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Pleasant Hell Paperback – November 29, 2004
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John Dolan is best known for the War Nerd columns he writes under his Gary Brecher pseudonym, the fat, disgruntled data entry clerk from Fresno. And while I love the War Nerd as much as every other marginalized ex-dork, I was also a fan of Dolan's Exile book reviews. It was through Dolan that I not only discovered many of the authors who influenced my writing--Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Charles Portis, Philip K. Dick and more--but I also learned HOW to write. Reading his blistering takedowns of talentless hacks like Jonathan Franzen, James Frey and Thomas Friedman, I got a crash course in literary frankness; avoiding bathos, overwriting, and every other bad habit my English professors tried to instill in me.
So what if Dolan is a jerk? Does the fact that he's not the kind of guy I'd like to have a beer with (whatever that means) somehow invalidate his writing talent? That loathsome mentality is why modern literature is complete garbage. Americans, even supposedly progressive ones, read books the way that fundamentalist Christians do: they evaluate them based solely on whether they're "moral," damn everything else. This infantile impulse is why a con man like Frey can make millions off of blatantly fake memoirs while Dolan himself is reduced to homelessness.
I'm not brownnosing when I say that Pleasant Hell, Dolan's debut novel, is the best one of the 21st century so far, or at least in the top three. It's a defiant middle finger at the pious sewer of American literature, a glorious triumph of comedy and darkness; true darkness, not the mawkish Precious/Oprah idea of darkness. As far as I'm concerned, it should be required reading in universities.
Pleasant Hell is, quite simply, the story of a loser. Not the glamorous Hollywood-type loser, but a real loser, the kind who is too depressing and pathetic to film. The blurb on the book's cover calls Pleasant Hell "Revenge of the Nerds, only without the revenge," but that comparison trivializes Dolan's achievement. His book follows in the tradition of Céline, that of the alienated, cynical loner struggling against a world that holds him in contempt.
Like Céline's novels, Pleasant Hell is essentially a fictionalized autobiography; Dolan didn't even bother giving his literary surrogate an original name. The book begins in present-day New Zealand, where Dolan has been resigned to teaching illiterate undergrads who despise him so much they've formed an anti-Dolan protest movement, complete with T-shirts mocking his balding, pudgy appearance. The book then flashes back to the seventies, Dolan's origins in the San Francisco suburb of Pleasant Hill, beginning with his omega high school sexual frustrations.
If Céline's influence wasn't obvious from Pleasant Hell's premise, the book's graphic prose drives it home. Dolan describes his travails and failures in sick, lurching detail, leavened with ample humor; many of the book's segments had me doubled over in laughter. Despite the novel's grotesque subject matter, Dolan never fishes for sympathy from the reader, nor does he resort to bathos to force a reaction.
Following his teenage torment, Dolan enrolls in U.C. Berkeley, commuting to class on the newly opened BART rather than moving to the dorms, further steeping him in isolation and frustration. Dutiful dweeb that he is, Dolan takes the proclamations of the newly ascendant feminists to heart, becoming a passive doormat, and is rewarded with continued celibacy while the girls run into the arms of the chauvinistic jerks they purported to oppose. He comforts himself by obsessively reading Jane's reference manuals and war histories in the Berkeley library basement (which he recently admitted formed the basis for his War Nerd columns) and taking karate classes like every other dork, where he manages to turn his gi into a foul-smelling mold factory.
Indeed, Dolan wallowing in his own filth is one of Pleasant Hell's most prominent themes. Following this chapter, he takes a job as an overnight security guard at a junkyard in the slummiest part of Oakland, assisted by the guard dog Max, an abused German shepherd with "filthy s***-smeared fur" and a gigantic wart over his eye. All the while, he wears cheap biker boots with the nails punching up into his soles, his feet constantly oozing in a blood-and-pus soup. Near the end of the book, he even develops a bizarre aversion to bathing itself, covering up his stank of sweat and B.O. by smearing his armpits with eucalyptus-scented Vap-O-Rub. Boy, I can't see why Oprah won't be adding Pleasant Hell to her book club any time soon.
The book isn't all gloom and suffering, though; even Ferdinand Bardamu eventually got laid and fell in love. Instead of an ex-prostitute or a tart who cheats on him with Argentine beef dealers, though, Dolan ends up in a relationship with Joanne Whitfield, one of the "Super People" from his high school, a popular, bicurious girl who takes pity on the little weirdo. The segments where Joanne half-contemptuously shows him how to French kiss or tries to take his virginity are un-erotic to the point of hilarity, reminding me of the sex scenes in Election. And even in these little bits of triumph, Dolan still ends up losing in the end.
That's the ultimate reason why Pleasant Hell triumphs: it's honest. It's a novel about suffering, not the phony, glamorous suffering of rich trust-fund brats partying and doing drugs, but the real suffering of sexual invisibility and social rejection. They're two of the only true forms of suffering left for American men, the iniquity of not having a woman willing to validate you as a man, not having another person on the planet who cares about your existence. It's a hell that more men are trapped in than we know, not that any of them would ever admit it in public. And the more frightening reality is that few of the men consigned to that hell ever break out of it.
Dolan certainly didn't, by his own admission. The evidence of it is plastered all over Pleasant Hell. The picture of Dolan on the back cover depicts him staring off into the distance, his lips half-open, still visibly flinchy after all these years. The acknowledgements, which are strangely cramped onto the copyright page, sheepishly thank Katherine Dolan and Mark Ames "for all the personal debt." Dolan even refers to the former as his "spouse," as if calling her his "wife"--and thereby alluding to her sex--would be a violation of some arcane feminist law. (He's also squeamish about alluding to his parents' sexes in the book itself with lines like "So I'd pound on it until one or the other parent opened it," though I assumed that was because he made a promise to leave them out of the story as much as possible.)
This is why Pleasant Hell is required reading for men, for anyone with a flicker of intelligence, for anyone with their head screwed on straight. It's one of the most hilarious and accurate portraits of American culture and modern masculinity that has ever been written. It's a textbook example of how to tell a story the right way, the honest way, the brutal way. And if you absolutely need some kind of "lesson" or "moral" from the book, that's it right there: how to tell a story.
Because God knows few writers can do that.
You will not find any such ham-fisted Salinger-esque literary crimes in this work. Simply put, this is the masterpiece that the masses, if you will, have long flocked to "Rye" like Harry Potter, would fail to appreciate, would scratch their heads before like an army of Neanderthals. Call it elitism if you like, but aesthetics has never been an egalitarian affair, and for that matter, neither has literary appreciation; this, of course, is why blundering, absolutely criminally written, terrible books like "The Da Vinci Code" sell millions of copies while those such as "Pleasant Hell," undoubtedly one of the great works of fiction of the last few decades, are almost completely unknown.
This work has some of the more memorable descriptions, encounters, scenes in literature- Countess Bathory, those extinct mammoths, the ocean of those cephalopod molluscs...but perhaps of greater import, it will change you. I'm still working how and in what way- it's uncanny, almost tyrannical, but something in you will remain forever changed after having read the work.
The basic idea of a Californian nerd's autobiography is promising enough, and Dolan has plenty of horribly embarrassing material (girls, personal hygiene, and work). Unfortunately, without the discipline of a word limit, or a decent editor, it degenerates into pure introspective self indulgence. Six pages on a fantasy, not even about the girl of his desire, but about his attempts to summon magical help to take the girl of his desire.
There are still some jewels amid the dross, but be prepared to skim.
[Edit - I have to give this a more favourable review after rereading. Everything above still holds, but the good bits - helicoper downdraft injuries at the BART opening ceremony, Dolan's moldy karate gi, and late nights working as a security guard - are really good.]