Mort Schnellenhammer laughed. For the first time in his life, he felt like Steve McQueen.
“Relax, baby,” he said when the door hit her ass. “Freud is dead, but God is alive. Somewhere.”
— “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Hollywood”
This is the debut collection of fiction by Paul Bingham, who, according to his publisher, is “a theologian and consultant,” which seems an appropriate background for making a jaundiced evaluation of the cultural cesspool that is USA 2014. Its four tales form an American Book of the Dead. While the publisher says these are “tales of men at war,” I would go further and say they are tales of men — and women — who are already dead, but just don’t know it yet.
The first tale of posthumous life, “Population I,” unfortunately veers off course right from the start by presenting for our approval that old not-so-favorite, the Blocked Writer. This one is surrounded by even more writers, whose modest but undeserved success torments him to the point where he compulsively fantasizes submitting to anal domination by a poetic Negro convict, Jamal, who eventually takes over both his unfinished novel and his finished life.
But Jamal was the novel. His vision became the author’s vision.
My mind goes blank and Jamal thinks of another word.
Opening with “Population I is not about me, the Writer wrote.” we are immediately in the head of our narrator and for want of a better term, protagonist. It took me a few lines to realize this was the story itself, not an — otherwise absent — deprecatory preface from the author.
I don’t mean to suggest that our author would be an uninteresting character himself, only that The Writer, especially the Blocked Writer, is an all too familiar figure and, like Barton Fink, tends to be blocked because he is oblivious to the far more interesting characters around him. The reader would like to hear more about The Skinhead who plays folk-rock guitar, “hang[s] out with sadistic racists and write[s] for porn mags,” while insisting that Nazis are “a Jewish fairytale, man.” Or especially The Writer’s roommate, who “would be the perfect Bohemian prop, except she was chubby and didn’t chain-smoke . . . and lives “as a sophisticated bag lady in ordered squalor.”
Every day she rose from the bed where she had been strapped, roped, handcuffed, blind-folded, and fresh-fucked in every orifice. Naked, she settled down to write, incessantly, with the bright red circles on her limbs where the ropes had scratched still visible and the purple lash and lipstick marks omnipresent. Occasionally there was some chafing at the back of her neck where the lash had landed too often. She wore T-shirts and wife-beaters and she kept their heating bill high. And she wrote, continued to write, those endless pages of manual erotica.
One tends to agree with the Skinhead:
“Oh, stop bitching, this is life unfolding”
The next tale, “What the Dead Men Fear,” is a whole other thing; from the first page the reader snaps awake and stays awake for the duration of a preposterous plot involving the seamy underbelly of pop/country, meth, kidnapping and snuff videos. It’s a Chandleresque mix of tense, terse writing and bizarre but deadly characters, all of whom, as noted, are already dead by the time we meet them:
“What the fuck is wrong with you? My life isn’t worth living without the meth.”
“I wouldn’t know. Never had a life worth living.”
He’s hitting her cause he’s got nothing better to do. I know how he feels. Anyone should. When you’re dying, you gotta kill.
Then he said, “Oh, I get it, I’m supposed to die,” and abruptly stopped breathing.
She didn’t seemed to be alive. Maybe her heart had stopped.
You’re gonna be a legend, a porn saint. You’ll die for your art.”
Brazil shrugged. “It’s no big deal. Being dead isn’t bad. It won’t hurt your career.”
“Where’s my granddaughter?” “Not quite dead.”
The other theme here is . . . the head. Barton Fink has been left behind, and what we have here is the bastard love child of The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, but keeping Fink’s head case.
The guy was a real cowboy junky. Owned a ranch in New Mexico, wore a cowboy hat stapled to his head . . .
The Old Man looked pityingly at Brazil. “You ever get throwed headfirst into a fence?”
“Well, that’s what the judge thought. They gotta have a pistol put to their heads, usually—before they give custody to the father.”
“See, I was gonna hold her hostage when the Crown Vics rolled in, then put a hole in her head.”
He ripped the guitar away from the punk and broke it over his head. Or tried to. The punk’s head broke first.
The pilot, an eaten-up Indian minus every tooth in his head, climbed out.
“Now we’re doin this here music video. We cut off her head in the video—”
The hair on his head grew six inches in every direction, and he wore a short-sleeved polo shirt over a red turtleneck.
“Next thing, we’re gonna strike a chord and her head’s gonna be a jelly.”
“But . . . no! We want the head. It’s what we planned for, it’s what the producer is going to be expecting. So just take the head off. Two blows, that’s all for the better, all for the good.”
“You’re right,” Brazil said. “Gotta start with the head. But this sounds acoustic. No one can hear the impact, right? Why not a chainsaw? You got a chainsaw?”
It woulda been a real triumph if they’d stayed out in the desert and taken her head off to some real nice Tex-Mex guitar licks. Might’ve redefined country music. I woulda liked it.”
And, brin’ing it all together:
“Then, I was thinking, you know, have you ever stood in a cemetery and looked at the headstones and wondered what it is that the dead men fear? Besides being alive? If I were dead a hundred years and came back, I’d be real scared to see a world full of front-runners like you.”
This being Bingham not Barton, though, the beach ending is considerably more bleak. It’s a bravura piece of writing, and one hopes his publisher makes some agent read this and get it filmed.
After this high point, the next tale, “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Hollywood,” is somewhat of a letdown. It’s a mash-up of Joss Whedon’s Firefly and its viewer cult, with Network, via a detour through the infamous first episode of The Lone Gunmen.
If they all died, romantically—it wouldn’t be my fault anymore. They’d all be immortalized—like Carole Lombard, James Dean. Lynrnd Skynrd.
“Could I do that?”
Reassurance came quickly.
Of course you can, you’re Mort Schnellenhammer, Executive. You make things happen; people die.
From the title onward, it’s a little too obvious, too by-the-numbers. But the fourth tale, “I Feel Alright.” brings us back to the level of “What Dead Men Fear.” After dodging insurgent mortars at a Baghdad McDonalds, an Iraq vet returns to the living death known as Texas. (“He looked out over Texas. He wondered why it was a place people wanted to be.”)
It was two months later and the day after. Josh Rollins had lived long in that stretch of time.
Every night, he’d sit bolt upright on the cot in his pickup truck’s camper, waiting for the blast that never came.
He was drifting but didn’t feel it. His Ford refused to break down and he awoke in darkness to the usual smells.
“What happened to you, man?” “You know, I been asking myself that same question. But I can’t hear me no more.
You learned how hard it was for 21st century grunt weapons to kill people so they stayed dead. The human body showed its resilience.
The smells intermingled like some Oriental dish—dead eggs, spoiled mustard, stagnant engine oil blended with burnt asphalt.
Dave was on his back. Heart blood was pooling underneath, so dark it matched the night. “I guess he’s dead.”
But let me tell you something about your buddies on the grid. You stop feeling for them after a while. When they’re dead, for instance. When you’re dead, too, I guess. Haven’t tried it all the way, though.”
An abortive date with a girl from the old days just sets the stage for the inevitable: get sucked back into the world of drug-dealing dirt bag friends, an explosion of violence on the side of a darkened highway — a cross between Fargo and Reservoir Dogs — and some fatal kind of closure:
Got all satisfied. For the last time in a lifetime. I’ll lose that later, but right now, I feel alright. Better than I ever felt. The night kept moving. It would never end if the highway didn’t.
Sometime after midnight, Josh Rollins parked his Ford Ranger halfway through a telephone pole that wasn’t there before.
Because nobody could have lived through all that.
And so, this first collection gives an uneven impression, some high points, some . . . not so high. How is one to “place” this volume, as the old time critics would say? The obvious point of comparison, among alt-Right fiction, is Andy Nowicki, who also contributes a laudatory blurb to the cover. Working in the same field, which Nowicki calls “revealing the black heart of a debased nation headed for a reckoning,” why does one find Nowicki’s tales more consistently satisfying? I think the reason is that while Nowicki’s characters are equally loathsome, they are not so obviously loathsome. Characters like Tony Meander, the titular Columbine Pilgrim, only reveal their loathsomeness slowly, as we get to know them, while Bingham’s, to paraphrase Debussy’s remark about Wagner’s leitmotivs, present their calling cards when introduced to us.
The longer stories being the more successful, one wishes Bingham would find inspiration in the experience of Henry James and H. P. Lovecraft, and devote himself more to the pleasures of what James called “the dear, the blessed nouvelle.” I for one would have welcomed the second and last stories expanded to the whole length of this collection, each or both together, giving the author more time to get us into and interested in these dark worlds and their less welcome inhabitants.
Uneven as it is, this debut is a fine beginning and an important addition to the small but growing shelf of the alt-Right’s fiction against the times.