Saturday, May 14, 2011

Guilty Reading Pleasures

Reece Hirsch

I write thrillers, which some readers consider to be their guilty pleasures. So maybe it takes a lot to make me feel guilty about my reading habits. I’m also a lawyer, which probably only serves to heighten my threshold for guilt. That said, here are two guilty pleasures from my bookshelf.

Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller.

Why I Feel Guilty About It: It’s an oral history that dishes copious portions of dirt about the in-fighting and petty jealousies among the cast of the landmark comedy show from the Belushi/Radner days through the beginnings of the Ferrell/Fey era in 2002. My guilt is assuaged somewhat because Tom Shales is a respected television critic (three words that you don’t see together too often).

Why It’s Great: Sometimes I don’t know why I continue to watch SNL, but I do. Maybe it’s because I still remember how vitally important it was to see every show during the first few seasons, not only to see what Belushi, Murray, Radner, et al. were up to, but for the musical guests. I found this book irresistible because it distills more than 20 years of the funniest/meanest/most revealing anecdotes from the SNL cast and crew.

Sure, there are plenty of details in this book about who was sleeping with who and what drugs everyone was taking, but there are also some very sweet moments, like this recollection from former boyfriend Bill Murray (a personal icon) about the last time he saw Gilda Radner:

“Laraine had a party one night… there was a collection of like the funniest people at the party… most of us from the show, and Gilda… she was slim. We hadn't seen her in a long time. And she started doing, ‘I've got to go,’ and she was just going to leave, and I was like ‘Going to leave?’ I felt like she was going to really leave forever. So we started carrying her around, in a way that we could only do with her… Danny did (carried) her for a while. Then I did it again. We just kept carrying her, we did it in teams. We kept on carrying her around… just carrying her around and saying: ‘She's leaving! This could be it! Now come on, this could be the last time we see her…’ She was laughing so hard we could have lost her right then and there. It was just one of the best parties I've ever been to in my life… it was the last time I saw her.”

Chevy Chase is definitely the consensus pick for biggest jerk and his behavior seemed to have been particularly bad when he returned to host the show after leaving the cast. Case in point: cast member Terry Sweeney says that Chase said to him, “Oh, you're the gay guy, right? I've got an idea for a sketch for you. How about we say you have AIDS and we weigh you every week?" After reading this book, I suspect Chase may be uncomfortably close in real life to the inappropriate-remark-spewing character he’s been playing recently on “Community.”

Blood Sport: A Journey Up the Hassayampa by Robert F. Jones

Why I Feel Guilty About It: This is one demented novel. Bill Crider summed it up well when he wrote, “It's sort of like Hemingway on crack, the ultimate macho surreal fantasy.” It’s a hard book to recommend because it’s definitely not everyone’s uber-macho cup of triple espresso.

Why It’s Great: Blood Sport is great because it’s not quite like anything else that I’ve ever read, or expect to ever read again. It’s part Deliverance, part Huckleberry Finn, part coming-of-age-story, part surreal exploration of the American outlaw mythos, and part Paul Bunyonesque tall tale, with a dash of Peckinpah on the side. This cult book is now available again after being out-of-print for many years, but I’ve always hung on to my original Dell paperback, which has an amazing full-color cover. The story follows a father and son on a hunting and fishing expedition up the Hassayampa, a mythical river that, according to legend, renders everyone who drinks from it incapable of telling the truth. Along the way, they hunt mastodon and catch fresh-water marlin. Yes, it's that kind of book, and at certain points it gets even more surreal than that.

The son gets separated from his father and falls in with a gang of outlaws led by the immortal bandit Ratanous (a.k.a. Ratnose) and is initiated into the pleasures of sex, drugs and violence. The father pursues the bandits to bring his son back, culminating in a long-distance duel to the death using fishing rods with poison flies across a swirling vortex at the headwaters of the Hassayampa.

Like the early episodes of SNL, this book made a big impression on me as a kid, so much so that I’m not sure I dare to reread it in full at this point. However, from time to time I open it up to the chapter listing “27 Things I Learned About Ratnose” and smile, assured that this book is just as crazy as I remembered it.

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