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Sunday, January 16, 2005

This Oeuvre Ain't Big Enough for the Two of Us, Pardner

This, I suspect, was the message wrapped around a brick and flung through James Lileks's window one dark morning in the early Nineties. It was unsigned, but there was no need for a signature, for Lileks knew it came from the hand of Dave Barry.

I got something rare and extra-special for Christmas: a new Lileks book. No, not Interior Desecrations (though I got that, too), but one of his older, out-of-print books: Notes of a Nervous Man, published in 1991. In that book (a collection of newspaper columns) we find that there was once a Darwinian struggle over who would occupy the ecological niche we now think of as the Barry Shale.

The first half of Nervous Man reads like second-rate Barry. Now, I don't mean to criticize when I say that. I like Dave Barry. These columns are much like Barry's oeuvre in that they cover such topics as fear of flying, home ownership, and hair loss (that is to say, fear of flying, fear of home ownership, and fear of hair loss). As we know, Barry was more successful in this niche, possibly because he was better at achieving le mot juste.

Whereas Lileks is content to describe apartment neighbors as "...the young couple in 3A who seem to be picking up extra income by working as megaphone testers", Barry would go further, e.g. "...working as megaphone testers for Screeching Weasel Records". Where Lileks writes, "...73 percent of all women agree that men are, as a rule, as appealing as garden slugs, although generally better with power tools," Barry would write, " appealing as garden slugs, although with more boogers". Thus we see how going the extra parsec secured Barry's position as Humorcolumnist Rex, a post he has recently abdicated.

There are a few pieces in the first half of the book that show glimpses of the Lileks to Come; I don't believe Dave Barry would think to discuss The Phone Book as Literature, for example. Toward the end of the book, we leave behind the facile yuks of Barrydom and enter the realms of thoughtful introspection which is the hallmark of Lileks today. That's where I started to get bored.

I was going to say that a little bit of ruminative disquisition goes a long way, and that Lileks lost me to ennui in the last third or so of the book. But I see it isn't the last third or so of the book, it's the last article in the book, "The Rainbow Tribe", covering the Rainbow Gathering, which apparently infested a national park in Minnesota in the late '90s or early '80s. While Lileks doesn't really romanticize them, I believe he credits the act of casting off civilization to scamper naked through the forest with more profundity than it deserves.

Speaking, sorta, of the hippydippy, one of the book's surprises is this little paragraph from "The Earth Is Not Our Buddy". The context ought to make itself obvious:

Given a choice between the two positions, I'd have to go with the liberals on this one, even if it means casting my lot with the pro-lichen crowd. They believe global warming is coming, and we should either change our ways or coat ourselves with the Colonel's special blend of eleven herbs and spices and prepare to be fried. If they are wrong, fine. Better that than saying global warming needs more study, and ending up twenty years hence reading travel stories on "Anchorage: Rio of the Pacific Northwest".

This is not the Lileks we know and love today. (Note to the Lileks of 1991: Anchorage has only six more years to grow the palm trees, white sand beaches, and tiki bars necessary to a tropical tourist trap. I don't think it's going to make it.)

In short, if you really love Lileks, the book is worth tracking down. I like his more recent books a lot better, though.

I'll leave you with one interesting passage:

I bring all this up because I think the image of me doing jumping jacks in the ditch while a military convoy passes by is an image for our times, and I want to claim it before one of those guardsmen writes a novel and swipes it.

No, I'm not going to explain that. Buy the book and find out. Page 175.