Peer Review: “A Common Pornography” by Kevin Sampsell

I don’t know if anyone else on this site is planning to write about my pressmate Kevin Sampsell’s new book–I hope someone is–but I feel like sharing some thoughts about it, so here goes. The main thing that strikes me is how effortless and propulsive the reading experience is. The package containing A Common Pornography (and a galley of Dennis Cooper’s Smothered in Hugs–it was like Christmas all over again!) arrived this afternoon around five, and yet, somehow, here it is a quarter after ten and I’m about three quarters through it.  I read it sitting in my desk chair. I read it on the subway. I read it in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s. I read it on my couch. If I hadn’t put it down to write this blog post about it, I’d be reading it now.

Now, I know that Kevin is–like me–a Richard Brautigan fan, and I think there’s a very Brautigan-y energy at work in this book. Not a Brautigan tone, mind you–Kevin’s book isn’t emo or surrealistic–but here, as in a Brautigan, the chapters are very short, typically a page or two at most, and tend to be anchored by a single image or idea. The book doesn’t demand so much as suggest your attention–hey, you wanna hear a story? Sure. The subject matter (the author’s superlatively deranged upbringing) is sometimes dark (and/or gross) but Sampsell doesn’t plea for your sympathy, he doesn’t go for pointless shocks, and he doesn’t attempt some sort of showy “defiance” or “reclamation” or whatever. He’s just this guy remembering stuff that he did or that happened to him, or to people he knew, and sort of thinking about how it was all maybe a little weirder than he thought it was at the time. Some of it’s funny, and some of it’s touching, and some of it’s sad–and a lot of it is two or more of these things at once–but I think what it really succeeds at doing is creating an atmosphere that encompasses all of those states without forcing the reader to choose one, and that too for me is very Brautigan.

So anyway, that’s my first reaction to Kevin’s book. I’m excited to see him in February, because Harper has us scheduled to do a handful of events together–we’re doing a night in Boston (2/17) and then the following two nights in NYC, and hopefully I’ll be out to see him in Portland sometime later this spring. Want to know how we met? Okay, I’ll tell you the story. We met because right before I moved to Portland, Oregon from NYC in early ’05, I found a copy of Susannah Breslin’s You’re A Bad Man Aren’t You? which he had published through Future Tense, on the bookshelf at St. Mark’s. So I emailed him to say that I was moving to his town and we should get together. He was, I think, looking for an intern, and I know that I was looking for someone to publish the mess of short stories in my backpack. So we had lunch one day near Powell’s. There are a number of ways this meeting might have ended poorly, but instead what happened was I interviewed him for Bookslut, and we’ve been friends ever since. You can read that interview here. Fun interview fact: Kevin Sampsell was the first person I ever heard mention the following names–Sam Lipsyte, Gary Lutz, Gordon Lish, Diane Williams, Amy Hempel, Tao Lin. Not bad, right?