Now that HOW TO FAIL is apparently starting to inspire people--wouldja look at that table placement?!--I thought I'd give a shout out to those that inspired me.
As previously discussed, the question I get asked most before someone reads my book is the peculiar "How long did it take you to write this?" But the question I get asked most after someone has read my book is, "Wow, that was great. I'm thinking I might continue doing this reading thing. Got any recommendations?"
Well, as a matter of fact, I do. You can obviously move straight to my short story collection THE CHEAT SHEET (now a mere three bucks on Kindle), but here are the other key works that inspired me and the writing of HOW TO FAIL, some of a completely similar satirical comedy profanity-laden vein; others, not so much.
"A Confederacy of Dunces"
Surely the funniest book ever written and perhaps the best too. It breaks my heart to think John Kennedy Toole committed suicide before this book was ever published, thinking himself a failure with a crummy novel. He was clearly wrong and with massive sticktoitiveness from his mother and author Percy Walker, this masterwork eventually found publication. Protagonist Ignatius Reilly is a hoot, and a little too much like people we all know--if not us--and the book is a nonstop riot of hilarious set piece after hilarious set piece. The book begins with an epigraph by Jonathan Swift: "When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him" I'd add, "When dunces appear in the world you may know them by this sign, that they don't realize 'A Confederacy of Dunces' is a comedy." Works every time.
"A Man in Full"
I'm embarrassed to admit I didn't discover Tom Wolfe until "I Am Charlotte Simmons." Oh sure, I knew who he was, the nattily dressed guy in the white suit who invented New Journalism, but I'd never really read anything of his. Until that fateful day seven years ago when I picked up "Charlotte Simmons" in a Barnes & Noble in Hoboken and never put it down for the rest of the weekend. "This guy writes like me!" I thought. And, indeed he did. Or, rather, I wrote like him. A conversational style with eccentric punctuation and a liberal adherence to the "standards" of grammar. And he was having such fun too! His writing was so playful. I read Wolfe's entire oeuvre immediately after I finished "Charlotte Simmons." Literally. From "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" and "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" to "Hooking Up" and including as many magazine articles I could find in between (but my favorite was his 1996 novel about Southern stoicism (or something like that)). It was a crash course on Wolfe who instantly became my writing idol and inspiration. The man that made me realize that the way I write is the way I write and there ain't nothing wrong with that.
I suppose it's easy to blast Tucker Max nowadays, to claim you only liked him when you were younger and stupider; to claim he's not a "real" writer, just a literary shock jock, maybe even a phony; to claim you're "above" him. Yet, his most recent book "Assholes Finish First" still made it as high as #3 on the NYT Bestseller List. Hmm...curious. No. Not at all. Tucker Max was and is an iconoclast, the first guy to honestly write about the mores and zeitgeist of this era, MY young adult era. Everyone else was too chickenshit or nerdy to do likewise. The original stories on his website in the early 2000s (eventually gathered in "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell") were a breath of fresh air, letting me know that it was OK to write about the politically incorrect "honest" things I'd always wanted to write about, had always been writing about, that creative writing professors and publishers were disavowing me from writing about. Glad I listened to him instead of them. I'm eternally grateful to him and I continue to admire his business sense and marketing savvy.
"Happy Hour is For Amateurs"
The anonymous Philadelphia Lawyer took the single serving story groundwork that Tucker Max created and catapulted it to the next level, spinning a cohesive, full-length tale of debauchery and wisdom. And, the book was fucking funny, man, perhaps THE comedic masterpiece of the last decade. Along with Tucker, the Philadelphia Lawyer showed you one could talk about the "low brow"--drinking, drugging, fucking--and still be fucking smart about it. And inspiring. The subtitle of the book--"Work Sucks. Life Doesn't Have To"--is arguably more important than the title. It was an honor of the highest regard to have him blurb "How to Fail," even if I still don't quite know who this mad genius is.
"How I Became a Famous Novelist"
With a title like that, I was obviously going to give the book a shot and so glad I did. Released right around the time I was doing early edits on "How to Fail" (and dreaming of becoming a famous novelist myself), this book is a spot-on satire of the book industry and absolutely nails all the various genres. Steve Hely has an uncanny ability to mock everything from chick lit to Tom Clancy-esque thriller to, shit, even self-help books. I doubt I recommended any other book more than this one in 2010 and I urge any literary fan or literary writer to read it. You won't be let down.
"American Psycho" & "Fight Club"
These are arguably the iconic book of the 1980s and the iconic book of the 1990s. And rightly so. But that doesn't mean that, even after the movie adaptations and cultural deluge, they don't still demand careful reads. Both are a lot funnier than you recall, and still hold up with insight on the present day. Must reads and probably should be must taughts in high schools nowadays. Of course, high schools are still busy teaching the every so timely "Scarlet Letter."
"The Pint Man"
I have a friend who is spot on in his frequent pop cultural recommendations. He tells me I need to see a film, I do. Tells me I should be watching a TV show, I catch up on the DVDs over this weekend. And I make sure to read every single book he sings the praises of. Having said that, I was a literally leery when he recommended this novel by Steve Rushin. Wasn't Steve the bald, bulbous headed guy who wrote fairly mundane columns for Sports Illustrated before marrying Rebecca Lobo and riding off into the sunset? Could he really write a book for a cool guy like me?! My friend insisted and damn if he wasn't incredibly right. "The Pint Man" isn't really about anything, but it's such a strong and hilarious book full of clever wordplay, terrific characters, and brilliant scenes. Highly recommended.
"Pimp: The Story of My Life"
The modern classic of "transgressive fiction." Iceberg Slim was a, no shit, genuine pimp who decided to go straight after years in and out of prison. A chance encounter with a literary professor and he decided to tell his tales. And, what tales they were! Spanning a good dozen books, but none better than his first effort. Slim inspired me with his honesty, his rawness, in showing a seedy side of life that few authors even have the knowledge to discuss, and for his amazing ear for authentic dialogue and eye for character detail. (Skills which no doubt made him an amazing pimp.) You might be embarrassed to read this one on the subway, but you'll be so enthralled you won't care.
"Thy Neighbor's Wife"
Gay Talese--and with a name like that, he had no choice but to be a heterosexual lady killer--is another practitioner of New Journalism and perhaps the greatest essayist of all time ("Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" still stands as a masterpiece of the genre). But my favorite work from Talese is his opus on the emergeance of modern sexuality, which gives us one of my favorite lines in all of Wikipedia: "In preparation for writing the book, Talese had intercourse with his neighbor's wife for several months at clothing-optional resort Sandstone Retreat." Whoa, talk about New Journalism. But, though we laugh at antics like that, it's this closeness to his subjects, if not his immorality, or at least amorality, that made him one of the most eminently readable and wise writers of his time.
"Wake up, Sir!" -- Jonathan Ames's hysterical comic novel about a most fastidious and neurotic writer who has his own man servant.
"Downtown Owl" -- Like Ames, Chuck Klosterman is most famous for his essays, but it's his novel about small town North Dakota nightlife that is far and away my favorite work of his.
"Hollywood" -- Every single drunkard of a writer needs to admire Charles Bukowski at least somewhat and "Hollywood" is my favorite of his, a roman a clef takedown of the Hollywood schmucks who fucked up his semi-autobiographical screenplay (though I can't deny digging the eventual movie "Barfly"). Besides being a roman a clef, he pulls no punches. As usual.
"Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut" -- Before Tucker Max and Phila Lawyer there was P.J. O'Rourke, a heady genius and inveterate fuck-up. His massive collection of books are all must-reads, but "Age and Guile" is his masterpiece, a collection of satirical essays.
"Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon" -- The conceit of the good lot of Joe Queenan's books are: "I'm a ton smarter than you, and now I will make fun of people dumber than me." He does it no better than in "Red Lobster," a work where he intentionally tries to figure out why people like such lame cultural touchstones as John Tesh, Red Lobster, and "Cats." Wickedly hysterical.
And some favorites from the last few months:
"Freedom: A Novel" -- Jonathan Franzen
"The Unnamed" -- Joshua Ferris
"The Ask: A Novel" -- Sam Lipsyte
By the way, could these books quit telling us--in the title--that they are "a novel." Uh, yeah, no shit. And that's not exactly a selling point nowadays, let me tell you.
In a few days I'll discuss some more inspirations...