Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sweet Heaven When I Die, Reviews

The reviews so far of my new book, Sweet Heaven When I Die:

“The book belongs to the tradition of long-form, narrative journalism best exemplified by writers such as Joan Didion, John McPhee, Norman Mailer and Sharlet’s contemporary David Samuels. Sharlet deserves a place alongside such masters, for he has emerged as a master investigative stylist and one of the shrewdest commentators on religion’s underexplored realms.”
                        --Michael Washburn, The Washington Post

“For Sharlet, the story of American religion is not a polarized one of fundamentalists vs. secularists. It’s a vast landscape, and each essay in his remarkable new collection of literary journalism explores a different crag or cranny of it…. There’s no better guide to this ‘country in between.’”
                        --Brook Wilensky-Lanford, The Boston Globe

“Superb… Compelling…  Stunning… A fine book, by a deeply thoughtful writer.”
                        --Steve Yarbrough, The Oregonian

“A Must-Read…. Brilliant portraits of the religious fringe… fleshed out in lush three-dimensional detail—a lifetime in a dozen pages, a biography distilled to its purest elements…. Sharlet impresses with his ability to mine the common humanity that lingers in even the most radically minded thinkers.”
                        --The Daily Beast

“Sharp and intimate.”
                        --Rolling Stone

“All I had to do was open to the first lines of  ‘Sweet Fuck All, Colorado’: ‘When I was eighteen I fell hard for the state of Colorado as embodied by a woman with long honey blond hair and speckled green eyes, who drank wine from a coffee mug and whiskey from the bottle.’
                        --The Paris Review, Staff Pick

“A beautifully written bricolage of reported narrative, character study, and memoir tracing his travels among the faithful in the United States.”
                        --Jeremy Keehn, Harper’

"The characters in Sweet Heaven When I Die are rough, unfulfilled, often doomed. But that’s what makes this collection so strong, so human. We always suspect that by the end, they will be betrayed by their beliefs, will be disillusioned or destroyed. But failure doesn’t make belief meaningless. It may be the only thing that gives faith meaning at all."
                        --Kansas City Star

“A fascinating tour through some of the darker, or simply more baffling, corners of American faith and spirituality. Sharlet proves himself a worthy guide both because he's a keen observer and because he approaches his subjects with a sense of openness.”

"[A] collection of beautifully written narratives... Sharlet's previous works have incisively critiqued fundamentalism and American power; Sweet Heaven is equally thoughtful, but tender, acknowledging that between the extremes of snake handlers and nihilists, most of us wander through life groping for meaning, with consolation that in the act of finding, we too, may be found."
                        --Durham, NC Independent

"Brilliant portraits of faith, despair and the fictions that keep people going... [Sharlet's] often-elegiac prose rumbles with the fierce rhythms of the blues…. By bringing back the stories of people they’ve met on their own wanderings across battle lines, Bottoms [author of Swalling the Past] and Sharlet bear witness to something greater than their personal dilemmas. Call it faith, call it fiction, call it both. But to read these books — both works of passionate, troubled empathy — is to feel less alone. "
                        --Margot Harrison, Seven Days

“A collection of powerful, moody, hopeful, sad, unsettling and even uplifting essays into the deepest realms of truth, belief, hope, and the blues.”
                        --Lebanon, NH Valley News

“[Sharlet] uses his gift for clear, resonant prose to slowly unravel each subject…. Rich and intriguing reading.”

“In the end, [Sharlet] says, it's in not knowing the ultimate answers, in leaving ourselves open to the possibility of change, that we can continue to draw hope…. Call it narrative journalism or creative nonfiction, Jeff Sharlet's collection of feature-length pieces demonstrates his mastery of the form.”
                        --Ron Hogan, Shelf Awareness

“In every wonderfully told, intimate, (auto-)biographical detail, we learn something of more wide-ranging significance. Perhaps we learn a bit about how to die and how to live. At the very least, we learn a lot about the religious field in America…. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth, much like Cornel West after him, drew from Christianity’s concept of love a model of “protest against the course of the world,” a way of being ethical in a world mired in injustice. Sharlet searches for such pockets of love-as-protest that persist in unlikely places in America—from personal relationships in the heartland to radical politics in New York City. It is rewarding to join him on this search.’
                        --John D. Boy, The Immanent Frame / Social Science Research Council

“A fascinating collection of essays… outstanding, at both reportorial and literary levels…. Strongly recommended.”
                        --Scholars & Rogues

“While reading and re-reading Jeff Sharlet's Sweet Heaven When I Die, a couple of songs replayed over and over in my head. His lovely and haunting collections of essays made my thinking musical. Perhaps it is the beauty of his language, the lyrical quality of his descriptions, that direct me to hymns and pop songs… Perhaps, it is because his reflections on religion, trauma, belief, unbelief, practice and loss feel like poetry.”
                        --Kelly Baker, Religion in American History

“[Sharlet’s] quest is personal, and Sweet Heaven is richer for it: infused with both his searching and his skepticism, the collection is documentary journalism with a hint of poetry. Recommended.“
                        --New City Lit

“Sweet Heaven When I Die tells tales of religious weirdness, which is also to say the wildness, the wilderness, the untamable regions. If we don’t make space for the weird in religion, we simply don’t get religion in all its complexity, its messiness, and its wild parts…. Sharlet’s rare gift has been to make friends with the weird and almost, but not quite, make peace with it…. A great, incisive writer.”
                        --S. Brent Plate, Religion Dispatches

“Marvelous vignettes of this bizarre country of ours and its double-bizarre inhabitants. I loved The Family and C Street but I think this is his best so far.”
                        ­--Bookavore, Word Bookstore staff pick

"Writing in the tradition of William Least Heat Moon and John McPhee, in Sweet Heaven Sharlet's travels reveal people in place and time. The stories are at once humorous and sad, while the characters from all corners lead lives both fulfilling and desperate."
                        --The Observer (Shepherdstown, W. Va)

“Part reporter, part prophet, Jeff Sharlet is an American visionary in the lineage that runs from Twain to Robinson Jeffers to Sam Shepard and Joan Didion. In Sweet Heaven When I Die, he scours the desert margins of our culture, politics, and religion, training his eye on outlaws, anarchists, fanatics, and saints. In this way, he reveals the unexpected shape of our nation’s center, which is to say, our heart.”
--Peter Trachtenberg, author of The Book of Calamities

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fall Book Tour

Following are some of the events I’ll be doing this fall in support of my new book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, and around other topics. Bookstores interested in hosting an event should contact my publicist, Whitney Peeling, at Universities, colleges, and other organizations should contact my speaking agent, Annette Luba-Lucas at You can also write me directly at

September 13 / Middlebury, VT Town Hall Theater, sponsored by the Vermont Book Shop

September 15 / University of North Alabama

September 21 / Norwich, VT Norwich Bookstore

September 23 / New York, NY New York University Bookstore. This is an event for Heather Hendershot and her new book, What’s Fair on the Air?: Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest. I’m the respondent. She’ll speak a bit, then we’ll have a conversation.

September 26 / Asheville, NC Malaprops Bookstore

September 27 / Chapel Hill, NC Flyleaf Books

September 28 / Durham, NC Duke University Center for Documentary Studies

October 9 / New York, NY Union Theological Seminary. The American Christian Right and the global equality struggle.

October 12 / New York, NY Details TBA

October 18 / Concord, NH Gibson’s Bookstore

October 21 / Shepherdstown, West Virginia Shepherd University

October 22 / Washington, D.C. “Religious Politics & Secular Values: A CFI Institute”

October 23 / Washington, D.C. Busboys & Poets

October 27 / Burlington, VT University of Vermont

October 30 / Pasadena, CA All Saints Church Rector’s Forum

November 3 / Hanover, NH I’ll be hosting the Dartmouth English Department’s second creative writing event of the fall with guest writer Donovan Hohn, author of Moby-Duck. Sanborn Library, 4 pm, free and open to the public.

November 7 / Lewiston, ME Bates College

November 8 / Amherst, MA Hampshire College

November 9 / Cleveland, OH Case Western University

November 10 / Iowa City, IA Prairie Lights Books, 6:30

November 16 / Cambridge, MA Porter Square Books

February 28 / Knoxville, TN University of Tennessee

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sweet Heaven When I Die, First Reviews

My new book, Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between is out. It's getting good reviews.

The Boston Globe calls it a "remarkable new collection of literary journalism... intimate in tone and expansive in scope," and adds that "taken together, these essays begin to give shape to a multifaceted America that is so much more than east and west, left and right, religious and secular. And there’s no better guide to this '"country in between.'"

The Oregonian says: "Superb... compelling... stunning... From what people in the publishing business tell me, collections of essays are not easy to sell these days. I hope Sharlet proves conventional wisdom wrong. This is a fine book, by a deeply thoughtful writer."

The Daily declares, "In a crowded field, 'Sweet Heaven' stands with the few books that aren't afraid to look at the realities of American religion."

And then there's Michael Washburn, writing in The Washington Post.

Jeff Sharlet delivers a fine dose of thoughtful skepticism in “Sweet Heaven When I Die,” his collection of 13 trenchant essays on how we gain, lose, maintain and blindly accept faith. The book belongs to the tradition of long-form, narrative journalism best exemplified by writers such as Joan Didion, John McPhee, Norman Mailer and Sharlet’s contemporary David Samuels. Sharlet deserves a place alongside such masters, for he has emerged as a master investigative stylist and one of the shrewdest commentators on religion’s underexplored realms.

Best known for "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," the author offers a disquieting meditation on hope while discussing parental loss, artistic desire and the haunting music of Dock Boggs in a chapter called “Born, Again.” We cling to hope, Sharlet writes, “when the odds, no matter how good, are still that: odds, chance, a gamble in which the rules may change at any time. . . . We hope when we understand that circumstances are beyond our control, when will is not equal to effect, when we are not the subjects of a story but its objects. Hope isn’t optimistic; it’s the face of despair.” In this lamentation, he underscores how life itself puts faith in question.

In another essay, Sharlet combines autobiography and reportage to bring to life a group of Westerners in self-imposed exile who worship Christ in mountain churches and then congregate in local dives. He visits an old, distant friend and finds comfortable ground because when they “talk about God . . . both knew that’s a conversation without many conclusions.”

Sharlet also visits the opposite side of the spectrum in his reporting on BattleCry, the “furious youth crusade” of fundamentalism. In his account, BattleCry is the type of fundamentalist organization that embarrasses temperate Christians and enrages nonbelievers. Yet with its “warrior” mentality and its loathing of “queers and communists, feminists and Muslims,” the organization offers a vision of faith unencumbered by ambiguity. Sharlet quotes BatleCry’s leader, Ron Luce, as saying, “The world is a forty-five-year-old pervert posing as another tween online.’ ” BattleCry offers a sanctuary for like-minded believers.Speaking with a young entertainer at a BattleCry event, he realizes that her calm stems from the fact that she has “found faith that promised not answers but an end to questions.”
This is the prevailing division of the world that “Sweet Heaven” presents: between those who use faith as a tool for answering life’s difficult riddles and those whose faith is less an instrument than a blindfold. Sharlet contends that this latter faith exists without belief because it operates without understanding.

“Sweet Heaven” goes beyond “fringe fundamentalisms” and believers’ personal struggles. Sharlet also delivers commanding portraits of philosopher Cornel West, Yiddish novelist Chava Rosenfarb and radical environmental and labor activist Brad Will that dramatize faith made heroic through intellectual, artistic and political perseverance. But these more traditional pieces lack the intimacy of other essays in the collection.

In a chapter called “The Rapture,” exploring New Age extravagances, Sharlet reveals his pragmatic skepticism. He anchors the essay to New York-based healer Sondra Shaye, a self-described “fairie” who adopts the persona ofJesus as part of her therapy for her clients, all of whom pay good money to have her bless real estate deals and tackle their health problems and anxieties. Her payoff is handsome: She claims she earns more as a healer then she did in her previous job as a corporate litigator. Sharlet presents her story as a lesson in 21st-century faith. “Money is the means by which Sondra and other New Age healers show themselves to be a religious movement that’s within the economy of belief,” he writes.

As Sharlet chronicles the economies of belief — private, public or fraudulent — he remains more agnostic than atheist, more charitable than cynical. And though he obviously finds blind faith corrosive, he tempers his criticism by declining to impose his own beliefs. Sondra the healer seems to get something right when she tells Sharlet “doubt is your revelation.”

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Shack

Notes for a review I never got around to finishing:

Recently an acquaintance of my wife’s, a woman she’d met a few times through work, presented her with a gift for our two-month-old daughter: a tiny, hand-knit, beige sweater, a wrap-around tunic that ties at the side with a button in the shape of a ladybug. “Isn’t it wonderful?” my wife asked. She likes wrap sweaters, herself, and she thought the ladybug was adorable. I’m sure it is. But I could only feign agreement. My stomach was lurching with the adrenalized vertigo peculiar to new parents, torqued between deep fear and cold aggression in the face of a perceived threat to one’s child. There was no threat in the sweater, of course. Rather, just the dangers of free association, between its ladybug button and the toy ladybug left behind as calling cards by the child-killer who sets in motion the plot of The Shack, an evangelical bestseller self-published in 2008 by an Oregon motel clerk named William P. Young. I read The Shack with the intention of reviewing it several months ago, but until that moment with the ladybug, I couldn’t account for why this awkward allegorical novel has won the hearts and minds of Christian America like no other fiction since the 1995 debut of the apocalyptic Left Behind series, which went on to sell some 50 million copies worldwide.
The Shack is as unlike that violently fundamentalist fever dream as possible: almost action-free, clogged with philosophical allusion, soundtracked by a series of chapter epigraphs drawn from Bruce Cockburn songs, and dedicated to a transgendered God who takes the form of a jolly, fat black woman in an apron, seemingly borrowed from a bottle of Aunt Jemima maple syrup, and calls herself Poppa to remind you that even though she’s a a mountain of maternal love she’s also your father. The Father, in fact—The Shack is ultimately committed to the same muscular faith that ripples through Left Behind. It’s not the theological destination that differs, it’s the path. Left Behind, perhaps the definitive evangelical text of the 1990s, attacked secularism and liberalism head on, its story of a small band of evangelicals doing battle with a United Nations bent on eradicationg religion an outright declaration of culture war, at the least. The Shack isn’t like that. The Shack loves everybody, even liberals. They’ll learn, if they’ll just relax for a minute and pull up a seat for pancakes with Poppa. The Shack is fundamentalism a la Alice’s Restaurant.

Monday, June 20, 2011

This Is How I Wish People Would Read My Next Book (Plus, Some Other Reading)

I just got my first review for my forthcoming book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, and it's kind of a drag. It's Kirkus, and to begin with it has two errors in a very short review, one minor, one major. There's a reference to a "preacher husband" in the lead essay, "Sweet Fuck All, Colorado," who simply does not exist. I don't know what the reviewer is talking about, beyond the fact that my friend John, husband of my friend Molly, is an Episcopalian active in his local church. 

The other error is more egregious: "Sharlet admits that many of these essays were born from research for other books." 

First, there's tone -- "admits"? Then, there are the facts: I admit no such thing, anywhere in the book, because it's simply not true. One short essay was "born" from research for The Family. I do note, in the acknowledgments, that I wrote the assembled pieces mostly as a kind of escape from fundamentalism.

It gets weirder -- the reviewer says I have "plenty of reason for confusion," since my parents were divorced and one was Christian, the other Jewish. That's a line of backhanded sympathy I recall from the fundamentalist ideologue Marvin Olasky's dismissal of The Family in his magazine, World (before he evidently realized he was wrong and published a series of investigative pieces on the Family). He said I was critical of fundamentalism because my religiously intermarried parents had divorced, leaving me a "loveless universe."

But my biggest gripe is the reviewer's main complaint -- his (or her) dismayed discovery that a collection of essays is, in fact, a collection of essays. "Disjointed!" the reviewer cries. "Disconnected!" Well, yes and no. It's true, as the reviewer points out, that the essays are on different subjects, not bound by content. I think they're bound by thematic concerns, but that's for critics to decide -- critics willing to engage a collection of literary journalism that doesn't come conventionally packaged. The decision to present this book as 13 stories, without introduction or explanation, was a deliberate one. In compiling the book, I looked at a great many similar collections. Nearly all included either self-deprecatory introductions in which the author apologized for foisting lowly journalistic pieces on the poor reader or a friend of the author declared the author a genius. There are exceptions -- the last lines of Didion's introduction to her Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Ellen Willis' introduction to her Beginning to See the Light, which nearly brought me to tears -- but most introductions amount to a disingenuous distancing from the ordinary goals of any collection of stories. 

Writers of short fiction do not begin their books with introductions explaining that this one was published in The Paris Review, that one in The New Yorker, and that they are all casuals, really, and probably not worth reading, but still, they were written, so anyway, here. Nor are short fiction collections measured by the continuity of subject matter -- one doesn't complain that characters don't recur, that questions are not plainly restated. Instead, we look for themes, for common concerns, for currents, or alternating currents, of dread or desire or some other emotion, or impulse, or idea. 

I discarded my introduction because I think literary journalism should be read the same way. There is precious little "news" in this book or in most other collections. I don't read Willis because I want to know about concerts she attended 40 years ago, or because her brother's spiritual condition is of pressing national concern. I read her for the same reason I read short fiction. This is not to say her essays, or mine, are like short fiction; they're second cousins, at best. But just as a painting, a photograph, a song, and a short story all attempt to express something more and less than the news, so, too, does a piece of literary journalism. There's a tension, there, of course -- when Willis' pieces were first published in Rolling Stone, people did read them because they wanted to know about the concert last month, and when Rolling Stone readers encountered the essay titled, in Sweet Heaven, "She Said Yes," they likely read it not for its portrait of a young woman torn between the certainty of fundamentalism and the certainty of her desires but because they were worried about fundamentalist influence on national politics. That same tension may apply to fiction -- consider the timeliness of an Updike story on terrorism, or the timeliness of any story at all by some pretty young thing said to be the next big thing in some assemblage of 20 under 40, 15 before 25, 3 to watch out for, or one for the money. It's best resolved not through invocations of "universalism" -- no such thing -- or anxiety about what endures -- Moby-Dick didn't, until it did -- but through engagement with the story on its own terms, followed by disengagement if the verdict so determines.

Doing so will also relieve literary journalists and other writers of creative nonfiction of the pedantic urge to organize collections according to type. No more neatly divided  “personals,” “travels,” and “considerations.” Some of my favorite books are organized this way, and my first instinct was to organize Sweet Heaven like so as well. My editor, Alane Mason, talked me out of it. No disclaimers. Here is a story. It may be worth reading. It will not be made moreso by the reassurance that it is tucked away in a book as tidily organized as a tool box or a sewing kit or a child’s divided toy chest – this compartment for stuffed animals, that one for “things that go,” as my daughter’s word book describes them, and that one for puzzles.

Well, maybe that would have been good – a book divided up into the categories of Stuffed Animals, Things That go, and Puzzles. The late anarchist journalist Brad Will, the subject of “Quebrado,” comes under Stuffed Animals; “Clouds, When Determined by Context,” about the sci-fi imaginations of 1950s fundamentalists, is a Thing That Goes; and the inner workings of the media monopoly Clear Channel documented in “Rock Like Fuck” are a Puzzle.

*           *           *
My irritation dissipated, I’m ready to move on to cheerier subjects, the recent publications of friends. But having learned from Kirkus that one must be clearly organized, I’m sticking with my new scheme.

Stuffed Animals

Here we have my former student, fellow Buddha killer, and pal Meera Subramanian's first full-length feature in Virginia Quarterly Review, "India's Vanishing Vultures." The title does not do justice to the lyricism or the horror of Meera's essay, but I think this sentence does:
Overhead, hundreds of birds kettled in slow circles in the sky—mostly Eurasian griffons, bulky steppe eagles, and Egyptian vultures the size of large gulls—all riding the warm whorl of desert thermals to the top of the gyre without a single flap of their wide wings and then peeling off like a slowly cascading waterfall. 
Things That Go

Here I'm filing the great JoAnn Wypijewski's short essay on Anthony Weiner for The Nation, although Weiner is now simply gone. To my mind, it's the only thing worth reading about Weiner and why so many of us seemed to care.
Of all the restrooms in all the schools and bars and gas stations across this great land, rare is the stall inside of which someone has not paused to draw a penis. Erect, with tight scrotum on one end and a cartoon squirt at the other, it is characterized by a vigorous arcing line and a paucity of detail; no hairs or veins or rippled skin, no great variation in size or proportion, a Unipenis, really, the signal hieroglyph of our age. When we have blown or glutted or pummeled ourselves into extinction, alien archaeologists will find this symbol on crumbling viaducts and leeching scrap heaps, in the ruins of our cities and the overgrown remnants of our public libraries, and they will conclude, “Here was their god.”
 Read more.

The same issue of The Nation features Kiera Feldman's controversial feature debut, "The Romance of Birthright Israel," in which the thing that goes is the love bus of conservative Zionism, carrying Kiera and her fellow campers on a journey through Israel the goal of which seems to be the reproduction of the state, literally:
Birthright co-founder Bronfman, the billionaire heir to the Canadian Seagram’s liquor empire, began directing his philanthropic dollars to teen Israel trips in the late 1980s. “To me, in order to be a complete Jew, one must have an emotional and physical attachment to Israel,” Bronfman says. But he was bothered that the kids on those early trips weren’t bonding with their Israeli peers. Bronfman’s answer: developing the mifgash—the encounter—between Jewish Israeli teens and their diaspora counterparts. This made the tour bus less of “an isolated bubble,” according to Elan Ezrachi, the Israeli educator who developed the mifgash on Bronfman’s dime. Birthright adapted the mifgash by way of IDF soldiers. These encounters between American youth and youthful Israeli soldiers “move very fast to what we call ‘hormonal mifgashim,’” Ezrachi told me. “Things happen.”

Nathan Schneider attends an evangelical advance screening of Terrance Malick's Tree of Life, at which he is advised by a former chief of staff for South Carolina firebreather Senator Jim DeMint to "mobilize" around the movie. "Mobilize and Contemplate" is his lovely attempt to do so, a hybrid of narrative and criticism that was turned down by a big magazine for not clearly being either. Killing the Buddha to the rescue. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

McGinnis vs. Malcolm

I've long been fascinated by Janet Malcolm's 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer, about the lawsuit filed by convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald against journalist Joe McGinnis over McGinnis' representation of MacDonald in his 1983 book Fatal Vision. "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on," Malcolm famously begins, "knows what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." McGinnis, as one might guess, does not come off well in what follows, though the most powerful passages of the book, like that opening salvo, don't deal with him in particular. Still, he apparently felt compelled to publish an epilogue addressing her charges in the 1989 edition of Fatal Vision. Now, prompted by some sharp words in a NYT review of Malcolm's newest book, he's posted it online. I find Malcolm's diagnosis of journalism persuasive, but admirers of her work -- especially those of us who include her on our syllabi -- will nonetheless want to read McGinnis' response, the better to "teach the controversy," as advocates of creationism like to say.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

On the Present Tense

From a review by Joseph Salvatore of Dogfight, a Love Story, by Matthew Burgess.

“This disorientation may arise from the story’s being told in the present tense, which heightens immediacy and suspense. But in such fiction, a flash-forward to a character’s paunchy future can be distracting. Suddenly the reader is taken out of the main action and begins looking for clues: Who survives and who doesn’t? What becomes of Alfredo and Isabel’s baby? The use of the present tense can also, paradoxically, flatten out rather than heighten events, so that highs and lows register the same intensity; a dogfight feels no different from, say, someone setting a dinner table.”

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sweet Heaven When I Die, Dust Jacket

Above are the galleys of my forthcoming book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, to be published by W.W. Norton this August. Also, some of the 6 1/2 feet of snow that fell this past winter in my new home of New Hampshire, and a barn from which a bear stole a garbage bag last week. A raccoon may live in there, too.

Norton has just finalized the dust jacket copy for Sweet Heaven. That is, the flap, the pitch, the shpiel, the what's-it-about come-on that will for most bookstore browsers determine whether they write down the title to remind themselves to buy it online -- sad but true -- or drop it with a thud. Or maybe like a pat -- it's a modestly-sized book, 264 pages, 5.5 inches X 8.25, a little shorter than a piece of paper is wide. Small, but big in ambition, or so declares Norton:

No one explores the borderlands of belief and doubt quite like Jeff Sharlet -- ingenious, farsighted, able to enter the worlds of others, even the flakiest and the most fanatical, with uncommon sympathy. Taking his title and inspiration from the despair and desire of legendary banjo player Dock Boggs, Sharlet sets out across a landscape of strange religion, from the American mythology -- and geology -- of “Sweet Fuck All, Colorado” to the midnight congregation of urban anarchists celebrating a victory over police in “What They Wanted.”
Sharlet discovers a country of prophets, promoters, revolutionaries, and other restless souls to guide him along the way. There are old friends—a whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking, Bible-reading radical born again as a Republican D.A., campaigning on horseback with a gun in her holster—and would-be saviors, a fundamentalist Christian “frontline soldier” who takes Sharlet into a grave at a Hell House in Texas, a “ritual master in the High Council of Gor” who attempts to rid him of evil spirits with a big knife and an “emotional cord cutting” above a yoga studio in Brooklyn. Sharlet finds heroes—a rebel journalist who videotaped his own murder, a Yiddish writer who left behind the greatest Holocaust novel nobody’s ever read, a philosopher who shows Sharlet the “deep democracy” within the “death shudders” of jazz and the blues—and antiheroes, not villains but everyday people confronting the truth of suffering and trying to cut the best deals they can on the side.
In the tradition of Joan Didion’s classic Slouching Towards Bethlehem, these portraits and journeys become movements in the same complex piece of music, one that vibrates with all the madness and beauty, the melancholy and aspirations for transcendence, of American life.

Are you melancholy? Do you vibrate? Do your underarms smell of aspiration? Then you should probably buy the book right now.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sean and Lisa Blonder Ohlenkamp, "Organizing the Bookcase"

Some years ago I read an article about interior design and bookshelves. It included some photographs of Bret Easton Ellis' bookshelves. Or, rather, his shelf: one long shelf running like a snake around the circumference of his fabulous loft. I was inspired. I'm not neat or organized enough to be a bibliophile, but I do like books as objects almost as much as I like them as texts. Those affections are sometimes in tension. Case in point was my decision to do Ellis one better by organizing my books by color. The problem, of course, was that if I wanted to find my copy of, say, Roy Mottahedeh's The Mantle of the Prophet, I had to remember not only that its spine is red but that my copy is a bit faded, the red fading to the color of old salmon, so that I'd shelved the book closer to orange than to violet. Then, too, there is the dominance of Penguin orange; and the problem of books such as Borges' Collected Fictions, the bottom half of which is a dusty twilight blue and the top half of which is a milk chocolate brown. I could picture the spine, but not its location. So my experiment failed. Fortunately, Sean and Lisa Blonder Ohlenkamp have not:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Books I Re-Read, Often

For some extra material at the back of the paperback edition of my 2010 book C Street, my publisher, Little, Brown, asked me for a list of six or eight nonfiction books that shape my writing, with a few sentences for each. I like it when my publisher asks me to make lists. Here's mine, with some usual suspects and some titles that surprised even me when I sat down to really think about the books that shadow me when I'm writing. Some of these are favorites, some are books that just stick around. I recommend every one of them.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941). This is an attempt to document the "cruel radiance of what is," as Agee put it, that all others should be measured against. And all others fail -- as did Agee, and, to a lesser extent, photographer Evans. And still I re-read this great, failed experiment over and over through the years, with caution and awe.

Blues for Cannibals: The Notes from Underground, by Charles Bowden (2002). I used to assign this to my students, but it infuriated 2/3 of every semester’s class. It’s hard going, dense, circular, occasionally overwrought, and absolutely brilliant. Makes the phrase “dark lyricism” meaningful. Sort of like James Agee’s best work: study it, but beware of trying it at home.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion (1968). When I first read this, at age 18, I wanted to wear giant Joan Didion sunglasses and have migraines. Then I figured out that all I wanted from Didion were her sentences. Now that I’m older and I have my own, imperfect sentences, what I admire is Didion’s power of perception, the nearly flawless double vision that allowed her to see a society in crisis and at the same time to see herself, watching it crumble.

The Robber Barons, by Matthew Josephson (1934). An early 20th century example of muckraking as scripture. Like many of his contemporaries, Josephson wanted to write about the bastards who’d ripped off a nation; but unlike less imaginative writers, he fell in love with his subjects, and the result is this Dante-eque tour of the history of American greed by a writer who knows that Hell is more interesting than Heaven.

The Dybbuk, or Between Two World, by S. Ansky (1914). This Yiddish play, which I first read in an English version by the great translator Joachim Neugroschel and later saw in an adaptation by one of my favorite playwrights, Tony Kushner, is not, technically, nonfiction. But Ansky approached it as if it was, scouring the folklore of Eastern European Jews for decades to create this uncanny distillation of a world of belief. The story, of a possession, is simple and yet irreducibly complex; I find myself thinking about it often when writing about religion. Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is equally essential to me.

The Maine Woods, by Henry David Thoreau (1864). I’m no great fan of Thoreau’s self-enamored prose, but this book’s account of his ascent up Mt. Ktaadn and his discovery, close to its peak, that the world is vastly more complex and beautifully dangerous than his imagination could conceive—“Contact! Contact!” he nearly screams in terror—is, to me, the beginning of American literary journalism.

The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm (1990). Maybe this book should have marked the end of American literary journalism. Its brief story—of a dispute between the murderer of its title and the journalist who tried to tell his story—is a vehicle for Malcolm’s condemnation of the genre she practices as something akin to ritual sacrifice. I read it, assign it, and think about it every time I start a new story.

Lipstick Traces, by Greil Marcus (1990). I’ve never read this book straight through, and I don’t care about its ostensible subject, the Sex Pistols, but I always keep it close at hand. It’s a masterwork of pattern and digression, an almost too-hip monstrosity of hybrid prose that I nonetheless find bracingly hopeful: a commonplace book of strange dignity, “the ability,” writes my favorite theological thinker, “to contradict what is.”

Monday, January 17, 2011

Borders, Henrietta, New York, 2009

Borders is dying. I'd like to add one more tack to its cardboard coffin. The worst Borders I've encountered -- and since I often travel to small cities without many bookstores, I've been to a lot -- was in Henrietta, NY, an upscale suburb outside of Rochester. To the best of my knowledge, there are no more independent new bookstores in the Rochester area. Borders has taken over a metro area of 1 million people and slowly deprived it of books. The Henrietta store was a case in point. I went in to pick up a copy of The Paris Review. No copies. Sold out? No, said the clerk, they didn't carry that "magazine." Curious, I went back to the lit journal section. What did they carry? Alaska Quarterly Review. Antioch Review. Bellevue Review. Callaloo. Denver Quarterly. Detect a pattern? That's right -- they'd ordered literary journals by picking randomly, A, B, C. I don't think they got further than F.

I asked to speak to a manager. She met me between the fancy chocolate counter and the comic book rack. I asked if she might consider ordering The Paris Review. No, she said, smiling, they had a good selection of "story magazines" already. Look, I said, I'm not really a fan of The Paris Review myself, but it's part of the landscape. Skipping it in a lit journal section would be like skipping Faulkner in the fiction section. Love him or hate him, you gotta have him. She smiled and said nothing. "Faulkner?" I said again, testing.

"Would you like to look that author up?" she asked.

Don't bother, I said. I bought the latest Astonishing X-Men and left.

Borders didn't like books, and book buyers didn't like Borders. I'd say good riddance, but the sad fact is that with its death a lot of people will lose even the chance to buy X-Men and Twilight. What's left?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Suffolk County Tourist Board, "Icon Survey," 2011

Awesomer than a swimming pool.
My new book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, to be published in August, features a very short passage on death metal rockers Cradle of Filth. So I was excited to see them break out of the death metal ghetto this morning and break into international "news" via, which reports that lead singer Dani Filth was the surprise winner -- ahead of Brian Eno! -- of a poll by the tourist board of Suffolk County, England, to determine the county's greatest icon. Second place went not to Eno but to a swimming pool. The tourist board was not amused; they've apparently called for a recount.

But as pleasant as it always is to hear news of everyday people rejecting the drive to sanitize and homogenize culture, Dani Filth may not be the best representation of rebellion. I wrote about Cradle of Filth in the context of a story about Clear Channel, the giant media monopoly. I'd gone to Denver to meet Jesse Morreale an independent concert promoter being driven out of business by Clear Channel, but since he was entangled with a lawsuit over the matter, he couldn't give me any particulars. 
Nor would the minor rock stars who came through town while I was there. Morreale took me to shows by arena rockers, alt-country crooners, and bands so bland that they could not be classified. The best was that of Cradle of Filth, a death-metal band from England with a cult following. The show featured a trapeze, lots of sparks, and a stilt walker dressed as a giant lobster; the band, dressed in leather bondage gear, sounded awesomely like a car running out of oil crashing into a lawnmower grinding up gravel. But afterward, on the tour bus, the lead singer assured me that he would "never" say anything against Clear Channel; he hoped his loyalty would be rewarded with a radio hit.

Oh, well. Maybe that swimming pool deserves another look.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Peter Trachtenberg, The Book of Calamities, 2008

An inquiry from my friend Melvin Bukiet, about a contact for the writer Peter Trachtenberg, prompted me to dig up my review of Peter's The Book of Calamities, one of my favorite books of recent years. I reviewed it for Search, a now-defunct magazine without an online archive. Much, much worse than that is the fact that Peter's publisher, Little, Brown, never brought The Book of Calamities out in paperback, despite reviews nearly all as admiring as mine, a number of awards, and sales that, if modest, were within the range of what publishers used to expect of "serious" books. Nothing I can do about publishing's determination to strangle itself, but here's the review. Buy the book in hardcover.

Peter Trachtenberg
The ordinary history of Christianity – not the wars fought in its name or the popes and martyrs and televangelists who bob along near the crest of its waves, but the faith as it is found and lost by everyday people – is rife with instances of what might be called “scripture shock.” Abigail Hutchinson, a subject of Jonathan Edwards’ “experimental religion” during the Great Awakening of the 18th century, described such an experience for Edwards’ notebooks.  Determined to work out the matter of her salvation, she plowed through the Bible as quickly as she could, racing from disobedience to flood to murder to the shame of a naked father, a banished mother, lovers speared like roaches, cities slaughtered, locusts, boils. Too much scripture, too fast. Abigail Hutchinson collapsed; she died not long after.
            It’s usually not so bad. In Fort Riley in Kansas, I met three young Iraq veterans who described episodes of scripture shock of their own; but they considered it a successful treatment for an illness they called belief. For one man, a medic raised a fundamentalist Christian, it was a particularly bloody passage of the Book of Numbers that he studied before entering the Army that overloaded him. He became an atheist. His two friends, one a lapsed Catholic, the other a North Carolinian who’d joined to fight holy war against Islam, reported similar epiphanies of disbelief in response to close and rapid reading of scripture in a war zone.
            Death and disbelief are only two of the possible outcomes. A third, by far the most common, is unquestioning belief. Scripture can drown doubt. All suffering begins to look the same; some simply call it sin, and declare themselves its enemies, a response every bit as reasonable, if reductionist, as the madness of Pip, the stow-away on Melville’s Pequod who loses his mind after falling overboard and treading water in a vast, blank sea for hours before rescue.
            Peter Trachtenberg’s terrifying and wondrous Book of Calamities, if consumed too quickly, might induce similar responses. (Disclosure: Peter Manseau, the editor of Search, and I published an early draft of a section of the first chapter in a book called Killing the Buddha.) There are more painful chronicles – anthologies of lynching, compilations of genocidal documents, black books of the Holocaust – but few that hurt on so many registers, from the mundane to the inconceivable, the personal to the political, the absurd to the outrageous to the stupid to the sad. A partial inventory: a friend with cancer; the author as junky; the Book of Job; the dead of 9/11; a martyr and a lion; Rwanda; the Holocaust; twins befriended by Trachtenberg who are afflicted by a disease that flays them alive, over and over, for 27 years; Vietnam vets trapped in their own stories; victims of AIDS in Calcutta, trapped in Mother Theresa’s; another friend of the author, his head stuck in a plastic bag.
And yet, The Book of Calamities never wallows. Trachtenberg is as humble as he is nimble, and both qualities are prerequisites for his inquiry—or rather, set of inquiries, since the book is framed as “Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meanings.” It might as easily have been subtitled “Five Hypotheses,” since in each chapter Trachtenberg not only addresses a different facet of suffering but also a variation on religion’s or philosophy’s or law’s responses, drawing on Gilgamesh, Boethius, Buddha, Simone Weil, and many others, always respectfully, never conclusively. “This book is an investigation of the ways people find meaning in suffering,” he writes, “or try not to be driven mad by the possibility that it means nothing.” He allows that possibility: “Suffering may not inherently mean anything, but I believe that giving it meaning is the only way people can escape being ultimately destroyed by it.” The rest of the book might be summed up in three words: Or maybe not.
This is The Book of Calamities’ remarkable achievement: to the shock of suffering, Trachtenberg responds with a masterful collage of personal narrative, journalism, biblical criticism, and layman’s philosophy that gently and subtly guides the reader past both unbelief and certainty. That’s not as easy as it sounds, for they’re represented in The Book of Calamities by, among others, Buddha and Mother Theresa, respectively, and Trachtenberg gives them their due. He wants us to understand them and appreciate them as best we can, but when their traditions, their hypotheses, turn away from or euphemize or gloss any suffering at all – Thich Nhat Hahn fails to connect with a group of broken Vietnam vets at a Buddhist retreat, Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity, swept away by the beauty of suffering, fail to provide painkillers –Trachtenberg collects that data, too, and weighs it.
“Before suffering people can form a coherent picture of their suffering,” he writes, “they must first ask questions about it, or maybe of it. In doing so, they are performing the work of science and philosophy, interrogating their reality in order to derive a thesis about it.” But those who suffer are at a disadvantage, he continues. “They pose their questions in the silence of a hospital room or the murmuring heat of a refugee camp, in a house where someone has died; his clothes still hang in the closet, bearing a trace of his smell.” So Trachtenberg, a man who despite years of drug addiction, overdoses, and a suicide attempt does not believe he has suffered much on the scale of things, joins them in their questioning, adding to their urgency his privileged calm.
The first question is the simplest: “Why me?” In Trachtenberg’s hands, though, it becomes: Why not me? Why her? The her is his friend Linda, dead of cancer. Long before that that, though, she was “a beautiful young woman with translucent olive skin and the eyes of a Sienese Madonna.” A saint and a genius, according to Trachtenberg’s memory, her virtues disguised by her day job as a functionary at an arts nonprofit with Trachtenberg. “Like practically everybody else in our office, she wrote poems, but hers weren’t about her genitals or her feelings. They were about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and they were sestinas.” Trachtenberg, meanwhile, is a disaster, a spoiled middle class kid who thinks suffering is a synonym for thrills and who finds both in a syringe. He buys drugs, gets mugged, buys more drugs, squirts blood in other people’s homes, buys more drugs, tries to kill himself with 50 fiornal and a razor blade, and fails, partly because Linda saves him.
In his memory, she miraculously intuits his condition and spirits him off to a hospital. Then, later, she becomes ill, first with an sickness that bloats her grotesquely, then with an even worse one that wastes her to the bone. There is an inverted logic to this, an answer to the chapter’s question. Why her? Because she took his suffering onto herself. Because only the good die young. Because fate loves irony. Because God tests those who can bear it. Phrased so glibly, such explanations are horrifying. And yet, they’re rooted in the rational impulse, the search for causality that has long prompted interpreters of the Book of Job, an account of which Trachtenberg splices with Linda’s story, to look for justice within Job’s suffering. “Order,” Trachtenberg writes, “is the nest we make for our minds.”
But it may not be reality. The last time he sees Linda before her death they reminisce about the early years of his friendship, including her almost-magical rescue of him. “Linda stopped me. ‘That’s not what happened,’ she said.” There had been no miracles. Trachtenberg had called her and told her what he’d done, a detail he’d erased. And they hadn’t been close, then, either. In fact, she’d always wondered, “Why me?” There is no answer: “I couldn’t say why I’d chosen her. I couldn’t say why she’d been chosen.”
Randomness is not the end, however. Order may be a fiction, but in Trachtenberg’s telling it’s a necessary story. The centerpiece of the book is a long chapter on Rwanda’s attempts to reckon with murder on a scale that makes the Nazis look like a few bad apples. There were no death camps in Rwanda, only people. Some of them were killed; most of them were killers. But the question of who was a victim isn’t so simple. The Tutsis, no doubt; but what of the genocidaires, herded by cowardice and chance into horrible crimes? Trachtenberg juxtaposes his interviews with Rwandans with the story of Andrea Yates, who in 2001 drowned her five children in a bathtub, believing she was saving them, and of Oedipus, who truly knew not what he did. The thread between them is fate, one of the Book of Calamities’ hypotheses about suffering. “If I was created so, born to this fate,” Trachtenberg quotes Oedipus, “Who could deny the savagery of God?” Fate is not, in this reading, destiny, but a thicker, more complicated term for circumstance.
“This isn’t to say that fate eliminates guilt,” writes Trachtenberg. “But it makes possible a more nuanced vision of human responsibility, allowing one to see it as an intricate bitmap of freedom and unfreedom in which there are many shades of doubt and pity.” Which is to say, fate reveals a spectrum; Trachtenberg’s quasi-scientific method of inquiry has brought him around to a theory of relativity. Against it, he weighs justice. “What all justice does,” he writes, “however cruelly or inequitably, is to impose order on the pandemonium of acts.”
From order to chaos to fate to order: Trachtenberg’s story seems circular, but in fact it winds inward. The most moving story in the book uses Buddhism, martyrdom, and the trauma of Vietnam to reflect on the story of Kelly and Kate Daley, twins born with recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, an extremely rare skin disease the effects of which are like “being burned every day of one’s life.” The affliction of the twins is unimaginable; Trachtenberg doesn’t really ask us to try. Instead, he wants us to understand their courage, as manifested most clearly in their wit – they’re bright, funny, honest women, people with whom any reader would want to be friends. The point of the story isn’t inspiration, however; the twins die horrible deaths at age 27. It’s witness. Another word for that is martyr; and yet another, Trachtenberg suggests, is bodhisattva, an “awakened being,” according to Buddhism, who sacrifices the reward of nirvana in order to stay with the rest of us as witness to our suffering. In one sense, that’s what the Daley twins desperately need: a witness. They wanted to be seen, both their suffering and their humanity recognized. In another sense, they were witnesses: they stayed in this world, living longer and fuller lives than almost anyone else with their disease. They did not die for the truth, they lived for it. And the truth was that of suffering. This is neither belief nor unbelief, it’s simply fact, the antidote to the inevitable shock of calamity.
Trachtenberg never makes suffering beautiful, but his prose is often lovely, as when he writes of the view from a suicide’s room, “the vast shining loneliness of the Hudson and the immense sky filled with light.” When he thinks we can bear it, the book is even funny. No gags, just an appreciation for the humor that attends suffering, as when Kelly Daley – forbidden from eating even toast, lest it scrape away her throat’s membrane – tells him she lusts for foie gras. “ ‘I’m a wistful hedonist. If I was healed, I’m afraid I’d be totally into the pleasures of the flesh.’ ”
The same may be true of Trachtenberg. He writes most vividly not of horror but of the delight he takes in the people he comes to care for, the twins, Linda, a painter in the final chapter. He sees not just their suffering, but also their brilliance, and it’s that reflected light that makes this darkest of studies itself a kind of witness, a profound book of heart stopping stories and even more powerful questions. This is a rare and invaluable kind of writing, almost scriptural in its scope and its openness to pain. I say “almost,” because The Book of Calamities is both less and more than the scripture from which it borrows much of its form. Trachtenberg offers no answers and doesn’t seem certain there are any. And yet that’s a blessing, a recognition that there is a limit to witness – which means that there may be a limit to suffering, too. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year New Music.

New music for the new year. Bought three albums today: The ArchAndroid, by Janelle Monae; Sweet Warrior, by Richard Thompson; and Far, by Regina Spektor. Reactions tk.