Ace, November 25, 1998
My Vita If You Will by Ed McClanahan. Counterpoint. Reviewed by P. Michael Campbell.
Ed McClanahan was one of the Merry Pranksters riding on the wild drug-and-anarchy Ken Kesey bus expedition that inspired Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, and he made a name for himself, in part, by writing about such counterculture cowboys and icons as The Grateful Dead and the wild Neal Cassady, who both drove the infamous Kesey bus and was the model for one of the central characters (Dean Moriarty) in Jack Kerouac's On the Road. But, if McClanahan is, in one sense, the sixties incarnate, he is also something considerably more timeless and invaluable: he is a fine writer, with a gift for getting at the comic essences of characters and situations... and My Vita, If You Will, is McClanahan's wonderfully funny "new" collection of McClanahan's work.
[A couple chapters will be familiar to Ace readers, as they were first published here -- such as the memoir on his late professor, Bob Hazel.]
McClanahan is strikingly honest here about his own career. Describing the too-serious, Brechtian style he began writing in prior to his counterculture awakening, McClanahan reduces the whole in-your-face school of hyper-realism to a few well-selected, all-too-familiar images: "flashing neon signs, fly-specked mirrors, and characters whose eyes could be likened in various ways to black holes." Thankfully, McClanahan matures or evolves out of this stage and into the breezy, clever, clownish, puckish, comic-ironic voice he's famous for. And, in My Vita, If You Will, a collection of previously uncollected writings spanning McClanahan's multi-decade career, we see this evolutionary process sped-up in a sort of time-lapse-documentary with voice-over comments by the more mature author.
The book is full of flashbacks and flash-forwards, sideways glances, and marginal observations: it's part memoir, part essay collection, part stand-up comic monologue. You can read it cover to cover, or jump around in it, following whatever thread or thought catches your fancy. Wherever you turn in it, though, you're bound to find something worth reading.