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Since I Laid My Burden Down by Brontez Purnell

Video by Nick Taplin, Post-Consumer Records

Saw a video a few months back of Brontez Purnell reading from his up-and-coming book Since I Laid my Burden Down and had to get a copy as soon as it came out. Tried to read it with his voice in my head. The book has been doted upon with a marvelous thick library jacket by New York City University’s Feminist Press.

The punk rocker, performance artist and otherwise notable Oakland figure, whom I remember as one of the few interesting people on Earth in the vacuous universal hell of 2005, published the zine Fag School beginning in 2003. He has also published the Cruising Diaries in 2014 with the collaboration of Janelle Hessig, from whose Tales of Blarg I first heard of his exploits, as well as 2015’s diary-style Johnny Would You Love Me if my Dick Were Bigger. Since I Laid my Burden Down is sort of a Bildungsroman framed in a memoir. Is there a word for that?

DeShawn, blessed with the emotional receptivity that marks a faggot amongst his church-centered community, reflects during a funeral trip to his Alabama hometown of his trajectory in making his life meaningful, and not wasting his faggot people skills in the office of a rural preacher. Regardless of his shifting relationship with his mother, there is the feeling that he thinks his mother has limited her life becoming a preacher herself.

DeShawn is drawn as a product of generations raised by women, with men absent or devoid of father quality. The protagonist seeks mentorship and trust naturally, nevertheless, through his everyday channels, even through an older married lover. Despite making his own way, fleeing Alabama for California, DeShawn never really feels like he can stand the weight of his life on his shoulders, and has problems with memory and scale. Like a lot of us.

The book is full of family, church, death, sex, and the perverse distortion of time and place unique to being in one’s early thirties. Particularly rewarding are the terse but deft descriptions of family members, such as “DeShawn’s mother always spoke recklessly when it was unnecessary, and coolly when it was greatly needed.” Wait –how do they ever know when is which? Does the narrator mean this in hindsight or…?

Throughout the story DeShawn visits two funerals and relates cleaning out several dead people’s houses, visits the gracious and lovable mother of both an early lover and an early abuser, and wears out the patience of a girlfriend in New York, all the while taking stock of the relationships he put on hold or fled when he left Alabama. Along the way he sees some ghosts that grow more vivid and some that thankfully fade.

The prose is unadorned and direct, more diary-like in the beginning, with creams of sly humor beaten in. The back of the book features quotes that I personally found a little hysterical, such as “foul-mouthed and evil.” Perhaps these refer more to Johnny. Purnell’s narrator swears a lot, but only in that the book irreverently records the living language, and is meant to be read out loud. This, in my opinion, is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Anyone obsessed with Pitchfork-level simile-spraying could find any great oral art in corners of Brontez’ sentences, from beat literature to Henry Roth to … I don’t even know, I hate that phony free-association name-dropping stuff. Altogether I appreciated that the prose, though steeped in contemporary slang and naturally-occurring humor, betrays none of the lascivious revelry of Johnny but rather a deep and true affection and understanding for most of DeShawn’s characters, regardless of whether he gets along with them.

He knew feeling good was a setup

Reading the sexual escapades and mentions of a youth steeped in punk rock, it was kind of hard for me, at least, not to place Brontez himself in for DeShawn –as he placed himself as close to the fictional glass as can be in Johnny –so I recommend the reader enjoy the book first and then go cyber-stalk the poor, highly-exposed author. The night their post-Loma Prieta freedom punk warehouse gets closed down, even a fictional lover tells DeShawn “everyone knows who you are.”

I also appreciated how Purnell manages to fit the realities of Deep South life into the story in tiny but excellent bites. This stuff is unimaginable for us west-coast types with our Hollywood-deadened intellects, and the author even points that out in a funny moment. He relates how the principal at the school would remind DeShawn, when he got in trouble, that “your great-granpappy used to raise chickens for my family…” This is the medium of DeShawn’s family’s story that must never be overlooked: in the south there are these horseshit relationships that can be evoked as if to show loyalty, but are really just threats of force. In turn, the protagonists internalize this doublespeak and wield it on each other with varying degrees of purpose (we’ve got this out west with Latino immigrants too). Maybe I just found this insightful and brilliant as a dumb Californian beach bum. What am I gonna school the reader with, the abusive roundabouts of various pelagic fish?

It’s probably clear by now that my only challenge for Purnell for next time, should he decide to do a next time, is to work out before writing who the narrator is. This way the key emotion, be it sex-crazed enthusiasm or reflective love, can really shine through consistently. The reader also could really get cozy within the work’s world if Purnell takes the above decision, moving on some from the format that seems to have begun with Johnny. Finally, this will doubtlessly also address some nitpicky tonal issues I have with some parts.

Since I Laid my Burden Down is a document of a unique life within its unique time and place, an effective and efficient balance of the personal and the universal. Cut that self-conscious crap out about “I don’t recommend every book to everyone.” Get Brontez’ new book and have everyone you know read it!

I have to say, for myself, that I feel that more of these kinds of stories are auspiciously coming into my life. Not necessarily being written, but coming to my attention. Maybe I just don’t get out enough, I don’t know.
But anyhow, when I read Since I Laid My Burden Down, I enjoyed it in one way the same as I so immensely enjoyed Malae’s What We Are: in that the books are full of people I would be friends with. It’s not so simple as “an outsider,” because the question would be, outside of what? Rather it’s a member of a certain socio-economic group who has made certain socio-economic choices within the flush of cash of the Bay Area, a consciously growing and becoming, empathetic scumbag, with no time for the oppression of success, health or other bullshit. Stuck in a phenomenological spiral. The kind of people whose extinction I constantly fear after years of living in Santa Cruz and San José. When I read these books I feel like they were written for me!
Incidentally they both dropped Bukowski’s name, who may well have been highly empathetic besides being a scumbag. Some scholar can comment below about that.

I feel, further, that this book’s approach belongs at least in part to the great tradition of “pack all my youth into some stories so I can stop trying to remember every last bit of it and get ready for the all-out fuckery of maturity.” Brontez certainly demonstrates in Burden the wisdom and ability to handle time and memory necessary to do so, and he certainly has a fascinating maturity and decline ahead of him, unlike most of us. The Savage Detectives is also a great example of this approach, and even I myself, at least as concerns dialogue, am dumping all the silly shit I ever heard from fifth grade up into the mouths of my characters in Byebye and Shlort, the thing I’m working on. I’m excited to see what Brontez comes up with next.

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Visit the Howlarium

It’s been a while since I posted a check-in with the Howlarium! Jason Howell has been inviting writers to take advantage of his challenges and tricks for some years now, and there’s always a killer essential question and a passel of samples of stories from writers everywhere in the Howlarium.

The present edition consists of chunks of writers’ stories and works in progress. If you’re a proper writer, that is to say, a writer who likes to read, you’ll love it. Go visit!

Star-Crossed II by Julia Barbosa Landois

Here’s some people gazing at Julia Barbosa Landois‘ 2013 piece Star-Crossed II at MACLA on Fisting Friday. It’s a video featuring a ranchera tune about breaking up with Jesus. Landois came all the way from San Antonio to come talk about it.

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Landois spoke briefly to the crowd assembled at MACLA about how she started in painting and progressed over time to working in other media such as video in order to better suit her stories. Her speech and her website lead me to believe that she’s been in bands and stuff in the past.

Myself I thought the karaoke bit that marks Star-Crossed II was really captivating and that it motivates the viewer to get into the piece. I asked Landois privately what her warmup tune is for a good night of karaoke but she said she doesn’t do it. Then I asked if she ever interviews herself while washing dishes etc., in order to practice figuring and explaining what her stuff is all about, and she said she sometimes does. Interesting!

The piece is part of MACLA’s Chicano/a Biennial. I love how MACLA always finds artists who keep the medium, the look, very simple for their very complex stories. Bravo and good eye, MACLA! Also present is a prison toilet glazed with a large array of information about the prison experience. Really, everything in the Biennial is excellent.

Lucky for all you ignoramuses who may go see the piece, it has English subtitles so you may not feel threatened by the strangeness of the Spanish language, a language spoken by almost half a billion people on a huge percentage of the planet’s dry surface, even though you went into a space that promotes Latino-ness in order to see it, since apparently there are ZERO bilingual people on the entire internet to read this article, but only segregated Spanish and English speakers, as segregated as you all drool to be in your safe suburban or hip urban coffins. Consider yourself stroked, primped, preened, prepared.

New Tech-Inspired Sculpture in Guadalupe River

Here’s the Coleman Avenue bridge, by the big shopping center at Taylor, where the recent floods have provided for the latest sculpture to hit San José, this time in the middle of the river. Like many sculptures in the city, it’s a meaningless technical exercise, an immense MS Paint job executed by not even an amateur but a disinterested user. The title of the piece is “Interpolating Concepts,” grabbed mid-paragraph from the piece’s indecipherable pseudo-philosophical justification, which is attached to the river bed and visible only to divers.

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“Interpolating Concepts”

The medium is pile of sticks and tree trunks on a plinth of rocks with support from a live tree.20170225_161628

When in fifty years, when the vacuous tech-boom society of Google employees collectively decides, based on a single meme, that this is the most important art of their era, and the artist is asked about his motivation, he’ll have nothing to say but that his boss commissioned it in order to show some long-vanished investors the company’s edgy design ideas, much like the inverted 3D-printed cone on the steps of the Convention Center.

The piece unfortunately took very little logistics to produce, practically zero quarterbacking of dealmaking with Chinese suppliers, and therefore practically zero child laborers were exploited in order to produce it, unlike the iPhone. Americans get off on the idea that everything they consume, including art materials, are produced under the most egregiously, unnecessarily harmful and exploitative means, because it amplifies their sensation that “we’re lucky to live here,” even though they themselves cause the rest of wherever else to not be so lucky a location.

The sculpture, nonetheless, unfortunately doesn’t really hit the latter points in any way.

Conjoined by Natalie Watkins

Natalie Watkins is a figure and portrait artist from Stockton (*I gather)  with really nice business cards, whom I met at Local Color’s zine fest. She’s put her watercolors and stuff into a zine called Conjoined:

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Here’s one of her Trump portraits, which go cheap and would make great gifts or decorations for homes, offices, classrooms and public drinking establishments.

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I don’t know if the portrait is rendered in blood and feces, but that’s what I like to think when I gaze. Watkins says the following about her work: “I do not aim to be a realist painter because I love manipulating the photograph with color and brush strokes.”

Get on Etsy and grab her stuff while it’s cheap!

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Smuttywood

Almost forgot to mention Smuttywood, whose charming integrants I met at Local Color during their zine fest in downtown San José. They make comics about either famous people’s dicks and boobs or famous people portrayed as dicks and boobs. The thing that caught my attention, however, was the photographic zine Men are Disposable, which I regrettably didn’t buy, but which you can order at their site. They make great gifts!

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San Jose Local Color Zine Show Haul

Imagine if you can that we finally had a bitchin zine show in San Ho at the Local Color gallery on first street, in the exorcised building long tenanted by a Ross. Éxitos Gnosis and I got caught unawares and didn’t table, but we will be there next time for sure. As always, shocked to see that I know like a quarter of the people at bay area zine shows regardless of time, and as always charmed by the young people pushing onward with the form.

Here’s my haul from the show. Reviews to follow. We got Black Tea #2 and #3 from my homeslice Jason Martin, who also did the illustrated stories behind Dylan albums and shit, 1001 Black Men by Ajuan Mance, Ben Pissmore’s Goodbye, Megan Delyani’s Purissima, and Mic.Kit’s I am nothing but garbage, which was exhibited at Caffe Frascati.

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I’ve wanted that god damned illustrated Atrocity Exhibition since I was 17 and now I have it … signed by Vale, pendejos! I think I did him a small service telling him what an impact his RE-Search work has had on me in my life.

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