How Bad Can It Be?: Joe Pernice, “It Feels So Good When I Stop”

Written by Book Reviews, Books, How Bad Can It Be?

Indie rock royalty Joe Pernice has released his debut novel, and the first thing Jack Feerick wants to know is — you guessed it — How Bad Can It Be?

“I haven’t got much time,” Yancey tells me.

My head jerks so hard that the pencil falls out from behind my ear. “Jesus Fuck,” I splutter. “You’re fucking dying? Fuck, Yancey — ”

“Naaah,” she says. “I just haven’t got time. You know, for the book. Good thing it’s a quick read.”

She smirks. Last thing I need is Yancey giving me a hard time. But she’s a fictional character I created to act as an interlocutor for my review of Joe Pernice’s debut novel It Feels So Good When I Stop, so there’s not much I can do about it.


I start thinking about the day I finished It Feels So Good. It was a Saturday, muggy. The ceiling fan barely stirred the air. I was sprawled on the couch, and Elliott Smith was on the stereo. A bootleg. Something really obscure. Cassandra was in the kitchen, barefoot, cooking a pot of chili. She was wearing panties and a wifebeater with nothing underneath. There was a damp spot on the small of her back. She was chopping up two chipotle chilies; she liked it hot. If you know what I mean.

I closed the book and tried to imagine what Joe Pernice looked like. I’d heard of his musical projects, the Scud Mountain Boys and the Pernice Brothers, but I really only knew him from his novella Meat Is Murder. I’d liked that one, because of the way that it was about the record without actually being about the record. I wondered what his own music was like. His credentials as a listener were pretty impeccable. I set the book aside, then picked up my acoustic guitar and played a non-ironic cover of “Crazy Horses,” which reveals something fundamental about my character.

Cassandra brought me a bowl of chili and set it on the coffee table. She didn’t say anything, just smiled. Two hours previous, I’d had my tongue up her ass. The chili was chunky with beef and beans, and the white drifts of sour cream and cheddar were like the crests of waves breaking on a blood-red sea. This fucking chili was gorgeous. Pretty, even.

“Pretty fucking chilly” is also a fair description of It Feels So Good’s atmosphere. It’s set on Cape Cod, as autumn turns to winter, and it captures the bleakness of a tourist trap in the off-season, when there are no visitors to impress and the true emptiness of the place becomes oppressive. The time is the early 1990s. The unnamed narrator, after impulsively marrying his girlfriend, freaking out on his wedding night, and fleeing New York, ends up in an empty house owned by his erstwhile brother-in-law. He spends the rest of the book nominally trying to “get [his] shit in a pile” but effectively having a slow-motion breakdown, revisiting places he remembers from his childhood, reflecting on the missteps and fuck-ups that have brought him to his predicament; underemployment in a shitty college town, a half-assed musical career, periodic stabs at academia and responsibility. Mostly, though, he drifts, just letting things happen to him and hoping vainly for the best, maddeningly passive. He hasn’t even got the balls to be properly passive-aggressive; he’s Bartleby, minus the tragedy.

“You ever read this?” I call to Yancey. She’s getting dressed before we head out to the Smog show, and I’m passing the time by looking over her bookshelves. Lots of leftover college textbooks and anthologies that no human being ever read for fun. There’s a volume of Melville in my hand, one I’ve never heard of, called The Piazza Tales.

She pokes her head around the corner and squints at the book title. She shakes her head. “I liked the one with the big fish,” she says. Her hair is still wet. “It’s the queerest book ever.”

“Get the fuck out.”

“Come on. Big white Dick bobbing out of the ocean, sperm everywhere, guys sharing beds. It’s a gay wet dream. And that’s a lot of seamen.” She shrugged. “What’s that one about?”

“Dunno,” I say. “It sounds like a cookbook for dyslexics.”

“And that,” says Yancey, “is how you do a fucking allusion.”

She turns away. I never know why she does shit like that. It’s because she’s a girl, I guess; and who the fuck can figure them out?

I start thinking about this time I was having sex with somebody. Yancey, maybe. Or Cassandra. It’s hard to tell. I was drinking heavily at the time, and also I seem to have become unstuck in time.

One time my band opened for Pigeonhed in this shitty little dive somewhere and afterwards Steve Fisk bought us beers and we talked about the music business. In my memory, Sweet Billy Pilgrim was on the jukebox, but that can’t be right. Wait, here’s a 2,000-word extract from my diary covering the event:

“Do you think it’s disingenuous for an author to have his characters pretend ignorance of something even as he flaunts his own knowledge of it?” Cassandra asked.

We were in the bathroom. She was shaving her legs in the tub and I was on the shitter reading the Phoenix. “Holy crap,” I said. “Foghat is touring again.”

“It bugs the shit out of me,” she said. “Like, if you’ve got a character who thinks she’s an avant-garde filmmaker, and she’s shooting with a Fisher-Price PixelVision camera. And you’re waiting for the Sadie Benning namedrop, and it never comes.”

“I have got to get tickets for this,” I said. Cassandra was still talking. About something, I don’t know.

“And this is in a book that has some kind of name-dropping on every fucking page,” she said. “That’s bullshit. That’s like, your lead character does giant paintings of Marilyn Monroe, and somehow Andy Warhol’s name never comes up once.”

I reached for the toilet paper. What the fuck does disingenuous mean, anyway? “You know,” I said, “I think I’m gonna blow off your birthday party that we planned, with your boss and your rich parents — the one where you were going to announce your promotion and your pregnancy. I’m just gonna go to the Foghat show with Eddie, instead.”

She leaned out of the tub and reached over between my legs. “Marry me,” she said. Girls. Who can figure them?

Yancey and I are sitting in her pickup truck, which she drives because she is a salt-of-the-earth working-class person. Prince is on the radio, singing “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” The truck is rolling down a dead-end street. Yancey lights two cigarettes at once and smokes them both down to a nub in a single drag.

“Why the fuck are we listening to Prince, anyway?” I say.

Yancey shrugs. “Guy’s a fucking recluse, right? Never leaves his studio except to tour? So the odds are good he’s not gonna come traipsing down here and give us a five-page cameo.”

Her voice is throaty and her accent is strong. She talks like a plumber. A hot, messed-up, drunk plumber.

The truck is rolling faster. The road is uneven. “Would it explain anything if he did?” I say.

She shrugs again. She’s not holding onto the wheel. “I mean, 1999 came and went, and the world didn’t end. It was kinda disappointing.”

“All that apocalyptic dread, and nothing to show for it,” I say. The truck is lurching now, and I feel sick.

“And no more excuses, either,” she laughs. “You fuck up, you fail at being a grow-up, you try being a kid again and fail at that — after a while you’re counting on the world to end. And then it doesn’t, and where are you?”

The trees are a blur. My head is pounding. “Are we still talking about the same thing?” I ask.

And then the truck stops. Doesn’t end. Stops.

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