Book Review Of The Mental Defective League
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/17/12
One of the more rewarding things about running a popular arts website is having tons of people begging for you to review their books, films, poems, etc. Naturally, with time being precious, a single critic could never review everything, especially if he, like me, is a creative artist, as well. But, even if one could, the overwhelm of bad art is so great that the need to properly rip the bad art would be a Sisyphan task. But, every so often, interesting and good work is offered to you. In the past, such books have included The Iconoclast Goes To Sea, by Jack DeBar Smith, My Remembers, by Eddie Stimpson, Jr., and Stealing The Borders, by Elliott Rais. Each and every one of those books- all memoirs, are works of art that are significantly better and more memorable than anything penned by T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, or James Frey, or any MFA writing mill graduate or reject.
The same can be said for a book I recently received from a writer named Craig Cochran, who penned a faux memoir under the name Peter Z. Cordovan. The website for the book, The Mental Defective League, can be accessed here. The title is taken from the 1975 film, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The book is not a book filled with cosmic questions, nor their answers. It is not a profound nor philosophical work, but it is a well written book that grounds the reader into a time and place within a few lines of description of this or that. The reason for this is that Cochran lets his lead character, Petey- author of the faux memoir, not condescend to the reader. What’s interesting is that, although Cochran references J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, from the book’s Foreword on, and in blog posts, as some sort of key to this book, the fact of the matter is that The Mental Defective League, while not a great novel (but a very good one), is significantly better than Salinger’s vastly overrated book which is, decades on, merely a good to very good book, at best. One of the keys to Cochran’s success is that his book is utterly without pretense, something that Salinger’s book chokes on, from its lead character through its situations’ preciousness to its hordes of addled devotees’ wan and off-base interpretations. Looking over some of the Amazon reviews, none of the comments really taps into the book’s strengths, and links to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road or the short stories of Raymond Carver are way off-base, and smack of good friends doing their best to pump up the book, unaware they are only displaying their ignorance. The Mental Defective League is far better than anything Kerouac wrote, or was even capable of writing, whereas its prose is not as poetic as Carver’s, at his best. Even at his worst, Carver’s prose is rich, if clichéd. Cochran’s is lean.
Cochran’s book does have flaws, but they are few and minor. Here are the three main ones: the first is the book’s opening epigraphs and Foreword, as the only things that are pretentious, as warnings against the deviance of the faux memoir. That is immanent in the book, and stated within by the characters, so this comes off as excess. Cochran should have trusted his readers to get these points. The saving grace is these are outside of the book ‘proper,’ so they do not kill. The second is the whole of Chapter 17, which comes after the emotional apex of the book (which I won’t reveal, as, although I don’t care about spoilers, normally, this book, being more plot dependent, and of quality, I wish not to give too much away), and the book’s major confrontation scene, which is precipitated by a revelation I have to admit was rather obvious. It simply sits there. There is an old saw about stories, that the climax should never occur before 90% into a work, and this climax comes a bit before 80% in. Since nothing of any real depth occurs, the chapter is mere filler, and could be summarized in a few paragraphs of the final chapter, number 18. The third and final flaw of the book is the ending- actually the last paragraph, consisting of three sentences- all of which are clichés. This is especially galling since the dramatic setup to the end is quite realistic and a nice bildungsroman, and because, in the 186 pages prior, Cochran’s book is virtually 100% shorn of banalities, in phrasing or dramatically. The narrative is very believable, and even the last paragraph is plausible. But its phrasing is teeth-grinding.
However, this bothers me, as the reader, even more than it should an objective reader, because, prior to receiving the paperback version of this book, I had read a couple of short stories of Cochran’s, and they were mostly mediocre to bad, and larded with the very phrasings that appear in the last paragraph. Hence, when I went through 186 pages sans that sort of phrasing, I was in good spirits, albeit wondering how Cochran’s short form creative prose was riddled with banalities while his longer form creative prose was so tight and evocative, and lacking triteness. This brought to mind an unpublished novel by Bruce Ario, titled Cityboy. Ario’s first novel is a great book, as it deals with deeper things, in an even simpler and crisper prose style than Cochran’s, but it, too, is a faux memoir. Ario’s second novel was horrendous. It was as if Ario could not write convincingly without having real life experiences to draw upon, as his second book was not a faux memoir. I have no idea if the events in The Mental Defective League are truly thinly veiled claims on Cochran’s past, but they read so much like them that it is easy to believe. Cochran’s short stories lacked that simulacra. Cochran’s book is put out by his own small press, and in this way it reminds me of two other self-published novels I’ve read, which are similar in quality. The first is Dylan Garcia-Wahl’s Ashes Of Mid Autumn, an epistolary novel, published by Publish America, and the second is Quentin S. Crisp’s Remember You’re A One-Ball, published by his own press, Chomu Press. None of those books reaches the heights of Ario’s first novel, nor do they descend to the depths of his second. Whereas Garcia-Wahl’s is the most poetic, and Crisp’s has the highest highs and lowest lows, Cochran’s is easily the most consistent work, even including the three negatives mentioned.
It follows the lives of a group (of varying number) college aged boys in early 1980s Atlanta. The main character, Petey, gets involved with a beautiful older woman, and impregnates her. How he reacts and how this resolves itself is the crux of the book. In a sense, reading this book was like watching a good soap opera, or a John Hughes film from the 1980s. You are definitely sucked in, but the hows and whys are the thing, not any deeper issues. The conversations are realistic, even if the characters are not that deep nor smart, but there is no hidden depth to them. To try and divine a ‘meaning’ to a work like this is to miss the point. To stay in the narrative flow is the way to reward, and a good example of how Cochran puts one in a place and time without the ceaseless overdescription that litters the prose of MFA mill writers comes in Chapter 5’s opening:
All the houses in The Crayfish’s neighborhood were brick ranchers built in the late sixties. The neighborhood was one of the first ones started in the East Cobb, still respectable, but you didn’t have to look very hard to find a primer-gray Chevelle on cinder blocks or a yard that had weeds growing knee high. Spike pulled into The Crayfish’s driveway. The light was on in his bedroom.
Let us examine this opening paragraph. Note, we get a sense of the income level of the neighborhood from just the generic telling of the houses’ type being ‘brick ranchers.’ MFA writing would add paragraphs of socioeconomic claptrap, or described the peeling of paint on the doors of some of the houses, or evoked a pitying tone. Here, it is brief and off the cuff. The car on cinder blocks also does this, and we get a sense that neighborhoods like this are what have led to the scourge of Home Owners Associations that are ruining communities across the nation today. Hence, we get a small paragraph that tells us both Cochran’s, and his characters’, view of the setting, as well as a sly social comment between the lines. No clichés, for the last sentence is a literal description.
Another good piece of writing, from page 50:
The idea of eating a banana put me over the edge. Suddenly the need to find a receptacle reached code red. My head and stomach reeled with sickness. I stood up with a start and looked frantically for a wastebasket or bucket. And there it was, Spike’s WWI Allied helmet that he claimed had belonged to his great-great grandfather. But which his eldest sister said he’d actually stolen from the Baltimore Historical Society. I grabbed the artifact off the bar, turned it over, and began retching into it.
Note how clichés are undermined: over the edge is tempered by the nothingness of eating a banana, code red is tempered by the need to puke, and then we get character revelation about Spike, a member of the MDL, because of this need. Hence, without flowery, pseudo-poetic language and lacking the markers that MFA writers leave, that a scene is now going to be ‘important,’ we get humor, revelation, and character development in one brief paragraph that is missing ‘bigwordthrowingarounding.’
I’ve mentioned how the writing evokes a since gone time and place, and it does this in several ways, such as the above quotation about the neighborhood, but that’s more place than time. It gets to time by the way the members of the MDL speak. They use terms that I’ve heard, but not frequently, such as calling each other ‘Pud,’ which is short for pudenda- mainly females’, telling each other to ‘bugger off,’ rather than ‘fuck off,’ (although that seemed a bit strained, as Americans are usually more vulgar than Brits, for whom the term bugger is as popular as bloody) and calling each other ‘skin,’ in a manner similar to ‘bud,’ or ‘brother,’ meaning a cohort or pal. Finally there is the group’s EAT ME-mobile- a car with those words on it. All of these things let one easily get into the mindset of the youths, just as similar banter might let one understand the mindset of, say, loggers in the Yukon, during the Gold Rush, or African tribesmen during the end of Colonial rule, or even youth on some space station centuries hence.
Craig Cochran’s The Mental Defective League is not a novel in league with the all time greats of American novelry: Moby-Dick, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, nor The Grapes Of Wrath, but it is a good, even very good, novel with only a few downsides. Ask yourself the last time you read ANY book, published by an MFA writer of the last thirty years, that can legitimately claim that. One need return to the early works of writers like Pete Hamill, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Johnson, and William Kennedy for that. Now, seriously, which league would you want to break bread with?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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