Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Urban Hermitt's Fanzine #18

Reviewed by: Steve Kostecke

Steve is a leading ULA member. He probably has never met the Hermitt.

The zine can be had for $3 cash at: The Urban Hermitt POB 460412, San Fran CA 94146

In case you are not enlightened, the Hermitt regularly puts out a zine which describes his unbelievably adventurous and happening life, usually set in way-liberal settings like Hawaii or the Pacific Northwest. This time around, he astounds us with an issue that describes his road tour (as spoken word artiste) with a punk Scottish Oi! band (not Cowboy band) and a group of anti-monkey-lab-testing activists. And as if that isn't unique enough, everything about this journey through America outdoes itself.

The shows they perform from Texas through the South, the East, and the Midwest are full of black-hearted skinheads who either boo our beloved Hermitt, give him the dreaded slow death-clap, or throw various harmful projectiles towards his person. How he manages to climb the stage for each performance is beyond human comprehension.Even though his art is trashed time and time again, the Urban Hermitt keeps at it, as a true word-artist should.

This zine reveals a slice of life of a real American poet. Even with so much working against him, the Hermitt keeps the humor up. Every page is filled with laughs and smirks. Like when he gets sick:

Where are you going? Peter asked me as I tried to sneak across the street to the hospital. Um! Yeah Hermitt, where are you going? Braxton asked in his cocky-British accent. I'm going across the street to get antibiotics at the hospital becuz I have strep throat, I said, on the defense. It was the West Coast liberals versus the West Coast liberals. I can't fawking believe you, Hermitt! Braxton yelled. Cuz I'm like dying? Why are you getting evil corporate animal torturing drugs and you're on this fawking tour? It's all relative. No it's not Hermitt! And what about the monkeys? What about the fawkin monkeys? You disgust me Hermitt! I regret letting you on this tour! I had nothing to say back, just some eye rolls. Guilt tripped by the liberals, I didn't get antibiotics and continued to go on dying."

The Hermitt also digs deep, as usual, in his perceptions of the world around him (his writing is one natural flow of organic expression nterpreting the social phenomena constantly bombarding him). Here's what he says while at an arrival gate at an airport:

"At the airport, a flight from London landed. There were loads of Arabic families walking through the gate, mothers completely covered in black veils taking care of the children. Fathers in suits, acting as if they ruled over their wives. Man, that's so sexist and messed up, I thought to myself. Those women being covered up! But then a bunch of Euro-white ladies came through the gate. They too took care of the children while their husbands in business suits or polo shirts acted like they were ruler of the wife. The thing that I began to notice was that the Euro-white ladies were no more different than the Arabic ladies. Instead of a black veil, they had shaved legs, make-up, feminine hair doos, and pink clothing. Sure, maybe some of them chose and liked to be that way, but not all of them. Just another prison in exchange for another."

So if you want to know what's up on the 24/7 in the 99, yo! in American Lit, you better get your hands on a copy of this zine and all previous issues, for that matter. The Hermitt's writing is one of the clearest cases why underground writing makes corporate lit look long dead and gone.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Joel Priddy: Pulpatoon Pilgrimage

Reviewed by: Brady Russell.

Brady is a ULA member. He probably does not know Joel Priddy.

Ad House Books, $12.95, 160 pages. Available on Amazon.com.

The problem with writing about comics is that you can't pretend like you aren't writing about comics. Comics have their own baggage that come around with them. Polite people say things like "I'm just not into comics," but that's just a way to prevent talking about their prejudices. Lots of art orms come with prejudices. Symphony music is thought of as boring. Theater is thought of as pretentious. Modern Dance is incomprehensible.

Come to think of it, I don't really disagree with many of those prejudicial statements. Maybe that's why I wrote them. Comics, though, I give comics free reign. Comics are in the middle of an historical moment right now. Once upon a time, the novel was simply a vehicle for bosom heaving love stories, but then writers came along who broadened its scope and depth and now very boring people in very expensive buildings sit around unpacking the layers and layers locked within novels and bringing different theoretical formulas to bear on ripping them apart, which is thought of as serious, and important work.

Which is part of how you can tell an art form is dying: when boring people in expensive buildings become deeply, deeply interested in it.

Well comics aren't anything like that. Boring people in expensive buildings want no more to do with comics than they want anything to do with rock-and-roll, and both art forms are very much alive, changing and well. The difference is that the public has a pretty good handle on what rock-and-roll is, even when it gets pretty strange (such as when groups like The Cure and The Decemberists come along). Comics, though, people think comics are a vehicle for superhero stories, that's it, that's flat, baby - done.

If you get out there and have a look, though, the comic underground is really moving the form in new places. Take Pulpatoon Pilgrimage. I'm in part so excited about this book I can't quit thinking about it and also afraid to invite anyone I know to look at it for fear that they just aren't prepared for it, that their prejudices will get in the way and they won't like it and they'll insult it and then that will force me up onto a high-horse where I'll say something condescending that I'll regret such as, "Well clearly you just don't get it or even understand how to enjoy it."

See, when you've got comics you have this crazy marriage of the visual and the narrative. Painting, you know, is pretty much all visual. We forgive painting for all kinds of quirks. Its a one shot deal. It's one image. I almost never have any clue what a given painting is trying to tell me, but it's cool. It's cool because I like the colors or the line or I think the thing has an interesting impact on my subconscious.

Then stories are even cooler when you get into them. They really grab you. They work just like our brains work.

Well, with comics you can do a lot of both (where as you can just do a little of both with stories and painting, but let's not quibble too much here - all art is pretty fungible and the boundaries are hazy. That discussion is done.). It's the sheer amount of both the visual and the narrative that you can do with comics that make them so exciting.

The point I'm getting to is this, I love Pulpatoon Pilgrimage. I really, really love it. It's so simple and short and enriching and mystifying that I'm going to read it again and again (this writing follows the third reading in two days). That said, if someone handed me the prose version of Pulpatoon Pilgrimage I'd read three pages and throw it across the room. It just wouldn't work. I wouldn't care. I would be like, "what the hell is the point?"

I'd want to know where the heck Bull even comes from. Where are they?
Where the hell are they going? Who are these freaks?

So what is it? Okay, I guess I had to get to that question eventually, but I don't want to go into too much detail here. Pulpatoon Pilgrimage is the story of a sort of Minotaur, Bull; a walking plant, Delaware Thistle and a robot with a goldfish in his head, Rowbot. We meet the three of them walking across a barren landscape. The first few pages suggest that they have previously walked through forests, rolling hills, woods and jungles before we even hear a voice for the first time. They are on some sort of quest. We don't know where to or why. For some reason, they need to go in a group of three.

They all seem to like each other.

Along the way, we get small character vignettes. We learn a little about each character's sadness and we learn a lot about each character's charm. There is an enormous amount, perhaps an epic amount that we don't learn. Joel Priddy has shown a remarkable restraint here. You get the sense that he could talk about each of these three characters and the world they are walking through (or away from?) for hours and hours.

You'll finish reading the book in twenty minutes if you go slow. He doesn't tell us where we are. He gives us just enough so that we know the three have some sort of reason to walk and enough that we want to go with them.

Or I wanted to go with them. I can't speak for you. Like I said, this isn't your normal story. It's more visual than narrative. It's more mystical than logical.

I'll say this about the characters: you get the sense that Delaware Thistle is the most worldly and the most forlorn of them. He's the smartest of the group. Rowbot is the most mysterious. He suggests the most about the world. His very existence hints that this is not some ancient story, but maybe something in the far off future. Not that I can imagine a future in which they'd put goldfish in the heads of their androids, but I'm not as wise as Joel Priddy, either.

Bull, though, is my favorite character. Perhaps because he reminds me of my best friend back home. He was a big guy I have known all my life who didn't say a lot and didn't take on any airs. When he did act like he knew what he was talking about, though, you usually realized that he did and if you listened you realized he had a pretty good handle on more than you'd think. Bull's like that. Priddy makes it a point to show us that Bull gets the workings of the world on both an analytical and a gut level. Bull doesn't go into a lot of detail and what he says takes a while.

Which is not a bad description of how the story in Pulpatoon Pilgrimage gets told.

If you want to believe that comics can be art, then check it out. If you just want to meditate for twenty minutes, try it for that, too. If you want to understand what it means when people say "still waters run deep," then that's another good reason to try it out.

Just don't complain to me because it's slow or meandering or doesn't make a very clear point or doesn't really seem to end neatly (especially when you still don't know why it began). I warned you, didn't I? I told you that's why I love it. So don't cry to me when you're more mystified at the ending than you were at the beginning? Because, I'll wager, that you have a pretty good idea of what it is that's mystified you. You probably weren't the least bit mystified when you started reading Pulpatoon Pilgrimage, but now you are. You wonder what the hell was going on? What happened? What's going to happen? Most of all how? Better yet: why?

And if you're thinking right, you realize that mystification isn't a problem. It's Priddy's gift to you to leave you mystified, wondering, flummoxed. It's better to have a nice set of questions in hand than it is to have answers, especially if the questions are good ones.

Pulpatoon Pilgrimage will leave you with good questions, and you'll need to read it twice or even three times to find them all (and answer a few). I hope you won't mind. Priddy's haunting muse and lovely, graceful, gentle lines will be glad to take you through the questions again and again.

Steve Kostecke: Seoul In Slices

Reviewed by: Leopold McGinnis

Leopold and Steve are both members of the ULA. So?

Can be purchased in the zeen store at www.literaryervolution.com for $3.

Steve Kostestke lives in Japan. He is also the author of Auslanders Raus and Azian Kix. And he is the editor-and-chief of the ULA website and the ULA's communal zeen Slush Pile.

Seoul in Slices supplies a first person view into what it means to be an American in Seoul. Seoul in Slices doesn't give any grand tales of being
imprisioned in third world jails, feeding the starving, or trying to find his grandmother who died there fifty years ago. It's a zeen about guy who has some good, bad, and weird times in Seoul and thought the world might be interested in what he did and what happened to him there.

There are four sections in the zeen, I'll go through them one by one. In the first section called, Seoul in Slices, Kostecke gives small sketches of Seoul life. He shows the little things about Seoul that if you were just a tourist you would miss like describing what a Ppikki is, a runaway whose job it is to stand around the happening night spots and get you to come to a certain bar or dance club (where he'll get a commission).

Or, Motorbikes on the sidewalk. Revving and threading through the crowds. Getting on People's asses. The way that Koreans get out of the way. The way that they accept it. One time a motorbike gets on my ass. I'm with two friends. I say to them: One of these days I'm gonna hook one of these guys. The motorbike guy miraculously speaks English. Gets up along side me and says: You don't like it, get out of Korea!

Which I think shows to the reader that Kostecke isn't just some lame rich kid backpacker, but a real resident of Seoul. He has learned the city as a person living in it, not as a tourist passing through. Kostecke also gives anecdotes of his times with other foreign teachers living there which are really funny, British guy I know is gay. Speaks Korean. Knows Seoul in and out. Gets sex whenever and wherever he wants it. Gay culture plus a
sexually-curious-about-foreigners culture. When he gets drunk he gets obnoxious.

As we weave through the crowds he blurts out in English to passing boys: Would mind terribly if I sucked your dick? Does this for an entire stretch of road.

The next section is called, A Sketch of my Last Days in Seoul. In the section he tells stories about a woman named Lexa he went out with one night and who got completely drunk and got into fights, hit on twenty guys, and screamed Queen Mother at everybody. Then he told a story about how the places he was teaching at were trying to fuck him out of pay. Then he goes to a club with a friend named Jeff.

Then Kostecke did something really cool, here's the quote, Jeff heading over to a neighboring lounge which he had to two weeks before and now heroically to "save" one of the girls from her life of degradation. Note that he put quotations around save, that showed to me that Kostecke tried to emphasize the absurdity of that without making it a big deal, no rant was needed. Because with Kostecke either you are going to understand what he meant by that, and if you don't a rant won't make you understand it either. Either you been there, know, and understand. Or you're out of touch and aren't going to get it no matter what he says. I thought that was really cool.

The third section Kostecke titled Hyperfiction which he described as, A prose style in competition with tvs, vcrs, cable, the internet, computer games, surround sound cinemas, top-forty radio stations, and a whole lot more.

The Hyperfiction section is a collection of tiny stories written in very terse
short sentences. He achieved this by not adding any fluffy dumb shit to the lines. The story One Tiny Sec was used for The Underground versus Professionals experiment, and was enjoyed by everyone that read it. In the
story, Tits he talks about having an anorexic girlfriend he doesn't actually
like but stays with anyway and says this great line anyone can relate to, The summer ended as did everything else. Barbie kept accusing me of things that were true and I kept denying them.

The final section of Seoul in Slices has a review of Douglas Coupland's
Girlfriend in a Coma where he calls Coupland's book Primetime TV and
deconstructs the book to show that it is unworthy of the praise it has received by the media. Kostecke says about Coupland's prose at one point, It floats up into the air and becomes puffy little clouds that never rain. Kostecke Seoul in Slices is a great read if you enjoy travel literature that is more about a person living in a certain part of the world that grew up in a completely different culture and circumstances. And not just some person visiting a certain place and having wild obviously exaggerated adventures while there.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ian Verchere: General Delivery V0N 1B0 Whistler B.C.

Reviewed by: Victor Schwartzman

Victor has never met Ian, has never been skiing, and runs this blog.

Introduction by Douglas Coupland.

Published by Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver/Toronto/Berkley): www.douglas-mcintyre.com. Available in the U.S. through Publishers Group West.

A review of a guidebook to Whistler, an expensive ski resort near Vancouver, on the Underground Literary Alliance review blog? Huh? Whazzat about?

Because it is an underground guidebook. An anti-guidebook. Because it is more interested in delving into how Whistler was turned by multinational corporations from a great place to ski into a Disneyesque theme park. Because it remembers how things were and analyzes why things changed. Because although it is a pretty book, it ain’t pretty—it is ugly—in the best way possible.

“General Delivery VON 1BO Whistler B.C.” was written by Ian Verchere. He lived near Whistler, skied there religiously, and ‘grew up’ to be, among other things, a video game designer. He does not write like nor appear to be an elitist. He just really liked to ski. That is perhaps too healthy a lifestyle for the ULA, but so be it.

His book superficially resembles a guidebook. It is handsomely produced, yes. The writing in each chapter is short and easy to read, yes. There are many photographs, yes. There is information about Whistler’s history, yes. The book is very attractive, and masquerades nicely as a coffee table book, yes yes yes.

BUT. There are no street maps. No lists of hotels. No recommendations about where to stay. No pandering. Instead, Verchere looks at his personal connection with the Whistler that was, and the Whistler that is...and you get the feeling it makes him want to puke.

To wit: about naming ski slopes: “As for Blackcomb, it supposedly looks like a rooster’s comb, except black. The mountain originally went with a logging theme for their run names: Catskinner, Springboard, skid Road, Undercut. They changed the name of the run Hooker, a legitimate logging term, for reasons of propriety. That doesn’t explain why you can still ski Climax, Cougar Milk, Zig Zag, Angel Dust and Spanky’s Chute. To get to these runs, you’ll run the Wizard, a lift allegedly named after the 1986 porno film The Wizard of Ahh’s.

“Nowadays, no chairlift, run or new development would be named without extensive focus tests, marketing meetings and a legal sign-off somewhere deep in the Whistler-Blackcomb boardrooms. And probably a quick check with the Internet Adult Movie Database wouldn’t hurt either.”

Or, look at how he writes of Whistlerization, which is “the sudden appearance of multi-million-dollar second homes, escalating real estate prices and prohibitive living costs… One sure way to recognize a place trying to come to terms with being Whistlerized is a prevalence of handcrafted, sandblasted signs. The thinking is, if you can’t keep big multinational franchises out, then at least make them blend in. The way to do this is to pass strict bylaws dictating how your average franchise corporation can announce its presence. As a bonus, this invigorates the handcrafted, sandblasted sign segment of the local economy. The fact is, Whistler itself faced up to its own Whistlerization long ago. It let in the Gap, KFC, Micky D’s and 7-Eleven (as long as their signs are sandblasted)…”

Or his listing of “Whistler Locals and Pioneers, Santa’s Reindeer and Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs; In No Particular Order”:
Dopey”…and so on, down a whole page. Not to mention his including a comic book he wrote and drew about Whistler, including outer space aliens.

The book ends with a sad regret, the closure due to “a real estate developer and the relentless expansion of the Whistler Village footprint” of the Boot Pub, the “last remaining vestige of authentic local life… At the end of the day, no tourist or second homeowner in Whistler is going to miss the Boot. But its closure says something to a big chunk of Whistler locals: it’s a signal that what they want doesn’t matter. For me, it’s the end of a book, and a fitting coda to my younger years living in Whistler.”

Well, pal, have a last drink on us.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Richard Grayson: Highly Irregular Stories; And To Think that He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street and Other Stories

Reviewed by: Jack Saunders

Jack Saunders has met Richard Grayson, and Richard has met Jack.

Highly Irregular Stories (2006) and And to Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street and Other Stories (2006), by Richard Grayson. Dumbo Books of Brooklyn, 72 Conselyea St., Brooklyn, NY 11211-2211. dumbobooks@yahoo.com

And to Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street and Other Stories is Richard Grayson’s 10th volume of fiction. Or metafiction. Or autobiography. Or stand-up comedy. Or short form narrative. He’s published two other books. What are they? Nonfiction? Reportage? I always think of Jonathan Winters saying he is in gar-bahj, when I hear re-por-tahj.

I believe you could call the writing avant-garde. It’s out ahead of the pack. The avant-garde is a tradition, like any other. Like commercial fiction, or literary fiction. It’s anti-commercial. Anti-literary. The literary is a set of conventions an iconoclast wants to bust up.

An iconoclast is aware of his place in the scheme of things. He knows the history of what he’s doing. He is aware, or self-aware, and self-awareness leads to irony.

Irony lends itself to short pieces. You don’t want to be long-winded. That’s for novels, a more expansive form, where you can stretch out. In one sense, you could say the avant-garde leads the way. In another, profounder sense, you could say it doesn’t go anywhere, it just is. It is what it is. Take it or leave it. As it is. This makes reviewing a collection of short pieces either very easy or very hard.

What is the author trying to do, and is he succeeding, on his own terms? Larry wrote the other day that he found himself at looking at books in a rummage sale, and found he was reading them to see what bias they had; not to see what the book was about or to read for enjoyment or to get taken up by it.

What happens when we approach books like that? How do we not approach books like that?

Do collections of stories become something in the aggregate they were not, separately, as lone stories, in magazines that pay in copies and go belly up, or self-published chapbooks, issued in editions of hundreds of copies? Are they clever, amusing, cute? Do they hold up? Do we see a design to the works, over time? A pattern? Is a collection of them more impressive, more authentic, does it have a gravitas scattered fragments cannot demonstrate? Are we impressed? Are we surprised? Did we disremember? Do we see things we didn’t see the first time through?

You can buy the books from lulu.com for $12.95 or $16.95. Highly Irregular Stories is a collection of four chapbooks, which are out of print, and rare. A copy of Eating at Arby’s was recently listed online at $350. It’s good to see the stuff back in print. The stories in And to Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street haven’t been collected before. It’s nice to see them in one spot.

What is One Life in the Short Form Narrative Business like? We get a good feel for it, in these two collections, which span three decades.

What is America like? It’s like Richard Grayson says it is, it’s how Richard Grayson sees it. He’s a Jew from Brooklyn, I’m a cracker from Delray Beach. We have different accents, different life-experiences, different expectations, about life. I’m older than he is, and was in the Air Force for eight years. I boxed. I went ten rounds with Bukowski. I fought the Creature from the Black Lagoon underwater, at Wakulla Springs.
Now I just sit around and watch my boot turn blue, from mildew.

But his America rings true, to me, a deep and eclectic literary sensibility in a pop-culture milieu of glitz and flash, the shallow and the hyped, pinball-machine moths, attracted to the light, the noise, the buzz. Love-bugs, smashed on the windscreen. In the throes of their mating ritual. Up around Gainesville on a two-lane blacktop. Harry Crews afraid to leave his writing studio because he might miss something. And Harry Crews ain’t afraid of death or taxes.

A reader said he kept my books on the back of the crapper, and he started every day with a good old country shit and a belly laugh.

That’s a good thing to do with Richard Grayson’s books. Keep them on the back of the crapper and read them every day. They will make you laugh. The stories are short enough you can read one at a sitting.

My theory is that we are attracted to a writer’s voice, and every time we find a writer we like, we buy everything by him or about him we can find, regardless of genre. If he’s any good, he has invented his own genre, conflated one or more genres into a form of his own, which we recognize, because of his distinctive voice.

Bud Powell had small hands. Mary Lou Williams had hands that looked like $10 worth of spareribs in 1937. They’re not going to sound the same. Why should they? If the short pieces have a unity of form, a consistency of vision, a continuity of effort, a tone, an outlook, when do they begin to be less self-contained short pieces and constituent parts of a longer work composed of short pieces, if they do? If they do, was it an accident?

Public taste is fickle. A writing career is a tradeoff and a crapshoot. You can make a fortune writing but not a living. Not even the living you’d make at more mundane tasks. You have to have a sense of humor about it.

A sense of black humor, like the old comics Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Shelley Berman. The writers Woody Allen, Richard Brautigan, and Terry Southern. Would you choose writing for a career? You don’t choose it, it chooses you. What if you choose it and it doesn’t choose you?

Can you be funny about that? For 30 years? It’s not as easy as Richard Grayson makes it look.

The stories in the second book are newer and darker than the stories in the first book. Branch libraries are closed, movie houses shut down, neighborhoods gentrified, people moved away, friends died, what was not there, then was new, and ugly, is now shabby, with people hanging on, because they have no choice. There are constants. The stock market rises and falls, real estate goes up, people have careers, careers have an arc, not all careers have the same arc.

Richard Grayson once observed to me that writers advise you to do what they did. If they teach writing, they advise you to teach writing. If they are some other kind of professional, they advise you to be some other kind of professional. He was a lawyer. Journalists advise people to write for newspapers or magazines. Or television. I was a paraprofessional. A technical writer. Not an engineer or a programmer. On a par with a draftsman or a logistician (supply specialist). A white collar job, but not a full-fledged profession.

What is true is you need a job that pays enough so you can live comfortably, and are not so tired by your work that you are too tired to write, after work. And that can mean too tired emotionally. Then you just do your job and write before and after work. Or during work.

Maybe you’ll have a year off now and then, when you win a grant, inherit some money, or, in my case, once, are able to draw 49 weeks of separation pay, unemployment, and extended unemployment benefits, plus social security, or, another time, cash in the retirement you rolled over into an annuity when your last corporate employer laid you off and live on that for a year. Or mortgage the house you inherited when your grandfather died and run up the balance on a line-of-credit home-equity loan.

I’m always curious about how a writer supported himself when he wrote the books, and think that should go in the books. I think a reader has a right to know that.

Did he kiss a Stalinist’s ass in Macy’s window?

I enjoyed reading these books and I think you will too. I think they’re worth going to some trouble to find out about and buy. And tell your friends about.

And tell the author about them, if you liked them.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Upton Sinclair: The Jungle

Reviewed by: Leopold McGinnis

Penguin Classic Re-issue, U.S. $14, CDN $20, 388 pages

Leopold has never met Upton Sinclair, but that's because Upton died before Leopold was born. Otherwise they certainly would have met, as they share similar world views.

Leopold McGinnis is a great Canadian writer. His novel, "Game Quest", is a very funny, very deeply felt tale of corporate morality v. individual ideals. It is set at the time when computer gaming companies were in transition from games which wanted you to think to games which wanted you to shoot things (the switch from Sierra games involving puzzles to be solved, to first person shooters like Doom). I know of no other novel about that part of modern life's history. Aren't you curious?

To see more of Leopold's work, please consider checking out www.redfez.net. This is an excellent literary site which Leopold runs. It features some wonderful poetry, prose, and even, in its archives, two chapters of my own graphic novel! (Yes, I've met Leopold, and he is a friend--what's it to ya?) On the site you can also order Game Quest, which you should.

It's hard to review a book of such immense scope, ambition and craft. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is arguably one of the best American books of the 20th century (not so difficult a distinction to achieve, it would seem, considering the dearth of quality fiction in the latter half of said century), it's also, sadly, one of the most forgotten.

Written like fiction, Sinclair's book ostensibly follows the story of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian who, with several members of his family, come to Chicago on the tail of the American Dream and find themselves working in the nightmare of the Slaughterhouse district. But in effect The Jungle is an epic look at the obscene cost of unfettered capitalism run rampant in the early 20th century. Sinclair's book is a muckraking expose of the institutionalized inequality, corruption, privilege, sickness and slavery needed to keep the machine running that runs beneath he thin veneer of the American dream of freedom and success. A fascinating and incredibly thorough indictment of the out-of-control capitalist structure at the turn of the century The Jungle, sadly, rings true in a number of areas today.

Jurgis starts off firmly believing in the American dream, even while working in slave-like conditions for the meat packers, brushing off the arguments of broken men and unionists that the machine will eventually crush him as the bitter ramblings of lazy and weak men It's this stubborn arrogance that carries Jurgis through the unceasing volley of injustices that make up the entirety of the book. The Rudkus', due to their innocence and desperation, get swindled into 'buying' a 'new' house where they pay an exorbitant amount every month, but never own the house until it is all paid off. If they miss one payment the house, and all their payments go back to the landowner, who repaints the house and sells it as 'new' to the next batch of immigrants. The threat of losing their house becomes the greatest chain their carry and in service of it every member of their extended family, including the grandparents and children, works to survive.

It's a losing battle, of course, and work in the packinghouses brings poverty, disease, death, injury, injustice, rape, jail and exploitation to the Rudkus family. With no other options and a thousand men clamoring at the gate for their job, the Rudkus family works endless hours in mind-numbing, incredibly dangerous work. Here Jurgis gets first hand experience of the inevitable 'short-cuts' that arise from profit-driven enterprises. In the drive for even a half-penny of profit spoiled meat is bribed past inspectors, men are crushed and killed, waste is driven wholesale into public drinking water and, like the meat the process, every ounce of worth in a human being is taken before being discarded in favor of fresh meat. Early on Jurgis is impressed with the way in which the packers have set up their enterprise to squeeze every possible amount of wealth possible from a pig. Jurgis also is glad that he is not a pig – only to realize at the end that he and all the working men were treated as cruelly and as senselessly as the animals, driven to the point of death to churn out meat faster and faster and then discarded.

Work in the Slaughterhouse district covers most of the book and the novel is currently being sold as an expose of the meat packing industry. This is a simplification and probably stems from, in the current timid literary circles, a fear to mention the dreaded word 'socialism' or believe that the entire system may be corrupt, rather than just where the wound festers most. The second half of the book follows Jurgis after he escapes from the Slaughterhouse, a shell of the man he once was, his family, wife and son dead in service to the Packer's profits. The book is quite uplifting when he finally leaves to hobo it across the country on trains. The first day he spends in the woods, washing in a lake and sleeping in the sun is probably one of the most uplifting scenes in the book and an unforgettable illustration of how it is better to be a homeless vagrant than in service of the Trusts. Jurgis, for a while, is free. But the nature of seasonal farm work, leaving him without a home in the winter, eventually drives him back to the city.

Jurgis scrapes by at first by begging on the streets. Eventually he finds himself working on a massive secret underground railway being built by the Packers Trust to break the Teamsters union! But an accident at work puts him back on the street. Starving to death, Jurgis finds himself in Jail. By this point Jurgis has adopted an attitude much more likely to achieve the American Dream: looking out only for himself. Jurgis becomes involved in crime, eventually moving up into the very corrupt political and Trust circles that run the wage-prisons of the slaughterhouse district. He helps fix an election, crush a strike and generally be on the operating end of all the corruption and sleaze he once suffered under. But like everything else, once his purpose has been served, he's back on the streets again.

Perhaps the biggest weaknesses of this novel are the opening and ending. The first chapter is an overly long description of a wedding ceremony. Although it serves to introduce a lot of the characters and their hopes and desires, it's too much at once with little reason for the reader to care or understand the significance of this event at the time. The book could have easily started at chapter 2. The book ends with Jurgis finally understanding the corrupt system in all its parts (indeed, we do too as through Jurgis Sinclair has hit upon every nail and exposed every interlinking thread of corruption) and becomes involved in the growing socialist movement to overthrow the corrupt two parties of the two-party political system and begin with a system that is actually fair. This end of the book, though I mostly agree with it, is a bit preachy and, with 100 years of foresight, perhaps a bit naively optimistic. The book also ends somewhat abruptly. It's a thematic book, to be sure, and so it's ok to end with the theme rather than the end of Jurgis' story, but Sinclair does such a fantastic job of getting us into the story of Jurgis, it's hard to see him dropped at the end for the point to be made.

But these are slight weaknesses in an otherwise amazing book. The Jungle is the type of novel no longer made. The book has teeth and a point to prove, right from the onset. It seems that it is now taboo for analysis or criticism of society to come from works of fiction. If anything The Jungle is the perfect example of a fictional story illustrating a point much more clearly than non-fiction could hope to. The novel isn't didactic or polemic anymore than a documentary is and the reader is smart enough to understand that this is both a work of fiction and an incredibly insightful and truthful expose of the devastating pitfalls of unfettered capitalism. Sometimes studying was is possible provides more insight than what is.

Sadly, due to a lot of interlocking commercial and class interests in the literary industry similar to those documented by Mr. Sinclair, books like this are unlikely to be found in the mainstream circles anymore. Though the problems outlined in The Jungle have been lessened in the century since its publication, there is still work to do. Authors of this day have many equally important things to write about and we too can hope to make continued change through our writing and activism. To tweak the phrase that closes Mr. Sinclair's book, “We shall bear down the opposition, we shall sweep it before us – and [literature] will be ours! [Literature] will be ours! [LITERATURE] WILL BE OURS!

The Jungle is a fantastic book for anyone interested in social criticism, or just a good read. Certainly it will be inspiring to writers who hope to achieve something by their writing.

The Jungle does what far too few (if any) books these do these days.

The World Is Ours--and Yours!

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