John Dorsey Book Review
by Steve Henn
John Dorsey. White Girl Problems. Nightballetpress. $5 plus $3 P/H.
Writing, I’d like to think, is an act of courage, at least for myself and many of the writers I know – small press poets, slam poets, day job workers, university adjuncts paid shit-per-class, the retired, the willfully unemployed, the aggressively unemployed – buncha god damn A-listers, this crowd of aspiring cultural chroniclers and commentators, slogging through story after story, poem after poem, weird-other-thing-made-of-words after another, maybe never getting much more recognition than contributor’s copies of minor mags, bylines online, a few bucks here and there, and the rush of raucous, hooting applause at a reading that seemed like heroin the first time it happened, but the longer you get it, feels more and more like methadone. Lifelong writers, in particular those who’ve experienced only modest success, are people who can’t quit even when nobody gives a shit. And writers – be honest, people – write to be heard, and often desperately want to be given a shit about.
Which creates for me a nagging question, maybe not the one you might expect, about John Dorsey’s chap of poems and stories, the stories featuring a character written in both first and third person about one Felix Pepperdine, Esq. I tend to write reviews to express solidarity, to acknowledge quality even among flaws, and to recognize the courage the writer has to open him or herself to criticism – all of which are ways in which I’ll treat John Dorsey’s book, an interesting one that I would pull off the shelf to read through again, that I might recommend to friends of a certain temperament. Still the question nags. It disquiets me. Why the hell is Felix Pepperdine Esq. such an asshole?
By 7th grade, in the midst of a horrid upbringing that includes his mother’s reverence for Barry Manilow and his father’s taste for phone sex, Felix is taking a girl to a school dance, calling a prostitute, and getting sucked off in a parking lot as his date, who “wore a T shirt with my face on it” earlier at the bus stop, looks on and cries. On Valentine’s Day as an adult, he goes through his yearly ritual of looking in dive bars for a girl to wine and dine “and then dump her at the end of the night or the next morning depending on how she responded.” Later, he picks a name at random out of the phone book, writes the woman a break-up letter, finds a shrine to him in her basement, has sex with her, and breaks up with her.
Those kind of doubly bizarre-but-too-pat plot twists abound in the Felix stories. He spends some time hunting down the nemesis who is writing “for AMAZING HEAD call Felix Pepperdine” on bathroom walls across the country only to give the enemy his comeuppance in a way that is practically gift-wrapped for him. These details make the stories interesting reads, but they also make them seem like a satire of satire, with their ridiculous, tidy plot twists and their opening lines that are funny and beyond the pale (one story begins, “Like most things, it all started with a bowel movement and an eye catching email”).
The sharp comedy of these stories kept me reading, the unreality of the narrator and the endings kept me groaning. I found myself reacting to nearly every story as I had to the Nic Cage movie Adaptation, where Cage’s character, a scriptwriter, spends the first half of the movie punishing himself with anxiety over his work in a way that was sad, satirical, and funny, and the last half living through some lame Hollywood heist plot that involves drugs and orchids.
I guess I get it well enough. The writer of Adaptation, who supposedly modeled Cage’s character after himself, wants us in on the joke. The moment propelling the movie into trite cliché happens when he attends a scriptwriting seminar and learns some tired old plot structures. It’s all a big farcical joke. The same, I suppose, must be true of the Pepperdine stories. Dorsey exaggerates, typifies, and ridiculizes so excessively that it’s all done with a loud and ostentatious wink. Which still doesn’t leave me satisfied, because we are all gonna die and life is a meaningless miasma of shit we take day in and day out (who knows this better than moderately-paid-attention-to American writers?), but give me a little hope, a little grace, a little redemption. Felix never learns a damn thing. He treats others poorly, and he is often treated poorly. More than poorly. He’s an awful, awful misogynist. Is it the joke of Felix we’re supposed to laugh at, or the jokes Felix pulls on women, unrepentantly searching for vulnerable women to mind-fuck since his first date in seventh grade?
There are a pair of excellent poems in the book, “Strength in Numbers,” a melancholy but much warmer recollection of a former girlfriend, and “a student of drama,” which satirizes a trailer park upbringing where “there was a thin line / between salvation / & product placement.” Elsewhere, Dorsey reaches for metaphors that seems surrealistically puzzling, unless I’m not getting something (“hotels make great lovers / but there aren’t any waffles here / only fair-weather vaginas”). I sort of like the personality of the stories, and the humor of the stories, but Felix is a colossal misogynistic tool. Two of the poems are spot-on, some are good, and sometimes he cuts words so much to the bone in the poems that the sense of voice and narration seems flat – perhaps more of a personal preference of mine than any major fault in the poems, which sometimes are centered on image rather than narration.
This is John Dorsey’s 25th chapbook. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’ve had a chapbook published, or you hope to have a chapbook published, or if you’re brand-spankin-new to this whole rigamarole (close your browser! take a walk! take up smoking nonfiltered cigarettes, it’ll kill you quicker!), you’ve just heard what a chapbook is and now you want to make one of your own. That must have something to do with the edge to Dorsey’s character, with the author’s refusal to satisfy those needs we’ve come to expect stories to satisfy for us. He’s not writing for Hollywood or New York City. He’s not writing to kowtow to the tastes of predictable tastemakers, however powerful-in-publishing they may be. Felix Pepperdine Esq., in particular, makes me feel like Dorsey writes because he has something to say, and he doesn’t care if you like it or not.