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Game hunting
Dale Peckís Hatchet Jobs

Dale Peck is a type rarely encountered in the higher levels of American fiction ó a naive self-promoter. He thought he could write sentences like "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation" and get attention for his discriminating critical mind. For seven years, he took up the ax heís pictured with on Hatchet Jobís cover, but now that heís been labeled "snarky," heís burying the hatchet. The bookís first essay, "Big Brother Is Calling You Names," says there will be no more Peck hatchet jobs. Called "The Takedown Artist" by the New York Times Magazine, where he also posed with an ax, Peck reveals himself to be a wuss, a wuss of his own making. Too bad. He stirred things up in the world of what Gore Vidal calls "book chat," and thatís to be commended. Even his ruder noises were stimulating.

At his best, Peck was unfair enough and disrespectful enough to earn the praise Susan Sontag gives him on his book jacket. (Never mind that Peck values Sontag as a model critic and says so several times in his book.) He wrote nasty things (for the London Review of Books, the New Republic, and the Village Voice) and enjoyed doing so, but there was more to him than there is to, for one, the pompous John Simon. But it seems that he didnít really believe in his self-appointed mission to warn us that fiction is "broken" or that he couldnít proceed in this mission without a hatchet. In the end, he does not have the ruthlessness to stick to what he believes and purge his writing of cheap shots.

The longest essay in the book, and one published here for the first time, is Peckís dismantling of the critic Sven Birkerts. "The Man Who Would Be Sven" is disguised as a 35-page review ó Peck swings a long-winded ax ó of Birkertsís memoir My Sky Blue Trades. It is really Peckís statement of principles. He is relentlessly nasty, even when he has a point, like Birkertsís misuse of the word irony on one occasion. Even if they are enjoying themselves and agree with Peck, most readers will wince for Birkerts. Simultaneously with the blows he delivers, Peck hammers Birkertsís stance as a critic (stance according to Peck) into the ground like a post so that he can point and declare, "There stands everything worthless in todayís criticism." He sees Birkerts as an explainer who interposes himself between reader and text in a way that has him talking down to both in the name of traditional values.

Peck wants his criticism to speak not for "what it means," in what he calls Sontagís paradigm, but for "how it is, what it is." Okay, this reader says, go for it, we can use a new Sontag. But this reader is also nagged by the inordinate amount of time Peck takes to make Birkerts his fall guy. His demolition doesnít in itself make a case for his approach. He could be right in everything he says about Birkerts but still fail, as he does, to demonstrate the worth of his position.

Top critics like Guy Davenport, Pauline Kael, Gilbert Sorrentino, Sontag herself, and Ron Silliman celebrate and bring us to difficult, neglected, or misunderstood work. Peck does not celebrate (his other subjects include David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Colson Whitehead, Julian Barnes, Jamaica Kincaid, Terry McMillan, and Kurt Vonnegut). There is not enough in Hatchet Jobs about what he loves, about what fiction has value for him. For all the intelligence, swift kicks, inspired smart-assness and labor (he usually claims to have read all the books by the writers he smashes, a form of showing off that has become a book reviewerís cliché), itís no wonder that heís quit. This bookís motto is from William Carlos Williams: "All I said was/there, you see, it is broken." Having said that, Peck does not say what is whole (there must be something), does not do the hard work of developing a vocabulary that will reveal and praise, and does not lead readers to what we would care for if only alerted to its wonders.

This last is not absolutely true. He does write one essay in praise of the work of Rebecca Brown. Itís not her fault that her work cannot support the weight this book places upon it. As for his own work (heís the author of three novels and a memoir), Peck told the Times, "Maybe I am a jerk, but the books Iíve published are among the best books published in the last 10 years."

Of course heís a jerk, but not because of his immodesty. He was keeping score all along, and again he shows himself to be inept as a self-promoter. Perhaps he took lessons from Jonathan Franzen. Itís just too easy to say nasty things and think youíve said something important. Sontag introduced her readers to more artists, writers, musicians, and movie makers in two or three essays in Against Interpretation than the self-absorbed Peck ever could, and now he never will. He may think he had a hatchet in his hands, but he reminds me of the reviewer that a musician, whose name escapes me, laughed off with the statement, "A critic makes peepee on art thinking he will help it grow."

Issue Date: July 9 - 15, 2004
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