Monday, July 25, 2011

You have a good day, too, Uncle Duke!

(This piece was written in November, 1969, and was submitted to the University of Colorado Writers Workshop the following spring, earning me a fellowship and praise from Harlan Ellison, who called it "a Marx Brothers landscape." It was then revised slightly in the fall of 1971 and submitted to The Rolling Stone, where it was memorably rejected by someone I greatly suspect to have been Dr. Hunter Thompson. That abusive, obscene rejection letter, which is framed over my desk, is being reprinted at "Letters of Note," and I thought it would be interesting to let readers there see what brought it about. And I think readers here will find that blog worth visiting, too. Even when Uncle Duke isn't [apparently] writing the material.) 
(The curtain opens on a cross sectional view of a giant human head. The outer rim is bright blue with a red stripe representing the skull. The brain proper is divided into little rooms like the layout of a ship or a science fiction rocket. In the rooms, little tiny men can be seen running to and fro, up and down by means of hatchways and elevators. Some are sitting at desks, typing and answering phones. In one room, there is a scene of a family of four watching television and eating Fritos and drinking Coca Cola. In another room, a woman in leather is flagellating a writhing masochist in ecstasies of pain. In another room, three men in Day-Glo clown costumes are determining the fate of the world. In another room, two people are smoking a water-pipe and listening to Abbey Road. In another room, two people are making love and listening to old Beach Boys albums and laughing an awful lot. In another room, a teacher is explaining the Crito to a roomful of freshmen in glen plaid slacks and penny loafers and Beach Blanket London Fog jackets who are picking their noses and whispering. In another room, another teacher is picking his nose to a roomful of freshmen who are taking notes. In another room, someone is dying and the priest is preparing Last Rites and trying not to laugh at the family who are in the other room steaming open the will. In another room, Annette Funicello is surfing with Frankie Avalon on an ironing board, clad only in a floor length one piece bathing suit with turtle neck and long sleeves. Frankie Avalon is being titillated. In another room, a young couple is falling in love over a bottle of Lancers and an order of garlic bread. In another room, someone is crying while his friends try not to laugh thinking about their own hang-ups. In another room, two turtledoves are discussing cinema verite. In another room, Eric Clapton is trying to fix his amplifier in time to play before he stops rushing, and cursing an awful lot. In another room, an old maid is sweeping up around a large mahogany desk, and helping herself to a box of cigars. In another, room is being made for another room.)


Matterhorn (The camera pans over a landscape of snowcapped mountains and pines. It centers on one particularly large mountain, which looks to be the Matterhorn. As we are zoomed into a close up, we begin to see a small log cabin about five hundred yards from the summit. Smoke is pouring from the chimney. We are by now looking through the window, where a cheery fire is burning in the fireplace, and being reflected off the pine paneling of the walls. The cabin appears to be empty, but as we look in front of the hearth, we see a couple sitting naked on a bearskin rug gazing into the flames and passing a joint. They are not touching, nor do they look at each other. A small gray and white cat passes before them and pauses for a second in front of the fire. Then it leaps into the fire, where it turns into a panther, and then bursts into a blue flame and is sucked up the chimney into the air above the cabin. The boy turns to the girl and speaks.)
BOY: (handing the joint to the girl) Oh wow. Did you see what the cat just did?
GIRL: Is that what that was, a cat?
BOY: Yeah. What did you think it was?
GIRL: I don't know, man, but I didn't know it was a cat. If I had …
BOY: If you had what?
GIRL: If I had known … that that was a cat.
BOY: Well, what if you had known that it was a cat?
GIRL: Yeah, what if?
BOY: Say, what are you doing tomorrow?
GIRL: I have to go home. I forgot my deodorant.
BOY: You can use mine.
GIRL: Thanks, but I'd rather have my own. I feel more secure.
BOY: What’s wrong with my deodorant?
GIRL: Nothing. I just like having my own deodorant. Makes me feel, you know, more independent. Liberated.
BOY: Well, I don't know why you use my toothbrush and my mouthwash and even my razor but you can't use my deodorant.
GIRL: Did you see that cat a minute ago?
BOY: Is that what that was, a cat?
GIRL: What did you think it was?
BOY: A cat. I knew it was a cat. It was my cat. Its name was Delilah and it slept next to the stove and ate chicken and hamburger. It was two years old and killed mice and small birds and laid them at my feet. It had four kittens a year ago. It shedded like crazy for a while until I fed it a small lizard.
GIRL: Did it stop shedding?
BOY: Oh yeah, immediately. But there were some side-effects.
GIRL: Such as?
BOY: I think that was one of them. Do we have any more lizards in the medicine cabinet?

                                                              i wish that i could
                                                                        talk to e.e. cummings.
                                                                                         I would say
           e.e., do you                        realize
                             the effect
                                        the influence
                                                    of your p
                                                   eht no  y                                           yrteop 
                                 eht no
                     fo selyts
      p etaigelloc
                             he would
                      probably nod and

Burros (Still here? Did you remember your gloves? Good. The scene opens on the floor of the Grand Canyon. Two burros are attacking a tourist. The Park Ranger is attempting to MACE the burros, who are protected by their long  Prairie_dog_2 winter coats and their abnormally long eyelashes. The wind shifts and the  MACE drifts off into a village of prairie dogs who immediately succumb and fall backwards and head-first into their burrows, where they become wedged in awkward positions.)

Orange drink1
(Orange drink is available in the lobby at the phenomenal price of $15 a carton. The cartons, however, prove to be only half-full! The straws are very narrow and collapse easily. You forget your matches and have to ask a stranger for a light. Your date is mortified at your flirting and general incompetence. You inadvertently burn a hole in the carpet with a stray ash, and several people notice the smoke before you do. There is a general panic which your date resolves by pouring $7.50 worth of orange drink on the spot. The stench is horrendous. Your date fixes you up with one of the ushers and goes home. The usher keeps shining his flashlight on the ceiling.)

(We switch back to the cabin, where the young couple is snorting a lizard preparatory to making love.)
BOY: Oh wow. I can hardly wait to finish this.
GIRL: Me neither. It will be such fun.
BOY: I hate my parents. That is why I am going to make love to you.
GIRL: I hate the establishment. That is why I am snorting this lizard.
Lizard BOY: I hate cops and teachers and all civic authorities.
GIRL: I hate motherhood and the flag and apple pie.
BOY: I hate circuses and hot dogs and baseball games.
GIRL: I hate church and the Girl Scouts.
BOY: I hate TV dinners and the Boy Scouts.
GIRL: I like straight people.
BOY: I like … wait a minute. What did you just say?
GIRL: I like straight people.
BOY: You're not supposed to like straight people.
GIRL: I don't like all straight people. But some straight people are pretty nice.
BOY: Yeah, well, some of my best friends are straight people. I got nothing against them. They sure can dance. But I still wouldn't want my sister to marry one.
GIRL: I wouldn't want her to, either.
BOY: I got nothing against straight people. I just wouldn't want my sister to marry one.
GIRL: God, no. I hate marriage.
BOY: I hate pigeons and squirrels and cotton candy.
GIRL: I hate Johnny Carson and my parish priest.
BOY: I hate Glen Campbell and Arthur Godfrey.
GIRL: I hate the boy next door and color TV.
BOY: I hate breakfast and beer.

Chi_Chi (Fourteen pregnant pandas are filing paternity suits against An-an or Chi-chi, as soon as they figure out which is the male. Meanwhile, the Russians are rounding up character witnesses in the event that they discover their bear to be a male. Chi-chi and An-an are trying to remember.)

VW_Bus_T1_in_Hippie_Colors_2 (An aerial shot of the Santa Anita freeway, showing a traffic jam consisting entirely of old buses painted in Day-glo paisley containing freaks off to do their own thing.)

(Two sentries at Elsinore: Thodwick and Benvenuto)
Thodwick: What time is it'?
Benvenuto: The clock has but struck.
Thodwick: T'is a nipping and eager air.
Benvenuto: Sure is. Where the hell is Horatio?
Thodwick: Hold your tongue. I hear something.
GHOST: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark!
Thodwick: Hark ye! He calls the Prince!
GHOST: I am the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come!
Thodwick: You're lost, man. This Is Denmark.
GHOST: I know, I know.
Benvenuto: What happened to the other guy?
GHOST: You mean Hamlet's father?
Benvenuto: Yeah.
GHOST: Bad earache, man, couldn't make it.
Benvenuto: Well, what do you want?
GHOST: Another lizard, please. And make it a long one.

  (Amid the splendor of a sylvan glade, three satyrs are mugging a young nymph. A Centaur enters at right, and they run off, leaving the girl behind. She thanks the centaur and gives him a kiss. They ride off into the sunset, to the utter amazement of all, since it is one o'clock in the afternoon.)

OhCalcutta (The entire cast ad-libs a completely tasteless, meaningless nude scene, grossing out not only the audience, but each other as well. At the end, they select the best actor by use of a meter indicating how many people walked out on his account. Other actors count as two members of the audience. The winner is given a $25,000 bonus and is beheaded.)

NightTrain     Charles got off the train without a word to Eve. As the train pulled out, she watched him walk to his car without looking back.
    "Who was that masked man?” the porter asked.
    "Which masked man?" Eve answered. "There have been so many, I may have forgotten one or two."
    “The one who was running up and down the aisle naked but for a pair of argyle socks, making improper suggestions to several of the young ladies present."
    "I don’t know," whispered Eve, gazing at the rising moon, "but I wanted to thank him.”

249  I clattered over mountain trail                                   249.  The Song
        To help the elk to quell the quail.                                      of Oedicox
        I clashed on moss and tripped on vines,
Eddietrisha         I bit the fork to mesh the tines.
        I stripped the truth and fed the lies
        On bigot blood and apple pies.
255  I helped to stop the wild oat seed
        With a massive dose of LSD
        Which nurtured minds as smooth as silk
        And turned their brains to curdled milk,
        Then skimmed the curds, and sold the whey
        To other souls who thought it fey.

261   Oh woe to thee, oh wicked knight,                             261.   Oedicox
        Who dragged the dragon's corpse to light,                           lays a
        And brought upon the land a blight.                                      heavy 
        A curse upon thee, wicket king,                                             curse on 
265 Who sought the fairies dancing ring,                                      the house
        And smote the griffon on the wing.                                        of Nadir
        Fie upon thee, maiden fair,
        With silver cowbells in your hair;
        A wealth of changelings shalt thou bear
270.  But love go with thee, kith and kin,                          270. Love song
        For thou hath saved my fiscal skin,                                   of
        and caused the GNP to grin,                                            Oedicox
        And all the dreams contained therein,
275. Shall live to praise your deadly sin,
        And they shall kill you, raise a din,
        And mount a motto on a pin;
        “[ Your name here] has Never Been!”

Icefollies A terrible tragedy will befall anyone who watches, performs or reads this act. You will be chosen to emcee a late night talkshow for the next fifteen years. Your sidekick is Lester Maddox. Your first guests will be Shirley Temple Black, David and Julie Eisenhower, and three members of the Ice Follies.

(Footnote: The Doonesbury excerpted above was also posted over my desk for several years as a reminder to quit and go to bed at some point. Here it is, from January 8, 1975.)


A question has arisen about whether the letter is original or a form letter. It has been quoted multiple times on the Internet, and it turns out was cited in “Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson” as something he provided the magazine as a prepackaged rejection letter. 

Here is the passage, from page 138, one of a series of anecdotes from former RS staffers, this from Charles Perry:

After ‘Fear and Loathing,’ people in Colorado were giving him stuff they’d written, thinking he could get them in ‘Rolling Stone.’ I was the poetry editor, and he sent me a package of poems from other people once, with a note that said, ‘I don’t know about this stuff. If you feel the same way, send it back with to them with this.’ He included a prepackaged rejection letter that said,

(full text of letter follows, including the reference to South Bend)

We actually sent it out to a few people, thinking they would appreciate it. One person took it to a lawyer and asked if he could sue us, and the lawyer said, ‘No, you don’t have a leg to stand on … but could I Xerox it?’”

Here's my analysis:
1. My copy predates this. I don't recall the specific date I received the letter, but I do recall reading it while walking from the mailbox to the kitchen door of a house I lived in from May to the end of October, 1971. "Fear and Loathing" was serialized in Rolling Stone the next month, by which time I was living in Mishawaka, (which I mark by knowing that we had Thanksgiving there.) The book version of "Fear and Loathing" was released the following year.

2. My copy is hand-typed, with the impressions and punch-through periods of a typewriter, as well as impressions of an actual "signature." 

3. The copy Thompson sent includes the phrase "drab South Bend cocksuckers," and while I will contest the first and last of those descriptors, I was living in South Bend. It seems improbable that he would hand-type a form letter simply for the pleasure of adding a specific town.

It seems probable that Thompson wrote the letter that hangs on my wall and was so delighted with his handiwork that he made a copy of it, which he then sent to San Francisco, where it became an office legend if not a standard piece of correspondence after all. 

And, for the record, I did appreciate it, once I got to the P.S. and stopped hyperventilating.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Classic Case of Boredom

(Children's author and middle-school ELA teacher Kate Messner has written a brilliant column on summer reading lists that is a must-read, and inspired me to dig up this column, written for the Press-Republican of February 3, 1989 and copyrighted by them.)

Nobody reads the classics anymore, and I'm not surprised. Nobody ever did.

Oh. they talk a good game, but, when it comes down to genuine cultural literacy, most of those back-to-basics types are blowing a lot of smoke and flashing a lot of mirrors.

An article in this paper, discussing the Board of Regents's plans to revamp social studies, decried the lack of reading among our young people.

"Reading books like The Three Musketeers or Kipling's Gunga Din is an easy way to sneak in history lessons," the article concluded, neatly deleting the quotation marks around titles, which are required by our style book. It also neatly deleted the fact that, aside from whether or not we want our children taking Kipling's imperialistic bombast as history, "Gunga Din" isn't a book. It's a poem.

It's not even a terribly long poem; only 84 lines. That's probably just as well, because it isn't a terribly good poem, either. There's nobody blowing a trumpet on a temple roof with his dying breath. That was Sam Jaffe, saving Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and someone else wonderfully dashing whom I've forgotten. Gary Cooper or somebody.

Anyway, it isn't in Kipling's poem, which is about an Indian waterbearer who drags a soldier to safety under fire and how amazing it is that non-English people can be heroic, too. "An' for all 'is dirty ide, 'E was white, clear white, inside," the poet marvels, in that impenetrable dialect, that made Kipling's doggerel so popular among those who only heard real dialect from their servants.

Anyway, "Gunga Din" is a poem, not a book, and we shouldn't chide our children for not reading the things we haven't read either.

There are a lot of great books nobody has ever really managed to get through. The proof is in the location of their most famous scenes. Every famous scene of every great book occurs in the first few pages, except the death of Achilles in "The Iliad," which doesn't actually occur at all in "The Iliad."

Every other famous scene, you will find the first time you sit down with the book, because there is never a second time.

Whatever happens in the final 75 percent of a great book is known only to the author and the author's mother. No one else has ever made it past the beginning.

For example:

My copy of "Oliver Twist" is 428 pages long. Oliver says, "Please, sir, I want some more," on page 13.

"Don Quixote," in the Penguin edition, is 940 pages long. He tilts with the windmills on page 68.

There are 803 pages in the Everyman's Library edition of Sir Thomas Malory's "Morte D'Arthur." Young Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone on page 11.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" is 244 pages long. Eliza races across the river, jumping from ice cake to ice cake, on page 30, and that's pretty much it for Eliza, who is only a minor character in the book.

But my favorite unread classic is "War and Peace," which, everyone knows, is about Boris and Natasha. We even have a pair of cartoon characters named for Boris and Natasha.

Well, the Norton Critical Edition of "War and Peace" is 1,351 pages long. Boris and Natasha kiss on page 45. By page 251, she confesses that she can't remember what he looks like and isn't going to bother writing to him after all. What do you expect? She's only 13 years old when the book opens, and won't marry until she is 20.

Some readers are voracious and will read anything — cereal boxes, Harlequin romances, even the Speak Out column. A few of them have read some of the great books. They read because it is fun, because they enjoy it and because they are compulsive information addicts. But they are, and have always been, a minority.

Some of the rest might become readers, but the quickest way to stifle a young reader is to throw all those tired old warhorses at him, like "Huckleberry Finn," which was never intended for children anyway or "Treasure Island," which is far too full of chat and too short of action.

Why not give them some quality books that someone might really want to read, like "the Chronicles of Narnia" or the Little House books?

I read "Animal Farm" when I was about 9, because I thought it was about animals, and it was, sort of. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a whole lot more than Treasure-bloody-Island, which I couldn't get through to save my life.

If you want kids to read, read to them when they are young and then make books available to them.

But don't shove a "great" book down a kid's throat just because somebody shoved it down yours.

And, by the way, if you want to appear culturally literate, don't go around letting people know you think that "Gunga Din" is a book.