Review of How I Accidentally Started The Sixties, by Howard Bloom
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/28/14
If one has ever read the poetry of Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams, or the prose of Rainer Maria Rilke or Walt Whitman, then one is familiar with writers who are good in one form of writing, but mediocre, bad, or abysmal in another.
Such was the manifest state of the prose in Howard Bloom’s self published e-book memoir, How I Accidentally Started The Sixties. The book is not terrible, but it’s, at its best, mediocre, and that mediocrity is actually garnered and sustained by the content of his raconteuring, and not its quality. At it’s worst it’s simply bad, and seemingly all the worse for it never feels nor reads like ‘Howard Bloom,’ but an ADD imposter on speed. The sharp, to the point prose of such books as The Lucifer Principle and The God Problem, is replaced by a déclassé amalgam of Woody Allen and Kurt Vonnegut scraping together their least well written, semi-humorous anecdotes.
The basic problem is that Bloom, at his best, is a natural philosopher, not a scientist. I say this over the years because I always had some problems shoehorning Bloom in as a scientist, since most of his work is not currently falsifiable. The term natural philosopher was what scientists, such as Galileo and Newton, were called in times past. But, when I say it about Bloom, I literally mean it. He is far more a thinker of scope than a pedlar of pestles, or a maestro of microscopes. But, as with O’Neill’s mind, which was so geared to the dramatic confrontations of personalities and egos, to the extent that he could not effectively sit back and rhapsodize on a flower, or a girl’s grace, so too is Bloom unable to pull back from the grand to focus on the diurnal that was his existence- or so he claims. This leads, inevitably, to writerly gimmickry, and attempts at cheap slapstick.
This starts before the book does, with this warning:
This stuff really happened. Several names have been changed to protect me from my attorney. However any lack of resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is solely due to the incompetence of the author.
Now, there’s nothing immanently wrong with this, but one gimmick would suffice here, and we get 2- arguably 3, and this is just the beginning of the ‘and the kitchen sink’ing of the tale, and its constituent members.
Yet, this overfeeding of jokes and piling them on , as if clowns crammed into a sports car, is not the only bit of gimmickry. Throughout the book, Bloom writes as if he is narrating, Henny Youngman style (bada-boom, take my wife….please!), to near lethal limits, and the net result is something that, in the hands of a gifted ‘performer’ might work, but in the hands of a man whose primary writing gift depends on the depth and breadth of ideation, not the polish of style, it reads like even a quality Marx Brothers screenplay might- no eyebrows, mustache, and cigar for Groucho, and certainly no horn to honk for Harpo.
The most overworn gimmick is the endings and beginnings of chapters. Such
as this start to a chapter titled And Unto Them A Child Was Born:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Bloom,
This is Ed McMahon, and on behalf of the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes I’d like to congratulate you as winners of our super-duper, once-(or maybe twice at most)-in-a-lifetime Grand Prize. As you know, the lucky folks who respond to the megatons of junk mail with which we generously dole out curvature of the spine to the postal workers of America have a chance to win fabulous fortunes—millions and millions of dollars, 400’ foot yachts (courtesy of Donald Trump, who failed to sell his little beauty to the Japanese and finally let us have it if we agreed to accept his vintage collection of docking bills and parking tickets), trips to the fabulous Roach Motel in beautiful Desert Gulch, Nevada, just 150 miles outside of exciting downtown Las Vegas, and a host of other prizes too delectable to mention. And every time hell freezes over, we faithfully hand out one of these prizes to some family who will agree to drool with gratitude on television.
But you, Mr. and Mrs. Bloom, are special. You have ignored every one of our marvelous offerings of fantastic magazines—like the Lint Collectors Weekly—at only twice their normal newsstand prices. So for you, we have a prize so super, so special, so unbelievable that we will have you shot by our security service if you ever reveal that it came from us. Yes, in honor of your years of faithfully ignoring every Sweepstakes we’ve waved under your nose, we have given you what every red-blooded American man and woman fears more than anything else in the world—a completely neurotic, off-the-wall son. And here’s the best part—he’s all yours, complete with a personalized collection of your very own genes (which have been only slightly scrambled by our massive research and development staff, who was distracted by his janitorial duties).
So, Mr. and Mrs. Bloom, be proud that you are citizens of the U.S.A. For only in America could you get a child with allergies, illnesses, and an entire encyclopedia of psychological abnormalities from a mail-order scam operation. This is Ed McMahon, wishing you luck with your spectacular bonus award. May it bring you many years of happily gnashed teeth and joyfully rewarding tsouris. (Hey, Frank, what’s a tsouris? If it’s over 90 proof, I could use one.)
Dear Mom and Dad,
Gosh, heard you won a big prize from the Publishers Clearing House. Does this mean you’re rich? Can I have a raise in my allowance? By the way, did I tell you how many neuroses I counted up while examining my brain today?
The humor, here, is forced, and something more akin to Tom Wolfe. Reread the above, and you will note my generosity in that summation. Aside from the joke of the letter being received from the magazine company, and its long out of date television shill, Bloom piles on the overly long first letter with a wholly unneeded addendum from himself to his parents, which is itself not funny, and only exacerbates the lack of any original humor in the longer thrust above it.
But, an even more grating trait to the beginnings and endings is Bloom’s overnarrations of intros and outros to chapters, such as this:
Well, you’ve read this far, and I know it wasn’t easy for you. Frankly, the only reward I can think of is the saga of how I shocked my teachers, horrified my parents, sought spiritual enlightenment, found sex instead, helped start the drug revolution, and finally met Barbara, the woman who would solve all the problems of my life and with whom I would clamber over mountains of barbed wire and booby traps to happiness.
We will begin with a prologue—the pathetic narrative of my early love life.
When we last left off, Barbara had attempted to expel the worms from her guilty conscience by dragging me up to Kingston, New York. But she’d failed. This spelled TROUBLE!
The overt bada-boomness of these ill wrought entreaties, however, is not limited to the starts of chapters. Here are a couple of chapter endings:
At any rate, part one of Barbara’s plot had worked. She’d ended her sexual fixation on fire hydrants and had found herself a baby-sitter. For part two, you’ll have to wait until our next exciting episode, in which I meet Barbara’s father and discover the truth behind the story that Barbara was raised in a mud shack.
Now, if you eat all your vegetables, in just another three chapters Howard Bloom will finally meet the girl of his dreams, Barbara!
The mention of Bloom’s wife, Barbara (in trite fashion) is dangled for a good deal of the book, to the point that her entry into it can only be anti-climactic, on a purely narrative level, but, specifically, for the book, she simply is not nearly as interesting not hyper-real a character as Bloom portrays himself. In short, it’s as if one were to read a biography of Galileo or Kurosawa detailing their obsession with a mere maid or grim geisha.
Yet, through every chapter ending and beginning, this pattern continues, and each passing chapter sees its lessening in effectiveness, inverse to its increasing annoyance and dread in a reader. Here in a sample of an ending leading right into a beginning:
Topping it all off, the cube’s obscure chemical additive had been semantically restyled by the intrepid Luce journalists to make it sound more zippy. Lysergic acid was now LSD, or “acid.” And, though I didn’t know it yet, within a year a foursome of unlikely singers from Liverpool, England, who had stupidly named themselves after a most unpleasant insect, would invade the States and start a trend in hairstyles that was eventually destined to make my coiffure the rage. My past was preparing to haunt me.
And yet another strange event would happen any month now. Barbara would appear.
IN A TRANSVESTITE DRESSING ROOM
When we last left off, my French teacher, echoing my pistol-packing Vancouver wise men, had informed me that what I needed in life was a goal. My father had sent me to Israel, where I had found one...getting myself into a mental institution. Unfortunately, no mental institution would have me except for Rutgers University.
So I spun the wheel of fate, rolled the dice, tossed the I Ching, flipped a coin, and came up with the most obvious alternative goal in sight—going back to college.
One might think that, in the last quoted sentence, Bloom were trying to be colloquial by flinging the laundry list of clichés, and perhaps he was. But he does zero to undermine them, then, nor in the prose that directly follows. And, this is emphasized by the naked cliché that ends the previous chapter: My past was preparing to haunt me, which leads directly into the next overmodified sentence: And yet another strange event would happen any month now. Indeed, the copious abundance of twee adjectives and hyper-ginormous adverbs is another sin of the prose.
How I Accidentally Started The Sixties is a memoir that, in some ways, reminds me of Frank McCourt’s better initial memoir, Angela's Ashes, which also needed to be put in the hands of a good editor. In McCourt’s book, a good editor would have threshed out all the redundant passages and anecdotes on poverty and suffering, while getting a better balance between them and that book’s later chapters which shortshrift the more interesting teen years of the man. In Bloom’s book, his much better and more interesting and impactful life should have been detailed in greater degree, with less déclassé slapstick (which undermines the man’s more piquing ideas), and far less of the ill wrought and overexuberant declamatory style.
While McCourt’s prose, overall, transcended his book’s significant flaws, Bloom is simply not a creative prose stylist on that par, and the writing too often descends into the vanity press like prose of circa 1970s hipster works, by local authors for local color, that abounded in independent college town bookshops- a fact exacerbated by a number of grammar and spelling errors that a good proofreader should have spotted. If such errors abounded in a manuscript by Twain or Melville, such proofing errors are not worth mention in a review, but, when so much of a work has a slapped together feel, it becomes emblemic of the ills. In this way, Bloom’s overschtickiness, in this work, also reminded me of the self-published novel, The Conjure Man, by Peter Damian Bellis, which suffered from a tone deafness to natal language and how it impacts a narrative and reader.
Having enumerated the book’s many flaws, let me turn to its strength, and that is the many and varied tales and anecdotes that Bloom relates. These are interesting, sometimes witty, and often important for historical context, and establish Bloom as an almost Leonard Zelig like figure of that era. In fact, next to writer and actor George Dickerson, Bloom is probably the most oddly interconnected person of that era.
Here is an example of an interesting anecdote, of the sort that makes the book a solid read, at times:
I resigned myself to looking out the side window at the blackness of the countryside. Then, after half an hour, one of my dark angels of transportation asked a brief question. “You don’t mind a little heater action, do you?” It was getting chilly. So I answered that I didn’t mind at all. But no one reached for the dashboard switch that would have pumped some warmth. Then slowly it dawned on me—a faint recollection of Sergeant Joe Friday on the 1950s TV show Dragnet. A “heater” was a gun.
I sat in a cold sweat with mental pictures of my limp body tied to a telephone pole in the desert, slightly marred by a bullet hole in the head. After all, who else was there to shoot? The answer emerged ten minutes later when we pulled into a lonely country gas-station—one of those all-purpose numbers that’ll sell you everything from a spark plug and a sausage to an extension cord. The pudgy gentleman next to me and the fellow from the passenger seat disembarked and headed for the modest hut’s screen door. The tall skeleton at the wheel kept the engine running, and his nerves glued to the open road.
Through the plate glass window I could see an elderly man behind a counter. I waited for a bang, spurting blood, and the spectacle of the gray-haired store-owner falling over backwards with a startled look on his face, knocking a couple of cans of pork and beans off the shelf. Then I expected to see the duo in whose car I was scrunched running from the shack with greenbacks spilling from their fists.
Nothing of the sort occurred. When the gunmen headed back to the car, the senior citizen was still upright. His would-be terminators were less so. In fact, their postures had been infected by a definite slump. The two slipped back into their places in the Hudson and angrily slammed the doors. Then we took off.
Turned out my companions had been attempting a quick-change routine. Such was their expertise that they’d gone in prepared to offer a twenty and get change for a hundred. They’d ended up with change for a ten. Oregonian country store operators are apparently a shifty lot.
The failure was humiliating. So humiliating, in fact, that the trio felt
compelled to rescue its dignity. Thus they finally confessed their line of
business. The driver and his partner in the front seat were specialists in armed
robbery. They were particularly proud of their ability to break into fur vaults
in the wee small hours and make off with skins that numerous undersized animals
had donated to provide warmth for status-starved females of the human upper
crust. At the moment, the pair were out on bail pending trial for one of their
more spectacular heists.
Of course, with the clichés and overmodification, one does wonder what a good editor, or a good ghostwriter, might have coaxed from Bloom and the thicket of words he unfurls. As compelling a prose stylist as Bloom can be in his science and philosophy, he fails in creative prose. They simply are different domains, as I posited at this essay’s start.
Here is a good example of that ‘creative’ prose gone wrong:
Rumor in my grammar school had it that I was hatched from an egg, and not even an earthling egg at that. Those in the know implied that a batch of inept Martians had misread a road map as they rushed to an obstetrical facility to help their embryonic kid crack its way out of the shell and had landed on the wrong planet. Without competent medical guidance, they’d barely hauled me out of my calcium casing. Then they’d become so confused repacking the flying saucer that they’d forgotten to toss their new offspring into a bassinet. Thus was I abandoned in the alien landscape of Western New York State.
My parents deny this story. But it’s hard to take their word for it. I know for a fact that the two of them have never had sex.
On the off chance that my dad and mom are not pulling a fast one, however, I’ve been prodding relatives to disgorge all they remember of the family past, and have constructed a rough outline of my alleged clan’s roots. (Yes, I know I could have saved time by buying Alex Haley’s Roots and pretending my ancestors were Yoruba loin-cloth models rudely plucked from their homes in West Africa and forced to pick cotton with their teeth by whitey and his whip-bearing henchmen; but why do things the easy way?) This, in slightly garbled form, is the result.
Note the forced humor, and imagine what Woody Allen, in his vintage 1960s and 1970s prose works, or what a Kurt Vonnegut, in his prime, could have done with those three paragraphs.
Here is an even better example of Woody Allen Lite, and one that actually has a possibly funny anecdote that simply deflates in the prosaic mischigoss:
The final attempt to inject me into the mainstream of society came when my parents decided that my problem was entirely nasal. I’ve mentioned in passing that I had this schnoz of rather unusual proportions. Were it not for extraordinarily powerful neck muscles, I’d have been forced to carry the thing around in a wheelbarrow. What’s worse, as an air passage, it was a failure. This would have left my lungs seriously undersupplied...if it hadn’t been for my big mouth.
One night my despairing father and mother had a brainstorm. “Of course he’s a social reject,” they said, clapping their hands to their heads. First off, boys didn’t like me because I was incompetent at sports. Why? The Nose. How could I possibly see around it to catch a ball? And as for my lack of popularity with girls, the difficulty once again was obviously proboscular. If only these wenchlets could see past my breathing apparatus, they’d be entranced by the sweet charm of my marginally crazed face. So my parents sent me off to a medical specialist, supposedly to correct my peculiar breathing (not to mention my daily nose bleeds, a result of the frequent occasions on which my classmates mistook my snorkel for a punching bag).
“Ah ha,” said the expert, “the child has septal spurs.” This sounded like good news to me. Despite its many drawbacks, at least my nose might someday allow me to get maximum speed out of a quarter horse. No, said the doctor, these hideous distortions of my nasal passages would have to go. Then my parents cautiously revealed their hidden motive. Since I was going to have to have my nose sliced open like a hot dog roll, my mother cooed sweetly, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get it trimmed down in size? At first, I huffily refused. I had my integrity to think of. What’s worse, I was already a 99-pound weakling. Without the 20-pound nose, I couldn’t even qualify for that! But my protests were of no use. When I woke up after the operation, most of what I’d formerly thought of as my body was gone. Oh, sure, the arms and legs were still there. But where was my nose?
For weeks I walked around with my head in bandages, looking like The Invisible Man after his magic formula wore off. Finally, the day of the great unveiling came. The doctor unwrapped my head. I looked in the mirror and saw, to my horror, an unfamiliar elephant. “Nothing to worry about,” said the surgeon, pointing to my trunk. “The swelling will go down in about two weeks. But,” and his voice turned icy, “you will have to be extremely careful. Your nose is still plastic [apparently, this didn’t mean it had been molded in a Chinese toy factory, but that it was as easily reshapeable as a lump of spackle]. Under no condition are you to engage in contact sports.” This was one order he could count on me to follow. Folks with athletic ability felt that the less contact with me the better.
So for ten days I assiduously avoided the baseball and football teams that wouldn’t allow me within five blocks of their playing fields and waited for the inflated organ to shrivel to its new size. Then, one day, I made a mistake. I washed my face.
The half-bathroom that served as an extra convenience on our first floor was large enough to sit down in—but barely. I carefully soaped and watered my frontal features, then turned around with my eyes shut to reach for a towel. The bathroom door, which opened inward and was almost the size of the room itself, was ajar. As I pivoted clockwise, my nose smashed into the hinged slab of lumber. The door consulted the laws of physics, concluded that two objects could not occupy the same place at the same time, and decided that my nose would have to move. Move it did...all the way to the far left-hand side of my face, where it shook hands with my earlobe. As I stepped back, the nose bounced wildly across my windscreen, seeking its original position. It missed, and snapped to the right, reaching the far side of my cheek. After a few more rubbery bounces from one ear to the other, it finally settled in the middle...more or less. But it was no longer the carefully sculpted key to social acceptability my doctor had labored for hours to create. The pieces had reassembled themselves in a jagged crescent arching sideways from my eyebrows to my upper lip. The incident was a sign from God. There was no way in Hell he wanted me to be normal.
But, just when one wants to yawn and put the book down, one does come across passages that, even as they indulge cliché, serve as historical correctives to prevailing nonsense and pseudohistory
You see, Henry Luce—the creator and publisher of Time Magazine and the ruler of the Time/Life empire—had made a discovery in the fifties that added great quantities of extra lucre to his fortune. If you could spot a weird bohemian trend out there in America somewhere, no matter how small and marginal, you could give it a name, write it up every week, and turn it into a national movement. This would allow you to produce great piles of indignant verbiage and long strings of lurid tales about a generation lost in lust and rebellion, thus satisfying the hidden needs of the men in the gray flannel suits who read your publication. These flannel-shackled souls could steep themselves in tales of free love and vicariously throw off the manacles of convention for a few minutes a week, justifying their fascination by registering outrage at socially destructive antics. Then they could go to their conference rooms and spend the day yessing the boss and return home at night to be balled out if they’d forgotten to pick up the milk.
In the mid-1950s, Luce had discovered a scruffy group of semi-derelicts named Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It was only four guys—along with whatever nubile young women (or nubile young men, in Ginsberg’s case) they could tempt into their unmade beds. But given a little push from the armies of Luce typewriters, this unkempt quartet could be made to look like an invading army. Luce and his underlings gave the group a name—the Beatniks—and all hell broke loose.
Note that last sentence’s banality, even as it serves the important task of undermining the utter bullshit narrative of the Beatniks’ self-apotheosis- especially the fact that Bloom refuses to call the aforementioned writers The Beat Generation, and uses their historically and culturally accurate and properly snarky term, Beatniks. This is a potentially important corrective to faux historical narratives, but it’s too fleeting.
Then there are the many throwaway comments, such as this:
So the next morning, the time arrived to embark on my first Fantastic
Voyage (unfortunately, without the scientific assistance of Raquel Welch) and to
follow Huxley into the brave new world of the cosmic interior.
The ham-handedness of the references to minor pop cultural references is only outdone by the triviality and preciousness of them. And, then Bloom not only has throwaway references wedged in to places they are unneeded, but he constantly references himself as if he had foreknowledge of such being of import beforehand, such as this:
The two-days of depression that kick in after you take Methedrine are hell. But in exchange for that hell, you learn lessons. For me, it was time to toss the hell away, keep the lessons, and tangle with…the law. As in “I fought the law and the law won.” But the fate indicated by the lyrics of this song would not be mine. Far from it. (Maybe that’s because the song would not be written for another three years.)
The song nodded to is Bobby Fuller’s 1966 hit song, I Fought The Law, but it’s a song that, even now, is hermetically sealed in a pop culture bottle, thus has no real import, and only a diminishing power, even were the paragraph it appears in well written.
To sum up, the book is loaded with clichés, overwriting, and lacks a general focus in its hyperfreneticism. There is also much too much self conscious deprecation that relies on sub-Vaudeville level humor. The book’s title could work, but it’s symptomatic of the literary ‘mugging for the camera’ done by Bloom.
Compared to some of the well wrought biographical moment’s in Bloom’s last book, The God Problem, these anecdotes seem slight, exaggerated, and self-consciously self-serving; alot like the old Austin Powers film parodies, or the fan books in the 1960s that were written about The Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles. There’s just a fluffiness about it. How I Accidentally Started The Sixties is copyrighted in 2013, but versions of the book have likely been underground and around almost two decades, as blog posts from the 00s reference it, and there’s a Timothy Leary blurb for it- and he died in 1996.
It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not good, although there are interesting and valuable moments, but much of it reminded me of the hyperbole that writer Gore Vidal used to engage in, during his barbs lobbed at actor Charlton Heston, over supposed gay content snuck into the screenplay of Ben-Hur, in that it seems spurious and mentioned only as an ego salve. Overall, if you’re a Bloom fan, this book might give you some insight into the man’s hidden side, and a few smiles, but for ideas driven folks, and people who appreciate great non-fiction writing, stick with his more science based works.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared the Hackwriters website.]
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