SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 3, 2011

Correction

 

Across the board, thereís a single question that a writer gets asked more than any otheróI donít care who they are or what they write, in every Q&A ever done, someone will inevitably ask, ďWho are your favorite writers?Ē or ďWhat writers have most influenced you?Ē

††††††††††† Itís a simple damn question, right? Especially considering how often itís asked. Tick off a few well-rehearsed names and move on. Even if your favorites change over time, or you read something else that influences you, it remains the simplest question in the world. It requires no deep thought, no profound exposition. Just a few dumb names, for godsakes.

††††††††††† But itís a question I always get wrong. Not only do I get it wrong, I kick myself for days afterwards for getting it wrong. Itís reached the point, knowing Iím going to get it wrong, that when someone comes up to me and says, ďHey, who are your favorite writers?Ē I freeze. Or spit out something that makes no sense.

††††††††††† ďAhh . . . Davy Crockett?Ē

††††††††††† Whoever asked the question goes away confused, and Iím left there at the bar, kicking myself again. So Iíve finally decided to do something about it. Iím going to sit down here calmly and rationally and ask myself the question. Then I will make a list, including all the writers I always forget. Henry Miller once wrote a book called The Books in My Life in which he did much the same thing. In it, he listed hundreds, even thousands of authors and titles. I could probably do that, too, but here Iíll keep things a little shorter.

So who are my favorite writers, and which of them have influenced me the most? Letís see.

††††††††††† The first, and sometimes only name that comes up when I get asked this is Thomas Pynchon. I donít kick myself for that one, and I donít bring it up to be all Mr. Hoity Toity Smarty Pants. I hold Mr. Pynchon to be one of the greatest whoís ever lived, and my respect only grows with repeated readings (or in my case, listenings). Heís one of the rare Quality Lit Types who has always recognized the importance of slapstick and bad jokes.

††††††††††† Henry Miller usually makes the list too. Miller, if at all, is remembered for all the wrong reasons. The dirty parts of his novels are actually pretty tame if you read him thoroughly, and hardly the most interesting thing going on. When he gets on a rollóabout art, about the nature of the universe, about individualismóman oh man, no one can touch him.

Fyodor Dostoevskyís Notes from Underground (along with Millerís Black Spring) made a singular impact on me early on. If you get a good translation itís a remarkable little portrait of an obsessive mind. If you get a bad one, well, itís just silly. I luckily have a good translation on tape, and itís something I return to time and again.

††††††††††† When I was just starting out in this business, Norman Mailerís early, snotty essays (collected in Advertisements for Myself) also had a big influence on what I was doing. I got over it eventually, but I still hold him in the highest regard.

††††††††††† I wonít say Louis-Ferdinand Celine was misunderstood, because he wasnít really. He was a nasty son of a bitch. But you need to understand the intentions behind his rabid anti-Semitism. Apart from that, however, he broke so many boundaries as a stylist and remains a fundamental influence on contemporary writing (though heíll never be recognized as such). Hardly the nutcase the academics try to make him, he knew exactly what he was doing.

††††††††††† Okay, that pretty much handles all the writers Iíve ever used to answer that question in public. Now on to the ones I always forget, and kick myself for forgetting.

††††††††††† Nobody has ever written rants as hateful, flowing, vicious and beautiful as the ones Maxim Gorky wrote about his first visit to New York in the early 1920s. Man, he didnít have any fun at all at Coney.

I came to Confederacy of Dunces late in the game, only after hearing people talk about it for so many years. When I finally did read (or rather listen to) it, I realized that John Kennedy Tooleís novel was the book I had been trying to write all these years, and will likely still be trying to write when I die.

Flannery OíConnor has always been another favorite, with her mix of dark humor and darker psychology. She recognized true and ugly things about people that most people would rather not have recognized.

The same can be said about Nathaniel West and Hubert Selby, Jr., even if Selby, bless him, was a little more forthright about how deeply horrific people can be. As for West, I still consider the opening pages of Miss Lonelyhearts unbeatable. And to the very end, Selby had a way of putting madness and deep rage down on paper like no one else, sweetheart that he was.

††††††††††† A lot of people hold up Lester Bangs as the king of the early days of rock journalism, back when being a ďrock criticĒ actually meant something. For my money, though, Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches were far better writers with a broader scope. They proved me right by dropping rockíníroll and moving on to far more interesting territory. Tosches remains a stunning two-fisted writer whoís taken on the mob, Dean Martin, boxers and opium.

††††††††††† At heart (and perhaps this is obvious) I always wanted to be a pulp novelist. Knock out nasty little stories fast and cheap with little hoo-hah? That was the way for me. Unfortunately itís no longer exactly possible to work the way the classic pulp authors did. But dammit, I still try.

††††††††††† Among those classic pulp novelists, I adored both Jim Thompson and David Goodis. Goodis wrote dark little stories in which he gave free play to his even darker fetishes. And Thompson, hooboy. People talk about Chandler and Hammett and James M. Cain, but they were high art in comparison. Thompson was hard-boiled, and more than any of the others, wrote experimental novels. He got away with some weird, crazy shit in his books that no big mainstream publisher would have allowed. Thatís the blessing of staying under the radar.

††††††††††† Speaking of which, two decades before Thompson, Harry Stephen Keeler was doing much the same thing in a collection of oddball mysteries that are . . . well, theyíre kind of hard to explain. I just wish Iíd written them, is all. And Iíll keep trying.

††††††††††† Derek Davis was my first editor, and his first novel, Gifts of †a Dead Man, just came out last month, and his absolutely unique brand of Pynchonian small town noir was well worth the wait.

††††††††††† Ryan Knighton and I share the same eye condition, and have both written a couple of books about the fact. If you ask me, though, heís a much better, funnier storyteller than I am.

††††††††††† Throughout all of his novels, Tito Perdue has followed the adventures of his alter-ego, Lee Pefleyóan extremely well-read classicist and proud Southerner with very little patience for foolishness or the modern world. Iíve followed Lee from his college days to middle age, to his final days, to the afterworld, and Iíve always been amazed at Perdueís writing.

††††††††††† Then of course there are the Beats.

††††††††††† The three writers, though, that I inevitably forget when the question comes up, and always hate myself for forgetting, are about as different as they can be.

Kurt Vonnegut is another one Iíve only recently come back to. Iíd read him in high school and college, then left him there and moved on. Coming back to him now I recognize the simplicity and complexity, the dark comedy, and the wisdom, and I see for the first time what a profound, if subconscious, impact he had on me. Except for maybe the ďwisdomĒ part.

††††††††††† Samuel Beckett has always been there and always will be. While his writing is as dark as it gets, heís another one, like Pynchon, who is also secretly very, very funny. People donít seem to realize that anymore, which says more about people than it does about Beckett.

††††††††††† And finally thereís James Thurber, who had the opposite problem. People see the humor, yes, and I still find him one of the funniest writers who ever set pen to paper. But his deceptively simplistic style and sharp eye combined into something really quite wonderful. He was a much better writer than most realize. I may or may not sound strange, but I donít think any single writer has had a bigger influence on me than Thurber. I like his cartoons, too.

So those are the people I always wished Iíd remember when the time comes. Iíd like to hope I will now, but I doubt it. Iíll probably just panic again and sputter out ďJim NaborsĒ or something.

Worse still, I know for damn certain that the moment this runs, Iím going to kick myself for forgetting to include someone. Like Terry Southern. Or Erving Goffman!

††††††††††† See? Dammit!

 

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