Mike Magnuson: Lummox


It was only natural to expect that Limp Bizkit and Staind would find their literary counterparts: ordinary, sometimes-decent white guys graced with greater (we hope) or lesser (we fear) degrees of irony, who realize that the world has stopped doing them favors. With Ben Hamper's Rivethead as mook-lit's founding text, and Chuck Klosterman's Fargo Rock City as a recent high point, such books share a rust-belt setting, in which bad jobs are the best thing on offer; a rueful can-you-believe-this? tone; copious substance abuse that may not be conquered; and love as a long stumble more than an easy salvation.

The surprise is how generous and moving this genre can be. In narrating his lurches toward self-improvement, Mike Magnuson doesn't endow himself with a heart of gold. A novelist and creative-writing prof, Magnuson was a chunky smart-ass who dropped out of college ("the poor misunderstood fat boy--this has been Mike's general theme"), returned to his parents' home in suburban Milwaukee, and decided to be a rock star. He pursued this dream by moving his drum kit into an abandoned elementary-school building (his father, superintendent of schools, hooked him up), punching tin eight hours a day, and drinking a lot. Described in the third person and the present tense, "Mike" is a fumbler with generally worthwhile intentions and simple needs (more sex than he is having, sufficient weed to get a good buzz on). These habits suffice for the time being--until an underage girl at one party gets him exiled to Eau Claire.

There he really blossoms: After working in a group home for teenagers--where he must, among other tasks, break up a fight in a bowling alley--Mike discovers Proust, lives in a lesbian commune, and eventually returns to college, where he becomes an English major. (His epiphany comes, naturally, when he discovers an obscure volume of short stories while stuck in the drunk tank for the weekend. He was nabbed for carrying most of the way home a giant orange hand-shaped chair he discovered in a parking lot, then giving his name as "Bart Starr" to the investigating officer.) Still, he's no prince. "Something inexplicably male is wrong with him," which in a practical sense means that he's given to Butt-head-style repartee with the ladies and that he's liable to spend too many nights at the bar.

But even as a 275-pound white female blues singer gives him a wedgie, Magnuson preserves a weary dignity; his jazzily knowing prose is scrupulously honest about his stupidities. Without straining, Magnuson apologizes for his mistakes and finds meaning in the grimiest and most aimless of lives--most of all, his own.

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