Monday, August 02, 2010

Letters to Emma Bowlcut: by Bill Callahan

Letters to Emma Bowlcut
by Bill Callahan
Rating: 3.0/5.0
Publisher: Drag City

Letters to Emma Bowlcut is one of the few works of musician-penned fiction that is not appallingly abysmal or vainly self-indulgent. There's a stigma attached to works of "literature" penned by a lyricist, and with good reason. Even heavyweights like Bob Dylan and Nick Cave haven't dodged this particular landmine. With its Beat Generation-aping stream of consciousness style and nonsensical wordplay, Tarantula is still mostly unreadable, whether you're sober or stoned. Cave's And the Ass Saw the Angel is no better - hell, it's actually much worse - as its tale of Euchrid Eucrow over-imbibes in the gothic excesses that somehow still work on Cave's 1980s albums. A reader could be forgiven for hearing echoes of Cave's albums in that text; Christ, the rain even pissed down in the book too. Some wits favorably compared Angel to both Faulkner and O'Connor - surely an insult to both of those writers (to be fair though, Cave's more recent The Death of Bunny Munro is a little better).

It's therefore a minor miracle that Bill Callahan's Letters to Emma Bowlcut is actually worth reading and would likely garner attention even if Callahan didn't already have indie music name recognition to give this publication a little PR push. Alternately described as an epic poem and an epistolary novel, it consists of 62 letters over which a relationship between an unnamed man and a woman, possibly a librarian he meets at a party, develops. If the whole concept sounds too quaint for this email and text age and just a little bit precious, at least it's well-written enough to make it easy for the reader to forgive its somewhat rustic premise.

Usually writing in short, declarative sentences, Callahan gradually reveals details about each character, always through the voice of the male. The man's job remains nebulous; he works with micrometers, studies the "Vortex" and makes one trip to company headquarters, but otherwise, Callahan offers glimpses into the man's past and present in the subtlest of ways. The man is a boxing enthusiast - "god I wanted the uppercuts to connect," he says in an early letter - as well as something of an emotional live wire. He vacillates between extremes: sobriety and intoxication, insecurity and bravado, dissatisfaction and contentment, chivalry and crudity. The character is meant to be viewed sympathetically despite his flaws, as many of the events he recalls - especially phone calls with a grandmother whose memory is failing - seem designed to evoke compassion from the reader. Though the woman remains a little more sketchy, primarily because everything we know about her comes from the letter writer's perception of her, Callahan similarly provides enough back story to make her more than the man's idealized muse.

Some traits of Callahan's lyrical style find their way into Letters to Emma Bowlcut (indeed, the title of Callahan's latest studio album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle can be found in letter 20). The letters are frequently poetic; in letter 3 the man says that "at the heel end of day, I need my glass of wine. Christmas lights for the brain. In lulls we assess the gulls." It could be gibberish but, damn, it sounds good. Other letters feature Callahan's sardonic and borderline cruel sense of humor; in letter 44 the man describes how he reacts when someone falls down: "I have an inability to help anyone who has fallen. To witness injects me with a paralytic joy. If someone falls in front of me, you've never seen such a smile in your life." But the book is not simply Callahan's lyrics set to paper, and is better for it.

Sometimes Callahan's inner monologue ponderings on so much of life's mundane daily acts of repetition smack of pseudo-psychological babble. But Letters to Emma Bowlcut is usually pretty damn good and shows all the traits that make Callahan's music so worthwhile. It also doesn't embarrass its author, something a few big-name lyricists who've released some serious drivel can't claim.

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