2.19.2006

Another boy genius, f***ing gone


We had just seen a movie the other day, and were poking around a nearby Barnes and Noble, idly wasting time on a day off. On the way out of the store, I paused to peruse the table of "New Paperbacks," and noticed to my surprise and pleasure a book called Kornwolf, written by Tristan Egolf. I was a fan of his debut novel, Lord of the Barnyard, and like most of his admirers, eager to track what would surely be a promising literary career.


The synopsis on the back of the book started on an ominous note: "Tristan Egolf was one of our most promising writers...." Wait a minute, I thought, "was"? Mystified, I opened it to the bio, and my fears were confirmed; Egolf had died in 2005. Further searching online reports that he died May 7, 2005, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound--suicide. He left behind a fiancee and a young daughter.


News of his passing had escaped me until this point. It puts a subtle lie to my portraying myself as an "eager follower." I was aware of his second novel, The Skirt and the Fiddle, but never developed more than a trifling interest in fulfilling my desire to "follow this growing talent". Now such an endeavor becomes painfully simple to undertake. Barring any discovery of a stash his of nearly-finished manuscripts, Mr. Egolf's growth can be charted in the span of three novels.


Much was made of Mr. Egolf's appealing backstory upon Barnyard's publication: the daughter of a prominent French novelist discovered him barefoot and playing guitar on a bridge in Paris, initiated a dialogue between the busker and her father, who encouraged Egolf to finish his manuscript, which was quickly published to some acclaim in France. It is a story almost too perfect to believe, evoking images of elegantly urban European bohemia, and a culmination of the stock fantasy of legions of aspiring ecrivains everywhere. Mr. Egolf dropped out of college, quit his punk rock band, split for a shabby room in Paris to devote his attention to finishing the book that he knew he had to write, tending bar and strumming his guitar to keep bread and water on the table. All that's missing are a bickering group of threadbare intellectuals sent from central casting.


The only deviation from this shopworn plot is the niggling fact that for Mr. Egolf, it all worked out exactly right. He finished his book, won the respect of those threadbare intellectuals, and got himself thrust to the upper crust of the literati world. It must certainly have worn on the brittle feelings of those for whom such dreams were never realized, for just as Lord of the Barnyard gained praise for its inventiveness and fevered exposition, it gained an equal amount of scorn for what some perceived as amateur's luck and an accompanying lack of a veteran hack's ability to self-edit. It was called unwieldy as much as it was called triumphant. He garnered all the troubling comparisons: Faulkner, Robbins, and the like. And now that he's gone, there are too many self-satisfied comparisons to another artist whose meteoric brilliance was cut tragically short, John Kennedy Toole.


Such is the nature of contemporary literature in a world that has little time and scarce interest for a diversion as anachronistic and self-important as contemporary literature. Succeed at your peril, yet succumb under the hypocrite clucking of tongues.


Now that Mr. Egolf is gone, complaints that he couldn't put a filter on his restless imagination, take an editor's ruthless scythe to his labyrinthine plotting, are rendered obsolete. Now that there will be no more, what's left will never seem enough.


Go out and get a copy of Lord of the Barnyard now, if not simply because it's a ripping good yarn, then at least to stem off the disappointment and ennui that's sure to come when it gets transmuted into an insufferable, toothless Brad Pitt/Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle .

2.15.2006

Spill the wine




Wine and I, we don't get along.  Wine has its own agenda, and I have mine, and rarely do our agendas match.  I want to drink and be merry, and wine wants me to contemplate death. 

I don't get drunk when I drink wine.  I feel dizzy and nauseous, and I feel like I'm going to die.  I feel like my brains are going to slowly bleed out of my eyes, in a mellow, wine-drunk kind of way.  I can't trust myself to not collapse on the ground and flap my arms like some prehistoric arm-flipper creature from the sea. 

The irony is that I really want to like wine.  Who doesn't?  There are so many varieties.  So many pretty bottles, and so many indelible shades of grape.  It's a lot of fun to go to a restaurant and order a bottle of wine.  There's no way you'd order the cheapest ten-dollar bottle on the list, but you don't have to feel cheap when you splurge and aim for the low-twenty dollar range.  You can ask the waiter what's good, and they'll suggest a bottle for you, and when you drink it you can feel like you got the best bottle on the list.  When they serve it, it's fun to watch the routine of uncorking the bottle, and be offered the initial pour, as if you're going to reject the bottle and send it back.  In Chicago, every other restaurant is BYO, so you can feel boho and carry your five-dollar Riesling in a sack to your corner Thai place, and sort of imagine that you're in some boho Thai place in Bangkok.

But all of those little peripheral, ritualistic elements to drinking wine become irrelevant once I actually drink the wine and start realizing my inner psychopath.  That brain-dead psycho nearly set off an international incident once.

When I was in college, I took two years of French, because I needed to have that much proficiency in a foreign language in order to graduate with a bachelor's degree.  I had taken two years of French some six or seven years earlier in high school, but I quickly resolved to forget every word of it on my last day in French class.  I was certain that I hadn't retained enough to test out of it in college, so I decided to start from scratch, now that I wasn't such a callow youth and actually saw the value in appreciating a culture other than my own.  Why I didn't direct that newfound international bonhomie towards Spanish, a language I might conceivably get some use out of, I don't really know.

All of the French professors at the college took part in something called French Table, or le table Francais, for those grading at home, every week at a local pub called Charlie's.  Basically it was a chance for all of the French professors and a few students to get together, get drunk on wine, speak French and listen to accordion music.  So one night I actually decided to go to the French Table, mainly because a couple friends of mine were going.

Things started well enough at the French Table. I was speaking tortured French with my friends and drinking wine.  I don't know what kind of wine; I just kept asking the bartender for white wine.  The more I drank and the longer the night wore along, the better I felt I was speaking French.  The atmosphere quickly reached that fever-pitch of the most frenzied kind of intoxicated evening.  The whole thing took a turn when I decided to dance with one of the professors, a slightly kooky middle-aged lady with white hair who was actually French.  I have no idea what prompted me to do so, but she said something to me, and I said back to her, "that's a very French thing to say."

I meant well, but long story short, it wasn't received well.  The way I knew I had lost the favor of the aforementioned French professor was whenever I met her in the hallway of the foreign languages building; when previously she would pass me with a congenial "bonjour, Jacques," she would thereafter meet me with a terse "hello, Jake". 

I spent the remainder of that evening lolling around blazing-drunk and paranoid.  The drunkenness was easily explained--glass after glass of anonymous white wine--but the paranoia was subtler, though certainly warranted.  When the evening had begun, they were heatedly discussing an incident that had recently put the French Table in the local paper.  Seems one of their students had fallen over dead soon after an evening with le table.  It turned out that he had some rare heart disease that quickly grew fatal after an evening of allegedly copious wine and song.  Something about wine made his heart simply stop beating.  The group was concerned, and quite rightly so, about the negative image that the incident would cast over their collective.  But in hindsight, I do not remember equal concern being waged over the recently departed.

Thereafter, and following many other surreal incidents, the drinking of wine has become entwined in my mind with death and mayhem.  There was once a time when I longed for the invocation of such qualities in concert with the ingestion of intoxicants, but too many times staring cold-blooded at death has convinced me that there will never be a way that wine and I will be drinking buddies. 

Getting drunk, getting wasted, getting high, getting stoned, those are all things to reckon with, things to do, and those all have their qualities.  But getting your brain strangled by death is another thing.  Hand me a can of Pabst, split a fifth of Seagram's 7 with me, pass me cool Manhattan, sure, I'm game.  Let's drink until we aren't thirsty.  But when it's time to envirez-vous, I'm afraid I'll have to pass.  It's for everyone's good.

2.04.2006

Picking the Winners

Oh the pain, the agony, of writing it all out in overwrought detail, just to lose it by hitting the back button.  Hell with it, here it is in less detail:

Best Supporting Actress

Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain
Possible spoiler: Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener

Best Supporting Actor

Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain
Possible spoilers: Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man; George Clooney, Syriana

Best Writing, Original: The Squid and the Whale

Best Writing, Adapted: Brokeback Mountain

Best Actress

Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
Possible spoiler: none

Best Actor

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Possible spoiler: Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain

Best Director

Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
Possible spoiler: none

Best Picture

Brokeback Mountain
Possible spoiler: Crash

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