about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Maintain (Ampersand Books, 2012). 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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The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense
A Review of The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense
by Tim Kinsella

Spencer Dew

This retro-styled pocket-sized paperback looks like it would be for sale on a drugstore’s revolving paperback rack, back when such things still existed, a nod to the leitmotifs of humor inside, about karaoke, yes, and strip clubs, underground fight clubs, toothpaste factories... But this is a book about child sexual abuse, really, and about the wounds people carry into adulthood, wounds that render their carriers quirky or unlikable, pathetic or sympathetic, but that remain wounds, half-concealed in the attics of memory like the lyrics to a song one can hum but not quite verbalize. This is the story, then, of a death, a reunion, and the wrestling that is growing up, littered with resentments, regret, old confusions and new bafflement. The music, the story’s focus on music, is related to all this, an exploration of the role music plays in this whole painful, staggering forward that is life. For instance:

From his baby-puke hatchback Chevette to his cherished black Firebird, to his box, boat-white Grenada with the crimson interior which he loved to demonstrate was plush enough to leave a fossilized handprint in, to his current family dumpster, the song played on endless loop to justify his detached recklessness. The song unified his reflexes, smoothing out sudden brakes and lunges.

Or, in another key, “Mel, lite beer to waist, thumbs through belt loops, tilted forward and back. She felt it coming in the air tonight.”

At points this lapses into high theory, informed by literary knowledge, as when Queen’s “Under Pressure” inspires this comparison: “The terror of knowing what the world is about, yeah, the world all at once, Gaia, Borges’s ‘Aleph,’ and Jesus, of course these people on the streets scream to be let out, like a Hieronymus Bosch, let me out from the fruit of knowledge, the burden of five senses, time. Shit,” a riff that expands, and deepens into:

This is ourselves. So perfectly simple and what could be left to say? The promise of rock ‘n’ roll, what religion might’ve once done, transcendence and redemption fulfilled through form. And instrumental, the words only in her head, karaoke production values slightly off in a way she could never explain specifically, maybe executed perfectly and only the circumstances of the recording proven singular, Borges’s Pierre Menard, tones familiar but different. In the act of this conclusive achievement of the promise of the rock form, ‘Under Pressure,’ the promise of karaoke is also fulfilled.

And at other points music and its functions—salve, analgesic, even avatar—play out the banal tragedies that are this novel’s central, and humanely considered, subject:

Two young women, secretaries, Mel guessed, in gym shoes and ironed dresses with wide solid watches of color, couldn’t stop laughing long enough to complete a sing line of ‘Baby Got Back.’ Didn’t even try, by the end of the song. When either of them heard herself or the other amplified for even a second, she’d laugh so hard, pull the microphone away as if her friend required defending from amplification. This repression, by the second half of the song, turned to desperate hamminess as a means to conceal their shared excessive bashfulness. One bent over, hands on knees, and shook her ‘back’ at the audience while the other bent over, hands on knees, occasionally attempted to quell her laughter long enough to stand up and slap the other. Gus, Norman, Mel, and Will all shook their heads to each other regretfully. Everyone in the room felt that only feeling worse than shame: shame for another who doesn’t know well enough to be ashamed.

Savor that poignant yet cringing “shame for another who doesn’t know well enough to be ashamed.” To name such an emotion is one thing, to convey it, something more. And this thick book, bounding over territory—from the nostalgic smell of dust in a grandmother’s home, memories of the meals she’d make, to the physical rush of smashing the faces of other men, having one’s own body wracked and bruised, beaten open and bloodied—identifies, contextualizes, and hones this feeling, offering in its assortment of characters a range of lenses onto such a sentiment, such a human condition. The cringe is central here, the visceral engagement with the pain of others, even or especially when they don’t know well enough to feel that pain. The asshole dad making a spectacle of himself on the sidelines of his kid’s game, the sweaty drunk humiliating himself in public—Kinsella doesn’t just give us these scenes from some distance, he leads us to get to know the people involved, to feel with and for them. This book’s cover, camouflaging the text as some mass-produced, sun-bleached relic of a lost era, belies the ambitious and affecting work of literature inside.

Official Tim Kinsella Web Site
Official Featherproof Books Web Site

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