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I appear on RT to discuss matters of military corruption and intoxication

After a disturbing video turned up of military contractors in Afghanistan blotto on booze and ketamine (and what good is a war zone if there’s no party?), I was invited on RT to discuss that matter and the tangentially related issue of corruption in the awarding of military contracts. If the discussion seems a little disjointed, it’s likely because anchor Liz Wahl was having technical difficulties. I suspect she couldn’t hear me at all, so I think she carried it off pretty well.

I’m a Reason-able Guy

Horrible pun, I know, but I couldn’t resist. Anyway, I’ve been actively writing for Reason.com, starting almost as soon as I figuratively punched my time card. I have a couple of small pieces turned in for an upcoming issue of the print magazine, and the big project for which I was hired is … coming soon! Really, it’s coming along nicely and I think it will be well-appreciated.

I wrote an online column this past week on the TSA — an especially wise move, since I’m flying next weekend. If you see me limping around, it’s because I rated special attention at the airport security checkpoint. If you’re as big a fan of the airborne (and, increasingly, bus-borne, train-borne and even road-borne) security state, you’ll want to take a peek.

The Terrible Truth About the TSA: It’s a failure at everything it does
We don’t all all agree on whether the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has any business groping toddlers and destroying expensive medical equipment in the pursuit of its appointed mission of keeping travelers safe from scary terrorists. Quotable security expert Bruce Schneier calls it all pointless and oppressive “security theater” intended to make the government look responsive, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) describes intrusive measures as “very important” and pushes for even stronger stuff. But necessary evil or not, it’s increasingly apparent that the TSA is spectacularly inefficient and inept at everything it tries to do. (see more)

Of course, I’ve also been blogging for Reason. I covered Tombstone’s battle with the feds over permission to rebuild its waterlines yesterday, and the growing regulatory burden that’s choking innovation out of charter schools the day before. The full list of my contributions to Reason can be found on my staff page here.

For those who are curious … It’s a great place to work.

The now-inescapable Tooch

Oh sure, you thought you could keep your doses of disloyal opposition down to a tolerable level — no OD for you! But no such luck. You see, I’m now employed by Reason.com, the online incarnation of Reason magazine. That’s right, that’s me right there. Try to avoid me, now!

The project for which I’ve been hired will, I believe be much appreciated by you all as a further enhancement to an already excellent pro-liberty publication, and a useful service to the freedom movement. It’s not exactly hush-hush, but we’re not advertising yet, either. So I’ll keep my lips sealed until the appropriate moment, when I have something very interesting to show.

The reviews are coming in

I’m happy to say that not only are the reviews starting to roll in for High Desert Barbecue, but they’ve all concluded, so far, that the book is worth reading. That’s not to say that I’m getting unalloyed praise, Two of the reviews, in particular, have pointed out what the authors perceive as flaws in the story, analyzed the pluses and minuses, and ultimately concluded that High Desert Barbecue is still worth buying and reading.

The reviews so far:

“[B]reezy tone and brisk pacing carry the reader along a novel that combines action and satire the whole way through.”
–Scott Stein, author of Mean Martin Manning, in When Falls the Coliseum

“[A] very polished novel. The plot rolls smoothly forward, propelled by multiple shifts of perspective, and by a careful balance between narrative and libertarian preaching.”
– Sean Gabb, author of The Churchill Memorandum and (as Richard Blake) the excellent Aelric historical-novel series, at the UK Libertarian Alliance blog

“I found the way his protagonists dealt with their dilemma quite easy to follow, and the story delightful.”
Joel Simon, author of Walt’s Gulch and Songs of Bad Men and Good

“This is a fun read. It’s lively. It’s funny. The protagonists are likeable, believable characters.”
– Claire Wolfe, author of Hardyville Tales, in Backwoods Home Magazine

I like praise as much as the next guy. Well, I probably like it more, actually. So my thanks to all of the reviewers for taking the time to read High Desert Barbecue, and then putting aside even more time to think about what they read and to write down their reactions. Extra special thanks because they all liked the book and recommended its purchase.

Sean Gabb raised an interesting point in his review when he wrote “the state socialists have had popular culture as their transmission mechanism, and our movement is filled with people who think that novel writing is somehow letting the side down. Of course, if we are to get anywhere at all, we need our Hoppes and we need our L. Neil Smiths. And we need Jerome Tuccille.” Needless to say, I agree with Dr. Gabb on this point (you need me, people!). Libertarians and conservatives often complain about the saturation of popular media with anti-freedom ideas, including hostility to private enterprise and excessive deference to the state. I think those complaints are often justified. But since the control freaks of the world show no inclination to give up movie-making or writing songs and novels, the burden falls to us to counter ideas we dislike with work of our own that (this is important) stands on its own artistic merits while incorporating an appreciation for freedom, small government, individual initiative and the like. And the DIY revolution has made the creation and marketing of music and books, in particular, easier than ever before.

Those contributions to the culture have to be good, though, not just “correct.”

Claire Wolfe and Joel Simon (who wrote his review based on a book he bought, may I add!) were tougher on Higher Desert Barbecue than were Stein or Gabb, but I think their reviews are very thoughtful and fair. In both cases, their criticisms may come from the style to which I aspired, and which I, perhaps, did not execute with complete success.

Wolfe wrote, “Tuccille stuffed this book with such a huge crew of villains I only began to be able to tell them apart halfway through the story, and some remained vague blurs all the way to the end.” Simon similarly criticized my bad guys as “almost uniformly one-dimensional and whose actions often descend into slapstick.”

Well … I admit it. I had fun with the villains in the book, but I liked the protagonists. Rollo, Scott and Lani are constructed as real people (yes, I knew a guy like Rollo, and he lived for a while in a tent I loaned him after he was cut off from his campsite by a wildfire), while Jason, Van Kamp, Greenfield and company are types, drawn from people I have met, but pushed to extremes. Although, to be honest, some people can seem awfully cartoonish even in real life — because, I think, they themselves aspire to be more types than to be fully developed people. That’s especially true of “followers” who … Never mind; this takes me in a more psychological direction than I ever intended with High Desert Barbecue.

Wolfe also wrote, “it mostly lacks a feeling of peril (until near the end) … [a]nd the ending is just too pat; no way would things have come together so neatly.” This squares with Simon’s point that “[t]he ending is rather pat, and smacks of deus ex machina in a way I wish Tuccille had been able to find a way around but honestly I can’t think of a way to improve it …”

Simon also wrote, “Because HDB treats its subject matter lightly but it is really not a light subject, the book sometimes veers rather unevenly between drama and comedy.”

As I said above, I think the criticisms of both Claire Wolfe and Joel Simon stem from my effort to write a farce that’s both absurd and a bit dark. Tom Sharpe handled that balancing act well, I think, in The Throwback and, especially in his South Africa novels, such as Riotous Assembly. There’s quite a bit of that to Harry Crews’s writing as well.  I’m thinking “grenade” in the book Body.

But I don’t want to argue “they didn’t get what I was doing” because it’s up to the author to clearly transmit what he’s doing. Intending to write dark comedy isn’t the same thing as doing it well. I don’t think I blew it, but I think it’s quite likely, on this first outing into fiction, that I didn’t handle the story and the style quite as deftly as I would have liked. It is very likely true that, as Claire Wolfe says, High Desert Barbecue is “very much a first novel, with all the imperfections of that breed.”

In the end, I’m very pleased that, even after dissecting the flaws in the novel both Claire Wolfe and Joel Simon agreed with Gabb and Stein that High Desert Barbecue is worth buying, reading and keeping in your library. Wolfe writes, “Its very unseriousness, its wackiness, its ‘gang that couldn’t shoot straight’ bad guys, even its over-simplification, would make it a terrific movie,” while Simon says, simply, “[y]ou should buy it.”

I’m quite proud of what I accomplished with the book, and I’m pleased that the people reading it seem to be enjoying it so far.

And, of course, I’m going to take Claire Wolfe’s and Joel Simon’s criticisms into account — along with others to come — so that my future work is that much better.

But, remember, folks. You can’t know if the critics are on the mark unless you buy the book (only $2.99 for the Kindle and Nook ebooks and $11.99 for the trade paperback) and read it for yourselves!

Free-range publishing

Well, the creative and technical aspects of writing and self-publishing my first novel are now nearly at an end, and I’ve now entered the marketing phase during which I alienate family members, friends, acquaintances and people I run into at restaurants. While I’m bombarding bloggers, magazine editors and the denizens of media email lists in which I’ve barely participated for years with PR material, I’ve begun assessing my experience with self-publishing. By and large, I like what I’ve seen.

I put off self-publishing for several years because of the stigma I’ve long associated with the practice. I was taught long ago that “vanity” or “subsidy” publishing was a route for self-indulgent scribblers who didn’t want to admit their work was second-rate. “Serious” writers approached agents, hats-in-hand, convinced those agents to represent their books for a share of the proceeds, signed deals (if lucky) with publishing houses who got to keep the lion’s share of cover price, and waited, often years, for royalties — if any ever materialized. Because that’s what “real” authors did.

Meanwhile, of course, musicians won high praise for bypassing the industry and starting their own music labels to put out DIY albums — and for eventually selling their music in digitized form on the Web and uploading videos to YouTube. Movie-makers got kudos for financing independent movies on credit cards or with checks from rich friends and relatives.

But serious authors were expected to continue courting the attention of publishing houses if they wanted to remain respectable.

Well … the dichotomy between the treatment of musicians and movie-makers on the one hand, and writers on the other, has become increasingly silly. And it really no longer makes any sense, if it ever did.

Honestly, publishing houses no longer have much to offer, unless you’re one of the rare authors approached with a truly mind-boggling advance. Marketing? They really only put sales effort behind anticipated blockbusters. Other authors are expected to push their own books. Distribution to bookstores? There are really only two bookstore chains left: Barnes and Noble, and Books-a-Million. There are still, thankfully, a few independent bookstores left, but with ebooks outselling paper books as of this past summer, the real action is obviously in making books available online.

And that’s now very easy.

So, what, exactly, is the remaining attraction of begging for the attention of agents and editors, so you can share the proceeds of book sales with them? Assuming they’re not tempting you with a huge advance, that is.

Forget vanity publishing. If self-made and self-marketed music is “DIY” and the equivalent films are “independent,” then I’m welcoming myself to the world of free-range publishing.

I like the ring of that.

Buy High Desert Barbecue

High Desert Barbecue paperback now on Amazon

This is all happening rather faster than I anticipated …

The paperback version of High Desert Barbecue is now available on Amazon, with free super saver shipping (you’ll have too add another purchase to your basket to reach the $25 minimum for free shipping since my novel is sold at the low, low price of $11.99!

Oh, and Claire Wolfe of Backwoods Home Magazine (and The Freedom Outlaw’s Handbook) has come in with an early rave for High Desert Barbecue:

“[A] rowdy, rollicking adventure in the best tradition of Edward Abbey (think The Monkey Wrench Gang but … well, turned on its head).”

High Desert Barbecue now in paperback

I spoke too soon when I said you’d have to wait for a paperback! Amazon may still be working the book into its listings, but High Desert Barbecue is now available at the CreateSpace bookstore.

High Desert Barbecue is now available!

The trade paperback version is still a few days away, but with ebook sales now outstripping dead-tree editions, I don’t feel premature in announcing that High Desert Barbecue is now available for sale. If you have a Kindle or a Nook, or have downloaded the free readers for those formats to the portable device of your choice, you can now have a copy of the novel for a screaming deal: $2.99. The trade paperback will be $11.99.

I’m extremely happy with the final story, though you will have to judge for yourselves, of course. Whatever your reaction, don’t be afraid to review the book at Amazon, B&N or the forum of your choice — hey, if I’m going to put myself out there, I have to be able to take the bad reviews with the good ones, right?

A tale of suspense, pyromania and sexual tension, coming to an Amazon near you!

For those of you wondering just what I’ve been up to (let’s count hands! That’s one, two, three of you!), the fact is … I’ve been writing a novel. Final revisions to the manuscript are pending, and the book will be published in paperback and Kindle (and probably Nook) format in November.

High Desert Barbecue

High Desert BarbecueLiving as a squatter on public land, Rollo has long waged a personal war against the Forest Service, so it’s little surprise when rangers burn him out of his latest shack. But when Rollo is subsequently blamed for a disastrous wildfire, he seeks help from his close friend, Scott, an anarchically minded outdoors enthusiast, and Scott’s girlfriend Lani, who dislikes Rollo but shares his distaste for authority. While investigating a suspicious new forest fire, the trio interrupts a bizarre but vicious gang of environmental terrorists. Chased through the canyon country of northern Arizona, Rollo, Scott and Lani must rely on their wit and skills to survive. Just steps behind, their pursuers compensate for incompetence and sexual eccentricity with fanaticism and official connections. Hanging in the balance is the fate of human habitation throughout the West — or maybe just peace and quiet in downtown Flagstaff.

This book is a bit of an experiment for me — and not just since it’s a venture into fiction for a writer established as a columnist and blogger. I was raised in an era when self-publishing — known as “vanity publishing” back then — was a sure sign of crappy writing by a self-indulgent author. That was sort of still the case a few years ago when I bounced early chapters of the book off of New York literary agents — only to receive enthusiastic responses for the writing, along with heartfelt assurances that the story was too regional to be picked up by publishers.

So I put the manuscript aside.

But recently — over the past year in particular — the do-it-yourself ethos has revolutionized the publishing industry. E-readers and print-on-demand have made it very attractive to bypass the traditional publishing houses. In fact, I no longer see a reason to go the traditional route at all. So, out of the drawer (well, an old folder on my laptop) the manuscript came, and I set to work revising and finishing the story. The biggest surprise may have been the extent to which technology has changed in just a few years, necessitating an important plot revision.

Then an old friend who works as an editor and knows my fiction from long-ago days in a Boston-based writers group offered to review the manuscript. And here we go. The Kindle version will be priced at $2.99. Paperback pricing has yet to be set.

I’ll post news of the novel, links for purchasing, and reactions thereto, here and on High Desert Barbecue‘s Facebook page.

If the upcoming book piques your interest at all, please feel free to pass along the information.

Don’t shrug off ‘Atlas Shrugged’

It can be painful to anticipate seeing the film version of a book you enjoy — especially a “difficult” book that requires a lot of massaging to make it ready for the silver screen. The pain level can only be exacerbated when the movie is made on a small budget by an acolyte of the book who may have a different vision than you, or even lack the savvy and resources to carry the project through in a professional way. So, when my buddy told me that Atlas Shrugged was coming to Sedona, I … well … shrugged and told myself that, if it sucked, at least we’d grab a few drinks after the showing.

I’m happy to say that Atlas Shrugged is a good movie. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s professionally done, and does credit to the book while remaining watchable. The cinematography isn’t just Hollywood-worthy, it’s beautiful. The story builds at a good pace and it grabbed my attention — perhaps a testimony to the moviemakers’ skill in trimming down some of Ayn Rand’s excesses without losing the message and urgency of the book. Also the characters struck me as more human and accessible than their printed-page versions, both in their motivations and their conduct — that’s important not just for the heroes, but for the villains, who I found less cardboard-y on screen than in the book.

The feel of a crumbling America propped up by a dwindling class of producers is well-captured by backdrops to scenes, newscasts and conversations among the characters

Now, the weaknesses… Of course, it’s didactic. Even shorn of a few of Rand’s beat-it-to-death hammer-blows, Atlas Shrugged remains a political story, and that either works for you or it doesn’t. The audience started tittering after a few repetitions of “who is John Galt?” But that may be a product of the cultural familiarity that the phrase has acquired — the giggles died down after a while. I know that I grew more comfortable with the phrase as an expression of fatalistic resignation in the movie’s near-future setting.

The acting, while generally good, had a few week spots. Taylor Schilling comes off a bit lightweight and wooden as Dagny Taggart. I thought Grant Bowler was good as Hank Rearden, but my buddy thought he had an off scene or two before hitting his stride. The rest of the cast is heavily salted with familiar Hollywood character actors who do an excellent job of projecting despairing good or weaselly evil, as required. Michael O’Keefe pops up, very nicely, in the small role of Hugh Akston. By and large, the cast fills out the characters’ presence in a way that Rand’s writing sometimes didn’t.

And sometimes, there was no getting past Rand’s dialogue. Let’s face it, Atlas Shrugged is a compelling book because of the story she told, not so much because of the dialogue.

But let me sum it up this way: Atlas Shrugged is better and more enjoyable (a key point!) than most Nicolas Cage movies, at a fraction of the budget.

Sadly, Atlas Shrugged didn’t come to Sedona as a regular booking. It was a special one-night event sponsored by the Sedona Tea Party, and advertised largely through the group’s email list. Even so, 115 people turned out. Although you can probably expect a healthy future of DVD and streaming-video rentals for the flick, the movie seems to have lost its initial steam, and special showings like this are mostly going to preach to the choir.

Speaking of choir … This was the first Tea Party even I’ve attended, and yes, the gathering did include a prayer, as well as a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Interestingly, the president of the local group, a local businesswoman, was careful to remain non-partisan in her political statements, and inclusive in her religious ones — to the point of acknowledging alternative and non-traditional views, and describing her own views as such. She also claimed to have read Atlas Shrugged about two dozen times.

I walked away with the impression that the local Tea Party group is older (at 45, I was on the youngish side in the room) and generally conservative, but with a strong libertarian presence. The age range may be an artifact of Sedona, which is where slightly artsy wealthy people go to get all new-agey and then die. And the libertarian tone is, happily, to be expected in this state, nativist convulsions not withstanding.

So, if you get a chance, go see Atlas Shrugged. And don’t see it as a chore or a duty, but as a movie you might well enjoy. And keep your fingers crossed for parts 2 and 3.