Thursday, May 28, 2020

Bubblegum: Adam Levin's Back, Is He Still the "New DFW"?

Remember Adam Levin? Ten years ago, he published a thousand-page, post-modern novel called The Instructions that earned him the mantle of the "next David Foster Wallace." Well, 10 years later, he's back with another digressive, massive, frustrating, hugely entertaining novel titled Bubblegum. Not much has changed: He's still up to his DFW-esque-ness here, having as much fun toying with his reader as he is actually telling a story. And he even winks at all those idiots (like me) who think he is the next DFW by including a brief snippet with a DFW-like character.

And but so (sorry), Bubblegum is a huge goofy smart novel about an alternate reality that looks just like ours, except there's no Internet and people have these little robotic pets called Curios. Our narrator is a fellow named Belt Magnet, and he is in his late 30s and lives with his drunk father, who likes to berate him for being a loser. Belt published one little-read novel a decade before but hasn't done anything since, except collect social security checks. Though in Belt's defense, he does have some issues — not the least of which is that he talks to inanimate objects...and they talk back. 

So we set sail on 780 pages of Belt telling us about his life — how his former best friend is now a global superstar, how he spends most of his time with his own Curio named Blank, his only real friend, and how he is basically rudderless, smoking a lot and wondering where things went wrong. 

But that sort of belies what Levin is really up to here. So...what is he really up to? Frankly, I don't have the slightest damn idea, other than to point out that we humans are infinitely weird, often disappointing, but never not interesting. We become obsessed with things, and these obsessions taking over our entire culture...and often common sense dies a slow, sad death along the way.

A lot of this novel — including an interminable 100 pages in the middle that's a transcript of a movie made up of a number of clips all about Curios —is about "Curio culture." Belt participated in a sort of pet-therapy experiment when he was a kid to try to help him with his mental issues. He became one of the first Curio owners, before they exploded in popularity and are used for everything from a club drug (you boil their bones and extract their marrow and it gets ya high!) to entertainment. 

And again, to tell this story, we get numerous digressions and expositions and page-long jokes, etc. These are almost always entertaining...except when they're not. And that's really the rub: A lot of this is massively fun, super smart, and frankly, awe-inspiring. But when it's not, it's frustrating and annoying as hell. 

So I could spend several more paragraphs telling you about some more of this plot but you'll probably decide to read this based on how willing you are to accept a certain degree of aggravation in your novels. If your answer to that is "zero aggravation," then this probably isn't the book for you. But if, like in some of DFW's work, you go into this knowing not every digression or two-page-long tangent will totally work, but many will, and the good outweighs the bad, then give Mr. Levin a try here. Hey, if nothing else, the cover is scratch-and-sniff, and literally smells like bubblegum. So that's fun! 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Hollywood Park: Abuse, Addiction, Stardom...Oh, and a Cult

In a scene midway through Hollywood Park, Mikel Jollett's incredible memoir, Mikel and his father are at the eponymous Hollywood Park horse racetrack. Mikel is 13 years old, has just been in a really bad accident, and has had some issues with acting out, drugs, and alcohol. His father, a former addict and drug dealer, who has gotten his life back together, quietly, in a moment of rare earnestness, tells Mikel, "Don't fuck it up. Don't do what I did. Do something better."

This sounds simple, and almost cliché, but it's so powerful given what's come before. It's one of my favorite moments in this memoir chock full of moments while reading I had to put the book down for a minute, just to make sure I absorbed. 

To put it bluntly: This book is so damn good — my favorite read of the year. It's as well-written, heart-wrenching, intelligent, and just downright entertaining as anything I've read in a long time. 

Mikel's childhood was, in a word, tough. Let's start with the cult: He and his older brother Tony are born into they Synanon cult, which began in the late 1950s as a sort of alternative drug rehabilitation organization. This is what drew Mikel's parents in the mid-1970s. But the mid-1970s were also when the organization morphed into something much more nefarious, as cults are wont to do. Mikel and his brother were separated from their parents and raised in an orphanage, until when Mikel was six years old, his mother decided to leave and broke them out. He didn't really know his mother at the time, or really even understand the concept of "parent."

From there, after witnessing a horrific incident of violence, his mother, brother, and him move to rainy, depressing Salem, Oregon, where they live in poverty. His mother's new partner Paul is a recovering alcoholic who has occasional relapses, disappearing for days at a time. They raise rabbits in their backyard as a source of food, and when young Mikel is forced to help slaughter them for their stew, it's just another in a long line of childhood traumas that inflict long-term psychologically damage. 

Meanwhile, Mikel's father is living in Los Angeles, and Mikel and Tony go visit him during the summers. There, they live it up — they idolize their father, a real man's man, who buys them dirt bikes, lets them eat whatever they want, and teaches them about life. Hollywood Park is not just the title of the memoir. For Mikel, it's also a symbol of his coming of age. It's where he learns his big life lessons from his dad, like the one in the scene above. And so that place becomes a symbol writ large of his father as well. 

As Mikel's eyes are more opened to the world, he begins to come to some realizations about his life with his mother and how she treats him and his brother. He doesn't, of course, understand subtle emotional abuse or mental illness as a child, but as he grows up, and later in life when he sees a therapist, his mother's constant guilt trips and neediness begin to make sense. As well, he's warned throughout his childhood that the disease of addiction runs in his family, and he should be vigilant. But he's not, and he's drinking and smoking and doing drugs as young as age 11, a path his older brother had blazed before him.  

But Mikel has a secret weapon. As he grows up, he becomes ever more introspective and self-aware -- and the book becomes more fascinating in how he addresses his past issues, his mother's emotional abuse, and his father's and brother's addictions. All these affect his adult life in numerous ways, from his relationships with women (which he knows are unhealthy) to his constant feelings of loneliness, self-loathing, and inadequacy — you know, the inspirations for a lot of really great songs. 

So then there is some stuff about rock and roll. I waited until now to mention this so as not to color your perception of this memoir if you didn't previously know who Mickel Jollett is. He's the frontman of the indie rock band the Airborne Toxic Event. In his pre-band 20s, he spent time as a rock journalist — even interviewing his idols David Bowie and Robert Smith. This helped set him on his own path to becoming a rock star (and yes, we finally learn about the real inspiration behind Sometime Around Midnight). 

But again, this book is not a "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" memoir. It's almost entirely about his childhood and teen years. This is going to sound strange, but the closest proxy I could think of to this book is Angela's Ashes — both are brilliantly sad memoirs with flashes of levity and an immense amount of underlying wisdom. I'd fully recommend this to anyone, even if you've never heard of, don't care about, or don't even like the Airborne Toxic Event. But keep the tissues nearby. 

(The Airborne Toxic Event released a companion album last week, also called Hollywood Park - their first in five years. It's also spectacular.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Fast Girl: Olympic Runner Turned Vegas Call-Girl

This book is absolutely bonkers! It has everything: sports and sex, mental health issues and marital stress, and salacious details about the seedy underbelly of the seediest city in the US: Las Vegas. I'm late to this book (and apparently a lot of people know this story, so forgive my wide-eyed fascination) — it came out in 2015 — but I'm sure glad I found it now, because I was absolutely riveted. I could not put it down. It's such a fascinating, sad, infuriating, hopeful, but ultimately brave story.

Fast Girl (terrific title, too!) is Suzy Favor Hamilton's memoir about her success as a runner, her struggle with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, and her time as a high-priced Las Vegas escort. And again, regarding the latter, there is no skimping on details.

Favor Hamilton grew up in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and went to the University of Wisconsin, a highly sought-after middle-distance runner. She was a superstar as Badger, shattering records, winning NCAA championships, and launching an extremely promising running career. But all the while, she suffered from a crushing anxiety, afraid she'd let down her family and friends if she failed. She also developed an eating disorder and suffered from body-image issues — she never felt like she "looked" like a runner, and even though she almost never lost, that affected her self-esteem, even as a top-tier athlete.

At Wisconsin, she also meets her husband, Mark Hamilton, who she marries soon after graduation. With her all-American good looks and bubbly personality, she earns several lucrative endorsements as a professional runner (probably most recognizably a famous 2000 Nike commercial), and makes the Olympics in 1992, 1996, and 2000. The mile race in 2000 in Sydney is sort of the turning point of her career. In her first two Olympics, she'd hadn't qualified for a final, but in 2000, she's the favorite in the mile. And in the final, she's leading a good part of the race, including around the last turn...but then she just collapses. Literally. A runner passes her, then another, and she just goes down. She admits for the first time in this book she wasn't injured. She did it on purpose because she realized she wouldn't win. You can watch the race here. It's so heart-breaking.

But that's only about the third-most shocking revelation in this memoir. After the Olympics, she returns to Wisconsin with her husband, hangs on for a few more years as a professional runner, but then retires. She and her husband have a child, start a real estate company, and settle into normal life.

But she hates it, this normal life, and she continues to struggle with what she thinks is depression, even threatening suicide more than once. Her life and her marriage are miserable and unravelling quickly, and something has to change. So for their 20th wedding anniversary, hoping to spice things up, she suggests a trip to Vegas, complete with skydiving...and wait for it...a threesome with a female escort!

It's amazing! The best experience of her life! And she realizes she needs more like that — she returns to Vegas several more times by herself, always with her husband's blessing, for weekend trysts. Soon, she realizes it'd be much better to actually get paid for sex, rather than paying for sex or picking up strangers at bars. So she hooks up with an escort service, learns her craft, and quickly rises to the second-most in-demand call-girl in Las Vegas.

All the while — and again, she's not hiding any of this from Mark, keeping him in the loop with his tacit approval — she and Mark's biggest fear is that someone will find out who she really is, and it'll blow up their quiet Wisconsin lives. She's living this double-life and mostly keeping her real life as a former pro runner, wife, mother, and motivational speaker separate from her life of thousand-dollar meals and gifts as a call girl. But, inevitably, it all comes crashing down in spectacular fashion.

Not long after she's outed, she's finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Her life as the call girl was her manic high, and her back-home life in Wisconsin was her depressed low. She is able to finally get treatment with therapy and pharmaceuticals, and though it wasn't easy, she's been able to maintain a modicum of health. These days, she is still doing motivational speaking gigs about mental health and living in California with her husband (who amazingly has stuck by her through all this).

I read this in just a few sittings — it's a book I couldn't stop thinking about when I wasn't reading, and never wanted to stop reading when I was. Frankly, the writing here isn't terrific, but it wasn't bad enough to distract me from how amazing this story is. If you already know her story, but haven't read this book, you have to. It's amazing. I picked this up because I was desperate for a running book, and it is that partially, but I was just floored to learn how much more there is here. Amazing.