Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Review: Character and Fitness

Character and Fitness
By Jason Flores-Williams

(Review by Brian Polk)

Jason Flores-Williams has never been known for subtlety. In 2002, he clamorously announced his presence in the literary world with his third novel, The Last Stand of Mr. America — a relentless, graphic assault on the greed and crippling sexual mores of a society drowning in its own excess. Since then, Flores-Williams has focused his energy on authoring articles for The Nation, High Times, and The Brooklyn Rail, organizing protests against the Iraq war and President Bush, and more recently, graduating law school and becoming a public defender in post-Katrina New Orleans. So for the better part of the last decade, the professional provocateur has remained quiet on the literature front…

That is, until now.

Flores-Williams’ fourth novel, Character and Fitness, is, for all intents and purposes, what you might expect from a man who has dedicated much of his adult life to opposing injustice. But unlike Last Stand, it abandons the unforgiving, holding-the-mirror-up-to-society approach, centering instead on the stagnant life of Neal de la Vega, a semi-autobiographical depiction of Flores-Williams who struggles to integrate the idealism of his youth into the complexities of his adult life. Sure, a healthy distaste for inequality may be romantic — hell, even sexy — for a roustabout in his young 20s, but what does it mean for a man in his late 30s? And what do years of punk, resistance, and integrity add up to in the end? According to Neal the answer is simple: a shitty apartment in New Jersey, unemployment, and ever-dwindling career prospects. As a former-public defender, Neal paid his dues as a political activist: running from Santa Fe to Albuquerque to protest the Tiananmen Square massacre, organizing actions against the Carlyle Group in midtown Manhattan, and giving up his comfortable life in New York to stand up for his fellow man after Katrina decimated New Orleans. But now he’s broke and losing hope, living off his girlfriend in a bland apartment situated next to the massive cement parking lot of a Starbucks and Target.

Sick of spending his time in a closet that he converted into an office, where he receives rejection notices for every resume he sends out, Neal considers temp work, but quickly reconsiders when the temp agency can only offer him a job at Schmidt and Sandler — a law firm that recently slashed its employee pensions so management could walk away with millions. After bickering with Rachel — a common occurrence brought on by the burden of Neal’s unemployment — he finally gets some good news: he’s invited to an interview at the Civil Rights Guild in Washington D.C. where he would be given the opportunity to defend everything he holds dear: equal protection and the first and fourteenth amendments. But after a shaky interview, he receives yet another rejection notice, which inspires him to do what dejected people often do: get as drunk as possible. And that’s where fate steps in.

Before he went to D.C. for the ill-fated interview, he ran into his friend from law school, Chris Majerus, who invited him to a rooftop party full of affluent attorneys from New York City. It’s at this party where, between whiskey shots and lines of cocaine, Majerus promises to arrange an interview for Neal at Goldstein and Locke, a prestigious law firm in Manhattan that defends the rights of corporations to pollute the environment, unfairly exploit the workforce, and generally abuse the system. When Neal procures a job offer, he finds that despite being a corporate tool, the career doesn’t come without its allure: starting salary is 230 thousand a year — an income that would effectively end his poverty, restore his dignity, and allow him to live in a nice apartment with Rachel on Tompkins Square Park. But Rachel doesn’t want him to take the job, which — when coupled with his friend Nancy, a young activist who he and Rachel befriend that constantly reminds him of the idealism of his youth — should be enough of an incentive to turn down the job. But Neal is supposed to be the breadwinner. Why should he continue to wallow in the self-pity of his unemployment for some abstract concept of morality?

In biting prose that’s humorous and poignant, Flores-Williams explores whether or not the good fight is eternal. And while it’s obvious that the struggle takes on a different form in an activist's late thirties — especially in contrast to his twenties — the author questions the point of this self-imposed suffering when the money is there for the taking. After all, if someone like Neal doesn’t take it, someone else will. And that’s just it: the system will continue to thrive whether the idealists of the world decide to become a part of it or not. So what’s the point? Resistance is futile, right?


Character and Fitness is a masterpiece of the activist-turned-downtrodden, a note of praise to the former radical who still clings to hope and integrity in a world where hope and integrity are systematically eviscerated on a daily basis. It’s a welcome return to form for the reigning champion of protest literature. And it’s Jason Flores-Williams at his best.

-Brian Polk

Friday, September 17, 2010

Warning: I Become Much More Judgmental With This Reusable Bag in my Hand

By Brian Polk

Are you going into this grocery store? Really, you are? Hmm… Oh no, it’s just that I figured if you were going to get groceries, maybe you’d bring something in which to carry them home, say a tote or reusable bag… Yeah, I know they have plastic bags in the store, but those take like a hundred years to degrade—not to mention the impact on the environment that comes from extracting and refining the petroleum necessary to produce such foul devices. I mean everyone talks about the importance of weaning ourselves off of foreign oil, and yet no one’s really willing to alter their lifestyle in anyway to really combat the problem, are they?

…Oh you forgot your bags at home, did you? Well isn’t that just fucking fantastic? Thanks to your egregious absentmindedness, the whole world has to suffer, doesn’t it? You’re arrogance is overwhelming, ma’am. How could you possibly think it’s hunky-dory to punish the earth as a result of your gross negligence?

…Not that big of a deal? How could you possibly say that? It’s a huge deal. A huge fucking deal. A huge fucking, ass deal. We’re talking about the earth here. THE EARTH! Your well-being. The future, the present, the past. And here you stand in front of a grocery store with the full intention of committing an enormous transgression against the whole of humanity. You, ma’am, make me as sick as a hangover after a night of whiskey and whippits. I want to vomit upon your white shoes. No, scratch that. I want you to take your plastic bags with a week’s worth of groceries and puke in them so that all your food is ruined. RUINED I TELL YOU! RUINED! A HA HA HA HA!

…Hey, don’t shake your head and walk away from me. You’re walking away from the truth! …Damn, how will I ever convince anyone to reuse bags when they all walk away from me? Oh well. Maybe next time I’ll ride my bike with my bag so that I can judge everyone on two fronts. That’ll show ‘em.

And now, a message from our sponsor...

By Brian Polk (text, concept), Vincent Cheap (woman image), and Drew Smith (lay-out)

Hiding From Success With Walter Chaw

by Josiah M Hesse

Movies have always had a hard time being respected as a worthwhile art form.

Seriously. Take a look at the man spending all day in a theater, or on his living room couch, watching six straight hours of cinema; then place him next to the man spending that time reading books in the library, or wandering through an art gallery. Who is more respected in the eyes of society? Just behind fashion and athletics, movies are the most commercial and least regarded of all forms of human expression. It is seen as a dullards’ medium — each theater dismissed as a church of American idiocy, where drones spend small fortunes to have their brains ground to oatmeal by romantic comedies. We’re told that too many movies will dull the mind and marginalize the soul — the dark refuge of the lazy and the useless.

And yet all over the world there are obsessive fans who devote their waking hours to ingesting as many films as possible; not film critics or historians, just lovers of the moving picture. None will ever achieve any reasonable respect from his or her peers. Partly because they are unemployed sociopaths whose wet dreams are always in black and white, but also because their drug of choice is not in societal fashion. And the film geeks who spend 3/4 their lives in school learning about Kurosawa’s childhood or the obvious meaning of a mirror in a film will have just as much trouble being seen as a serious person making a contribution to society. And their attempts to communicate their passion will be equally tragic.

Though at Denver’s Central Library there is a small, undiscovered refuge for cinephiles each Tuesday night at 6 p.m. It’s a small oasis of earnest intellectuals, not looking to receive a degree or be revered as a person of cultural substance, but merely out to have their senses stirred and their minds challenged. And the great shaman of this trip is local author and film historian Walter Chaw.

Chaw’s social and academic credibility could lead him to a more collegiate venue, where at least his resume would get a nice boost of cachet credibility. But here he is, guiding a crowd of retired seniors and off duty students in a discussion about social commentaries and cinematic language. All in a library basement where the only money exchanged hands is for popcorn or green tea.

His presentation each night is the same as any cinematic emcee. There’s a twenty minute, spoiler-free introduction giving background information on the film’s production and the state of society during its release. Then we watch the movie, all on a large screen with reasonable sound and no ticket stub required. When Chaw returns to the stage he’s prepared with a list of subjects to discuss, anything from a Catholic ban on the film, to the director’s sexual neurosis expressed through cinematography. Though typically we never get there; usually eager hands spring up in the audience within minutes — everyone desperate to express their minds in a safe space.

A space where the opinion of a movie can be as relevant as the opinion of a president.

“I love working at the library the best,” Walter Chaw tells me on the patio of a forgettable coffee shop, “because it’s interesting to get an unpretentious or unprepared response [from the audience]. In a mainstream audience people hate [critics], and in an audience of students everyone’s trying to impress you…I usually try and get some things out of the way at the beginning. Like, ‘Yes, they slept together’ or ‘No, they didn’t hate each other. Now, what did you think of the movie?’ That other stuff they can look up on Wikipedia or IMDB.”

For a film historian like Chaw, this is a pretty eccentric way of operating. Typically when a movie aficionado has a group of bodies held captive as an audience, he will demand silence from them as he ejaculates all the facts and theories of his arsenal unto their glassy faces, desperate to be recognized as a worthwhile person. But Walter Chaw rushes through this part, wanting instead to hear what the audience has to say about the film — which is, if nothing else, sincere. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he says, “and the only pleasure I get out of it anymore is to hear what you guys have to say. I’m sick to death of what I have to say.”

A majority of the folks in the audience of one of these events has never attended a film class or written an essay on the subject (though some have — and they will let you know who they are). Most are simply fans — fans who probably watch more movies than your average citizen, but are by no means professionals. And yet Chaw craves their input. Their perspective. He sits through a film he’s probably seen multiple times (he watches 400 a year), just for the unique experience of hearing what these passionate, yet unaccredited, people have to say. He’s tired of cinema culture, where the dogma of film critique has become stale and predictable. Here we have a more pure, instinctual approach, a new set of eyes that aren’t searching for that one piece of information that will impress Walter Chaw. Or prove him wrong.

No one in the crowd will be receiving an academic certificate for participating in this event, nor will they be recognized by any social elite. Their pursuit is simply to be entertained by a good movie and have their intellect challenged by the discussion afterward. These people understand the high of learning. They pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge — not out of any social, fiscal, or academic drive.

Unfortunately, folks with this mindset are rare today, and that’s why there are usually more than a few empty rows of chairs each Tuesday night. There seems to be little use today for an event that lacks any glamour or academic credibility. Though Chaw seems alright with this; he is a man who, in the face of his dying father, began to see life in a more immediate, more existentially enlightened view. He forfeited a lucrative baseball card business to get his masters in film, bypassing the financially secure world of universities for the shaky ground of a public library. He seems to understand the unfortunate reality that, for most people, no event is worthwhile unless there is money involved. We’ve been conditioned to need that narcotic high of handing over a wad of bills, a capitalistic guarantee that we will enjoy what we are paying for.

“I think what you are talking about is best seen in the Denver Film Festival,” Chaw tells me, “which really doesn’t bring in that many good movies…But everyone wants to go to it. People get dressed up and spend about seventy-five dollars to go see some crappy movies. It’s a place to be seen.”

And unless retired pensioners, drunken sociopaths, and undersexed film geeks are the crowd you’re trying to get in with, the Films at Denver Central Library is not the place to be seen.

Though none of us are complaining.

Keeping the cinematic elite and the romantic comedy crowd out of each Tuesday Night screening is essential to sustaining that untainted synergy that blooms in each group discussion. There’s a delicate balance to all of this, something to be guarded and cherished. It’s the rare opportunity to connect with strangers on a level of sincerity that is almost extinct in this age of technology, academics, and commerce.

Readers Note:
The Film Series hosted by Walter Chaw is ongoing at the Denver Public Library. For more details, go to:

Statistics I Just Made up

By Brian Polk

95% of people know that 93% of all statistics are pulled from deep within the confines of whoever’s ass is attempting to prove whatever point he or she endorses. Despite knowing that, a full 99% of people believe such statistics if they agree with them.

4,634 people embarrassed themselves from the mispronunciation of the word “mispronunciation” in 2007—the most recent year such data is available.

18% of applause isn’t all that genuine.

47% of people are too busy to appreciate a good game of Uno every once in a while.

4% of people lie to statisticians.

Over 90% of punk songs are composed with just 3% of known guitar chords.

36% of American adult males will at some point question the sexuality of the guy they happen to be blowing at the moment.

Of the millions of comments left on internet articles each day, only 17 are intelligent, coherent, or otherwise contributive to a meaningful discussion.

3% of customers want to talk with the manager about the lack of condiment options.

75% of your roommates just ate 90% of your food.

Only 2% of Christians agree with Jesus.

19 out of 20 aggressive drunks can’t believe you just said that.

¼ of the passengers in your car really need you to stop at this next exit.

A full 97.7% of the hearing-impaired are glad they never have to listen to your new band.

50% of poll respondents think the other 50% is totally full of shit.

Checked Out: A Confederacy of Dunces

Checked Out:
Items I Borrowed From the Library this Month
By Brian Polk

A Confederacy of Dunces
By John Kennedy Toole
Without hyperbole, one could easily contend that A Confederacy of Dunces is most humorous American novel ever committed to press. Its protagonist Ignatius Jacques Reilly is an unlikable oaf who is much more impressed with himself than anyone else in his twisted world could ever be of him. He’s over-educated, lazy, overweight, and content to live with his mother where he spends his time in his room writing grotesquely self-indulgent prose that he believes will one day gain him prominence and riches. Early in the novel, Ignatius is pulled into the world by an accident that forces him into a bizarre cavalcade of jobs that he must endure in order to rectify the situation. Along the way he encounters a cast of unusual characters that includes a mindful, timid office manager (Mr. Gonzalez), a senile office worker who just wants to be retired (Miss Trixie), a self-indulgent former-trophy wife who is married to Gus Levy (owner of Levy Pants) and who refuses to retire said office worker (Mrs. Levy), a ostentatious French Quarter homosexual (Dorian Greene), and a smooth-talking janitor of the seedy nightclub Night of Joy (Burma Jones). The plot intricacies, the self-obsessed characters, and the complete lunacy of the character interactions recalls a sitcom that would come to prominence nine years after the book was published. And I don’t mean to degrade the book by comparing it to Seinfeld, but if Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David didn’t consciously base the nexus of their show off of A Confederacy of Dunces, the similarities are stunning. By far the most overlooked American masterpiece, John Toole’s story of Ignatius Reilly is not only indicative of New Orleans — the city where the book is set — but also of a culture too concerned with itself to notice its own absurdity.

Validating my assertions:

Most people my age know that Seinfeld was famously a show about nothing. The publisher Simon and Schuster first rejected John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces because they said it "isn't really about anything."

Review: Makeout Point

Makeout Point
Night Moves
Raccoon Tycoon Records
7-inch vinyl

Punk dies for every generation that discovers it. That’s because the lifestyle requires earnestness, vigor, and everything else that comes with being young. And that’s also why so many former punks start indie groups and mellow out with age. But then there are bands like Makeout Point that demonstrate you don’t have to turn down the rock — or distance yourself from your punk past — to craft poignant, high-energy pop songs. The group’s 7-inch, Night Moves, is an introspective corroboration of the better parts of rock and roll divided nicely into a dreamy punk side (side A) and dynamic indie side (side B). If the sludgy pop tendencies of Dinosaur Jr. had a party with the intensity of early Mission of Burma and forgot to put the gracefulness of Rilo Kiley on the guest list until the last minute, but remembered to call the detached allure of the Kim Deal-fronted songs of the Pixies a few days before, you’d have a full seven inches of party that furtively compelled ever-increasing rotations on your turn table. It’s a documentation of what happens when punks mature gracefully without denouncing everything that made punk great in the first place.

Review: Git Some

Git Some
Loose Control
Alternative Tentacles

While Git Some gets all the credit it deserves for being a blistering live band, its visceral, multi-layered approach to song-craftsmanship is generally lost in the fury. The group’s second record, Loose Control, is a testament not only to the passion of its live act, but also to its capacity to write songs that are as ambitious as they are scarring. Lead singer Luke Fairchild’s presents darkly personal laments, (“How can you even call this a home when heat is a luxury / Cold surrounded by dirt / I’m having trouble staying clean”) that reflect a brutal inner-turmoil with unrelenting fervor—especially when it’s all sung/screamed with a mixture of melodic crooning and throat-taxing immediacy. Meanwhile, the band’s rhythm section drags a multitude of genres—punk, post-punk, grunge, hardcore, stoner-rock—across a variety of odd time signatures, face-melting riffs, and seismic shifts in song-structure. The album’s opener, “Cool Guys Like You Out of my Life” is a muddle of gnarled punk intensity that yields to the driving powerhouse of a follow-up, “Always the Hard Way,” a track that plays to all the group’s strengths: the pounding, tempo-transforming drumming of Andrew Lindstrom, the frenzied intricacy of guitarist Chuck French, and the potent runs of bassist Neil Keener. Loose Control is a deliberate dose of haunting, unrelenting fervor that isn’t afraid to blast through its own lamentations.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Only Solution

By Drew Smith

Petty Complaints Corner (March/April 2010)

By Brian Polk

Dear Petty Complaints Corner,
I heard someone speaking Mexican the other day. Can you believe it? In this country we speak English! Damn it! English! We don’t speak no Mexican. We ain’t morons speakin’ no backward language. No! Ain’t I don’t not want I hear nothing but that English.
—Redneck in Parker

Dear Redneck,
Where do I even begin? First of all it’s Spanish, a European language just like English. Second, what does it matter if you happened to overhear someone speaking a different European language than the one you know? It’s one thing to have feelings of inadequacy, but please don’t hide them behind your boastful ignorance—especially when your understanding and execution of the English language is so pitiful. There is nothing inherently superior about your European language, so please, show some respect. And if you don’t like it, go back to England.


Dear Petty Complaints Corner,
Is it okay to hate the haters? I mean, isn’t that kind of petty?
—She Has A Good Point in Sarasota

I suppose it’s probably not okay to hate the haters, but read the petty complaint above and marvel at how hard it is not to.


Dear Petty Complaints Corner,
My brother Danny got more cake than me! It’s my twelfth birthday party and he got more cake! How fair is that? I tried telling mommy, but she doesn’t even care! First I didn’t get a pony, and now this? If you can’t help me I’m going to start crying! God, I hate Danny!
—Jealous of Cake in Dayton

Oh jeez, you should talk to your counterpart in China. (“I didn’t get a pony!” you would say. “I make sneakers for 50 cents an hour and I don’t get bathroom breaks,” the Chinese girl would reply.) And then maybe you wouldn’t feel so depraved. Despite how you feel right now, your problems are definitely not as big as you think. In the mean time you might want to start crying. After all it is your party, and if that’s what you want to do…


Dear Petty Complaints Corner,
My girlfriend of four years just broke up with me and I want her to pay. What should I do?
—Sad And Angry In Walla Walla

You’re one of those guys, huh? I would suggest getting over it and moving on, but you wouldn’t take that advice seriously, would you? So try this: Take a shot of whiskey and slap yourself in the face. It won’t improve your situation, but I’d be lying if I said you didn’t deserve it.


Dear Sir or Madam,
My cat is much prettier than me. Is it normal for people to have extremely good-looking pets?
—Pretty Ugly in Syracuse

Dear P.U.,
I think you’re lost. This is the Petty Complaints Corner. You’re probably looking for the Crazy Questions Corner. It’s a few blocks up the road from here.

Dear Petty Complaints Corner,
Oh I’m sorry, I thought this was the Crazy Questions Corner.
—Pretty Ugly in Syracuse

Dear P.U.,
It’s a common mistake. Our corners look extremely similar.

Dear Petty Complaints Corner,
Oh okay. So a few blocks up the street?
—Pretty Ugly in Syracuse

Dear P.U.,
Yeah, just head north. You’ll pass the Equestrian Advice Corner and the Napkin Folding Crisis Intersection. If you hit the Overly Concerned Grandma Cull-De-Sac, you’ve gone too far.

Dear Petty Complaints Corner,
Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.
—Pretty Ugly in Syracuse

Dear P.U.,
Oh, no problem whatsoever.

Popular Features on the New 2010 Pickup Trucks

By Brian Polk

· Size of wheels have an inverse relationship to size of driver’s penis

· Turn signals disabled so driver never has to show weakness by using turn signals

· Due to driving exclusively in the suburbs, confederate flag mud flaps are for decoration only

· Glove box holds up to 37 cheeseburgers

· Sun roof allows the driver’s self-absorption to brim over the top after it thoroughly overflows the cab

· Plastic testicles hanging off the rear are to remind driver what balls might theoretically look like if driver had any

· Fuel economy (mpg): 12, driver wants to tell ya what he thinks ‘bout that Al Gore fella

· Digital CB Radio has unlimited minutes

· Chrome door handle covers finally give driver a hint of what dignity feels like

· Trailer hitch ball-mount is not actually functional for towing, but it sure looks purdy

· CD/MP3 player capable of alternating between country music and talk radio

· Sun visors strategically placed to disguise baldness

· Powerful sound of acceleration really scares the hell out of pedestrians, cyclists, and other do-gooders

· Double-wide seat accommodates the fattest of asses

· Optional sports rack fits guns, fishing poles, and other phallic-shaped man-tools

· Upgraded speaker system allows driver to turn stereo loud enough to drown out mental reminders of crippling inadequacy

· Price tag includes $50 contribution to republican party