Bongwater by Michael Hornburg

Tuesday, May 7, 2002

I was skeptical at first. I read through the first eighty-or-so pages of Bongwater with my eyebrow raised, wondering why the hell I should give a shit. The event that sets the action moving is good enough: one character accidentally (or not?) burns down the house she shares with the narrator. But until I started to get sucked into the characters’ lives around the middle of the book, I thought I might be reading a fluff piece about precocious gen-xers — sleeping around, doing bunches of drugs, and generally not giving a shit while living in Portland. Nothing wrong with sleeping around, doing bunches of drugs, and generally not giving a shit while living in Portland — but it doesn’t make for a very engaging read, unless the sex scenes are especially graphic. Let’s just say that writing a book about the general shollowness of those around you is fine — but at least one character needs to be bright enough to give the reader someone to identify with. The narrator, David, turns out to be that voice, but it takes a long time to get him to puffed out into three dimensions. And a few other characters end up being interesting beyond their slackitude once well into the book.

But once some of the characters get into a road trip out to the Oregonian backwoods to pick up some weed, and one of the girls (Courtney — see below) starts behaving less like a simple apathetic whinger and more like an audacious bitch thief, I started really getting into the book. And by the end it saved itself. I know because I felt sorry when it ended — I wanted to keep reading, I wanted to know more about what happened next. Whatever thoughtful judgments one might make about a book — “oh, the characters were real but the plot contrived,” or “why would anyone want to read about the battalion of midget Nazis that defended Dimpeldorf during WWII?” — that’s the trump. Did you not want it to end? Did you want to get right back into that world and stay there longer? Then, regardless of its intellectual or cultural failings, the book was probably a good piece of fiction for you.

So that’s how I felt. I could criticize Bongwater for many things. The prose plodded sometimes, for example, in strings of same-length sentences all starting with a subject. (As in: “He walked across the room to the table. She picked up the gun and shot a hole in the wall. He ran outside into the hallway. She ran after him, screaming.”) And the dialogue sometimes felt clumsy. You know how it can be hard trying to figure a way to weasel out of a dull conversation with that guy from class that you just ran into at the coffeeshop? Same problem in fiction trying to get characters out of scenes and on with their plots. Hense, clumsy (or kludgey) dialogue. But that’s all mechanics. In the end I wanted to keep reading. I wanted to stay with the main character and continue living his life. That’s the key.

After finishing Bongwater I went right into reading The Sun Also Rises (by Muriel Hemingway’s grandfather, the writer guy). The language felt so stuffy and dry in comparison with Bongwater’s — surprised me at first, as I went into TSAR thinking, “ah, now to return to the master.” Highlighted that, regardless of the flaws, Bongwater really is written in a language I’m tuned to understand, being roughly the same age as the characters in the book, understanding most of the cultural references, living in a similar sort of liberal, college-aged world. Also brings into question, again, the whole concept of a “classic” or “great work” of art — which, if you know me, you know I don’t believe in at all. That’s another essay, though. As Jake Barnes, the Hemingway stand-in in TSAR, knows — if you want to live the luxurious life of an artist, you gotta hang with the rich kids. (Or be one.)

Now here’s some interesting stuff: Apparently — according to several USENET posts — Michael Hornburg participated in the 80s Portland art scene which included artists Katherine Dunn, Gus van Sant, and Courtney Love… Apparently he dated Courtney Love. And some think that the Courtney in Bongwater is Courtney Love in a very thin disguise. Hm. Casts the whole book in a different light, I think.

courtney in portland

Posted Sun, February 24, 2008, 9:18pm EST by pdxchx

in pdx, courtney love's rep was "that crazy chick who burns down houses."