Spingtime for Fred Phelps: An Interview with Paul Bingham, author of Down Where the Devil Don’t Go

Bingham cover for blog

There is an art to pain. Overwhelming kills you, knocks your mind out. Too little, and you forget you’re nothing. Just the right amount and you’ll hurt bad like everybody else. It’s all in the applicationhow you manage it. It hurts, she told me. But all I did was bring out the hurt from within.

—Paul Bingham, Down Where the Devil Don't Go

With roots in American noir, adventure pulps, and dirty realism, the quartet of stories on offer in Paul Bingham’s debut collection, Down Where the Devil Don’t Go, rake beneath the sodden mulch of contemporary writing-workshop-descended lit-fic to remind us, if only for a lazy afternoon, of a time when an Angry Young Man of letters knew his fucking job.

With one eye on the shifting reel of pop-cultural signage that keeps us in a state of bleary hypnosis, Bingham never loses sight of the dirt beneath his – and our – feet. His prose is trenchant and mordant, subtle and sly, funny and ugly and absurd and edged with preposterous, violent truth. He tells stories. He entertains and provokes. And he knows more about equine podiatry than you ever will.

Like Hobbes’ view of life, Bingham’s fiction is nasty, brutish, and short. So is this interview. I do hope you’ll read his book.

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THE HOOVER HOG: So, what's the deal with Kenny Chesney?

PAUL BINGHAM: Long answer: I wrote these stories eight years ago. It was a cool time in the history of “alternative” country music, but hardly anyone outside of the scene was aware of it. Alternative artists couldn't get played, but guys like Kenny Chesney were on heavy rotation and if you worked construction in the South, you were guaranteed to hear too many Kenny Chesney songs per hour. Artificial arrangements, tired voice, lyrics written to appeal exclusively to women. You couldn't escape him. On the job, in stores, bars, restaurants. Anywhere. For a lot of underground artists and their fans it was a stab in the ear every time that contrived, untalented hack was hailed as a sex-symbol, getting his songs played a dozen times an hour.

When Jack Sparks had his radio show and that hilarious blog promoting Alt-Country in the middle to the late oughts, he used  Kenny Chesney as an example of everything that’s wrong with modern country music. Since he started on Kenny in 2003, there have probably been a few derisive songs written that name-check him as the country music Antichrist. Kyle, at Savingcountrymusic.com still clobbers him every now and again.

Short answer: George W. Bush is a fan of that lip-syncing, faggot's music.

THH: Well, I like how the references are sort of threaded through the stories. It's a light touch on one level, but I suppose the artifice of "country" assumes more thematic weight in “What the Dead Men Fear,” which is a kind of western – or cowboy-outlaw – yarn filtered through so much postmodern noise. And it occurs to me that a female country star is at the center of it all, both as a damsel in distress and as a kind of unwitting heroine. Without giving too much away, can you talk about how you came to write that one?    

PB: “What the Dead Men Fear” was the second in a series of short stories I wanted to write that featured American 21st century realism and my favorite subjects of pain and death. Maybe I'm not a better poet than writer, but poetry, or perhaps a sense of poetic prose was the principal motivation behind the interconnected references.

Most short stories are boring because the people who write them lead boring lives. It’s hard for a desk-bound individual to write about a smoke-jumper, or commercial fisherman or a rodeo cowboy, and most practitioners of exciting trades don't do a particularly good job of writing about what they do. For example, I wrote “I Feel Alright” after reading a poorly written story by a combat veteran in some libertarian publication in Alaska. I'm not blaming him. I don't have his experience, or his demons. But his college degree, or any other background he might have had in creative writing essentially ruined his ability to tell a story. Men of action need poetry not education to convey their thoughts.

The gentleman upon whom the protagonist is based is in his thirties, graying, with two or more kids, and a boring factory job. I tried to envision a more heroic ending for him. As for Cheyenne, she's an example of a large number of celebrities who lose track of who and where they are.

The story was written while I was recovering from a concussion acquired from training a self-destructive horse. It's more realistic than one might imagine. I've omitted some key details that might possibly make it seem a bit less fanciful.

I have to say that I get a stronger sense of Carveresque realism in the opening story, Population I, which we'll discuss in turn. To my ear, What the Dead Men Fear is more hardboiled, more two-fisted – it seems to fall somewhere under the long shadow of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, certainly Jim Thompson for his violent excess. Are you influenced by those guys, by whole American pulp-noir tradition?

And the horse work – that's pretty far from the desk. You're still at it, yeah?

PB: Strangely enough, I've never read Chandler, Cain or Thompson, though I quite liked Dashiell Hammett,  Charles Willeford,  Bill Branon, Alan Stang and half dozen other authors whose names never come to mind when they should. What influenced me to write “What the Dead Men Fear” was, oddly enough, O'Henry's “The Four Million.” Of course in O'Henry's day, violence was more unpleasant and painful, so people weren't quite so interested in it. Today, pain and violence interests me because our society is anti-pain. And contemporary violence is often as absurd and unrealistic as what’s portrayed in these stories.

Actually, Sam Peckinpah is a big influence. He was first and foremost a writer. Like him, I think of myself as a voyeur of violence.  Sex isn't that interesting and everyone else talks about it. Not everyone has the stomach to deal with violence or its aftermath, subjects the inquisitive spectator and combat bum alike must face.

I still dabble in training, and I work part-time as a farrier. That's one craft the robots won't be taking over anytime soon. And I prefer the company of horses to people, for the most part.

THH: I like voyeur in this context. It never really made sense to me, the way artists are expected to justify depictions of violence as if sensation needs an apology. And Peckinpah was a guy who never heard the end of it until he sort of called the critics' bluff with Straw Dogs. That was a brazen fuck you, wasn't it? – Like he was saying, you think I don't know I'm playing with fire? Let me show you what I know. Your stories are similar, I think, in that you let things happen. The violent content may be comic or sadistic, meditative or propulsive, but it never feels morally contrived. It's just something that erupts in a closed universe. Yet there is a moral resonance – or residue – isn't there? Perhaps something tuned to grate against modern sensibilities?

PB: Well, Peckinpah was heavily influenced by Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris and his point remains that the Western world has lost its understanding of the morality of violence. For example, of the principle causes of PTSD in American combat soldiers is their pre-combat state of mind. Peckinpah witnessed the carnage of WWII without actively participating in the killing and I have been around the aftermath of a fair amount of violence. It's interesting because violence is neither as scarce nor as senseless as society likes to imagine. Our methodology for contemplating it is brittle, so we simply revert to platitudes.

I think all this talk about micro-aggression is fascinating because it's absolutely true; the powers that be have arranged to suppress human instincts like aggression, and to gratify others like appetite. But that only works for so long. Everyone can feel the violence simmering beneath the surface of our world, Steven Pinker's “better angels” notwithstanding. The feminists, being women, are sensitive to this, but they don't fully understand what they feel. Preppers are aware of it, but they get it wrong, too. It's a general feeling of impending doom and the inability to deal with it. Maybe that in itself would be the cause of the future bloodshed. I don't know.

THH: I think you've provided a good segue to the opening story, Population I, which happens to be my favorite. The other narratives in the collection are concerned with men of action, where violence literally explodes. But here we encounter the violence that simmers, as you put it. I think the story is at once sad and comic, and I suspect many readers will find it unsettling. It's about a writer – a blocked writer. That's familiar terrain, as at least one critic has noted, but there's more going on isn't there?  

PB: I never thought of writer's block as the subject. The way these stories are put together, it’s an unintentional homage to Mishima's novel, Kyoko's House. We have two desk men and two men of action. I quite like the two men of action, but they lack a sense of poetry and thus fall short of the heroic or tragic.

Most of these characters and situations are stolen rather than made up and the inspiration for that story was some lit-fiction writer, an aspiring D.F. Wallace type. Completely forgettable, but I remember he mentioned in an interview that he'd posed with a Gibson guitar on the back cover of a novel he'd written, and he admitted that he could not, in fact, play the guitar. There was also some mention of writer's block and some liberal platitudes. Nobody has writer's block these days, though. Nobody can afford to have writers block.  My main concern is never putting words on paper; it's that the words be up to a certain improvised or self-imposed standard.

The whole story is a satire of the creative writing industry, or the burnt out hull of what was the creative writing industry back in the opulent Bush years.

THH: I would say that writers block, in context, can be read as a metaphor for a more numbing impotence. The Skinhead's taunt about "guitar lessons" is telling, and the comic sadness I mentioned is fully pronounced in the guy's one sexual experience with his roommate Rose, where she gives him a prostate rub" because she could just want a guy's touch. I think it would be easy to say, well the writer is a repressed homosexual (another old trope), especially when he begins to eroticize his mentoring relationship with Jamal, but that seems like a contemporary fixation that misses what's really unfolding, or unraveling. I think I read the story three times through before it hit me – and I may be wrong – that it's about unrequited love, or love unrealized. I mean, I wouldn't call myself a traditionalist exactly, but I see these characters sort of wallowing in this cultural wreckage, grasping for meaning in identity politics and perversity, and I can't help but imagine an alternative universe where Rose and the Writer are happily married. There's just a palpable sense that something has gone awry. Does any of this ring true with your intentions? Am I being sentimental?        

PB: It's about two people who in any other era would be in a relationship with each other.  The writer isn't necessarily a repressed homosexual; he's just sexually repressed. Rose, on the other hand, has overdosed on her sexuality. I'd pretty much agree with Uncle Gore that there are homosexual or heterosexual acts but not individuals. Often, only the mentally imbalanced will tend toward the former if the latter is also available.

I don't think the Writer and Rose could be happily married. Married, yes,  living in some dismal suburb of a college town and going to the local supermarket together of an evening to buy cheap wine and cat litter, maybe.

THH: Let's talk about your other "desk man," network executive Mort Schnellenhammer. I like that Mort starts off expressing concern that there are no "really evil villains" in this cult sci-fi show that has him on edge, and then he proceeds to become one himself. But in the end – and I suspect I'm in the minority here – I can't help but like Mort. He's clueless about so much that's going on around him, yet he's very decisive in his paranoia. It's almost charming, the way he rationalizes every twist in his despicable plot. You can talk about the inspiration for “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Hollywood,” but I'm just as curious to know how you size up your farcical corporate antihero. I'm sure some readers will say he's nothing more than an anti-Semitic caricature. I mean, you sort of set the bait. But I don't think it breaks down so clearly.    

PB: Mort is the eternal middle-man. He's really no worse than his grandfather was. Jacob lived in more innocently riotous times. After many herculean struggles with the middlemen of our managerial society, I've often thought to myself, “how does this man live with himself?”  And the answer was simply: quite well, actually. That's how “Protocols” came into being. 

If Protocols has a point, it's that scapegoating is a lot harder than ideologues might think. I've been tracing the structures of power to find out who was actually in charge, calling shots, in various influential organizations.  And the answer is no one. It's a blind alley. Obviously there are individuals and groups making decisions, but they might as well be in another universe from ours. Or from Mort’s, for that matter.

THH: He's honest with Hasan, pointing out that he merely “allows” programs to be made.

PB: Mort’s making the best of things. The late, great Fred Phelps inspired this story. I failed to take advantage of opportunities to interview him on several occasions, to my eternal chagrin.

THH: Your use of religion in the story – it's the only one that features religion, at least in an explicit way – is interesting. Hasan is a Palestinian Christian. Many of the rabid fans turn out to be Jehovah's Witnesses. Were those calculated choices?

Hasan is a tragic figure to my mind, as are the Palestinian Christians.  Jehovah's Witnesses are always knocking on my door. I'm not easy to find, but they never give up. They may be insane, but they've got class. I remember two of them came over while I was writing this story, and I invited them in, not knowing what denomination they were. “Come on in, some of my best friends are Mormons.”

THH: You should say that no matter who knocks. Even if it's the cops. How are you feeding your brain these days? Anything I might have missed?

PB:Well whether I like it or not, doing the full-time dissident thing. There's an account  on FB about one of my “activisms” as we jokingly call them, preventing a platoon of cops from beating a sovereign citizen who was a resisting an unjust arrest. (He'd just left  a courtroom hearing  where everything went too well for him, and the judge sent a small army of cops, deputies and state troopers after him to search his vehicle and give him another citation for no license/insurance/tags.)

It's a form of ecological activism,  as sovereign citizens are an almost extinct species in the body politic. I don't agree with his stand at this time, but he's a good, productive man and a freedom-lover. he took on this battle intentionally,  despite the fact that he works full time to feed his family.  everyone should kick in a couple dollars towards his defense fund (Mike Wasson, PO Box 118, Oldfield, MO 65720).

I'm into some other things that I'll talk about in a decade or two, assuming we're still alive then and the tribulation has not yet come upon us.

THH: I let Down Where the Devil Don't Go sit on the burner for a while. This was never my intention, and I've apologized. At the same time, I think your stories seem more relevant today than when they were originally written near the end of the Bush years. What's it like to revisit the work now that we're deep into a new era of hope and change? Has the half-life of satire reached its terminus?

PB: It has some stamina. And prescience. Satire has prescience because one is positing that things can always get worse and we can find amusement in the collapse.

Evelyn Waugh's Love Among the Ruins and Auberon Waugh's Brideshead Benighted were large influences. Satire has its place. It's less funny when crazy things you write about actually happen and there's no time to say “hey, I told you so.”

THH: I understand that you've kept up with the writing. So, What's next?

PB: A Rock Opera based on Mein Kampf. I know, you're thinking The Producers and “Springtime for Hitler,” but this is more of a serious work, a rather austere appraisal of Hitler as a dreamer, a man of vision, from a neutral perspective of course. There's a lot of Harry Partch as well as martial industrial music, Death in June type folk, even a little country-rock that might scandalize David Irving. I think Hitler would have liked Marty Robbins and Hank Williams.

There's also another novel in the works, a Bowdenesqe piece. May I say without kissing ass that you being Jonathan Bowden's last publisher is one of the reasons I find Nine-Banded Books to be cool and why I'm happy to have my collection put out by your imprint. Anyway, it’s called Carnival of Pain. Been working on it for several years. I call it my Shoutbox Novel because parts of it are written in chatroom style. It has several layers of plotting, the first about a brave, handsome, patriotic Navy Seal who undergoes a sex change in order to infiltrate a terrorist hideout in the guise of a beautiful woman to liquidate a terrorist leader. Meanwhile a cast of diverse characters gathers to watch the Seal's travails on his path to becoming Ms. Congeniality and fulfill his mission. There's more to it, but that's about all I feel qualified to explain at this time.

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Paul Bingham's Down Where the Devil Don't Go may be ordered from Nine-Banded Books HERE or from Amazon HERE. Copies are also on the shelf at Quimby's Bookstore in Chicago and it will soon stocked at Atomic Books in Baltimore.

Memento mori

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