Third Coast Review

I have a fellow writer friend who shares the things he’s grateful for everyday, without fail. I’m far too much of an ingrate to do that, but it might be worth it to mention the things I do to keep busy and push this wobbly-wheeled wagon I call a writing career further along.

For instance, Third Coast Review. This is a local (Chicago) site that appeared after Gapers Block shut down, and several GB writers wanted to carry the torch. I wasn’t one of them; I heard about TCR later. I contributed a few reviews early on, and when the previous Lit editor left I volunteered. It’s been fun, I’ve met interesting folks who became regular contributors, and I’ve discovered new books, authors, and publishers I wasn’t aware of before. It’s been a good experience.

Here’s the first TCR Lit article of 2023. I’m always looking for new writers/reviewers and Chicago authors, publishers, and Lit subjects to cover. If any of those apply to you, contact me:

Dennis Eichhorn’s Story Ended

Hoagie-thumbComic book creator Dennis Eichhorn died. I wasn’t close friends with him, but I would have liked to have been. We were friendly colleagues though when I interacted with him in the late 90s—mostly by mail and once in person. I’m not sure when I first encountered his work. Like Harvey Pekar, Eichhorn was a writer not an artist; unlike other autobiographical comic creators, however, his life was actually interesting. In the pages of his comic Real Stuff, he shared a bevy of stories about his life in the Northwest US (and occasionally beyond) from the 50s through the present day.

Eichhorn was a picaresque figure. Fighting, drinking, getting high, screwing, working, engaging in low-end criminality, getting busted and imprisoned for a time, bumping into historical and cultural figures as well as lesser-known but no less compelling personalities. He shared it all through comics made in collaboration with cartoonists like Peter Bagge, Ed Brubaker, Julie Doucet, Michael Dougan, Chester Brown, Pat Moriarty, J.R. Williams, and others. I’ll let this link speak for his work (FYI sometimes NSFW).

Good grief. I forgot how often he wrote about marijuana.

When I knew him, Eichhorn served as editorial director for Loompanics Unlimited. Being a young weirdo, I was a faithful customer and eventual contributor. At some point I submitted a couple of articles for their catalog and supplements. One piece was about alleged culture-bound disorders like amok and koro, another about literal mythological sex gods. Considering my writing style and subject matter, there were few places where I could get my work published in the form I preferred. Loompanics was one of them.

In my experience, he was a decent editor. He crafted, he didn’t hack, sending his edits for my approval/alterations along with notes for tightening things up and the like. I would send him copies of my zines and he’d always drop me a nice note. The man was a great communicator.

Some time after that, I think, the American Bookseller’s Association held its convention at McCormick Center. My friend Steven of Quimby’s asked me if I wanted to tag along. I did. We made the rounds of  the underground and weirdo publishers: Fantagraphics, Feral House, Last Gasp, and the rest. I remember bits and pieces—I hope I’m not conflating it with other conventions. Quite a time, in which I ran into my own brand of real stuff: Running into the ex-husband of a former zine/mail friend—we had a bad falling out—who recognized me from my visit to his San Francisco home five years before. A high-end publisher of coffee-table erotica who looked visibly irritated when Steven introduced me as a writer (Jesus, I wasn’t planning to pitch you, so fuck you buddy). Mr. T, covered in gold chains, posing with people while shouting at a maniacal clip: “YEAH! YEAH! WE’RE HAVING A GOOD TIME! LOTTA FUN! LOTTA FUN!” Quite a time. We ended up at the Loompanics booth where we met owner Mike Hoy and Dennis. Eichhorn was a big guy, in body and personality, and gregarious as hell. I can confirm he had a firm and memorable handshake, as I read somewhere today,

Hoy and Eichhorn were preparing to leave. They let Steven take all their display books back to Quimby’s to sell on consignment while I got a couple of cheap bookshelves out of the deal (the benefit of owning a car when most of your friends don’t). After that we gave Dennis a lift. As we passed through the Loop I pointed out particular buildings until we turned onto State Street.

“And here we have State Street…THAT GREAT STREET!” I said.

“Hey! Hey!” Dennis said pointing out the window, “I saw a man dance with his wife!”

We all went out for drinks afterward. I can’t remember what we discussed. I just remember it was a fun and fascinating talk. What struck me though was that even though he was the Real Stuff guy with the wild stories, freaky background, and incredible past, he was still grounded, friendly, and approachable. Just what one looks for in a folk figure.

For the next year or so I sent Dennis a few more zines and we exchanged the odd postcard, but we didn’t stay in touch. I edited an issue of Lumpen and asked him to contribute a piece. Within a week he had a write-up about his prison experiences, in particular with the captain of the prison guards who he described, quite accurately, as the living embodiment of The Manâ„¢. It was a consummate Dennis Eichhorn piece: funny, scary, observant, and interesting.

The world is the poorer for not having time to hear all his stories.

RIP, Dennis Eichhorn.

P.S. Apparently he just released a collection called Extra Good Stuff. Please check it out.

Ten Books That Have Stuck with Me Off the Top of My Head as I Make Them Up

1. Teddy’s Skin by Margaret Wise Brown—The peculiar recurrence of furry animals and fur-lined rooms in Brown’s work becomes apparent in this little-known and strangely horrifying entry in the author’s whimsical oeuvre. Uncommonly, Brown is a character in her own children’s book, having been made by the Color Kittens when they mixed together “all the colors of the world rejected by God.” The Brown character is locked in a room with only two chairs. She sits in one, her childhood bear in the other, mute but obviously too, too alive. It is unclear how long she’s been in the room, or if the room exists. An example of a passage from the book:

“Miss Brown had spent the morning (was it just this morning? Or another?) purchasing parsnips and leafy green vegetables from the local grocers, when she was overcome by a wave of nausea. The world went black and she awoke in a windowless, doorless room. The farthest wall wavered in her sight until she approached it, at which time its infinitude coalesced into a blank, bleak solidity. She imagined she heard a duck kicking at the wall outside, cursing her with quacks and heaving small pebbles at the house for spite.

‘Goodnight, room,’ said Miss Brown.

‘Goodbye, Margaret,’ it replied in her father’s voice. She fell to the floor, chattering, and counted the seven shiny brass buttons on her jacket.”

Throughout the book, Brown is taunted by her beloved Little Fur Family, who appear through orifice-like openings in the very air, demanding that she explain what the fuck they’re supposed to be, and why the fur son found an even smaller fur-being living in the ground, before snapping shut with disgusting liquid sounds. “I don’t know! I don’t know!” sobs Brown, before Scuppers the Sailor Dog appears in his yellow rain slicker and hat with a large baling hook. He swings at her, but vanishes before connecting, representing her deceased mother’s distant personality.

Eventually running out of parsnips and leafy green vegetable, hunger and cold gnaw at Brown. She looks to her bear who would surely provide SOME sustenance and warmth, but at the cost of removing her fondest memories, and perhaps her sanity. The illustrations by Garth Williams are soft and edgeless yet filled with Much-like anxiety. Here is a man tired of drawing cute fluffy animals and filled with a desire to see the world melt and burn, as hinted at by the cover of Wise’s other collaboration with Williams’ Fox Eyes.

The book ends with Brown eying Teddy over her shoulder, fondling a Opinel knife left behind by Mister Dog/Crispin’s Crispian after he appeared in the form of a fur tornado and dared her to finally “belong to herself…or belong nowhere.” Brown weighs the possibilities in her mind and the knife in her hand, but the final page shows only a wordless illustration of a crib filled with flaming autumn leaves. What it means is left to the reader’s imagination, but it probably has something to do with fucking.

Crab’s Cradle

“But there was more to it than just coping with such traumatic situations. In later life, despite being hailed by so many as an American genius, Vonnegut felt that the literary establishment never took him seriously. They interpreted his simplistic style, love of science fiction and Midwestern values as being beneath serious study.”

Never minding that Vonnegut was due for an inevitable “Your great hero was flawed! FLAWED!” biography, there’s a common trope among successful cross-genre writers that’s always niggled at me. I’ve never understood the concern among such writers to be taken “seriously” by the “literary establishment.” What exactly does that mean, to whom do they refer, and what is the root and extent of their desire for acceptance? Can we assume David Remnick refused to go shoe shopping with Kurt? Did  Kingsley Amis blackball him when he applied to the Junior Woodchucks in fourth grade?

The history of literature is a jittery timeline of yesterday’s young firebrands becoming today’s stodgy old poops, making sure the newer, angrier kids can’t sit at the big table until they’re old and grey (Kerouac died a broke drunk, while Burroughs became a chevalier of France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres), or grow willing to play according to the rules of the universities, lit journals, and writing workshops. Or so the story goes. In actuality, the world of literature has become so fractured and fragmented (and the need for validation diminished by the instant gratification of the Internet—nowadays even a halfway decent writer can have a bushel of fans and supporters), needing approval by the establishment seems charmlessly archaic. I remember the time I attended a party thrown by a certain well-known magazine. I spoke with an editor who gave me a pleasant, but head-patting speech of encouragement, telling me that if I worked really hard, maybe I’d get published by a real magazine like his. I wanted to tell him, “But… I’m published and already relatively content, chum. More recognition would be nice, but… Well, forgive me, but turning up in your slick yet tepid mag would feel like a artistic step back for me. Of course the check would be nice.” Yes, there might be one or two mags I’d sell my children’s souls for a chance to appear in (Car and Driver, why haven’t you ever called?), but overall I have no one I NEED to impress other than my friends, family, and myself.

To me the best writers are the loners, Holed up in their attics, apartments, and cabins, they occasionally interact with their editors and publishers, but rarely attend the right cocktail parties (Capote notwithstanding, though that’s how that particular bird lost his way). They never needed validation. All the real work and gratification took place between their ears.

Reading about big-time writers like Vonnegut and Hunter Thompson complaining about a lack of recognition is both quaint and perplexing. It makes me wonder what exactly they were after since they were pretty well-recognized in their own lifetimes. It gets especially silly when the writer laments his lack of “acceptance,” despite the reprints, book signings, readings, honorary doctorates, hot, ready, and willing fans, commencement speeches, talk shows, multiple translations and anthologies, ongoing fluff assignments for big bucks, merchandising, royalties, film and TV cameos, inclusion in the curricula of a thousand thousand colleges, and insertion in the memory of every human being who read their work and heard them speaking to their deepest heart of hearts.


God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut, you imbued a phrase as simple as “And so it goes.” with immortality. And yet that wasn’t enough? Or was that compassionate grump act just covering up a basic, irritable crank?

Captain Prolix

Mike: So, are you going to finish that novel?

Me: Yes, eventually.

Mike: Well, how much is left? Where are you at?

Me: Chapter 20 of Section 2.

Mike: (Gapes) Really?

Me: Wait a second. (I leave and return with the print-out of Section 1) Here it is.

Mike: That’s it?

Me: No, that’s just book one.

Mike: (Gapes again) Can I see it?

Me: No, you might read it.

Mike: Just let me see it!

Me: Okay, but no reading.

Mike: (Flips through it without reading.)

Me: So, yeah, I hope to finish it during leave.

Mike: You better not die and leave me with some 14,000 page Henry Darger manuscript.

Daddy Reads Too Much

Whenever Nate cleans up at home, he sings a song that he learned at school. I think it’s based on this one:

It’s time to clean up, clean up
Everybody do your share
Clean up, clean up
Soon the mess will not be there

Since he’s three he hasn’t quite gotten all the words, so I learned the song from him as:

Clean up, clean up
Everybody clean up
Everybody does his share
Clean up, clean up

We kind of bumble through the lyrics together as we put away his toys. It’s not Donizetti, but it helps move things along.

Then last night, as we picked up all his fake food, we started singing, and I got a little creative.

Me, Mike, and Nate:

Clean up, clean up!
Everybody clean up!
Everybody does his share!
Clean up, clean up!


Um… clean up, clean up!
From each according to his ability!
To each according to his needs!

Mike: (Laughing)


Clean up! Clean up!
The history of society
Is a history of class struggles!

Mike: (Still laughing)

Nate: (Oblivious, still picking up fake food.)

(Aside to Mike so Nate can’t hear.)
Clean up! Clean up!
If you want to imagine the future,
imagine a boot stamping a human face, forever!

Mike: Uh, whut?

Me: Hold on, that’s Kafka.


Sturgeon’s Law states that 90 percent of everything is crap. Kelly’s Corollary adds that 99 percent of that remaining 10 percent is simply good. In art, good is largely preferable to bad—save in the case of something being “so bad it’s good”… but that’s another matter. Good is enjoyable, intelligent, savory, and consistently acceptable, and that’s just fine. Where we run into a problem is when good is inappropriately celebrated as extraordinary.

Good is never extraordinary. Good doesn’t excite or inspire people. Good doesn’t break new ground. Good rarely stirs up emotions. We leave the theater after viewing a good film, we finish listening to a good piece of music, or we put down a good book, and we say, “Well, that was good. Very good indeed.” And we tell our friends how good it was, and that they should enjoy it, because, damn, it was good.

Then after a short period of time, someone in a high position declares this work isn’t just good… Why, it’s great.

Then things get nuts.

The media immediately reports on this great thing, trying to crack its secrets by speaking with the people involved in it, cross-examining and poring over every segment of its existence, and extolling it as a work that will straddle the Rhodes harbor for all eternity.

Soon after, everyone is talking about the work in transformative terms. It’s no longer merely an entertaining experience, It’s become a perfect object wrought by seraphim working under God’s eyes. It will change the way we look at things. Upon viewing, you will orgasm mentally.

You’ll notice a certain consistency in the topics covered by these works, and in the names and credentials of those who produce them. Likewise those promoting the works, and the persons you know who extol them. This applies to high and low culture, by the way.

Does this invalidate the goodness of the good work? No, but it creates a climate in which a truly good work faces either (1) immediate, unquestioning approval, or (2) immediate, crushing disappointment and annoyance in those who don’t “get” it. Ah, but this, thereby, creates controversy, which is the second wave of promotion. The work is secondary to the arguments it generates by this point in time.

The only true measure of a work’s greatness, goodness, awfulness, or obscurity, of course, is time. Obviously, this is borne by the number of people who can be convinced of a work’s greatness over the years, decades, and centuries. One way is to let the subject review and assess the work on their own, according to its merits and their personal checklist of what makes for a good work. The other way is to create an perpetual promotion machine. This is, facetiously, a game of temporal telephone. The scholars, critics, and investors (now that copyright can extend for ridiculous periods) constantly promote the work’s virtues to, in the case of the university system, a captive audience, or, in the case of the aesthetic cult, those seeking constant validation of their beliefs and tastes. Meanwhile, as with telephone, changes in social mores, language, political upheaval, and more subtly change the perception of the work, and its original intent and meaning become lost. Which is just as well, because for a work to survive and be cherished as good, et cetera, it must remain organic and mutable. The perpetual promotion machine, however, insists on just one interpretation. Tell me you didn’t have a teacher who stuck to his or her guns when you disagreed with their interpretation of a work.

By this measure it’s interesting to step back and view what good to great works have survived, comparing them to what is considered good/great now. Why do Ishmael, Anna Karenina, and Sherlock Holmes persist? Why is Casablanca still an amazing film? In comparison, and to tip my hand to my ulterior motive, how likely is it that any of Aaron Sorkin’s stereotypes with their staccato clevertalk will survive into the next century, much less be considered extraordinary? I don’t know. Nobody knows. But it will be interesting to see what happens when the current crews of aesthetic roustabouts are gone, no longer there to drive in the stakes, hoist the ropes, and prop up the circus tents.

Of Blind Pigs

As Father Mows and Grieves for His Lost Youth, Mother's Soul Dies Slowly While Sipping Her Evening Manhattan and Seconal Cocktail. Meanwhile, the Girls Mirthlessly Engage in the Chilly Banality of the Teeter-Totter. Soon, night will come.

David Brooks and I, in a rare alignment of planets, agree on something. Performing his usual trick of writing a book review and piggy-backing on another writer (usually issuing his own spin on the writer’s intentions), he addresses literary darling Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Freedom. In-between the sycophantic flattery to ensure he’s on future guest lists, and chattering about America returning to a uniform spirituality that never happened and which he never sounds like he practices himself, he points out an observation on American letters:

Sometime long ago, a writer by the side of Walden Pond decided that middle-class Americans may seem happy and successful on the outside, but deep down they are leading lives of quiet desperation. This message caught on (it’s flattering to writers and other dissidents), and it became the basis of nearly every depiction of small-town and suburban America since. If you judged by American literature, there are no happy people in the suburbs, and certainly no fulfilled ones.

By now, writers have become trapped in the confines of this orthodoxy. So even a writer as talented as Franzen has apt descriptions of neighborhood cattiness and self-medicating housewives, but ignores anything that might complicate the Quiet Desperation dogma. There’s almost no religion. There’s very little about the world of work and enterprise. There’s an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling.

It pains me to say it, but Brooks is right. I’ve often wondered about this phenomenon myself. From Sinclair Lewis to Richard Yates to Raygordon Carverlish to Franzen himself, modern writers have portrayed the suburbs as a static purgatory populated by liars, hypocrites, mental cases, drug addicts, adulterers, and people who only seem happy on the surface… BUT WHO ARE NOT. Every suburban town or village in modernist and realist fiction should have a sign standing outside the city limits: “Welcome to ___________: Nobody Wants to Be Here.”

It’s funny that so much of this fiction comes under the heading of realism. While parts are true enough, it is highly unlikely that every person in a town (that isn’t Twin Peaks, which wears its surrealism like a shawl) can be miserable. Hell, let’s go a step further and say it’s patently absurd to leave every member of a modern lit family swimming in a cesspool of existential angst. Hm, I suppose that’s not fair. Authors usually take care to create straw men and women who won’t accept the reality of their and the protagonist’s inner turmoil and woe. But just because it’s fiction, doesn’t mean it has to be unrealistic.

Brooks notoriously paints his pictures with big fat brushes, and his suggestion that the “Quiet Desperation dogma” forbids authors to explore the many outlets humanity has developed to offset feelings of dissatisfaction and ennui is preposterous. Still, from what I’ve read in the New Yorker and New York Times Book Review, it does seem that most modern suburban lit (that accepted as being big L Literature) spins its wheels in the same morass of alcoholism, failed marriage, career disappointment, and so on. These things happen, but they aren’t the only things that happen there. I’d add that I have yet to read an accurate physical portrayal of the suburbs. Most towns sound like they consist entirely of shopping malls and dining rooms.

It requires no stretch of imagination to realize why this is. I think we can make a fair guess that most modern lit is created by those who loathed their comfortably bourgeois upbringing and couldn’t wait to escape to the big city. Speaking as one such individual, I understand perfectly. But the perpetuation of this portrayal of the burbs as a white hell… why it verges on creating a new brand of genre fiction. “Angsty Suburban Fiction? Aisle 3B, between Romance and Mystery. Right after the Humor/Graphic Novels section.”