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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Book Review: Rob Plath Swallowtude: the memoir of harry zontal (Epic Rites Press, 2017) 97 pages


Swallowtude is American writer Rob Plath’s first novel and its ugly birth has been a long and difficult one. Plath is best known for his dark confessional poetry in his Epic Rites Press collections A Bellyful of Anarchy (2009), There’s a Fist Dunked in Blood Beating in My Chest (2010) and Death is Dead (2012). Recently asked about the delay in Swallowtude’s publication, Plath explains, “it was written in 2010, i think, but wasn’t sure i was ready to put the madness out in the world at the time.” Let me tell you that Plath’s cautions are fully warranted as his child is a disfigured and fiendish one.

Swallowtude is told from the point of view of harry zontal, a recovering 30 year old drug and sex addict who recounts his “summer of madness, sickness and emptiness.” The language is raw and angry and conversational in style and increasingly directed explicitly at the reader. 

The memoir dramatically begins:

this is the story about how i saved my life. i’m not so sure why i wanted to save myself because i find living rather painful; but anyhow, this book is about salvation. it may also be considered a deferred murder spree, a delayed overdose, a shelved trip to the loony bin, a stay against cirrhosis, etc., but don’t think i’m overly concerned with living because i’m not…but things were getting out of hand.

At the beginning of the novel harry’s life is a hopeless mess.  He is a writer who lacks the “motivation to write.” He’s been on a three month bender and downs whatever he can “to fill a cavity”: vodka shots, opiate pills, hash, vicodin, wine, coke and muscle relaxers, to name a few. He likes to drink in the shower. He hardly sleeps. He covers his LA “hovel” with wool blankets to block out the sun. He feels isolated and realises that his hands are “rooted to nothing in this motherfucking world.” He has a tattoo on his arm “born to die” taken from Jack Kerouac’s novella Tristessa. He frequently has suicidal thoughts. In the opening pages he bluntly says, “i’m not sure why i just didn’t kill myself that summer. i thought about it every day, but had decided to do it slowly, knotting my own noose one fiber at a time.” One day he picks up a few bottles of wine and on the way home and he thinks about crashing his car into a flatbed truck to decapitate himself, or alternatively, driving off the road and “hitting the people on bicycles on the sidewalks.” Harry gives himself thirty days to live in which he will drink and fuck and be “swallowed” by his nihilistic desires.

The title of the book swallowtude is candidly explained as harry waits for the Russian stripper g. to arrive: 

getting swallowed is what we crave. whether it’s by a cum guzzling slut, a liter of vodka, an opiate, we want the very thing that the void threatens to do to us. sometimes we want layers of things consuming us, thumping fuck-music, jugs of wine, a butt-sex loving whore, a big fat tablet of vicodin, but our wish is to return from these bowels of forgetfulness, unlike the void which takes us once and for all.

In a recent email, Rob Plath’s explained to me the term swallowtude more succinctly: “it is the thirsty, hungry dark vacuum within.”

The first sixty pages or so of the novel are focussed on h’s desperate attempts to curb his suicidal thoughts by “murdering the void” through getting wasted and engaging in kinky sex. In his descriptions, be it snorting a line of coke, getting a blow job or shooting his load (which is often) Plath is explicit and phallocentric in his language and (ahem) holds nothing back. 

Structurally, the novel consists of 38 sections or vignettes of two or three pages in length on average. The writing is experimental in the sense that it abandons the conventional use of capital letters, paragraphing, and apart from his neighbour Bruno, character names are abbreviated and designated by a lower case letter: t., n., c., m., p., s. and g.

The cover illustration is by the artist Pablo Vision who designed many of the early brilliant Epic Rites Press covers, including most of Plath’s early books. If you look closely at the centre of the page you will see an anatomical drawing of two men lying on their backs head to head.  This dichotomy perhaps represents the internal struggle within harry- between his “rising wicked id” which he describes as a “crazed animal” similar to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr Hyde and the calmer, more rational and moral man who also exists within him. The cover also cryptically alludes to one of the central messages revealed in this short book and repeated 14 times on its last page, “stay horizontal my friends.” 

An interesting aspect of this novel is harry’s defiant and pissed off tone in which he directly addresses the reader. About halfway through his narrative as a modern day underground man, harry pauses briefly to give the reader an earful to reassert the authenticity of his story:

by the way, reader. yes, i’m slitting open the goddamn narrative and sticking my skull through and mouthing my opinions. if you don’t like it put the fucking book down or burn it or stick it up your dirty asshole. some might think this is all pornographic, whatever that means, and some might think this is criminal the way I write about drugs and drinking and lust for young girls’ asses. some might think this contains too much information, but this is my life, reader.

Shortly afterwards in the story the phone rings and it is g., the Russian stripper. A significant turning point in the novel ensues. 

Interestingly, at the back of the book there is a 13 page visual appendix of amazing artwork by Pablo Vision entitled coked-up king lears & vodka-drunk hamlets.  My personal favourites include The Creature Returnssisyphean circlesand fuck narrative.

Swallowtude is a relentlessly dark humourless existential rant condomed in a suicidal gloom. It is a harrowing cautionary tale of the need to rise above the mud. To flee from the body bag of our anxieties and depressions. Plath, like his narrator harry zontal & his hero Schopenhauer, drags his balls across every page in this book and gives us a glimpse of how even the most fucked up of lives can be slowly clawed back. 



Check out Rob Plath’s website here: https://www.robplath.com

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