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Pleasant Hell
By John Dolan
Capricorn Publishing

Review by Paul Jones

“Comics and comic writers are the most fearless people,” Mark Ames was telling me during a recent interview for his own book, Going Postal.

“Dolan!” I shouted. I just blurted it out, like a Tourette’s sufferer.

“Exactly,” Ames said.

Normally, that sort of impertinence—invoking the name of an author to bolster another’s point—might merit a stomping. I half expected one. But Ames, a protégé and colleague of John Dolan’s, understood. He had himself written, not long ago, “Dolan is the most talented comic writer in the English language, hands-down.” You could dismiss this as mere eXile comradeliness, unless you’ve read Dolan’s work.

I used to tell myself that if I ever scammed my way into print, I would never mention my heroes. I didn’t want to accuse them of inspiring me. I wrote to John Dolan once. I was too embarrassed—trepid, really—to use my real name, to suggest anything about my identity. I even indemnified myself with an antithetic, ethnic pseudonym. If Dr. Dolan found my prose execrable, my meager “jests” unfunny, I had hoped he would blame it on third world misfortune. On Anything but my flawed mind. Maybe it worked too well. He was very gracious in his reply, even offering me advice about my aspirations to write. (Pointers I’m too obtuse to follow.) Reading his letter, I felt vaguely like the whinging dullard who harassed Rilke.

In many ways, I’m the worst person to write this review. I revere and fear John Dolan. Those are bad qualities in any person, but they’re nearly unforgivable in a reviewer. Therefore, I’m going to hyperextend the delicate tendons of copyright and let Dolan write for himself.

Pleasant Hell opens in New Zealand, with “the war”: “water…paved with squid, a Sargasso Sea of animate sashimi squirting DNA around in little clouds of egg and sperm…This has been going on for—oh, roughly speaking, ‘forever.’ And nobody films it. Nobody notices it at all…” Back on land, New Zealand—and expatriate university professor Dolan—is beset by a “loony Creationist who goes by the valorous pen-name ‘Canny Scot’ [and who] asks how we can fail to see the evidence of God’s plan in ‘the world of Nature all around us.’”

The author, a virtuoso of torture fantasies, imagines a simple, brutal curriculum of reprogramming for this pious, hermeneutic landlubber—what we Americans are cravenly referring to as an “extraordinary rendition” these days:

“I say tie him to the light rigs of one of the squid boats…Keep him out there all night, while the sullen Koreans try to process the billions of mindless, eager squid squirting around under the lights, trying to crowd into the nets…Let him look down into that writhing, pulsing water and see in it God’s divine plan for this antipodean Alcatraz. Let him see how much we matter in the grand scheme.”

It’s only fair “Canny Scot” should pay steeply for this education. As an Irish Catholic, Dolan is well acquainted with suffering and the myths of glorious death, which comes only after untold suffering. And advances nothing. Dolan himself has paid with a lifetime of searing humiliation, which he records unsparingly. Obloquy may not seem such an awful fate, until you consider he grew up in 1970s California: being uncool was possibly the only mortal sin. Dolan was so uncool, he cooked in his own ample body fat. Worse, there’s no solace to be had in the knowledge this is pure fiction. As Dolan told an interviewer with New Zealand’s Critic (, “it all happened.”

He shows almost no mercy in the retelling, least of all for himself, although he explicitly declines to write about his parents. This filial obligation, another mark of his Irish notion of honor, is remarkable for an era in which memoirists and authorial celebrities—the very people Dolan methodically and hilariously savages as a reviewer for Moscow’s eXile—are praised for exploiting any relationship for tears and profit.

Dolan is indeed an anachronism, a devotee of Tolkien with doomed notions of chivalry—like one of Iraq’s WWII-era batteries trying to take down a stealth bomber. As a student at Pleasant Hill High, he tries to woo the school’s most popular and most beautiful girl, Leigh Akers, with a clumsily antiquated entreaty. The note is composed with “an interesting technique combining touches of medieval illuminated manuscript with the graphics of Yellow Submarine.” Of course, the note is intercepted and read aloud “falsetto” for the entire class’s amusement by one of the alpha males. “Willt [sic] thou meet me by the stream ere the sun touches the western pines?” Dolan opines about his own effort: “Pretty sic.”

As enamored as Dolan is with mythology, he cannot abide the hippie fable of “peace and love.” Leigh eventually falls for “a scrawny hippie, shorter than she was, named ‘Jacques’” who “spoke California English with the mean nasal monotone of the born cool.” He’s “the perfect male of the Peace and Love era, nothing but bones and passive meanness, 120 pounds of ice with long hair on top.” Jacques later boasts to friends about Leigh’s post-coital profession of love, to which he responds, “‘Hey, that’s your trip.’”

“And I was the monster?” Dolan writes. “[T]here I was, dreaming of the slave markets every night, firing from the lap nine or ten times before I could sleep, convinced that I was the monster, the sadist, the bad person the cops would take away!—while the normal, cool people like Jacques were leaving floods of pain behind them, smashing pre-Raphaelite faces left and right, a trail of blood with bare footprints and bell-bottom scuff marks…peace signs smeared in blood over the walls of Leigh’s bedroom…the last of the happy hunting grounds for any male who had a cold enough heart.”

Being excluded from the “male slaughters of the sixties [and] Woodstock, the stylized rape that passed for sex among the peace and love people,” didn’t make Dolan any wiser. Dolan, the Irish Catholic fantasist, is dense and this is merely the beginning of a protracted apostasy for this natural born martyr. He’s “Aztec-level, Mormon-level dumb!” As a Berkeley student, “he swallowed all the lies of the Steinem era and didn’t even hiccup.” For John, a very naive, very stupid fellow, it makes sense men and women are no longer mating, because he isn’t. “I walked around that campus attracting no more attention than a Snickers wrapper” and “[l]ike everyone else who has no pleasure, I took pride.”

He compensates for his loneliness by poring over Armed Forces Journal, Aviation Week & Space Technology and Proceedings of the Institute of Naval Warfare, in the library basement. He was one of the “Waffen-Twerpen.” If you’re a faithful eXile reader, you’d have to be as dense as young John Dolan not to realize you’re reading about the birth of “Gary Brecher,” nome de guerre of the famed “War Nerd.” He was one of the people “who had nothing but the pictures of the new weapons [and] distractedly ate entire boxes of Oreos, with a big bottle of coke to wash them down, cookie crumbs floating on the backwash fizz. And got fatter without even tasting what we gulped.”

War, a metaphor routinely flogged and debased in American offices and football stadiums, is employed extensively in Pleasant Hell. It’s not at all paradoxical that this repetition restores the trope to its proper glory. It’s pure skill, the keenness of historical proportion and the comedic muscle to distort it. Of a student informer who has reported to Professor Dolan about a symbolic treachery committed against the teacher by his pupils he writes: “He thinks he’s in some Jacobite conspiracy, whispering secret intelligence to Bonnie Prince Charles i.e. Bonnie Prince Me…I bet he believes he would’ve done well at Agincourt…well, so would I, little fool!” He laments that “we don’t get Agincourt anymore, kid, we get this: this career anxiety, this unlovely terror at the podium, this humming voodoo-death-ray generated by 700 crazed adolescents.”

Then, in a bold reconsideration, he concludes, “the knights were wimps. The arrow-cloud at Agincourt was nothing…Let’s see the flower of French chivalry do two Agincourts in one day!”

Still, like any loser, John abhors weakness, detests his own reflection. He’s partnered, during his shifts as a night watchman in a truck yard, with an anti-human German shepherd named Max. John worships creatures at the zoo, and especially the aquarium—his real temple—but Max, having been abused in preparation for his duty, is unreachable. Naturally, he reserves his real contempt for the owner of the security company. The “hobbit-man,” showing Dolan the kennel for the first time, stops in front of a female shepherd’s cage. “‘That’s Kenya’, he said and put his hand to the wire…They seemed to have some sort of history. I could tell; I’d had all that practice surveilling romance in Berkeley…I wondered if [the hobbit man’s] cruiserweight girlfriend back at the garden cottage knew about him and Kenya.”

Eventually, Dolan meets an old Pleasant Hill classmate at Berkeley—one of the beautiful girls, the “Ophelias”—but it isn’t love. Instead, he’s the unwitting male curiosity in her lesbian experiment. He’s as abstract and expendable to her as a lab rat. Fortunately for readers and his fans, Dolan the author, having been whipped into percipience, extracts retribution in his inimitable way. As he told New Zealand’s Critic in a 2003 article, “I can hate with the best of them. I can still hate. That’s the last to go.”

Some of Dolan’s best writing in Pleasant Hell occurs when assumes the swagger of Ignatius J. Reilly, scoffing at diversions of the modern ignobility. He calls Snickers the “candy bar of fools” and Baby Ruth the “lowest taste of all, peanut glop for atavistic Eastern Seaboard scum.” He does not share the rabble’s affinity for the zoo’s contemptible chimp either. “Nasty little face: grizzled beard on huge sullen lips. All head and arms, tiny legs, hairy dick and balls, big raw rump which he showed us from time to time…He was putting on a sex show…The crowd around the fence loved it…he wants to throw shit at us, but he’s learned over the years that it only delights us.”

One review I read a while ago decried Pleasant Hell’s “nihilism,” a willfully negligent misreading even by internet standards. When Joanne, John’s Pleasant Hill classmate, shows the college-aged Dolan a photo album of popular people from the high school days, he thinks, “I could have swallowed the whole binder, eaten it like a laminated remedial communion host. So much life!” “And yet,” he observes, “most of it seemed to mean nothing to Joanne.” In Pleasant Hell, Dolan commits himself again and again to stripping away the choking debris of lies in human existence and extracting for posterity its glorious core.

This is the price of truth, a ludicrous verdict for a brave, painful and riotously funny book that also features some achingly beautiful writing: driving across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco; the plight of the Tasmanians; Leigh Akers’ face; the death of Greenland’s last musk ox herd; and his description of a female breast—I almost felt like I’d seen a real one, or might one day. As he puts it, “I always feel like it’s you who don’t believe in anything, who insist on everything being small and mean and smog-beige. Those Raymond Carver stories you made me read at Berkeley—that’s what I think of as the enemy of life, those anthologized proofs that the world is ugly, tinny-tiny, bored, beneath contempt.” Or perhaps it’s just because he’s smart enough not to commit any of the errors he delights in exposing as a critic: no tumid prose, no absurd profundities. Just life and truth.

Is it any wonder he now resides in New Zealand, that he has vowed never to return to the US? John Dolan is a martyr who has suffered for our transgressions, an American “Soviet child, raised on public lies and no wiser at 18 than at eight.” For him, “To get over anything is a sin.” The least we can do for him/this high priest of hate—and for ourselves—is read his book.

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