John Dolan: Book Critic

With due respect to BR Myers and Dale Peck, the most incisive literary hit-man in the business these days may a Moscow-based American expat named John Dolan.  I’ve been catching up on this guy’s essays and reviews over at Mark Ames’ russkie-alt webzine, The eXile (home of Gary Brecher’s brilliant "War Nerd" column), and I haven’t been so entertained since Florence King bitchslapped Molly-Ivins-the-plagiarist into affectations of ego-bruised, southern-smarmy contrition. 

For proof of Dolan’s bona fides, note simply that he called James Frey on his frat-boy bluster long before Oprah’s staff intervention.  The 2003 hatchet job, "A Million Pieces of  Shit," is a perfectly pitched cocktail of  perspicacity, wit, and spleen:

For all Frey’s childish impersonation of the laconic Hemingway style, this is one of the most heavily padded pieces of prose I’ve seen since I stopped reading first-year student essays. Frey manages to puff up this simple story to book length thanks to one simple gimmick: he repeats. Repeats the beginnings of sentences. Repeats the beginnings of phrases. And the endings. Endings of phrases. Phrases and sentences.

And while his prose is repeating, his tale is descending. Descending into Bathos. Bathos
        in which he wallows. Wallows. In bathos. Bathos, bathos, bathos.

The results can be quite funny, altogether unintentionally, as when Frey tries to dramatize the travails of love:

"I start crying again.

Softly crying.

I think of Lilly and I cry.

It’s all I can do.


I found myself laughing every time I read this, imagining Daffy Duck doing the scene:  "It’th all I can do!" then turning to the audience to clarify things: "Cry, that ith."

But wait, it gets better:

But then Frey is no expert observer, as he proves in one of the funniest scenes from his
        nature walks, when he meets a "fat otter": "There is an island among the rot, a large, round Pile with monstrous protrusions like the arms of a Witch. There is chatter beneath the pile and a fat brown otter with a flat, armored tail climbs atop and he stares at me."

Now, can anyone tell me what a "fat otter with a flat, armored tail" actually is? That’s right: a beaver! Now, can anyone guess what the "large, round Pile with monstrous protrusions like the arms of a Witch" would be? Yes indeed: a beaver dam!

Any kindergartner would know that, and anyone with a flicker of life would be delighted
        to see a beaver and its home. But for Frey, a very stupid and very vain man, the "fat
        otter" is nothing but another mirror in which to adore his Terrible Fate. He engages the
        beaver in the most dismal of adolescent rhetorical interrogations:

"Hey, Fat Otter.

He stares at me.

You want what I got?

He stares at me.

I’ll give you everything.

Stares at me…."

And so on, for another half-page. You want to slap the sulking spoiled brat. The Fat Otter should’ve slapped him with its "flat, armored tail" and then chewed his leg off and used it to fortify its "Pile with monstrous protrusions."

That evisceration would be followed with a couple of shamelessly gleeful post-mortem meditations on Frey’s Fall. But rather than dwell on the flavor of the month, I should direct your attention to a few lean cuts that make Dolan a reader worth reading.  Chuckle past the one-liners and schadenfreudian shuck and jive, and you have a critic who seems constitutionally impervious to fad and fashion. And it is this incidentally irreverent stance, I suspect, that allows Dolan to snap off the sort of observations that most critics would sooner stifle than admit. 

In a review of Celine’s The Church, for example, our guy breezily fails the litmus test:

I may as well admit that I can’t stand plays. They’re embarrassing to watch — all those actors acting at you, basking in attention like a friend’s brat reciting school poems. And when you try to read them, they’re just plain dull. I can’t suppress a philistine suspicion that plays are just primitive versions of movies, just as opera was just a ludicrous style of singing intended to make the vocals audible before microphones were invented.    

The same damn-the-giants independence of mind, emerges in Dolan’s running commentary on canonical orthodoxy.  The sincerity of mission registers most acute when he jabs at those well-guarded exhibits in the museum of modernism, as in this dead-on demurral:

Reading and trying to like Ulysses was like trying to like abstract painters: you could only do it if you remembered that these painters had started out painting some very good representational work.  In the same way, you could only keep yourself reading Ulysses by reminding yourself that Joyce COULD well when he wanted to, like he did in Dubliners. 

Then there’s this bit on Beckett:

…a great writer,  I guess, but I’d sooner chop weeds by the freeway than read him again.

And lest we forget, Tolstoy:

Do the arbiters of taste still consider him a  great writer?  I don’t keep track; all I know is that I despise him.  I don’t care if he’s great.  He gives me the creeps.

When he isn’t dealing in pithy bloodwork, Dolan reserves careful praise for writers most deserving.  He’s among the few reviewers who seems to have an accurate read on Houllebecq, for example, and he serves it up without the requisite apologies and critical distancing.  And with so much hipster-come-lately misapprehension polluting the memesphere these days, Dolan’s nuanced consideration of Philip K. Dick is especially refreshing.

Likewise, his encomium to Hunter S. Thomson is as good as any I’ve read:

We make the Hollywood  Commies of the fifties into heroes for refusing to grovel or snitch, but that’s only because Commies just don’t matter.  Try to think of a hero who stood up to the drug cops and the medieval insanity they unleashed — a hero who never denied using drugs or enjoying them, never denied that they helped him enormously in his work, never backed down even at the peak of the witch hunt.  It’s a list of one: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.  That’s practical bravery.  Bravery in the face of real, virulent, popular oppression.  Do you see the difference? 

Bonus points are in order for Dolan’s eloquent appreciation of the late feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, a figure whose reputation has been too easily defined by reflexive hostility, cheap jokes, and politically couched verbiage.  Dolan lashes through the din:

We’re supposed to know that you don’t take it seriously — you don’t live as you speak.
        What I revere about Dworkin is that she never realized that. Dworkin is hated so intensely
        simply because she accepted first-wave feminism fully. She blurted naively the implications
        of that ideology. And that appalled and embarrassed millions of smoother women, who liked
        the cool, fashionable tune feminism gave their bitching but had never had any intention of
        letting it get in the way of their romantic career plans.

I remember, ladies. I was there — at Berkeley in the 70s. And I was like Dworkin, a naive loser from a family which actually lived the ideology it claimed. Hers was the classic east-coast Jewish progressive tradition; mine was the most severe, self-flagellating brand of Irish Catholicism. The common denominator was the lack of compromise. Dworkin had a great line on this: "I don’t find compromise unacceptable, I find it incomprehensible."

…without copping to the usual caveats:

Even the reviewers who praised Dworkin did it in ways intended to alert their readers that they were encountering a nut, someone who was to be admired rather than listened to. Intercourse was "daring," "radical," "outrageous" — in other words, beyond the pale. It was something to have on your shelf, or your reading list, as ballast, another sort of street cred. It was never meant to accuse women who fucked men of, to coin a phrase, sleeping with the enemy.       

But that was exactly what Dworkin meant, and all she meant. It was so obvious; the real
        shock is that it took so long for someone in the women’s movement to say that and get
        noticed for it.

I should probably mention that Dolan devotes at least as much critical attention to nonfiction treatises on Russian and Eastern European culture and history as well as to various and sundry studies on the world situation and select ephemera. Such extra-literary forays seem rooted in the sort of undeceived leftist pessimism that once made Christpher Hitchens worth reading. 

I should probably mention, also, that Dolan has written a novel, which is something few critics have the balls or talent to pull off.

In his homage to Philip K. Dick, Dolan breaks it down real simple:

He meant what he wrote, and though he’s often comic, he’s always very serious about what he’s saying.

The same observation could easily apply to John Dolan. He can be mean as hell and funny as fuck, but somehow  the riffs and rancor never come off as snarky or self-important. When Dolan animadverts on James Frey’s "self-aggrandizing, simple-minded, poorly observed, repetitious, maudlin drivel," he isn’t kicking up dust to make a deadline.  No, Dolan is working from the trench of sincere, if resigned, outrage. He is a cynic in the classic sense: bound by honesty, and just foolish enough to believe it still matters.