BOOK REVIEW: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

The Old DriftThe Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel follows three Zambian families through three generations from before there was a Zambia (when it was Northern Rhodesia) into the near future. The nine chapters each correspond to a member of one of the families for a given generation. Throughout the first two parts — i.e. “Grandmothers” and “Mothers” — we occasionally see the lives of members of the three families bump into each other, but in the third (“Children”) we see them become entwined. The families are ethnically diverse. The grandmothers include an Italian and a Brit who married a black Rhodesian. And there is a mixed-race marriage involving an Indian merchant. While the diversity of the novel’s cast makes for some interesting considerations of identity (e.g. how one views oneself versus how one is viewed by others,) it’s not so much central to the story as it is a flavoring of the story.

While we learn in a prologue that the title is a term used by the locals living near Mosi-o-Tunya (Victoria Falls) regarding the Zambezi River, it takes on another meaning as the book’s theme. The thematic meaning has more to do with impotence to fix the country’s problems. In other words, the momentum of Zambia’s “drift” simply can’t be overcome. A central idea in the book is squandered potential. Each of the three grandmothers shows a potential for greatness that is wasted not only because they are women in a patriarchal society. Sibilla is afflicted with a condition in which hair grows over her entire body at an incredibly rapid rate. Agnes is a skilled tennis player until she goes blind. Matha is smart as a whip, but she becomes caught in the orbit of men who are dim.

Each character is caught in this inexorable “drift” that is littered with detritus like poverty, AIDS, technological dependence, and weak governance. By the time it comes to the third generation, they are not only loaded with potential but (to a large extent) have access to resources but they still can’t manage to advance on solutions. In fact, they can’t seem to help but to contribute to the problems they are set against. In a crucial scene, a confluence of the work of the three (Joseph’s vaccination, Jacob’s drones, and an embedded communication device worked on by Naila) all come together in an action that is just what they are trying to create a revolution against. [Not having control or autonomy, but rather being colonized in an entirely new kind of way.] The problem is so amorphous and vast that a consensus of what it even is can’t be agreed upon.

I picked up this book as part of my project to read literature from every country I visit, and I’m glad I did. It’s hard to imagine a book that is more useful for that purpose because it covers so much ground in terms of the history of the country and the lives of a range of Zambians from prostitutes living in shacks to the wealthy elite — not to mention the various minorities.

The book is literary fiction, centered on the characters, but a story does unfold as well as a powerful thematic exploration. The book isn’t easily classified. There is even an element of science fiction in that “beads” [imagine a smart phone built into the human hand, using neuro-electrical energy for power] are an important plot device and are relevant in the resolution of the story. There is this technology being made available to Zambians, free or at low-cost, but they are guinea pigs and have no say in how it works, when it works, or how it’s used. (In a way, that is the story of us all and is not unique to Zambia, Africa, or even the developing world.) This technological dependence is presented as a kind of neo-colonialism, and – in that regard – it’s railed against, even as people are addicted to the tech in the same way people are to their phones today. While “Bead” and advanced drone technology are central to the story, one wouldn’t call this science fiction, per se, but it’s hard to ignore the salience of technology as an element of power (and how that plays into the story.)

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers. While it may be particularly intriguing if you have a special interest in African or Zambian literature, one need not have a particular interest for the book to be engaging and a worthwhile read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Dolphins, the Whales and the Gudgeon by Aesop

The Dolphins, the Whales and the GudgeonThe Dolphins, the Whales and the Gudgeon by Aesop
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This tiny book is part of a series put out by Penguin called Little Black Classics. This one collects about 55 of Aesop’s fables together. These are all short fables, few longer than a page and many of only a few lines.

The title is an interesting choice in that that fable isn’t among the most well-known of those assembled. However, some oft the most famous have rather banal titles like: “The Fox and the Goat” or “The Wolf and the Lamb.” [Though “The Frogs Who Demanded a King” is also among the most well-known of the included stories.]

I found the collected fables to be thought-provoking, as well as being a broad sample (not a lot of the same moral repeating.) My favorites, for their cleverness, were: “The Stag at the Spring and the Lion,” “The Field Mouse and the Town Mouse,” “The Woodcutter and Hermes,” and “The Ass Carrying Salt.” Your results may vary.

I like that they’ve embraced the short format with these books. It often used to be the case that they would pad out a 50- or 60-page book like this to 120 pages, using filler, forwards, needless illustrations, and useless epilogues. This book is just the fables. (Most, but not all the fables, include a single line summation of the fable’s moral. While I don’t think this is necessary for adult readers, it might be helpful in explaining the story to children.)

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BOOK REVIEW: A Choice of Comic and Curious Verse ed. by J.M. Cohen

A Choice of Comic and Curious VerseA Choice of Comic and Curious Verse by J.M. Cohen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This poetry anthology consists of works selected and arranged by J.M. Cohen with the overarching theme of light-heartedness. Some of the poems are outright funny, others are more quirky, corny, or tongue-in-cheek. This edition was originally published in the 1970’s, though there was apparently a preceding edition that was largely the same that dates to the late-1950’s. The poems are almost all metered and rhymed, in part because that was still the dominant mode of poetry when these works were first published, and also because metered and rhymed verse conveys a jocular tone. Forms associated with comedic delivery, such as the limerick, are well-represented.

The 450-plus poems by about 180 authors (actually many more owing to the fact that the biggest contributor by far is Anonymous) are arranged into 22 thematic categories that are clearly meant to be more whimsical than categorical. The poets include those who are most well-known for playful verse such as Ogden Nash, Lewis Carroll, and Edward Lear, but also light works by poets known for seriously toned work (e.g. Alexander Pope, John Betjeman, and W.H. Auden.) There are also plenty by authors known for mixing light and serious work, such as G.K. Chesterton, Robert Graves, and Hilaire Belloc. There are also a large number of poets who you’re unlikely to have heard of unless you’re a literary historian. Included in the collection are some widely anthologized works such as Belloc’s “Matilda,” Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” and Aldous Huxley’s “Second Philosopher’s Song,” but there are a great many more that will be unfamiliar to most (and a few that may be familiar as graffiti on a restroom wall.)

I enjoyed this book. It turned me onto some poets with whom I’d been unfamiliar. The works included, as one would expect of light verse, are quite readable (though there are some outdated references here and there.) If you stumble onto a decently-priced copy, pick it up.

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BOOK REVIEW: All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare

All's Well That Ends WellAll’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play, like “Measure for Measure,” is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” – not consistently light-hearted enough to comfortably be called a comedy, but lacking the body count of a tragedy.

Helena loves Bertram, but he’s a Count and she’s the daughter of a deceased physician (a doctor who, while he was of great renown for his skill, wouldn’t be considered to be in a high-status career in those times.) Despite the fact that Helena is beloved by just about everyone – including Bertram’s mother, who became her guardian upon her father’s death – the relationship could never work… under ordinary circumstances. But those circumstances change when Helena saves the life of a dying King of France using her father’s proprietary medicines and methods. The grateful King removes [almost] all roadblocks to the marriage by allowing the wedding between a commoner and an aristocrat, providing Helena the wealth for a substantial dowry, and putting the squeeze on Bertram by telling the Count that if he loved his King he’d agree to allow the King to preserve his royal honor by rewarding Helena with all she truly wants.

The one roadblock the King can’t remove is Bertram’s feeling that he is too good for Helena because he’s a Count and she’s a nobody. The couple is married, but before the marriage can be consummated, Bertram slinks off to Italy under the pretext of fighting a war. He sends Helena back to his home where he thinks his mother will support him by making life hell for her new daughter in-law, but – joke is on him – his mother thinks that he’s being a jerk and she gives Helena a warm reception. Bertram forwards a note to Helena that unless she can get the ring off his finger and a baby is in her womb sprung from his loins, she shouldn’t really consider them married. Again the joke is on him, because Helena is the smartest person in the play and she develops a clever plot (that in part is similar to the “Measure for Measure” ploy) that is designed to meet the “impossible” requirements of Bertram, as well get the Count back to France where his failure to behave as a husband will be taken as a slap in the face to the King.

Of course “All’s Well That Ends Well” is worth reading. It’s Shakespeare. But I will say that I found “Measure for Measure” to be a better story. The major hurdle in this play is in accepting that Helena remains so stuck on Bertram, despite the fact that he’s portrayed as a jerk. Bertram does conduct himself admirably in war, but the “the heart wants what the heart wants” rationale is all we really get by way of explanation. It’s not clear whether Helena’s plot is playing out from the time she runs away from the Countess’s place, or whether she legitimately runs away to be a nun, but exploits a target of opportunity. Either way, there’s some deus ex machina to that part of the play. Also, her stock drops as we see the elaborate length she’ll go to in order to get her man.

I’d recommend this play, but if you can only do so much Shakespeare and haven’t read “Measure for Measure” yet, I’d recommend that one over this.

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BOOK REVIEW: Letters Written and Not Sent by William Louis-Dreyfus

Letters Written and Not SentLetters Written and Not Sent by William Louis-Dreyfus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection consists of about 55 poems, mostly of the short-form free verse variety. The author passed away between completion and publication of the volume. He was that rarest of creatures, a rich poet. (Though he was not an impossible creature – i.e. he didn’t become a billionaire by writing poetry. It was his side gig between trading in commodities.)

One of the poems toward the end of the book, “How to keep from being devoured,” changed my attitude toward the book. Up until that poem, I found the collection to be just okay. It was alright, but didn’t feel like anything special. However, that one poem made its mark on me, and I suspect other readers will find their own favorites among the collection. The poems are finely crafted. The fact that this one short volume is billed as the man’s “lifetime work” suggests that he focused on quality rather than quantity of verse.

I found a gem among a body well-composed poetic works, and I’m pleased I took the time to read this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

Measure for MeasureMeasure for Measure by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Measure for Measure” was originally grouped as one of Shakespeare’s comedies (back when there were just three categories: tragedy, comedy, and history,) but more recently it’s been reclassified as one of the three “problem plays” of Shakespeare. Problem plays are neither clearly comedy nor clearly tragedy, but mix elements of both.

Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, is taking a mysterious trip, and he’s left his deputy, Angelo, in charge. Angelo is a stickler for the law (or, at least, appears to be at first) and one of his first official acts is to sign a death sentence on Claudio. Claudio is a young man who knocked up his girlfriend. While the law calls for death, everyone advises Angelo that the details of the case don’t merit such a sentence. Those details being that the young woman, Juliet, is in love with Claudio, consensually partook of sexual intercourse, and both she and he are eager to marry so that the child will not be born out of wedlock. Angelo is unmoved by petitions from just about everyone to let Claudio live as long as he weds Juliet. When Claudio’s sister, Isabella, who heard the news in the convent where she is a postulant [in training to be a nun, but not yet one,] comes before Angelo seeking leniency for her brother, Angelo’s tune slowly changes, and he betrays himself as the worst form of hypocrite. If Juliet will “consent” [used loosely] to Angelo taking her virginity, he’ll let Claudio go. Obviously, Juliet isn’t at all keen on this arrangement, being a nun wanna-be and having the strict moral values one might expect of one who’s chosen such a life. She goes off preparing to tell her brother that he must die because the only way out is for her to sex up Angelo. Isabella fully expects Claudio will accept this, but Claudio has a moment of weakness in which he shares his terror of death and requests Juliet do the deed with Angelo. However, she won’t do it.

At this point, things look grim for Claudio, but we find out that the Duke is pulling a Henry V, and (far from visiting foreign lands to unknown purpose) is making his way in disguise through Vienna, learning what happens in his absence. The Duke [pretending to be a friar] has various meetings with Isabella, Claudio, the Provost (a warden), and others. The Duke-turned-friar hatches a plot that hinges on a piece of inside information that he holds.

It turns out that the sight of lovely Isabella wasn’t the first cause of Angelo being a jerk, there was a previous incident. Angelo was once betrothed to a woman, but before they could wed the woman’s fortunes changed when a storm sank the boat carrying wealth that included her dowry. Lacking a dowry, Angelo kicked the woman to the curb where she ended up turning tricks in a Viennese brothel because for fortune had sunk — literally.

The Duke / friar’s plan is that Isabella go to Angelo and say that she agrees to his despicable propositions, and that she will do the vile deed on the condition that it be someplace pitch dark so that her lady bits can remain unseen and so she won’t throw up in the lousy face of her rapist. She also insists she be able to bring a servant to the place in question. The plan revolves around getting the wronged ex-fiancé turned prostitute to agree to pull a switch-a-roo, with her engaging in intercourse in the dark with Angelo instead of the virgin Isabella doing so. Angelo having committed the same offense as the man he signed a death warrant for will have to either change his order regarding Claudio or submit himself to the same punishment.

One can see why this play is not easily classified. It contains a lot of dark subject matter. However, it does have numerous lighthearted moments of humor, including Lucio badmouthing the Duke (to the Duke’s friar-disguised face) and the servant of a local brothel’s Madame, Pompey, becoming an assistant to the executioner. As in comedies, everything works out more or less happily for all parties.

I was gripped by this play. It’s among my favorites of the Shakespearean comedies. It has an intense storyline and some fascinating moral conundrums. The Duke works his plot such that more than one character must confront a moral dilemma and choose whether to be a better version of him-, or herself. This is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Why Dylan Matters by Richard F. Thomas

Why Dylan MattersWhy Dylan Matters by Richard F Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Obviously, in the annals of popular music, the work of Bob Dylan matters. To make sense of the title and related objective of this book (which might otherwise seem presumptuous and demeaning) one has to know a little about some recent history of the politics of the Nobel Prize for Literature. (No, not the internal scandal that delayed the issuance of the 2018 Prize to 2019.) In 2016, an American hadn’t won since 1993 (Toni Morrison,) and given the relative volume of publications from America this was coming to be seen as a major “screw you” to the nation’s literary community. The Nobel committee claimed it was because American authors didn’t get their works translated and were too insular with respect to the global literary community. Still, the disparity was on the minds of many. Then, Bob Dylan was issued the Prize. While some who were offended by this disparity were placated, many thought it was an even bigger “screw you” than if the Committee again hadn’t issued it to an American – like it was a “you asked for it, you got it; now shut up for at least the next 15 years!” kind of award. I doubt anyone would deny that, as a pop music lyricist, Bob Dylan is brilliant – if not the best — but for many that still just made him a middling poet. (Dylan wrote one piece of prose poetry, “Tarantula” as well as “memoirs” [that were apparently largely an act of creative writing,] but only his lyrics could feasibly merit issue of the award.)

It was with that mess in mind that Thomas delivers this book. It seems to be his objective to not just prove that Dylan matters — generally speaking — but that Dylan’s work matters as literature – presumably, such that he’s at least as deserving of the Nobel Prize as any living American poet, story-writer, or novelist. The thrust of Thomas’s approach is in showing that Dylan’s work is dialed into the global literary canon. As a classicist, Thomas puts particular emphasis on Dylan’s stealing from, and referencing of, Greek and Roman figures like Homer and Ovid. (I mean “stealing” only in the sense that word used by artists, and there is considerable discussion of that subject, herein.) However, he does also show how Dylan uses and references other poets from Shakespeare to an obscure Confederate poet.

So, the logical question is whether Thomas answers his book’s titular question with enough authority to convince the reader that Dylan does matter. Thomas certainly convinces us why Dylan matters enough to have classes taught about him, like the one Thomas teaches a Harvard. However, I can’t say that I was convinced that Dylan is on-par with… for instance, Cormac McCarthy or Salman Rushdie (who resides in the US, as I understand it) as a major literary figure. While Thomas does show that Dylan’s work is literature because Dylan’s work is wrapped up in literature, the only real argument he offers for whether Dylan is at the highest echelon of literature is his intense fan-boy devotion. We see a lot of comments like: “He had all that he needed to write ‘Masters of War,’ the greatest anti-war song ever written.” Not “one of the best,” not “the best, in my opinion,” not “the best rock-n-roll anti-war song,” but a gratuitous presumption that nothing else could be considered in the running enough for there to be a debate. Thomas’s enthusiasm that Dylan is among the biggest artistic geniuses of our time – if not all time – is certainly potent, but not necessarily compelling.

The book is annotated, has a bibliography and a graphic discography.

I enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about the works of Bob Dylan and I found the author’s fervor for Dylan’s songs contagious — if not altogether convincing that it merits Dylan’s inclusion with Hemingway and Faulkner as an American literary icon. [Though I would not in the least challenge his inclusion as an icon of folk, rock, or pop music.] If you’re interested in Dylan, or this question of whether he’s the best American for the job of Literary Nobel Laureate, this book is worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Three Tang Dynasty Poets by Wang Wei, Li Po, and Tu Fu

Three Tang Dynasty PoetsThree Tang Dynasty Poets by Wang Wei
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is in a series put out by Penguin Books entitled “Little Black Classics.” As the series name implies, these are booklets featuring classic works (or fragments, thereof.) This book features a combined 33 poems by three Chinese poets who lived in the eight century.

In the 14 poems by Wang Wei (a.k.a. Wang Youcheng) we see his famed mastery of landscape and nature poems, and we feel the effect of his Cha’an (Zen) Buddhist mindset.

Among the ten poems by Li Po (a.k.a. Li Bai) we are introduced from the beginning to the poet’s legendary proclivity for drink. While it’s not all carousing, human characters do play a more central role in Li Po’s work.
There are nine poems by Tu Fu (or, Du Fu), which share Li Po’s inclination to feature humanity at the heart of each poem, if in a more straight-laced way.

I enjoyed the poems in both their imagery and sound quality. I can’t really speak to how skilled the translation was, i.e. how much better or worse they could have been. The translators were G.W. Robinson and Arthur Cooper, who I know nothing of, but who apparently both translated a considerable amount of classic Chinese literature.

The poems are almost all short form works, so – with one exception – the poems are included in their entirety (i.e. not excerpted.)

The booklet has an appendix that features a two-page prose story entitled “The Story of the Peach Blossom Spring” by Tao Yuanming. The reason for including the story is that it’s the inspiration for the Wang Wei poem that opens the volume.

I enjoyed reading this little booklet of poetry. The translations are easy to follow, and the imagery is appealing. The Zen / Taoist feel that is widespread in these works is pleasant.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

The Hidden Girl and Other StoriesThe Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: February 25, 2020

 

This smart collection of speculative short stories by Ken Liu is mostly science fiction, but includes a few works of fantasy (including the titular story, which is what one might call “martial arts-fantasy” – i.e. imagine “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with more magic.) Depending how one counts up the stories, one could call the collection nineteen stories or sixteen stories and a novella. The novella, broken into three parts, is “storified” enough that its sections are interspersed among the other stories.

Liu doesn’t neatly contain his stories within boundaries of genre. In some cases, he jumps through time — including historical fiction, contemporary / near future, and distant future within a single story. He also takes on social issues like the Japanese internment during World War II in “Maxwell’s Demon” and the blight of technology on social interaction (best shown in “Thoughts and Prayers.”) There are hard sci-fi stories that show intergalactic travelers in a distant future, such as “The Message,” but there are even more that peer into the worries of the near future, such as artificial intelligence or the replicating of human consciousness in computers.

The novella imagines a world in which companies have captured the consciousnesses of great, but dying, minds for their own purposes. It then explores considerations such as: what happens when a great mind gets tired of being trapped as an acorporeal intelligence for the benefit of a company, and what does humanity mean in the context of fully replicated human minds?

I found these stories to be both intriguing and thought-provoking. I enjoy a good story, but stories that make one think deeply hold that much more allure. I’d highly recommend this collection for fiction readers. Whether or not you read genre fiction, you’ll find stories of great appeal.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hogg by Samuel R. Delany

HoggHogg by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re familiar with Samuel R. Delany, it’s probably as a writer of science-fiction. His most famous works are “Dhalgren” and “Babel-17.” However, this book isn’t science-fiction, and I’m not sure that there is a consensus term for the particular genre that would categorize it. Astute readers will point out that it’s described as “erotica” right on the cover. But, in as much as erotica is a genre whose dominant intention is to evoke feelings of arousal, I’m not sure the majority of people would classify it that way (though I have no doubt there is a fetish community that would.) This isn’t to say that the book isn’t loaded with sexual activity. It is, across virtually every page, but the way those acts are presented — I suspect — will be found more cringe-inducing than arousing to the average reader. I’m specifically talking about the extreme unhygienic behavior that takes place throughout this book – much of which is tied up in sexual activity, but not all of it. Let it be known that I’m not commenting on the nature of the sexual activity, which is pansexual. I’m not even talking about the moral disgust of the fact that most of the scenes in which a woman is present involve rape of a particularly vicious nature, and that child molestation takes place throughout. By the same token, horror isn’t a good classifier either, though the book does have many horrifying scenes, and might best be categorized by a type of horror subgenre. If horror is a genre designed to evoke fear, “Hogg” is a book designed to evoke disgust – and it does so with great success. So, the first thing a reader should be aware of before taking on this book is that you may throw up in your mouth at one or more points during the reading of it.

So strong is aversion to disgust that probably most readers will have given up on this review by now and given up any intention of reading the book. Those who are still here, however, may want to know whether the book has redeeming qualities. The answer is: Yes. It has a smart story, psychological intrigue, and skillful use of language (even if much of that skill is directed at making one physically queasy.) While “Hogg” is often painful to read, it is adroit storytelling.

The book tells the story of the unnamed narrator, a boy who is known throughout only by a slang term for “giver of fellatio.” The narrator spends much of the book in service to the titular character, Hogg. Hogg is about as loathsome a character as one can imagine, and he needs the extra “g” because to call him a hog wouldn’t be an insult to swine. He exercises little control over where he urinates and defecates, and prides himself in unhygienic behavior. His job is contract work, but instead of murder he rapes and beats women who’ve run afoul of despicable and cowardly men. The lead character seems to be motivated by a need to please and / or capture the attention of an individual who has no capacity for human connection. The psychotic Hogg seems perfect target for such “affections,” and that’s why after bouncing from master to master, the narrator ends up with Hogg for such a time.

One of the most psychologically interesting elements of the book is its depiction of the bizarro morality of individuals who have an anarchic mindset. At one point, Hogg decides that he can’t tolerate a customer who insists on explaining his reason for hiring Hogg and his crew. In Hogg’s mind, the fact that the man can come up with a reason for the horrific act, other than the pure bliss of it, indicates that the man is crazy and will ultimately feel guilty and be the ruin of them all.

The story is swept along through its climax and resolution when Hogg’s most junior crew member (not counting the narrator who is only along for the ride) goes on a killing spree after an ill-advised penis-piercing. The reader never learns for certain whether this individual just lost his mind as a result of being drawn into Hogg’s world, if it was toxicity from the rusty metal he was pierced with, or some combination of both. However, we know from his chronic, public masturbation that he was never completely right in the head to begin with.

This book is not for everybody. Reading it is almost an act of courage and discipline. As a piece of literature, it’s intense and thought-provoking, but if you find any of the following intolerable to read about, you’ll not get through it: child molestation, rape, violence, the n-word, or coprophilia.

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