Columns > Published on June 2nd, 2023

My Body is Ready for Craig Clevenger's "Mother Howl"

Cover image: craigclevenger.com

Let me take you back to the mid-2000’s, and instead of giving you some cultural references to the time, I just want to say I was SO hot back then. Like, really, I peaked early. If you take nothing else away from this: Peter Derk was a catch in the mid 2000’s, and you missed out.

Fight Club was out on DVD, which meant I could pause the movie during the end credits, when it said, “Based on the novel by Chuck Palwhalichauiniuuuk.” [spelled here as I remember reading it in the theater]

After some internetting (before the days when Google was like, “You’re in your early 20s, just saw a movie, and are typing Chuck Pal- into a search box, I think I know where this is headed”) I got ahold of some of Chuck Palahniuk’s books.

Me and my friends passed them around. Some of the dopier ones decided to burn their hands with lye. Some of the meatheads decided to try out punching each other.

I kept looking for more books that felt a little like Fight Club.

And I found them.

Then to Now

The kind of writing I wanted traces back to some writers who’d been around for a bit and hadn’t gotten their due: Amy Hempel, Tom Spanbauer, Raymond Carver, and a handful of other folks, most of whom studied under Gordon Lish.

I’d call this the biggest literary movement of my lifetime.

I read them all, loved them all, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted.

There was a sort of literary brat pack, people often recommended alongside Palahniuk. Bret Easton Ellis, Jay Mcinerney, Irvine Welsh, Tama Janowitz, Jill Eisenstadt. They were photographed eating fancy dinners, attending movie premieres, hanging out with Andy Warhol. They made more money writing short essays for fancy magazines than I made in a year—they were that cool.

There was another crowd that felt more literary in a classic way. Larry Brown, Thom Jones, Katherine Dunn, Lydia Davis, Deborah Eisenberg, Robert Olmstead. Now we’re getting warmer.

Then, I found what I was looking for: Will Christopher Baer, Dennis Cooper, Douglas Coupland, Stephen Graham Jones, and Craig Clevenger.

And I’d distill that down to the three biggies, for me: Chuck, Will, and Craig.

Looking back, without knowing WHAT to call this group, I’d still call this the biggest literary movement of my lifetime. And Craig Clevenger might be its greatest practitioner.

"The Contortionist’s Handbook"

Analyses of Clevenger’s books will talk about minimalism and transgression and so on, and all of that is true, all of that holds.

But I don’t think those are the qualities that made his books really, truly excellent.

Let’s talk about The Contortionist’s Handbook and what makes it work. I just re-read it to get ready for Mother Howl, and let me tell you, it holds up. It's always a bit of a dice roll to revisit a book you adored in your 20s, but this one works.

In very brief: The Contortionist’s Handbook follows a character named John. Or maybe Steven. Maybe Daniel. Or Eric.

It’s tricky. We’ll call him John.

John is trapped. He overdosed, for complicated reasons, woke up in a hospital, and now he’s being evaluated so that the county can figure out whether he’s a danger to himself or others, or whether the overdose was truly an accident and he can go free.

John is an expert at hiding things, like the extra ring finger on his left hand, which is good, because if he wants to remain a free man, he’s got a lot to hide in the course of this interview. If he can stay a few steps ahead of the person doing the interview, he might just get away. If he can’t, if he slips up in the slightest, his life, all of his many carefully constructed lives, tumble down.

The Contortionist’s Handbook is dark and slimy, but it’s also energetic. It’s scary and shocking in ways, but in ways that keep you hooked rather than repelling you.

It feels like the walls are closing in on your character, but he’s not giving up. He’s not in a Hubert Selby Jr. novel where it feels right for characters to lay down and die. He’s not in a Cormac McCarthy book where he feels anachronistic, like a person who could never really exist.

The book pulls off the perfect sleight-of-hand trick: it’s deep and thoughtful, but the energy is that of a manic thriller that won't stop to let you catch a breath.

"Dermaphoria"

2005's Dermaphoria, Clevenger's second novel, is the next book I read to prep for Mother Howl. It's fantastic. I didn't appreciate it as much as The Contortionist's Handbook at the time, but, hey, I also didn't watch NBC's The Office when it aired for the first time that same year, so there's no accounting for (my own) taste.

It’s a little bit of a tough book to talk about without spoiling, but the basic premise: this dude, Eric, comes to his senses in the middle of being interrogated by police. He doesn’t know what happened or why he’s there, doesn’t even really remember who he is.

Through bouts of using a new street drug, Eric regains his memories piece by piece, but can he remember enough before it’s too late and he's stuck in prison, or before his tolerance for the drug gets so high that it'll take a lethal dose to regain any more memories?

Dermaphoria is an incredible feat, and the best part is that the writing is descriptive and tight while also telling an actual story.

This was an era when a lot of folks wrote literary things that didn’t give you much of a story. There was ennui, there was midlife crisis all over the place. But there wasn’t a whole lot of ticking clock, there wasn’t a whole lot of plot.

Craig Clevenger gives us something with depth, and he's not afraid to mash down the gas pedal for the duration.

Why "Mother Howl" Is So Exciting

Mother Howl is on the list of books that I DESPERATELY wanted to see come out for almost a decade now.

In 2017, I wrote a column chronicling Paul Neilan’s unpublished story about soiling a pair of underwear and mailing them home to his parents (long story), and I mentioned two other books that I hoped would see print: Will Christopher Baer’s Godspeed and Craig Clevenger’s Mother Howl.

The other two never seemed as close to hitting the shelves as Mother Howl.

In 2011, Clevenger was 90% finished with Mother Howl. 

In 2013, we got a tweet that showed a stack of printed pages, labeled "Mother Howl," with the simple caption: Finished. 

In 2018, we saw a signed contract with a French publisher for Mother Howl. I don't want to say it's for sure America's most shameful day, but it just had to be the French, didn't it?

And now, it’s finally happening. It’s coming. There’s a cover, there are links to buy it. This is real life.

Why Clevenger Hasn’t Gotten His Due

It’s hard to say for sure. We can play the “lesser writers with more notoriety” game all day long. There aren’t many writers who DON’T fit that label when it comes to Clevenger.

To a certain extent, it’s about luck. The right book gets to the right people, gets made into the right movie, boom, you’re off.

But with Clevenger, I think there’s something else going on.

The most criminally underrated type of book is the book that is easy to read because the writer put in an ass-busting amount of work.

The most criminally underrated type of book is the book that is easy to read because the writer put in an ass-busting amount of work.

I’ve often come to the defense of authors like Patrick DeWitt or Kevin Wilson on this front. They both write novels that feel breezy, and that causes people to dismiss them as fluff.

If you ask me (and anyone who knows what the fuck they’re talking about) it’s easy to write a novel that feels big and important. What’s harder is writing a great book that’s easy to read.

Clevenger’s books are amazingly easy to read, and I think that’s part of why he doesn’t get his due. A book that’s easy to read and understand in a moment-to-moment action sense, seems uncomplicated to people, gives a reviewer fewer places to go. And people who write overly long book reviews in places like The New York Times love overly complicated books. 1076 pages of David Foster Wallace gives a person an awful lot to write about. A Clevenger book is more of a challenge. You’d have to read it, then go back over it again. You have to look into how it was made, dissect it a bit, think it over while you wash dishes or take the dog out.

Craig’s books make me feel the way I feel when I hold a beautiful, functional piece of technology in my hand: I have to take a little time to appreciate just how perfectly dialed-in the whole thing is, how every little detail is thoughtful and designed just right. The buttons feel right, the sounds are perfect. Everything does what it’s supposed to, and does it much better than it needs to.

But because Clevenger's books feel so natural, so right, you might not even notice how wonderful they are.

Just Buy It Already

The work Clevenger puts into his books is underappreciated, and my one, huge hope is that Mother Howl is what wakes people the fuck up to just how great all of Clevenger’s books are.

Do everyone a favor: Buy Mother Howl right now.

Preorders count as week one sales, and the best chance for an author to hit bestseller lists and make a splash is going to be in that first week.

Plus, if a bookstore or outlet is getting a lot of preorders for something, it’s algorithm is more likely to recommend that same book to more people.

I know it’s kind of weird to put in preorders, it feels like you’re making a choice for the far future, and, like, I want to read something now!

With Clevenger, it’s not a preorder, it’s an investment in your reading future. One that’ll pay off, for sure.


Get Mother Howl at Bookshop or Amazon

Get The Contortionist's Handbook at Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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