The Wapshot Chronicle (Modern Library #63)

(This is the thirty-eighth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Catcher in the Rye.)

Despite focusing almost exclusively on the upper and middle classes in his fiction, John Cheever was that rare New Yorker regular whose short stories never came across as off-puttingly imperious, superficially urbane, or especially pretentious (although he did don a mannered Mid-Atlantic accent for his television appearances; his 1981 appearance with John Updike on The Dick Cavett Show is highly recommended). But to be fair to Cheever, this Quincy native was also good for a number of gentle tales featuring small-town types trying to live out their grandiose dreams in the big city, as seen in “O City of Broken Dreams” and “Clancy in the Tower of Babel.”) One gets the sense from Cheever’s stories and his diaries that, for all of his hard drinking and his tormented sexuality, the man genuinely loved people and marveled over bizarre jewels mined from the commons. His writing voice led many to call him “the Chekhov of the suburbs,” although that appellation doesn’t do full justice to Cheever’s stratospheric talent or surprising range.

This emphasis on pedigree has caused many contemporary readers to align Cheever — much to the understandable chagrin of The Millions‘s Adam O’Fallon Price — with the equally great Raymond Carver, whose penetrating portraits of blue-color realism showed a similar talent for exhuming the irresistible madness buried within the quotidian. (Carver’s baker in “A Small, Good Thing” — with the surreal quality of his incessant phone calls to a grieving couple — could be a Cheever character. And indeed, Cheever and Carver were drinking buddies.) But Cheever worked a slightly less verisimilitudinous room that, even with its quasi-fantastical wainscotting, proved just as truthful as Carver’s grit. Cheever’s finest stories — “The Enormous Radio,” “Torch Song” (one of my personal favorites), and “The Swimmer” — nimbly corral the motley flocks of common anxieties into quietly surrealistic pastures situated somewhere between speculative fiction and magical realism. But Cheever’s bold storytelling strokes (a radio that airs the conversations of neighbors, people who age or who never age in strange ways) never seem to come across as overly conceptual or call attention to themselves because his characters are so vivid in their behavior. (“I wish you wouldn’t leave apple cores in the ashtrays,” says one of the overheard people in “The Enormous Radio,” “I hate the smell.” As a former smoker who practiced significant pulmonary zest while slowly killing himself, I’ve never seen anyone do this — not even the chain-inhaling slobs I shivered outside with in my dorm room days.) It’s an emphatic lesson that seems to have eluded priapic spec-fic hacks like David Brin, Orson Scott Card, and John Scalzi, who are more interested in bloviating and showing how “clever” they are rather than practicing the art of writing fiction, much less humility, in any notable manner (and, in Card’s case, a monotonously homophobic one).

Buoyed by his elegant and subtly expansive prose, Cheever somehow inoculated himself against being typed — especially after the success of The Wapshot Chronicle, the masterpiece on the Modern Library list which beckons this essay and the novel that got me so passionate about Cheever again that I reread the full oeuvre, delaying yet another installment and once again hedging the unknown number of days I have left in my life against the completion of this insanely ambitious project. Bullet Park is a laudable though not entirely successful effort to break out of the zany New England métier. But Falconer? That novel is a fucking knockout that truly shows just how much range Cheever had. He captured the speech and mannerisms of prisoners in a way completely beyond the abilities of Updike or, for that matter, many of the smug and privileged novelists you see on BlueSky boasting daily about how “woke” they are, even as they can be observed in real life nervously crossing the street whenever they see a Black person approaching them. Decades before Alan Hollinghurst, Cheever had this knack for describing the seedier pastimes of sexuality as if this was the most beautiful thing in the world. But he also rightfully earned respect from the mainstream literary establishment at a time in which writers wrangling with anything even remotely high-concept were often pushed needlessly and ignominiously into the dodgy shadows of the pulp markets.

While Cheevermania thankfully remains somewhat alive in the 2020s — with both Mary Gaitskill and Emma Cline stumping for him at the last New Yorker festival — note how Vulture reporter Brandon Sanchez emphasizes the short stories while shutting out the novels. Even my fellow Cheever booster O’Fallon Price, who rightly points to the “binary choice between dull routine and utter chaos” frequently explored in Cheever’s fiction, offers nothing more than an oblique reference to Bullet Park in his Cheever essay. None of these people seem to have heeded the wisdom of the late great critic John Leonard, who demanded that we express love and generosity to a sui generis talent (just as he did in his review of Cheever’s final novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, which is still very solid Cheever, particularly the ice skating and supermarket scenes).

The Wapshot Chronicle is utterly breathtaking, often very funny, and poignant. Less seasoned readers have dismissed Wapshot as the work of a “master short story writer teaching himself how to write a novel” and, while they are not wrong on this point, I think this is a significant underestimation of what Cheever has accomplished here. Wapshot deserves to be held high with the same adulation reserved for his short stories. For one thing, Wapshot is also the first Book of the Month Club selection with the word “fuck” in it. This “transgression,” which must have scandalized pearl-clutching moralists of the lowest order, surely gives Cheever a small amount of punk rock streetcred.

Avoid kneeling in unheated stone churches. Ecclesiastical dampness causes prematurely grey hair.

That silly advice comes from retired sea captain, endearing crank, and old patriarch Leander Wapshot. Stylistically speaking, Leander’s fascinating clippy patois is what stands out on the first reading. But there’s also a shrewd piss-take on Booth Tarkington‘s device of an omniscient storyteller who makes his presence known with picayune details of family lines and furtive glimpses into certain subcultures:

It is the perhaps in the size of things that we are most often disappointed and it may be because the mind itself is such a huge and labyrinthine chamber that the Pantheon and the Acropolis turn out to be smaller than we had expected.

Wapshot was not the first time that Cheever used this trick. His 1955 story “Just One More Time” does this as well. But with Wapshot, the almost satirical formality serves to create an epic structure for the eccentric Wapshot family to run wild. (And in the case of Leander’s two sons, Moses and Coverly, they literally flock to many corners of the nation — particularly Coverly after he becomes a Taper and is sent to far-off regions: the military base, in Cheever’s hands, is sent up gloriously and Cheever would continue with this in The Wapshot Scandal by satirizing the McCarthy trials.) Much like the fantastical concepts in his stories anchored strange behavior, so too does the Tarkingtonesque narrator frame the family adventures.

I also loved the marvelously quirky Cousin Honora, who controls the family pursestrings and who has a highly unusual method of paying for her bus fare:

Honora doesn’t put a dime into the fare box like the rest of the passengers. As she says, she can’t be bothered. She sends the transportation company a check for twenty dollars each Christmas. They’ve written her, telephoned her and sent representatives to her house, but they’ve gotten nowhere.

My only minor quibble about Wapshot — and this is a point that a certain misogynistic predator who was forced to bail from the publishing world lacked the acumen to consider — is how Melissa, the woman who marries Moses, is short-changed by Cheever. It’s clear that she is not happy in the marriage. Cheever, to his credit, would make a noble stab to atone for this in The Wapshot Scandal by having her run off with a 19-year-old grocery boy named Emile. But even in the sequel, I felt that Cheever didn’t quite flesh out this character. It’s not that Cheever couldn’t write women (see Honora, for one) or didn’t understand what it was like to be trapped in a thankless marriage. (Julia Weed in “The Country Husband” is a far better portrayal of this problem than Melissa.) But sometimes the best pilot can’t always stick the landing. And I’m not about to pull one of those Zoomer hissy fits and cancel Cheever simply because he fumbled an important issue. Especially because there’s so much to admire about Wapshot: its wit, its heart, the way that it embraces certain strains of Southern literature only to abandon this tone once Moses and Coverly go off and live their lives, its beautiful depiction of naivety at every age, and the hilarious tally of weird accidental deaths. I also feel obliged to point to Steven Wandler’s interesting essay in which he argues that the two Wapshot novels are similar while presenting contradictory views of the world. Another literary Ed — one who has greater cachet than this irksome Brooklynite — has made a savvy argument that much of this stemmed from the contradictions of Cheever’s life. And aren’t contradictions exactly the reason why we reread great novels?

Next Up: James Jones’s From Here to Eternity!

Anil Dash’s Unhinged Death Wish, Libel, and Harassment Campaign Against Me (With Receipts)

[NOTE: For the TLDR crowd, I have served up a 60 second video summary of this dispute on YouTube.]

On Monday, January 29, 2024, starting at 2:30 PM Eastern Standard Time, an unhinged BlueSky user put up 91 posts about me in a nine hour period. These posts were libelous, untrue, defamatory, and designed to harass and discredit me. They whipped up the collective fury of hundreds of other BlueSky users. (BlueSky has refused to respond to my inquiries or resolve this in any way. The social media company, run by Jay Graber, did not take any steps to mitigate this. It was nothing but radio silence under Graber’s watch.) I am specifically not naming this individual because I have reason to believe that she may be unwell.

But I am going to name somebody else — a person with 17.7K followers in BlueSky and more than half a million followers on The Website Formerly Known as Twitter, a figure who claims on his webpage that he’s “trying to make the technology world more thoughtful, creative, and humane” but who demonstrated nothing in the way of humane qualities in the last twenty-four hours — who was involved in this imbroglio and who seized the moment to amplify this extremely bizarre character assassination campaign against me.

If you’re wondering what I could have done to elicit such an attack on me, here is the “offensive” jokey BlueSky post, with the other party’s name removed:

The post from the original user read as follows:

Social media etiquette reminder: there are precisely zero circumstances under which “jokingly” doing the exact infuriating behavior someone is complaining about is not just as infuriating as the actual underlying behavior.

The point I was trying to make (which I apparently failed at) — and I want to be clear that I did not know who this user was or her disabled status at the time I replied; I am not in the habit of mocking disabled people and her post simply popped into my algorithm — was that satire and parody are rooted in a form of mimicking language and behavior. I did not intend to disparage or belittle the individual. It is clear from the preposterous imagery of having an assistant “gather[ing] tomatoes, pitchforks, and an angry mob” that all this was jocular in tone. But this individual had every intention of smearing me. She has claimed that she has merely quoted my words, but she did a lot more than that, calling me “fuckhead,” making a series of unfounded allegations, and using the dog whistle language of “respecting boundaries” while urging people to block me. Fine, I thought. It’s a free country. I thought nothing of her blocking me, leaving the matter alone. Until a number of people started bombarding me with hateful replies and calls for my death on every social media platform. It didn’t take me very long to find the source.

She carried on with her fusillade all day, even after I had issued a public apology on my Mastodon account for any misunderstanding and even after I had deleted my BlueSky account sometime around 4:00 PM. I am still legitimately unclear what I did to this individual to warrant such a strong vituperative reaction and I reiterate my contrition.

This individual’s crazed fixation on me was bolstered and amplified by Techdirt‘s Mike Masnick and Ken White (the man behind Popehat). And their considerable online sway (Masnick has 50K followers on Twitter and Popehat had 317k followers before they both left that Musk-steered apocalyptic social media ranch) helped to legitimize the character assassination campaign against me. Masnick and White, however, kept their criticisms to legally permissible ones (although White, whom I have never met or interacted with before Monday and who is not a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist, speculated on my mental health).

But the tech figure who stepped over the line (and went well beyond the individual who created this firestorm) and entered into the realm of incessant harassment and death wishes upon me was none other than Fastly’s Anil Dash, who took the opportunity to impute — sans receipts, names, or evidence — that I had “maligned good friends of [his] including one just a few days after he passed.” Dash is perfectly at liberty to call me a “complete scumbag,” but I draw the line at unfounded defamation. (When asked specifically by email about the identities of these “good friends,” Mr. Dash did not produce any names or links to what I had written. I wrote, “Not that I expect you to perceive me as a human being, but, for the record, I’m always happy to clear matters up.” And sure enough he didn’t do either of these two things. I can only conclude that Dash was lying through his teeth about the “good friends” of his that I had “maligned,” given how he lied later about other details in our exchange. I have had no desire to be part of the tech world for more than twenty years and I have stayed away from it. So I cannot imagine what “good friends” he is talking about.)

Now the Fastly Code of Conduct specifies that the company that Dash works for “does not tolerate harassment” and notes that “we operate honestly, ethically, and transparently.” And the BlueSky Community Guidelines likewise states to treat others with respect and specifically prohibits “encouraging self-harm and suicide.”

Dash would proceed to violate both of these codes.

In a post alluding to my suicide attempt in 2014, Mr. Dash also proceeded to wish me dead.

He would be more explicit about this in an email I received from Mr. Dash on January 30, 2024 at 10:21 PM:

I had emailed Mr. Dash on Monday night at 8:20 PM EST, politely requesting that he stop and writing in part:

Anil, I blocked you on all social media. I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I think I’ve made one snarky comment tops in relation to you in twenty years.

And indeed, in examining my records, there was one email exchange between Mr. Dash and me on November 18, 2008, which I admittedly replied to in an uncharitable manner at the time. In a 10:20 email to Mr. Dash on Tuesday morning, I wrote, “You reached out to me decades ago by email (November 18, 2008, to be precise) and I responded in a churlish and uncharitable way that I wouldn’t do now. (Since that is the only tangible evidence of what a “bad boy” I’ve been to you, I hereby apologize for a dispatch from sixteen years ago, when you and I were totally different people.) Aside from one Mastodon post lightly ribbing you, I haven’t said anything about you until you started smearing me.”

Dash’s initial response to my Monday night email was:

In other words, Dash categorized all of his BlueSky posts about me as “satire posts” [sic]. When, in fact, the post he had made about me on January 29, 2024 at 5:41 PM — again, without receipts and without names — led a number of people to believe in his unsupported and unfounded claims. And when people believe in a false claim, this cannot be categorized as satire. It skirts into the more baleful terrain of libel and defamation. It is also deeply inappropriate to call for violence or self-harm against someone, which Dash has now done twice against me — even demanding that I “quote” him.

In my reply to Dash’s Tuesday morning email, I pointed this out:

So, just to be clear, if I wrote a “satirical” story (not that I would) in which deranged maniacs chopped up your son Malcolm into tiny little bits shortly after raping your wife Alaina, you’d be fine with this, eh, Anil?

and I further went onto say

There’s a difference between the ridiculous suggestion of me having an assistant who will rustle up tomatoes, pitchforks, and an angry mob (who would believe that?) and you making an unfounded claim where you invoke friends. The first image is predicated in ridiculous imagery and obvious satire. The second (yours) is not satire at all. The reactions from your post were BELIEVED. You caused people to believe in your false statements. Your false statements were understood by your audience to be referring to me and to be true. That’s what’s going to count in a court of law. That’s libel and defamation, sir. Please familiarize yourself.

In a post on January 29, 2024, at 9:12 PM, Dash claimed that he would never make light of my suicide attempt or express a desire for me to kill myself. But as I have abundantly demonstrated, this is exactly what he did. Presumably, this post was a postmodern riff on the so-called “”satire defense” often employed by trolls. The fact that Dash thinks so lightly and dismissively of the impact of his own public expressed wishes for me to kill myself further reveals his intentional malice and his eagerness to inflict emotional distress on me.

The correspondence between Dash and me was conveniently and dishonestly twisted into a series of lies in which Dash falsely insinuated that I desired to “[chop] up [his] child and sexually [assault] his wife” when I had specifically stated that I was opposed to such violence and any depiction of this on the Internet:

In short, Anil Dash deliberately and dishonestly distorted the dispute between us. He continued to wish me self-harm and suicide. And there will be no repercussions for his abusive and harassing behavior because he is tightly connected within the tech world.

To reiterate, BlueSky did not shut down this harassment, despite my efforts to report these abusive posts on multiple burner accounts. This was “trial by social media” and Mr. Dash refused to provide receipts.

This also demonstrates that BlueSky is little more than a Twitter clone, with all of its attendant abuse. And the abusers on BlueSky aren’t MAGA trolls, but people like Anil Dash, who have influence in creating narratives and false impressions. But they traffic in the same casual hate, libel, and discrediting of individuals that is found on what is now known as X. The only difference is that the cyberbullies are the ones who falsely boast about how “humane” and “ethical” they are when they are anything but this.

1/31/24 UPDATE: In 2013, Dash posted an article on Medium, in which he outlined the principles behind online harassment that he practiced this week to a tee: “Once a web community has decided to dislike a person, topic, or idea, the conversation will shift from criticizing the idea to become a competition about who can be most scathing in their condemnation.” Dash willfully escalated the situation in this manner and then proceed to send along repeated messages to me, hoping that I would commit self-harm. As someone who lives with the disability of depression, this, incidentally, is precisely the kind of nasty disability harassment that Dash purports to stand against. And there’s more hypocrisy from Dash in this December 28, 2021 tweet. Keep in mind that I received death wishes and harassment from Dash in a deeply invasive way. Dash is not a poster boy for a “decent” person.

Here is more folderol from Dash in 2019: “If we’re going to build a new web, and a new internet, that respects our privacy and security, that doesn’t amplify abuse and harassment and misinformation, we’re going to need to imagine models of experiences and communities that could provide a better alternative.” As I have abundantly demonstrated, Dash amplified abuse, harassment, and misinformation against me. He still has not produced the “receipts” that he allegedly has against me.

In this Time article from 2016, Dash is quoted in a manner, showing that he is fully aware of the impact of abuse and harassment on depressives, which he deliberately amplified against me: ““I’m just some dude on the Internet, and somebody will tell me probably once or twice a day to kill myself. I think if I look back to my late teens, early twenties when I was struggling with depression—if I had endured somebody telling me once or twice a day to kill myself, as happens now—it would have worked.”

2/2/24 UPDATE: This article has been slightly altered to include one additional example of Mr. Dash’s campaign to harass me and inflict emotional distress on me.

The Abecedarian Diaries of Edward Champion

[PREFACE TO THE DIARIES: Sometime in 2021, I ran into Eric Chinski, who was then the editor-in-chief of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I bought Chinski a drink. Chinski then snarled at me and screamed, “Why is this motherfucking mixologist serving bottom-shelf liquor?” I gave Chinski a hug. Because I knew he had fastidious standards: in drinks and in books. Then he condemned my hug as being “not sufficiently supportive.” I flashed a look at the jazz drummer, who was between sets on the small dais, and he shrugged — this after I had tipped him ten bucks while the affluent people around me didn’t even acknowledge him at all. Chinski then mentioned something about Charles Sumner being caned by Preston Brooks and how this was a better way of resolving disputes than the system that we had now. (These are the sorts of subjects that obnoxious literary people tend to bandy about.) And somehow the two of us were kicked out of the bar. Chinski had made the mistake of leaving his coat inside the bar. And the bouncer refused to let either of us in to reclaim said coat. As I observed Chinski’s face turn blue from pneumonia, I gave him my coat. Chinski stopped shivering, but seemed oblivious to my own lack of protection against the elements. (I would spend the next week in bed, holed up with the flu, with only a Costco package of Chunky Soup and a cat I had kidnapped from one of my neighbors for company.) Chinski asked me to call him a Lyft and I did. As we waited for the driver, I told Chinski that I had access to one of my diaries, but that this was a special diary — one that extended into 2029. Chinski was intrigued by the idea and suggested that I put all of the diary entries in order. “We could publish it as a book! The Abecedarian Diaries of Edward Champion! It could be your comeback!” “Who on earth would be interested in anything I had to say?” I asked. “Oh, they wouldn’t,” said Chinski. “But they would be very interested in knowing what awaited them in the future!” Then, as the Lyft sailed up to the curb, Chinski tossed me my coat, offered me a fourteen ingredient recipe for restorative cocoa, and said that the people at FSG would be in touch with me. Well, as you can see from the entries, things went a little sideways. And it was Sheila Heti who used her mercenary business skills and literary connections to claim my idea as her own. And would you believe it? She changed “Abecedarian” to “Alphabetical.” The nerve! These days, I try not to get involved in literary disputes, but I do feel compelled to share you some of the diary entries that I passed on to Chinski. I shall let the reader infer the veracity of my book project. But I still maintain that I was first!]

The Abecedarian Diaries (2019-2029)

Ambulance sirens nonstop. Three people I know are now dead of this COVID thing. How much Minesweeper and Wolfenstein can I play to distract myself from crying? (April 4, 2020)

* * *

Another message from Sheila Heti in the office. Why does she keep calling me? More importantly, how does the receptionist maintain a supply of those pink WHILE YOU WERE OUT slips? I didn’t even know they were manufactured anymore, much less sold in stores. I’m not sure why Heti keeps calling and I have no idea what she wants or how she tracked down where I work. But I am worried. This deal with FSG barely came together and now Chinski is telling me on the q.t. that they can’t publish me because I’ve been canceled multiple times. But you know the literary world. Everything is constructed on a delicate framework. I’m tempted to call Heti back, but the last time I ran into her (at a mellow board games cafe in The Annex, where she was the only one not playing games and complained about agents and publishers asking her to write fiction to her male companion), she was insufferable, as she always is. (July 9, 2022)

* * *

Biden really fumbled the debate tonight. He’s looking older and frailer. And most people I’ve talked with don’t have any confidence in him. But he’s the only candidate we have. Senescence or fascism. These are the choices. Still I can’t help but wonder why these Republican front-runners keep committing suicide. Yeah, I know they keep unsealing these court documents, but surely it’s not that bad, is it? This is the third guy who Biden has had to debate after the first two killed themselves. And I guess we’ll find out what’s in these documents once the historians roll up their sleeves and publish their books in the next ten years! (October 22, 2024)

* * *

Big news from my agent! Chinski is all in with the alphabetical diaries book! He says that people will at long last understand me! FSG can’t pay me much, but it is a solid boost to one’s confidence to have some publisher interested. Granted, I don’t think that anything I have to say in my diaries is especially important. And I think rearranging my diary entries into alphabetical order isn’t going to reveal anything especially interesting about me. (November 4, 2021)

* * *

Can you believe it? They finally got Gaetz. Again! Took ’em long enough. Now if only the people of Florida would stop electing convicted felons to office. (March 4, 2028)

* * *

Carl Wilson was kind enough to return my call this morning. He says my best bet as a writer is to write a nice little book for 33+1⁄3 on Taylor Swift. If I have the Swifties in my corner, maybe I have a shot at salvaging the FSG deal. Although it looks like Johnson is sticking with Heti and claiming that Chinski was drunk and out of his fucking mind when he first agreed to publish The Alphabetical Diaries of Edward Champion as a book. (April 14, 2023)

* * *

Didn’t hear back from Chinski. That’s two weeks. I’m getting a little worried. My agent is also making calls. I haven’t called back Heti, although a contact I have who is close to Margaux Williamson suggest she’s behind this. As is that litblogger who she used to hook up with. I’m lying low for now and hoping for the best. JL and SR tell me that this is the kind of nonsense one should expect before publication. But this very much feels like an American Dirt-style inside job. And the hell of it is that this was just me rearranging a few of my diary entries in alphabetical order. (November 9, 2022)

* * *

Heti’s voicemails are growing increasingly deranged. Constant shouts. And is she playing mariachi music very loud in the back? Anyways, she’s claiming that she would ensure that I would never get published again if I didn’t abdicate the Alphabetical Diaries rights back to her. (Uh, like I was getting published before?) My agent said that Heti has us over a barrel. He also told me that he could no longer represent me as a client. So it looks like my book proposal is about to be plundered by that 46-year-old literary tyrant in Toronto. And it looks like the pub date is February 2024. Just as I thought I was getting a fucking break. Oh well. I still have my audio drama to record. (January 15, 2023)

* * *

I dropped down on my knee and she said yes! After four decades of being single, I’m finally going to get hitched! Never thought I was the marrying type, but she’s the right one and I can’t believe my luck! (July 3, 2025)

* * *

I’m now down twenty pounds ever since I stopped smoking. No desire for a cigarette anymore, but the endorphin rush of exercise has become all-consuming. What kind of man am I turning into? My younger self wouldn’t recognize this man. (March 24, 2025)

* * *

Met a fellow on the subway who had no teeth. I asked him to recite the Gettysburg Address and he took a swing at me. I can’t say I blame him. I’ve sometimes been tempted to growl at anyone who asks me to perform the “And I will go on hurting you” speech from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but it’s so much better to just get it over with. Do the goddamned monologue and remain congenial. Know what I mean? If they want my Khan Noonien Singh rather than my King Lear, it’s not my fault that they can’t appreciate my storm speech! (February 4, 2023)

* * *

Sony said yes! I can’t believe it. They are releasing my debut album, Dirges, Ballads, Ditties Goddammit from a Bald Man!, in the fall of 2026! And I’m getting a ten city tour! I asked my agent — the new one who actually knows how to tie a double Windsor knot — if he was sure that I could pack mid-sized venues like this. I’m a middle-aged man, for fuck’s sake. And he said that the publicity machine believes me to the second coming of Kris Kristofferson with this new material. He also told me that I’ll need to grow a beard and be “more sensitive” in interviews — whatever the hell that means! Man, if I knew it would have gone down like this, I never would have attempted to be part of the literary racket! (August 18, 2025)

* * *

The former literary biographer so bereft of purpose that he shoots up the Mall of America, killing 45 people before turning the gun on himself. A tragic day. I remember a happy day years ago in which [REDACTED] took me to the Mall and I ended up buying a goofy Zygons shirt. Making calls to peeps in the Twin Cities this morning to make sure they’re okay. (May 19, 2026)

* * *

Went home last night with a cute woman who locked eyes with me last night at the Cobra Club. Woke up this morning and learned that she had herpes. After cooking her breakfast and being forced to give her $200 (she apparently took compromising photos of me as I slept), I called Planned Parenthood to schedule an appointment to test and remove any potential genital warts. But apparently there’s a lot of this thing going around and the first available appointment is three months from now. (November 21, 2019)

James Joyce (Modern Library Nonfiction #73)

(This is the twenty-seventh entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Florence Nightingale.)

“Mr. Joyce, first of all, is a little bourgeois Irishman of provincial tastes who has spent a lifetime on the continent of Europe in a completely fruitless attempt to overcome the Jesuit bigotry, prejudice, and narrowness of his childhood training. Mr. Joyce began his literary career as a fifth-rate poet, from there proceeded to become a seventh-rate short-story writer, graduated from his mastery in this field into a ninth-rate dramatist, from this developed into a thirteenth-rate practitioner of literary Mumbo-Jumboism which is now held in high esteem by the Cultured Few and I believe is now engaged in the concoction of a piece of twenty-seventh-rate incoherency, as if the possibilities in this field had not already been exhausted by the master’s preceding opus.” — Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock

James Joyce was probably the greatest writer of the 20th century, although opinions vary. (Many of today’s young whipper-snappers sound astonishingly similar to a dead-inside academic like Thomas Wolfe’s Mr. Malone when dispensing their rectal-tight rectitude and uncomprehending pooh-poohs on social media.) But as a wildly ambitious literary athlete nearing fifty (353 books read so far this year, with a little more than a week left), I cannot think of any other writer whom I have returned to with such regularity and gusto. Even the dreaded “Oxen of the Sun” chapter in Ulysses, which caused at least six hundred grad students to faint from fatigue in the last year (and a good dozen young scholars to permanently lose their minds), demands that you peruse it anew to appreciate its multitudinous parodies.

Only a handful of living writers can summon a similar obsession in me through the power of their words. But even when these hypergraphic bards descend from the Mount with their thick portentous volumes, they are hopelessly outmatched by the Dublin bard’s mighty polyglot yardstick. (Certainly Anthony Burgess spent his prolific literary career forever lost in Joyce’s formidable fug and forever resented the fact that his best known work, A Clockwork Orange, with its captivating NADSAT, caught on, perhaps because it represented some attempt to mimic Joyce’s word-soaked playfulness.)

When I visited the Martello Tower at Sandycove Point not long before the pandemic, it was the closest thing that an atheist like me has ever had to a religious experience. It had never occurred to me — a relentlessly abused white trash kid who fought off bullies (and still has to do so in his forties) when not filling his voracious noggin with too many books, a reader from the age of two, an accidental provocateur who still manages to piss off PhDs and varying mediocre literary types whenever I quote long passages from memory culled from books they claim to have read but have somehow forgotten — that I would ever have the divine privilege of standing at the very location where “Telemachus” begins. My first walk alongside the Mississippi River last summer in deference to another literary hero of mine was close, but Joyce was the clear winner when it came to summoning such heartfelt psychogeographical wonder. As I sauntered along the swerve of shore to bend of Scotsman’s Bay back to the Dublin train, I trembled with tears of joy, feeling great shudders push me into a state of awe that I did not know was writhing within me. I simply could not believe it. I had already been impressed by the social code of the great Irish people, who would always give you at least five minutes of banter and who were never shy in expressing their opinions and who immediately unlocked the key to further appreciating “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” through their innate conversational finesse. But was I actually standing in the same room in which Samuel Trench (the basis for Haines) had shot at an imaginary panther that had plagued him in his sleep? And was that truly Joyce’s guitar? The good people who run this landmark were incredibly kind to this wildly voluble and incredibly excited Brooklynite. I flooded their robust Irish souls with endless questions and an irrepressible giddiness. A kind woman, who did her best to suppress laughter over my ostentatious literary exuberance, remarked that they had not seen such a visitor display such bountiful passion in months.

But I am and always will be a Joyce stan. I own five Joyce T-shirts, including an artsy one in which the opening words of Finnegans Wake are arranged in a pattern matching one of Joyce’s most iconic photographs. Before I deleted all of my TikTok accounts, my handles were various riffs on Joyce’s most difficult volume. There has rarely been a week in which I have not thought about Ulysses or “The Dead” or, on a whim or in need of a dependable method to restore my soul, picked up my well-thumbed copy of Finnegans Wake and recited pages and laughed my head off. When I went through the roughest patches of my life nine years ago, it was James Joyce who helped save me. I reread Ulysses while living in a homeless shelter. And had I not had that vital volume on me to renew my fortitude and passion, it is quite likely that I would be dead in a ditch somewhere and that the words I am presently writing would not exist.

So I’m obviously already in the tank for Joyce and deeply grateful to him. He has proven more reliable and loyal to me than my toxic sociopathic family. These moments I have chronicled would be enough. But Richard Ellmann hath made my cup runneth over. He somehow achieved the unthinkable, writing what is probably the best literary biography of all time. Other biographers have combed through archives and badgered aging sources, hoping to stitch their tawdry bits with dubious “scholarship.” Small wonder that Joyce himself referred to these highfalutin ransackers, who have more in common with TMZ reporters than academics, as “biografiends.”

But one cannot lay such a mildewed wreath at Ellmann’s feet. There are very few details in Ellmann’s book that do not relate directly to the work. We learn just how invaluable Stanislaus Joyce was to his brother. Stanislaus — an adept peacemaker who documented his fractious fraternal relationship in his own book, My Brother’s Keeper — is liberally excerpted. If Stanislaus hadn’t pushed back hard on the alleged “Russian” feel of Joyce’s great short story “Counterparts,” would we have had “The Dead”? (“The Dead” was written three years after the other fourteen tales contained in Dubliners.) To cite just one of many Ellmann’s cogent connections between Joyce’s life and work, we learn that Edy Boardman — Gertie McDowell’s friend in the “Nausicaa” chapter of Ulysses — represented faithful recreations of neighbors that the Joyce family knew on North Richmond Street and that “the boy that had the bicycle always riding up and down in front of her window” was, in fact, a callout to one Eddie Boardman, who had the first pneumatic-tired bike in the hood. Joyce’s crazed jealousy towards any man whom he suspected had designs on Nora Barnacle — with his insecure interrogations of Nora by letter and in person — are duly chronicled. The boy that Nora had dated before Joyce came along was Sonny Bodkin (who died tragically young of tuberculosis) and she was initially attracted to Joyce because of their close physical resemblance. And while Joyce was forward-thinking when it came to presenting Jewish life in Dublin (and arguably creating one of the most fully realized Jewish heroes in literature with Leopold Bloom), his regressive masculinity could not stand the notion that his great love’s heart had stirred long before he came along. And yet, even with his nasty and unfair and unreasonable accusations, he was able to find a way to broach this in fiction with Gretta Conroy recalling her dead lover Michael Furrey in “The Dead.” It is often the darkest personal moments that fuel the best of fiction.

And let’s talk about that ugly side of Joyce. The great Dublin exile was also an unapologetic leech, a shrewd manipulator, and a master of dodging creditors. He fantasized about pimping his wife Nora out to other men while also being naive enough to believe Vincent Cosgrave’s claim that Cosgrave was sleeping with Nora before him in the fateful summer of 1904, nearly sabotaging his relationship with a series of angsty transcontinental missives. For better or worse, Joyce refused to see the full extent of his poor daughter Lucia’s troubles. He treated many who helped him very poorly. And, of course, he despised explaining his work. He wanted to keep the scholars busy for centuries. And he succeeded. Here we are still discussing him, still mesmerized by him. Even when his life and work are often infuriating.

If there is any weakness to Ellmann’s formidable scholarship, it is with the women who were vital to Joyce’s life. Ellmann was so focused on finding precise parallels between Joyce’s life and work — but usually only including Jim and his brother Stanislaus at the center — that he often portrays these invaluable lieutenants in superficial terms — that is, if he even mentions them at all. Let us not forget that Joyce was a man terrified of dogs, violence, and thunderstorms. The women in his life empathized with the effete qualities of this indisputable genius and provided financial and scholarly resources for Joyce to continue his work, even when they found Finnegans Wake baffling and not to their taste. Perhaps most criminally, there is no mention in Ellmann’s book of Myrsine Moschos (who was Lucia Joyce’s lover at one point), the dutiful woman who toiled at the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Company and spent long days in the dank chambers of Parisian libraries, sifting through decaying volumes that often crumbled to dust in search of obscure words and other arcane lexical associations that Joyce included in Finnegans Wake. Moschos often returned from these scholarly journeys so exhausted that Sylvia Beach — arguably the greatest bookseller in all of human history and the woman who took significant risks to get Ulysses published — had stern words for Joyce about Moschos’s health.

In 2011, Gordon Bowker published a biography — something of a quixotic project, given the long imposing shadow cast by Ellmann — that was more inclusive of Nora Barnacle, Sylvia Beach, and Harriet Shaw Weaver. But I do recommend Brenda Maddox’s Nora, Carol Loeb Schloss’s Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (with significant reservations), and Noel Riley Fitch’s Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation as volumes that fill in these significant gaps that Ellmann, in his efforts to portray Joyce as his own master, often failed to address. (Even Jo Davidson, the sculptor who was instrumental in making the New York theatrical run of Joyce’s play Exiles happen, is merely afforded a footnote by Ellmann.)

Can one literary biography be the all-encompassing volume that captures a life? Even one that was as complicated as Joyce’s? Perhaps not. But Ellmann has certainly come closest. Now that Joyce’s famously hostile grandson Stephen has passed away and the copyright for much of Joyce’s work has at long last been released into the public domain, it’s possible that another biographer will be better situated to come closer to revealing the Joyce mystique without being strangled by the bitter hands of some unremarkable apple twice removed from the great tree. But I doubt that any future scholar will match Ellmann. For all of his modest limitations, he was the right man at the right time to capture a seminal literary life in perspicacious and tremendously helpful form.

(Next Up: Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels!)

Henry Kissinger, One of the Most Evil Men in America and Noted War Criminal, Finally Drops Dead

Henry Kissinger, one of the most villainous men that American history has ever known, finally expired like toxic malodorous milk that nobody had the decency to remove from the fridge for decades. He dropped dead at the criminally ceremonious age of one hundred, although it seemed for many years that the bastard would, much like Jason Vorhees, never stop popping up with that hateful homicidal glint in his eye, which included an appearance at last October’s National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, where he scared the bejesus out of anyone still stunned that he had not been arrested and tried before the International Criminal Court. (When the ICC was proposed, Kissinger naturally opposed it.) Kissinger’s remorseless reptilian claws cleaved to the eroding American fabric and would not let go. And he continued to be aided and abetted by the American political elite long after most regular people understood Kissinger to be a war criminal, one of the most treacherous mass-murderers of the twentieth century.

Kissinger remained a permanent stain in Beltway life that anyone high up in the food chain of power had to tolerate, much in the manner that an Upper East Side socialite skips past a poodle’s droppings on the sidewalk and denies that the shit is there. It says a great deal about Kissinger’s moral bankruptcy that, much like Putin in Russia, the man deliberately angled to be one of the most disgraceful blots in the history books. Christopher Hitchens’s best book was a principled excoriation of Kissinger. Eric Idle wrote one of his most brutally satirical songs about Kissinger. British wits seemed to understand Kissinger’s viciousness and his far-reaching capacity for destruction better than Americans did.

Henry Kissinger was a corpulent cobra who slithered around the timid and unprincipled necks of the ruling class and had the temerity to claim that his venomous fangs were primed to strike in the name of peace.

He continued to pal around with rising neoliberal stars like some Methuselahean killjoy laughing in the face of some septuagenarian slowly dying of lung cancer. And the hell of it was that they all went for it. His seductive powers were so puissant that even Hillary Clinton genuflected to this genocidal maniac long after her political career was finished. When Bernie Sanders had the decency to call out Clinton for her Kissinger complicity during the 2016 primary debates, she offered one of her trademark cackles, as if Kissinger had simply left a ham in the oven too long rather than live out his autumn years with help from Hillary after a long career as a barbarous foreign policy architect, his life’s work killing millions. Kissinger’s avuncular presence somehow made any political opportunist feel good about America’s egregious assaults on humankind around the world, which is why so many reprehensible world leaders are now fawning over this baleful fuckhead and giving the Kleenex people one of its best sales days since people first started dying of COVID.

Even as I write these words, hateful paleoconservative Zionists all around the planet are shedding Adirondack-sized buckets of tears, telling their easily duped loved ones what a “great man” Kissinger was. This is because Kissinger always made them feel very cheerful about viewing the people of Palestine as little more than filthy animals shivering in the mud, sinister beasts to be laughed at, ideally shot in the head at the first opportunity. As far as Kissinger was concerned, the only good child on the Gaza Strip was a dead one. And it says a lot about his influence that so many ostensible “liberals” seem to agree with this right now. Kissinger’s repugnantly casual and flippant attitude about human life, mimicked by so many monsters hiding in plain sight, is why Stuart Seldowitz was able to get away from harassing Halal food vendors with hate speech for so long before he was finally arrested. And if Seldowitz hadn’t taken his abominable cues from Kissinger, they would have stopped this bastard much earlier. That Kissinger was allowed to spout such abhorrent froth for decades says a great deal about the work we need to do to prevent anyone of his evil ilk from rising to such a prestigious position again.

At vital summits, Henry Kissinger would offer recurring reports of gleeful flatulence and, when he was feeling particularly limber, he would show off his Charles Blondin tightrope moves well into his seventies over any pond of piss that vaguely resembled the Niagara. And for all this, he would be applauded. He lived as long as he did to remind everyone that, like some middling Delta bluesman striking a deal with Lucifer, he had somehow outlived even the halest and most robust proponents of the great American experiment.

Years ago, the Army had sent Kissinger to Pennsylvania to study engineering, but the Army didn’t seem to grasp that Kissinger possessed limitless reserves of sociopathic energy. Kissinger applied this newly gained knowledge to the disruption of representative democracy from the inside. And because most of the people in power did not read and because they were not deeply acquainted with Western philosophy, Kissinger would coo sweet words about Spengler and Kant into their country bumpkin ears, seducing them in the manner of an unrepentant fuckboi breaking a poor girl’s heart before moving onto the next conquest. For Kissinger had astutely observed how American film audiences had swooned for Monty Clift in The Heiress, despite the fact that Clift had played a vulpine and despicable fortune hunter who stole Olivia de Havilland’s doe-eyed innocence. Kissinger was prepared to do the same to America. And if it meant that millions in Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor, Latin America, and southern Africa had to die, so be it. Kissinger’s biographer Greg Grandin has estimated that this vile and opportunistic patrician, this filthy and privileged reprobate, this unscrupulous and unrepentant specialist in mass killing, is responsible for at least three million deaths.

Kissinger was such an adept and bloodthirsty con man that he even won over the Norwegians and they ended up giving this venal and murderous motherfucker the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, along with Le Duc Tho. Kissinger had openly lied to everyone about a ceasefire in Vietnam. But here’s the thing about the Oslo plutocrats: if you’re a bigwig who speaks in a thick German accent, these starstruck power brokers usually tune out after about a minute, preferring to remain mesmerized by your smug and superficial doublespeak simply because you occasionally quote a passage from Critique of Pure Reason. Kissinger knew this and reveled over how swiftly he had fooled Norway. Shortly after the Nobel win, Kissinger crammed large shovelfuls of expensive food into his hideous mouth and realized that he could get away with anything. Then he got down on his knee and popped the question to Nancy, that not very bright piece of ass who had done so much research for him and who was as equally gullible as the Nobel people. And she said yes, riding the Kissinger gravy train for the rest of her years and learning how to bamboozle and gaslight people in power from the “great man” himself. And because Kissinger had an ego that rivaled a thousand narcissists, there was no upper limit to the amount of false and engineered praise he could take in, no end to the sham legacy that he could orchestrate.

But Tho had something that Kissinger did not: honor and moral compunction. Tho refused the award and was condemned by the world for pointing out how America how betrayed the ceasefire pact. And Kissinger smiled as he always did, knowing deep down that even one minute of his hubris-fueled presence could persuade any developing nation to drop a stray bomb on some poor bastard who wasn’t even remotely involved with politics and who was just trying to enjoy his morning cup of tea.

So if you know anyone who is shedding a tear for Kissinger right now, cut them out of your life. Disinvite these murder-happy turncoats from your parties and be sure to get them 86ed from your neighborhood bar. For anyone who thinks that Henry Kissinger was just peachy keen, anyone who believes that he was an elder statesman worth your tears, is not only an enemy of America, but all that is noble and decent about humankind. If you don’t understand right now why Henry Kissinger is a name that will be uttered by future historians in the same sentences as Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Netanyahu, and Yakuba Gowon, then you’ll never comprehend the truly unsettling aura of charismatic villains in power who somehow persuade you to feel empowered as you murder vast swaths of humankind. Henry Kissinger was a 250 pound sack of shit who permanently vitiated America. His vile legacy deserves neither vainglory that will puff up the Kissinger brand nor even a soupcon of veneration.