Photo of Duff Brenna on book tour in Bend, Oregon Cover of Murdering the Mom, a memoir by Duff Brenna Cover of Minnesota Memoirs, short stories by Duff Brenna Cover of The Book of Mamie, a novel by Duff Brenna

“This cult favorite in the making has a lot to offer. By turns, it’s a vulgarly, howlingly funny and deeply poignant blue-plate special of a book.”

—Thomas Gaughan, Booklist, 15 March 1996

Reviews: The Holy Book of the Beard

Full Text of Reviews

Sleepless in San Diego
Review by Nicholas Birns
New York Times Book Review, 17 March 1996

A picaresque tale and a downtown San Diego setting seem an unlikely combination. But this conjunction of familiar genre and unexpected place is part of what makes Duff Brenna’s second novel so entertaining. San Diego makes up for its lack of bohemian reputation compared to, say, New Orleans, by being relatively uncharted territory. In addition, the cultural novelty of the Sun Belt provides a nice metaphorical background for the personal odysseys of the characters.

Mr. Brenna’s work has been compared to that of countercultural staples like Ken Kesey and John Kennedy Toole. It’s not surprising, then, that The Holy Book of the Beard is a showcase for the raffish, the down-and-out, and the free-spirited. But Mr. Brenna also maintains a level of calculated yet amusing allusiveness. His real kindred spirit is Thomas Pynchon — the Pynchon of Vineland perhaps, but Pynchon nonetheless. One of the primary antagonisms of the book, that between the protagonist, Jasper John, and the near-criminal Henry Hank, mirrors that between Zoyd Wheeler and Brock Vond in the Pynchon novel. And, like Vineland, Mr. Brenna’s book provides a pleasurable, humorous narrative filled with erudite “in” jokes.

The aforementioned Jasper John is a 22-year-old post-hippie proto-slacker who steams into San Diego on his motorcycle in search of squalor and inspiration. He finds both working in a diner run by Fat Stanley, a lonely but amiable middle-aged man perpetually looking for love in the personals column of the San Diego newspapers. Since he is young, Jasper needs to learn hard lessons about life from his elders. Yet, as a newcomer, he can see more of his acquaintances’ experiences than they can themselves — and he has the added bonus of being untainted by their disappointments and lowered expectations. Jasper quickly finds friendship and camaraderie among his fellow workers, especially the middle-aged waitresses Helga and Mary, who tell him the incongruously sad and intermittently comical stories of their own unfulfilled lives.

Jasper also finds love in the person of Didi Godunov, an extremely attractive aspiring poet who dreams of winning the Yale Younger Poets Award. These friendships, and Jasper’s reluctant acquaintance with that guru of sleaze, Henry Hank, form the main relationships in the novel, yet they’re relationships that don’t evolve in quite the way we expect. Fat Stanley, for instance, intially seems to be merely a grotesque, but he emerges as the unobtrusive moral center of the narrative — and his personal ads play off this theme. In a similar fashion, Helga the foul-mouthed waitress also seems like a loser. But by the time she finally succumbs to cancer, we have come to acknowledge the true magnitude of her gritty struggle for survival. Like Jasper, we are forced to confront the uncomfortable realization that our notions about success and failure need to be loosened up considerably.

For all its bawdy humor, The Holy Book of the Beard has many serious concerns. This depth is suggested by the allusiveness of the characters’ names. Consider, for example, the double play in Didi Godunov, as Mr. Brenna manages to refer to both Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Mussorgsky’s opera. Beckett’s play is referred to again, even more directly, in the person of one of the diner’s regular patrons, Godot, an aging professor of religion who maintains a faded, Beatnik-era ideology and is the philosophical spokesman for many of the values learned by the young Jasper, whose virtues do not include intellectual discernment. Godot perceives himself to be under pressure at his university from both the censorious Right and the multicultural Left, and ends up giving in to his adversaries in a painfully literal fashion.

Before Godot does this, however, he contrives a way to outflank the opposition by coming up with a pornographic rewrite of Romeo and Juliet, on which Jasper and Didi collaborate. The results of their labors, which are amusing though undistinguished, provide an unexpected gloss on the lofty search for beauty and transcendance — in a particularly tawdry outward form. This quest is also seen in Didi Godunov’s poetry. Her yearning to emulate Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton is misconceived (after all, who would want to follow the tragic example of these poets’ lives?), yet admirable for its sheer ambition.

Didi and Jasper are both aspiring writers, and their discussions about the craft are both freewheeling and far reaching. But Jasper can never understand Didi’s dreams. In the classic picaresque mode, his high jinks are also the means of his education. At the end of the book he has graduated from aimlessness and is ready to make a more enduring commitment — but perhaps not to Didi. And it is clear that the friends he has made at Fat Stanley’s diner have taught him some unexpected lessons.

The Holy Book of the Beardshould not be underestimated. Loaded with all the ingredients of an underground classic, engrossing and uproarious, it is nearly impossible to put down — particularly after the second chapter, whose memorable title, “Superfluity of Naughtiness,” can be read as a credo for the entire book. Most important, though, Mr. Brenna writes with an honesty and vigor that make his characters and his vision matter.

(Copyright Nicholas Birns. All rights reserved.)

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The Holy Book of the Beard
Review by John Glassie
Time Out New York, 13-20 March 1996

Duff Brenna’s second novel is a ribald, raw and, as its title suggests, religious book. Brenna, whose well-received 1988 debut was The Book of Mamie, casts dive bars and greasy spoons as uniquely American altars where the unlucky, the unconventional, and the unemployed come to pray.

It is in just such a place — a San Diego diner — where the Harley-riding, part-time college student Jasper John goes to work as a busboy, to grow his beard and test out various theories on life. There, he encounters a roster of characters that reads like a week’s worth of blue-plate specials:

Fat Stanley, the diner’s owner and chef, who sings opera while flipping cheap steaks, spends his free time answering personal ads. Helga Martin, a tough middle-aged waitress, “is dying of cancer. It pisses her off.” Mary Quick, another waitress and former prostitute, “smells of lavender powder puff and cigarettes.” Jasper’s girlfriend, Didi Godunov, a student who “looks very fatal,” writes bad poetry (“Love could teach my ass to dance”) and dreams of becoming the next Sylvia Plath. Another regular at the diner, Godot (repeat: Godot) is a notoriously well-hung untenured professor of religious studies who has written a pornographic screen adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.

All these folks have an influence of some sort on Jasper, but it’s the live-free-or-die “philosophies” of Henry Hank to which he really falls prey. “The Hank” dies his Abe Lincoln beard with black shoe polish, has one front tooth, and has lived by one rule: “If it feels good, it is good, and fuck any motherfucker who says pain is gain and your reward comes after youz die. Whoever says that is a lying sack of shit...” Together, Jasper and Henry booze it up, chase women, rob dry-cleaning stores, and generally get into trouble.

All this sometimes feels like a lost episode of the TV sitcom Alice, written and directed by the young John Waters. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But it’s not quite that simple. Brenna is attempting to walk a very thin line — right where things at their extreme become their opposite: cliché becomes parody; the outrageous becomes normal; the secular becomes spiritual; and living on the edge becomes plain old living. Sometimes erring on one side or the other, Brenna hits the mark more often than not.

(Copyright John Glassie. All rights reserved.)

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The Holy Book of the Beard
Review by Publishers Weekly, 1 January 1996

Starred review, which designates a book of unusual interest and merit:

Amid unmistakable signs of physical, spiritual, and social decay, an oddly hopeful sense of community endures among the motley cast of eccentric misfits captured in Brenna’s enthralling second novel. Set around Fat Stanley’s diner in East San Diego, this alternately sad, funny, grotesque, and sexy yarn centers on Jasper John, a 23-year-old busboy and part-time college student who left Colorado on an unreliable Harley to start a new life in California.

Good-hearted Fat Stanley, a frustrated tenor who occasionally sings arias for his customers while cooking lunch, tends to hire waitresses with serious health problems — Helga is receiving chemotherapy; Mary Quick pops nitroglycerin for her heart. Among the customers, Godot, a rundown religion professor under attack by fundamentalists, and Henry Hand, Mary’s charismatic, troublemaking ex-pimp husband, become strong influences on the searching Jasper.

Vivd characters, rich dialogue, and spellbinding narrative make this odd mix of tragedy, myth, and ribaldry memorable and often moving. If the lingering denouement is a bit unsatisfying, the journey there is sheer delight.

(Copyright Publishers Weekly. All rights reserved.)

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