–I had this great English teacher in college. Worshiped the guy. I was a physics major and yet, every semester I was trying to shoe-horn every one of this guy’s classes in as electives. I was a sophomore physics major sitting in 400-level English classes with a small circle of other students that could actually spell. Literally a small circle. These were those tiny classes that sometimes don’t get taught because not enough students think the subject is important and the ones that do think they are so important they have to face each other instead of the teacher. I was just there because I worshiped the wrinkled-old man who was teaching the class and who was probably gay for me in a less-abstract way than I was gay for him.
–On the first day of this advanced seminar on Literary Criticism and I realize that the entire class is bullshit. Which makes me an asshole, naturally. The kids sitting in the circle are all studying to be bullshitters, and I am the jerk for pointing it out every five minutes. I couldn’t help it. The class was teaching us that books aren’t literal, that books mean what the author wants them to mean, that books mean nothing, that books mean whatever the reader chooses for them to mean, and that all of these are true. I was a concrete-thinking dude taking a lot of math classes and I knew that the only correct answer was: (B) Books mean what the author wants them to mean. The rest is pompous posturing made safe over the body of a dead writer, unable to argue back.
–I managed to squeeze an ‘A’ out of that class, despite my narrow view. What I loved about that teacher is that he didn’t care if you were right or wrong but how well your presented your point of view. Which, again, makes me the jerk, and I accept that now.
–14 years later I am still learning from the guy, and not just that I was an asshole to a circle of kids smarter than me. I’m learning that deep meaning can be found in a book where there is none. That you can connect dots only visible to yourself and create whatever picture your bias presents. It is OK to let a book teach you something about yourself. To stop struggling. Because you know what happens more often than not? You end up seeing the exact thing the author wanted you to see. Those deep meanings I always argued were bullshit are sometimes put there on purpose. And we can’t hesitate to offend a writer by not wanting to dig too deep into his psyche as we paw through our own.
–Charlie Huston, if you just meant to entertain me like I let you with your comic books, I wish I could apologize, but I can’t. I see deep meaning in your book about cleaning up human feces and bits of brain. I see social commentary in your razor-sharp and profane-fueled dialog. I see shit so obvious and powerful that I don’t care if it ends up being a hallucination. It just feels too good to let it all out, crying and typing with your book on my lap and not embarrassed in the least.
–On the surface, of course, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is a story about a young man self-destructing after suffering through an incredible tragedy. Unable to cope with his trauma, the boy withdraws, turning on his friends and making every stranger his mortal foe. In dealing with one stress poorly, he runs a gauntlet of more severe threats, putting his life in progressively greater dangers instead of facing the original, milder one.
–Webster Fillmore Goodhue goes from being a conscientious elementary school teacher to a complete slacker, to someone who cleans up after dead bodies. Not content to drop out of society, he crawls down into the basement to see the worst it has to offer. Depressed and eager to sleep as much as his body will allow, every coping mechanism he chooses worsens his condition. Charlie Huston certainly has his thumb on the dim pulse of a half-dead generation, and he does their apathy justice with this character.
–Before I thrill my old English professor and give Reader Response theory a go, I am fully aware of the ‘Maybe’s’. Maybe Charlie Huston just wants to entertain with his gritty, witty dialog. Maybe he just had a great story to tell. Maybe, if the onion has a second layer, he just wanted to expose the lazy, whiny underbelly of a society full of spoiled kids who think they have seen something awful in their time, but haven’t. Maybe it is just a lesson in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, a book about coping and how not to go about it. Maybe Charlie Huston thought it would be a clever excuse to describe a few gruesome scenes of gore and filth. Maybe this book doesn’t have anything to do with the world around us… even if I think it does.
–Maybe it is just me that thinks an entire country had it too good for a generation. That a bit of trauma has put our spoiled, protected, nubile hides on a path of self-destruction. That being pricks to our friends and turning mild grudges into blood-feuds is about as intelligent as anything Webster Fillmore Goodhue does in The Mystic Arts. Perhaps our coping mechanisms weren’t ready to protect us. Our immune system, have never tasted anything more than a cold, was not inoculated to the acts that previous generations wallowed in.
–Perhaps our responses made a bad situation worse. That the way we bag our gore–and bathe in antiseptic rhetoric–isn’t a cure. Maybe locking the worst of what we see and experience in life deep inside us isn’t the way to get better. Or maybe we aren’t cleaning up anything at all, just smearing it in and spreading it out.
–And maybe these ill signs can say something bad about ourselves and Webster Fillmore Goodhue, but they say something even more powerful about our situation: That we live in a better world. We just don’t cope very well when things fuck up. A generation of kids that got trophies when they lost T-Ball don’t know the good thing that they have. Bombing people in retaliation keeps splattering the same mess on the wall, and dire news about a reduced demand for plasma TV’s probably shouldn’t work us into hysterics. Maybe we are all a bit like Webster Fillmore Goodhue, maybe we need to realize that bad things happen to us in life that nobody can control, but the shit we do to compound the consequences are our own damn fault.
–This wild ride through Huston’s book did have one thing that took getting used to. The only sign that dialog is being spoken is a leading hyphen. You have to discern the speaker from context, or follow as a conversation bounces back and forth. It took me 20 pages or so to get used to it, bitching a little as I got there. But once I settled in, I couldn’t imagine the book written any other way. The dialog is so good, and the quick descriptions between the lines so vivid, that it was more like watching a movie in my head than reading a book. Yeah, that happens with other books, but not like this. Just the way Huston describes a character’s fingers being pressed to her forehead as she speaks has some uncanny power that it really shouldn’t.
–The entire book has this magical quality that it’s individual parts don’t seem to explain. Maybe it is the power of my illusion. Maybe the onion is stinging my eyes, blurring my vision. It is possible that none of you will have the same cathartic reaction to a tale of a boy finding his sanity and learning to love himself again. If you don’t, this will be a 4-star book that you enjoy enough to recommend to your fellow readers. But if you get lucky, you will find something that Charlie Huston didn’t mean you to find. Somewhere under the skull fragments and the party-strings of ligament and gore, you will find something meaningful. Some inspiration hiding behind foul language and beneath the slime-streaks of stuffed maggots.
–It would be like a literary genius who knows Anna Karenina inside-and-out hiding in the corner of a tattoo parlor, his face tucked in the folds of the latest Fantasmagoria. How would that be for symbolism, Professor?
–I want to do better, Chev. I. I want to try and do better. Shit, man, I want to just, I want to try. I’m tired of. Things. I’m not saying, I don’t feel any better. About it. I still can’t think. About it. Too clearly. It still makes me want to fall asleep. But I know. It. Happened. I know I was there and the girl. I know. It. Happened. And I don’t want to be him. I don’t want to be L.L. I don’t want this one fucked up thing to be who I am and that’s it, this is the end of my life. I do not want to feel like this, be like this forever. I mean, I’m not sure, but I think I used to be kind of a nice guy.
–Web, man, you have never in your life been a nice guy.
He closed his eyes again.
–But you used to be pretty damn cool. You used to be a guy a friend could count on. And it’d be nice if you were that way again.
–See, that’s it. That’s it. I want to be that guy, I want to be the guy people can count on. That sounds great. I don’t exactly remember how that worked, but I want to try and be that again. Really, man