Peter Sotos, Tick (Creation, 2000)
[originally posted 19Sep2000]
All hail the new Sotos.
Chicago’s demented master of journalistic debauchery has returned with another look at what makes America’s criminals so notoriously American, that underbelly of anticulture, epidemia, slime, drugs, free love, and contempt that few Americans are even aware exists, and those few know it because either they’re involved or the name “Cabrini Green” rings a bell because they saw it in a Clive Barker film.
Some would have you believe that Sotos’ work is pornography, a view that Creation seems to subscribe to; at least, “Peter Sotos Pornography” is emblazoned upon the back of both the last two Sotos works. It’s certainly good for shock value. But is it really the case? [ed. note: 2013: a rep from Creation Books told me soon after this review was originally published that the back cover was, in fact, designed by Sotos rather than Creation.]
In the popular definition of the term, perhaps. Sotos reports on, and revels in, the prurient. He shows us what most of us would rather not see. In the two hundred twenty-two pages of Tick, we are handed the case of Girl X, which made a very brief splash in the newspapers and brought the name Cabrini Green back to the frontal lobes. We’re given JonBenet Ramsey’s autopsy report, as gruesomely amusing as it was. We’re told the side of the Matthew Shepard killing that most news reporters refused to report—that Shepard’s killing was “most likely” drug-related and had nothing to do with his sexual orientation. It’s tabloid journalism without the pictures and the necessity for self-censorship that one is required to follow if one wants to have one’s work published in the Weekly World News.
But the court’s definition of pornography is more stringent. Prurience is not the only requirement; the work must also serve no social purpose. This is the great paradox of obscenity law. It can be argued, and strongly, that any depiction of society’s dank underbelly serves a social purpose, be that purpose reform or simply exposure. Whether we want to see the spectacle isn’t the issue, and of course we’re all aware that Americans, as a culture, will cause traffic jams by slowing down to look at particularly gruesome auto accidents. Couldn’t you argue, in light of the cases of Girl X and JonBenet Ramsey, or the handful of other missing-child cases Sotos mentions, that keeping these things in the forefronts of the minds of parents is a public service? A social necessity, even?
Sure. And you’d be right.
Couldn’t you argue, in light of Americans’ appalling ignorance about HIV and AIDS, that a detailed understanding of its transmission is essential not only to every man who puts himself at risk, but every woman married to such a man?
Sure. And you’d be right.
If you wanted to strike out into the grey areas of the law, you could make the case that well-written personal experience is more likely to stick in the head than dry textbook relation. Who gets more listeners around the fire, the Ben Stein wannabe or the jolly old chap who makes up voices for each character and punctuates with hand gestures?
Make no mistake, Sotos is a gifted writer. When he lapses into the rhythm and dictions of a third-grader, made-up words and all, he does so for a purpose. When he wants to be, which is most of the time, Sotos is precise, collected. Not detached– after a certain amount of immersion, it is impossible to be detached– but this is a man who never loses his head, a voracious reader who drops literary allusions with the frequency and obscurity of an Ezra Pound. Just because the parallels he’s drawing have to do with dead teenagers as opposed to a world war doesn’t make them less valid.
Peter Sotos may be tasteless. Peter Sotos may be prurient. But he is also effective. And he is necessary. ****