Et Tu, Mark

As I finish up some new entries for here — I’m making my way through the Curacao trip and all the notes I took there — I’ve been sorting through things (call them short essays… sashays?) that wrote in the past year. This is from late July 2011, and it’s fitting because in a month I plan to call in my first exemption from Book Fast 2012 and purchase the new Mark Leyner book.


TOWER GROVE — In the wilderness of read, half-read and unread books that are piling up on and all around the bookshelves of my office, I found this morning a thumbed-over copy of a book that I abused in college: Et Tu, Babe by Mark Leyner. I’ve read stories of writers, like Hunter S. Thompson, who would retype their favorite books to get a feel for how sentences created rhythm, momentum, and the changes in tempo that powered a story. Judging by the dog ears in the book and Post-It notes that fell out of it when I pulled it off the shelf, that’s what I did with Et Tu. Guess that says a lot about what I was thinking at the time. I read some of the pages right out of the binding, apparently, and recently realized a quote from the book has been taped to my desk for, oh, about 18 years now.

The book is a runaway fever dream, complete with psychedelic passages and Corporate America lunacy. It centers on an author so famous that a coffee table book is created out of photos of him lounging nude on top of the Team Leyner offices — photos taken by a spy satellite. At one point he seeks out the high he could get from snorting a “vial of Lincoln’s morning breath” that is held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. There are discussions about the value of colorizing daguerreotypes from the Civil War, tattooing internal organs, and homicidal poets, one of whom skins Kevin Costner. Leyner rightly describes the The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a “gossipy tell-all.” Leyner advertises his book, in the rapid-fire sale’s job that opens the pseudo-memoir, “a master jam of relentless humor and indeterminate trajectories.”

The writing is so fine-tuned, so sleek and so frickin’ sideways that it’s like a jumping inside a 12-cylinder Maybach 62 going 0-to-60 in 5.4 seconds and then hydroplaning, gloriously, through an oil slick.

You have no idea what way you’re going or where you’re headed or even if you will survive, but damn the ride is luxurious.

This book, and Tom Wolfe’s books a year later (thanks to a copy of The New Journalism found on a shelf at Blackwell’s in Oxford), struck me for that very reason — reading became a ride. You could do this with words! Weeee! Zowie! You could do this with capital-J Journalism! The descriptions were so energetic and so kinetic that it was impossible to turn away. Even the verbal crashes were spectacular. Later in college, I would wrote a paper that suggested such active writing — a tenet of New Journalism — was possible in short bursts, in the 20-inch race of a game story or side bar or city-council coverage. You didn’t need the space of a magazine article to recreate dialogue or give these high-octane, open-throttle descriptions. You could do it in the space of a few paragraphs. And looking at the sections of Et Tu I marked and rewrote and forever tacked to my desk, that’s what I was starting to look for in this book — the most muscular and entertaining of passages.

Three that I fixated on:

I had once intended to write an entire novel while having to urinate very badly. I wanted to see how that need affected the style and tempo of my work. I had found, for instance, that when I’m writing about a character who’s in a Ph. D. program and I don’t have to urinate badly, I’ll have him do a regular three- or four-year program. But if I’m writing a novel and I have to urinate very very badly, then I’ll push the character through an accelerated Ph. D. program in only two years, maybe even a year. (from Page 6)

We have a similar tie-it-in-a-knot experiment in sports writing. We call it deadline. Moving on:

At the conclusion of the (writing) workshop, my bodyguards, who’ve been working undercover, will take into custody each of those participants who has stated that he or she could be as good a writer as I am. Quietly, so as not to alarm those who have remained to get my autograph, the detained participants are handcuffed, loaded into the security van, and taken to headquarters. … Bookstore shelf-space is limited, as are the column inches available in today’s book reviews, and we at headquarters are adamant in our belief that all competition — active or potential — must be neutralized. (from Page 54)

This is the part of the book that I wrote on a standard-issue Post-It note and slapped it to my dorm room desk, and it’s the same note that has followed me to New Orleans and Denver and St. Louis and always found a spot somewhere on or near my desk. The sticky on the back has long since lost its ability to stay stuck, and the description may be as outdated. Bookshelf space? Dude, go digital. Column inches? How newsprint. And the description is lively and, in some ways, eerie. What else is Twitter than one big pell mell for journalists to their news out first and then bodyguard their info against threats, active or potential. The concept of Leyner’s hit squad is zany. The words are manic. The writing is clear.

And one more from a status meeting for Team Leyner:

“Mr. Leyner, we have a minor personnel problem. Y’know our regulation prohibiting any Team Leyner employee from earning income outside the organization? Well, one of the mailroom clerks is selling marijuana grown on pieces of sod he’s removed from various major league baseball stadiums. He’s got Wrigley Wiggly, Fenway Dream Bean, Comiskey Park and Ride … he’s even selling marijuana grown on stadium sod from vintage years, like 1969 Shea Stadium Sinsemilla.” (from Page 78)

OK, so maybe I tabbed and transcribed that last one because of the baseball references. Can’t argue with the creativity of it, and it does pack a lot about the character and the business into one paragraph. And that’s really the goal. I once had a teacher who told me that I needed more Ernest Hemingway in my life. His sentences, the teacher said, pound for pound packed the most sock in literature. They were controlled. Contained. Raw. Beautiful in their brevity. I get that, but as my reading spread beyond the classics to the Leyners and the Wolfes and the Thompsons, as this book and the notes I took when reading and re-reading it, I learned there is strength in taut, kinetic narrative.

And though the story or the description can go careening wildly out of control, the sentences never should.



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