Author(s): John Dolan
Pleasant Hell is the memoir of a romantic nerd desperately trying to conform to the cool rules of suburban California during "the Fall of Saigon and the hippies." With an uncanny instinct for self-destruction, he finds work as an attack-dog handler for a shadowy security firm called "Silent Invisible Death on Duty" (S.I.D.O.D.), patrolling a truck depot in the slums of Oakland. In long shifts at the truckyard, and even longer sulks in his bedroom, John tries to find a way to approach Joanne, "last of the hippie goddesses of the ninth grade at Pleasant Hill High." His wooing is uniqueâgrandiose, comic and utterly ineffectual. When Max, a geriatric and emotionally damaged attack dog, bites the wrong man, John tries to solve the crisis using the only model he knows: television cop shows. The result is disastrous for him, Max and S.I.D.O.D. The novel comes to a comic, oddly moving conclusion, as the heroâs mental universe collapses while watching the fiery destruction of Patty Hearstâs Symbionese Liberation Army. The comedy of Pleasant Hell is merciless and precise, evoking an era the heroâs more worldly contemporaries would prefer to airbrush from their biographies. Read it and flinchâand laugh. John Dolan has built a loyal cult following from his collections of poetry and his work as literary editor of the Moscow, Russia â based humor magazine The eXile. Dolanâs painfully funny and provocative works remind one of a real-life Ignatius Reilly. His language is as precise as Nabokovâs, his subject as fearless as Celineâs. John Dolanâs collections of poetry have won numerous awards and accolades. He has lived in California, New Zealand and Russia. Pleasant Hell is his first novel. Other Books by John Dolan: People with Real Lives Don't Need Landscapes (poems); University of Auckland Press, 2003 Poetic Occasion from Milton to Wordsworth; Palgrave Press, 2000 Stuck Up (poems); University of Auckland Press, 1995 Writing Well, Speaking Clearly; University of Otago Press, 1994 Slave (poems); Occident Press, 1988 An Interview with John Dolan Q: The title of your book puns on Pleasant Hill, the suburb of California where you grew up. Was it really so hellishi A: W.C. Fields said âCalifornia is the only place in the world where you can freeze to death under a rose bush in full bloom.â Pleasant Hell describes that process. Whenever something particularly horrible or painful happened, it was always warm and sunny and nice. It was like drowning very slowly at a resort beach. Q: How would you respond to readers who say âYou canât say those things, theyâre too gross!â A: If youâre trying to tell your life and it doesnât get gross at times, youâre lying and by lying youâre cheating the reader and making it less funny, less intense and less interesting. Q: Why is your novel relevant now, three decades after the hippie erat A: The bookâs about being pulled apart by several different mental worlds that are in competition with each other, meanwhile ignoring the flat facts in front of you. Itâs about cowardice, inaction, and defeat without a twist or a happy ending. I think thatâs how 90%, more like 97% of people actually live right now. There are a lot more people like that around now than there were then. I was simply ahead of my time, in a very bad way. Q: Some people compare your work to that of Houllebecq; do you agree A: I admire Houllebecq. In fact, Iâm a very unfashionable American because I think that the French tradition is braver and smarter than the Anglo-American. Rousseau said at the beginning of his autobiography that he would have no imitators because no one else had the guts. Well, I gave it a try. Q: Tell me about your writing process. A: All the things I want to write never appear in literature. I had to re-create them as precisely as I could, and thatâs what Iâm trying for, to be precise, to be accurate. Nobody Iâve read gets at what real conversations in California English were likeâthe left-out predicate thatâs meant to be filled in by the other participant, the endless re-affirmations, the complete agreement, and lack of any content at all. I started out with a vivid, elaborate mental world and complete ignorance of what was around me. Every time I took that mental world into contact with others the results seemed to be a kind of epic slapstickâa harmless little job that ended up with me sliding around on a warehouse floor that was slick with my own blood and broken glass. All I tried to do in this book was to write down the incredibly grotesque comedy that actually happened to me as I stumbled into the world. Q: You started out as a poet, winning the Berkeley Poetry Prize in 1988. How did writing a novel differ from writing poetryr A: I think I drew more on stories I told to friends. Poetry teaches you to look carefully at things and describe them accurately. Plot is something you learn telling your friends everything that went wrong, trying to keep them amused so theyâll listen to your stories of woe. Q: How would you have done things differently if you had the chance to do adolescence againa What advice would you give to the protagoniste A: I would have hit a lot more people in the face. Underline that phrase. A lot. Excerpt from Pleasant Hell, pp.137-38 You know, you get these Portrait of the Artist things where some dedicated literary apprentice decides to abandon the immanent for the imaginary world. I don't get that. They must be insane. Or more likely just lying. You'd have to be stupid, I mean stupid even by my standards, to prefer stories to bodies. I would've burned every book ever printed for the chance to be admitted to a life in the body. Hell, I'd do it now. No, I'm serious; just get me a pitchfork and a five-gallon can of gas, and I'll toss the entire catalogue of Penguin Classics in a mound, and soak'em down with premium unleaded--nothing but the best for the likes of Voltaire, Dickens, Chekhov, all our wise sad witty dead--then take a big Olympic torch from the hands of a fat, puffing science fiction nerd who's carried it from our anti-Athens, the cookie aisle of the Pleasant Hill Safeway, and fling it onto the pyre. I'll do it on-camera, right now, for nothing. With pleasure.