Book: Down Where the Devil Don’t Go
Author: Paul Bingham
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because one of the stories is entitled, “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Hollywood”.
Availability: Published by Nine Banded Books in 2014, you can get a copy here:
Or you can order it directly from the publisher.
Comments: My love for short story collections has been firmly established by now, so, in spite of the picture of the deformed kitten on the cover, I was already inclined toward liking this book. I was somewhat disappointed. Bingham’s prose style is similar to my own when I write fiction – Bingham relishes ridiculous and horrible details yet writes about them in a spare, concise manner. He eschews over-use of adjectives and adverbs, which gives his prose an immediacy, a sort of direct punch that doesn’t get dragged down by needless scene setting or excessive characterization. This is not beautiful prose; rather, this is effective prose. But even as the prose is effective, I still found it difficult to like this collection as much as the solid writing would ordinarily inspire in me.
The book consists of four stories and the first, “Population I” verges dangerously into cliched territory, yet is the best story in the collection. The protagonist, The Writer, is suffering from writer’s block and every bit of success other writers receive, however small those successes may be, cause him anguish. Like many blocked writers, The Writer is sort of pompous, certain other writers are useless hacks. He loathes almost everyone around him, except for a black convict named Jamal, who was sent to prison for deliberately spreading HIV to not-so-unsuspecting sex partners. Jamal is The Writer’s Jack Henry Abbott, a conveniently locked-up substitution for his own thwarted id. However, if Jamal were ever paroled, one very much gets the sense that The Writer would be Jamal’s next victim, and, in fact, The Writer craves the humiliation and personal destruction that would come from being raped by a man with HIV. Such an obliteration would finally give a focus to his own pointlessness.
As I read this story, The Writer’s disgust for his roommate, Rose, a fellow writer, began to manifest into a sort of visceral envy. Rose is a sort of bohemian (though, as the The Writer notes, she is too fat to be a proper bohemian) with unpleasant habits and an appearance disagreeable to The Writer. Rose tends to hang out with gay men, and also has sex with gay men, and the Writer considers her world to be extremely small, but it’s hard to know what it is small in comparison to because his own world is very small. Rose is, in her way, also a stand-in for his id, a messy, chaotic woman who writes about sex and is foul in her personal habits, and that messiness and nastiness is a sort of flow that allows her words to come out in a way that The Writer cannot manage. Here are some various descriptions of Rose:
It occurred to him that Rose would be the perfect Bohemian prop, except she was chubby and didn’t chain-smoke. Her head sprouted black knots of curling hippie hair. She lived as a sophisticated bag lady in ordered squalor.
Her scents annoyed The Writer.
Her hair – coarse; naturally black – clogged the shower drain.
She drank little and it made her breezy. Sometimes she used Tampax to blow her nose.
The Writer didn’t like her because she was ugly, because she wrote smut and got laid.
This is some loaded description right here, gentle reader. We have this blocked writer who hates his roommate, a woman from whom words flow even as parts of her clog up his drains. She is a plump, sexual creature who uses items meant to absorb period blood to blow her nose – even her snot is related to fecundity to The Writer. (I had to laugh a little when I read she used Tampax to blow her nose. Bingham meant she used Kotex, a brand of sanitary napkin, to blow her nose. Tampax is a brand of tampons, compacted cotton wads meant to be inserted into the vagina to absorb menstrual blood. You can’t blow your nose with a tampon. Some people think you can use a tampon to stop a bloody nose but I can tell you that this is a terrible way to handle such a situation so think twice before permitting a tampon near your nose, either for snot or for blood.)
He’s also friends with a clever and confusing man called the Skinhead. The Skinhead is also a writer, and his form of racism is a bit bizarre, but the most important thing to know about him is that he is also a prolific writer and that his writing once involved sex.
The writer didn’t like the Skinhead. He bristled that this man could be a part of any literary world.
They’d met in 99, when smoking was legal and there were small coffee shops downtown. The Skinhead was producing zines that traded in horror and pedophilia and nihilism.
But even as The Writer hates the Skinhead, he still sort of likes him because his wife hates Rose.
The Writer’s novel about Jamal will never go anywhere because Jamal evokes emotions in The Writer that bring him closer to being an elemental sexual force like Rose or a borderline degenerate like the Skinhead. So instead of writing directly about Jamal, he decides to write about himself as a character who is writing about Jamal, a man with a nasty roommate and strange friends.
This story, in terms of hackneyed plot elements, should be the weakest in the collection but The Writer’s uncomfortable yearnings, the Skinhead’s verbal tricks and Rose’s delectable foulness make this story very enjoyable to read even as it employs an overused trope in the form of the bitter, blocked writer. It’s also a jaded look at the publishing world – that only that which is degenerate can make money – and ultimately I suspect Bingham wanted The Writer to avoid succumbing to his id via homosexual rape and disease, which makes sense, but at the end the story wasn’t that black and white to me. There was a middle ground none of the characters explored, a place between confused racism, unfocused sex drive and the wallow. At the end The Writer was unable to occupy that middle ground, crafting a story about his desired destruction, but keeping the narrative at arm’s length.
I sense that I was supposed to see The Writer as a victim of a debased society but I saw him as a Freudian nightmare, a man so repressed that he was literally the victim of clogs and blocks, able to see himself liberated only through destructive, sexual enthrallment to a dangerous man. In this story, the call was coming from inside the house.
“What the Dead Men Fear” is the story of… well, a man named John Wayne Cash Brazil, a masochistic bull rider turned body guard, and a trashy teen country singer named Cheyenne. Brazil is really into the pain he inflicts on himself through his various endeavors, not the least being the psychological pain of dealing with a vapid teenager who likes to pursue men who tell her no. Here’s Cheyenne speaking on the phone to a friend, as overheard by Brazil:
“I played this chick, on like, this reality show that, like, ran the other night. My aunt’s. She had like, a C-cup and she got like, these fantastic implants so now she’s like, a double-D. And like, the last time on the show, we went shooting. I shot a .45 automatic. And a Desert Eagle. The .45 threw hot shells down my aunt’s blouse! Yeah. No, I’m not kidding. Yeah. I was, like, there!”
Brazil finds himself feeling sorry for this girl’s stalker, and the reader feels sorry for Brazil having to look out for this girl’s welfare. But then Brazil, noting her stalker is nearby, leaves her alone and she gets kidnapped and he is tasked with getting her back. The story became a bit too Cormac McCarthy-esque for my tastes, and the plot became rather disjointed as well. I lost the thread a couple of times reading, so even this brief summary may be incorrect and unfortunately I don’t care to go back and reread it to make sure.
“Protocols of the Learned Elders of Hollywood” was overall a better piece. Take racist opinions on the Jewish attempts to control the world, replace them with paranoid opinions on the Masonic attempts to control the world, the general wickedness of Hollywood and a lampoon of the sorts of people really into heroic science fiction television series, and you have this story. Unfortunately, this story is pretty formulaic and if I discuss the details I will spoil the whole thing. Despite being formulaic the story was still amusing. This story has an interesting corollary for me in that so many fans of specific ideas often fail to see that they are rooting for the other side. Specifically, I suspect that the show being lampooned in this story was Josh Whedon’s Firefly. As an extreme liberal in my own right, I immediately recognized that the series was a libertarian ode to what were essentially Civil War rebels who refused to “submit” to a system they didn’t agree with, making them essentially states-rights Confederates with a bit more racial integration. Also they were in space. It was entertaining and a superlative television program but it was interesting seeing the precursors of the Social Justice Warrior movement drool over the show.
(Though Whedon later took quite a pasting in SJW circles. Much of it was ridiculous. I recall weak-sister feminists really upset over the depiction of women in the show. They were pissed that Zoe, an extraordinarily competent black woman, was not the captain of Serenity and because she was happily married to a white man, who was pretty much her subordinate in every way. They were pissed that engineer-savant Kaylee was portrayed as girlie and love-sick, even though she was the only person alive who could keep the damn ship running. They were pissed that clever and beautiful Inara was a prostitute, as if options were plentiful for women in the Old West in Space. And finally, they were pissed that River, the most violent, brilliant and lethal character on the show, was brain damaged and crazy due to indoctrination and torture. The complaints piled on, and even now the foul Melissa McEwan, Internet argument machine and beggar extraordinaire, cannot keep from spitting venom any time Whedon dares breathe online, and before long any strange anomaly I saw in the ways that liberals interpreted the real facts of the show were lost in a parade of strange, contrived and stupid indignation that the entire show’s cast was not made up of morbidly obese black lesbians who called no man “Sir” and brooked no shit from anyone ever. Though I am not wholly exaggerating, it is undeniable that any real social criticism of the show got lost in manufactured outrage. I will probably heartily regret this digression, but there you go.)
I am encountering this a lot in some of the recent titles I’ve read – it’s difficult in this black or white online world to admit that ideas which you find politically and socially disagreeable can still be funny, trenchant, entertaining and worth engaging with. I gotta adopt the Firefly tenet of seeing the worth in media that, on some level, annoys or disturbs me. It’s difficult at times. For example, as a feminist, the sexual violence against women in a film like The Bunny Game should have been a deal killer. But it wasn’t because there was an individual element to the violence and degradation that changed the narrative from one of victimization to salvation. I have no idea if that was at play in some of the extremely conservative books I’ve been reading and enjoying because I don’t have the mental energy to pay it the attention it would need for a better analysis, but lately I am really trying to appreciate books for what they are without allowing my personal views to taint the text (unless, of course, I am parsing a killer’s manifesto or reading Mein Kampf or similar).
The last story, “I Feel Alright” mines the same sort of McCarthy-esque veins that I find tiresome. There were also a few triggers for the paranoid part of my mind that I do my best to keep tamped down. There is a character named “Sandy Hood” in this story. Sandy Hood. Whoa. Sandy Hook, where children were shot to death by a deranged kid with access to guns, an event a shocking number of conspiracy theorists insist was a hoax. Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas, where Nidal Hassan shot thirteen people to death (the story is military in nature and is set in Texas). This could get a bit twitchy for those wired the right way.
It’s interesting to me that the most cliched story in the collection was the best, and I think it was the best because my soft, gooey woman’s heart really prefers fiction wherein I can connect to the story in some manner. Other than pinging the part of my brain that is responsible for erroneous pattern recognition, the remaining three stories in the collection didn’t do much for me. But even as I read it was undeniable that Bingham has a style that made it easier for me to read stories I would otherwise have found unreadable due to the lack of connection I felt with the content. And while that’s a “damning with faint praise” assessment, it matters because it means that Bingham is an engaging writer. I would be interested in reading more of his fiction to see if the first story was a one-off or if I can see in other stories the sort of on-the-mark psychology and characterization I found in “Population I”.
The content was not to my tastes in three of the four stories, but the writing enabled me to continue reading – that makes this a three-star endeavor. I can’t really recommend a small collection like this on the basis of one story, but if you have read it or decide to read it, let me know what you think of it.