The Hot Tub by Jon Leon and Glory Hole by Dan Hoy. (Mal-o-mar). I got this book right at a time when I was moving across half the country. I read it, liked it a hell of a lot, but then misplaced it during the move, and only came upon it again recently. Hence, the lateness of this review — three years late, actually. But during these three years, I’ve kept thinking of this book. When I’d read a Brett Easton Ellis novel (Leon in particular writes from Ellis country), when I’d listen to certain punk or hip-hop songs (Hoy’s narrator seems capable of going into either of these genres)…such things would bring the book to mind.
First, for anyone who hasn’t read the book, I should mention that the book aspect of this book is a Pop art project. The book is small, about the size of a compact disk case, and glossy white, with an illustration of a steak on the Glory Hole side of the book, and an image of fire and water on The Hot Tub side. Two purple pages separate the two texts. And the two books are printed so that what is right side up while reading one book is upside down while reading the other. If books continue to exist as material objects in the next few years, they’ll be like this: the design will be such that you’ll want to hold it in your hands, you’ll want to see it on your table.
Both books make aggressive use of persona, and in this case both of the personas are assholes. But why can’t assholes make great poetry? Some wonderful, provacative poetry has been produced by writers who’ve created personas for themselves that aren’t sympathetic, that aren’t particularly nice: Dante, Swift, Vallejo, Artaud, Parra at times, Plath.
Yet if the two speakers in these books are assholes, they’re assholes in differing ways. Leon’s speaker isn’t explicitly arrogant. Rather, he’s all about action, about doing the next thing, busily taking in brand names even when the brand isn’t edgy or cool (he mentions listening to Time-Life cassettes twice in the book). His tone implies God-my-life-is-so-fucking-awesome-and-crazy. “I’m lounging in a hot tub on the top of a mountain next to the tennis courts overlooking the entire state,” he says at one point, and in fact he seems to see everything around him continually from such a point of view.
And yet, the sheer frantic energy of the narrator’s voice keeps you reading. In the same poem, which is called “Even Decades,” the speaker says “We listen to Kenny Loggins mp3s, strip, and do it in the clubhouse. Then walk out to the patio and yell beats to the falconer. She does pilates while I stationary marathon.” The last line is especially striking, I think. On one level, it’s a clear satire of America’s health obsession, especially as it relates to the upper classes. But there’s something so ludicrous about the need for constant movement on the speaker’s part, a need captured well with that image of him doing a “stationary marathon,” that it adds a certain charm to this speaker, almost despite himself.
If the wealth and brand names and travel in Leon’s book have parallels with the worlds of Brett Easton Ellis, as some critics have suggested, the other artist I kept thinking about while reading The Hot Tub was Buster Keaton. The deadpan voice in the book reminds me of Keaton’s famous deadpan face, and one of the reasons Keaton is so funny is that his deadpan face is attached to a body that is in constant, fevered motion. So to with this book. The humor — and this is a crazily funny book — comes from the calm, yeah-things-are-cool voice (“Pumping iron at Club Emme. So it’s sort of dope.”) relating scenarios that jump from the mundane to the tragic with no change in tone (“We danced. The train roared past the country. Outside the world was glittering plush. Somewhere in Connecticut the train derailed. I emerged the hero.”).
In Hoy’s Glory Hole, the asshole voice is more dire, more snide, more combative. If Leon’s speaker often sounds like a rich West Coast kid who wants to, sort of, like, have a good time, Hoy’s speaker seems to exist in some fine line between punk’s ecstatic self-loathing and hip-hop’s ecstatic self-aggrandizement. The book is brimming with boasts. In “Far Hence Remain O ye Profane,” the speaker tells us, “people are afraid to sing it like they mean it / but not me.” In “My Dreams are the Greatest,” Hoy’s speaker says, “people / are what happen to good ideas,” seeming to imply that humans will fuck up or spoil “good ideas,” the reverse of the usual nice guy belief that when people get together to work on a problem, a better solution is bound to come out of it. And in “Without Cowards,” he explains, “I want to be / fucked like a champ and that’s it.” But along with the boasts and verbal jabs, we also get such self-lacerating lines as “I don’t want to remembered at all” (from “Anthemic”) and “I want to rip my face off and light it on fire” (from “Are You Alive”).
It’s hard to imagine Leon’s speaker saying such self-conscious and self-aware lines. “Life moves so fast and we are like not able to remember everything,” is about as contemplative as Leon’s speaker gets in The Hot Tub. In some ways, this entire book is a play on the theme of Innocence and Experience. Leon’s speaker is almost childlike in his absorption of the world around him, even when he’s using “pharmaceuticals” or tonguing assholes. Hoy’s narrator thinks about God, and is constantly referencing “people,” as if they were space aliens he is trying his damnedest to like. He makes grand statements about himself, and then, a few lines later, makes grand statements that contradict what he just said. Depressed teenagers are frequently drawn to Nietzsche, and for good reason: both are not only at war with the world, but with the idea of the reality principle itself. And Hoy’s narrator is both deeply adolescent and deeply Nietzschean.
Not that Leon’s book is any less than Hoy’s, or vice versa. In fact, I really see this as a singular book not only in terms of its design, but in terms of the poems themselves. To me, the two titles are more like the titles of different sections in the same book than the titles of self-contained and separated books.
What are we to make of the book overall? Is it an exercise in irony? Is it a “curse on all your houses” book, one that makes fun of both the speakers and the world around the speakers? I get the sense that if the book is thoroughly ironic, it’s not a distant, “literary” irony. My own sense is that the personas here are meant to keep us unbalanced. Take them too seriously and you make this book flat, a “critique” of late capitalistic systematic models of blah blah blah. Take them as a joke, and the pieces become lightweight SNL skits. I think Hoy and Leon want us to not quite know how to read the voices. They want these imaginary assholes to be real and vibrant. And they succeed.