Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

"In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes they seemed to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream. I ignored my stand-up career for twenty-five years, but now, having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years."

-- Steve Martin in "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life"

Though the name of our blog is Novel News, I am guessing that a non-novel would be ok. "Born Standing Up" is the candid autobiography of comedian/author Steve Martin that showcases his early years as a stand-up comic. The book reveals the fascinating journey of a kid who once sold guidebooks at Disneyland and later worked in the magic shop there and then went on to command audiences in stadiums that comedians had never seen before him.

As a big fan of Martin's published works, "Shopgirl" and my favorite, "The Pleasure of My Company", it was no surprise to me that Martin's story would be written beautifully and with humor. But the book also reads kind of sad -- the kind of sadness that comes when you look back at your long gone "salad days" before life made you jaded. So while you enjoy the ridiculous photos of Martin that are interspersed throughout the book (instead of having all of the photos crammed into the center of the book like most biographies) as a hippy-wanne-be or with ballons on his head, you also feel the sober whimsy behind the photos as you read about his loneliness and estrangement from his parents and sister (though he did eventually reconcile with them). You get the sense that being a comedic avant-garde genius isn't all that it's cracked up to be and that to get to the top took a lot of struggle not to mention fine-tuning of an act that often people didn't quite get.

On a more personal note, as I read this story I couldn't help thinking of my brother, also named Steve, who like Martin got his start in entertainment at a Disney property and went on to become a professional juggler. I felt compelled to share this book with him and just as I hoped he found a lot in the book that felt familiar, especially dealing with audiences who don't quite appreciate what you do. Just as a juggler has to qualify a trick (doing the trick without a drop a certain amount of reps), so Martin had to qualify his act through hard work, repitition and fine-tuning. The message of the book was not a blueprint for fame -- at time the regret that's implied in the book would be a discouragement to would be comedians. I found it more of a cautionary, "be careful for what you wish for" tale. In the end, fame would cause Martin to lose his desire to do stand-up but the struggle for the fame would make him a comedic juggernaut for years to come.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ask The Dust by John Fante

One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in
the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life,
because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I
got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my
door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by
turning out the lights and going to bed.”

So reads the first paragraph of John Fante’s novel Ask the Dust. When I first read this in the preface of Brett Easton Ellis’s The Informers, I was immediately drawn to the simplicity, the frankness, and the desperate nonchalance that even a few sentences brought out. So I said to myself, “Who is this John Fante, and where can I get a hold of his book Ask the Dust? It wasn’t anywhere. I couldn’t even buy it locally.

Eventually, I found a copy and read it. It was written in first person. The situations were real. There was both a human and animal element to it. The story was about a young displaced writer in 1930’s L.A., facing poverty and unrequited love while trying to make a name for himself in a rented room. Actually, the story wasn’t necessary. You see, when I had finished reading it, I barely remembered the plot. It didn’t matter. The author had opened up the private thoughts of the human mind. He had not spared embarrassing, awkward situations, and had written about the details of life. This was what most impressed me -- that a guy could be this honest about himself, and that he could truly know himself this well to put it all down on paper.

So after that, I read everything by Fante I could get my hands on. It was more of the same. Situations more honest than before – even his domestic writing that was done in the 1950’s like Full of Life, a story about the birth of his son, had that edge. Well, come to find out that Ask the Dust was heavily influenced by another called Hunger by Knut Hamsun. I picked that up too, and started reading it. It was even more desperate, and more spiritual. I sort of felt gyped -- like Fante had simply popped himself into Hamsun’s book and taken out some of the more desperate elements. But I’m still glad he wrote it, they say he is the father of the L.A. novel, and probably one of the more underappreciated writer’s of American Literature. Fante eventually ended up making big bucks writing for the movies, and he always said it finished him as a novelist.

Fante would have pretty much been lost as a writer, had he not been rediscovered in the early 1980’s by Charles Bukowski. Bukowski had a huge following and called Fante “his god” after having discovered him the reading room of the L.A. Public Library. While Fante’s stuff is more toned down than Bukowski’s, you can still see the influence there. That wonderful raw edge of humanity.