This Week's Reads

Paul Ford and John Crawford.

Gary Benchley, Rock Star

By Paul Ford (Penguin, $14) Paul Ford recently revealed to readers of the arts-and-culture Web site The Morning News that he is, in fact, Gary Benchley. Or that Gary Benchley is him. Or whatever. Ford originally began posting chapters of what would become this debut novel on the site as diary entries carrying Benchley's byline. The idea was that he would write a serialized novel in the voice of (in Ford's words) a Williamsburg "wannabe-indie-rocker." It worked, maybe a little too well. By that definition, Benchley ego is a fairly annoying character. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a wanna-be as someone who "imitates the behavior, customs, or dress of an admired person or group." So before he's even begun his rock career, Benchley is stuck aping the actions of fashion-conscious hipsters eternally stuck between loving and loathing MTV. Indie rock being a '90s phenomenon, and the '90s being over 10 years ago, Benchley isn't just an ape, he's an ape past his prime. But this is not to say that Ford, and by extension Benchley, aren't entertaining. Benchley falls flat on his face throughout his indie-rock adventures, yet Ford makes Benchley entirely human, fairly adorable, and entirely upbeat—even when he's totally disillusioned. After resolving to terminate his data-entry career, Benchley establishes that his No. 1 goal is to "rock out." Benchley then proceeds to put together a band based more or less on those old Benetton ads, then scores a record deal with a lofty but loser-run record label. Named for a certain indie film, Schizopolis starts a doomed tour wherein sound-board operators remember to plug in their personal cell phone chargers but not the musical equipment. Benchley also contracts a nasty itch from his first groupie encounter and finds out what it's like to have a crush on the drummer. Yet I wasn't entirely sure that Ford, an editor at Harper's and contributor to NPR, was always being intentionally funny. For example, in my circles at least, I don't know a single musician who refers to shows as "gigs." Worse, Benchley uses the term as a verb. Is that Ford making Benchley extra dorky with the outdated lingo? Or does the author not know the difference? The book reads both ways without the inflection of something spoken in air quotes with your friends. Or, finally and most satisfyingly, is Ford commenting on the very nature of self-consciously ironic Williamsburg hipsters? Hipsters hell-bent on being cool, but simultaneously determined to appear effortless and smart? Too much effort usually results in, well, studied dorkiness—which is never cool. Ford's novel works because Benchley is so wonderfully unstudied and adorably uncool. LAURA CASSIDY The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq

By John Crawford (Riverhead, $23.95) In this series of short anecdotes from Iraq, former Florida National Guardsman John Crawford describes both the heat of combat and the more humdrum miseries of a soldier's daily life with the jovial, give-a-fuck tone of a guy telling a story in a bar. He gruffly tosses off terms like haji (all Iraqis are hajis, just as in past conflicts all Vietnamese were gooks, all Germans krauts, etc.) and quotes his fellow servicemen as ending nearly every sentence with " . . . or some shit." He seems determined to present an unfiltered grunt's-eye view of the war, and that means there is no room for reflection on the larger significance of what he is doing. Of the justness of the war, he says, without further explanation, "I may have had my doubts about it, but it was something to hold on to." Neither apology nor defense are on the agenda here; Crawford seems determined to honor the moment-to-moment reality of his life in Iraq to the exclusion of everything else. But it is those few occasions when he lets the swagger of the barracks slip a little that provide the most heartbreaking moments. "People say you leave home, go to war, and become a man," he writes after seeing a man die before his eyes. "I want to be a little boy again. I want to trust people and not look behind my back." The title of his book reflects Crawford's determination to now become a writer of fiction, having gotten his war tales out of the way. No one who reads about his harrowing experiences could help wishing him the best with that career. But he would do well to realize that the blinkered attitude that is a good survival tactic for a soldier will never grant him the perspective necessary to be a good writer. DAVID STOESZ

 
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