What’s wrong with pulp? Nothing, that’s what.

The Brothers Karamazov broke me. It straight-up broke my will.

Before that point, in my early community college days, I fancied myself as a young literati in the making. This was years before I ever had the courage to put pen to paper and transfer stories from my brain to a physical medium, but I still had this vision of myself as a man of letters, a cultured, educated person, with a deep understanding of Shakespeare, able to quote Montaigne or Kafka, sitting in some corner cafe and sipping a cappuccino while I read Sartre. Then that artsy girl sitting over by the wall would notice me, dammit!

This is why I thought I needed to read The Brothers Karamazov. I mean, I was smart. I was a reader. I’d gotten through the unabridged Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’d read Celine and Conrad and Heller and Huxley. I gritted my teeth and finished Dostoevesky’s other much-celebrated wall of text, Crime and Punishment. Surely, I would enjoy this famous, well-known, important book, right? Wrong. Good god. I gave it a try, I really did. But I’ve read more engaging soil-science textbooks.

The funny thing is, as a writer, I never wanted to be great. I’d like to be good, sure. I’d like to be entertaining. But it’s never been my goal to be profound or brilliant. Tough talking detectives. Dangerous dames. Vampires, zombies, spaceships. Dinosaurs. Vampires fighting zombie dinosaurs in spaceships. My inner world has always been sleazy and pulpy. Adventure and escapism was what sparked my love for reading in the first place. So why, now, was I turning my back on my first love for this stodgy old bitch of a novel?

And that’s the thing I realized, sitting on that bench outside the library at the community college, as I slogged through page after page of Fyodor Dostoevski’s seminal doorstop. I realized, I’m not enjoying this at all. I realized I wasn’t doing it because I liked it. I wasn’t doing it because I was gaining knowledge or insight or context or appreciation of the world. I was doing it to feed my ego. So I could be that smart guy. So I could look down on the uneducated rabble and laugh snootily. “What’s that you’re reading, Stephen King? Oh my word, how very jejune…”

That same day, I dropped The Brothers Karamazov, with a weighty thump, into the library’s book return. And I checked out a dog-eared paperback copy of Stephen King’s The Stand.

Since then, my primary judgement of “good book” or “bad book” are the simple questions: Do I give a shit? Do I care what happens next? Do I want to turn the page?

Now I’m not saying that there isn’t great literature out there to be had. Steinbeck and Hemingway were both writers who will practically bash you over the head with their brilliance, yet their stories are entirely readable. I want to turn that page. And even popular authors have gems of wisdom and insight hidden within their pulpy adventure stories. It’s like they can’t help it. The greatness just oozes out, somehow. Nelson DeMille is a perfect example. His bread and butter is writing airport-bookstore paperbacks about terrorists blowing up New York or whatever, and yet if you read The Gold Coast or Up Country, you’ll see soul-baring storytelling that approaches brilliance. The same with Philip K. Dick. It’s like he was trying to write pulp sci-fi, but somehow wound up with philosophy. Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, in their day, were considered cheap trash writers. And now they’re classics.

Now, don’t let me stop you from trying out Dostoevski. He is still in print after 150 years, and I guess that has to mean something. Just because it wasn’t for me, doesn’t mean it won’t be for you. The point is, you don’t owe a book a damned thing. If you don’t feel like it’s grabbing you, if you don’t give a shit and you have no desire to turn the page, kick it to the curb and go find something you do like. Even if I wrote it. Even if you’d be embarrassed if that artsy girl in the cafe saw you reading it.

 

The Funny Thing About Idols

 

Sometimes you build up a picture in your head, and then reality doesn’t quite match up. Most of the time, in fact.

I play a little guitar, and when I first heard Townes Van Zandt fingerpicking, the first time I heard his lyrics to “Lover’s Lullaby” or “Rake” I said, “That’s what I want to do.”

I have to add, he was a country singer who had been around since the sixties. Sometimes his voice cracks and gets annoyingly twangy. The quality of his vocals vary widely. Sometimes the seventies country musicians they surrounded him with in the studio sound horribly, ridiculously dated. But when you dig down to the essence of it, the man’s lyrics and his voice and his hands on his guitar, he was, in my humble opinion, a genius.

But I didn’t know anything much about the guy for the longest time, aside from album art and his music. He’d passed away a few years before I’d discovered him, but I built up this picture of him in my head as a successful singer-songwriter, probably living a quiet life in Nashville, a sort of a country-western Bob Dylan, probably with a loving wife and a few kids and a small fortune from a lifetime of musical success.

Then I saw the documentary made about him, Be Here to Love Me, and all of my illusions were shattered. Despite his lyrical gifts, Townes Van Zandt was a congenital fuckup. (Though that sounds overly harsh, given that mental illness was likely a factor, it can’t be debated that he fucked up with a shocking regularity.) A lifelong alcoholic and drug abuser, the man was addicted to everything it’s possible to be addicted to, from cigarettes to shooting heroin. He once glued a tube of model cement to his front teeth when he passed out while sniffing glue. He wrecked three marriages, and when his much-abused body gave out at the age of 52 he was nearly penniless. The bulk of his physical possessions were a motorcycle, a GMC truck, and a 22-foot boat.

And yet, his music is still beautiful. I don’t know why I thought all his lyrical tales of loneliness and despair and addiction were just some sort of fiction, some phase he’d grown out of before finding success, I don’t know. Maybe that’s what I wanted to believe. It’s a strange thing to find that he’s someone to be pitied, someone to look down on as much as someone to look up to.

But that’s the way it goes, isn’t it? I guess that’s growing up. Everyone, sooner or later, discovers that their parents are just flawed human beings, that they don’t have all the answers. And so it goes with our idols. Kurt Cobain. Hunter S. Thompson. Bradley Nowell.

For my own part, as I get older, I’m still learning from my idols. But I’m learning different things. When I was sixteen, Hunter S. Thompson’s work was an instruction manual. How to be a high-octane mutant drug-fiend that takes life by the horns and forges his own destiny, and nevermind what the squares think.

But now, Hunter’s life and work, much as I love the man, is a cautionary tale. Despite his success, he was a lifelong alcoholic. He was a violent and erratic drunk who could be cold, abusive, and downright cruel to his friends and family. He was, by all accounts, an unreliable horror to work with. When he got tired of it all, he shot himself in the head while his six-year old grandson was in the other room. His success was more due to shit dumb luck, a winning of the cosmic lottery, than any of his personal qualities. Hundreds of people who attempted to follow his example are now dead or serving prison time in Nevada.

And yet, does this mean I don’t enjoy reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the umpteenth time? Does that mean I don’t want to listen to Townes singing “To Live is To Fly?” Of course it doesn’t. Maybe I enjoy it more. Maybe when we can see our idols as fully fleshed human beings, imperfect, damaged human beings…hell, I don’t know. I don’t even know what I’m trying to get at here. After all, I’m not perfect.