After nearly two decades of screaming his larynx to ribbons in a series of hard-core punk bands, Sam McPheeters was prepared for his second life as a novelist.
“There are a lot of parallels there with being inoculated for rejection,” the 42-year-old says. His tone is about 60 percent deadpan, 40 percent dead serious — which is approximately the ratio that makes his new novel, “Loom of Ruin,” so funny.
It’s a satire skewering Hollywood, late capitalism, and all the red-white-and-blue absurdity McPheeters can cram into the black hole of 21st-century Los Angeles. (He’ll read from it at Joint Custody, a record store in Adams Morgan, on Sunday afternoon.)
As the frontman of one of the funniest, most ferocious and most inexplicably ignored bands of the previous decade, Wrangler Brutes, McPheeters has played to his share of sparse, cross-armed crowds. Before that, he made art-damaged punk in a group called Men’s Recovery Project. And before that, he led Born Against, a troupe that introduced radical-left politics to the mucho-macho world of New York hard-core punk in the early ’90s.
From band to band, McPheeters transformed from an angry young man into a funny middle-aged man, penning short stories for self-published fanzines and essays that appeared in the Village Voice and Vice magazine. His strangely brutal whimsy reached a peak in 2008 with “Clog,” a zine of short stories about drunk martial artists, lawsuits against Jared Leto and something called “the punishment bathroom.” McPheeters originally conceived “Loom of Ruin” as a series of serial fanzines, but ended up bundling it into novel form.
The book’s plot swirls around a perpetually enraged loner named Trang Yang, who also happens to be the most successful Chevron franchise owner on Earth. An ensemble cast flesh out the narrative — the former child actors who work for him, the Chevron suits who spy on him, the authorities who want to crush him — each presented in their own shade of pathetic. “There’s not one character in here that I was sad to bump off,” McPheeters says. “And a lot of people get beat up.”
McPheeters says his influences should be obvious: Kurt Vonnegut, John Kennedy Toole, Richard Brautigan and a recently resurrected television comedy. “I had been watching ‘Arrested Development’ obsessively, to the point where I could recite the dialogue,” McPheeters says. “If you watch it 20 times, it’s absurdist comedy that they disguise as something else.”
In “Loom of Ruin,” McPheeters’s brand of absurdity ranges from subtle (Barack Obama experiencing a moment of ennui in the Situation Room) to not-so-much (Las Vegas rock band the Killers dying in a freak bus wreck in Puerto Rico).
And while it’s his first published novel, it’s not the first he’s written. McPheeters has been toiling over his first book since 1990, but needed to shelf it and try something new. “I just got that wall of rejection that all writers get,” he says. “I realized that if I didn’t jump back on real quick, it was just going to be a scene cut and then I would be in my late 60s, complaining to my three friends about how I’d been screwed by the publishing industry.”
To promote the book, he’s revisiting the D.I.Y. tactics he learned in the punk scene, leaving his home in Pomona, Calif., for a self-booked, 40-city tour of independent bookstores, record shops, art galleries, coffeehouses and tattoo parlors. “I have all this preexisting goodwill and people that will give me the time of day,” he says.
When he gets home, he’ll center his attention on Exploded View Quarterly, a literary magazine of fiction, humor, journalism, photography and graphic design he’s planning to launch with Jesse Pearson, the former editor in chief of Vice.
“We’re hoping to plug the gap between the boredom of serious, quote-unquote, lit magazines and the saccharine twee-ness of hip lit mags,” McPheeters says. “I think there’s a big gulf there.”
He’s right. The shelf space between academia and the McSweeney’s empire seems his for the taking.
will read from “Loom of Ruin” at Joint Custody, 2337 18th St. NW, Sunday at 2 p.m. He will also give a spoken-word performance across the street at Smash! Records, 2314 18th St. NW, Sunday at 5:30 p.m.