Westword Book Club: Sam Tallent on existentialism, Southern gothic and DIY
As the proprietor of the Fine Gentleman's Club and host of the Squire's ignominious Tuesday night open mic, Sam Tallent is already known to Denver comedy fans -- but what they may not know is that he contains multitudes, and not just within his corpulent frame. Surprisingly well-read for a public goofball, Tallent instinctively eschews any pretentious-seeming affectations, but he's often already devoured a literary classic or two before I wake up in the morning. An example of what persistent dedication and self-starting can achieve, Tallent is a local treasure and a good friend. Not incidentally, he helped me come up with the idea for this very column. This week, Westword checks in with Tallent to discuss his love of Southern Gothic literature, how existentialism warped his adolescent mind, and the biographies of his Falstaffian forebears.
Jay Austin Graham (no relation to the author)
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Westword: Do you think people are surprised that you're such an avid reader?
Sam Tallent: Why, because I'm such a doofus on stage? I hope people aren't surprised that I'm literate. I think maybe they're more surprised to find out what I read and how voraciously I read. I don't think people who only know me from comedy would peg me for a Larry Brown or Flannery O'Connor nut. They'd probably assume I wasn't into such bleak realism.
How have you been influenced by Joseph Heller's Something Happened? You mention that book often.
Something Happened is about the modern American existential burden of having everything you thought you wanted, and then trying to figure out if any of it has any worth. The most shocking thing I read outside of Katherine Dunn's Geek Love as a kid was when the protagonist of Something Happened says he hates his kid now, or at least thinks he does --he can't be sure if he ever loved him in the first place. Woah!
Can you describe the appeal the Southern gothic genre has for you and how it relates to where and how you grew up?
Southern gothic fiction is all simple people trying to find meaning in life, often without God as a fallback. They find that meaning in fist fights and homemade whiskey, but that's kind of how we all busy ourselves. The characters in those books remind me of the people I grew up with in Elizabeth: fucked-up hardworkers without hope for salvation. I like that. These characters understand that we've got to have fun while we're alive, and we only answer to ourselves in the end.
Is there something in particular about these traditional codes of masculine aggression in tough-guy fiction that resonates with you?
Our generation is a generation of stunted man-children without any idea of how to be a man, because what you and I were taught is masculinity has been condemned. That's why we all have beards and tattoos; they are accepted markers of manliness. We are the blinded leading the blind. So I think I like the men in these books for the same reason everyone loves Don Draper: They are definitively men. Their decisions aren't always kind or decent or politically correct, but at least they always know what to do and take action. Unlike me, they aren't shackled and neutered into stuttering manboys by gender theory and post-feminism.
How did reading Camus at an early age affect your development?
Camus taught me that existence is without meaning, but not without worth. Everything I was taught to value by teachers and other authority figures was complete bullshit; the entire American myth is false. My parents never lied to me, but they never told me that we are here for no reason. Freedom doesn't have a purpose. Camus blew my fucking mind wide open. The Stranger changed me. Then I read A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, suggested to me -- like most of the great books I've loved -- by my father, and that ruined me from being a party to the evil prevalent in our modern life. Then Black Flag and Minor Threat and Against Me! radicalized me, and I spent most of my years after high school seeing America from behind the wheel of a van. All because Camus eviscerated all the bullshit I thought was important. Camus and Ecclesiastes are the same thing, kind of. Jon Crist pointed that out to me.
What are you currently reading?
I'm reading Donald Ray Pollock, and you should too! Knockemstiff is my favorite book of short fiction since Maupassant. He synthesizes Cormac and Flannery and Crews through the hopeful nihilism of Dorothy Allison and Chuck Pakahniuk. He's really good at writing.
What do think about the idea of a Great American novel? What would it be in your estimation?
The great American novel has to be To Kill a Mockingbird. It's got class war and loss of innocence and disenfranchisement and racism, which is just class war dressed up. And it's Southern, which is where our best authors come from. Alec Baldwin said Chris Farley was the best because he could make anyone laugh: young or old, rich or poor, smart or dumb. That's how To Kill a Mockingbird is -- anyone can read it and be altered.
What books do you like to recommend?
I recommend all of Larry Brown and William Gay to people who like books. I like to recommend Bastard out of Carolina to anyone that's ever felt powerless. I like to recommend The Killer Inside Me to men who have felt evil, and I like to recommend Reivers to anyone who wants to read Faulkner. I like to recommend Walker Percy's The Moviegoer to anyone who likes Something Happened or existentialism in general. I like to recommend The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers because my mom recommended it to me and it rules. I recommend everyone try and read Blood Meridian, because it is the best book I've ever read. Cormac McCarthy is our country's best living novelist. His canon is beyond comparison, rivaled only by Faulkner, the great ghost of American fiction.
Were there any books about comedy or written by comedians that were important to you early on?
Bob Woodward, like Watergate Bob Woodward, wrote a biography about John Belushi called Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. That book and the Chris Farley Show both made me cry. I empathize with those guys a lot for obvious reasons. Poor sad fucks. The Second City book is great because it came with a CD that introduced me to Fred Willard and Adam Mckay. The Lenny Bruce books are all shitty hero worship. I'm Dying Up Here taught me that comedy is lonelier than I imagined. But the one book that really made me into a comic is Our Band Could Be Your Life, by Michael Azerrad. That book put me in control of my destiny. Lots of people we know talk about the art they are going to do or the lives they will have; meanwhile they are wasting their lives at a desk job, lying to themselves and others about the art they never do. That book taught me that I don't need a manager or even a plan, all I need is hard work and integrity to have the life I want and have. The secret to living is hard work and helping each other. Punk rock taught me that, Our Band Could be Your Life just gave me some case studies of success stories.
Sam Tallent performs regularly at Comedy Works, and helps run the weekly Too Much Fun! show with the Fine Gentleman's Club at Deer Pile. He also co-hosts the well-regarded Lion's Lair open mic with Roger Norquist. Audible recordings of his freewheeling brand of jokesmithery are available at his bandcamp page.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.