Point/Counterpoint is a beloved feature that first appeared in the fall 1972 edition of the Weeklings. PC/P is the product of an intellectual tradition hearkening back to storied Oxford debate squads and the golden age of radio, in which two authors match wits over random subjects while being forced to choose a side and defend it on the fly. Readers are advised to stand back, as the heat can get intense. This week’s arm wrestle involves bestselling author (his “Beautiful Ruins” was just named Esquire’s Book of the Year), Jack Black enthusiast, and Ruby Ridge investigator, Mr. Jess Walter.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are now on the clock.
1. Dudes in cafés
Point (Walter): Dude, seriously? That is so freaking weird? I am sitting in a café writing this! I’m the one with the laptop? In the cabbie hat and ironic facial hair? Seriously, is that weird or what, that right out of the gate, you’d be like: Dudes in cafes and I’d be, like: Wait. I am a dude in a café! (I came here six weeks ago to start my NaNoWriMo novel and to try to nail this barista and I haven’t left … though I think the barista got another job…but that’s okay, now I’m working on the aria for my DecComOpMo—December: Compose an Opera Month). It’s that café with the plaster casts of that chick’s naked body on the wall? Do you know it? Do you know her? I think her name is willania with a small W? She used to, like, model hemp panties at Burning Man? She gives psychic readings at the Farmer’s Market? (“I’m seeing spaghetti squash in your future.”) She was, like, semi-famous for inventing the labia-ring tone? We were in this band together? Only we weren’t really a band? More like a poly-amorous deal where we all slept with each other, well, except me, which was mostly why I quit the band? That and I don’t actually play an instrument? Well, except the comb and wax paper, only they already had a dude who was, like, killer at it! And also I suspect he was way better in bed than me? I’m sorry, what was the topic again?
Counter-point (Beaudoin): About six months ago I walked into a café packed with laptops. Music blared. After a few beats I recognized the band as Suicide, an obscure art-doom synth outfit whose cassettes had accompanied my first collegiate gropings. I dropped a twenty on the counter, pointed at a donut, and said, “You dig Suicide too?” The barista just stared. He was maybe twenty, lip ring, stubble. Finally he said, “no offense or nothing, dude, but you ah…you don’t look…you don’t seem like you’d…” I glanced down. The leather jacket, ironic T-shirt, and thrift store tuxedo pants that had once been key components of my daily ensemble were long gone. Now it was pure wife-bought J. Crew. I guess in my head I assumed some tiny wet spot of hipness continued to seep through, visible to other members of the tribe. Nope. It was sobering. As recompense I ordered a triple Americano, left an insultingly large tip, sat down under a poster of Bob Marley, and checked my email for five hours.
2. The cult of the apology
Point (Beaudoin): Why is everyone so perpetually sorry? Just once I’d like a philandering CEO to call a press conference and say, “hell yeah, I cheated. And I don’t regret it at all. Listen, my wife and I are working a few things out. What business is it of yours?” Just once I’d like a senator to step up to the podium and say, “I most certainly did tweet a picture of my penis to a flirty staffer. I was bored. Don’t want to vote for me anymore? Then don’t. I’m still going to ram through the highway appropriations bill tomorrow.” Just once I’d like a disgraced actor to face the camera and say, “sure, I made those racist jokes my ex-girlfriend recorded on her answering machine and then sold to Buzzfeed for twelve grand. No doubt I need to hit an insanely expensive Malibu rehab pronto, but what I don’t need is any cheap moralizing. Hey, if people would look each other in the face once in a while instead of spending all day in chat rooms gleefully urinating on my dissolution, we might actually be able to have an honest conversation about race in this country.”
Counter-point (Walter): Well, who could argue with that? No one likes phony apologies. In fact, who likes phony anything (Artificial krab? Soy bacon?) So yes, there should be phony apology translators, as with the hearing impaired: “What the senator means is that he’s sorry … he got caught … snorting coke off the back of a teenage prostitute.” But we shouldn’t paint all apologies with that crude brush. I love a good, real apology. A true apology is a profound expression of human frailty and I love the root of that word—sorrow. In fact, I’d endure fifty false confessions for a glimpse of one moment of actual contrition, to witness the redemptive power of someone asking for, and getting, forgiveness. Take me, for example: I am truly, truly, TRULY sorry that I tweeted a picture of my penis. The angle and lighting were horrible. It looked like a gnome’s face pressed against a dirty car window. Here, let me try again.
3. Cruise ships
Point (Walter): True story: I went on a Mexican cruise once with a woman I’d met in Tahoe—a girl studying to be an FBI agent. Her name was Tabitha. Tabitha’s parents were loaded and they had planned to take Tabitha and her boyfriend on this cruise, but two weeks before the cruise, Tabitha’s boyfriend came out to her during a minor-league baseball game (Fifth inning, no one on base: “Tabitha, I’m gay!”) so she brought me instead. This was in the early 1990s and I’d never been anywhere so I was thrilled. Tabitha had a brother named Eric and he came too, with his girlfriend, this wildly sexy girl named Monica (I found out later she was an exotic dancer!) So we’re out the first day, in the sun, on the lido deck, and Monica says, “Come here,” opens her bag and shows me … an eightball of coke! And she wants me to go back to her room and snort it with her! Here I am with a girl who wants to be an FBI agent and…No, you know what … this is NOT a true story. Not at all. In truth, I’ve never been on a cruise, would never knowingly go on a cruise, would rather hit myself repeatedly in the balls with a hammer than find myself on a cruise, immediately think less of people who so much as talk about cruises, and am not sure that, were I king of the world, I would even allow cruises. In fact, I apparently hate cruises so much I can’t even bring myself to make up a story about one.
Counter-point (Beaudoin): Okay, for starters? The buffets on cruises are amazing. Platter after platter of cold cuts, shrimp, dip, fruit, olives–you name it. There’s half a mile of chafing dishes full of bronzino tamales and Denver omelets and Captain Wayne’s Deep-Sea Beef. You can literally cram it in all day long and no one says squat. It’s all part of the price! No one comes up like, “I swear to God, if you fork down one more heaping mound of buttery imitation lobster I’m tossing your ass off the foredeck!” That’s the sort of thing you don’t see in any brochure. Also, did you know that most ships have pools? Which means you’re swimming–literally–smack in the middle of the North Atlantic! I’m telling you, after the purser with the Bieber-cut offers you a little taste of what he procured during the last stopover in Trenchtown, the whole pool-in-the-ocean deal can get pretty damn abstract. So what’s not to like? There’s dancing, gambling, tossing melon rinds into the waves, rampant Norovirus, duty-free Virginia Slims, Dramamine suppositories, chum slicks, a special appearance by Tommy Tutone*, and disembarking for three hours of guided shopping at various ports of call throughout the Mediterranean. Bottom line: cruises rock!
*Tommy Tutone not actually scheduled to appear. Denny Lutz, who played bass on not less than three studio sessions, won the rights to use the name “Tommy Tutone” in small claims court in 1996. Mr. Lutz guarantees that although they will be featuring “mostly new material,” the band will indeed play “867-5309/Jenny,” provided that “the usual bunch of drunken hedgefund assholes” don’t continually yell for it during the rest of the set.
Point (Beaudoin): It seems like pretty much every single person on earth who is not an active Scientologist views Scientology with some degree of comedic disdain, if not outright fear and loathing. Which, frankly, I find to be an impressive achievement. It’s not something you can say about many other religions, except maybe the Cargo Cult. Being aggressively and unapologetically weird is an underappreciated stance in 2013. I almost want to join up and start proselytizing door-to-door just to be contrary. In fact, faced with what is almost certain to be another painfully vanilla year of mass culture, I could see becoming a Vincent Vega fanboy and embracing the Galactic Confederacy outright.
Counter-point (Walter): It wasn’t until I began typing this that I realized I have almost no opinion about Scientology. Yes, from what I’ve read, its doctrinal narrative sounds bug-eye crazy, but what religion, when boiled down to its origin story, doesn’t sound a little bit nuts? (So this virgin gave birth to a deity in a barn and he grew up to be a kind of homeless carpenter/preacher and now people everywhere wear the symbol of his torture as jewelry …) My real issue with Scientology is the name. I think “Science” should sue Scientologists and Christian Scientists to get them to change their names.
Point (Walter): I would say that I am for this.
Counter-point (Beaudoin): A friend recently had a baby and we all went over to say congratulations. Babies are cute. Their boy was pudgy and cuddly. I picked him up and sang Johnny Cash in his ear. Breathing his milk-and-dough musk definitely made me want to have another one of my own. But then the sour, pessimistic part of me started thinking, as it invariably and poisonously does, “hey, sure, this baby is awesome. But not every baby is. It’s hard to envision now, but the grim truth is that lots of babies grow up to be perhaps not the nicest people. Like in twenty years this tiny, beautiful, warm little bundle might be the tool behind me at a stoplight laying on the horn of his Lincoln Navigator.” Which seemed far from generous. Not to mention totally unnecessary. But then I thought, “what if almost all of us had stopped procreating in 1927 to protest the Sacco and Vanzetti executions and there were only 100,000 people left in the entire world? I could have my own highway! I could buy a decommissioned Russian rocket launcher for like twelve rubles, paint flames on the side, and drive it to work every day! I could ignore Yield signs and run over endangered albino rhinos because– what with the massive swaths of savannah they now had to hump and flourish in–no one would care! And even if someone did care, I could shell them with decommissioned Russian rockets. And totally get away with it since I would almost certainly be friends with all three cops in the Pacific Northwest.” Yeah, that would be cool. But in the end, I guess I’m for procreation too.
6. Zombie books vs. Zombie short stories
Point (Beaudoin): When we met that night in Portland, someone introduced me as “the guy who just put out that zombie book.” Frankly, it’s not a phrase I’m all that comfortable with. The only thing worse than putting out a zombie book is constantly trying to explain that it’s not really about zombies, or how genre distinctions are meaningless these days, or how it’s possible for femur-gnawing to coexist with the sort of contemporary literature that wins prizes and garners respect from professors and old-school editors at fern parties. In any case, you were very gracious about it. And then the next day at the conference I was walking around and you were at the podium, so I sat down. You said you were going to read a zombie story from your new collection. I rolled my eyes thinking, “a little late to get some skin in the game, don’t you think, pal?” Then you mentioned that the reason you’d written the story to begin with was how much you hated zombies, and–more specifically–loathed the zombie wave we are currently bobbing up to our necks in. You may have heard me laugh, since I was the only one who did, everyone else silently thinking about how much they love The Walking Dead, and that maybe they shouldn’t buy your book after all. But then you read, and it was a really good story. It might even be a great story. People were giggling and nodding–so much so that after a while I became convinced that I’d probably hate zombies as well–if only I could afford to.
Counter-point (Walter): I should clarify this: because of overpopulation, I am only in favor of MY procreation … oh, wait. That was the last question. Right, zombies. No, I don’t hate zombie stories, and I shouldn’t have said that I did. I’ve also heard great things about The Infects and plan to check back after I’ve read it.** But as a reporter, I covered a couple of apocalyptic cults (I even exchanged correspondence with a member of one whose life ended in mass suicide) so I find our insistence on imagining our imminent catastrophic end to be a strange, even damaging preoccupation, a disturbing kind of narcissistic paranoia, often with religious overtones (Hey, you end-of-the-world types, ask yourself: Why does the end time always revolve around YOU?) In my mind, post-apocalyptic stories are a sort of secular expression of that strange impulse to ignore the fact that things are actually getting better over time (i.e., more civil rights, less violence.) So I wrote a short story trying to figure that paradox out. And here’s what I discovered: I fucking love zombie stories! How much fun are those to write? As for genre, I’m with you: distinctions are silly. Good is good. I do think, however, that for myself, writing against the grain of the culture is usually more interesting; so when everyone’s reading vampires, that’s when I get interested in cowboys.
**Editor’s note: in the interest of journalistic integrity, we at The Weeklings feel compelled to point out that Mr. Walter’s mention of Mr. Beaudoin’s book (although the obvious endpoint of this entire exercise for a certain party) was in no way prompted by any sort of quid (British denomination) pro quo in which said party may have individually, and without editorial approval, participated.
Point (Walter): I love golf. I love reading a double-break putt and the feel of tossing a flop-wedge into an elevated green and I am not being at all facetious here. I grew up in a blue-collar family and went to a poor, white trash school where the golf coach trolled the hallways looking for athletes who had been dumped from other sports to fill out his golf team. He’d take these kids to Goodwill, where he’d buy them seven-club starter sets. He taught both my brother and me golf. The pro at our little public course used to call my brother’s golf team The Suitcasers because they’d come strolling up to the clubhouse carrying their little bags by the handles (Here come the suitcasers). For a poor kid, being able to play golf turns out to be a social equalizer…a class escalator. If you can lace a 280-yard drive down the tight crotch of a narrow fairway then the lawyers and bankers have nothing on you. I once broke my collarbone playing golf (well, drinking gin, really.) Hammered, on the 18th fairway, I bladed an iron and, holding my follow-through, took a Chevy Chase/Caddyshack pratfall. When I stood up, my clavicle was poking through the skin. So I did what any golfer would do after that. I three-putted. Then I had one more drink. Then I went to the hospital.
Counter-point (Beaudoin): Every other year or so I like to go to a driving range, muscle up after a few beers, and then mash the little white ball as far as I possibly can. It’s a great feeling when you connect just right, letting loose a hellacious ping. You can almost feel the dimples being torn from the ball’s scalp. And there’s a definite satisfaction in seeing it soar long and straight and convincingly spanked. I just don’t understand following it. Once a ball has settled on its arc and bounces around in the faraway green shorthairs, it’s dead to me. Tee up another one? Sure. I’ll hit ’em until my palms bleed. But I will not walk after one. It’s pretty much my same policy on dogs; great to have as a buddy, full of companionship and providing much needed homeowner security, but there is just no way I am toting around knotted baggies of crap. Unless my dog and I happen to live in the Yukon wilderness, where it can take any number of unfettered Libertarian shits with zero chance of my having to lean over with a deli bag wrapped around my hand, I will remain dog-free.
8. Getting an MFA in creative writing
Point (Beaudoin): Here’s some advice for aspiring writers which has probably gone widely unfollowed, but for some reason I continue to give despite the fact that it chafes my ass to join in on something as currently fashionable as deriding the MFA: take a few writing classes but major in just about anything else. Work on short stories that you have no intention of trying to publish while absorbing every book you can possibly cram into your frontal lobe. Graduate, get a shit job that allows you to stay up late working on a novel you have no intention of trying to publish, and save a Macanudo box full of cash. In the meantime, join a writing group for free critique. Finally, combine your busboy tips with all the money you’ll save by not applying for an MFA program, and then spend a year backpacking around Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe instead.
Counter-point (Walter): Ah, this is a tough one for me. I am so conflicted, my answers are going to be like a ping pong game … so I will resort to a numbered response. 1. I don’t have an MFA. In fact, my BA is a little suspect. I don’t think writers need MFAs. 2. However, I desperately wanted an MFA, kept taking the GRE and exploring it, but as a young father (see my earlier procreation response) I went to work full-time as a college sophomore. By the time I could afford grad school I was teaching in an MFA program. 3. It would be awful if every writer had one; in fact, at least half of all novelists shouldn’t have one. Writers work against conventional wisdom, against institutions. And MFA programs have become the institutions of writing. So fuck them. 4. However, that said, those people who think that MFA programs have somehow “ruined fiction?” Come on. Like medical schools have ruined medicine? In general, I say get as much education as you can. 5. Then again …
Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the finish line of this week’s Point/Counter-point. Thank you once again for participating. The votes are being tallied and will be released to the public after they’ve been verified J.D. Powers and Associates, as well as the Washington State Attorney General.
Jess Walter is the author of eight books, most recently the novel Beautiful Ruins and the upcoming story collection We Live in Water. He was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Edgar Award for best novel. He lives in Spokane, Washington.