Thursday, March 21, 2019

Book Review: Dead Celebrities by Red Focks

When I agreed to review Dead Celebrities, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I’d never read any of Red Focks’ previous works, but I was familiar with the gonzo sensibilities of his magazine/publishing enterprise, Alien Buddha Press, and I thought the odds were about fifty-fifty that I would enjoy it. 

I am pleased to say that I definitely enjoyed this collection. It’s a very quick read—only six stories. As I was reading, a string of adjectives occurred to me to describe this wonderfully weird compilation’s stream-of-consciousness style: absurd, audacious, comedic, satiric, dark, cerebral, seedy, macho, and tender. It manages to be all those things, all at once—not to mention, laugh-out-loud funny. 

“Short stories” is as good a category as any for these pieces, though I would lean more towards hybrid works: part prose-poem, part essay, part sketch comedy. In fact, these writings strongly evoke Saturday Night Live (if SNL were allowed to fling F-bombs), In Living Color (if you’re old enough to remember that show) and Celebrity Death Match. The titular dead celebrities run the gamut from athletes (Muhammed Ali), to musicians (Jim Morrison, Dolores O’Riordan), comedians (George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and Robin Williams) and various other personalities (Stephen Hawking, Charles Manson and various Mansonettes). Ali, Manson and Carlin make multiple appearances—I’m not sure what that says about Focks’ psyche. Living celebrities also make appearances to mix it up with the dead.  

If it needs to be said, Focks is not interested in historical personages, but what they represent to the modern American psyche. If you peel back the hyper-masculine hijinks (we literally watch Muhammed Ali go six rounds with Mike Tyson), you find parables on politics, identity, celebrity worship, fanaticism, and death.  

There are only six stories, so let’s dig in: 

“Ali v Hannity” is a broad political satire. It centers on a live television interview between Hannity and Ali/Cassius Clay; Hannity, Fox News poster boy, blustering and intolerant of anything perceived to be a slight on America, and Clay, a Black Muslim, who would most certainly be taking a knee at every playing of the national anthem. It’s an interesting image to offer in light of current race relations, though I would say this is the weakest of the stories. I still almost snorted Dr. Pepper out of my nose when Ali shouted, “And another thing, avocadoes are a healthy and delicious food!” Also, *SPOILER ALERT*, Hannity commits suicide at the end, and I never get tired of that.  

“Carlin v Hicks v Prior v Williams” is where we depart SNL and enter real absurdity, and I am here for it. It imagines a world where we have voted on which dead comedian should be cloned and brought back for one more celebrity special, even though some of these guys stated their aversion to doing those type of shows. The book is sprinkled with whimsical spelling and punctuation, and I can’t tell if that’s on purpose or not, a la e.e. cummings or Bukowski (“Hix” for Bill Hicks, “Prior” instead of Pryor), but who cares? It skirts sci-fi territory with a tangent about a vengeful holographic Carlin who becomes a computer virus, intent on wreaking havoc on us unworthy denizens of now. It also has lines like, “chiseling bone marrow from his worm and maggot filled skeleton,” so there’s that.  

“Manson v Society” is one of the longer pieces in the collection, broken into sub-sections like, “Charlie Manson’s Thoughts on Legalized Marijuana,” “Charlie Manson’s Thoughts on the MeToo Movement and Toxic Masculinity.” These pieces are pungent, exactly like one would imagine a dirty hippie commune to be. It opens with this gem: “Keep on picking creamed cheese and peanut butter out of your belly button.” When I was a teenager, I was heavy into true crime, and devoured Helter-Skelter and Child of Satan, Child of God. More recently, I read The Girls by Emma Cline, and there’s a lot of psychological territory to plumb when we view the Manson phenomenon through a modern lens. The MeToo movement, at its heart, is about the power dynamics between women and male authority figures. On a more primal level, Manson was always about rejecting society, and reverting to a more “natural” way of life (or “bestial.” Whatevs). On marijuana, Manson says, “Don’t trust the new seeds.” That feels like a reference to Monsanto. Even our beloved, illicit substances have been neutered. On “Pop Culture & Modern Music,” Focks muses on what Manson might be like in the age of social media—which is potentially terrifying. Or he might just be one of those sad little incel motherfuckers, it’s hard to say. But in both that section and the “Mandatory Vaccinations, Climate Change and Bitcoin,” Manson scats. Like, full-on shoo-be-do-be-do, and I snorted again. Also, the latter is the most poetic passage in the Manson cycle—a full indictment of humanity: “I was born on fire. I don’t need to light my holy texts on fire to survive the night. I do not fear the so-called beast.” I was a bit ambivalent on whether or not Manson should be the one casting stones, until I remembered that Satan literally means “the accuser.” Manson doesn’t fear the beast because he is the Beast. Still, I wonder, if we are being called to task by Manson, does that mean everything’s gonna be okay? Or am I to believe him because, sometimes, even the devil speaks truth?  

In “Ali v Tyson,” we get some needed levity, mostly in the form of Tyson’s lisp. (I only hear Drederick Tatum.) The titans go six rounds. I’ll let you read to find out who wins, but as the story progresses, the fight gets dirtier and dirtier, with body blows and flowing blood. But it’s not just dick-swinging—it’s a meditation on what it means to be the best at something. You have to fight to get there, and then you have to fight to keep it, and one does have to wonder if that’s worth it.  

Next up is “Squeaky and Clem.” If I had to choose a favorite from this collection, it would be a toss-up between this and the final entry. This is the most parabolic story in the line-up, using two of Manson’s acolytes, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Steve “Clem” Grogan to examine how people will believe anything if it means there’s a reward waiting, whether that reward be the promise of heaven as with the Abrahamic religions, or just a sense of belonging. Fromme had been a child dancer and actually performed on TV and at the White House. Then, y’know, she attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford. The point is, she was a true believer in Manson. Focks describes their relationship as, “He fed himself to her, and she consumed him.” Charlie would appreciate the messianic reference there. He would totally dig himself as something transubstantiated.  

Grogan, on the other hand, was just a sad, craven little man that most people thought was developmentally disabled (which helped him avoid life in prison). Like Manson, he hung out with the Beach Boys and was an aspiring musician. (Maybe Manson speaks to artists because so many of his acolytes, as well as the man himself, were a bunch of frustrated creatives.) But as soon as Grogan got a chance to rat out his comrades, he did. Not coincidental use of the word rat, as Focks observes, “This is not the summer of love; this is the summer of the dead rat.”  

Both figures are pathetic in their own ways-- Fromme, fawning and servile; and Grogan, the go-along-to-get-along guy, incapable of making any decisions on his own. Modernity, since the Enlightenment, feels like a struggle between science and religion, between decision and indecision, between improving the world we live in now and longing for an impossible paradise. Grogan imagines death as “jamming with the Beach Boys, hav[ing] 100 wives,” just like a jihadist, awaiting his holy orders and an opportunity to hurt someone.  

The final story in the collection, “Hawking v Morrison v Manson v Carlin v O’Riordan v Ali,” takes place entirely in the afterlife. In a collection of the surreal, this one felt the most…most. The most dreamlike, the most cerebral: “We must be nothing more than math and vibrations.” Manson, Carlin and Ali appear again. They are joined by Stephen Hawking, Dolores O’Riordan, and Jim Morrison. It’s a fitting culmination, a layering of characters who, more than ever, feel like symbols rather than people, yet never lose their individual humanity, which is no mean feat. I also love how, when you think of them in real life, they seem to occupy such entirely different spheres, they might as well be from different planets. But in putting them together like this, you’re reminded, Oh, yeah. They’re all humans. And so am I. Focks has them all walk into a bar in some nether realm—yes, Hawking can walk, talk, and serve drinks. Also, the Lizard King is young and svelte again. Yet, despite being the bartender, Hawking is still the ideal of human intellectualism, of loftiness. His role feels part Anubis, part Chiron, part God, an interesting marriage of the secular and the transcendent. Manson, of course, is still Satan. The others fall somewhere in between. Manson keeps talking about how great he could have been, but “the universe had other plans.” It becomes a refrain of his. The others are having none of it. They talk, they drink, they fight. I thoroughly enjoyed the others verbally dog-piling on Manson. It also has one of my favorite lines in the book, “Time seemingly globs along the bar-floor in a molasses landslide.” I also love how Focks weaves in subtle references to the singers’ best-known songs, with references to “People Are Strange” and “Linger.” Focks has a gift for capping his stories with killer last lines, and this story feels like a fitting capper for the collection as a whole.  

It’s not often that you find a collection that can encompass so many themes and scenarios, that can juxtapose disparate personas in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky or condescending. Dead Celebrities is both a celebration and an indictment of the glorious mess that is life. I highly suggest you grab a drink and get in on the party, and remember that yes, we’re all in this together.

Purchase Dead Celebrities by Red Focks on Amazon

Also, be sure to check out Alien Buddha Press, which features a magazine as well as a growing catalog of art, poetry, chapbooks, and other publications. They accept submissions on a rolling basis. 

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