Never Negotiate: Ted Prokash – Manuel Marrero
January 20, 2018
Never Negotiate, a running review series and tribute to the uncowed, industrious torch bearers of underground lit , or a hybrid of interview, deep readership and cursory biography cobbled together with healthy dollops of neurosis #1: Journey to the Center of the Onion, Ted Prokash.
At the risk of spoiling a cold open in favor of something less abrupt, schlocky and absent lucid motivation, some kind of stodgy preamble is what no one wants but I’ll give you anyway because you deserve it sort of thing. One of the benefits of running one’s own press, blog, or what have you is, after all, control of the message. Being I’m in arrears with this, I’ll make it short. This originally was a book idea I pitched to some other great houses under the working title, “Sick of the Road: Conversations with Small Press.” Given I don’t live in some imagined fiscal landscape running on Kekistani currency or some shit, and was gathering content at a much faster rate than would be tenable to publish in print in a timely fashion, I decided to serialize online. So if you’re interested in having your corpus autopsied or dissected alive by me, chances are I’m already interested in you, have reached out to you for content, been collecting it unbeknownst to you, and will get to you in future editions.
So what is Never Negotiate? More importantly, what it is not? It is not a platform for hagiography or zealous elevation of my cohort in what would amount to little more than thinly veiled propaganda. I will not be doling out adulation or exhorting you to buy things. That said, scarcely will I use it to write anything negative. Negative criticism may have its place in more commercial spheres, or in pedagogical dialogue where it may be constructive, instructive, democratic and so forth, but in the world I’m operating it tends toward mean-spirited pissing contest re: who can concoct the most savage dig, caustic comeback etc. Besides, I am not in such a credible position that my viewpoints command they be taken seriously (nor should I be). It’s a place to practice writerly instincts by inverting that natural solipsism and aiming it at someone else’s work in an editorial capacity, with a rambling focus, the sound of thoughts rattling and whirring before settling down as the cumulative collateral education of having spent deep time with someone’s thought process and work. Cultivating camaraderie, no doubt, is a long-term goal, and it’s no secret that I think Joyless House is the shit and you would do well to get on their level (and in yet another era of popular table politics in art, we could use some emancipatory gestures). In this case, I decided to exploit the luxury of a blindspot, having not quite met Ted yet in the flesh, culling snatches of casual virtual correspondence to use my sliver of agency for something less categorically worthless than a mere “Recommend.” So without further boredom, Ima tell you what I think.
On the essential romance of The Brothers Connolly and Joyless House’s demonstrated mission:
Some things you won’t find in surfeit within Ted Prokash’s second novel (first in print) are showy mental gymnastics, though not for lack of appreciation or intellectual prowess. “[Dense]…is really the type of book I like to read. So much of the new lit goes in the opposite direction.” Ted is an avid page slayer raised by voracious readers in Algoma, Wisconsin, the hometown he makes to encapsulate, romanticize and eviscerate in The Brothers Connolly, often in the same deft sentence. His love of literature consistently evinced by the growing panoply of reviews to his name, on his website’s blog (joylesshousepublishing.com) and via his GoodReads handle, are snack-sized, digestible and fun, as anyone who follows his Twitter account can attest to. They range from those heretofore overlooked classics we all have collecting dust on our shelves, to contemporary small press literature, pulp, and anything you might want reviewed. Ted, you munificent bastard. While we’re on the subject of the JH website, I would encourage the uninitiated to stop reading me and go there at once. There’s a plethora of rich author profiles and interviews, like the histrionic Sam Pink side-splitter (https://www.joylesshousepublishing.com/single-post/2017/02/10/The-Sam-Pink-Interview), as well as a well-fortified archive of interesting reviews and miscellany. Ted can deadpan his way through a whole host of them with the authority of someone well-traveled and acutely attuned to different vibes and cultural attitudes. Properly countenancing the spectrum of abstruse personalities in literature to get the juice is no forgettable feat (n.b. he elicited the only serious interview I’ve done to date). As the man in the interview chair, Ted can go blow for blow with the most animated jokesters or hang loose like a pendulous, keening incisor.
But getting back to the book, which is far and away among a handful of woefully overlooked literary achievements of the past nearly two decades. I have this personal rule which I’ll employ in kind, where, to me, the author being the master leading from behind the curtain, a disservice may be done by pulling back that curtain. But with that vague put-on, I hope I’ve enticed your interest. Because like all great fiction, it’s personal, painful and authentic. Its feelings are barbed. It smacks of time, place and memory with the clinical finesse of a historicized x ray, laying bare the comely faces, knobby knees, innocent kisses and thundering punts of everything that can be called multiple generations of high school football, subjective familial transgressions of the lurid and quietly indignant variety, and booze/drug-addled hooliganism in the rural/industrial midwest. There’s tenderness, and a spirit of pathos wrapped delicately around observations of youthful love, local sports patriotism/nativism (with unpatronizing descriptions of football games punctuating the loose narrative like sinewy connective tissue), neurotic stoner/artist stuff, and a noted healthy ambivalence, a crass edge with perhaps a chip on its shoulder that says do not fuck with me, a moody voice. Because just when you’re comfortable, thinking you’re reading a lusty document of torrid times in the fictionalized Napawaupee, WI, that cornerstone of pathos sways just under your feet (okay, I said thread; thread unravels), and the tautly intwined threads hang the reader like a noose. The novel is ultimately somewhat tragic and twisted, and perhaps the creative outcome of an altogether different sort of personality (more on that later). This is the gallows humor that bookends The Brothers Connolly. That not at any point did I become uninvested in the characters, chugging along with the pitch-perfect humor, and nodding along to the sobering melancholy, is further testament to its ingenuity. Because the other thing you won’t find much of in The Brothers Connolly is judgment or cynicism. Love is shown for the most unsavory breeds of dipsomaniac and regular maniac, abusers and abused. And the ending one ultimately internalizes as perfect, worthy of shock and awe, like a cathartic and deserved punch in the face. As Ted puts it, “I’m always a little mystified by whether a character is likeable.” In Napawaupee, there’s more than one side to everything, and truth is somewhere you have to look hard on.
On Journey to the Center of the Dream and Hue Blanc’s Joyless Ones:
Gonna come outright and demur to write about music. If your ears were turned to the always-fertile soil during the aughts, chances are you heard the Joyless Ones. Kevin Failure once told me he preferred their version of one of Pink Reason’s songs, whom they backed for one of that band’s most memorable incarnations, and which attendant tour Journey may or may not be circumscribing/conflating. My love of this raging crop of music is known. Please check out the records. Start with Arriere-Garde and work your way to Stoning Josephine, then dig into the rest.
Re: the verisimilitude of events and characters composited in Journey to the Center of the Dream, Ted had this to say:
“Like I used [redacted] as a model for Dessy, but I certainly didn’t try to encapsulate him. The characters in the book aren’t as multidimensional as that. I just wanted the freedom to change things to fit the narrative. I never saw it as a memoir and really wasn’t interested in trying to represent real people. I figured if I used everybody’s real names I would be held to account…like a journalist or something. Yuck.”
And so Journey unfolds with all the comedic high energy and purposeful caricature of a dirty comic strip, or the amphetamine charge of On the Road. It’s a more clear-headed single-minded pursuit, markedly different in tone to its predecessor, with laughs, chortles and guffaws on practically every page. It is easily readable in one-to-three sittings. I won’t hide the fact that one of its many pleasures was being in on the real life parallels, but anybody, namely any writer or musician who’s taken to the streets to sell their art, and by sell I mean, hawk that good medicine and soul food that makes you well, at maximum mileage and negligible monetary profit, for love of life and fuck the haters, will recognize themselves in its pages.
“I’ve been writing pretty much my whole life, which sounds stupid, but I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t process the world by an internal narrative. I’ve been writing with the intent to ‘publish’, or present to the world, for about 13 yrs. Hue Blanc was started purely because Casey Buhr and I both had a glut of songs and no current band. So as corny as it sounds, creative purity has always been the operative ideal. We did two issues of a little literary thing (I hesitate to call it a zine) at about the same time, so the literary and musical impetus were always intwined there. I see writing prose and writing songs as two different channels for the same creative energy. I always find myself a little miffed that more indie/punk music types don’t share that concept. Like I assumed that everybody who’s involved in the underground RnR scene would want to read Journey. I guess I underestimate how disinterested people really are in literature.”
And beyond the touring band stuff of lore and ill-repute, there’s Ted’s demonstrated love of America — its geographical vastness and humanistic nuances — and its common sense of alienation and longing wherever one might run amok. A travelogue that feels damn relevant to me, and will feel so to you, if you’ve ever taken a hard line on “chasing your stupid dreams.”
Reading has become attenuated for me. It nestles neatly in the corners of my life, and I am in rare form these days to feel captive to an author’s snare, either by bromance or sheer will, idle as my states of repose are. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading manuscripts and publishing. Conversely, without it, I’d have no reason for existing.
Ted Prokash is generous with his illiberal and uncouth mouth, his zingers and his open-hearted interaction. It twists a good knife in me. If you’re still reeling from that collective long, dark night of the soul known as 2017, Joyless House has been housing talent and pumping collectivity, solidarity and ever-elusive content full of hot oxygen for years now. If you’re still snoozing, it’s time to wake up and it’s time to fuck. The guy has groomed himself an inclusivity keymaster, deploying his clout as philanthropy essentially.
Mainline this mongrel heart via stethoscope. Bound over lush imagery worthy of Steinbeck alongside vulgarity recalling a gentler Bukowski. Okay. So I read The Brothers Connolly first as a cursory interest. I did not know Ted Prokash, just that he founded the Joyless Ones and trucked with Kevin Pink Reason Failure. I read Journey to the Center of the Dream in three thrilling sittings. Ted is storyteller reporting through the lens of dirty comic strip caricature. On the ugly dumb American mammal. All this came funneling through a periscope, as the Fake News came blasting, as my gramps and caregiver syndrome set in. And I was transported. Ted’s vigor for “the stupid train” is unrivaled. He hungers for the road. The unmissable connection. He’s been putting time in at this juncture. Weathervane, tuning fork. Picaresque. His style is at once cogent and infectious. (a first chapter of his new novel may be read here, at the indefinitely on hiatus or permanently for all I know defunct fluland http://www.fluland.com/tag/ted-prokash/)
And as my center of gravity tilts askew, writing always helps to capture it.
After all, a devotee to fiction and not journalism, Ted’s aim is ultimately to see others in his reflecting pool. The road-tested, the pure, the crash test dummies. Straddle those high beams yourself. His books are funny as hell, full of talk, mega mental. With a sickening imperative. As Amazon and others create the nauseating corporate landfill controlled by the bottomfeeders and social climbers of the future, file it in triplicate. Hostile takeover. Suffer fools lightly. Slings and arrows.
You’re not grappling with the looming obsolescence or at least the transformation, transmogrification, mongrel…of the written word. You’re just not trying hard enough to be great.
I don’t fraternize much with writers. I am no literary citizen. I feel more or less like an outsider.
“I have a lot of shit rattling around in my head that I could get into, but I trust we will have an ongoing dialogue. This is a sweet connection and the internet is good for something after all.”
As Ted embarks on his umpteenth tour, and begins to wrap up his much anticipated novel, I have a gut feeling the above quote doesn’t solely apply to me. Home is no way to be alone with your dreams. We add to that common reflecting pool. It smells like unalloyed blood and it worms into your nostrils ’til you know the scent. Pine for that shared affinity.
There are a lot of passages I highlighted and wanted to quote. But for whatever reason I’m now drawn to these three, from Journey.
“The urinal was filled with ice, so I was afforded the childish pleasure of watching the crystalline city erode under my hot stream. Yeah… that’s it. It is a sudden boon for the introspective man to have his own space amid the chaos of the bar scene. His inner life comes rushing back to him with the sound of sucking wind. I found myself standing there, feeling it, for a long while after finishing my business. It will happen to you too, someday, if you chase your stupid dreams around long enough, doggedly enough; you’ll find yourself in some foreign place, surrounded by strangers, and you’ll get the feeling that you’ve somehow come home, like you’ve stumbled upon your long-estranged family.”
“At the edge of a cornfield, about a hundred paces behind the barn, was a sprawling bonfire, fueled by the segmented corpse of an old growth tree and the rotten remnants of an old barn. The tree’s mammoth stump smoldered in the dirt like a black demon, its twisted system of roots hissing and snapping like an angry tangle of vipers. It was a grim, scorched battlefield; the dense logs and rotten wood poured over it an unholy incense indeed. Beyond the smoking hellscape was only infinite blackness. Standing there, staring into the fire, I quickly became transfixed. Flame has an atavistic magnetism, the greater the conflagration, the stronger its pull.”
“If you can’t picture the scene clearly by now, then what are you still reading for? You’ll never get it unless you go out and see it. Be it. Hunker down and feed with the freaks…I guess there’s something to knowing who your people are. And hold your head high if they’ll have you.”