Thursday, July 13, 2006

America's Report Card

When John McNally, wrote to me several months ago that he was going to give me a copy of his new book America's Report Card, I ignored it as if it were a venereal disease: it's not real until the scabs appeared. I didn't think he was actually going to send me the book.

As you long time readers know, I don't write very good reviews. I tell people that I like it or I hate it, period. I'm not one for unearthing the hidden meaning of art or delving into the mind of the artist. That's for people who have a spatula instead of a personality.

However, what I am good at is the celebrity interview. I've done so, so many. This time I tried to get John to reveal more intimate facts about himself. Even if you've never read anything John McNally has written, you'll laugh (or cry) at his responses to my irreverent questions.

No Milk: When you said that you were going to send me a copy of your new book after it was published, I thought you were full of shit. I was going to send you a laxative, but I didn't know your address. But the book actually appeared on my doorstep.

I was in the middle of reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Chuck Palahniuk's Invisible Monsters. Invisible Monsters was my bathroom read, I need literature to help pass the time while I take my long craps. Your book was going to be the book I read in the car while I was stuck in traffic, propped against the steering wheel. I almost got into an accident because I so absorbed in it, it blew away both other books. I even took an extra long crap so I can finish the last chapter. You must be proud of this novel. But if you had to save only one of your books from a burning house, which one would you save?

John McNally: If you mean which of the books I’ve written I would save, I would probably say none. I tend to hate everything I’ve written by the time it’s published. Instead, I would save Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road. But if I could replace the medium, I would actually save all of the seasons of Deadwood on DVD. I’m writing an essay for a magazine about why Deadwood is the best mass entertainment since Dickens. So, there you have it. I’d run into the burning house, run past my own books, and snag all of Deadwood. I should say here that the mobile home my family lived in when I was three years old burned down in the middle of the night, and while I was watching from inside the trailer next door, I saw what my father threw out the front door as the highest priorities to save: a rug cleaner; an answering machine (this was a Code-a-Phone, circa 1968), and a birdcage with our pet bird inside. And that was pretty much all we ended up with. My pet turtle, which I had bought the week before at Goldblatt’s, perished.

NM: I must admit I had some trepidation when I heard your book was going to be called America's Report Card, I have such an aversion to politically themed books. I hate things that tax my wallet, and I hate books that tax my intellect. Interestingly, your book drew me into the characters and their lives while implanting me with political rhetoric. What came first, the chicken or the politics?

JM: The chicken. The book began as an essay about my crappy job of scoring standardized tests, and how corrupt I thought the whole enterprise was. The essay didn’t work, so several years later I pulled out my shoebox full of notes and tried writing it as a novel. The novel didn’t work, either. But then came Election Year 2004. I was growing more and more pissed off every time I saw Bush on TV, and so I went back and wondered what it would be like to try writing the novel in the very moment that I was living, letting whatever was on the news filter into the story and letting my own anger fuel the writing of the book. Once I figured out that I would end the book on Election Day, I had a structure for the book, and the rest of the elements all fell into place. The last thing I wanted to do was write a politically-themed book, but I managed to find a roundabout way to write one.

NM: You mention Duke’s Italian Beef in this novel, as you did in The Book of Ralph. Let me tell you, the Italian Beef sandwich is probably the one food that exemplifies Chicago for me, more than the Deep Dish Pizza or the Chicago-style Hot Dog. There should be a fanfare of trumpets or a chorus of angels whenever it is served.

I'm from the Philippines and closest we have to something as iconic as an Italian Beef sandwich is balut, which is boiled duck embryo, still in its shell. There is no fanfare or chorus when you eat it, just the imaginary high-pitched scream/quack of a tiny, featherless duckling stewed in its own amniotic fluid.

This is the way I like my Italian Beef: on a warm, flaky bun with hot peppers and a side of the "juice" or gravy, which I will dip my sandwich in before each bite. Sometimes, in my haste, parts of the waxy paper they use to wrap the sandwich end up in my mouth. I will also throw a few fries at a time in the gravy to soak and cram into my mouth before they get soggy. I arm myself with a three-inch stack of napkins to deal with the inevitable mess of eating this delicious meal. Why does Duke's have such a hold on you? And have you ever had balut?

JM: I have never had balut, but I'm game for anything stewed in its own amniotic fluid. Sounds wonderful. As for Duke's, it's the beef sandwich place of my youth, so it's not just tasty Italian beef that lures me in, it's the nostalgia I have for the building itself, it's the melancholy that overcomes me when I step inside. I weep each time I visit Duke's. It's that frickin' emotional for me.

You and I both know that when you order food outside of Chicago that bills itself "Chicago style" that it isn't really "Chicago style." It's just crappy food with some marketing savvy slapped on it. I got married in Iowa City, where their idea of an Italian sausage sandwich is to grill the sausage like a hamburger patty and serve it on a bun. What the fuck is that? The day after my wife and I got hitched, we threw a party, and so I had a friend from Chicago cater Italian beef and Italian sausage. There are several photos of me explaining the proper way to eat the sandwiches. Our guests were virgins when it came to this shit. They were trying not to get the bun wet with beef sandwich juice. My mother-in-law actually wanted to toast her bun in our oven because she mistook the bun’s durability for it being stale. I almost kicked her out of the house. What these people didn’t understand is that a good Italian beef sandwich is messy. They were acting like I was serving deli sandwiches.

NM: I am a very important blogger, my blog is read by my twin brother, my boyfriend and his mother. They can mean the difference between the discount bin and a runaway hit novel, which believe it or not, is a very slim divide, especially for my boyfriend's mother; she's never paid full price for a book ever. This past 4th of July, after dinner, she took our styrofoam plates and plastic cutlery, rinsed them and put them back in the cupboard. How does it feel to be in the presence of blog royalty?

JM: I am humbled, sir. I quake even as I type this.

CONTINUED: "The angrier the context in which I say Ann Coulter's name, the rauchier things get."


Read my other celebrity interview with John McNally. This is his website and blog

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