Hello substackees! And what, you might ask, is the clock striking exactly? I am asking myself that too, twenty days from launching a media site, asking people I admire to write, opening my laptop and wondering how much longer the little workhorse has, now that every time I boot up it flashes the equivalent of, “Danger, Will Robinson!” overwrought apparently that I am asking it to do things it’s never done, and my kingdom to someone who can tell me why Adobe Audition is being such a little bitch…
Speaking of which, a certain segment of media this week has, with reason, been obsessed with, “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” a NYT feature by Bob Kolker that I wish to lightly unpack.
But first! I came to know Bob Kolker’s work when I reviewed Lost Girls, his brilliant and moving 2013 book about a string of unsolved murders on Long Island. Soon after my piece ran, I received an email from Bob, thanking me for the kind review (not a usual practice but one I think courtly and magnificent and which we might all do more often) and telling me he was a fan of my memoirette, The Queens of Montague Street. I mean, what? We became in this way acquainted, and I don’t think it went further than that until I’d finished a first draft of my book To the Bridge. I had neither agent nor publisher at the time and, knowing my book walked similar territory to Lost Girls, I dropped Bob an email that essentially said, maybe whoever bought your book would want mine. It’s a big ask! But it’s also not, not if you trust that the person asking has put in the work, which Bob apparently did and to make a long story short, the editor who bought and edited Lost Girls bought and edited To the Bridge, and when it came time to get a blurb - which is a very big deal and not something you do or ask for lightly - Bob gave me one. I am still kind of bowled over by the kismet of it all, anyway, I read “Who is the Bad Art Friend?” without first looking at the byline, thinking only, as the story turned and turned and turned again, man, whoever is doing this is just a freaking master.
(And Bob is, which is one of the many reasons his 2020 book, Hidden Valley Road, was an Oprah pick and named Best Book of the Year by the NYT, the Washington Post, the WSJ…)
I am not going to retell “Who is the Bad Art Friend?,” or not more than to say it takes place in, if I am being uncharitable, what one might call the dirty fishbowl that is mid-level American fiction writer world, a milieu clogged with people fighting for the tiniest flecks of recognition and money, and where most people, if they’re lucky, see their work published in literary magazines no one reads and are often paid in copies of said magazine. I’ve dipped a toe into these waters and, well, I’ll be in the bar with the journalists, anyway, this particular story revolves around a writer named Dawn Dorland, who donated her kidney to a stranger and whose desire to talk about this, on a Facebook group page, and to perhaps gain a little acknowledgment of the act from her fellow writers, became fiction-fodder for Sonya Larson, a writer from the same small universe. To my mind, any writer gets to write about anything he or she wants; you cannot tell me I cannot write a love song because you once did. Still, being inspired is one thing; being cagey and terribly, terribly back-bitey is another. Which is what happened. Throw in accusations of plagiarism and white saviorism and lawsuits and countersuits and lordy, what a mess, one that is ongoing, and about which my friend Kat Rosenfield said, rightly, “every decent human being is Team Dawn!” Yes.
And yet, the piece also stirred up in me something that I am ready to admit is my problem, a problem I have had handle for decades. An example: It’s summer 1999. I am visiting the summer house of a friend, as is a person I will call D. We all head out for dinner one night with other friends, during which D does something he’s been doing for several years, which is to make a show of standing whenever a woman gets up from or returns to the table. This might seem like a small courtesy, something continental D perhaps picked up during his brief marriage to an Italian girl. But the repeated up and down, accompanied by an ingratiating smile, bugs the crap out of me. Well, Nancy, that’s rather picayune, I can imagine you thinking, and I agree, but here is what I also know: Earlier that day, when I’d driven up to the house with the week’s groceries, I’d asked D, who was hosing off outside, to help me with the bags. Instead, he went into a snit, said he was tired from a bike ride and went inside. Which I took to mean, if there was no public recognition, then what was the point of graciousness?
Last night around 11pm, I was leaving a friend’s house. He came outside with me to wait for the Lyft. I told him he needn’t, he could go back in, and he didn’t even budge one inch; of course he would stay with me. This all seems so completely obvious, to help people, to keep them safe, and it is heartbreaking to me to think of those who rob themselves of having kindness and helpfulness be the default homeostasis.
The other story the week was the new Dave Chappelle special, “The Closer.” Andrew Sullivan breaks down the reaction better than I can, a generous clip from his Substack:
And so when the greatest living comedian, Dave Chappelle, bases almost an entire Netflix special on the subject [of transgender ideology] — alternately hilarious and humane, brutal and true — and wades into the debate with wellies on, the exact same piece about the special will be written in much of elite media.
You could write it yourself, couldn’t you? 1. He’s a bigot. “The phobic jokes keep coming — and Chappelle’s efforts to ironise them, to dance around rather than wallow in the boorishness, are derisory,” says the Guardian review. 2. He’s out of date: “All that’s left is the same tired observations delivered behind a bizarre form of commiseration, this time with an added dash of JK Rowling solidarity and using someone else’s death to validate his half-decade of public stubbornness,” according to IndieWire. NPR adds a “multi-racial whiteness” edge: “Too often in The Closer, it just sounds like Chappelle is using white privilege to excuse his own homophobia and transphobia.”
Both the “stubbornness” and the “bigot” theme are reiterated in Vulture: Chappelle is full of “outdated excuses masking a refusal to update a worldview … his head is up his ass. He needs new ideas.” And, with respect to the marginalized: “He’s just asking for you to take up less space, to usher in progress by giving other people time to come around to you.”
And guess what? They’re all wrong. Chappelle’s final Netflix special, “The Closer,” is a classic. Far from being outdated, it’s slightly ahead of its time, as the pushback against wokeness gains traction. It is extremely funny, a bit meta, monumentally mischievous, and I sat with another homo through the whole thing, stoned, laughing our asses off — especially when he made fun of us. The way the elite media portrays us, you’d think every member of the BLT community is so fragile we cannot laugh at ourselves. It doesn’t occur to them that, for many of us, Chappelle is a breath of honest air, doing what every comic should do: take aim at every suffocating piety of the powers that be — including the increasingly weird 2SLGBTQQIA+ mafia — and detonating them all.
The Closer is, in fact, a humanely brilliant indictment of elite culture at this moment in time: a brutal exposure of its identitarian monomania, its denial of reality, and its ruthless tactics of personal and public destruction. It marks a real moment: a punching up against the powerful, especially those who pretend they aren’t.
My feelings about “The Closer,” which made me cry twice, is that people who do not see Chappelle’s deep humanity are robbing themselves.
Recs this week: “Eulogy for New York City,” an art show at ChaShaMa at 21 Greenwich Ave. NYC. Yours truly has a little piece in it!
Speaking of Kat Rosenfield, whose brand new novel No One Will Miss Her was just named an Amazon Editor’s Pick, here she is with Meghan Daum, on Meghan’s new YouTube channel, a spur of her popular podcast, The Unspeakable.
I kind of loved this little video on, essentially, how oysters can save the world:
And speaking of lil sea creatures saving the world, last night we reached a singularity of sorts. Let me set the scene: I have just made dinner for Matt Welch and his six year-old Coco, now it’s time for a little TV; what shall we watch?
“The ‘Octonauts’ and the Great Barrier Reef,” said Coco. “Because you learn things.”
I was completely charmed by Octonauts, who are adorable and gracious and silly and who sing their way through good deeds and danger, and then, and then, came the pie…
… a segment during which Matt and I laughed the whole time, make more pie indeed, and what we will be trying to do with the new site, which, barring the figurative oven that is my laptop exploding, will launch October 30.
Until then, sending love and a lick of the spatula with which I will mix today’s pound-cake batter xx
I love everything about this post and especially that the Octonauts are highlighted. Love those little dudes.
Hijacking here with an unrelated question. Are there any goings on in Portland? If not, when did that madness get less mad?