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The Morning News and Powells Present
2006 Tournament of Books
APRIL 10, 2006
GUILFOILE: My first attempt at this commentary was probably twice as long as Dale Peck’s review and included phrases like “intellectual poseur,” “retarded knob,” “narrow as a childless panda’s urethra,” and “all the nuance and sophistication of a Rage Against the Machine baby-doll tee.”

Smarter and more reasonable people pointed out that I was being pretty harsh, and it’s true that Dale Peck is an invited guest here at the ToB. Frankly it would be rude to take him to task in this forum when he’s only doing exactly what everyone expects him to do. It would be sort of like arresting Naomi Campbell for smacking her housekeeper. It’s not like she hasn’t done this before. And the wrong jeans really do make Naomi look fat.

Also, I’m not really sure Dale expects us to take any of this pseudoethical bourgeois pressure valve twaddle seriously.

So instead of crapping on Dale’s remarks I’m going to tell a completely unrelated story. Fifteen or so years ago, while volunteering for my college’s literary festival, I had the pleasure of escorting Ken Kesey around campus for a couple days. He and his wife Faye were charming and funny and kind, at one point even showing my buddies and me amazing home movies from their infamous Merry Prankster days.

Kesey also said something I’ve never forgotten. He said that if you’re fortunate enough to make your living as a novelist you will almost certainly be approached one day by an individual—perhaps even a powerful or influential one—who will suggest you use your talent as a tool of some political, religious, or commercial agenda.

It is the obligation of a writer, Kesey said, to look that person in the eyes and say, Fuck you.

When Kesey said this he was wearing a giant parka and sipping vodka from a Grateful Dead thermos, and the expletive was screamed at the top of his lungs as he flipped us double-barreled middle fingers. But you get the idea.

WARNER: In order to outdo Dale Peck in the B.R. Meyers “everything created after a certain date is crap” sweepstakes, I’d like to declare that everything published since Og scratched out Fire Make Meat Easier to Chew and Also Kills Worms That Live on Meat on his cave wall using a stick and the blood of his best mate is worthless puke that gives comfort to al Qaeda.

Like Mr. Peck, I am supposedly a teacher at an accredited institution of higher learning, and one thing I have learned during my career is when someone hasn’t done their homework and, in this case, it seems clear that Mr. Peck read neither book. His “I can’t be bothered to choose” attitude is the critical equivalent of someone pointing and saying, “Hey, look over there,” before running away.

Honestly, what primarily impresses me here is the number of kickass emo band names I can pick out of his commentary. “Bourgeois Illusions,” “Troubled Conscience,” “Assuaging the Guilt,” “Social Compact,” “Species Suicide,” “Mea Culpas.” This combined with the over the top world-weary tone used throughout his review perhaps supports your theory that the whole piece should be taken with one of those wink-wink, nudge-nudge emoticons.

GUILFOILE: Maybe something like this: =(:-blarggh).

Earlier in the tournament we discussed the fact that it’s getting harder and harder to tell when people are kidding, and I’m still not entirely convinced that this isn’t an ill-timed April Fool’s prank.

First of all, if Dale still thinks that fiction might be “the engine of capitalism” he ought to walk down to the New York Stock Exchange and count the number of traders reading Bee Season at lunch. I’m willing to grant a guy lots of poetic license but fiction has never been even a retractable cup holder on the middle arm rest of capitalism.

Second, although he expresses little optimism for our future, I predict humankind will remember Dale as a hero after our robot overlords are vanquished by the motherboard-exploding logic of his assertion that Ian McEwan would stop writing Ian McEwan books if people who like Ian McEwan books would only stop buying them.

Finally I notice his blanket contempt of contemporary literature hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for writing it. One would expect him to lead by example, but Dale’s latest novel, The Drift House, is a YA effort about a “clan of diabolical mermaids” with a “plan to stop time.” I would never accuse Dale of not “pretending to a dialectic” but it’s hard to see how that book is going to counter the allegedly poisonous influence of John Locke or help divert the march of American imperialism or whatever it is he demands from his literature these days.

The Drift House hews very closely to the threadbare but proven youth fiction formula (dispossessed but precocious siblings, an eccentric relative, a house with secrets, a magical journey) and as a result it actually sounds like the kind of book I would have enjoyed in the fourth grade. What it doesn’t sound like is a book Dale Peck would approve of if anyone else had written it.

Unless, perhaps, he’s putting us on.

WARNER: “Diabolical Mermaids!” Another band name. Sweet!

Kevin, what you propose sounds awfully like Dale Peck is playing some kind of post-modern game with us, providing commentary surrounded by a riddle, wrapped in a gordita. The limited parts of his review that I understand suggest that this would be the sort of thing he’s steadfastly against. Though if he’s really for this kind of meta-commentary while appearing to be steadfastly against it, maybe we can add a layer of refried beans and a crunchy outer shell to the Dale Peck Mega-Dita Weltschmerz Crunch Wrap.

My worry, though, is that Peck is being sincere in his despair over his perceived lack of vitality in today’s fiction, which makes me feel sorry for him. If he can’t bear to read contemporary literature my hunch is he’s not watching Deal or No Deal either, which is really a shame.