In his 1826 essay "On the Pleasure of Hating," William Hazlitt writes that "without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men." I was turned on to Hazlitt's essay by a friend of mine who's a critic, and I was hoping that it was an essay about critics. I was hoping it was an essay about haters. I've been a book critic for a couple years, trashing mostly poetry but also stories and novels, sometimes for stupid reasons but always for reasons that seemed important at the time. I agree with Hazlitt that hating is useful, but lately I've begun to hate the hating I've done, not only for its meanness but also because I've been known to be wrong.
I couldn't help thinking about all this last Sunday afternoon at the reading and publication party for Matt Briggs's novel Shoot the Buffalo, because a few months ago I wrote my first negative review of a Matt Briggs book. I don't know what my damage is, but for some reason I don't respond well to passages in novels and short stories about beautiful trees, mountains, and rivers. Briggs's first two books were set in the Northwest but commendably avoided beautiful trees, mountains, and rivers. But his third book, The Moss Gatherers, dwelt on nature, particularly nature with a kind of loveliness that I described in that review as "phoned-in and television-ready." I wrote that Briggs wrote about the landscape as if it had "secret meaning."
In retrospect, what the hell is my problem? Shouldn't Briggs be allowed to write about a Douglas fir if he wants to write about a Douglas fir? What do I have to do with it?
It wasn't so much what he wrote about but the way he wrote about it that I criticized, but it's true that I have a weird bias against the subject matter. Maybe Shoot the Buffalo will snap me out of it. Clear Cut Press editor Matthew Stadler called Shoot the Buffalo "the kind of book that you can disappear into for a long period of time" at the publication party, and in one scene Briggs read, three characters disappear into the scenery and only two of them survive. There is a long section about hypothermia. There are clay hills, lush marijuana plants, and "millions of moths like pieces of paper." The landscape is muddy and fatal, but the writing is good-natured. After the party, someone kicked over a Diet Coke, and a river of cola slowly traveled across the floor. Briggs began to clean it up. I told him I was looking forward to Shoot the Buffalo, and he said he thought I might hate it. "There are a lot of trees in it, and some of them even have meaning," he said.
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Notice that the Twilight Exit is the Zeitgeist bar this week? (It's in Date Place Time, p. 72, and Bar Exam, p. 73.) Since everyone else seems to be weighing in, and since I'm trying to put my hating ways behind me, I just want to say: I love the Twilight Exit. I love the sketchy neighborhood, I love the sign, I love the couches, I love the lights, I love Sunday nights there, I love the notice that promises to electrocute you if you touch the liquor...