It’s easy to write a novel: Just keep typing until you have something that is very long and mostly lies. But getting that mess published is another beast entirely—unless you are famous, in which case your every utterance is assumed to be worth printing. As a result, there are a ton of embarrassing books with famous names attached to them. We sampled a few to see whether they were really that bad and found that yes, they were.
THE JUSTICE RIDERS
Chuck Norris, Ken Abraham, Aaron Norris, and Tim Grayem
B&H Fiction, 2006
Who knew that Walker, Texas Ranger, would be the best ridiculous-name-giver since Stan Lee? If you want to read about “Ezra Justice” as he teams up with English sharpshooter “Reginald Bonesteel” to fight “Slate Mordecai” and teach the Wild West about the Bible, The Justice Riders is the grocery-store paperback for you! The book wraps up with Justice sharing the gospel with Mordecai, then shooting him dead after the bad guy rejects Jesus—which is sort of Norris’s worldview in a nutshell.
The plot of Paradise Alley is a predictable yawn about three brothers in 1940s Hell’s Kitchen who get involved in underground wrestling in search of a quick buck and learn heartwarming lessons, but Stallone’s prose makes what could have been a merely mediocre novel memorably awful. He was likely aiming for a Dashiell Hammett–esque hard-boiled style but winds up sounding both simplistic and overly fond of the stalest stereotypes of New York City tenement life. When your fight scenes include lines like “Patty McLade dropped to the floor like a whore’s nightgown,” it’s time to go back to writing movies that are mostly inspirational jogging scenes and anguished grunts.
Nicolas and Weston Cage
Virgin Comics, 2007
One time, Nic Cage and his black-metal crooner son, Weston, came up with an idea for a comic book about the child of a slave who was killed in the 1860s and gets resurrected by black magic to clean up the streets of post-Katrina New Orleans. Then they got an artist and a writer to make their dreams into reality, because the Cages are not like you or me. This book is like if Spawn impregnated the Candyman with his demon seed on the set of Treme while a cuckolded Todd McFarlane masturbated in a corner. In other words, it’s fantastic.
Christopher Isherwood and His Twink: How to Date a Gay Novelist Who Is Older Than Your Dad
When I was 25, I moved to Berlin with a beat-up copy of Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories tucked in my bag. Like many hobosexuals and fagabonds before me, I considered the book a lodestone, a guide to transmuting aimless searching and polymorphous desire into meaningful experiences. So when I heard that Farrar, Straus, and Giroux was releasing The Animals,a collection of the letters of Isherwood and his longtime lover, artist Don Bachardy, I knew I had to read it.
Bachardy met Isherwood when he was 18 and Isherwood was 48 (a year older than Bachardy’s own father). Despite the age difference, the couple spent the next 33 years together. Though love affairs and artistic exploits frequently sent them ricocheting around the world, they maintained a deep and unbreakable connection. They expressed this affection (and frustration) through “the Animals,” personae the two adopted in their letters. Bachardy acted as Kitty and Isherwood called himself Dobbin, Kitty’s faithful horse.
Bachardy, now 80, still lives in the house the couple shared in Santa Monica. Shaking with faggoty fan boy excitement, I called Bachardy to discuss The Animals and what it’s like dating a famous old man who was older than his dad.
VICE: How did your letters become a book?
Don Bachardy: It was my idea. I’d saved all of Chris’s letters, and after his death, I found that he’d saved all of mine. Reading through them just made me think the material was too good not to share it with others. There’s almost nothing, no letter in the book, that is missing, except one, though I can’t remember now where in the sequence it is.
Did you ever discuss publishing something like this with Chris before he died?
No, no, no. And the animals at the time would have been horrified at the suggestion that they would ever be revealed and their letters [would be] published in a book. They would have been quite shocked by such an idea.
What changed your thinking?
I came across both sets of letters and it was very strange reading them again, but interesting too. There were even some laughs in the material, our attempts to entertain each other. There were things I would have liked to have changed—would have changed if I could—but then it’s always a mistake to tamper with any mementos of the past.
James Franco’s Summer Book Club
Summer is here, so I thought I would offer a few books that have been on my list. All of these books have left their stamps on my memory. There was the summer I read Moby-Dick, and the summer I read Moby-Dick again… I hope to pass on some books that might make a few marks on your own souls.
Anyway, you’re all probably thinking, “What kind of fucking story is this? What happened to Maury from the beginning? This is all over the place. He’s just throwing a bunch of his grad school applications and some random tidbits together because he procrastinated and he doesn’t have a story. And you know what? I hate all those stupid literary references, they’re fucking annoying and stupid, they’re just his way of bragging about the books he’s read, well, you know, what James, who gives a fuck? We’ve all read them. And it’s not like you use them in any analytical way, you just cite little pieces of gossip. Wow! So impressive.” Well shit, ok, ok, maybe, maybe my references are just a way of bragging. Not like I haven’t heard every other author brag about his childhood reading lists from Nabokov to William Saroyan to Harold Bloom who all claim to have read shit like Schopenhauer when they were five. And I can’t believe that I brought up Harold Bloom, he’s the pseudo-intellectual’s favorite reference, popular criticism, whatever, he’s a genius, blah, blah, blah, anxiety of influence. And, yeah, maybe I am writing this last minute, but I’ve had a lot to do! I went to Boston this weekend for an old high-school buddy’s wedding, and then I stopped off in Iowa to look at the writing program. I’m trying to get into grad school, OK? I’m busy!
Read James Franco’s latest piece for VICE, Paying for Paying for It
You are not a man. You are not a woman. You are not a neuter. You are a construct. Maintaining your gender is a constant performance. These ideas don’t seem that radical now, but before Judith Butler adapted them from Foucault and laid them out in her 1990 book Gender Trouble, they seemed alien. “What do you mean getting hammered with your pals is a culturally ingrained performance? Are you saying I’m gay? Are you saying I don’t like pounding beers at the bar and then going to the club to throw up on my best friend, Steve, whom I fucking love?” A bro might have said those very words to Judith Butler in 1990. Now, he’s read Gender Trouble, and is content as can be sitting around watching Sex and the City with his girlfriend.
How Poor Young Black Men Run from the Police
Alice Goffman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (out this month on University of Chicago Press), has been getting far more attention than academic works usually get. The book is a result of her living in a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia she refers to as “6th Street” for years as an undergraduate and a grad student. (She changed the names of people and places in her book.) She eventually fell in with a group of young men who were almost constantly under the threat of being arrested and jailed, often for petty probation violations or unpaid court fees. She became a “fly on the wall” and took notes as her subjects (who were also her friends) attempted to make a living, support each other, and maintain relationships with their loved ones, all while attempting to evade the authorities. Goffman’s work shows how the threat of imprisonment hangs over the lives of so many in communities like 6th Street and warps families and friendships in the process. It’s an uncommonly close look at how lives are lived under police surveillance and should be read by anyone with an interest in poverty, policing, or mass incarceration. This excerpt is from the second chapter, which is titled “Techniques for Evading the Authorities.”
A young man concerned that the police will take him into custody comes to see danger and risk in the mundane doings of everyday life. To survive outside prison, he learns to hesitate when others walk casually forward, to see what others fail to notice, to fear what others trust or take for granted.
One of the first things that such a man develops is a heightened awareness of police officers—what they look like, how they move, where and when they are likely to appear. He learns the models of their undercover cars, the ways they hold their bodies and the cut of their hair, the timing and location of their typical routes. His awareness of the police never seems to leave him; he sees them sitting in plain clothes at the mall food court with their children; he spots them in his rearview mirror coming up behind him on the highway, from ten cars and three lanes away. Sometimes he finds that his body anticipates their arrival with sweat and a quickened heartbeat before his mind consciously registers any sign of their appearance.
When I first met Mike, I thought his awareness of the police was a special gift, unique to him. Then I realized Chuck also seemed to know when the police were coming. So did Alex. When they sensed the police were near, they did what other young men in the neighborhood did: they ran and hid.
Behind the Big Eyes: How Walter Keane Cheated His Wife Out of Fame and Fortune
Editor’s note: Adam Parfrey runs perhaps our favorite small press, Feral House Books. If you’re interested in pills, black metal, and apocalyptic death cults, they’re pretty much your one-stop shop. So when Adam sent us a snippet of his new book, Citizen Keane, we jumped at the opportunity to run an excerpt. The subject is Walter and Margaret Keane, 60s pop artists who caused a weird sensation painting kids with big eyes. They’re also the subject of Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s new biopic, which will see wide release this Christmas.
1965 was a year of bug-eyed glory for the former real estate salesman turned pop artist Walter Stanley Keane, who bragged to reporters that he “romped through life with the evident enjoyment of a terrier rolling in a clover patch.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Keane art was seemingly everywhere—from the sales bins at Woolworths to the gilded mansions of Hollywood royalty. As his income surged comfortably into seven figures, Keane decided he would keep things simple. “All that really matters to me,” he explained to an admiring Lifemagazine reporter, “is painting, drinking (which, the way I look at it, includes eating), and loving.” It seemed like the party was just getting started.
Keane’s fortune was made from a style stunning in its simplicity. Weeping waifs. Tearful children. All bearing hypnotic, saucer-sized orbs. It was said that if you looked at them long enough, the distressed children seemed to stare at you, even if you moved about the room. “Let’s face it,” he boasted to Life magazine, “Nobody painted eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.” More discriminating art enthusiasts, critics, and academics didn’t quite agree, finding the paintings formulaic and sickening in their sentimentality. But the rest of America fell in love with Keane’s Big Eyes, and he became a household name.
Heaven Is for Real Is Phony
Hollywood never met a true story it couldn’t fuck up. In Braveheart, the Battle of Stirling Bridge is fought without the bridge, a fuckup akin to a D-Day movie without a beach. They can fuck up downward, casting the five-foot-seven Martin Sheen as the famously tall Robert E. Lee in Gettysburg. They can fuck up life and death: In Band of Brothers a show so faithfully detail-oriented that it might well have been called, Honest, We Read a Book: The Miniseries, they killed one character 19 years before reality did.
But those are wars. Big things. You know, 50 million dead, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous, the atomic bomb. Getting smaller stories right is easier, or so you’d think. Like Heaven Is for Real, the tale of a four-year-old Nebraska boy—deliciously named Colton Burpo—who went to heaven then came back to tell his pastor father all about it. The bare bones of that story sounds like a Capra script already, but somehow, Hollywood fucked it up. Heaven Is for Real is phony. It isn’t even a fun bad movie.
You’ve probably heard about Heaven Is for Real, which, like everything, was a bookbefore it was a movie. Published in 2010, it sold like only a relentlessly heartstrings-jerking tale of a young boy who saw heaven during emergency surgery could. It was co-written by Colton Burpo’s father Todd and Lynn Vincent, who also co-wrote Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue and Never Surrender, with Lieutenant General William Boykin, who left the US Army after saying that America was at war with Satan and that he didn’t fear a Somali warlord because he was armed with a God, while the Somali had only an “idol,” and who once proudly stated that he wanted to crawl into heaven on all fours covered in blood. Those are the kind of righteously tone-deaf people Lynn Vincent writes books with, people whose level of doubt vacillates between, “Am I right, or am I really right?”
As many of you know, I’ve been performing in a Broadway production of one of John Steinbeck’s best-known works, Of Mice and Men, which is why I’m writing about one of his lesser-read works, In Dubious Battle, a novel that is part of Steinbeck’s migrant-worker trilogy set during the Great Depression.