Touch of Evil

History tells us that musicians who turn to the written word are just asking for trouble. Occasionally, though, something special sneaks through.

It would seem, on the face of things, that the musicians who want to be writers greatly outnumber the writers who want to be musicians. Maybe John Updike harbors a secret desire to strap on a Stratocaster and stand nobly under a shower of pubescent panties, but, as of yet, we have no evidence to support this. On the other hand, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Pete Townshend, John Lennon, Jewel and countless other misguided pop stars have all published works of fiction or poetry, most of them very, very bad. Yes, it's always possible that Sir Paul McCartney's soon-to-be-published collection of poetry -- elegies for his dead wife, Linda -- won't be one big cringefest. Possible but unlikely. To write poetry is to risk ridicule. When you do it right, it's sublime and terrifying (and all but ignored by the public at large). When it's bad, it's excruciating.

That musicians, particularly those of the singer-songwriter ilk, often decide to plunge into the treacherous waters of belles lettres should come as no surprise. After all, they've already induced people to clap for them, buy their records, stalk them. Consider Jewel. Of course she thinks her thoughts are important: She lived in a van, for chrissakes. She was reared as a Mormon in Alaska. She toured with Bob Dylan and Neil Young. She's friends with Kevyn Aucoin, who does her makeup when she attends all those fancy awards shows. Legions of 11-year-old girls hold hairbrushes to their mouths and pretend to be her. She's the MTV generation's answer to Joan Baez, a telegenic folk-priestess who frets about the state of our souls. She yodels and surfs and rides bareback and appears in movies. Why not try her hand at writing? Who's going to tell her she's boring?

Well, the readers, that's who. Although her first book -- a collection of free verse titled A Night Without Armor -- sold respectably, her newest literary offering, Chasing Down the Dawn, belly-flopped right into the remainder bins a few months after publication. Dawn is somewhat better than Armor, insofar as it's prose and it doesn't make you cry actual tears of embarrassment. Its pretentiousness is diluted with a generous dollop of banality, not unlike your garden-variety college-girl journal, replete with family photos and cutesy little cartoon self-portraits in which the author depicts herself as wide-eyed and potbellied and (listen up, Freudians!) sometimes with a guitar in place of her pelvis and legs. The book's title is a reference to a poem in Armor: ". . . but for now/I am youth's soldier/chasing down/an endless dawn."

And what wisdoms does youth's soldier impart? (1) Fame is -- are you ready for this? -- not all it's cracked up to be: "There are all sorts of famous stories that surround a person, like mysterious robes, making the human invisible and the image super-real." (2) Metaphors are mixable: "The idea that fame transforms all problems is true financially and in many other ways, but no glass slipper can quiet the ghosts that haunt a psyche." (3) People can be nice: ". . . I've been amazed at the compassion of strangers. That's what makes it possible to believe . . . that you will make it another day . . . that somebody cares . . . that you can come through even this untouched by hate, nourished by an ultimate goodness." After slogging through these assorted profundities, we conclude that Jewel is probably a nice person, a sensitive, down-to-earth sweetie pie. Like most pop stars with intellectual aspirations, she just can't write very well.

Rennie Sparks, one-half of the brilliantly skewed gothic-country band the Handsome Family, writes very well, probably because she's, uh, a writer. "I do have an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Michigan, but it wasn't a very happy experience," Sparks explains. "I didn't fit in with the people in my program, and I didn't fit in with the editors in charge of all the little lit magazines that I sent my stories to. Everyone found my writing good but my characters and my stories distasteful. Teachers were always telling me to 'back off' or find some 'redemption' for my characters at the end of stories." About four years after earning her M.F.A., Sparks began to collaborate with her husband, Brett, who sings and writes the music in their band. "It was a real release for me to just play rock 'n' roll. At first, that's all it was; I wanted to write stupid lyrics and play stupid music and just let loose." She began to take her role as lyricist more seriously, however, as she immersed herself in old country and folk music: "It comforted me with its bottomless mystery, its primordial, archetypal stories and themes. It made me want to write the same kind of stories, to write in a sort of dream language more than a language of 'real life.'"

In Evil, her first collection of short stories, Sparks explores these ancient mysteries in a voice both poetic and colloquial, both dreamlike and brutally matter-of-fact. Hers is a savage and beautiful world inhabited by pissed-off drunks, sad sacks, dirtbags, skanks, geriatric couch potatoes, shoplifters, bulimics and crazies; a world in which pathos often erupts into sudden, inexplicable violence; a world in which people suffer and exact revenge. Like real life, it's funny and gruesome and completely unfair: Fat girls are humiliated, innocent bystanders are shot, dogs are run over and people get cancer. In the first story, a girl watches helplessly as her lover is beaten to death by gangsters, and then, in her anguish, she has an epiphany: "A hole in the heart can be filled with blood." She drops pieces of a shattered mirror into a carton of milk and gives it to a retarded homeless girl.

The stories are often horrifying, but, like the work of Raymond Carver and William Faulkner, they're too well crafted to be depressing. "I think they're sad but beautiful, too, and the beautiful part is the important part to me, because life wouldn't be sad if we didn't also find it beautiful and awe-inspiring and joyful," Sparks observes. "To me, a sad story can be a celebration of life and its fleeting beauty. I get horribly depressed by happy endings, because they seem like such a lie, such a denial of truth and the real movement of the world. Every beautiful thing in this world is made to be destroyed. I really got upset when everyone was sending teddy bears to Princess Diana's grave. It made me realize how screwed up people are about life and death. First off, her life was not nearly as tragic as most poor, suffering, voiceless creatures who inhabit this planet -- from starving people to poisoned fish. Secondly, a teddy bear for a grown woman? Ghastly. She was not a candle in the wind. A candle in the wind is a poor little ant who gets stepped on or a spider washed down the drain or the woman who was walking with her 4-year-old daughter recently in downtown Chicago and a big hunk of ice fell off a building and killed her. Those are the kind of things that speak to me of how grand and awful, tragic and fleeting, precious and sweet each moment of life really is."

When asked whether she's read anything by Jewel, Sparks says no: "She strikes me as a very optimistic person. Those kind of people frighten me, because I have little idea what their world is like. I can imagine her when she was living in her car being still totally positive and hopeful about her place in the world. Me, no matter what's happening, I could be winning the Nobel Prize, and I have to think about terrified Jewish children thrown screaming into the ovens, and I know things don't always go the way they ought to. Actually, I don't tend to read a lot of fiction or poetry. I get intimidated or I get judgmental. I read a lot of natural science and history books and biography. When I read fiction, I usually limit myself to the shelves of the thrift store. That way, if I hate a book, I can rip it up or set it on fire."

Chasing Down the Dawn can be found in the bargain-book section of your favorite chain bookstore (at a price that might tempt you to rip it up or set it on fire if it's not to your liking). Evil can be ordered from the Handsome Family's Web site: handsomefamily.home.mindspring.com.

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