Soft Skull Press, 2009, 272 pp.
Reviewed by Claire Shefchik
Straight off, Daniel Nester points out that “inappropriate” is standard boilerplate these days, in the media and in politics, for anything that could potentially make someone uncomfortable. It’s annoying, yes, but if you’re Nester, you respond by taking a dump on it, or at least by writing articulately about people who do. How to Be Inappropriate is handmade for frat-boys-turned-English majors, taking a bodily-fluid-covered hatchet to literary convention, as in his in-depth research on the history and vocabulary of mooning, e.g.: “Full Moon with Red Eye, two-cheeked with gapping,” and straight-facedly details incidents of flatulence in the work of poets from Chaucer to Jorie Graham. Nester fluffs up nearly everything with po-mo gimmicks like lists, preambles and (sigh) footnotes, which do nothing to flatter entries like that of the ex-girlfriend who accepted money from an elderly security guard in exchange for having her feet licked. This, while technically inappropriate in the eyes of those who avoid books like this as a rule anyway, comes off as the type of thing that could easily happen to any young, marginally-employed Brooklyn writer, one who hopefully would know better than to try to craft his book around one of them. You wonder if the entire conceit is a gimmick, if maybe Nester had another book in mind, one that was neither hip enough nor gross enough, but decided he’d be more successful stretching this one as far as it would go.
Actually, How to Be Inappropriate contains more than a few entries that not only aren’t inappropriate, but aren’t even interesting. A conversation from NPR’s Terri Gross and KISS’s Gene Simmons, reimagined by Nester as a robot, had me this close, upon seeing it went on for eight more pages, to chucking the entire book underneath an oncoming F train. What’s more, Nester is not a journalist by any means, nor does he pretend to be. Consequently, lengthy essays on aging videogame champ Todd Rogers and Christian rock parody band ApologetiX are well-told, but only grope vaguely for a New Yorkerish tone. But Nester has no interest in being Susan Orlean. He’d rather be mooning.
This highbrow-lowbrow dualism keeps popping up to puzzle you, until eventually you realize that what you’ve actually been reading is not a dryly humorous batch of pop-culture McSweeneyisms (which no doubt is how Nester pitched it) but the surprisingly quotidian comings-of-age of a Sad Young Literary Man, who as he gets older, only gets sadder. The book actually gets more successful as it gets more conventional. Nester never completely lets go his inappropriateness, though it starts to feel more like irreverence for irreverence’s sake; talking about his wife’s ovulation-inducing drugs, he writes “We were egging. We were egging our eggs. We egged. We were egg-egging motherfuckers. Is what we were.”
Running beneath the crassness and ironic posturing of How to Be Inappropriate is the book Nester wanted to write all along. For me, the book’s biggest surprise was that by the time I made it to the last few essays in the book, concerning his wife’s infertility and his attempts to relate to his writing students at a Catholic college upstate, Nester actually became sympathetic. Even when he starts whining, “Positively 4th Street” style, that his former friends among the New York poetry cognoscenti are (gasp!) pretentious assholes, it’s hard to hate him, because he’s so damned earnest; forever the dorky, working-class Catholic kid from a broken home, desperate to fit in but who can’t quite figure out how, and so, through his clueless behavior, ends up alienating himself even further. Toward the end of the book, he includes a “Timeline of the Author’s Inappropriate Acts, Selected, c. 1968 to Present.” The 1993 entry reads “Presents brown/red eye moon against window of ATM booth to editor of nationally known literary journal, 2am.” The whole list seems included in hopes of proving to us: see I’m not faking it to sell books, I really am a social misfit, I swear. By then, you believe him.