oddmonster (oddmonster) wrote in bookish,

Review: American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story, by Cynthia True

# 88: American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story by Cynthia True:

Throughout junior high, Commando Tag was Bill's favorite game after baseball. Most evenings after supper a gang of neighborhood boys met at Nottingham Elementary, which provided any number of excellent places to hide amid the low classroom buildings and playground equipment. Once everyone had hidden, two It commandos roamed around trying to hunt the others. Once you tagged a guy, he too became a commando. Bill loved being outdoors at dusk, with the fireflies flashing and the cicadas screeching. The game got really interesting when the sun went down just after nine o'clock and huge packs of boys roamed around in the dark trying to trap each other.

Synopsis: Biography of proto-shock comic Bill Hicks, from his traditional Houston upbringing, through his attempts at breaking into Hollywood screenwriting and getting thrown out of every comedy club anyone ever heard of, to the Letterman showdown and beyond.

Anyone who's ever listened to Bill Hicks' standup sets can't deny the raw power behind them, the rage and disillusionment channeled through a hyper-intelligent filter which lays out the hypocrisy of American politics and entertainment in all its wart-bellied, pus-dripping horror. But this same unbridled, biting wit, combined with, at points, a drug and alcohol problem, led to Hicks being booted off and out of nearly every place he ever performed at. Most notable of these is his final appearance on Letterman where, after having his acerbic, critical set vetted by the producers of the show, the entire piece was axed. It was a move Hicks--then entering the final stages of pancreatic cancer--never forgave or recovered from.

Now, I've heard the infamous Letterman set. I've heard it on audio and, earlier this year when Letterman experienced a mysterious change of heart and, sixteen years after the fact, made a full and heartfelt apology to Hicks' mother for the incident, I've finally seen it performed. It really has to be experienced to be believed.

But that's not true of this book.

The first part, from Hicks' Houston childhood up to the point his best friend leaves him for college and Hicks himself heads to Hollywood, is pretty compelling, but that's largely because of who Hicks was, not due to any inherent majesty of storytelling. From there, things go downhill fairly quickly.

Here's the thing: if you're going to describe the career of any person x in industry y, you have to do two things.

One, you have to make sure x is an interesting guy. Okay, check. This book has that.

And two, y needs to be broken down into a series of personalities and challenges, places and achievements in order to weave the full texture of a time a place and a person.

I'm convinced, biography-wise, that in the right hands, the story of a boll-weevil exterminator and his attempts to reform the exterminating industry could be downright fascinating. This book, on the other hand, is not.

True makes no effort to round out the people and places Hicks encountered, and instead tosses them at the reader rapid-fire style and hopes the reader is, what, overwhelmed by the glamor of smalltime comedy clubs? Astounded at the number of people Hicks managed to piss off during his brief lifetime? It's a strange and somewhat indefensible choice for a biographer to make. I came to read about Bill Hicks, not some guy he once walked off the stage to punch in 1988. Although I'm sure with the right biographer, that guy would be fascinating, too.

Top that off with an insipid and overwhelmed introduction by Janeane Garofalo and what we have here is a big pile of fail between brightly painted covers.

Instead of going anywhere near this book, listen to Hicks' routines and decide for yourself: American hero or junkie ragebag whiner?

Thank you, I'll be here all night. Don't forget to tip your waitress.

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