Pleasant Hell by John Dolan

If John Dolan and I were to ever meet, I’m pretty sure that we would not get along. He would see me as an obnoxious reactionary jerk; I would see him as a sniveling, defeatist dweeb.

Nonetheless, Dolan is probably the closest thing I have to a personal hero.

John Dolan is best known for the War Nerd columns he writes under his Gary Brecher pseudonym, the fat, disgruntled data entry clerk from Fresno. And while I love the War Nerd as much as every other marginalized ex-dork, I was also a fan of Dolan’s Exile book reviews. It was through Dolan that I not only discovered many of the authors who influenced my writing—Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Charles Portis, Philip K. Dick and more—but I also learned how to write. Reading his blistering takedowns of talentless hacks like Jonathan Franzen, James Frey and Thomas Friedman, I got a crash course in literary frankness; avoiding bathos, overwriting, and every other bad habit my English professors tried to instill in me.

So what if Dolan is a dick? Does the fact that he’s not the kind of guy I’d like to have a beer with (whatever that means) somehow invalidate his writing talent? That loathsome mentality is why modern literature is complete garbage. Americans, even supposedly progressive ones, read books the way that fundamentalist Christians do: they evaluate them based solely on whether they’re “moral,” damn everything else. This infantile impulse is why a con man like Frey can make millions off of blatantly fake memoirs while Dolan himself is reduced to homelessness. You can even see this moronic debate being played out in the manosphere when some uptight prig starts nattering about Roissy or Roosh or someone else being “moral degenerates,” “evil” or some other self-congratulatory insult.

We of all people should know better.

I’m not brownnosing when I say that Pleasant Hell, Dolan’s debut novel, is the best one of the 21st century so far, or at least in the top three. It’s a defiant middle finger at the pious sewer of American literature, a glorious triumph of comedy and darkness; true darkness, not the mawkish Precious/Oprah idea of darkness. As far as I’m concerned, it’s required reading for everyone in the manosphere, and in a just world would be required reading in universities.

Pleasant Hell is, quite simply, the story of a loser. Not the glamorous Hollywood-type loser, but a real loser, the kind who is too depressing and pathetic to film. The blurb on the book’s cover calls Pleasant HellRevenge of the Nerds, only without the revenge,” but that comparison trivializes Dolan’s achievement. His book follows in the tradition of Céline, that of the alienated, cynical loner struggling against a world that holds him in contempt:

I say tie him to one of the light-rigs of one of the squid boats. Facing down. With his squinty old “canny” eyes tweezed open like the guy in Clockwork Orange. Keep him out there all night, while the sullen Koreans try to process the billions of mindless, eager squid squirting around under the lights, trying to crowd into the nets: “Duh… me first! Me first!” Let him spend the night looking down into that squirming mass of eager, gelid protoplasm sliding and flopping around, gleaming in the million-watt lights… animate jelly so thick you could stroll around the boat on it, bouncing along like kids on those McDonald’s PlayZones filled waist-high with colored ping-pong balls… walking on water, buoyed by several million squid-per-square-foot… bouncing over slurpy tubes all eager to get closer to the nets, avidly fouling the water with milt and eggs, all trying for a ticket into the net.

Like Céline’s novels, Pleasant Hell is essentially a fictionalized autobiography; Dolan didn’t even bother giving his literary surrogate an original name. The book begins in present-day New Zealand, where Dolan has been resigned to teaching illiterate undergrads who despise him so much they’ve formed an anti-Dolan protest movement, complete with T-shirts mocking his balding, pudgy appearance. The book then flashes back to the seventies, Dolan’s origins in the San Francisco suburb of Pleasant Hill, beginning with his omega high school sexual frustrations:

Tip #2: This one goes out to any pubescent goddesses who may be reading: never be nice to nerds if you’re a beautiful girl. A lot of girls die that way, and their parents and siblings and anyone else who happens to be in the house… and the nerd too, last of all, barrel in the mouth, toe on the trigger, the Beloved half out of bed in her room, beautiful golden hair now streaked with viscous dark, blouse clumsily rebuttoned from one shy necrophiliac fondle; her mom sprawled in the kitchen, stopped in her tracks mid-casserole; and her Dad, head dripping onto the back of the sofa where he first raised his head from the paper, annoyed by the noise of the sliding door being jerked open.

If Céline’s influence wasn’t obvious from Pleasant Hell’s premise, the book’s graphic prose drives it home. Dolan describes his travails and failures in sick, lurching detail, leavened with ample humor; many of the book’s segments had me doubled over in laughter. Despite the novel’s grotesque subject matter, Dolan never fishes for sympathy from the reader, nor does he resort to bathos to force a reaction. Hey Frost! Hey PainterAre you paying attention?

Following his teenage torment, Dolan enrolls in U.C. Berkeley, commuting to class on the newly opened BART rather than moving to the dorms, further steeping him in isolation and frustration. Dutiful dweeb that he is, Dolan takes the proclamations of the newly ascendant feminists to heart, becoming a passive doormat, and is rewarded with continued celibacy while the girls run into the arms of the chauvinistic jerks they purported to oppose. He comforts himself by obsessively reading Jane’s reference manuals and war histories in the Berkeley library basement (which he recently admitted formed the basis for his War Nerd columns) and taking karate classes like every other dork, where he manages to turn his gi into a foul-smelling mold factory:

But I went back to the next class. In the same green gi. I couldn’t quit. Sometime, I presumed, they’d have to get past the mystical dancing-stuff and tell you how to really maim people. So I kept going. And nobody mentioned the green gi or the cloud of decay which followed me about. They just gave me a corner of the room all to myself. In this way the spores turned out to be very handy: they actually lessened the social awkwardness I felt. Kept the others at bay. I practiced by myself, even on the two-person drills. “By mutual consent.” So I had learned a sort of martial art in spite of myself: a clumsy, peasant form of chemical warfare, which worked on all the wrong people.

Dolan wallowing in his own filth is one of Pleasant Hell’s most prominent themes. Following this chapter, he takes a job as an overnight security guard at a junkyard in the slummiest part of Oakland, assisted by the guard dog Max, an abused German shepherd with “filthy shit-smeared fur” and a gigantic wart over his eye. All the while, he wears cheap biker boots with the nails punching up into his soles, his feet constantly oozing in a blood-and-pus soup. Near the end of the book, he even develops a bizarre aversion to bathing itself, covering up his stank of sweat and B.O. by smearing his armpits with eucalyptus-scented Vap-O-Rub.

Boy, I can’t see why Oprah won’t be adding Pleasant Hell to her book club any time soon.

The book isn’t all gloom and suffering, though; even Ferdinand Bardamu eventually got laid and fell in love. Instead of an ex-prostitute or a tart who cheats on him with Argentine beef dealers, though, Dolan ends up in a relationship with Joanne Whitfield, one of the “Super People” from his high school, a popular, bicurious girl who takes pity on the little weirdo. The segments where Joanne half-contemptuously shows him how to French kiss or tries to take his virginity are un-erotic to the point of hilarity, reminding me of the sex scenes in Election.

And even in these little bits of triumph, Dolan still ends up losing in the end.

That’s the ultimate reason why Pleasant Hell triumphs: it’s honest. It’s a novel about suffering, not the phony, glamorous suffering of rich trust-fund brats partying and doing drugs, but the real suffering of sexual invisibility and social rejection. They’re two of the only true forms of suffering left for American men, the iniquity of not having a woman willing to validate you as a man, not having another person on the planet who cares about your existence. It’s a hell that more men are trapped in than we know, not that any of them would ever admit it in public.

And the more frightening reality is that few of the men consigned to that hell ever break out of it.

Dolan certainly didn’t, by his own admission. The evidence of it is plastered all over Pleasant Hell. The picture of Dolan on the back cover depicts him staring off into the distance, his lips half-open, still visibly flinchy after all these years. The acknowledgements, which are strangely cramped onto the copyright page, sheepishly thank Katherine Dolan and Mark Ames “for all the personal debt.” Dolan even refers to the former as his “spouse,” as if calling her his “wife”—and thereby alluding to her sex—would be a violation of some arcane feminist law. (He’s also squeamish about alluding to his parents’ sexes in the book itself with lines like “So I’d pound on it until one or the other parent opened it,” though I assumed that was because he made a promise to leave them out of the story as much as possible.)

This is why Pleasant Hell is required reading for men, for anyone with a flicker of intelligence, for anyone with their head screwed on straight. It’s one of the most hilarious and accurate portraits of American culture and modern masculinity that has ever been written. It’s a textbook example of how to tell a story the right way, the honest way, the brutal way. And if you absolutely need some kind of “lesson” or “moral” from the book, that’s it right there: how to tell a story.

Because God knows few writers can do that.

Click here to buy Pleasant Hell.

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