Book Review: The Loom of Ruin, A Novel by Sam McPheeters

Posted by Jan Galligan 8 June 2012

In the summer of 1965 I finally discovered serious fiction. Having just graduated high school, I was working nights at a local gas station mini-mart in Kenosha, WI, so my days were spent at the Lake Michigan beach. Needing something to read to pass the time, I searched my parents’ small bookcase filled mostly with Book-ofthe-Month and Reader’s Digest Condensed books. Tucked among them, one book caught my eye, An Invitation to a Beheading. “This looks interesting,” Little did I know how right I was. Written in 1935 by Vladimir Nabokov, its original Russian title is Приглашение на казнь. Nabokov translated it into English four years after his 1954 success with Lolita. Set in a nameless dystopian land in an undefined future, it tells the story of Cincinnatus C a young teacher who is imprisoned and sentenced to death for the crime of “gnostical turpitude” or failure to conform. Awaiting execution on an unknown date, he passes his time dreaming and imagining, the very acts that got him arrested. He’s also writing. As he says:

…in the end the logical thing would be to give up and I would give up if I were laboring for a reader existing today, but as
there is in the world not a single human who can speak my language; or more simply, not a single human who can speak; or, even more simply, not a single human; I must think only of myself, of that force which urges me to express myself…

Where have all the humans gone? The answer might be found in Sam McPheeter’s story, The Loom of Ruin. This is McPheeters’s first novel. Since that first encounter with Nabokov in 1965, I’ve had the pleasure of reading a number of first novels when they were first published, including Stephen King’s Carrie in 1974, James Ellroy’s Brown’s Requiem in 1981,
and Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever in 1998. Not to mention many other first novels after the fact, Nathanael West’s 1931 The Dream Life of Balso Snell, Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 Player Piano and JimThompson’s 1942 Now and On Earth.

I’ve often thought how interesting it would have been to know one of these writers before they got started on their writing careers. Ellroy and King are my age, Houellebecq is ten years younger than me, so we might have hung around and maybe I’d have had an inkling that they were going to be up to something, but this would have happened in the years before I first read Nabokov. Not so with McPheeters. I’ve known him since he was five, and I was going on thirty. By the time Sam (we’ll call him Sam for the moment) was a teenager it was clear that he was up to something. By the time I was forty, I’d read hundreds of novels, most serious, all interesting. Sam had already begun writing, drawing cartoons, creating characters, improvising and generally dreaming and imagining scenarios for himself and those around him, me included. In 1983 he self-published a book about the oddities and curiosities he’d discovered in and around Albany, NY where we were living at that time. Sam was a neighbor and constant companion for my son when he stayed with me every summer. Maybe Sam was influenced by William Kennedy’s O’ Albany, published about the same time as the McPheeters compendium. Sam’s book was the more interesting and might have been titled Whoa! Albany, for its mix of the bizarre and the absurd. Not only did I purchase a first-edition copy of his book, I bought a lifetime subscription to his complete works, which he has honored to this day. While we were still in Albany, Sam would regularly stop by with his latest publication. After he moved to California, whenever he self-published a new work it would dependably show up in my mailbox.

Last month, retrieving mail from my PO box here in Santa Olaya, PR, I found a package from Sam McPheeters: a pre-publication review copy of the first edition of his first novel, scheduled for release April 1, 2012. Perfect-bound paperback, 265 pages divided into 109 sections or vignettes, each averaging about two and one-half pages, and each labeled with a two or three word title starting with “THE.” For example: THE WOMEN, THE LIES, THE BONERS, THE LAKERS. All of them are plural nouns and all sound like they could be names for 1990s hardcore punk bands. McPheeters played in a few seminal hardcore bands including the band he formed in Los Angeles, THE WRANGLER BRUTES. My first thought was that this list of section titles came from a sheet of paper he’d tucked in a drawer back in 2003 when he was trying to come up with a name for his latest project. Before you read the book, flip through the pages like I did in the post office parking lot and read all the names. You’ll see what I’m getting at.

It wasn’t a complete surprise to have McPheeters’s new book in my mailbox. His tweets are texted to my cell phone and McPheeters had recently uploaded this posting:

@sammcpheeters Sam McPheeters
Sometimes I forget that I have a Twitter account,
or that I wrote one of the best American novels
of the 21st century:

In 2010 McPheeters announced that he would use his Twitter account to post “one short story each day for the entire year” which means a complete story in 140 characters (including spaces and punctuation), each one rather like a short-story-haiku. That’s when I started having his tweets sent to my cell phone. It also set me thinking about the possibility of writing a novel over the course of one year and posting it to Twitter, 140 characters at a time. The problem is that Twitter postings are listed most-recent first so if you want the story to be read in logical sequence rather than from the end forward, you either have to post it in reverse order, write the logic so that it flows backward instead of forward, or find a software that will display the tweets in reverse order, all of which seemed like more trouble than it’s worth. One story per day though, that’s a good idea. Here are a few examples from the beginning of McPheeters’s 2010 production, in reverse order:

The doorbell rang. “Good morning,” the well-dressed, mentally insane psychopath said. “Hoo, I’m parched. Would you have any water?” Fri Jan 01

The bank manager, drunk and red-faced, tried to explain why Jennifer’s account was mysteriously overdrawn. “Ish the
ecomony.” Wed Jan 06

Carl faced the Rorschach test of all New England Long John Silver’s’s employees; are the fish fillets shaped like Vermont or New Hampshire? Sat Jan 09

Life can be difficult when you’re a beautiful nude woman, thought Lydia as she boarded the subway and tried to ignore the stares. Mon Jan 10

Jim walks into a tattoo shop. “What’ll it be?” says the artist. Jim pulls a gun. “Your face on my neck. Now.” The artist nods. “Ok. $300.” Tue Jan 12

She died broke. The end. Wed Jan 13

These stories arrived like clockwork as promised, one per day for the rest of the year. Curious as to how McPheeters maintained this demanding schedule, I asked him about it in an email and he replied that he’d written most of the stories months ahead of time and had written a software utility to upload them to his Twitter account, one per day at a specified time. Nice. Stories, long or short are one thing, novels are another, and first novels are in a class by themselves. There’s no question McPheeters can write. I’ve been reading him for almost thirty years and as his author blurb states: “His columns, essays, profiles, and short stories have appeared in The American Prospect, Chicago Reader, OC Weekly, Punk Planet, The Stranger, Vice, and The Village Voice.” He’s earned his street cred, but is that enough to pull him into the writers’ pantheon? The Loom of Ruin is a complex book. Composed as previously noted, of 109 vignettes, it tells the story of over 50 characters in many locations in and around present day dystopian Los Angeles, as well as Washington D.C., the Mojave desert, and the Arctic Circle. It weaves all of these people into one elaboratly orchestrated, finely tuned plot that hurtles them towards an inescapable, inevitable, preordained destiny. It’s their fate, and it’s the fate of the world, although the fate of the world is not in their hands exactly – except of course for the hands of President Obama at the White House, 2,671 miles away from the main action. We meet the president in Section 65: THE SECRETS, standing on the White House
colonnade, smoking a Lucky Strike Filters cigarette in the cool October night air and hanging out with his personal assistant, Reggie Love. Obama asks Love:

“Did you ever think about the fact that somewhere someone is saying the exact same thing as you, at the exact same moment? Even including this sentence?”

Reggie smiled: “You don’t know that, sir.”

“Seven billion people out there, Love.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Lots of people.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You have to admit there’s a chance that I’m right.”

Reggie looked thoughtfully into the night sky. “I don’t believe, under the present
circumstances, that I need to admit shit, sir.”

In the preceding vignette, Section 64: THE OPTIMISTS, Titus Johnson had just asked his coworker and new girlfriend Jennifer Martinez that very same question, word for word, even including the sentence: “Even including this sentence?” There are many parts of this book, vignette after vignette, where you could say that it’s about life imitating art imitating life. McPheeters addresses the question of Art directly in Section 14: THE ARTS. Schoup Davis, band mate of main character Bo Boxer, a former child tv star and present day hourly employee at one of the novel’s ill-fated gasoline station mini-marts, thinks that “this civilization respects the arts too much. There are too many bands, too many venues, too much competition. It was getting hard to find a place to play,” and one of the novel’s intrinsic dilemmas is whether the band will be able to play in public, or not. Not wanting to write a spoiler with this review, it’s best if you read the book for yourself to find out. It’s very easy to get caught up in this story as it accelerates towards its denouement in the final segment, Section 109: THE FOLDED NOSES. The question remains as to McPheeters’s place in the literary collection. How does his book stack up against other novelists’ first outings? I will leave that judgment to you. What follows are four short excerpts from four first novels by: Kurt Vonnegut, James Ellroy, Stephen King and Sam McPheeters. The questions are: who wrote what, and how does McPheeters compare? [Answers at the end of this article.]

[Author #1]
Her bloody mouth made the smile grotesque, twisted. “As Jezebel fell from the tower, let it be with you,” she said. “And the dogs came and licked up the blood. It’s in the Bible! It’s—”

“Her feet began to slip along the floor and she looked down at them, bewildered. The wood might have turned to ice.

“Stop that!” she screamed.

[Author #2]
… the tubes increased like rabbits.”

“And dope addiction, alcoholism, and suicide went up proportionately”, said

“Ed!” said Anita.

“That was the war”, said Kroner soberly. “It happens after every war.”

“And organized vice and divorce and juvenile delinquency, all parallel the growth of
the use of vacuum tubes”, said Finnerty.

“Oh, come on, Ed”, said Paul, “you can’t prove a logical connection between those

“If there’s the slightest connection, it’s worth thinking about”, said Finnerty.

[Author #3]
He took a slow sip of his martini and thought about the entire human race. His time in the Defense Nuclear Agency in the early 1990s had opened his eyes to the wide array of threats facing his species, all the varieties of extinction that really were far more possible than the public cared to believe. His time at the DNA also gave him access to a wide range of chilling state secrets. Only one still concerned him: The Walrus.

He sat ramrod straight, jolted by a sudden, terrible hunch.

“Hector!” he yelled to his new manservant, Raul’s replacement.

“Yes, sir,” came an immediate response through one of several disguised speakers hidden throughout the huge living room.

“Get me April Jakosa!”

[Author #4]
Your cut comes to three hundred seventy-six dollars and twenty cents, payable next time I see Cal. Today we visit Leotis
McCarver at 6318 South Mariposa.”

As Irwin swung his old Buick onto the Hollywood Freeway southbound, I caught him looking at me out of the corner of his eye and I knew he was going to say something serious. I was right. “Have you been all right, Fritz?” he asked. “Can you
sleep? Are you eating properly?”

I answered, somewhat curtly, “I feel better in general, the sleep comes and goes, and I eat like a horse or not at all.”

“How long’s it been, now? Eight, nine months?”

“It’s been exactly nine months and six days, and I feel terrific. Now let’s change the subject.” I hated to cut Irwin off, but I
feel more comfortable with people who talk obliquely.

We got off the freeway around Vermont and Manchester and headed west to the Mariposa address.

Writing in the recent essay Why Write Novels at All? Garth Risk Hallberg asks the questions: Does “the sign that we’re not alone” ultimately refer back to the solitary reader, as [David Foster] Wallace often suggests? (“If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own.”) Or does it refer to the author, as in [Jonathan] Franzen’s Why Bother? (“Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”) Or does truly great literature point to some third thing altogether? Hallberg goes on to say, “Literature, to a degree unique among the arts, has the ability both to frame the question and to affect the answer. This isn’t to say that, measured in terms of cultural capital or sheer entertainment, the delights to which most contemporary “literary fiction” aims to treat us aren’t an awful lot. It’s just that, if the art is to endure, they won’t be quite enough.” Or, if the world survives, as McPheeters might ask himself. After all, in Section 64: THE OPTIMISTS, Jennifer tells Titus that all the kids at her school “are saying it’s the end of the world… It’s supposed to be an Aztec prediction or something,” she said referring to the Mayan Long Count Calendar.” Her friend and coworker Titus replies, “Only an extreme optimist would think we’re going to make it until 2012.”

Author #1: Stephen King, 1974
Author #2: Kurt Vonnegut, 1952
Author #3: Sam McPheeters, 2012
Author #4: James Ellroy, 1998
In this author’s opinion, definitely.

_Jan Galligan, Santa Olaya, PR