Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Things I Would Recommend a Horse Ought to Do in 2011

Finally go see Tron Legacy. (Skip the original; you’ll figure it out.)

Sink up to your fetlocks in the warm pluff mud of the Carolina coastal plain and shout: “I’m in it now, baby! Right down in it!”

Apologize to donkeys. You have no doubt said some hurtful things in the past.

Take your groomer to lunch. (Someplace nice.) Pick up a sugar cube with your front teeth and gently drop it into your companion’s coffee, all the while rubbing his or her leg under the table with a front hoof.

Learn to operate a motorcycle and ride back and forth in front of my house. (Please!)

If you give carriage rides through Central Park, turn to imaginary camera, shrug, and say: “Eh, it’s a living.”

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Tortas Chamber

My friend Alex Gilvarry (a painfully funny writer) has a terrific new lit mag called Tottenville Review. They're all about reviewing underexposed books and conducting interviews with emerging writers. Already they've done amazing Q&As with Rivka Galchen, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, and Porochista Khakpour. So why they wanted to interview me is anybody's guess. My pal Jason Porter (another painfully funny writer) and I ended up talking mostly about sandwiches and Martin Amis's underpants. Then we ate sandwiches, but not underpants. Check out the results. And subscribe to Tottenville.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I Scrapbook and I Vote, vol. 1

The Unknown Knowns spawned a bunch of ancillary projects including a mini-comic, dioramas, a song, two cocktails, a pair of videos, a website, and even a t-shirt (available for barter or purchase). Lately I’ve had reason to dig through all the old computer files those projects generated. Sketches, photos, audio files, recipes, etc. I’m hoping—on a semiregular basis—to post some of these rags and bones here on the blog. Because if I don’t, well, who will?

First, there’s this rough sketch of a Nautikon skull that my wife, Margaret McCartney, made in preparation for the comic, which she also illustrated. The Nautikons were a race of aquatic humanoids who occupied the floors of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. (Duh!) Note the wide-set eyes and the sloping forehead. The ruffle on top is the sagittal crest. Like a bone mohawk, or “bohawk.” I think it has a Dürer-like, memento mori, aspect to it. (And a whole lotta Jack Kirby, too.) I love this Dürer engraving of St. Jerome in His Study.

Jerome featured prominently in my research. I fixed many of the dates in the Nautikon mythology using his Chronicon. It’s a fascinating document. Like Herodotus, Jerome freely mixed folklore with history in ways that now seem hilarious.

Check out this very reasonable note on the 17th century BC: “According the opinion of some, Prometheus lived in this time, by whom men recall that they were created. But the truth of the matter: because he was a wise man, he transformed their savagery and excessive ignorance into refinement and knowledge.”

Because, come on, Prometheus didn’t fashion humans out of clay and steal fire from the gods in a fennel stalk! That would be ridiculous!

Elsewhere, Jerome provides both the name of the man who invented the four-horse chariot and the date when Hercules took down Cerberus. In his sober-minded presentation of crazy horseshit, he’s like the Wikipedia of Constantinople.

It’s this casual blend of the real and the fantastic, the anatomical and the bohawk, that I admire in Margaret’s Nautikon skull. The sketch eventually found finished form in the title page of her beautiful comic, which can be found at the rear end of the paperback edition.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

whirled books

I wrote a little thing about the great big World Book Encyclopedia:

"When I was just beginning to read, pre-search engines, the most fertile source of truth in our house was The World Book Encyclopedia. We owned a late-seventies edition. It was so huge the set occupied its own shelf beneath my parents’ child psychology texts, The Whole Earth Catalog, and Erica Jong. The curdled, almost stony texture of the covers, the embossing, and the copious gold leaf lent the set an almost biblical authority. Actually, in my lapsed-Catholic, professorial household, it seemed more reliable than the Pentateuch. Truth was a scrimmage between Catholic school and In Search of (two fantastic sources), and World Book was the ref." [read it all here.]

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Heat Rises

Just moving this up top again.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Right...the winners

Did I say I'd announce these at 6 p.m. Eastern time? Yes, I did. Well, I got pizza instead.

The winners of my Ask the Volcano Men paperback sweepstakes giveaway are ...

Graham Bailey!


Ben Knight!

(um, send me your addresses, please.)

Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful questions!

The Volcano Man Answers!

Our weeklong “Ask the Volcano Men” book giveaway has reached its explosive climax. And guess what? You're all winners. Except, of course, those of you who failed to succeed. Return to this url at 6 p.m. Eastern when I reveal the names of those lucky and inquisitive mortals who have won paperback copies of The Unknown Knowns.

But first, let’s review the kataklysmic Q&A.


How many cups of coffee* a day is too much?

(* with Goldschlager)

Dear Goldfrappe, 

Ask me again -- after you've spiked your Nescafe with molten gold -- and steamed your frothy Lamia milk over the fuming vents of Vesuvius! But seriously, have you tried switching to Mercuryschlager?



Who do i have to blow to get a cup of coffee around here?

Dear Harris,

Your answer lies in the hollows of Mount Aetna herself. When the giant Enceladus was entombed within her craggy bowels, he petitioned the gods in a very similar manner: "Who does Enceladus need to blow to get out of this place?" he begged. Unfortunately, the answer was Vulcan, blacksmith to Zeus, who was always really sweaty and kind of gross. 



Dear Volcano Man, I'm thinking about working for the Man, doing the U.S. Census thing. I guess it's important. And it would be cool because I could tell my parents I work for "the government," but otherwise I think it sucks. 

What would Volcano Man do? (WWVMD?)

And how hot is molten lava, really? It looks so inviting. Just wondering.

Dear Tottenville,
The US Census is admirable work. Your parents will be duly proud of their son. And trust me, they've been having their doubts, especially after that MFA thing. (What was that about?!) I'm speaking as a friend here—but when I put on my "Annihilator of Civilizations" hat, I have to say the census is a very valuable tool. How can you truly lay waste to a society if you don't know the mean travel time to work of employees aged 16 and over?

Oh, and as they say about molten lava, it isn't the heat, it's the utter humiliation of mankind in a fiery cauldron of anarchic geologic forces!

Thanks for your questions.


Dear Volcano Man,
I am a 7 year old boy named Graham Bailey. Why do people like to make other people sad and angry? My friend Dexter bosses me around and tricks me when we trade, so I do not have much when I leave.

Dear Graham,
This question has long vexed Volcano Man. Mere mortals—and I'm talking to you, young Dexter—should leave the "bossing" and "tricking" to the professionals. When this Volcano Man was but a Volcano Lad, a so-called "friend" hit him with—I won't say what...okay, it was a tectonic plate. The culprit was a small landmass named Gene. I did not retaliate immediately, but several eons later, toward the end of the Late Cretaceous period, I laid waste to Gene, sinking him irretrievably beneath the murky waters of great inland sea called Aeknor in a fiery upwelling of magma.

Beware, Dexter—beware the mighty power of the one they call Graham!


How do you survive the extreme heat of your lair? And, more importantly, how do i get access to the costume?

Dear dbiello,
Dare ye ask two questions? You will pay the ultimate price for your insolence, science scribe! But sure, easy: 1) cooling gel inserts hewn from the manifold soul of the Ice Worm. And 2) if you'd agreed to feed Volcano Man's cat, you'd have keys to my lair. The costume is next to Volcano Toddler's MacLaren.


Oh great Volcano Man what is the best way to prepare yourself for the 2012 apocalypse?

Dear knightb,
Prepare? Prepare? Cower behind the frail bulwark of your conscience, humanist dogs! Scant protection will it give! For the angel of the apocalypse comes swiftly on free-market wings! All shall tremble when the Milton Friedman Choir sings the mighty name of Ronicus Paullus! For he shall be our leader! Wait, you mean the presidential election? Or that Mayan thing?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ask a Volcano Man!

Because I'm finished with the video and I have this big foam-rubber volcano costume stashed under my steps, I'm introducing a new featurette. It's called "Volcano Men Answer Your Questions about Love, Careers, and the Annihilation of Humankind in the Subterranean Cauldron of Fate." know...ask away! Volcano Men do not judge. The three juiciest questions will win a paperback copy of The Unknown Knowns. Wait, make that two...I have only two copies. But remember: if you have won anything from a Volcano Man in the past 60 days, you are not eligible for this contest.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Kataklysm's Hour is Nigh

Actually, it's here! Finally, the video for Tyrannicide's "Song of the Great Kataklysm" has arrived! Took a while because, well, first I had to learn how to use FinalCut, then we had to make a big foam-rubber volcano costume, and then I had to convince everyone to wear it, and, and.... The video was shot by master photographer Todd Warnock. The band: Sohrab Habibion (of Obits, on magma ax), Margaret McCartney (ex of Tuscadero, as Queen Ô), Matt Payne (as the eerily Dio-like voice of the Volcano), Alexis Fleisig (of GvsB on lava triangle and drums), and Greg Simpson (of Obits, bringing the thunder from down under (the Earth's mantle)). Look OUT!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Rob Lovable: a fable

I once knew a man whose vast reservoirs of wealth were matched only by his unrelenting loneliness. He had earned a fortune in the tacos sector, nanotechnology division, and could obtain any earthly comfort a man could want. Houses, cars, rock clubs. You say it is nothing for a man of means to purchase an airplane? Well, Rob had two.

One airplane was large, and he hosted lavish parties onboard. The second plane was small and he could fly it around inside the larger one, champagne flute in hand, while he worked the crowd. The problem was nobody came to his parties, or if they did it was only out of a sense of obligation. Poor Rob was so lonely that he considered ending his life by crashing his little airplane inside the larger one, and then crashing the larger plane into everyone who didn’t come to his parties.

The main drawback in Rob was his lousy personality. He was self-absorbed, demanding, and spoiled. When he didn’t get his way, he tore at his hair and wept like a toddler. He was also really unattractive. Short of stature, square of build, and covered in coarse body hair, Rob was a teddy bear built for discomfort.

But one day he got an idea. He hired a crew of comely flight attendants and began having sexual affairs with them, one after the other. When one of these stewardesses became pregnant, he vowed to marry her. She refused until he showed her the clause in her contract that said she would have to marry him or find her own way to the ground. The ground was about 20,000 feet below at the time. It was a cold move, but that’s how you succeed in nanotechnology tacos.

Candice gave birth to twins—a boy and a girl—who grew to be as handsome as their mother and equally cold toward their father. Candice raised the children inside her small airplane while Rob circled them, tossing handfuls of caramels to the kids. He could buy anything he wanted (nesting aircraft, caramels, children) but the love of his own family…sadly, that was beyond his means. Rob swore he would do anything it took (anything) to make his wife and children love him.

He gave the undertaking a name: “Rob Lovable.” Phase one would begin at once. For seven days and seven nights he worked in his nanotechnology lab outside Flagstaff. When at last he emerged, every fiber of his body hair had been replaced with ermine and mink.

Back onboard his jumbo jet, it was a much softer Rob who beckoned to his estranged wife. When she reluctantly landed beside him, he instructed her to stroke his chest. She refused. He insisted. She relented, making an icky face as she reached inside his shirt. But when Candice felt the buttery fur between her husband’s bosoms, the crystalline light of love filled her eyes.

Thereafter, Rob and Candice spent many a glad night together in his little airplane. At her request, he grew a long beard as cozy and elegant as a mink stole. “Look at us, children!” he wanted to shout. “Your mother and I are happy; perhaps you twins could see fit to love your old pappy as well!” But he didn’t shout this, and his children continued to dislike him. In an act of fatherly bravado, Rob leapt from the wing of his aircraft to his wife’s. There in the cockpit lay the children, daydreaming and eating caramels. Rob scooped them up into his arms, but they recoiled in terror.

“A giant rat!” screamed the girl. “An overgrown ferret!” shrieked the boy. Because, you see, Rob’s ermine body hair may have melted the heart of his loveless bride, but it freaked out his children. He tore at his fur until his body was patchy and raw. Hot, terrible tears streamed down his cheeks. But then he had another idea: Rob Lovable, phase two.

After seven days in the lab, he returned to the jumbo jet a happier man. The twins were spiraling high above. He gestured to them, and they landed, nearly running over his toes. “What do you want?” they asked, in the creepy simultaneous way twins do.

“All I want is to be loved by my own brood,” cried Rob.

“Fat chance,” replied the twins. As if on cue, Rob began to weep. The children mocked him. “Look at this guy,” they said to one another. “He looks like an emotional rodent.”

But their cruel barbs soon turned to shouts of glee, for Rob had replaced his tear ducts with nano-sized soft-serve ice cream dispensers. “Grab a cone, kids!” He raised his hands to show them how the sugar cones dropped down from steel tubes under his arms.

They all ate ice cream and laughed and hugged. They wanted sprinkles, and Rob promised to add toppings. They could come out of his nose! At last he was at peace with his children…with his family. He was lonely no more! His wife adored his ermine body hair, and his children were wowed by his ice cream tears. He wept with joy and the twins cried: “Do chocolate! Cry chocolate, daddy!”

Hearing the joyful noise of her children, Candice landed at once. “Look,” said Rob. “I can cry ice cream. The kids are loving it. Come, wife, embrace your ermine-furred husband! Have a double dip!”

But Candice remained inside her cockpit. She took a long look at her husband. Melted ice cream streamed down his face, matting his mink stole of a beard. Sugar cones stuck out of both armpits. The man she had learned to love had become a monster.

“Come children,” she cried. “Your father is gross!” Candice helped the kids aboard her little airplane. Rob watched them fly away, through the vast fuselage of the jumbo jet and out the emergency exit doors, never to return.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

hot dam!

The paperback of The Unknown Knowns goes on sale March 2 with a little something extra for the visually inclined. My very talented wife, Margaret McCartney, illustrated a bonus comic that serves as a coda, postscript, science lesson, and excuse to show a beaver with Jack Kirby–style energy beams floating around it. Hope you like it!

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Grandma Slice

I like to distinguish between enjoyable music and effective music. Between the music you actually like and the music that moves or excites you despite your better judgment. Say you're standing at the counter of a pizzeria. Not the good pizzeria, but the decent one you went to because you couldn't take the time to walk the extra three blocks to the really good one. And while you're waiting for your two grandma slices to heat up, you leaf through the professional sound-engineering magazine that is lying on the glass case above the garlic knots. There you read an obituary about a fiftysomething salesman for Sennheiser or one of those high-end microphone manufacturers. He devoted his life to the industry and was widely loved for his affable, easy manner and everyman charm, until one day his personality got weird. He was no longer affable. He was no longer everyman, or even some man. The company fired him for acting weird, only to discover two years later that the man had been suffering from an incurable disease that attacks the personality and language centers of the brain. The pretty white snow outside the pizzeria has turned overnight to black ice. You can clearly see, on the sidewalk just outside, a brassiere frozen in a drift of existentially gray snow. You reach into your pocket to find that the six dollars you've been hoarding for lunch are moist from proximity to a baggie of diaper wipes. The pizza is taking a long, long time. You are hungry and...something else. Then from that space beyond taste, from that unmediated knickknack shelf of the mind where the emotions are engaged despite ourselves, you hear a plaintive guitar and the voice of a man whose personality seems to have gone the way of the Sennheiser salesman. It is James Taylor, and the song is "Fire and Rain," and you wish you had a sword handy so that you might drive it through your head.

(See also: "Leader of the Band")

Friday, February 5, 2010

promo progolomo

A really nice and (naturally) hilarious writeup about strange book promos in general and "Song of the Great Kataklysm" in particular, from Andrew Beaujon at Washington City Paper. Lots of great quotes from John Wray and Bethanne Patrick.
Starts like this:

Some people record six-minute-long prog-rock epics because they want to infuse Gilgamesh with the power of electric guitars. And others do it because their novel has just come out in paperback.

When my friend Jeffrey Rotter entered a Brooklyn studio to record a song about his debut novel, The Unknown Knowns, it was for the latter reason. “I think authors are just looking for any way they can to get attention,” Rotter says. Rotter, says Obits guitarist Sohrab Habibion, “was talking about doing something musical and we thought given the nature of the story it would be really fun to do something absurd, and prog seemed like the most friendly format.”

(read the rest right

That's My Spine!

Some very kind words from the mighty Oxford American. Made my week.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Release the Quackin!

Tyrannicide (the video) is on its way -- just as soon as I can figure out how to build a man-sized volcano costume from house paint and foam rubber, and persuade Matt to climb inside it. But first: the making of...courtesy of math-rockumentarian and drummer Alexis Fleisig (and one Walter Disney).

Thursday, January 28, 2010


To celebrate the paperback release of The Unknown Knowns on March 2, we've summoned the slain titans of prog rock to craft a ballad about the annihilation of Nautika. We spent Tuesday at Seaside Lounge studios in Brooklyn, with the mighty Josh Clark manipulating the board, and walked out several hours and one triangle solo later with the volcanic, Crimsonic, Nautikon saga "Song of the Great Kataklysm."

Tyrannicide is the Thor-like drumsmith Alexis Fleisig (of GvsB), Sohrab "Shredd Spread" Habibion (who forged the tune from raw adamantium), Greg Simpson (who called the thunder down from the sky, and sent it home with a bag lunch), and the truly unreal vocal stylings of Matt Payne and Margaret McCartney (ex of Tuscadero and Hot Pursuit). Margaret and I did lyrics, and I laid down a few un-Fripp-worthy licks.

Sohrab and Greg are half of Brooklyn's Obits, whose freaking terrific debut album is my soundtrack of summer fridays. Matt has been fired by the Misfits on no fewer than three occasions for sounding "too much like Dio." Is that even possible?

Okay, so where's the song? Coming soon.