February 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
I used to hate salespeople. You go into the cell-phone store for a new phone, and someone swoops in to try and convince you to get the same phone he has, a more expensive one than you had in mind. The store could have made money off the phone you wanted, but since they have this glorified con-man on their pay-roll, he has to find a way to justify his wage by pressuring you into something you don’t want.
As a grocery buyer, I had to deal with them all the time, dropping into the store just when I was least expecting it, to see if I was interested in carrying their new line of sprouted nuts or artisinal jams, talking too quickly to give me a chance to cut them off with a, “no thanks, not interested.” They’d fill my mouth with samples and tell me to think about it, they’d be emailing soon. I always felt like chasing them out of the store–“Really just no! Not maybe! No need to send your pricing structure. We are not interested, never will be.”–but politeness always stopped me. Then the call came a week later, “Remember me? I fed you ginger peach jam from my jar with a tiny spoon: now you owe me! How many cases can I put you down for?” Even after that no, they had to find a way to keep it open ended and check back to see if anything changes in a few months.
After one guy’s fourth call-back, it hit me: these weren’t the slick talking, smooth operators I was hating them for being; they were desperate losers–they reminded me of myself in high-school and college, trying to ask out girls, pitching my pathetic, inexperienced self in way that avoided the chance of ultimate rejection to keep hope, however slim alive. In addition to making me finally realize why I was always left feeling led-on when girls were as clear with me as I could be, I came to recognize that at the heart of every salesman, there is a sad, scared, and lonely man.
Patrick Robertson is probably the purest example of that sad, scared, lonely bastard since Willy Loman. The title character of Brian Hennigan’s slim novel, Patrick is a divorced and friendless alcoholic stumbling from Asian hotel to machine parts sales meeting without ever making a real connection with anyone.
Don’t let that description and the Willy Loman comparison fool you, though: Patrick Robertson: A Tale of Adventure is not some somber elegy but a raucous farce full of more ups and downs than a regional sales graph. Though a barechested special-ops comando may be the more obvious choice to take on the terrorists, jungle elements, and mistaken identity that pop up in this book, as a salesman, Patrick is a perfect protagonist for an adventure: used to pushing forward towards a deal against all odds, as he falls deeper into trouble, he never gives up, always persevering even in the face of certain death; and as an alcoholic, he is ready to make the sort of brash, split second decisions needed in high-pressure situations. As he explains, “Alcohol is not the answer to all our problems. But if one removes from one’s life those problems that cannot be solved with alcohol, the path is clear.”
Patrick makes a perfect narrator, too, as he’s always dispensing terrible wisdom like the above lines. Interspersed with the action, advice like, “There is a time and a place for the truth, and the conclusion of a sales pitch is not it”, is funny, in part, because readers are left wondering why Patrick would think any of us would want to follow the steps to ending up as sad and lonely as him. Only a narcissist as cut off from others as himself could think that he’s in an admirable position–especially as things keep going from bad to worse for him. And that’s the other reason they are funny: Patrick’s grand schemes for survival keep taking him further and further from life, until he is finally floating on the ocean in hot-air balloon basket, being roasted to death by the sun.
And that’s why I wholeheartedly recommend this book: it fits in with our program here at The Oldest Jokes in the World, with the humor working as another literary device to reinforce and deepen the subtext. If the life of a salesman is a large and already bullet riddled target for a satire, this book gets by for being a quick, energetic read, full of other surprises, the somehow warm without being schmaltzy ending chief among them. Previously published by Cape in the UK, it is now available for the first time in America. You can get it at Amazon or head on over to ataleofadventure.com for more info… and wisdom.
Full disclosure: a friend sent me a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
July 26, 2012 § Leave a comment
One of my favorite non-prose writers, Aaron Sorkin, has been in the press and all over the internet lately because of his new show, The Newsroom. He’d been getting a decent amount of criticism for plagiarizing his own writing from previous shows and then last week, he fired the show’s entire writing staff—except for his ex-girlfriend—before they started on a second season. I haven’t seen The Newsroom yet (I like to wait for DVDs and take down a whole season in a week), but as an Aaron Sorkin fan with an admiring familiarity with many of his other shows and movies, I feel like I have a pretty decent guess at how these two items are related.
“THE WRITING ROOM”
by Evan Kingston
The writing staff couldn’t help being a little frightened when they showed up for their first day on The Newsroom. They were all Aaron Sorkin fans: Steve studied the cadence of Sports Night dialogue before every script he wrote, Kevin cited The West Wing as the reason he got into television, and Corinne even dated Aaron for a while—and persisted in her belief that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was underrated, even after its auteur had broken up with her. Nervous at the prospect of meeting one of TV’s greatest writers, they engaged in rapid chatter while taking nervous laps of the office’s busy hallways.
But when Aaron called them all into the writing room and introduced himself, he assuaged each and every one of their fears with a stirring speech, replete with Biblical and musical theater references, about how they were going to change television—and America itself—with the work of the coming weeks.
“But I don’t want you to feel too much pressure,” he concluded. “Just know that the only thing you ever need to do to make me happy is come in to work every day.”
“I’m really disappointed in all of you.” Aaron said to begin their meeting the next day. “Every script you guys gave me—the entire season—is complete crap. Start over.”
It took a long silence for any of them to work up the nerve to respond, and Kevin was first. “Can you at least tell us what we did wrong, what sort of direction to go in?”
“I brought each of you in on this show because you have good taste. So go back and look at the work I did on Sports Night—a show that was too good for TV—or West Wing, where I made America better than America ever could. That was great TV; use it as your model, your guide, your template.”
“We can do that,” Steve beamed.
“You can’t do anything right.” Aaron said at their next meeting as he slid their stacked scripts into the recycling bin he’d brought with him to the table. “These were more like your old scripts than anything I’ve ever written.”
“So it’s got the right structure and pacing.” Aaron made a fart noise with his mouth. “Big deal. You’re still missing most of what makes any writing great. Where’s the awkwardly pompous male lead, his intimidating father figure, a driven yet manic woman? Everything that makes a story interesting? Where’s the enticingly unavailable redhead?”
As the staff worked together all night, Kevin took charge, his confidence eventually leading him to declare, “If you haven’t seen Kevin write Sorkin, you haven’t seen Shakespeare how it’s meant to be done.”
When Corinne laughed at his reference, he seized the opportunity to declare, “You have beautiful red hair. We should go out to dinner sometime.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m sort of maybe going to be unavailable soon, so I probably shouldn’t,” she evaded.
Once she’d turned down each his thirty subsequent advances, they focused on repopulating the show with proper Sorkinian archetypes.
When they presented Aaron with their new scripts in the morning, he hung his head. “This isn’t happening.”
“What could possibly be wrong with them now,” Steve pleaded. “We reworked every character exactly to your demands.”
“A character is defined through dialogue,” Aaron corrected. “So how can they be like Jed Bartlett if they don’t say what Jed Bartlett says?”
The next day, Kevin turned in a skillful pastiche of the greatest Sorkinisms ever, lines from a dozen different projects artfully arranged to form a surprisingly coherent plot. Steve turned in the pilot for Sports Night, with most of the character names changed. Corinne blew off the assignment by saying she hadn’t had time the previous night.
“I think it’s too little, too late, guys,” Aaron sighed after looking them over. “These are close, and I’m proud of everything you’ve learned from me while working on the show, but these scripts are still missing that final touch, the right few words.”
Kevin guffawed. “What? ‘By Aaron Sorkin?”’
“I know it’s harsh,” Aaron continued, “But this isn’t TV camp. It isn’t important that everyone gets to play. I’m sorry, but you’re fired.”
Steve, hoping it was just Kevin, asked, “Who?”
“‘Whom,'” Aaron countered pedantically.
“Actually, in this instance—”
“All of you,” Aaron interrupted. “You’re all fired.”
The entire staff shuffled out, except for Corinne. “Even me, Aaron? I emulated you one better than everyone else. I am wearing your shirt.”
Aaron paused for a moment before smiling. “I thought it looked tight.”
If you’re a Sorkin fan, I hope you got a few laughs out of that and caught a few of the Easter Eggs. I really do love Mr. Sorkin’s work and am looking forward to ignoring the critics and deciding for myself once Season 1 of The Newsroom comes out. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, satire is probably a ways further down the list, but flattery nonetheless. Or, to parody the quote that stands as this blog’s subtitle, what works can one trivialize except those of great importance?
June 27, 2012 § 6 Comments
Soon after posting on Monday, I realized that I’d based my whole article on humor and subtext on the decidedly less than hilarious Moby Dick. I guess I shouldn’t say that about Mellville’s classic, since I read it when I was a precocious ninth-grader trying to impress people by the advanced level at which I read; I probably understood half of the book and wonder if I went back now, I’d clue into some hidden jokes. Or maybe not.
Regardless, I feel the need to explain that I had Moby Dick on the brain because I’d just finished John Minichillo’s The Snow Whale, a satire that uses Mellville’s familiar frame to humorously explore modern conceptions of race, consumer culture, and environmentalism. There are lots of great moments of the sort of humor I like to talk about on the blog, those jokes that make you think about how your laughing, so I hope to use it as an example in future posts, possibly on satire.
In any event, next week I’m planning on finishing up our discussion of humor and subtext with one last example from Leaving the Atocha Station, so you should have plenty of time for the assigned readings.