by Bob Smith
Published by Da Capo Press
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
February 6, 2018.
I thought stand-up comic Bob Smith was very funny the one time I heard him live, and I enjoyed his first two collections of essays, Openly Bob (1997) and Way to Go, Smith (1999). I bought his novel, Selfish and Perverse (2007) but was deterred by its length from starting to read it until after his recent (20 January 2018) death from ALS.
The novel has lots of funny lines and some outlandish situations, including getting stuck in the La Brea tar pit, an event that received international press coverage. The comedy coexists with serious reflections on love and art, and near-death experiences (not the tar pit, embarrassing as it is).
Almost all the characters, Alaskan and Angeleño, are gay or lesbian. The three points of the main triangle, writer and narrator Nelson, studly actor Dylan, and nature boy (fisherman and archeology student) Roy are complex, rounded characters. Their relationships are not the only fraught ones. There is the Yup’ik storyteller Alex, whom Dylan and Nelson offend. One of them makes amends in bed. Both Nelson and Roy have relationships with one sagacious parent (Nelson’s mother died, Roy’s father left long ago), both of whom totally accept their gay son/only child.
Nelson’s lesbian gal-pal Wendy is more a plot device than a rounded character, but gets some zingers of her own. Coffee Point on Bristol Bay of the Bering Sea in Alaska is practically a character, as is the wet weather.
Smith often referred to his hometown of Buffalo. He moved the birthplace of his alter ego, Nelson, to Milwaukee and made the writer unsure of his ability to write a novel a decade younger (unlike Nelson, Smith had accomplishments, including two published books before his novel, which came out of first visiting Alaska eight years earlier). Nelson is as jokey and as amiable as Smith…and I hope more insecure!
Although I think the novel could have been shorter, I had no difficulty sticking with it. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it a decade earlier, when I got it. (I was a Northern Exposure fan, especially of Ed.) I was saddened by the disease that was already affecting Smith when he was on a book tour for Selfish and Perverse (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkWhyHy2iUA). Despite it, he wrote three more books (one in press).
The book’s title and epigram came from Beethoven, who said that “true art is selfish and perverse—it will not submit to the mold of flattery.” Oddly, the attempts at flattery come mostly from Dylan, the actor researching for the role in which he has been cast as an Alaskan salmon fisherman. It is going to be his comeback role after a year in prison (which made me think of Robert Downey, Jr., but Dylan is hunkier and was originally inspired by Mark Wahlberg; Smith had been a staff writer—not a writer’s assistant—on MAD-TV).
© 2018 by Stephen O. Murray.