring. 

This creates a disconnect: the people nominally in charge of governing are on a track that’s entirely separate from those who actually handle the day-to-day business of implementing government policies. So it’s true: there are people in government who ignore what the elected officials say, and keep doing what they’ve been doing. Whether you think these people are heroes or villains depends largely on your opinion of the government’s overall performance over the long-term—say, the last half-decade.

In response to some feedback, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to let readers change the settings of the site so those who prefer black text on a white background to see it that way. (Since I am secretly an ancient vampire eccentric, I like it the way it is.) Well, I think I’ve found a plugin that solves it. (Thanks, Marko Arula!)

Click the button below, and it should work. Also, I’ve put a permanent link to the magic button on this page, and in the menu at the top so people can easily find it.

Please let me know if you experience any problems while using it.

I’ve never used the WordPress reblog function. But I was going to for this post by Audrey Driscoll, because it’s just that good, and I wanted to make sure all my indie author friends see it.

But then the reblog button wouldn’t work for me. So, I’ll just link to it instead. Go read it. Meanwhile, I’ll return to pondering what the purpose of the reblog feature is.