Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lost Words

Genuine thanks again to those who've contributed. Your generosity and support helps considerably (jeez, I sound like a PBS pledge drive). Contributions are still welcome, for this summer will be tight. Knowing people appreciate my work makes writing less of a chore.

Ah, writing. There are moments when I wonder why I quit baseball for the arts. I was a pretty good shortstop with a decent batting average. Made a couple of all-star teams. I loved the game, but theater's lure was too strong. Then acting gave way to stand up which surrendered to writing. I've banged keyboards ever since.

The new book makes me think of earlier efforts, as I've recently noted. But I've never really talked about the failed books, some fully written, others mere proposals and chapter outlines. So here's a review, in chronological order.


This was my Get Out Of FAIR project, an attempt to leave media criticism for racy lit parlors. The title stems from my psilocybin period, though the prose was hardly psychedelic. Early Updike and Evelyn Waugh clouded my young mind. I fell into the autodidact trap of trying to impress Ivy League betters. This is not to say that the writing was bad. Gravy had a nice clipped rhythm, short paragraphs, spare sentences, adjectives rare. The idea, stolen from Kurt Vonnegut, was to present conceptual satire through simple words. But I lacked the mechanics, patience and experience to pull it together.

Gravy attacked corporate propaganda, advertising especially. I read extensively about the history of American advertising, wedding it to my knowledge of late-80s media. I had three protagonists who didn't meet until late in the book, so essentially I was writing three separate stories. Then there were the media parodies, fake TV shows, tasteless ads, cynicism run riot. A few of these are still funny, but oh so dated. I did anticipate the coming Reality craze and war as a Brand. But overall it was a rookie mess.

An associate editor at Random House tried to help, marking up my manuscript with notes and flirty asides. She was sweet, yet I'd lost interest in Gravy. I also passed up sure sex. What a dope.


I've mentioned this comic-nightmare novel a few times over the years. Lies reflected my emotional crack up in the early-90s, a period of heavy gin drinking, random coke use, busted relationships. Lies came to me quickly. Out poured nasty, misanthropic, hateful imagery. Depictions of emotional and physical violence. Blood splattering the pages. I fed off the vibe, writing twisted prose for hours on end. The sicker the image, the longer I wrote.

Lies is narrated by Kevin, a video store clerk addicted to pornography. He's sexually attracted to Cousin, his adopted sister, but never acts on it. Kevin's too consumed with fantasy to have a real relationship, however wrong or ill-advised. As his mind begins to snap, Kevin tries to hold together his dysfunctional family, yet that too is breaking apart. Hallucinations increase.

All appears bleak until Cousin dies from a botched abortion. Her fetus survives to become Kevin's Jiminy Cricket, guiding him to a saner life through song, dance, and threats of violence. The fetus finds fame by hosting a series of popular infomercials, urging consumers to love their Inner-Fetus. Kevin's porn habit is replaced by aerobic workout tapes. He masturbates to the tapes, but unlike porn stars, the aerobic instructors offer wholesome release. Kevin finally finds peace.

Friends who read Lies had very strong reactions. Some hated it, thought it was shit. Others said it blew them away. One in particular confessed that Lies literally made him puke. I took that as a compliment. Michael O'Donoghue saw promise in Lies. He shared his thoughts and criticisms on cassette tape, 40 minutes of direct Mr. Mike. I still have the tape. A few months later, Michael died. I don't think my book was responsible.

Editors treated Lies as toxic waste. Those who bothered with rejection letters wondered about my sanity. Only Nan Talese at Doubleday liked Lies. In fact, she nearly published it. My sole competition was House Rules by Heather Lewis, which Nan eventually chose. She sent a long, upbeat rejection letter that was more apologetic than curt. Nan said she'd read anything I wrote, that next time I might well be published. But I moved away from graphic fiction. Got married. Became a dad. Scored Mr. Mike and American Fan in rapid succession. I never got back to Nan.


A proposed biography of Phil Hartman. Mr. Mike helped immensely here. By treating O'Donoghue's generation seriously, I won the trust of later SNL talent. I had several informative discussions with Christine Zander, who wrote for SNL when Hartman was there and knew Phil and wife Brynn very well. Through Christine, I'd have access to Hartman's inner-circle, including Jon Lovitz who wasn't happy with media coverage of his best friend's death. The Phil Show would follow Hartman through different comedy institutions. The Groundlings. Pee-wee Herman. SNL. The Simpsons. News Radio showed that he could help carry a hit sitcom. His growing film work displayed Hartman as a reliable character actor.

Given how Hartman's life ended, I would have to explore some depressing areas, already chewed over by the tabloid press. Christine was in touch with Phil and Brynn nearly to the end, and she told me some sad stories. I faced a real balancing act: depicting the violent final hours without falling into cheap voyeurism. I was confident I could do this. With one biography under my belt, The Phil Show would be more refined. Sharper. Better.

Problem was, no one in publishing wanted the book. No one. My agent was mystified, certain that the media circus Hartman's death inspired would sell the book. But Mr. Mike's weak sales sunk me. I may have won the respect and friendship of many comic icons, but the general reading public wasn't interested in humor as history. Although Mr. Mike has its share of sex, drugs, tantrums and feuds, it clearly wasn't enough. How could I be trusted with murder/suicide?

In the end, it was for the best. As Barry Crimmins told me, if I write Phil Hartman's bio, I become Dead Comedy Guy. Worse, Dead SNL Guy. Before long I would write Charles Rocket's story, which is an interesting one, but don't quote me on that.


Unlike The Phil Show, there was interest in a book about The Monkees. My new agent at the time, who had worked with Chuck Palahniuk, was very upbeat about the possibilities. I had in mind a story about fabricated reality sold as candy during a time of revolt. The Monkees were the first pre-fab band, worked with top musical talent, made a significant cultural dent before becoming self-aware and imploding. They were also part of New Hollywood, their creators, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, producing Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show. I couldn't wait to dig in.

I told my agent that based on experience, Mike Nesmith would be the toughest ex-Monkee to interview. Many years earlier I was to write the liner notes for The Criterion Collection's release of The Monkees' film Head. Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones were on board for commentary tracks, but Nesmith, according to reports, was in and out. While he periodically appeared with the other three, Nesmith kept his Monkee distance.

Then I was bumped from the Criterion gig by someone who wrote the liner notes for The Monkees remastered CDs. If he wasn't allowed to write about Head, he'd advise The Monkees to not participate in the project. Then the whole thing fell apart. Criterion eventually released Head as part of a DVD set, but neither Monkee man nor I appear in it.

My agent and I tried to contact Nesmith. He never responded. I sent him a copy of Mr. Mike with a note about my serious intentions for this story. Still nothing. My agent wanted to keep plugging, but to me no Nesmith meant no book. To achieve what I desired, I needed extensive face time with every Monkee, not just the reliable three. I returned to janitorial work, not realizing that a better story was in development.

(Photo by Cara Barer)