Thursday, May 15, 2014

Raging Like a Young Scorsese: Joseph Hirsch Guest Piece

I first encountered Joseph Hirsch's work when I saw Scott Phillips reading Rolling Country at a bar one night. The lurid cover art caught my eye and I gave Scott the universal gesture for hand it over, don't you hold out on me. Scott let me borrow it later and, giving up on sleep one night soon afterward, I took it out to the couch and cracked it open. A few hours later, my kids got up for school and I was almost finished with it. Ho-lee-shit, yo. That was a great read. Unforgettable characters, horrific situations, pacing that tells time to go fuck itself and voice, voice like a motherhumper. It's crime, it's grotesque, it's funny as hell, and it's serious literature. I mean, it's not slapdash, it's no cartoon. It's human and it surprises you the way only real people can. This guy. This guy. He takes his work seriously and so should you. Do yourself a favor and check his titles out. I'm reading his next book, Flash Blood right now. Kiss my ass, world.

I asked Joey for guest piece and this is the bullshit he came up with.

Raging like a Young Scorsese by Joseph Hirsch

I am mostly an autodidact, and the bulk of what learning I’ve done on the craft of writing has been done outside of the classroom. But I have nevertheless spent some time in post-secondary institutions, listening to professors tell me how to write, and each one of them down to a (wo)man, no matter how disparate their philosophies, agreed on one thing: Stephen King was trash. He was, at best, “okay.”

My personal feeling about Stephen King is that he is our age’s Charles Dickens. One can go back to the critical literature of the time and see the parallels. Dickens was the most popular writer of his era, had broad appeal with the masses, and was mocked by most of his more refined contemporaries. And just as one can read Dickens for the sociological details of his era, I’d hazard that if people are around in the middle of the 22nd century, and they want to know how we lived in the late 20th, they can get all of that from reading King’s work, and a fine story to boot.

Time seems to have rehabilitated the man’s good standing, healing all wounds, as the saying goes. In the early going, when the kid with the coke bottle glasses from Bangor was on the rise, the critical consensus was that he was a hack. By the time the formidable The Stand was on shelves (you can crack a turtle’s shell with the hardback), his strongest critics were willing to grudgingly admit that while he was an original, he was still only moderately talented. It is, in point of fact, hard to accuse a man of writing for money when he has already accumulated all of the money in the world and he still keeps writing.

After two impressive non-fiction works which displayed razor exegesis on horror (Danse Macabre), and the craft of writing (On Writing), it was impossible to pretend he hadn’t been better than they knew from the beginning.

Look, for instance, at the intellects his work has piqued. One doesn’t get Stanley Kubrick or David Cronenberg interested in their writing unless they themselves are brilliant.

The consensus among his fans is that King’s best work is the massive, aforementioned The Stand. The most current edition runs over twelve-hundred (!) pages and is an admitted albatross around the author’s neck.  Imagine writing a novel, and then imagine writing another forty (!) or so over the course of the next thirty years, and never coming close (in the minds of your most devoted fans) to what you accomplished all those years ago, and you’ll see King’s quandary from his perspective.

My own personal favorite King book, and the subject of this post, is Rage. To use an analogy, if one reads ‘Salem’s Lot or The Shining, they are reading the literary equivalent of latter-day Scorsese, say when he made Casino or Bringing out the Dead. These works are very good, to be sure, but they are missing that enfant terrible quality. Rage is the literary equivalent of Taxi Driver. It is the angry, violent work of a young man.

I can’t remember where or how I first heard about the book (written under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman), but my interest level was raised a few degrees when I found out it had been “banned,” or more accurately, that it had been pulled from shelves by the author himself.

I downloaded (sorry, I was young) a copy from Morpheus, a torrent site which may or may not still be active (I purchase all of my books these days). The story, in brief, concerns a troubled young high-school student who is called into his principal’s office to discuss an incident wherein he cracked his chemistry professor over the head with a lead pipe and sent the man to the hospital.

The student, Charlie Decker, tells his principal to get fucked in so many words, and storms out of the school, having been expelled. He returns to the building a short time later and shoots his algebra teacher. From there, he proceeds to hold his classmates hostage, while conducting tense negotiations with the police, who’ve been drawn to the scene by a pulled fire alarm.

I won’t drop a bunch of spoilers in here, and that pretty much covers the outline of the plot, anyway, but suffice it to say that the time in which I was reading this story was a far different one from that in which it had been written. The most obvious difference: Columbine (and a slew of other school shootings) had yet to happen when “Bachman” penned Rage. True, incidents of school violence in America had occurred as far back as 1927, when the Bath School Massacre resulted in the death of thirty-eight elementary school children and over fifty injuries.

But in the era of the kind of heightened paranoia that would get a Ritalin-addled kid suspended for playing with a banana in a cafeteria, Rage was truly an incendiary work. The book, however, was not primarily about a massacre; the body count is incredibly low. Charlie Decker quickly lures his captive audience into a Stockholm trance, and all but the most popular (and despised) student in the classroom is ready to crown him Lord of the Flies when it all comes crashing down at the end (sorry about the partial spoiler, despite my previous promise). I would best describe it as The Breakfast Club, if Anthony Michael Hall had been armed and Judd Nelson had made one too many pithy quips at his expense.
Nevertheless, the book, and the furor it inspired, got me to thinking, and it forces me to pose a question to myself, and to the readers (and writers) reading this piece. How or when is a writer (or more broadly, an artist) culpable for violence committed by those who are supposedly influenced by their work?

Clearly, in the case of the truly insane, this question has an easy answer. Paul McCartney (not John Lennon, as some have presumed) is not responsible for inducing Charles Manson to commit murder in the hopes of ushering in a race war merely because he wrote a song about a Ferris wheel ride (Helter Skelter). No matter how closely one parses Catcher in the Rye, they will search in vain for the clues that drove Mark David Chapman to shoot a Beatle.

Stephen King’s Rage is an ultimately trickier piece of work, with a trickier, or perhaps altogether lacking, answer to the question I’ve posed.

In Rage, when Charlie Decker blasts his teacher and holds the classroom hostage, he not only finds catharsis, he finds sympathy and camaraderie. The book is not necessarily a Nietzschean will to power, telling students to shoot their teachers in order to actualize themselves as supermen, but I  see how it could be read that way in the fog of adolescence, by someone in the grips of puberty, adrenaline flowing from the last time the bully bashed him into the locker, neurons still tweaked by the wake-and-bake session with that British Columbian weed he and his buddies saved up money to buy, hormones thwarted into anguish, humiliated as his voice breaks and his skin grows clammy while contemplating asking out that beautiful girl with the chestnut bangs in homeroom…

The reader gets my drift. Here’s what King had to say on the subject:

“I can't say for sure that Michael Carneal, the boy from Kentucky who shot three of his classmates dead as they prayed before school, had read my novel, Rage, but news stories following the incident reported that a copy of it had been found in his locker. It seems likely to me that he did. Rage had been mentioned in at least one other school shooting, and in the wake of that one an FBI agent asked if he could interview me on the subject, with an eye to setting up a computer profile that would help identify potentially dangerous adolescents. The Carneal incident was enough for me. I asked my publisher to take the damned thing out of print… Do I think that Rage may have provoked Carneal, or any other badly adjusted young person, to resort to the gun? It's an important question, because it goes to the very heart of the wrangle over who's to blame. You might as well ask if I believe that the mere presence of a gun makes some people want to use that gun. The answer is troubling, but it needs to be faced: in some cases, yes. Probably it does. Often? No, I don't believe so.”

King’s answer is ambivalent, ultimately, but the truth is rarely satisfying. Do I agree with his decision to take the book out of circulation? My honest answer: yes, but for all of the wrong reasons. I think, to my teenaged mind, the self-imposed ban gave the book some of the forbidden lure of a long-sought after tome like The Necronomicon. I remember the thrilling frisson I got when I found the PDF copy of Rage on that torrent site, the knowledge, as I downloaded it, that the book I was about to read might have inspired someone to kill, that it was a dangerous book I was about to read.

As to the larger question I posed, I leave it to the reader to decide for themselves, but when I ask myself the question, when I put it in stark terms: Would I feel culpable if someone committed murder supposedly under the influence of my work, the only answer I can provide, as ambivalent and unsatisfying as King’s, is that I would have to wait until this hypothetical leapfrogged into the actual, and then and only then could I describe my feelings on the subject, and more importantly, whether or not I would be willing to pull my book from circulation. It might hurt my sales, but it would do wonders for the reputation of the book, especially among the demented (though by no means dangerous) teenagers like the one I used to be.

Considering I just got a royalty statement for roughly $25.00, though, I have to seriously question whether or not my books would drive someone to kill. They’d have to read them first, so I think the world will remain safe for the time being.

Joseph Hirsch's books include Ohio at Dusk, War-Crossed Eyes, Rolling Country, The Last Slice of Pizza and the forthcoming Flash Blood. His novella House of Crystal was published by Silverthought and Orphan Elixir was serialized in The Western Online. More of his work can be found at Paragraph Line and 3 AM Magazine. He previously worked as a sports correspondent for Fight Hype covering boxing matches around the globe, and he was also a finalist in a Glimmer Train Short Story Award Competition for New Writers. He served four years in the U.S. Army, wherein his travels took him to Iraq and Germany. He currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and attends the University of Cincinnati.


reverenderyk said...

Right on. This and THE LONG WALK were my two favorite Stephen King stories, Bachman or not.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Will Smith explain the CATCHER IN THE RYE shooting riddle in "Six Degrees of Separation"? I can't remember what he said but it made sense.