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Articles by

<Becky Ferreira>

05/13/09 4:00am

Pegasus Books

Available now

“This is a book about a wolf named Brenin,” writes Mark Rowlands at
the beginning of The Philosopher and the Wolf. However, a few
pages later, he admits that “there is, I think, still a very real sense
in which I don’t understand what this book is.”

Both statements are true, and their soft contradiction is part of
the book’s charm. Weaving together personal anecdotes, comparisons of
ape and canine evolution, Norse and Iroquois myth, and philosophical
deductions derived from all these sources, it remains, at its core, a
weird and riveting book in which a man attempts, well, to speak for his
wolf. Or as Rowlands puts it, “these are thoughts that exist in the
space between a wolf and a man.”

Rowlands was in his mid-twenties when he adopted Brenin. At the
time, he was already a few years into his first job, as a professor of
Philosophy at the University of Alabama. Brenin was only six weeks old;
this did not prevent him from inflicting $500 of damage to his new home
— and Rowlands stipulates that there is no exaggeration here
—within two minutes of his arrival. Brenin had made it
resoundingly clear that under no circumstances could he be left alone
in a house ever again, which in the case of Rowlands’ profession, meant
that he became “the, largely unwilling, beneficiary of more free
university education than any wolf that ever lived.” The Philosopher
and the Wolf
is overflowing with playful asides like this; Rowlands
has as sharp an eye for finding humor in Brenin’s life as he does for
finding instruction.

The book is dense with elegantly rendered conclusions, triggered by
topics as diverse as Brenin’s restrained defiance in a dog fight, the
dubious roots of our capacity for higher intellectual thought, or what
precisely death takes from us. But while there is much focus on the
differences in our species’ social evolution, the pulse of the story
remains the brotherhood Rowlands and Brenin achieved. With his
remarkable ability to compress intricate ideas, Rowlands manages to
encapsulate the intellectual and emotional fray of The Philosopher
and the Wolf
in the sentence, “What it is to be human: I learned
this from a wolf.”

04/29/09 4:00am

[Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston] Open Letter
Available now

Perhaps the most familiar image of alcoholism is that of someone
declaring their addictions to an audience of strangers. I am (blank)
and I am an alcoholic
is frequently depicted as the most arduous
step on the unsure staircase of recovery.

Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel is a novel that presents an
alcoholic protagonist who finds every possible way to avoid saying that
sentence.

This character ­— also named Jerzy, also an author —
is back in the alco-ward, re-acquainting himself with its doctors, its
“she-wolf therapists” and the ranks of fellow drunkards that he’s lived
among many times before. Jerzy is the ward’s unofficial historian, and
he puts his authorial skills to use by accepting pay in exchange for
writing mandatory journal entries that he and his comrades must
complete as part of their recovery program. In his forged accounts,
Jerzy repeatedly identifies battles between the complexities of
compulsion and the simplicity of the cure, and it’s this ongoing
discussion that rests at the heart of the book.

Jerzy’s roommate, Christopher Columbus the Explorer, believes that
“there is no philosophy of drinking. There is only technique,” no
why you do, only how you do. Jerzy echoes this attitude. When
asked for the umpteenth time why he drinks, he says, “I don’t know, or
rather I know a thousand answers… I drink because I drink.” This
sentiment is endemic to the identities of so many characters here that
the mere notion of quitting is nothing short of revelatory. “It
occurred to me to not drink,” says Swobodziczka, a gifted doctor and
relentless drunk, seconds before he downs a Baczewski.

Pilch’s prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel
evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of oadkowa Gorzka.
But it’s not until Jerzy haphazardly reveals facts of his grandfather’s
life that the naked grotesquerie of alcoholism pierces through the
book’s often casual and flippant wit. Though the final chapters posit a
chance at redemption, it remains unclear whether Jerzy is breaking the
cycle, or just trading in one vice for another. To Pilch’s credit, both
of Jerzy’s possible paths seem unfortunate and equally likely.

06/04/08 12:00am

I like Chuck Palahniuk. His books have helped rejuvenate a stultified youth audience with flashy, original ideas.

But his newest book, Snuff, is pretty bad, despite a great premise: Cassie Wright, a veteran porn star, attempts to set a new gangbang world record. Six hundred men. One day. Already there is huge potential for humor and depth. Too bad Palahniuk does everything he can to prevent it.

For starters: only 600? Given the wide parameters of pornography, it seems a low figure. Palahniuk is a diligent researcher, but I would be shocked if this hasn’t been done. In a reveal that seems even less likely, we learn that the gangbang will probably kill Cassie. Granted, it would be disgusting to have sex with 600 men, but fatal? It’s clear that Palahniuk just thought the idea of a woman getting screwed to death was awesome, and never looked back.
That’s the least of the novel’s problems, though. Snuff shifts between four points of view: Mr. 72, Mr. 137, Mr. 600 and Sheila, Cassie’s assistant. Considering they are all participating in this historic event for unique reasons, each has mountains of potential. But again, it’s like Palahniuk is trying to be banal, doing no work to differentiate among their voices. They are flatter than old beer by page 60. Aside from curt catchphrases — for example, number 72 says, “I don’t know”; Sheila says “True fact” — there is no deviation in tone.

Palahniuk also undercuts himself in setting: ninety percent of the book is spent in a waiting room. You’re going to write a book about an enormous gangbang and give us no action? Being in the waiting room is as boring for the reader as it is for the characters. It doesn’t help that each emerging twist is heavy-handed. To Palahniuk’s credit, the novel’s final twists are unpredictable, but they are also farfetched to the point of absurdity.

Snuff does have its moments. But overall, it’s like a porno in which the delivery boy just hands over the pizza, gets paid and leaves. When promising so much, it’s just bad form to deliver so little.

02/27/08 12:00am

The overarching message of this new anthology is that humor is the safest refuge for the heart-broken. Edited by Emmy-winner Ben Karlin, it converts festering grudges and secret longings into hard-won lessons, ranging from Will Forte’s exhortation ‘Beware of Math Tutors Who Ride Motorcycles’ to Karlin’s downer, ‘You Too Will Get Crushed’.

Tales of romantic woe are presented as screenplays, interviews, annotated song lyrics, seminars and drawings. Black highlighter obscures the bulk of Stephen Colbert’s confessions, while Bob Kerrey’s sobering tale of lost love acts as an emotional anchor to the rest of the book. Fantastic one-liners are sprinkled liberally throughout, like Karlin’s observation that it’s “odd how there’s no plural for the word revenge itself” because he “wanted revenges.” Whether you’re a dumper, a dumpee or an innocent bystander, this book is an unparalleled refresher course on all that is ugly, laughable and spectacular about failed love.