Eyes Wide Shut

I’ve always wondered: If love is blind, why is sex so much better with one’s eyes open? There’s an essay in Do Me: Tales of Sex & Love From Tin House that addresses that question in reverse fashion. If the person having sex is blind, is their love more visible?

“You Don’t See the Other Person Looking Back”, a romantic account by essayist Michael Lowenthal of a sea cruise for blind gay men, makes a point of the association between love, sex and vision in light of the latter being impossible. And it opens with one of the best leads we’ve encountered in a while: “They say animals resemble their masters, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that Oscar, Tommy’s Seeing Eye dog, the instant he was unharnessed, rose to his hind legs and humped my knee.” The theme here is relevant to all attraction, sighted or blind, straight or gay. “When blind people—without the aid of visual inspiration—feel the burn of sexual desire,” Lowenthal writes, “is that desire, I wondered, deeper, more authentic?” In other words, is visual inspiration necessary to sexual attraction?

These and other heady questions pop up all through Do Me. Tin House is one of the most widely read of literary quarterlies and it’s easy to see why from this stimulating collection. Even the least complicated of sex in these 22 pieces carries deep meaning of the kind everyone discovers in their romantic attachments. This is one of the book’s many lessons: There is no such thing as casual sex.

Other truisms arise as well. The ever-popular motto of relationship counselors—sex changes everything—is apparent in all these stories. Whether it’s fellatio in an amusement park fun house, an adulterous rivalry between two sisters or a married man’s hour with a prostitute in Las Vegas on Christmas day the stories all turn on the act. Or, in a tale of phone sex, its impending possibility.

It’s old news that well-written eroticism can be as big a turn on as the hard core porno. But that’s not always the case here. Some of these tales are meant to stimulate the intellect rather than the libido. Some arouse both. And it’s hard to feel any arousal in Victor LaValle’s tale of a group of New York thirteen year olds who run straight into reality when they pool their resources to hire a street walker.

Many of the authors collected in Do Me are professors or graduates of writing programs and it follows that the scenarios are often of the ivory tower sort (what could be more phallic?). Two English teachers meet at the Modern Language Association convention and begin a phone sex relationship; a professor fucks one of his students while his colleagues discuss Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Freud. One story is in the question-and- answer form of a mid-term exam. Yet little of it is stuffy or scholarly—this is sex after all—and some of it seems delightfully white trash. ‘My mother rarely spoke of my father’s family history,” opens Mark Jude Poirier’s “I Maggot,” “but when she did, she spoke in threats: ‘Ask one more question about that cousin-fucker and I’ll kick the queer right out of you!’”

Not surprisingly for adult subject matter, the best stories deal with adolescents and early sexual confusion. Steven Millhouse’s “The Room in the Attic” is a spooky tale of a troubled high school girl shuttered away in a lightless attic—the vision thing again—and her touchy-feely relationship with a kid her brother brings home. A middle school girl wonders truth or dare fashion if her father’s friend is raping her in Dylan Landis’ “Like Jazz.” The innocence of cross-generational attraction is suggested in Sarah Sun-lien Bynum’s “Sandman” in which a teacher tries to get her eighth graders to take seriously the threat of sexual predation. “Want some candy little girl?” one of the students sneers back.

But the most tangible turn on here is death. It’s claimed that sex is our reaction to mortality and that inevitability is here battled again and again. The recipient of that amusement park blow job is shocked to learn its young and lovely bearer is later “carved up” by cancer. The voice in Carol Anshaw’s “Touch and Go” has a lesbian affair with her dying mother’s doctor. Her brother deals with it by watching porno.

Not everyone wants to watch what they’re doing or see who they’re doing it with. The subject of Lucia Perillo’s “Sick Fuck,“ a twisted, scarred victim of disease, asks his lover how he can stand such a “freak.” “That’s what eyelids are for,” is the answer. Maybe, after all, it’s desire that’s blind and it’s the sex that’s a sort of vision. Just the thought is a turn on.—Bill Kohlhaase

Do Me: Tales of Sex & Love From Tin House collected by the editors of Tin House; Tin House Books, paperback 352 pages, $18.95

A version of this review first appeared in the OC Weekly

Graphic Lessons

What if you learned something about yourself that was really terrible, completely contrary to what you believed of yourself; how would you react? That’s the dilemma facing Happy—yes, the name’s ironic—in Chip Kidd’s second novel The Learners. Actually, Happy gets two hard lessons about himself before this quick-witted little book comes to a close. Before that, he leans a whole bunch of good and practical things as well.

Kidd is the revolutionary graphic designer whose book covers are celebrated as the best thing since the dust jacket. (A collection of his covers and other graphic work, Chip Kidd: Book One: Work: 1986-2006 was published by Rizzoli in 2005.) The Learners displays his talent with a diagonally-cut, half-a-dust-jacket over which peers a sweating, be-speckled Charles Burns portrait (Burns is the imaginative graphic novelist behind the mutant teens comic The Black Hole). Peeling away the dust jacket reveals the face half-hidden behind a volt meter. More on that later. There are other hip touches: cartoonist Chris Ware did The Learners logo and the copyright page is split, requiring the reader to flip back and forth between pages to learn the typefaces used. Cute, yes; even a bit troublesome. But you can’t always judge a book by its cover.

The real innovation here is in the design of Kidd’s story, especially in relation to his first. We originally met Happy in The Cheese Monkeys (published in paperback this past January), a coming-to-college tale set in the late 1950s that follows Happy to “State U” where he majors in art. Happy is particularly influenced by a graphic design class taught by one Winter Sorbeck, the professor who bestows on him the Happy moniker. The Cheese Monkeys is structured on semesters and classes, the second semester broken into critiques suffered—and we do mean suffered—during Sorbeck’s “Introduction to Graphic Design,” formerly “Introduction To Commercial Art.” Yes, the distinction is important. The sections are divided by short discussion of form–left to right, top to bottom, big and small—so that you may more easily, uhumm, get the picture.

The Learners takes place in 1961 and is conveniently divided into “Before,” “During,” and “After” sections. “Before” and “After” what isn’t clear until one reads the “During” section. The sections are separated by a-word-from-our-sponsor, public-service-announcement styled breaks. This is a story about commercial art, remember? But content is as important here as form was to the first novel, and Kidd takes opportunity to discuss the importance of design to meaning, notably in a section on the variables of typography. What falls between these design elements is that great cliché—the “creative process”—and that’s what makes Kidd’s story fun. Before it gets serious.

Our Happy graduate falls into a job with Spear, Rakoff & Ware, an advertising agency in New Haven, Connecticut, which survives on newspaper coupons and the Krinkle Kut potato chip account. The agency once employed Professor Sorbeck who at the end of The Cheese Monkeys abandoned his class much to Happy’s chagrin. “If I couldn’t be where Winter was now,” he says, “I’d go where he’d been.” This opens Happy to a new round of characters: Tip, an eclectic concept man, Sketchy the frustrated cartoonist and Mimi, the widowed boss with a great dane known to take liberties. After a series of successes, Happy is asked along with the others to come up with one big idea to win a major shoe company account, a task which recalls the assignments inflicted by Sorbeck in the previous book.

Returning from Cheese Monkeys is Himillsy Dodd, the outspoken and outrageous object of Happy’s unrequited affection. The fun turns when Happy creates an ad calling for subjects for a psychology experiment at Yale. Proud of his creation and with a nudge from Himillsy, our anti-hero volunteers himself. The experiment, pulled from history, is Professor Stanley Milgram’s infamous “obedience” experiments that found that over 60 per cent of his volunteers gladly inflicted a 450 volt shock to a fellow participant as long as they were asked to, no matter how much the other participant, a confidant, begged them not to.

The fact that Happy is so willing to please makes him something shy of his name. That he was already burdened with Himillsy’s joke gone-too-far brings weight to what until then seemed like a screwball comedy of clever dialogue, something like Ben Hecht’sThe Front Page placed in an off-Madison Avenue ad agency. The story is propelled like paint from a can, its characters just as colorful. All the graphic touches, visible and literary, are added effect to the bold face print of moral quandary. You end up liking Happy even if he doesn’t like himself. In that, there’s an obvious lesson.

The Learners by Chip Kidd; Scribner, hardback, 260 pages, $26

A version of this review first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly

You’re a Sick Man, Charlie Brown

Comparisons between famously depressive Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and raunch-and-rant cartoonist Ivan Brunetti seem a bit of a stretch. After all, Schulz never drew Lucy sporting a strap-on dildo, as Brunetti does, and having her way with Charlie Brown. But the two illustrators share a world-view. Charlie Brown never gets to kick the football, talk to the little red-haired girl or fly a kite without snaring it in a tree. Brunetti’s view of life is equally hopeless.

Even before the comic depictions of violent sex, self-mutilation, murder and mayhem that dominate Brunetti’s bound collection of early comics, Misery Loves Comedy, there are clues that he’s sick and conflicted. The title page shows Brunetti sitting by a wilted potted plant, a tear clinging to his eye, saying, “I’m sorry.” The introduction is written by his therapist. As you might guess, she blames Brunetti’s dysfunction on his parents.

Well, thank you, Mom and Dad! Brunetti’s insecurity and double-edged anger is the freshest thing in underground comics since Robert Crumb sent Mr. Natural into the desert. Read past his point-blank titles (“Please Kill Me”) and the illustrations of rape, slaughter and suicidal fantasies, and Brunetti emerges as an existential hero, confronting the world and his own demons with brutal honesty. You think you’re the only one who has thought of stabbing yourself in the eye? Or strangling someone wearing a Styx T-shirt, then pissing on their corpse? Think again. And the best part? He does it for laughs.

Brunetti was born in Mondavio, Italy, in the 1960s and began drawing at age 4. The family immigrated to America, where, like many comic nerds, he was bullied by his schoolmates. His father, whom Brunetti described in an interview for The Comics Journal #264 as “domineering and tyrannical,” made him give up drawing, forcing Brunetti to hide his doodling in the way most young men hide masturbation. He discovered the underground at the University of Chicago, jumped back into drawing and published his first issue of Schizo in 1994. Since then, he’s done New Yorker covers and appeared in Entertainment Weekly as well as Dirty Stories and Hate comics. His reputation jumped when he edited and wrote the introduction to last year’s An Anthology of Graphic Fiction from Yale University Press.

Crude, absurd and surreal humor have been part of underground comics since their ’60s heyday. Brunetti personalizes that tradition, creating a brutally honest self-portrait that reflects our darker urges. “The mark of any great artist is his willingness and ability to say what everyone else is afraid to even think,” he says in a manifesto that opens Schizo #1. By this measure, Brunetti is among the greatest artists to have ever lived.

Misery Loves Comedy collects the first three issues of Schizo as well as miscellaneous strips and cartoons published from 1992 to 2003. There’s a variety of drawing styles ranging from the exacting, detailed portraits seen in “Six Reasons Why I Wish I Were Man Ray” to simple round-faced renderings influenced by Peanuts and Hello Kitty. Brunetti shows his skill as a copyist in scenes from favorite newspaper strips as only he can: daddy cutting a “felch fart” in a Family Circus parody, Dennis taking Mr. Wilson from behind, and Nancy offering to flash Sluggo if he’ll reciprocate.

Brunetti synthesizes his world-view, sometimes without words, in single-page comics drenched in snide irony. “Music Brings Us All Closer!” makes a hilariously cynical comment on pop culture. “A Modern Day Fable” shames Steinbeck’s The Pearl when an overgenerous cash machine leads to murder, whoring, drugs, suicide and donuts.

Brunetti’s long pieces transcend comic humor while delving into the ironies of applied psychology and philosophy. “Turn your eyes inside and dig the vacuum . . .” has all the pathos of Job scraping boils with a pottery shard. Brunetti argues dogma with Jesus in print-heavy panels as Christ finds a use for his stigmata that any 14-year-old boy would admire. “If I Were Dictator of the World” balances wild images atop typed paragraphs urging global annihilation.

Schizo #4, issued in 2006, is not included in this collection, probably because it stands apart from the earlier work with its focus on the frustrations of making art and sketches of Kjerkegaard, Erik Satie, Louise Brooks and film producer Val Lewton. Brunetti seems to have dealt with his depression and anger, channeling it into a childlike stylism that retains more than a hint of slime. In a tribute to Schulz, Brunetti is seen plinking at the piano, Schroeder-like, saying, “The damage of youth never subsides.” Those who enjoy Brunetti’s particular brand of depravity can only hope he’s right.

Misery Loves Comedy by Ivan Brunetti; Fantagraphic Books; www.fantagraphics.com. Hardback, 172 pages, $24.95.

A Room of His Own

The death of the great pianist Hank Jones on Sunday, May 16 at the age of 91 has been followed by controversy. New York Times reporters Corey Kilgannon and Andy Newman visited Jones’ room at 108th St. and Broadway in NYC after his death and painted a picture of a spartan existence. It’s unclear whether or not the description of Jones’ living conditions in a 12 x 12 foot room were meant to invoke sympathy or make some kind of statement on the fate of older jazz musicians in today’s culture. What it did was release a barrage of negative comments.

The reporters speak of Jones “unmade bed” ( he died in a Bronx hospice), a clutter of sheet music, awards and recordings of Chopin, Debussy and Ravel. The closet was filled with “designer neck ties and sharp-looking suits” and there was a book of Sherlock Holmes mysteries on the bed stand. The Yamaha electric piano Jones used for practice sported a pair of head phones.

Some who wrote comments took the bait: “No one commented on how sad this is. Sad that he lived alone, sad that he died alone, sad that his life of charm and sophistication (the music, the recordings, the clothes, the elegance, even in a simple room) appeared not to contain the many things most people cherish.” But many were angry. “There is something very untoward about going into this gentleman’s room less than two days after he passed away and opening up his life to the entire world, presumably before he has had a chance to be mourned and buried by his family and friends,” spoke one of the more polite. I was at first saddened, then outraged, to read the Hank Jones piece by Corey Kilgannon and Andy Newman. Why was it deemed appropriate — under any circumstance—to compromise the privacy of and report on and photograph the dismantling of a man’s life possessions; and to do so in such an-ill fitting, misleading and exploitive (sic) manner and tone. ”

There’s a lot of insight to be gained from these comments and the Rabbit encourages reading them. Especially interesting is the attempt by Kilgannon to explain his motivation (comment #34) and the following comment (#35) from renowned bassist and Jones’ collaborator Charlie Haden and wife Ruth Cameron ripping our intrepid reporter a new one (also #30). There’s a long comment from Jones’ long time manger Jean-Pierre LeDuc, an even longer one from his surviving niece and nephew and a couple from his close friends who provide context to Mr. Jones’ living conditions (#26 and #32). Seems he had a home in upstate New York, a wife who lived in an assisted care facility and frequent contact with friends and family.

The Rabbit thinks that a man as gentlemanly and graceful (like his playing) as Mr. Jones would have been confused, if not disturbed, by this attention (I was introduced to Mr. Jones once and heard him perform a handful of times). Those we knew who knew Mr. Jones spoke of him with the highest respect. He was a gentleman in all regards.

I’ve found myself projecting my own thoughts on this scenario. Though acclaimed, he was less visible in the formidible shadows of his younger brothers Thad and Elvin and never once, in true gentlemanly style, seemed to mind. Some of his most heard work was in the background–accompanying Marilyn Monroe’s famous birthday song to President Kennedy and, for some of us our first exposure to piano-playing of the type, his work at CBS, notably with the Captain Kangaroo show. Of course, the jazz audience is well-familiar with his work, considering the bulk of his recorded output dating back to the 1040s.

The New York Times story made us think of him as something of an aesthetic and ascetic, someone who lived modestly and in service to his art. Of course, this notion is completely false. Jones was anything but a recluse, traveling and performing late into his life. And he certainly wasn’t invisible to the jazz audience considering the sizeable extent of his recording career, especially in his senior years, not to mention a life-long commitment to live performance .

The whole affair made us realize the power of printed stories, the importance of complete context and how much our conception of artists is connected to what we wish they were. It’s important to connect the music and the musician but it is also important to separate the two as well. AS toi the former, here’s hoping someone somewhere heard a full accounting from Mr. Jones  regarding his formative years in Detroit, his stints with Hot Lips Page and Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, his role of accompanist for great vocalists, his ability to record with all kinds of musicians (remember the Great Jazz Trio when he worked with Tony Williams, Buster Williams and Al Foster among many others?) his views on what’s changed between 1945 and 1995. As fpor the latter, here’s hoping I can find my copy of Hank Jones Live at Maybeck Recital Hall.–Cabbage Rabbit