Laughter, the greatest testament some books can receive, can’t be directly quoted in a review. By the metric of “number of times I laughed out loud,” I gave many, many testaments to Hilarity Ensures.
Beneath that laughter, though, there’s actually a surprisingly amount of commentary about how to live and think about your life interwoven among escapades with drunk girls, drunk guys, at least one drunk dog (that I counted), existential despair, sexual elation, three-ways, success at getting in his or her pants, despair at not getting in his or her pants, angry bouncers, angry parents, angry girls, and boats.
For an example of “how to live and think about your life,” consider this overly long quote about law school, which I include in part because I went to law school for a year, for the same crappy reasons and one different reason that every other bright but unfocused 22-year-old grad goes (the only thing I did right was quit):
Yes, Duke is a top ten law school, but the only thing difficult occurred well before I ever set foot on campus; getting admitted. Once I actually arrived on campus, I realized that not only was the hardest part done, but everything else was a complete joke. The emperor had no clothes.
Going to class is a complete waste of time. The professors don’t care about teaching; they either ramble endlessly about meaningless shit, or they spend the whole time telling you how important they are. The students are no better; the ones constantly raising their hands to talk (they’re called ‘gunners’) are all pompous suck-ups, and add nothing of value to the conversation. . . . I would say that probably 90% of what you go over in class has no bearing on either your life or your job as a lawyer. Think about that—most of what you learn in class has no application anywhere outside of law school.
Hypocrisy comes from the school itself: because “90% of what you go over in class has no bearing on either your life or your job,” classes don’t matter; school should be tightly coupled with outcomes related to your life or job. When school and outcomes aren’t tightly coupled, the school is exploiting you, and schools are particularly good at this because they’re dealing primarily with unformed humans who haven’t yet acquired the analytical skills to realize what’s happening to them. I’m not sure if Max is a reader of scholarly monographs, but if he is, First Thing We Do, Let’s Deregulate All the Lawyers would be a natural stocking stuffer. Law schools have positioned themselves as gatekeepers who extract resources from students in return for credentialing, rather than adding real value. If they did add sufficient value to convince the marketplace that lawyers with degrees are better than those without, they wouldn’t need legal means to restrict competition. Today, you can’t effectively read for the bar, take it, and become a lawyer on your own because other lawyers don’t want the competition and law schools want your money. You, like sheep, give it to them. So did I.
Max hates hypocrites: that’s the moral, if there is one, of much of his work, and especially of the Miss Vermont Story, concerning a bizarrely immature 23-year-old beauty pageant contestant who preaches abstinence and sobriety while practicing the exact opposite with Max. Out of a misguided sense of importance and vengeance, Katy Johnson / Miss Vermont’s mother orchestrates a dubious lawsuit whose only real outcome is a variation on the Streisand effect.
I identify with that story in particular, since I was a minor league hypocrite once:
This reminds me of the first weekend I smoked pot, in high school (it wasn’t great: I don’t much care for the feeling, although I understand that many others do). The next week, a friend said she was going to the elementary school a block from my house to talk about D.A.R.E., which is a dumb and ineffective program. She invited me to go with her. Most importantly, this got me out of a couple classes. I went, spouted platitudes, felt like the world’s most terrible hypocrite. When we left, I told my friend about my experience with pot. She said, “I got wasted this weekend.”
Hypocrisy ties more broadly into the girls who say one thing and do another. Though they’re mostly a source of bemusement in Hilarity Ensues, underneath the bemusement is a real critique: why lie, both to yourself and others, about what you really want? The question is mostly rhetorical, but there are answers, social conditioning being the most obvious. Max is aware of that conditioning:
The rules your parents teach you to live by are very different than the rules the world actually runs by. Most of the conventional wisdom is not only wrong, it’s a lie told to us by people who want to control us. It doesn’t help us, it helps them. Pretty much everything we’re told as children (and adults, really) by the established power structures in our lives are made-up fairytales used to reinforce that control. . . It makes sense if you think about it; the only way you can truly control people is to lie to them.
The “rules” are certainly different, although I’m not sure who the “us” and “them” are in the quoted paragraph. The lies we tell kids are real, and one reason for teenage alienation might be the slow, real discovery that much of what we’ve been told about decorum, success, and meaning are lies. Once implanted, those lies are hard to remove: “People will ignore a lot of reality in order to maintain their fantasies,” especially if those fantasies are comforting.
But Max is not advocating anarchy. He has a sense of anarchy’s consequences; in Mexico, “there is a flipside to no rules: The American safety net isn’t there to protect you from the consequences of your stupid decisions.” It’s an obvious point, yet I bet the million Max wannabes miss this insight, and miss the fact that pleasure has its pleasures and its price. In some ways Max is lucky: his own “stupid decisions” could’ve ended much worse. The “safety net” caught him. No cars hit him, he sustained no permanent physical injuries, and he didn’t encounter anyone murderously psychotic at a random bar. Lessons and memories remain, like those about how we absorb ideas when we grow up.
Lies are often propagated by parents because parents’ and kids’ interests diverge. The teenage girl having sex reaps the pleasure of the act, while her parents might end up paying much of the financial and emotional price of a pregnancy. So parents discourage sex, girls get mixed messages, most don’t have the intellectual capacity or inclination to sort truth from lie, and end up in the bizarrely bifurcated universe that provides fodder for jokes—in the United States, anyway, since “Canadians, especially French-Canadians, have a much healthier attitude towards sex than Americans,” an observation made in the context of a visit to a strip club in French-Canada.
The trick is discovering the lies. But even after discovery, most people appear to continue propagating them anyway, to their children, and want those lies propagated to their children. A surprisingly large number of potheads I knew in college became teachers, yet none to my knowledge would admit as much in a classroom. One friend teaches photography to high school students and, at the beginning of class, tells her students not to shoot nudes of people under 18, since that’s technically illegal, regardless of the central place of the nude in Western art. To her credit, she also adds this caveat: “And if you do anyway, don’t tell me.” It’s a subtle but effective dig at the powers-that-be.
The people who follow the straight path are often cursed by getting what they think they want, like law school and becoming a lawyer. Many who win such dubious victories come to rue them, like Max’s friend Hate, who “kept doing the ‘right’ thing, checking off all the boxes. . . and he kept getting fucked. All the while, the guy doing the wrong thing (me, for example) kept getting what he wanted. Sisyphus led a less futile existence than Hate: at least Sisyphus got in a workout” (notice, too, here the characteristic and characteristically hilarious allusion, recast into the modern language of the gym). Here, “right” and “wrong” are inverted: the real world is big and confusing, and one needs a strong bullshit to detector to make sense of it. If you don’t pay attention, these moments will slip by, like some of Max’s jokes: in one story, a groups of girls came over, and “one of them told me that she was afraid to try anal sex because of my first book. I told her I didn’t give a shit about her problems” (emphasis added).
Other moments involve the perfect allusion, as when a dominatrix plies her trade on Max at a party: “She was beating me with the type of anger usually reserved for people who owe money to Tony Soprano.” Or the apt analogy: “Whatever, we’re both naked and horny, and I’ve fucked way worse. No turning back now. When you try to jump a lake of fire you don’t take your foot off the gas once you’ve hit the ramp.” When you’re having sex with someone you compare to a lake of fire, you may want to reconsider your partner or quarry: but that’s also the sober, distant, far from the act person talking, not the person in the moment (the writer says, thinking back to his own dubious moments). Consider this, of Max’s friend Jerry: “He was not fucking her; he was jackhammering her so hard and fast, he was moving like one of those things that mixes paint at Home Depot.” I haven’t read so many creative sexual descriptions outside of Nicholson Baker. Or inside of Nicholson Baker, as the case may be. These metaphors create their own worlds, in James Wood’s sense in “The All and the If: God and Metaphor in Melville.”
The reaction to Max fascinates almost as much as Max’s writing itself: critics call his writing odious and worse (an example, from Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic: “He published his exploits in an unbelievably nasty little book called I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. . . .” As someone who’s dated around enough to find the occasional nutcase, I find many of his stories too believable). Yet those critics don’t often go beyond name-calling and into close reading, and calling someone’s work “unbelievably nasty” makes it more intriguing, not less, especially because Literary history serves up innumerable examples of writers who thumb the day’s decorum and later come to be revered; obvious examples include Dreiser, for Sister Carrie, which now reads so tepidly and tediously that it’s tough to get through, or D.H. Lawrence for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, given its references to anal and class miscegenation, or James Joyce’s voyeurism and masturbation.
Now, just because past writers have defied conventional norms and later received literary recognition for that doesn’t mean the two have a causal relationship, or that anyone who defies norms will thereby gain later literary recognition. But I think the quality of Max’s writing sets him apart from other people writing about sex adventures online or off, and that’s what draws me. The style affects the content, and it’s that style that makes him broadly popular, and very much unlike his literary predecessors.
But Max doesn’t wrap himself in high-brow literary paraphernalia or pretensions. He does the opposite, and that’s what I think his critics hate, along with his honesty. Drape yourself in highbrow literary accouterments and you can write what you want; do the opposite and take tepid critical punishment, which is no doubt salved by fan adoration (given a choice between groupies and a sedate, smug, and positive New Yorker Review of Books essay, which would you choose? Me too).
I think aspect of critics’ dislike of Max’s honesty comes from a particular source: there’s still a large contingent of people who want to view women as non-carnal and basically preyed on and manipulated by men (see one example, which I wrote about, in “The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more“). This kind of makes sense if you’re a parent trying to lie to yourself or protect your daughter or son—or at least make them compliant. Or religious and trying to do much the same, but it doesn’t make much sense if you’ve dated a fair number of women, or are female and honest, or pay more attention to behavior than to words.
The distaste for Max’s sexual politics is hard to square with Max’s legion of willing groupies, or even with his descriptions of his pre-fame hookups: it takes two or more people for sex, and the women say yes, even if many of them choose to douse themselves in alcohol first. The refutation of the belief that women are non-carnal victims is in the behavior of the women Max describes, not Max himself. Being angry at Max is shooting the messenger: if hot women regularly put out for gallant, polite men, I think his bad boy personality would morph quickly. Women’s revealed preferences, as shown by their love of Max (or your local bad boy), might be what bothers his critics.
If women themselves were collectively more honest, they’d simply say they go out and get hammered so they can hook up with guys. Instead, they often lie to themselves and others and say they’re just going out to “have a good time” or “hang out with their friends,” or any number of other rationalizations. That word, “honest,” appears with surprising frequency, especially as it relates to gender: In Mexico, “Girls wanted to fuck, and here, as opposed to America, they were honest about it.” Why aren’t girls honest in the first place? Because their parents don’t want them to be.
There are also moments where Max wonders: “I never understand why women think drama and bullshit are attractive to guys. They’re not. I’m going to be real clear about this, ladies, so pay attention: Prince Charming doesn’t come to rescue cunty lunatics.” Here’s my guess: women don’t consciously think “drama and bullshit are attractive to guys,” but they like the attention drama and bullshit generate, especially among guys too committed, weak, or stupid to avoid or ignore it. Women engaged in vapid drama might say they want “Prince Charming” but be willing to compromise through the ministrations of whoever responds to their keening. Granted, lacking self-awareness is also a human trait more than a female one: on the side of straight men, I think about all the so-called “nice guys” who are “nice” not because they’re genuinely caring but because they think they can’t get laid acting otherwise anyway. Women often crave attention: look at the ones who go to bars to stroke desire and then ignore the desire they’ve stroked. I can’t remember where I read it, but someone said that men go to bars to get laid, while women go to get attention and maybe get laid. That fits the behavioral patterns I’ve seen.
One of my students mentioned Tucker Max in the context of literary valuation in class a couple days ago, and he seemed to want to know if Max “counted” as a good writer, or something like that (students are weirdly attuned to perceived authority: many have wanted to know about Paul Graham’s background, for example, which is the kind of thing that interests me not at all—I only want to evaluate people based solely on their writing, not about aspects of their life tangential to their writing or the accuracy of their arguments).
It seems like students themselves are wary, at least in official discourse, of trying to decide for themselves who’s a “good” writer and who isn’t. They associate “goodness” with “approved” behavior. They probably have some sense of the critical edifice above them, canonizing some writers and ignoring others. I wish I could convince them to develop their own ideas of what counts, and how it does. That’s part of stepping out of the artificial school fishbowl and into the greater literary world, where the people who win big are the ones who reconceptualize what’s possible. Max did: he mentions the thousands of rejections he got from literary agents, publishers, magazines, and others when he started out. But he also had the good fortune to see his style evolve with the Internet.
The occasional dark threads appear too, as with mentions of depression, or a moment on a boat off the Alaskan coast:
At 7pm, the dark, empty deck of a crab boat is a strange place. It’s pitch black and there’s no land, no life, nothing whatsoever. It’s complete, barren, unforgiving void. It’s just plain disturbing. The water frothing beneath the sides of the boat is literally black. Dying that way—by falling in and freezing—must be horrific.
You can understand Moby-Dick by looking at the sea; Max is encountering an existential void. If he didn’t appear to be enjoying himself so much and if I were a dumber kind of critic, I’d say something about this standing for the heart of his soul.
This is the part where a lot of reviews and essays say something bad. I don’t have much. There are occasional oddities in language: “Yes, Duke is a top ten law school, but the only thing difficult occurred well before I ever set foot on campus; getting admitted.” Why “thing difficult” instead of “difficult thing?” Usually the adjective goes before the noun. I can’t think of any stylistic or content reason for the word order reversal, or why he used a semi-colon instead of a colon. I should probably also say something about how he interacts with women, but why bother? A friend’s Dad gave her this advice when she was 12 and periodically thereafter: men will treat you as badly as you let them. And is it “bad” to give someone what they want (again: think of revealed preferences)? In America, the answer tends towards “no.” Max gives readers what they want—humor, respite, philosophy—and, whatever his critics may protest, many women what they want. Everyone is happy, save those who don’t want to confront the reality on the ground of life.