10 A BOOT STOMPING 20 A HUMAN FACE 30 GOTO 10 by Jess Gulbranson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books


Author: Jess Gulbranson

Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro

Why Did I Read This Book: The title. It alone sucked me in.

Availability: Published by LegumeMan Books in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Oh man, I have been putting off reviewing this book because, to be frank, this is another book wherein I don’t know if I have the vocabulary to describe it. Or maybe I just read this book differently than other people because where I saw a nauseating dreamscape combined with a demented and godless adventure, other people used the word “wacky” and described some scenes as laugh out loud funny. As I read, I felt as if the mental illness that is always swirling around in my brain was on the verge of being triggered outright. This book was like a descent into an uneasiness that could easily become a complete mindfuck at any moment, and in my experience, that is exactly what happened.

Describing the plot will not be easy but I’ll give it a shot: Eric, who works at a music store and is a vinyl aficionado, finds himself with the ability to speak to the spirit of a missing girl. A misunderstanding with a relative of the girl leaves Eric beaten within an inch of his life and he wakes in the hospital and that relative, a man Eric refers to as Captain Dragon, sucks Eric into a bizarre adventure. He speaks to the spirit of Jim Morrison. He is on the scene when Graceland is blown to smithereens. Eric finally realizes he is being used as a pawn to accelerate armageddon because some sort of monster that lives in “the void” can communicate with autistic children and frankly, the actual plot gets a little hazy for me as I try to remember it and as I read it I recall thinking, “Huh?” But despite that, even as I had questions, those questions that went unanswered did not derail me. I wonder if this confusion was deliberate on Gulbranson’s part because he weaves a story that involves conspiracy and the paranormal, both of which are topics well given to a lack of clarity. So if you read this and find yourself at times wondering what the hell, you will be in good company. Also, I believe I mentioned that Graceland gets blown up. I like Elvis and all, but that was pretty cool. There is in me an odd love of reading as American symbols get blown up or violated. It’s a personal problem, I think.

Oh, and Eric is trying to read existentialism as the book begins and eats pizza continually. He’s sort of a hipster and unlike many of my fogey comrades, I don’t mind hipsters. I figure they are what happened to the rage of grunge when the generation beneath me realized rage was futile and smugly embracing a lifestyle with lowered expectations was better than wasting their lives bitching about things beyond their control. At least Eric didn’t live his life around bacon. Pizza, trying to read existentialism – neither mean much beyond some passive characterization but both stuck with me. Go figure. I mention this mainly because there is a line in the book that makes me worry a bit about my own tendencies to pick apart books, a habit I did not develop until I started my review sites:

Could you break your brain by thinking too much about the wrong things? I suppose so.

Maybe Gulbranson is perhaps cautioning me not to dissect the plot to make utter sense of it all. Or maybe that line was just a line and not a warning and I am about to break my brain worrying about the wrong things.

While I didn’t find this book as hilarious as others, I appreciated Gulbranson’s wit and sarcasm, as well as his love of the ridiculous. An exchange between Eric and his landlord show Gulbranson’s understated silliness very well. He has just discovered that “someone had broken into my apartment and taken a shit on the floor” and is speaking to his landlord (and if you are reminded of The Big Lebowski right about now, you are, again, not alone):

“Someone broke into my apartment. Didn’t steal anything, but they took a nice dook on the floor.” I let that sink in for him. His face was picture-worthy. “So, who was this ‘retard’ you say was here?”

“Sorry, Tolliver, I figured…” He looked sheepish now. “Tall guy, pasty and bald. Creepy. Seemed like he wasn’t looking at anything directly. Dressed in black. Reminded me of a guy I saw on the video, smashing the pumpkins.”


“No, on a music video! Singing about rats in cages and playing guitar.”

“Oh, Smashing Pumpkins. Got it.” So Billy Corgan had taken a shit on my floor. Or a lookalike.

And oh yes, Gulbranson sprinkles the book liberally with moments like this, musical references that I was surprised I got. I like that feeling, knowing I am, if not on the same musical wavelength as another person, at least able to hold my own in a conversation. If you don’t get all the music references, all the names and bands, it might be irritating. It happens enough that it would be alienating to readers who don’t know who Syd Barrett is, but for people who have taken a dip in this particular shallow pond of pop culture and are familiar with the Bill Hicks routine about Judas Priest, it’s fun to see these sorts of atypical examples of the zeitgeist used in a book.

Overall, I think this book is interesting, plot and characterization are well handled. I think the reason I liked this book even as I found it maddening is Gulbranson’s style. And because this book is maddening, I cannot even express what it is about Gulbranson’s style that spoke to me, but I can share passages that I found particularly interesting and maybe you can tell me what the hell I’m going on about.

Take this example. Eric is speaking to the spirit of Jim Morrison:

I was feeling more solid. Maybe the dope was wearing off. “Jim, what can I do. If they’re not helping me, then what are they doing?”

He spun around with glee. “There are things out here in the void, big and ancient. They came from where it’s dark and cold but they don’t know how to talk like us. That must be lonely, man. They’ve found some people they can talk to and they want to come and play.” He gave me a dark, devilish look. “I don’t know about you but I don’t trust anyone whose friends think all this is a paradise. I’d rather put my face on a volcano and suck fire through a straw! That’s my religion!”

Gulbranson nails exactly how I think Morrison would speak, were he a spirit continuing trickster ways. He also manages to tell the reader exactly what is happening in the book, an explanation that means nothing until you are finished with the book and come back to the passage and understand that Gulbranson managed to tell you what was happening in a manner that mimics exactly the sorts of communications that could lead to the armageddon. Words you can’t understand then, but someone else with a different mind set could.

Interestingly, Ian Curtis was of no help at all, really, even after a second look.

During a tense scene, Eric is asked to summon the thoughts of a man under deep sedation and for some reason needs to destroy something close to the the man under sedation (don’t ask me why, just focus on this sentiment Eric shares, “I felt like no matter how much sense it made when it was explained, no matter how logical, it seemed to be bullshit once you got down to it.”):

“Destroy Billy, here. They’re best friends.”

“You want me to kill him?”

“If you really want to. I don’t think you should. It’s unnecessary and cruel. Questions might be asked. Big, cold questions. I’d hate to be there when the finger got pointed at you.”

“Did you just threaten to narc on me to some eldritch abomination from space?” He nodded.

I can’t put my finger on why the next to the last sentence above is so awesome. Perhaps it is the use of modern slang with an archaic adjective. I suspect that is it, the mixing of the modern with the old, the mildly ridiculous with the deeply horrific, but whatever it is, this sentence works in a sly, strange manner.

And I end with this, and please bear in mind this passage comes from a part of the book wherein I have no idea what is happening, not really:

They reappeared within a moment and the Hungarian physicist looked like the guy in the old Maxell ads. Osborn was barely better. “Did you see the thing? Where it is and how it’s coming here?”

“I did and more besides. ‘Wikipedia’!” I gave Osborn a questioning look.

“We just haunted the Internet. All of it.” He turned again to von Neumann. “Then can you create the the universal assembler I showed you?”

“I should hope so. It was my idea!” He scratched his chin. “I’m already copying my own personality. I’ll be stowing away on the next shuttle launch to tamper with their satellites whilst working on perfecting this ‘nanotechnology’ that everyone seems so obsessed with. It shouldn’t take too long. Then I will beam myself and my assembler instructions to the farthest space probe we have in operation. Then I will go to war.”

“War? That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing we should start with a thing like that.”

Von Neumann scoffed. “Young man, you have not been reading the same flamey forum posts that I have!”

Okay, I need to backtrack here. Maybe some parts of this book will make you laugh out loud. The first reading, when I was trapped in a battle of my own to make sense of this book, I missed how very fucking funny this passage was. Man, was that a typo? Was it meant to be “hunted the Internet” instead of “haunted”? God, I hope not because I am still thinking about a haunted Internet. View the wrong page and invite a spectral presence into your life. It would certainly give caution visiting certain sites, that’s for sure. That I cannot tell if it was meant to “hunted” or “haunted” is in its own little way the most awesome thing ever.

Gulbranson is good at that – sneaking in moments of awesome wit and peculiar humor that you could miss if you take it all too seriously.

All in all, I liked this snarky, pop-culture laden trip into an Autistic end of the world scenario. Ghosts, Graceland in crumbles, terrible things from outer space, missing young women, lesbian record store owners, crazy lunatics and lunatic madmen and one pizza-eating hipster to tell the tale. And pooping bald men and a plot that you should not look at too closely as you take the ride this book can offer if you don’t worry about the wrong things.

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