The International Writers Magazine: Review
How I Accidentally Started The Sixties, by Howard Bloom
Published by Smashwords 2013
Dan Schneider review
If one has ever read the poetry of Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams, or the prose of Rainer Maria Rilke or Walt Whitman, then one is familiar with writers who are good in one form of writing, but mediocre, bad, or abysmal in another.
Such was the manifest state of the prose in Howard Bloom’s self published e-book memoir, How I Accidentally Started The Sixties. The book is not terrible, but it’s, at its best, mediocre, and that mediocrity is actually garnered and sustained by the content of his raconteuring, and not its quality. At it’s worst it’s simply bad, and seemingly all the worse for it never feels nor reads like ‘Howard Bloom,’ but an ADD imposter on speed. The sharp, to the point prose of such books as The Lucifer Principle and The God Problem, is replaced by a déclassé amalgam of Woody Allen and Kurt Vonnegut scraping together their least well written, semi-humorous anecdotes.
The basic problem is that Bloom, at his best, is a natural philosopher, not a scientist. I say this over the years because I always had some problems shoehorning Bloom in as a scientist, since most of his work is not currently falsifiable. The term natural philosopher was what scientists, such as Galileo and Newton, were called in times past. But, when I say it about Bloom, I literally mean it. He is far more a thinker of scope than a pedlar of pestles, or a maestro of microscopes. But, as with O’Neill’s mind, which was so geared to the dramatic confrontations of personalities and egos, to the extent that he could not effectively sit back and rhapsodize on a flower, or a girl’s grace, so too is Bloom unable to pull back from the grand to focus on the diurnal that was his existence - or so he claims. This leads, inevitably, to writerly gimmickry, and attempts at cheap slapstick.
This starts before the book does, with this warning:
This stuff really happened. Several names have been changed to protect me from my attorney. However any lack of resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is solely due to the incompetence of the author.
Now, there’s nothing immanently wrong with this, but one gimmick would suffice here, and we get 2- arguably 3, and this is just the beginning of the ‘and the kitchen sink’ing of the tale, and its constituent members.
Yet, this overfeeding of jokes and piling them on, as if clowns crammed into a sports car, is not the only bit of gimmickry. Throughout the book, Bloom writes as if he is narrating, Henny Youngman style (bada-boom, take my wife….please!), to near lethal limits, and the net result is something that, in the hands of a gifted ‘performer’ might work, but in the hands of a man whose primary writing gift depends on the depth and breadth of ideation, not the polish of style, it reads like even a quality Marx Brothers screenplay might- no eyebrows, mustache, and cigar for Groucho, and certainly no horn to honk for Harpo.
The most overworn gimmick is the endings and beginnings of chapters. The humor is forced, and something more akin to Tom Wolfe. But, an even more grating trait to the beginnings and endings is Bloom’s overnarrations of intros and outros to chapters, such as this:
Well, you’ve read this far, and I know it wasn’t easy for you. Frankly, the only reward I can think of is the saga of how I shocked my teachers, horrified my parents, sought spiritual enlightenment, found sex instead, helped start the drug revolution, and finally met Barbara, the woman who would solve all the problems of my life and with whom I would clamber over mountains of barbed wire and booby traps to happiness.
We will begin with a prologue—the pathetic narrative of my early love life.
When we last left off, Barbara had attempted to expel the worms from her guilty conscience by dragging me up to Kingston, New York. But she’d failed. This spelled TROUBLE!
The overt bada-boomness of these ill wrought entreaties, however, is not limited to the starts of chapters. Here are a couple of chapter endings:
At any rate, part one of Barbara’s plot had worked. She’d ended her sexual fixation on fire hydrants and had found herself a baby-sitter. For part two, you’ll have to wait until our next exciting episode, in which I meet Barbara’s father and discover the truth behind the story that Barbara was raised in a mud shack.
Now, if you eat all your vegetables, in just another three chapters Howard Bloom will finally meet the girl of his dreams, Barbara!
The mention of Bloom’s wife, Barbara (in trite fashion) is dangled for a good deal of the book, to the point that her entry into it can only be anti-climactic, on a purely narrative level, but, specifically, for the book, she simply is not nearly as interesting nor hyper-real a character as Bloom portrays himself. In short, it’s as if one were to read a biography of Galileo or Kurosawa detailing their obsession with a mere maid or grim geisha.
Yet, through every chapter ending and beginning, this pattern continues, and each passing chapter sees its lessening in effectiveness, inverse to its increasing annoyance and dread in a reader. Here in a sample of an ending leading right into a beginning:
Topping it all off, the cube’s obscure chemical additive had been semantically restyled by the intrepid Luce journalists to make it sound more zippy. Lysergic acid was now LSD, or “acid.” And, though I didn’t know it yet, within a year a foursome of unlikely singers from Liverpool, England, who had stupidly named themselves after a most unpleasant insect, would invade the States and start a trend in hairstyles that was eventually destined to make my coiffure the rage. My past was preparing to haunt me.
And yet another strange event would happen any month now. Barbara would appear.
NIGHTS IN A TRANSVESTITE DRESSING ROOM
When we last left off, my French teacher, echoing my pistol-packing Vancouver wise men, had informed me that what I needed in life was a goal. My father had sent me to Israel, where I had found one...getting myself into a mental institution. Unfortunately, no mental institution would have me except for Rutgers University.
So I spun the wheel of fate, rolled the dice, tossed the I Ching, flipped a coin, and came up with the most obvious alternative goal in sight—going back to college.
One might think that, in the last quoted sentence, Bloom were trying to be colloquial by flinging the laundry list of clichés, and perhaps he was. But he does zero to undermine them, then, nor in the prose that directly follows. And, this is emphasized by the naked cliché that ends the previous chapter: My past was preparing to haunt me, which leads directly into the next overmodified sentence: And yet another strange event would happen any month now. Indeed, the copious abundance of twee adjectives and hyper-ginormous adverbs is another sin of the prose.
How I Accidentally Started The Sixties is a memoir that, in some ways, reminds me of Frank McCourt’s better initial memoir, Angela's Ashes, which also needed to be put in the hands of a good editor. In McCourt’s book, a good editor would have threshed out all the redundant passages and anecdotes on poverty and suffering, while getting a better balance between them and that book’s later chapters which shortshrift the more interesting teen years of the man. In Bloom’s book, his much better and more interesting and impactful life should have been detailed in greater degree, with less déclassé slapstick (which undermines the man’s more piquing ideas), and far less of the ill wrought and overexuberant declamatory style.
While McCourt’s prose, overall, transcended his book’s significant flaws, Bloom is simply not a creative prose stylist on that par, and the writing too often descends into the vanity press like prose of circa 1970s hipster works, by local authors for local color, that abounded in independent college town bookshops- a fact exacerbated by a number of grammar and spelling errors that a good proofreader should have spotted. If such errors abounded in a manuscript by Twain or Melville, such proofing errors are not worth mention in a review, but, when so much of a work has a slapped together feel, it becomes emblemic of the ills. In this way, Bloom’s overschtickiness, in this work, also reminded me of the self-published novel, The Conjure Man, by Peter Damian Bellis, which suffered from a tone deafness to natal language and how it impacts a narrative and reader.
Having enumerated the book’s many flaws, let me turn to its strength, and that is the many and varied tales and anecdotes that Bloom relates. These are interesting, sometimes witty, and often important for historical context, and establish Bloom as an almost Leonard Zelig like figure of that era. In fact, next to writer and actor George Dickerson, Bloom is probably the most oddly interconnected person of that era.
Here is an example of the start of an interesting anecdote, of the sort that makes the book a solid read, at times:
I resigned myself to looking out the side window at the blackness of the countryside. Then, after half an hour, one of my dark angels of transportation asked a brief question. “You don’t mind a little heater action, do you?” It was getting chilly. So I answered that I didn’t mind at all. But no one reached for the dashboard switch that would have pumped some warmth. Then slowly it dawned on me—a faint recollection of Sergeant Joe Friday on the 1950s TV show Dragnet. A “heater” was a gun.
I sat in a cold sweat with mental pictures of my limp body tied to a telephone pole in the desert, slightly marred by a bullet hole in the head. After all, who else was there to shoot?
Of course, with the clichés and overmodification, one does wonder what a good editor, or a good ghostwriter, might have coaxed from Bloom and the thicket of words he unfurls. As compelling a prose stylist as Bloom can be in his science and philosophy, he fails in creative prose. They simply are different domains, as I posited at this essay’s start.
Here is a good example of that ‘creative’ prose gone wrong:
Rumor in my grammar school had it that I was hatched from an egg, and not even an earthling egg at that. Those in the know implied that a batch of inept Martians had misread a road map as they rushed to an obstetrical facility to help their embryonic kid crack its way out of the shell and had landed on the wrong planet. Without competent medical guidance, they’d barely hauled me out of my calcium casing. Then they’d become so confused repacking the flying saucer that they’d forgotten to toss their new offspring into a bassinet. Thus was I abandoned in the alien landscape of Western New York State.
My parents deny this story. But it’s hard to take their word for it. I know for a fact that the two of them have never had sex.
Note the forced humor, and imagine what Woody Allen, in his vintage 1960s and 1970s prose works, or what a Kurt Vonnegut, in hos prime, could have done with those paragraphs.
Here is an even better example of Woody Allen Lite, and one that actually has a possibly funny anecdote that simply deflates in the prosaic mischigoss:
The final attempt to inject me into the mainstream of society came when my parents decided that my problem was entirely nasal. I’ve mentioned in passing that I had this schnoz of rather unusual proportions. Were it not for extraordinarily powerful neck muscles, I’d have been forced to carry the thing around in a wheelbarrow. What’s worse, as an air passage, it was a failure. This would have left my lungs seriously undersupplied...if it hadn’t been for my big mouth.
One night my despairing father and mother had a brainstorm. “Of course he’s a social reject,” they said, clapping their hands to their heads. First off, boys didn’t like me because I was incompetent at sports. Why? The Nose. How could I possibly see around it to catch a ball? And as for my lack of popularity with girls, the difficulty once again was obviously proboscular. If only these wenchlets could see past my breathing apparatus, they’d be entranced by the sweet charm of my marginally crazed face. So my parents sent me off to a medical specialist, supposedly to correct my peculiar breathing (not to mention my daily nose bleeds, a result of the frequent occasions on which my classmates mistook my snorkel for a punching bag).
But, just when one wants to yawn and put the book down, one does come across passages that, even as they indulge cliché, serve as historical correctives to prevailing nonsense and pseudohistory.
You see, Henry Luce—the creator and publisher of Time Magazine and the ruler of the Time/Life empire—had made a discovery in the fifties that added great quantities of extra lucre to his fortune. If you could spot a weird bohemian trend out there in America somewhere, no matter how small and marginal, you could give it a name, write it up every week, and turn it into a national movement. This would allow you to produce great piles of indignant verbiage and long strings of lurid tales about a generation lost in lust and rebellion, thus satisfying the hidden needs of the men in the gray flannel suits who read your publication. These flannel-shackled souls could steep themselves in tales of free love and vicariously throw off the manacles of convention for a few minutes a week, justifying their fascination by registering outrage at socially destructive antics. Then they could go to their conference rooms and spend the day yessing the boss and return home at night to be balled out if they’d forgotten to pick up the milk.
In the mid-1950s, Luce had discovered a scruffy group of semi-derelicts named Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It was only four guys—along with whatever nubile young women (or nubile young men, in Ginsberg’s case) they could tempt into their unmade beds. But given a little push from the armies of Luce typewriters, this unkempt quartet could be made to look like an invading army. Luce and his underlings gave the group a name—the Beatniks—and all hell broke loose.
Note that last sentence’s banality, even as it serves the important task of undermining the utter bullshit narrative of the Beatniks’ self-apotheosis- especially the fact that Bloom refuses to call the aforementioned writers The Beat Generation, and uses their historically and culturally accurate and properly snarky term, Beatniks. This is a potentially important corrective to faux historical narratives, but it’s too fleeting.
Then there are the many throwaway comments, such as this:
So the next morning, the time arrived to embark on my first Fantastic Voyage (unfortunately, without the scientific assistance of Raquel Welch) and to follow Huxley into the brave new world of the cosmic interior.
The ham-handedness of the references to minor pop cultural references is only outdone by the triviality and preciousness of them. And, then Bloom not only has throwaway references wedged in to places they are unneeded, but he constantly references himself as if he had foreknowledge of such being of import beforehand, such as this:
The two-days of depression that kick in after you take Methedrine are hell. But in exchange for that hell, you learn lessons. For me, it was time to toss the hell away, keep the lessons, and tangle with…the law. As in “I fought the law and the law won.” But the fate indicated by the lyrics of this song would not be mine. Far from it. (Maybe that’s because the song would not be written for another three years.)
The song nodded to is Bobby Fuller’s 1966 hit song, I Fought The Law, but it’s a song that, even now, is hermetically sealed in a pop culture bottle, thus has no real import, and only a diminishing power, even were the paragraph it appears in well written.
To sum up, the book is loaded with clichés, overwriting, and lacks a general focus in its hyperfreneticism. There is also much too much self conscious deprecation that relies on sub-Vaudeville level humor. The book’s title could work, but it’s symptomatic of the literary ‘mugging for the camera’ done by Bloom.
Compared to some of the well wrought biographical moment’s in Bloom’s last book, The God Problem, these anecdotes seem slight, exaggerated, and self-consciously self-serving; alot like the old Austin Powers film parodies, or the fan books in the 1960s that were written about The Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles. There’s just a fluffiness about it. How I Accidentally Started The Sixties is copyrighted in 2013, but versions of the book have likely been underground and around almost two decades, as blog posts from the 00s reference it, and there’s a Timothy Leary blurb for it- and he died in 1996.
It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not good, although there are interesting and valuable moments, but much of it reminded me of the hyperbole that Gore Vidal used to engage in, during his barns lobbed at Charlton Heston, over supposed gay content snuck into the screenplay of Ben-Hur, in that it seems spurious and mentioned only as an ego salve. Overall, if you’re a Bloom fan, this book might give you some insight into the man’s hidden side, and a few smiles, but for ideas driven folks, and people who appreciate great non-fiction writing, stick with his more science based works.
© Dan Schneider March 2014
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