Tuesday, March 19, 2013

reviews of Ed Hamilton's books

chelsea hotel photo: sid vicious vicious-sid-chelsea-hotel-4900133.jpgI prefer going into a book reading without knowing anything about the book other than what I can glean from the front and back cover, plus a quick scan through its inside pages (99% of the books I read are non-fiction so they often contain photographs). But this wasn't the case with Ed Hamilton's Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living with the Artists and Outlaws of New York's Rebel Mecca.  Two weeks ago Ed Hamilton contacted me, expressing gratitude for the kind words I had written in a review about his short, non-fiction piece called "Dee Dee's Challenge" that was included in a collection of Rock music tales titled Experienced. "Dee Dee's Challenge" was two and half pages of sharp and focused journal writing, an engaging and economic burst that packed a punch similar to one of the two minute adreneline-soaked punk anthems that Dee Dee Ramone might have written in his hey day. I admired Hamilton's short story immediately and I made myself a note to track down Hamilton's larger work Legends of the Chelsea Hotel and give it a read as soon as possible.

But that had been over a year ago and because I have a busy (and sometimes complicated) life which tends to makes me forgetful, I hadn't gotten around to picking up a copy of it yet. Hamiliton's email reminded me though and I replied to him that I would snag a copy of his book and review it soon. He responded back, offering to send me a free copy. I genuinely appreciated his gesture, but I quickly logged onto the website of my local library and ordered a copy of Legends of the Chelsea Hotel - which was promised to arrive within a week. Then I emailed Hamilton and refused his copy of his book. This might have seemed like a "Don't call me, I'll call you" gesture because I know that offering a reviewer a copy of your book is how things are done.  Not only is it an accepted practice, but its often expected.  However, unless a copy of their book is not available through my library system, I prefer to turn these offers down. The reasons are two-fold. First of all I'm a minimalist. I have a very small collection of about 100 books, seperated into 5 or 6 catagories and I don't have room for any more. The second reason is that I will feel like a heel if someone sends me a gift and then I publicly trash it.

chelsea hotel photo: Chelsea Hotel SNC11687.jpgFortunately in the case of Legends of the Chelsea Hotel I didn't have to worry about this second concern because I liked the book quite a bit. In fact, in retrospect I wish I would have accepted Hamiliton's offer because Legends of the Chelsea Hotel is one of the rare books that would fit perfectly into my small, specific collection (books whose subject matters generally relate to Old, Weird America - Depression era bank robbers, Pin-up girl art work, vinyl record collecting, etc). In his introduction Hamilton describes Legends of the Chelsea Hotel like this:

"...a mix of history and biography, myth and legend, fiction...and non-fiction, memoir and anecdote [that] can most accurately be described as an 'alternative history' or perhaps a 'hisory of an idea' the idea being of course, that of the Chelsea Hotel itself".

What follows in Hamilton's book is all of that and more as he tells of his experiences as a resident of the Chelsea Hotel over more than a decade (beginning in the mid 1990s). And although the narrative is organized chronologically, it has none of the trappings of a chronology because the legends still haunt the halls and rooms and corners of the Chelsea - at least in Hamilton's mind - so that nearly each of the contemporary snapshots that Hamilton shares somehow end up springboarding into these fascinating historical and biographical sketches of the many colorful characters that have called the Chelsea Hotel their home over the years. For instance, as Hamilton writes about being tormented by junkies who continually wreck the shared bathroom on his floor, his narrative gives way to a nice little bio on legendary Beat writer Herbert Huncke. Or while being tormented by a resident who plays Willie Nelson's Christmas album non-stop, Hamilton seamlessly segues into the tribulations of experimental film maker Harry Smith (whose compilation of early folks recordings were influential in the folk revival of the late 50s and early 60s). And so on and so forth.

Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living with the Artists and Outlaws of New York's Rebel MeccaBy the end, these connections - and how Hamilton ties them all together - provide the narrative of Legends of the Chelsea Hotel with a locomotion that goes beyond the mere day-in-the-life snapshots and colorful biographies themselves. These anecdotes and legends and alternative histories come together to weave a beautiful swatch in the fading fabric that once made up the old, weird America of the early to mid 20th century - and Ed Hamilton deserves to be commended for his inspired work that preserves this swatch and explores its relevence, even to contemporary American sensibilities.


A short story collections is kind of like a concept album or mixed tape, each story being like an individual song on the album/tape.  You wonder if/how the songs are related and you wonder about the song order (or story order).  Is there a theme or a concept?  How autobiographical is each song/story?  How much does it reveal about the writer's world vision and philosophy.  I also look for certain hooks, riffs, solos (soliloquys) that either express the writer's creativity or lack thereof.  Albums are interesting because they can be viewed as a whole as well as being viewed in terms of their individual songs - this allows for various things to be going on at different levels all at once.  

For an album to be great it must have a strong opener.  The same goes for a novel or short story collection.  In Ed Hamilton's The Chintz Age "Fat Hippie Books" is the opener.  It introduces a number of themes and motifs that set up further exploration in the stories that follow.  The most central motif that Hamilton introduces in Fat Hippie Books is that of real estate or domicile uncertainty.  In "Fat Hippie Books" a bookstore owner named Greg is conflicted over selling out.  He contemplates scrapping his dreams when he comes face to face with the reality that his rent is about to be jacked up to $4,000 a month.  This conflict and uncertainty that Greg has over the future home of his bookstore ignites the narrative and it represents a reoccurring theme throughout the entire collection of stories.  In the second story "The Chintz Age" Martha (a former squatter who was responsible for having another squatter booted out of a squat) is now leaving her apartment to her daughter.  In "Westside Hotel" (in which the narrator takes a room in the hotel he works at) a hotel building itself is a central character.  In "Plagiarism," a writer named Theo is getting squeezed out of his domicile and needs to convince Kim (the Sandwich Whore) to let him live with her.  "Rock of the Lower East Side" meanwhile begins with the boarding up of a building that the protagonist once lived in and then decides breaks into in order to find closure to a past relationship and come to terms with his lot in life.  "King of the Underground" is about an elderly man who breaks out of a nursing home and finds a new home in the underground dwelling amongst the mole people.  "Highline/Highlife" is the first person account of a writer's life and times in the Highline building.  And "The Retro-Seventies Manhattan Dream Apartment" revolves around the schemes of three female vultures trying to take over a Manhattan guy's apartment.

With each story involving (in some way) domicile uncertainty, Hamilton is able to explore various themes and schemes that revolve around the relationship people have with their homes - specifically people in New York who are in a set of circumstances that is unique from other American cities.  In nearly every story, Hamilton shows us how a person's relationship to their home can affect their relationship with other people and often cause battles that result in a break or a drifting apart of two people who were once very close.  In some cases the change in these relationships cause Hamilton's character's to completely rethink their entire mission in life, their entire value system.

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