two-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
By: 
Dale Peck
user_rating: 
0

Cutting Through Contemporary Literature

A-HatchetJobsPeck has gained such notoriety that his name is now brandished as a weapon. To "peck" an author is to disparage, abuse, or otherwise bludgeon his or her work with invective. In this collection of 12 book reviews, many previously published in The New Republic, the critically acclaimed novelist delivers his no-holds-barred verdicts on the fiction of David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, and Julian Barnes, to name a few. Besides the peppering of calumny in each review (he labeled Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back "the most lazily written book I’ve ever read"), his cut-to-the-quick analyses of a writer’s defects, his reflections on great literature, and his insights into what’s missing in contemporary fiction raise his criticism above the bombast.
The New Press. 228 pages. $23.95.
ISBN: 1565848748

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Dale Peck’s Hatchet Jobs is a series of 12 exemplary variations on the literary critic as hit man. The reader can share the fun and games, witnessing the rare bravado of a critic who is uniformly interesting and evidently fearless …" George Garrett

Atlantic Monthly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In his meticulous attention to diction, his savage wit, his exact and rollicking prose, his fierce devotion to stylistic and intellectual precision, and—of course—his disdain for pseudo-intellectual flatulence, Peck is Mencken’s heir …" Benjamin Schwarz

New York Observer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"I actually enjoy Mr. Peck’s hysterical, off-with-their-heads ad hominems, and I admire his talent for making fun of dopey passages in books he doesn’t like. … Missing from Hatchet Jobs, however, is the connective tissue that makes for a coherent essay." Adam Begley

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
Having read most of the pieces in Hatchet Jobs before reading this collection, I didn’t always agree with Peck’s conclusions, but I always found myself at least rethinking my views of his subjects because Peck always makes you work and he always makes you think. … He just doesn’t make you work and think hard enough." David Wiegand

Chicago Sun-Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Peck is a solid analyst. … unfortunately, Peck isn’t much fun. … [T]here’s no lift to Peck’s pronouncements, no real sizzle or sass." Lloyd Sachs

Denver Post 0.5 of 5 Stars
"One wonders why anyone bothered to publish this drivel, but someone has, and it illustrates the worst shortcoming of reviewers." David Milofsky

New York Times 0.5 of 5 Stars
"… he leans on words with primary colors, like terrible, bloated, boring and gratuitous; hate, resent, stale and slather; maudlin, dreck, drivel and insipid; muddled, pretentious, derivative and bathetic--not to mention scatologies that can’t be reprinted here. … He promises never to do it again, but the very title Hatchet Jobs reeks of market niche, an underground service like fumigation or garbage recycling." John Leonard

Critical Summary

There is some truth to Peck’s claim that his critics are more interested in "the possibility of a brawl" than in what he has to say about today’s fiction. Reviewers say they can’t fathom how the highly regarded author of the novel Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye and What We Lost, the story of his father’s 1950s childhood, has the audacity to vilify his colleagues. Although reviewers feel scandalized, disgusted, or fascinated by his sweeping condemnations (is Rick Moody really "the worst writer of his generation"?), most focus more on Peck’s vulgarities than on the content of his critiques. Of the minority who confess that they looked twice at his reviews, many agree that they are entertaining, incisive, and worth all the hype.

Supplemental Reading

AS-ReadersManifestoA Reader’s Manifesto An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness of American Literary Prose | B.R. Myers (2002): 3 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2003. A scathing attack on contemporary literature—we agreed far more often than we disagreed.

AS-WhatWeLostWhat We Lost | Dale Peck (2003): Peck tells the story of his father who, at age 14, was essentially kidnapped by his own father from his impoverished Long Island home and taken to live and work at his uncle’s farm in upstate New York. A year later, his mother comes to take him back from what has become a rewarding life.