True Notebooks, Mark Salzman

Carlos was a minor character in the story [I was writing], a juvenile delinquent with a terminal illness. Although I had given Carlos tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor. She thought he needed a personality. And “please please please,” she urged in one of her notes, “give him a different name.”

Los Angeles is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured Duane must have had to write about them at some point. I asked if he could recommend any good books about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research. He thought about it, then answering, “Not really.”

I figured that was the end of that, but then he said, “But I volunteer down at juvenile hall twice a week. I teach a writing class there. If you’d like to come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book.”

I didn’t respond immediately. I wanted him to think I was giving it serious thought. Then I asked, “Are you sure you can’t recommend any books?”

Recommended by: A Striped Armchair

The Man sucks.

Also this book was good. I drove around for a while trying to remember which library branch had it, and then I finally remembered and checked it out, and then I read it straight through. It’s a memoir of Mark Salzman’s time teaching a creative writing class at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t say that this is the best-written memoir I’ve ever read in my life, but it’s not badly written by any means, and Mr. Salzman writes with great sincerity. Which, actually, is probably more important than writing like a dream, when you’re dealing with something about which people have some really firmly ingrained preconceptions.

What Mr. Salzman is quite successful at (shades of John Berendt (who is a better writer, I think)) is reproducing dialogue. (Mozilla, you had better stop underlining words that I am spelling correctly! Dialogue! Dialogue! Dialogue! I hate you.) I mean, reproducing dialogue in such a way that the reader gets a sense of what the speaker is like. And good on Mr. Salzman, because not a lot of people can do that, particularly in nonfiction, where very often everyone sounds like they are different-faced versions of the same person.

(Sidebar: Yay for John Berendt, seriously. How well did he reproduce the Lady Chablis? So, so, so well.)

Okay, now I’m having regrets. I’m feeling a little guilty about saying that True Notebooks wasn’t well-written. It wasn’t badly written, at all; it was just a trifle, a hair, a speck generically written. Which is okay! Because of how well he did the dialogue! It’s just that if it hadn’t been for the dialogue, you would have had a book on an interesting subject that was not ultimately a very interesting book, because although it was very funny in spots it was a trifle (a hair, a speck) generic. A trifle! Except for the dialogue which made everything okay, I swear it did, and I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it!

(MOZILLA STOP UNDERLINING “DIALOGUE” IN RED! THAT IS HOW THE WORD IS SPELLED!)

This review has been the cause of a great deal of emotional turmoil – more, to be honest, than I was expecting – so I’m going to stop.