Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2007.
Bald Ego, Volume 1, Issue 2
Editors: Max Blagg and Glenn O'Brien
(New York: Bald Ego Publishing, 2006).
In reading a literary magazine that is devoted particularly to short stores, such as the one under review, the new issue of Bald Ego, it may be useful to go against the tendency of simply rating the included pieces, and try, instead, to imagine what Ur-text the editors, in this case, Max Blagg and Glenn O'Brien, had in the back of their minds in creating the volume.
By Ur-text I mean the shadow pattern, consisting of plot, characters, milieu and tone, which is instituted or obliquely referenced by most of the selections and gives a suggestion of the complexion of the editorial mind set.
I deduce the Ur-text of Bald Ego to be something like this: A high-living low-life, who is usually in some exotic locale (Vietnam, Belize, a Parisian dive frequented by discharged mercenaries) and is engaged in some questionable activity (spying on gun runners, buying drugs, imagining birds are talking to him), encounters an unexpected, dramatic event (an attempted suicide, a kidnapping by a rickshaw driver, or getting his dick strangled by a viselike, stuck cock ring!), which ends, surprisingly enough, with the hero unscathed.
Not every single piece in the book has this pattern. Some such as Mary Gaitskill's piercing description of a little magazine editor's cogitations during a "spinning" workout at the gym, in which the author deftly handles. existential retro-themes of irony and authenticity in a more philosophical than strictly literary manner, are not true to the Ur-text at all.
Others, such as Nick Tosches' "A Work in Progress," follow the general plan -- his exotic locale is podunk small-town America -- but departs to some degree, particularly by centering on a character who is a real hood rather than part of the slumming middle class. This character does share the cut-loose solipsism of most of the other stories' protagonists, confining his relations to others mainly to fantasy while he reserves his primary affection for drugs. Tosches' treatment of this in his tour-de-force is at times humorous, at others, unnerving.
All in all, though, the best work on display tends to be Ur. In O'Brien's "Ed and Eddie," a fashion shoot in (exotic) Amalfi where the addled models pose precaroiusly on a cliff face unreels with an acerbic portrait of the posturing, secret passions and secreted bile of the empyrean realm of glamour.
In perhaps the funniest piece included, "Saigon" by Alan Platt, the hero averts his own kidnapping through a series of out-of-whack, wacky hijinks. While capturing the mind of a drunken tourist on a spree, the piece also gives a diverting, captivating portrait of Saigon night- and street life. He depicts the Vietnamese women's typical dress, for instance, in this passage:
The ao yai hugs every tiny curve like spray-paint as if falls to the floor in two long panels, one in the front, one at the back. As she climbs onto her bicycle, the delicate figure drapes the front panel over her tiny wrist like a bridesmaid climbing a stair. And she rides along, nipping in and out of the traffic, the back panel billows out behind her, tucked under her bite-size bottom.
Gary Indiana is also masterful at giving a sense of place, describing a shady circle of entreprenurial death merchants in Paris, though unlike most of Ur-text entries, his work is more fastidious in dovetailing character and environment with a telling, insightful portrayal of his lead, a war reporter who has lost his nerve.
And we can't forget the most outrageous piece of all, Blagg's "Nose Ring for a Bull," that of the tourniqueted cock. This story mixes a vivid picture of the NYC club demimonde, circa the later 1970s, with a blood-red and violet colored portrait of miscreants in love. It all ends happily with the hero, swollen dick in hand, racing to the emergency room. It's self destruction with zing.
(Before closing, I should say the book includes a veritable picture gallery of flashy, edgy, witty and/or naughty art interlaced through the stories as if the journal were stuffed with French postcards.)
Our final point is that the Ur-text the editors have selected is a productive one, judging by the outlandish, outlaw results: a fandango of literary lucky horseshoes.