Posts tagged ‘autobiography’

April 18, 2017

#126) Book review: “House of Nails” by Lenny Dykstra

Some baseball fans remember Lenny Dykstra for his hard-nosed, balls-to-the-wall style of play that earned him the nickname “Nails.” Others remember him for bankruptcy fraud, falsifying documents while leasing a car and writing a bad check to a prostitute. Dykstra’s ups and downs are chronicled in “House of Nails” – a memoir that is part self-reflection, part shit show (if you are offended by the term “shit show” don’t read this book; it contains an amount of cursing that would make a longshoreman uncomfortable.)

Anyone looking for balance, meaningful remorse or nuance in this book will want to keep looking, but that shouldn’t come as a shock. “House of Nails” is written by a die-hard Lenny Dykstra fan and is best read through that filter. Given that, how well does Lenny Dykstra present the awesomeness that is Lenny Dykstra?

Like the New York Mets in the years following their 1986 World Series championship, “House of Nails” is a collection of promising parts that never quite live up to their potential. The pieces are all there – no holds barred accounts of steroid use (by Dykstra and many others); unapologetic descriptions of life on the road with two of baseball’s most notorious teams (the 1986 Mets and the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies); boasts about blackmailing umpires; an insider’s perspective on the real estate crisis of 2008; escapades with Charlie Sheen – but while the anecdotes are by turns entertaining and cringe-worthy, the potential for a bigger whole is never realized. Granted, this is a sports bio, not Shakespeare, but with a little more finesse, “House of Nails” could have been a seminal baseball book of our times: “Ball Four” meets “Scarface.”

A mythological interpretation of the story, to which I don’t think Dykstra would object (he refers to himself as “a Greek fucking statue” in a way that may or may not be tongue in cheek) would see Dykstra as a tragic figure who starts from humble beginnings and achieves greatness but is undone by a desire for the forbidden (steroids, girls, Wayne Gretzky’s house). Our hero then pays his penance and becomes a New Man. However, Dykstra’s repentance is generic and conditional (“Undeniably, I have made some monumental mistakes in my life, some of which, inadvertently, have had a negative impact on my family”) while his accounts of those whom he feel wronged him are given much more detail (“Please note that [my attorney’s] letter is dated February 28th, 2012….eight months after I was incarcerated for grand theft auto.”) Dykstra enjoys playing the tough guy card (“I called him a cunt, and [Dodgers catcher Rick] Dempsey took something that resembled a swing at me”) but also the victim (“I was placed in solitary confinement for leasing a car”) when it suits his narrative.

Dykstra’s grievances have legitimacy. Major League Baseball turned a blind eye to steroids when record-breaking home run races were filling seats and then took the moral high ground when it made them look good (and why exactly did the federal government feel the need to step in anyways?) Dykstra may have been obsessed with buying Wayne Gretzky’s mansion, the prize that would prove to be his undoing, to the point where he irrationally walked into an unsound home loan, but at the height of the real estate bubble, banks weren’t exactly known for doing the right thing either. As for Dykstra’s treatment while incarcerated, the book may only give his side of the story – but misconduct by wardens and other officials in the L.A. County jail system is a matter of record.

Ultimately, “House of Nails” could be seen as a microcosm of Dykstra’s baseball career. Hall of Fame? No. Fun to watch/read? Yes. Considering how many books and baseball players alike come and go without making an impact, one could do worse than Lenny Dykstra did both on the diamond and the printed page.

 

May 14, 2014

#77) Memoir autopsy: “Dogtown”

I don’t often give up on books – not even “In a Sunburned Country” – but after taking more than a month to get through only 75 pages or so of Elyssa East’s “Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town” I realized that this one wasn’t going to happen.

“Dogtown” is not an over-hyped, “50-Shades of Gray”/”Oprah Book of the Month” situation.  This is a book I wanted to like.  I stumbled upon it at the library and it seemed to have all the elements that would make it a home run: a town (in my home state) with a haunted past, a brutal murder and a young woman searching for her purpose in life.  I felt more disappointed than angry when I threw in the towel on this one. In this age of the memoir, the unfulfilled promise of “Dogtown” holds some valuable lessons for writers and it is in that spirit that I present this post.  I can’t call it a review, having not finished the book, so I’ll call it an autopsy.  Look on the bright side – you know there will be no spoilers.

Dogtown is an abandoned settlement in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that fishing town north of Boston immortalized in “A Perfect Storm.”  Author Elyssa East – originally from Maine – learned of Dogtown from the work of Marsden Hartley, a troubled artist who was pretty much ready to walk away from painting when the ghost town gave him new inspiration.  In the late 1990s, East traveled there herself, learning details of a brutal murder that had taken place there in 1984.  Gloucester tends to be a magnet for transient types on the fringes of society and one such drifter, Peter Hodgkins, had a reputation as a misfit and loner and a record including indecent exposure and other charges of harassment.  As the town absorbed the shock of the murder, Hodgkins became a leading suspect.

So why doesn’t it work?

The main problem is that East fails to weave the various story lines – her own personal journey, Hartley, the history of Dogtown and the murder – in a compelling manner.  My critique of “Sunburned Country” notwithstanding, Bill Bryson is usually adroit not only at mixing personal narrative with local history but at making history entertaining.  East on the other hand tends to devote entire chapters to history, making it often feel like little more than lists of names and dates.  While she vividly conveys the violence of the murder without becoming melodramatic, she is unable to make Marsden Hartley seem like much more than a stereotypical tormented and misunderstood artist and her descriptions of Gloucester often have the feel of one of the textbooks I pretended to read in high school.

It’s also disappointing that we don’t get to better know East herself (at least if the first 75 pages are any indication.)  We are told that “[S]truggling in her own life, East set out to find the mysterious setting that had changed Hartley’s life, hoping that she too would find solace and renewal in Dogtown’s odd beauty.”  Yet she only describes her struggles in vague terms.  I give her props for not insisting on the spotlight, but she could have done more to make herself an engaging character.

Perhaps someone with a longer attention span than me–that is to say, most of the human race–might have slugged it out and learned the ultimate fates of Elyssa East, Peter Hodgkins and the other characters in the story.  In my defense this is the first book I’ve abandoned since my doomed attempt to read “Two Years Before the Mast” three years ago.  Maybe I’ll revisit this one down the road; maybe I’ll see the movie if it’s ever made.  For now, “Dogtown” sadly gets filed under unfinished business.

June 27, 2011

#15) Shout-out to another D: My Top Ten David Sedaris Quotes

#10) “You can suck the cream out of my grand-daddy’s withered old cum-stained cock before I ever…let you look into this motherfucking baby’s wrinkly-assed face.”  (From “C.O.G.”, dialogue Sedaris overheard on a cross-country bus trip)

#9) “My home – well, one of my homes – is on the garden tour, so I’ve got to get back to Williamsburg.” (From “The Ship Shape”; dialogue Sedaris and his mother overheard at a dry cleaner in Raleigh)

#8) “There’s only so much you can do for someone who thinks Auschwitz is a brand of beer.” (From “C.O.G.”)

#7) “It had now become the kind of masturbation that’s an act of determination, not pleasure.” (From “Blood Work”)

#6) “I’m the stepsister of Jesus Christ sent back to earth to round up all the lazy, goddamned niggers and teach them to cook ribs the way they was meant to be cooked, goddamn it.”  (From “Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out!”; said by a woman at the nursing home where Sedaris’s grandmother lived)

#5) “I hate to bother you, but I’m going to lie down for a while…if for some reason I don’t wake up, I’m wondering if you could possibly insert this into my anus.” (From “Blood Work”; Sedaris is cleaning the house of a client who recently recovered from surgery)

#4) “He must truly believe in miracles if he thought I’d ask a complete stranger if she accepted deliveries in the rear.” (From “C.O.G.”, describing a trip to a crafts fair in Portland, OR with a man who called himself a “Child of God”)

#3) “I couldn’t read the phrase ‘He paunched his daughter’s rock-hard nopples’ without thinking of Gretchen barricading herself in her room.”  (From “Next of Kin”; describing a poorly edited adult novel that Sedaris and his sisters read)

#2) “I was then to suggest that the hook-nosed Jew bastard could shove his delivery charge up his ass.”  (From “That’s Amore”, in which Sedaris’s elderly neighbor enlists him to help negotiate with the local pharmacist)

And the number one David Sedaris quote of all time…..

“They’re not little creatures!  They’re tool people!” (From “The Girl Next Door”)