Welcome to the Weird America by A.G. Pasquella

Inside the omnibus of A.G. Pasquella’s cult classic novellas

Reading WELCOME TO THE WEIRD AMERICA is like riding a jet-powered Wham-O Slip’n Slide through a half-century of American pop cult. As author A.G. Pasquella told me: “I was trying to get my head space into that old, weird America – hucksters, hobos, carnival barkers, roadside attractions – and capture that feeling for the reader.”

The book is an omnibus of three of A.G.’s previously published novellas: the televangelist send-up, “Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?” (2010); the hilarious space opera fever dream, “NewTown” (2012); and the linked prose-poem epic, “The This & the That” (2014). Fans of A.G.s work in publications like McSweeney’s, Joyland and Broken Pencil, and the Jack Palace noir trilogy of hardboiled action in the mean streets of Toronto (published by Dundurn), will enjoy the many mondo-weird grace notes he hits in these novellas, all now considered cult classics.

 Given the difficulty of sliding WELCOME TO THE WEIRD AMERICA onto an easily curated bookshelf, I thought, why not talk to the author himself? Here are a few highlights of our freewheeling conversation.

Terri: WELCOME TO THE WEIRD AMERICA feels like a throwback to the golden age of satire and parody in the sixties, seventies and eighties: Terry Southern’s script for Dr. Strangelove, Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”, Fran Lebowitz’s “Metropolitan Life”, to name just a few.

A.G.: You’re absolutely right, there’s a throwback quality to the book, hopefully with a fresh twist. You want to stand on the shoulders of giants but not jump on their heads! You mentioned Terry Southern – a huge influence on me, especially “The Magic Christian” and “Candy” –- and in that same sixties cohort is Richard Brautigan of “Trout Fishing in America” which influenced “Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?”. Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo” also had a huge impact: it’s all about capitalism and race in America and how crazy corporations can be, and how society can drop into madness. That freewheeling gonzo style isn’t so much around anymore. There’s still satire and parody but it’s more muted and less cartoony.

“I love seeing how far I can push the envelope. It’s like jazz. How far can you embellish that one phrase?”

Terri: Cartoons kept popping into my brain as I read – the novellas reminded me of the craziness of shows like “Ren and Stimpy” and classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, of course!

A.G.: Cartoons are a huge influence, especially ones from the forties directed by Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. I am a sucker for that cartoon formulation of good joke, better joke, CRAZY joke, which you also see in movies like “Airplane”. I think that there a lot of writers today who don’t go to the next level of the “crazy” joke, that level of absurd extremes. I love seeing how far I can push the envelope. It’s like jazz. How far can you embellish that one phrase?

Terri: Your stories are so much fun to visualize. One of my favourite images is in “NewTown”, when Lance is suddenly transformed into a Cyborg Man-Plane but tries to go on leading a suburban lifestyle even though he’s so huge he has to live in the back yard.

A.G.: Yeah, there’s that scene where he’s trying to make breakfast for his family, but he’s this gigantic robot. He uses his eye lasers to make his kids’ oatmeal and ends up lighting the counter on fire. “NewTown” is very psychedelic –– a madcap kaleidoscope. It’s all about change.

Terri: Where do your images spring from?

A.G.: I’ve always been a very visual thinker. I describe “Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?” as a graphic novel without the graphics. One of Jack Kerouac’s pieces of writing advice was “try to see the picture better.” Whenever I get stuck, I think when I’m the room with a character I think, who else is there? What are they wearing? What’s outside the window? Then you can make connections you might not have made otherwise. It’s a more lateral way to write, rather than a linear one.

Terri: You’re also great with sound effects – again, right out of the cartoons as well as MAD magazine, especially Don Martin’s work.

A.G.: Don Martin, a genius! I grew up reading MAD magazine in the seventies and eighties and collected the old MAD paperbacks, going back to 1955. I had a shelf full of them – Don Martin, Mort Drucker, Al Jaffee. Reading MAD as a kid was like seeing this other take on the world that was so inspiring and enlightening. They showed how untruthful ads are, how ridiculous some corporations are. Even religion. No sacred cows, they went after anything.

Terri: Speaking of religion “Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?” works on a number of levels. It’s a parody of religion-as-business – televangelists, super churches – but also of weird science. There are two lab monkeys in that story, Cyrus the talking chimpanzee and Floyd, a spider monkey who has been traumatized by lab experiments. The story is hilarious but the underpinnings of it are very pointed.

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A.G.: I read a lot about monkeys in laboratories because I wanted a realistic framework for this completely bizarre story. Even though it’s an absurd situation, I wanted to have an underpinning of reality. The very first line of the novella –– “Terror enters in the form of a drumbeating teddy bear” – was a caption from a photo in a TIME-LIFE book about monkeys, showing a real experiment that traumatized a baby monkey. Scientists sent a drumbeating toy bear into its cage and the baby jumped and clung to its substitute mom, a sock puppet. That was the point of the experiment: to see if a terrified baby wanted its mom. Seems like a no-brainer to me, but someone paid these scientists to do this. Seems satirical but it was reality.

In “Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?”, I’m not trying to make fun of anybody’s religious beliefs. I am expressing my anger at people exploiting people’s deepest beliefs for their own financial gain. With televangelists it’s exploitative – “send me five bucks and you will be healed.” Where I grew up in Dallas, there were megachurches. I use the metaphor of the first Star Wars movie, where the imperial cruiser just keeps going..and going…and going. Driving past these Texas megachurches is like that. You’re driving along and you go, Oh there’s the church. Still the church…still the church. That’s all money the parishioners have given to them.

TF: “The This & the That” has some of the most pointed send-ups. It’s a bit like reading linked flash fiction.

A.G.: I see “The This & the That” almost as prose poems. Little thought kernels that get planted in your brain and blossom into images. It was kind of an experiment to see how far I could go with images and characters that emerge from bizarre situations. Like flipping through a photo album, seeing snatches and glimpses of people’s lives. These are all old pictures, in my head, of the old, weird America.

Terri: All three novellas were previously published, right?

A.G. “Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?” had been contracted by Gutter Press in 2010. Before the ink on my contract was dry, they went under. So, using print-on-demand technology, I self-published. Michael Kupperman did the first cover – an amazing cartoonist.  We’d both done work for McSweeney’s. So, I sent him a message on Twitter. Literally within three seconds he said he’d love to do the cover! It was encouraging that someone of his calibre was willing to work with me on this project.

I was able to travel around North America at the time selling “Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?”. I made my money back. Did it again with “NewTown”.

I wrote “The This & the That” concurrently with “Why Not A Spider Jesus?”. A lot of the vignettes originated in writing warm-up exercises. I put it out as a signed and numbered limited edition of only a hundred copies. All long gone.

Years after the novellas came out, Paul Vermeersch (editor of Buckrider Books, an imprint of Wolsak & Wynn) called me up and said, “What do you think of us putting out an omnibus of your three novellas?” Talk about cartoons, my eyes bugged out of my head, I practically did cartwheels! Wolsak & Wynn make beautiful books. It’s been great working with them. And a big shout-out to Michel Vrana who did the cover art. Every time I look at this cover, I smile – it captures the nineteen-sixties satirical flavour of the book.

Terri: Does having these cult classics published by a literary press mean you’re going (gasp!) mainstream?

A.G.: I’m extremely happy to have these novellas come “up from the underground” and into the light of day! The “cult” aspects haven’t changed: the novellas are as freaky as ever. (Can a novella called “Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?” ever really be mainstream?) What’s changed is the reader’s ability to access these stories. Now readers can get their hands on all three novellas in one handy beautifully designed package, available at their local independent bookstore or straight from Wolsak & Wynn. (And through the “big dogs,” of course!) 

Connecting with readers is what it’s all about! Otherwise, I’m just typing away, listening to the echo of the click-clack of my fingers on the keys. You need readers to “close the circuit” and bring a book to life! 

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