Brandon Hobson writes novels that are very bright and incredibly dark, surprisingly funny and wonderfully complex

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Brandon Hobson, Desolation of Avenues Untold, Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015.

"Desolation of Avenues Untold is enthralling on multiple levels: as a mystery, as a slapstick comedy, as an investigation of an arcane society, as the story of a shuffling life at the edge of things. I enjoyed it enormously and I can't wait to see what Brandon Hobson comes up with next. He's a marvelous storyteller." --Owen P. King

"Born Chaplin is hiding Charlie Chaplin's sex tapes--or at least that's what the town of Desolate City, Texas thinks, and everyone from retired professors to exploitation film fanatics is on the hunt. This inventive, absorbing novel pulses forward with strangeness, tenderness, and humor as Brandon Hobson unveils the secrets down each avenue. Like one of the characters says, 'Despite the loneliness I have to learn to trust everyone here. We all do.'"--Chelsea Hodson               

"...a novel so varying and dynamic it defies easy classification...falls somewhere between postmodern satire and Bolaño-esque noir." -- The Collagist

"...a book about the fact that every idea is a fantasy, and how every fantasy affects reality..." 3 a.m. Magazine

"Born Chaplin is hiding Charlie Chaplin's tapes--or at least that's what the town of Desolate City, Texas thinks, and everyone from retired professors to exploitation film fanatics is on the hunt. This inventive, absorbing novel pulses forward with strangeness, tenderness, and humor as Brandon Hobson unveils the secrets down each avenue. Like one of the characters says, 'Despite the loneliness I have to learn to trust everyone here. We all do.'"--Chelsea Hodson

"Brandon Hobson's Desolation of Avenues Untold is at once both a wise commentary on loss and nostalgia and a very funny--and very paranoid--farce. Thomas Pynchon, David Lynch, and Philip K. Dick would all be perfectly at home in Desolate City, TX. A beautifully lunatic book."- Gabriel Blackwell

"The Pynchon of Oklahoma... This is American fiction at its Ray-banned, smoke-blowing, cameras-are-rolling coolest..." - Matt Bucher 

“(I can write in the novelistic without ever writing novels.)”
–Roland Barthes, ‘The Third Meaning’
“Everyone’s suspicious in my book.”
–Brandon Hobson, Desolation of Avenues Untold
Brandon Hobson’s novel Desolation of Avenues Untold is interested in the purposes of culture and reproduction: a novel of duplicity in both senses of the word. We are immediately introduced to our protagonist Born Chaplin, who is often assumed to be a descendent of his namesake, star of silent cinema, Charlie Chaplin. This connection provides the root for the novel’s action: a rare reel of film Charlie had shot in his own private dwellings, a sex-tape for his own private purposes, has gone missing and is now the focus of rumour. Hobson gives a list of its possible locations, but the world thinks it’s in Desolate City – a dusty town on the peripheries of West Texas – and that Born knows something of its whereabouts. The story itself is unpretentious: a race to the finish, a hunt for this lost film. However, Hobson’s treatment of the film, and both his various considerations of its possible pornographic content, and the disputed existence of the tape itself opens up a plethora of symbolic associations within the novel, allowing Hobson room to manoeuvre around the possible applications of art, the function of cultural history and the trappings of personality as read through the impossible allure of the authentic. We’re all copyists at heart, for Hobson, but in our appropriations we are looking for a silhouetted self within our own canons of objects. Through that struggle, Hobson stages an exploration of the potential link between fact and fiction and the bleed of each sphere across the dividing line that separates them. Again, the work is duplicitous in both senses of the word.
Hobson’s Desolation brackets itself with a sense of its own contradictions. In the fictive correspondences that act as endnote to the action, Hobson identifies the work as “a mixture of fiction and historical fact.” Any view of the novel as an amalgam of fact and falsity is disrupted, however, by the Author’s Note that precedes the work: the staple proclamation that reminds us of its primary status as fiction. Its balance slips towards unreality: “the names of people, places, or organizations” used are “products of the author’s imagination” – any representation should not “denote any real places or organizations or actual persons living, dead, or otherwise.” This is not a radical lens with which to perceive this fiction, nor argue a more general function thereof, but for Hobson it illustrates a theme central to the novel’s course: that work cannot bear the strain of our interpretations, that interpretation itself needs be conveyed as a form of fantasy, that a conception of cultural exceptionality is fantasy.
Mister Lonely
Denis Lavant as a Charlie Chaplin impersonator in Mister Lonely (dir. Harmony Korine, 2007)
These theses are exercised through the centrism of Chaplin’s errant sex-tape-as-fetish-object within the work’s action and its interests. The entrenchment of smut within the private life, and as a thing disjunctive with public perception, is foregrounded through the narrative’s stresses on this private object – a film Charlie may or may not have made during the more propitious years of his celebrity, a film that may or may not show Chaplin in a compromised position. The “sex-tape” that provides Hobson’s punctum is thus elevated within his symbolism; its association herein is with a canonical history of culture that pursues an envisioning of cultural consumption over and above production as focus. The tape requires application – its use value is only ever relative to personality – which in turn provides the frame for an eventual digestion. Pornography appears to have little purpose here but to provide an outline of personality for Hobson. The tape becomes the hook on which he hangs the threads of character throughout the novel. We learn about the work’s inhabitants through the surplus value of the tape – be it political, academic or carnal, Chaplin’s performance is reflexive. Hobson’s account of the history and contents of Chaplin’s film acts as an addendum to personality, and develops throughout as a means to outline private fantasy. It informs a view of the ways in which people perform identity in public places and yet only fully exist in private rooms. Rather than showing or telling, Hobson seems more obliquely interested in the trappings of self-reflection.
In pursuit of such a notion, towards the end of the novel’s first section, one of Hobson’s characters attempts at a maxim that shifts in its indication away from the privacy of a private conversation to intimate something of the maximal concerns of his writing: “We’re interested in reflexive spirits and the exploration of the self.” The notion of “reflexivity” – that the denoted pronoun would always refer back to the subject of its clause – is the best terminology we have with which to intimate the symbolic propensity of the sex-tape in terms of its broader relation to the novelistic in Desolation and its status as some kind of apotheosis within his network of metaphors.
But this is as much about the novel’s geography as it is about its characters. Situated in West Texas, perhaps Texas itself is also a part of Hobson’s aesthetic conundrum. The lone-star is a lonely epithet – self-reflexive – an image that aims to distract us from any question of relation. Scarcely alluding to any neighbouring territory, Hobson’s work aims for an envisaging of itself as an elevated symbol: a distant and seceded Texas. There is a strong case to be made for the book as a treatise on secession as an aesthetic principle; we’ve no constellation, only a single star. TX, as symbol, will always try and refer only to itself, and only as afterthought will it allow the mind to wander outwards, either west or east, to a parenthetical ‘America’ as it may be gleaned.
Not far into the text we learn that the ‘Desolate City’ that stages the action is a replica NYC, including parts of the city that, although “wholly reimagined”, are still “reflections of New York.” Here it’s armadillos rather than rats that run the gutters. The reproduction of NYC is an echo of Hobson’s interest in the symbolic potential of the Hollywood actor – another method with which to exercise his interests in performance, authenticity and celebrity. Hollywood’s ghosts populate the town – we hear that someone has caught thirty seconds of footage on their phone of Myrna Loy; Lou Chany, Clara Bow and Douglas Fairbanks haunt a downtown hotel. Their sightings are either scarce, or have gone unnoticed. “New York is being built right here in West Texas,” Hobson writes, they’re building New York on “the flattest fucking land on earth.” It’s geography within Desolation, however, that allows for Hobson’s more discursive perambulations on personality. The tape is “probably somewhere in Texas,” and TX provides a moment of reflexivity. In talking about TX, Hobson infers we’re always talking about ourselves, about our failures to see thoroughly beyond ourselves, our inability to thoroughly excavate or explore a self away from geographical or social exigencies. Our drive is towards historical inevitability and, ultimately, we end with mimicry; that’s what culture is for in Desolate City. We try and coerce and collate our moments of self-reflection together into a coherent whole but, as one of Hobson’s characters suggests, recollection is always fractal. Again, the tape becomes a pertinent metaphor here as the distinction between the single frame and the moving picture becomes a method to pattern out the distinction between live-as-lived and biographical memory. Trying to remember the 1970’s, all that can be recalled are fragments. “Weird, dream like fragments.” Scenes that only ambiguously relay “certain places” and particular actions. “Eating crab-cakes with my ex-wife in Galveston. Fishing with my brother on Lake Tenkiller. Cutting a line, snorting coke. Watching a woman in Deep Ellum shoot drugs between her toes.” Hobson’s secession can be surmised through the punctuation that separates and regulates these images: the full stop that prevents them bleeding into one another, the action that accentuates and frames each individual impression. This seems to be the significance of geography to the book – we’re given an inventory of the work’s fictional avenues and areas apropos of a preface – and the importance of Texas in its provision of a frame. We’ve a lone star and an issue with relation, a problem with constellation.
Brandon Hobson
Loy, Chany, Bow and Fairbanks are not the novel’s only ghosts; a Michael Stipe look-a-like has seen the sex-tape that preoccupies the narrative. A rough gem from cinema’s golden age, we’re encouraged to imagine the details and venerated silences of this homespun-antique-pornography throughout; is Chaplin in front “or behind the camera”? Is he sitting in “a sunlit room in perfect black and white,” or standing ahead of “a woman’s face”? The tape – “an unfinished masterpiece,” as it is quietly referred to – supports Hobson’s recurrent interest in privacy, publicity and application. It instigates a broader inquiry into technology, and how our imaginings of the tape constitute some view of fiction’s place relative to the slippage of those terms. Commenting on the tape’s plausible existence, an “unknown journalist located somewhere in the south-west” suggests that the secrecy surrounding the tape confirms its existence – the announcement of its existence would only dim its fantasy. “We’re living in the technology age – a time of surveillance, camera’s everywhere, cell phone recordings, conspiracies, no privacy.” It’s only a matter of time, suggests this anonymous journalist, before the tape is brought to the attention of the public – before its fetishised fantasy slips into empirical fact – before it loses the allure of story. There on in we then have little but a question of the tape’s possible manifestations relative to the wants of Hobson’s characters. We have a simple picture of bodies, either undressing or undressed, but Hobson antagonises that image; we need to look for more than a meagre pleasure or any depiction thereof. We need Chaplin making animal noises; Chaplin at home in casual dress; Chaplin smoking demurely; Chaplin making small talk with a woman. The stage allows Hobson to intimate something about connectivity – the structuration of symbols and our various relationships with them that can never be cogently articulated, our want for something more than the mechanical simplicity of motor movements. The undulation of limbs ahead of clothes spreading the floor is an image he binds with nostalgia; fantasy hits at nothing but the various notes of private or ungracious memories, providing another node within that cloudy network of thinking that bunches up behind a name or an identity. The sex-tape in isolation is causeless, but Charlie’s association lengthens the reach for referents outside of its direct action and aids in its constitution as cultural object. But the tape’s disputed existence is key here. Hobson’s intimation is perhaps that what you don’t see is the root point of fantasy; that fantasy, however perverse, speaks volumes as to the personal pretexts that precede the reception of any given perception, or any given work of art. In talking about pornography, Hobson seems to be talking over the efforts of application. How can we possibly employ a single star, and use it as a codification for something else? Hobson is suggesting, perhaps, that fiction can never be parabolic. There’s an irony, then, that for all this rhetorical delusion and religiosity, both our protagonist and object of attention would run by the name “Chaplin.” The more important Chaplin here is Charlie, however – no clergy member. Here he is our single star; maybe Chaplin and TX are interchangeable epithets.
Modern Times
Modern Times (dir. Charlie Chaplin, 1936)
The text is littered with replicas, and rather than allowing the replica to restore any faith in an objective real they become Hobson’s tools for distraction and deflection, a means with which to thoroughly explore the distinctions between life, art and philosophical thought:
You remember the Michael Stipe look-a-like? […] The same Michael Stipe look-a-like from the bar in Deep Ellum who kept talking about Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony and all the Socratic dialectic bullshit and about how speculation never fully ripens in Plato, or whatever, which really just circled back around to the original question he kept bringing up that Kierkegaard asks, does the mythical belong to Plato or Socrates? …and blah and blah, none of which he ever got around to answering by the way, as it turned out he was just trying to impress Meg and get into her pants […]. […] The Michael Stipe look-a-like who saw the ghosts of Dorothy Gish and John Barrymore in some sort of strange Kama Sutra pose on the hardwood floor of the old Nugget Hotel downtown here in D.C., that lying piece of shit.
This Michael Stipe claimed to have seen the Chaplin film – “He talked in Circles” – “He fragmented narrative” – “He was doing something more than just trying to get into Meg’s pants.” He had had everyone believing in Chaplin’s ghost. The “ghost” as a repeating trope throughout the book proves emblematic of Hobson’s cynical criticality. Whilst his allusions to the ‘Deep Ellum’ district are themselves ghosts of his previous work (his novel of that same name was published last year), the conception of the ‘ghost’ appears as an effort on Hobson’s behalf to better frame a defective relationship with a history of ideas. The novel is covered in echoes; there is a transvestite called Echo, there are the two Chaplins – Charlie and our protagonist – there is the litany of deceased Hollywood actors, a body of impersonators, a singer trying to associate himself with his more wayward youth. An echo, of course, decays; it incrementally shifts and lessens in value the longer its lifespan. The original point of influence can still be heard, however, and is recognisable throughout all of its diminishing returns. The faded copy is Hobson’s tract on auraticism, or the difficulties we now have in defining such a thing. We find it increasingly difficult to appreciate the authentic and isolated object within the narrative. Hobson infers that, instead, we are more excited by the erratic contexts ushered in rather than the thing itself: the portrayal of the social function of an object over and above its private or personal significance. The sex-tape in this instance then reads like a book. It behaves as an incendiary remark on the difficulties of celebrity – of authorial accountability – and our persistent effort to exonerate an individual and hold them up as equivocal with something epochal, something defining. They’ll always pertain to something prior – something past – and that marks the root of fantasy for Hobson. It illustrates the flat land upon which we build our replicas and transform fact. Singularity is a fantasy.
This critical veneer is parodied in Hobson’s emphasis on the sex-tape. The film is variously referred to as a hoax, a fraud, a lie, and a necessity, but it is ultimately about fantastic singularity. This is a book about the fact that every idea is a fantasy, and how every fantasy affects reality; a book about how personality and celebrity are novelistic enough as tropes to do away with any need for novels. The fact that this novel was written, and subsequently read, feels like Hobson’s punch-line on the subject. He makes a play with our perversities whilst eliding a picture of his own. - Dominic Jaeckle
There is a remote corner of contemporary literature where top-notch literary fiction is being held down by powerful voices and getting injected with beautifully outré storytelling and elements so strange that they wouldn’t be out of place in a bizarro fiction novel. Brandon Hobson’s Desolation of Avenues Untold is one of the best novels to come out of that outrageous corner of the literary landscape. A narrative that confidently walks the line between a mystery with heavy doses of noir and a surrealist fantasy that also serves as an academic ode to film studies, this is the kind of novel that slaps the psyche around and delivers equal measures of confusion and pleasure.
The plot of Desolation of Avenues Untold is deceptively simple: a private collection of films involving actor Charlie Chaplin has been uncovered. The media frenzy is immediate and speculation reigns supreme. To make matters more interesting, the collection of personal films is rumored to contain at least one reel with more than 30 minutes of footage of one the great actor’s sexual encounters. The only problem is that no one really knows where the films are. Some think ex-junkie rock star Caspar Fixx had them and gave them away to a dirty politician by the name of Tim Bowery while others think one of Chaplin’s relatives is now in possession of the cinematic treasure. The man they suspect, Bornfeldt Chaplin, is a divorced nobody living in the middle of nowhere and trying hard to please his son. Between the individuals looking for the films and the lives of those suspected to have them, what follows is a bizarre, paranoid, enigmatic, and unexpectedly comedic trip through the people and streets of a fictional city that somehow manages to reflect our own reality.
There are many words that would accurately describe Desolation of Avenues Untold, but the two that are relatively uncommon in book reviews are brave and unexpected. Hobson’s prose is an elegant, dynamic animal that frantically runs in and out of literary fiction and leaves bewildering fragments behind it. For example, once the plot has been established and a few characters introduced, the author shines a light on the films a group of DIY cinema aficionados have shared to a website that caters to viewers like them. The long laundry list of films offers a glimpse into the deranged mind of the characters and help place readers in the uncanny microcosm that is Desolate City, Texas:
Big Boy, 8-minutes, Mishityu. A slow-motion film of a German Shepherd vomiting a stomach material resembling gastric blood.
Larry, 24 minutes, 35 mm, Payne. A devout Mennonite comes to terms with being sexually aroused by a man dressed as Ludwig van Beethoven.
The Woman in the Attic, 11 minutes, Bryant. A mentally challenged woman with a paralyzing fear of birds is locked in an attic with two live sparrows that fly frantically around her.
The Suburbs, 43 minutes, Klitz. In a collective attempt to understand their son’s cross-dressing, a couple discovers their own sexual fetish involving human feces.
While many literary fiction authors are afraid to grab genre fiction tools to use in their storytelling, Hobson seems to shine even brighter whenever he does exactly that. From noir to bizarro, he confidently utilizes everything available to him to craft a story that defies categorization. In fact, I think David James Keaton’s The Last Projector and this novel deserve to be taken together as the start of a very smart, very weird subgenre that mixes a love of crazy fiction and celluloid with bold, stylish prose.
Desolation of Avenues Untold revolves around films that may or may not exist, and that helps Hobson keep the tension going. However, what truly makes readers keep turning pages compulsively is the author’s knack for micronarratives, which he constantly injects into the overarching storyline. The result is a book in which each minor player has a story and every conversation can bring a plethora of tales, confessions, and fascinating discoveries. Here’s a paragraph from a conversation about the possibility of someone having been drugged by accident:
“I knew a guy who had an unhealthy sexual attachment to objects,” Pigmel said. “Something about the way the objects feel against the skin. Lamps, chairs, ceiling fans, fence posts. They were gender neutral. Nameless, faceless, gender neutral objects he loved and kissed and caressed. He was a professor of some sort who published articles in prestigious German journals and had teaching fellowships in Bern and Zurich. He was struck with frequent attacks of vomiting and diarrhea at the end of his life. He died alone. Aneurysm in the abdominal aorta. A real tragedy. His name was supposedly Kip.”
While some of what has been stated above may seem to indicate a disjointed or incoherent novel, the opposite is true. Desolation of Avenues Untold is a satisfying read that’s at both wild and coherent, which turns into an even more impressive feat when you consider that it’s over 300 pages long and that somehow flawlessly weaves the main narratives with things like abduction by dwarves and a building suffering from an armadillo infestation akin to that of some New York building suffer with rats or cockroaches.
Brandon Hobson writes novels that are very bright and incredibly dark, surprisingly funny and wonderfully complex. Desolation of Avenues Untold is the kind of narrative that can poke fun at academia while also surreptitiously celebrating all film-related obsessions, and that often happens in the same page. Civil Coping Mechanisms is one of the best indie presses out there because they constantly publish work that has nothing to do with whatever they’ve previously published, and this book is one of the strangest, most multilayered entries into their impressive catalog.  - Gabino Iglesias

What a romp and whirlwind Brandon Hobson has produced with Desolation of Avenues Untold, a novel so varying and dynamic it defies easy classification. Like Hobson's first novel, Deep Ellum, which was set in Dallas, Desolation is set in Texas, in a mythical city called Desolation City, whose streets more than a little resemble those of New York. But that's just the beginning of the simulacra peppered throughout this novel that falls somewhere between postmodern satire and Bolaño-esque noir.
The story concerns the search for alleged pornographic film reels made by Charlie Chaplin. Everybody seems to want these films, and some will go to ridiculous lengths to get them. At the center of all this turmoil, we find the hapless Bornfeldt (Born) Chaplin, a divorced, middle school guidance counselor in his mid-forties, shuffling along through life, trying to stave off ennui with marijuana and classic rock. Born is a man whose twelve-year-old son seems brighter than he is and a man who unfortunately possesses the surname Chaplin. All around him lurk unseen mysteries and dangers: an underground snuff-film club, a corrupt Oklahoma politician, a commune of dwarves practicing witchcraft, rampant and perhaps rabid armadillos, tornadoes, petty criminals, drug addicts, and ghosts of forgotten Hollywood stars. You'll want to imagine this novel alongside other acclaimed "alt-lit" favorites such as Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot, and even Infinite Jest: fragmented, multivalent, and prophetic. In fact, you might say this book is indebted to such works, that it borrows and outright steals from them in a Kathy Acker sort of way. Or maybe these synchronicities are simply inevitable.
The emotional and physical landscapes in this book are manifold. Besides the basic story lines, there are disparate intermittent vignettes threaded into the narrative, some only loosely related to Charlie Chaplin. Some are muted and just add texture, but one, a particularly well-written piece about a couple who chance their luck at a Nevada casino, could stand alone as an excellent short story. This section takes the reader deep inside of gambling culture (a distracting, void-filling endeavor), exposes the woman to self-proclaimed "superstitious people," and perhaps more than anything showcases Hobson's storytelling ability and topical range.
Sometimes the novel has a bit of a Robert Durst true-crime, Texas-macabre feel. At times you feel like a guest at a party hosted by the Manson family. Like in one scene, when Born gets invited to a party full of strangers, whose enthusiastic host chums it up with everyone in the room, laughing all the while, then casually sets up a projector and starts a film called Beasts and Boys. The film is horrendous, involving stuff I don't even want to type, but the response from the crowd is one of casual enjoyment. This is a ritual to these people, as natural and innocuous as brushing one's teeth. Throughout the novel we are reminded of subcultures we'd like to forget exist, but never for long. Just like in life, when people seek distractions from the difficulties they daily endure, distractions which are examined throughout this text, the novel itself gives relief to the reader with hilarious turns, as in a catalogue of "snuff" films that includes one described as, "Larry, 24 minutes, 35 mm, Payne. A devout Mennonite comes to terms with being sexually aroused by a man dressed as Ludwig van Beethoven."
With all of its black humor, and its playful use of names—Thom Yorke University; Dr. Richard Swaggert (a jab at the televangelist Jimmy?)—we'd be tempted to shove this novel into the "alt-lit" category and leave it there. And certainly its publisher, Civil Coping Mechanisms, is a preeminent publisher of such titles. But what does "alt-lit" even mean vis-à-vis other works of fiction? Is it just a way to classify something published by an indie press? Is it shorthand for saying that a book is daring and current and wacky and destined to sell few copies?
Of course there has always been a sort of "alt-lit" in America, much of it remaining in the subterranean recesses of our culture, far outside the canon, and only once in a while clawing its way to the light (or attaining fame through censorship), like Tropic of Cancer or Naked Lunch. Perhaps Desolation and its ilk are the contemporary incarnation of that tradition, and indeed some books labeled as "alt-lit" are making it into bookstores and into readers' hands. In other words, the best of these books are more than their fireworks and jokes. And I think this is one of those better books.
At some point in the text, as though establishing a credo for the author himself, a fetish filmmaker says to Born, "The reaction against traditional storytelling of our time is a goddamn bold move. It isn't necessarily what we discover from the acting or imagery as much as what we discover about ourselves. This is what I'm interested in. To blur fiction with nonfiction." Hobson gives us a clue here as to his own intentions: boldness, a blurring of fact and fiction. Like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, this book sometimes feels like a true account of "real" events. The only thing missing is the first person voice. We get historical accounts of Chaplin, personal anecdotes from those who knew him, and excerpts from news articles related to his life. I found myself googling to find out what was real and what wasn't, but then I had to fall back to O'Brien: "Somebody tells a story, let's say, and afterward you ask, 'Is is true?' and if the answer matters, you got your answer." O'Brien was talking about war, but the same applies here. Did it move you? Yes? Then it doesn't matter what is true. The "truth" is what emotional resonance is gleaned from the writing, not facts. Parsing the facts only kills the mood.
And, truth be told, the mood of this book is more serious than comical. More than anything, this novel examines the desperate search for happiness. Everyone wants these Chaplin films, and I'm not exactly sure why. Are money and intrigue and novelty enough to drive people to the ends of the earth? Sadly, it seems for many they are. Perhaps the war metaphor wasn't off base, after all. Perhaps even the warmongers are just looking for happiness.
In a final heartfelt passage, one character says to his struggling brother, "Try not to be so lonely." The brother is a lost kid caught up in something bigger than he is, desperately hoping to give meaning to his life, and who doesn't make the best decisions. Maybe with this passage Hobson wants to challenge the reader. Maybe he is saying, here's what the contemporary world has given you to "not be so lonely": drugs, social media, pornography, gadgets, licit and illicit "entertainment." But isn't something wrong with those false solutions to happiness? Not wrong in a moral sense, just vapid and sometimes icky and admittedly absurd? That's the universalism of this novel. Aren't we all just searching for happiness? Aren't we all trying to not be lonely? - Jason Christian

          I’m probably not the intended audience for Desolation of Avenues Untold, by Brandon Hobson, though my experience of reading the book was singular. It’s a decidedly unusual work of fiction, a drug-induced exploration of fringe culture and true loneliness, out last year from Civil Coping Mechanisms Press. The book is also centered around old and silent film, particularly Charlie Chaplin movies, not a single one of which I’ve ever seen in entirety.
Yes, you read that right: I’ve never really watched a Charlie Chaplin movie. So I was initially nonplussed by the book’s central mystery, which focuses on a collective obsession with obtaining elusive film reels of Charlie Chaplin porn. The book’s main character, Bornfeldt Chaplin, is suspected of possessing these reels, and spends the entire book at the center of an increasingly sinister plot to obtain them. One group stalking Chaplin is a fetish film aficionado club, men who post and view clips with titles like Ye Olde Rotten Tooth and Bad Nuns on a site called GrindTube. The members are social outcasts, people like candy delivery driver Steve Tanasco, who wears loose-fitting Hawaiian shirts and applies white cream to his arms and chest to control his seborrheic dermatitis; and Richard Swaggert, the group’s leader, who started the club post-suicide instead of joining a 12-step group. “By nature we’re voyeurs,” Swaggert declares during one meeting, “born to watch flesh, interest in others’ private lives, interested in fucking, in ogling, in replica. Beasts, all of us. Everybody has a front they’re trying to impose onto others.”
Desolation uses the endless search for Charlie Chaplin porn to illustrate the futility and isolation associated with pursuit of the taboo. The grindhouse film group’s newest member, Eddie Salvador, finds himself pulled into increasingly ogle-worthy scenarios. In one scene, Eddie and his brother Sal travel to film a formicophiliac—a man who claims to be sexually aroused by insects crawling on his skin. Upon arrival, Eddie and Sal encounter a community of angry little people armed with shotguns, who bludgeon both men, and drag Sal into the forest by his hair. In another scene, Eddie and another grindhouse friend feed an old dog Oxycodone and Xylitol, then watch it seize and slowly die.
But the book is mostly about Bornfelt Chaplin (no relation to Charlie, of course), who falls squarely into a character category I like to call “literary sad sacks.” I keep encountering them in contemporary fiction: overweight middle-aged men who wake alone and lumber off to alienating jobs. A post-divorce high school guidance counselor, Born wanders about town smoking weed, drinking, and struggling to parent his high-functioning autistic son, who’s visiting for the week. Sometimes I wish writers like Hobson would extend greater sympathy to their sad sacks by allowing them to act and change, even as I know books like Desolation are focused on how loneliness makes action and change impossible. “He knew this: he loved his son. He loved women. He loved getting stoned and listening to classic rock. What else?” There isn’t much. Trapped in his depression, Born slows the book to a narrative crawl, even as he contemplates adult life in painfully accurate ways: “I don’t get to live with my son 365 days a year anymore, which is hard on both of us,” Born thinks, as he takes his son to supper at McDonalds, and wonders about buying him clothes. “In return,” writes Hobson, “he carried an enormous amount of guilt he always tried to ease by buying things to make Will happy. Maybe that was wrong, but he didn’t care; it made them both feel better.” Maybe to compensate for Born’s meandering mediocrity, each chapter in the book is quite short, and POV shifts frequently. Some chapters are articles, or overheard conversations, evoking a multimodal pastiche.
That collage-like quality is the most interesting thing about Desolation. The book’s setting—the sunbaked and distinctly sinister Desolate City, or D.C.—is haunting and pleasingly strange, its texture developing over iterations set among the various character dramas. Located deep in west Texas, Desolate City is a replica of New York City, but stuck with a big armadillo problem and replete with Hollywood ghosts. “Wispy figures shambled through the darkened streets after dark, past the abandoned diners and old store shops lining the downtown cobbled streets, walking in alleys between buildings, seen in old dark-windowed tenements. The ghosts of silent movie stars Lon Chaney, Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., plus gunslingers, outlaws, flappers and prostitutes who occupied the second story of the old, abandoned Nugget Hotel.” The atmosphere is grainy and spare, coming to rest on unexpected details in a way that occasionally channels David Foster Wallace.
Near the book’s end, I did connect with one of Hobson’s characters, Ross Bryant, another grindhouse film fan who spends his nights in the company of webcam girls. During one overheard snippet, Ross speaks into a mute, unresponsive computer screen: “I feel, I don’t know, like I’m missing out on something. I’m not sure what it is. It’s that I feel so empty and synthetic. I go through the days like nothing is wrong, living a lie about myself, my life. What’s it called when you have those feelings of depression but you’re not really depressed?” Reading Desolation over a couple of warm summer afternoons, I recalled times when my own life was as emotionally raw and infested as the book’s grimy world. Like Ross, I had feelings of depression without actually being depressed.
With that said, would I recommend Desolation of Avenues Untold? That depends on how much of a voyeur you are. If you’re “born to watch flesh,” with an insatiable “interest in others’ private lives,” I predict you’ll experience a scab-picking type of glee at witnessing all of the taboo, violent, and just plain bizarre things contained in this book. I think Desolation serves its intended audience well—Hobson’s dark irony and unwillingness to look away could provide a rich form of catharsis. But if you’re like me, and disturbing stuff sticks with you, proceed with caution. The book’s moods are unforgettable, and you may find armadillos scuttling about in your dreams long after you’ve left Desolate City. -      

Deep Ellum by Brandon Hobson

Brandon Hobson, Deep Ellum, Calamari Press, 2014.

“DEEP ELLUM is a novel of beauty and power, about family and transcending family, lives unwinding even as they tangle together. Brandon Hobson writes luminescent prose of hard-edged, quiet intensity. His narrator owns a voice at once mysterious and intimate, like a long-lost, slightly suspect friend returning to tell you how the world really is. In a mere 120 pages, Hobson fashions a universe so vivid you can read it in one sitting and stagger back to the world entranced.”  —Jerry Stahl

“Both dreamy and gritty, bleak and oblique, DEEP ELLUM treads the sketchy margins of Dallas, following one young man as he tries to reconnect with his family and reconcile his mystifying past with his uncertain present. Brandon Hobson’s mordant portrait of the lost and damaged among us recalls the estranged, drifting world of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.” —Stewart O’Nan

“Among all the bloated bookstore shelves with bloated books by bloated major presses there’s Calamari Press and Brandon Hobson’s DEEP ELLUM—sleek and powerful like some bright firework rising from the bloat. I feel lucky to have discovered this book.” —Shane Jones

“If Dickens had written Through the Looking Glass or Alice in Wonderland, the result might have been Brandon Hobson’s magically irreal and raw take, taking us deep into DEEP ELLUM. This fever-dreamed novel is adept at offering a gripping journey, scored without traction, not slippery but mired up to its one-thousand-yard staring eyeballs in that delicious sensation of general dread, that exhausted exhausted static velocity, all that going, going nowhere very very fast.” —Michael Martone

“It's a real gem! A dirty, rotten gem!” Chiara Barzini
Reviews, interviews & excerpts:
A Jaunt Through Deep Ellum With Brandon Hobson

Image result for Brandon Hobson, The Levitationist,
Brandon Hobson, The Levitationist, Triple Press, Ravenna Press, 2005.                        

The Levitationist is brilliant and sinister, full of the marvelous and unexpected, wild yet measured, with the surreal, hermetic logic of dreams or prophecy. "It's either our imagination or the plumbing," one of Brandon Hobson's searching and tortured characters guesses, and he's right: it's the continual fairytale transformation from the mundane to the insane that gives this magical book its lift.
Stewart O'Nan
She left parts of herself around the house for her promiscuous husband to find. It became a sort of game. When he came home early in the mornings, after staying out all night, he would often find a mouth, a hand or tongue, a breast, at times even a finger. She never once left her vagina for him. She kept it hidden, as always, in the one place she knew he would never look.

Conjunctions 68, “Terlingua” (forthcoming)
NOON (2017) “Chicken” and “The Damn Fool”
Elm Leaves Journal, Winter 2016, “Human”
Conjunctions 66, “The Cardinal”
The Paris Review Daily, “All In”
NOON (2016), “The Man with All the Booze and Money,” “Where the Geese Flew Low to the Water” and “In Bloom”
The Collagist, Aug 2015, excerpt from Desolation
NOON (2015), “Live Thing” and “The Turn”
Conjunctions 63, “From The Book of a Thousand Deaths”
Impose Magazine, “Avenue B”
The Oklahoma Review, Fall 2014, excerpt from Desolation
NOON (2014), “Past the Econolodge” (winner of a 2016 Pushcart Prize)
Post Road #25, fall 2013, “Red Owl”
The Paris Review Daily, “Yellow Sky”
Keyhole Online, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”
Birkensnake 6, “Quantum Physics”
Wigleaf, “The Point”
Midwestern Gothic 9, “Cohasset River”
NOON (2013), “Mildred Thorn” and “Cat”
The Literarian, Dec. 2012, “Chet Baker’s Son”
Puerto Del Sol, 47.1 Summer 2012, “Girl Enclosed in Glass”
New York Tyrant, Vol. 4, No. 1, “Clyde Roy”
Web Conjunctions (Feb 2012) “Disfigurement”
Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial. Cal Morgan, Ed., “Granaby”
NOON (2012), “Deep Ellum,” “I was No Longer a Kid or Dog,” and “Otto”
The Lifted Brow (Feb 2012), “A Person of Great Feeling and Conscience”
Hobart Web (Dec 2011),  “Amir”
The Lifted Brow, no. 9, “I am Alert to Slow Moving Things.”
Gigantic, Issue 3, “Good Behavior”
NOON (2011) “Many Pictures that Were Colorful,” “Please,” and “I Like Vaginas”
New World Writing, Fall 2010, “The Killing Fields of Cheong Ek”
Trnsfr, Issue 4., “Hunters”
New York Tyrant, Vol. 3, No. 2., “Downtown” and “Cake”
NOON (2010), “I Waited for Meg” and “Inez”
No Colony, Issue 2, Winter 2009, “My Stepfather Gave Us Whiskey.”
NOON (2009), “Somewhere,” “Gas Station,” and “We’re Safe Here”
Gustaf 2 (Norway). Number 3. Fall 2009, “Gods” and “Crab Apple”
elimae, 2008, “The Little Door”
NOON (2008), “Work” and “The Single Whip”
Narrative Magazine. January, 2007, “A Place for Us”
elimae, 2005, “Devils”
Smokelong Quarterly. 2004. Printed in Smokelong Annual 2003-04, “The Floating”
Diagram 4.1, “The Joy of Eating Raw Flesh”
Diagram 2.3, reprinted in Diagram, Del Sol Press, 2003.  “Signals and Pathos”
Sleepingfish 0, 2003, “All for Her is Imposed for Certain Self” and “Animal Healer”
Word Riot, 2002, “The Father Had a Revelation”

Brandon Hobson, Where the Dead Sit Talking, Soho Press, 2018.