Monday, June 29, 2009

Book review: 'Driving Like Crazy' by P.J. O'Rourke

Sunday, June 21, 2009
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Ed Nawotka lives in Houston. He is editor-in-chief of and covers the South for Publishers Weekly.

This Father's Day, I'm in the unenviable position of telling my own dad that he was wrong. As a child of Detroit, born in Henry Ford General Hospital, I've heard all my life that I should have dropped the writing career to become an engineer. "The Big Three are always hiring," my 69-year-old father would occasionally tell me. He still buys a new fully loaded Mustang with "sport package" every other year.

Well, I never thought I'd see the day come when journalism, a beleaguered industry if there ever was one, looked like a more secure prospect than building cars. What a shame.

Like me, P.J. O'Rourke grew up around the car business. Born in Toledo, Ohio, an hour south of the Motor City, his family owned a Buick dealership. His cousin would go on to run the Ohio Car Dealers Association, while O'Rourke would go on to become a world-famous political satirist and journalist. But cars remained in his blood, a passion he indulged by taking long road trips on four and two-wheeled vehicles alike, writing about them for magazines such as Car and Driver, Rolling Stone and Esquire.

His latest book, Driving Like Crazy, collects and updates 18 of these stories. The span covers the arc of O'Rourke's life, from convertible guy to SUV guy, and provides some wonderful contrasts between the younger and wiser O'Rourkes.

"Name me, if you can, a better feeling than the one you get when you're half a bottle of Chivas in the bag with a gram of coke up your nose and a teenage lovely pulling off her tube top in the next seat over while you're going a hundred miles an hour down a suburban side street?" he writes in "How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your ... [ahem] Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink." O'Rourke wrote that in the early 1970s for National Lampoon.

Today's version is titled: "How to Drive Fast When the Drugs Are Mostly Lipitor, the ... [ahem] Needs More Squeezing Than It Used to Before It Gets the Idea, and Spilling Your Drink Is No Problem If you Keep the Sippy Cups from When Your Kids Were Toddlers and Leave the Baby Seat in the Back Seat so that When You get Pulled Over You Look Like a Perfectly Innocent Grandparent." About the only thing that stays the same from the earlier piece is his advice about what car handles best: "Some say a front-engined car; some say a rear-engined car," his younger self writes. "Nothing handles better than a rented car." (No surprise, he later profiles the founder of Rent-a-Wreck.)

Elsewhere in this treat of a book are moving homages to NASCAR, SUVs, Jeeps and the American car in general. But mostly there are road trips: Michigan to Indiana on a Harley, Canada to Mexico in a Jeep, across Baja and California in races, and through Pakistan and India in a Land Rover. His traveling companions range from Houstonian Michael Nesmith (of the 1960s band The Monkees) to his own children. As with almost all of O'Rourke's work, it's easy reading, and he's just as good, if not better, at cracking wise about cars and driving as he is about liberal politics.

Here he is on the driving dynamics of a Mercedes M-class SUV, which he admits is really a minivan: "The M-class rode like your boss' executive office chair, steered like the prize dressage horse owned by your boss' wife, and stopped faster than your paycheck would if you got caught naked on any of these things."

He's still got it. Fortunately for us, he chose journalism over being a Buick dealer. If the latter had been the case, he'd probably be out of work, and we wouldn't have this wonderful collection with which to reminisce about the heyday of Detroit.

It's hard to think about anyone ever getting as passionate about a Prius (or Insight or Volt, for that matter) as O'Rourke (or my father, for that matter). He remains a fan of the growling, gas-guzzling, big American roadster, may it rest in peace.

Ed Nawotka lives in Houston. He is editor-in-chief of and covers the South for Publishers Weekly.

Driving Like Crazy

Thirty Years of Vehicular Hell-bending, Celebrating America the Way It's Supposed To Be – With an Oil Well in Every Backyard, a Cadillac Escalade in Every Carport, and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Mowing Our Lawn

P.J. O'Rourke

(Atlantic Monthly, $24)

'How to Sell': The Dallas jewelry trade as Nietzchean nightmare

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Clancy Martin's debut novel, "How to Sell" — set in the Dallas-Fort Worth jewelry business in the 1980s and '90s — is the kind of book that leaves you feeling dirty. It rubs off on you and makes a mark you'll want to try to scrub off.

First, provided you've ever bought jewelry or a Swiss watch, you might wonder at the authenticity of the thing, question whether you got taken. Is that Rolex bogus? Is your wedding band made of real gold or platinum? Or is it just plated something or other? A fraud?

"How to Sell" centers on two brothers, Bobby and Jimmy, who were separated when their parents divorced (the younger brother, Bobby, lived in Calgary, Alberta, with his mother, while Jimmy wound up in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his father). They reunite when Jimmy invites Bobby to work with him at the Fort Worth Deluxe Diamond Exchange. The year is 1987 and Bobby is a 16-year-old high school dropout when he starts work. At first, he is given menial tasks — cleaning showcases, setting watches — until he sells a gold Rolex President for $4,995. The sale was a mistake, it turns out, since the watch was the display model. All the while, Jimmy introduces Bobby to drugs, fast cars, posh living and loose women. Key among the women is Lisa, Jimmy's sometime mistress, for whom Bobby falls.

"How to Sell" is a roman √† clef, based on Martin's own life, which, according to publicity material from his publisher, included a career as a "conman and luxury jeweler" in Dallas in the 1980s and '90s. Today, Martin, who was born in Canada but graduated from Baylor and later the University of Texas with a doctorate — writing a dissertation on Friedrich Nietzsche's theory of deception under the late Robert C. Solomon — teaches philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

Martin is a fantastic fiction writer, and in "How to Sell" he weaves together both a gripping tale of debauchery and a more nuanced work of philosophical inquiry. The result is a very readable, if somewhat didactic, morality tale that is also extremely edifying about business, greed and human nature.

The "shark tank" of the jewelry business that Martin describes is like a foreign land, one you think you know, but come to realize you can't begin to comprehend. There are the minor scams — putting off customers who've paid for watches that may never get delivered by lying that the watch is delayed by customs, or selling someone a $400 cleaning and adjustment on an automatic-movement watch because the customer thinks it's broken, when it's just stopped because automatic movements self-wind only when worn. Then there's the big stuff, like selling used Rolexes as new, or selling diamonds with bogus papers.

Frequently, one character or another is imparting a lesson to Bobby. "In this business, always trust your eyes," a Jewish diamond dealer tells him, just before the old man pistol-whips a would-be robber. A Swiss watch dealer known as Granddad teaches Bobby "the twenty-two logical fallacies." When Bobby's not hustling a buck, he's reading books on Zen and Buddhism at bookstores, a habit picked up from his father, a semi-homeless, former Canadian Olympic goalie who wanders the Southern United States and Caribbean sleeping with women and starting churches — a fallen Nietzschean √úbermensch if there ever was one.

The book sets up a dichotomy between faith in the material — what you can see and feel, such as diamonds and gold — and the immaterial — what you can't see and must simply trust, such as loyalty and love. The conclusion is that value is in the eye of the beholder.

This is not a book about redemption: Nearly all the characters are bent. The men are disloyal, greedy, self-centered philanderers and crooks, while the women are almost all literal or figurative prostitutes. Some characters come to a bad end, while others are merely subsisting until the inevitable crash.

Mostly, "How to Sell" concerns the constant power struggle of the buy-sell relationship. In this, it is Nietzschean to the core.

What you're likely to remember — aside from the queasy feeling you'll be left with — is to distrust salesmen even more than perhaps you already do. You might also learn to pity them: As a jeweler named Old John observes near the book's end of Bobby, who is now in his mid-20s, with a wife, a child and two girlfriends — one, Lisa, now living as a prostitute, the other, his chief employee, a gun-toting beauty — "A salesman is the opposite of a businessman, Bobby. A businessman cares about the practical details of life. A salesman is an artist. He can't tie his own shoelaces. He lives on tomorrow. He's a cloud-and-sky guy, a rainbow man. He can't make a ... dollar out of four quarters and a can of glue, if you want to hear the truth of it."

Ultimately, though, it is Martin, the professor, instructing us on everything from how to sell a diamond engagement ring to a couple to why men in the industry prefer stainless steel Blancpains and IWC watches to gold Rolexes. The premise of the book boils down to this: "This is how to sell," Martin writes. "A golden lie in a nest of truths." That's also a heck of a description of fiction writing itself.

How much of "How to Sell" is true to Martin's own life story doesn't really matter. As Nietzsche wrote, "All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth," and this is one powerful novel, offering an unsettling, gritty and raw view of the business of life.

E-publisher Stay Thirsty Lures Veteran Writers

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 6/29/2009

Shamus Award–winning mystery writer David Fulmer first heard about Stay Thirsty Press when a friend sent him an e-mail. “It was a notice from Craigslist that a publisher was looking for original works to publish as e-books,” said Fulmer. “I'd had this book, The Last Time, that had technically been shopped around by my agent, but it was different from all my other work and was always at the bottom of the stack. I'd been working on it for eight years, and thought, what have I got to lose.”

The Craigslist posting was from a new Chicago e-book publisher, Stay Thirsty Press. That was on June 1. By June 7, Fulmer's seventh novel, The Last Time, was available as a digital-only download for the Kindle on for $9.99, published by Stay Thirsty Press. With editors and authors being let go by many traditional publishers, Dusty Sang, publisher of Stay Thirsy, said, “I thought maybe this was a great time to find authors I'd be interested in working with. I put an ad in Craig's List New York and have had hundreds of submissions.”

A former entertainment lawyer, Sang, 61, became a publisher because of a family tragedy. In 2004, his 24-year-old son, Ryan, died from complications related to bipolar disorder; as a tribute, Sang funded the launch of, an online music and art magazine run by Ryan's friends. Today, Sang's leveraging the brand into e-books as an effort to monetize the site. Stay Thirsty's first book, Mrs. Beast by Pamela Ditchoff, went on sale March 22, just three weeks after she contacted Sang. Before signing with Stay Thirsty, Ditchoff published the novel Seven Days & Seven Sins (Shaye Areheart Books, 2003) and earlier, The Mirror of Monsters and Prodigies (Coffee House Press, 2005). She plans to publish the sequel to Mrs. Beast with Stay Thirsty.

The first royalty checks went out to Ditchoff 60 days after the book first went on sale. The press sends the author the sales statement from Amazon, and does a 50/50 split.

Stay Thirsty has just published its first nonfiction title: a collection of columns from EDGE magazine by David Toussaint entitled Toussaint! Toussaint penned Gay and Lesbian Weddings for Ballantine Books in 2004, but found no takers for this work. “Dusty doesn't have the clout of Random House,” Toussaint said. “The upside is that he's only working with a couple of writers, so the personal attention is wonderful. As for the e-book thing, of course it's a compromise. Some people have flat-out told me they won't read anything digital. On the upside, I've spoken with people who loved having it on their phone. They also liked the $9.99 price.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Book review: 'Guts' by Robert Nylen

12:00 AM CDT on Tuesday, June 2, 2009

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News 
Edward Nawotka is a Houston freelance writer. 

Robert Nylen completed his memoir Guts shortly before he died of colorectal cancer in December. He was 64. A lifelong ad salesman, Nylen understood the power of words to persuade and so he chose not to dignify his disease with a proper name, opting to call it by a nickname that can't be printed in a family newspaper.

As you might expect, the disease doesn't get top billing in the book. He focuses on his combat experience in the Vietnam War, where he was wounded "two-and-a-half" times, and his various business ventures: He was once vice president and associate publisher of Texas Monthly and later founded, despite being neither "spiritual nor religious," just "sanctimonious." 

Throughout, Nylen meditates on modern manhood and, in particular, on the meaning of the word "tough," a word he calls a "fittingly compact fortress." 

The final fifth is given over to documenting the progress of his cancer, diagnosed in 2004, and the many, often difficult, treatments. As his body declines, he relates moments of humility (some comic, some sad) and he becomes more contemplative – analyzing the work of Susan Sontag (who also wrote about and died of cancer), and flirting with the idea of Stoicism (which he rejects because he believed the Stoics favored man-boy homosexuality). 

By the end, Nylen comes to believe the highest virtue is a willingness to go all-out, not in the sense of "superlative adspeak," but in the sense of being resilient, of taking responsibility for the course of one's own life, doing what's right and living each day as if it's the last, no matter what the situation. 

Edward Nawotka is a Houston freelance writer.


Combat, Hell-raising, Cancer, Business Start-ups and Undying Love: One American Guy's Reckless, Lucky Life 

Robert Nylen 

(Random House, $25)