Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Todd Dills founded the literary broadsheet and Web site and events-instigator THE2NDHAND in Chicago in 2000, though at some point he left that city for Alabama and at some point moved to Nashville, where the institution—if that’s the right word—is now based. I represented THE2NDHAND in one of the “The Literary Gangs of Chicago” readings in 2007, and won the plastic crown of the Literary Death Match in their name in 2009. So I’ve been associated with both the writer and his press—he blurbed my story collection, we’ve read together at least twice—for some time, though it’s not for the standard conflict-of-interest reasons that I begin a review with this amount of autobiography.
Triumph of the Ape makes me think about memoir and memories, about the ideals of community fueling literary activity—the writing and the publishing, the reviewing and the reading, the performances and the conversations, the public and the private events. A central story here is “The Stupidist Manifesto,” engaging the themes of the collection as a whole, which are the task of the writer, broadly understood, and the writer’s relation to a larger society, or levels—circles, one might say—of society, from the friendly fellow-travelers through various levels of aliens and opponents, culminating, in one way, with the Decider, George W. Bush, a presence here synonymous with war, sure, but mainly with a lack of control, a force which leads to increasing insulated conceptions of the writer’s task. The war, for instance: one story has a narrator who has an idea about talking about it, the war, the war as a topic, but the bar is hogged by Young Republicans, and dialogue, that utopian ideal, seems futile, absurd and even self-destructive, in the end. This is one representation, too, of that frustratingly unshakable force, the hegemony of the other side—the inside—that recurs throughout this book. “WE ARE OUT HERE,” those lesser primates, the Stupidist writers, proclaim. They are outside this restrictive, oppressive world. Or they want, in their petty protests, to pretend to be.
Geography matters here. Think Strom Thurmond versus Western Avenue at 3 a.m., or Confederate flags versus ambient Wilco songs. The city, Chicago, is contrasted with those outskirts of civilization, the South, outside versus inside, a world of “crowded drunken apartment parties, dim conversations in dusty barrooms” versus the dirty end of the Dixie Highway, full of fire ants and stupid people—people so stupid they don’t even know from barbeque, to use one of Dills’s bits of verbal jujitsu, the quintessential urban phrase drawing a distinguishing line here, the cosmopolitan connoisseur sneering at the South on the South’s own vinegar-and-sugar terms. As the opening narrator laments, from “back home” in some pit-stain of a non-place: “It’s my fault we moved, it is. My job brought us south.” But Chicago is “OUT HERE” in contrast to all that vacancy. In the face of a stupid, simian world, the artist embraces stupidity as a cause—or something like that.
I, too, was in Chicago for the snowstorm of New Year’s Eve, 1998 turning to 1999. This seems worth mentioning because, again, this book makes me think about memoirs and memories, about community and the task of art, about politics and ideals and place. Class, too: in these pages we see rich-enough white kids heading to Cabrini-Green to buy crack. We see how racist and southern-feeling the city can be, and how hostile, hard, “out to get” you it can come across, too. One story tells the tale of the secession of 2641 N. Spaulding—a short-lived sovereign state, self-declared. “We had a party,” the story goes, “attended by all six of my friends in the town at the time plus one (the apartment couldn’t hold much more than that, anyway)” while in the cultural background, the IN THERE of everywhere else, “the repeat ascendancy of George W. Bush to the abstract imperial throne approached....” There’s a chimp in this story, a chimp at a zoo that looks like Bush and reminds the narrator of plenty of stupid, racist, ugly things, though maybe these things—like the war—remain vague. There’s a shared rage, a shared righteousness, a shared enthusiasm, but for what?
Since 9/11, the libertarian rednecks of the South and their indisputable if misguided individualism had been undergoing an identity crisis of epic proportions. My favorite among their many bits of armchair wisdom—It’s a free country!—meant to justify the most reprehensible among their activities, had given way to my father’s sort of line-in-the-sand moralizing. It was by God a free country no more,
we are told, in a bit of embedded political critique, but there isn’t much more meat here than there is to another character’s declaration that George W. Bush is the devil. In lieu of an articulated political stance we have a flinching reaction—a disgust, I think—to that IN THERE and its “repeat ascendancy” in American culture. In the stories here of artist types who have made the Great Migration to that promised urban center, there’s a fear—a recognition?—that as they say about the past down south, The South didn’t actually go anyplace, didn’t get left behind. “To me the term ‘Old South’ can only be farcical in nature, lionizing a ridiculously laughable legacy to be denounced with humorous ridicule to the end of time,” muses one narrator. Another derides the “Old South Disneyland” of marble-gargling Faulkner stories. We are told that the very identity to which “we”—writers and readers, the implied community of this book—are radically other than them, that all that. “Put most of us in a roomful of South Carolina debutante types and we’d all get called very specific varieties of scumbag.”
The Great Migration is not merely a historical event. It remains a central myth of our nation: from the hostile hopeless wastes of the south to the promising urban centers of the north, from ignorance to culture, from shit to being, from the void to the swirling possibilities and potentials that are Creation. Yes, this land of yours and mine is mapped even onto a mystical narrative, a cosmic quest. “Just get the hell out of here,” one broken would-be-but-never-quite-was writer turned community college cog hisses at a character in “The Stupidist Manifesto.” Just go. Light out for the concrete territories. Make a self for yourself.
This story also has a writer insist that “The Stupidist needs not the comforts of home, she draws sustenance from the road,” but travel makes sense only in relation to some base culture, and that’s not barbeque shacks, that’s the City. As Dills relays in a moving moment, having described a kind of conversational milieu in Chicago—translation, sharing, reading, discussing—and then being dis-placed, back to “the middle of nowhere east of Tuscaloosa, Ala.” where the story’s narrator witnesses a scene that can only make sense in the way it makes sense to him because of who he is which is due directly to where he has been. The meaning he makes is Chicago meaning. For everyone else on Highway 7, it’s an annoyance; for our narrator, it is “perfectly pregnant as antecedent to the long slog of the Chicago Stupidists, less a march in the lead of progress as an unhappy accident that just slowed down other, more ultimately successful runs.”
While the South might not be good at much, it has a knack for bitter nostalgia. I write this from a particularly noxious little town, where the greened-bronze and bird-shit Confederate memorial stares bravely north, awaiting another act of aggression and where an editorial in the local newspaper lays out the coming presidential election as “a choice between Satan and God.” That’s the sort of sentence one sees differently having travelled with Todd Dills, from the roiling possibilities and enthusiasms, random chance and rush and high and all sort of sharp extremes, from the city, in short, to the horrible IN THERE of a country that chaws on the word “freedom” all goddamn day, but has no clue as to what it might mean and why it might matter. A harsh dichotomy, and unfair in a thousand ways, but very much my takeaway from this provocatively titled collection, which reads, as a whole, like a book might if written by a man who finally, reaching the beach, realizes the bits of wreckage half buried in the sand is everything that mattered, the place of dreams and opportunity. The damn dirty apes win, every time you wake up not in Chicago, where there is always, as Dills shows us, something unexpected, new, and real. “Across the alley, an open window,” and maybe it’s a bullet or maybe it’s love waiting there, but it’s something, not nothing, it’s a kind of triumph, not a farce.
Official THE2NDHAND Web Site