The lure of prose has drawn actors, directors, singers, comedians, models and various other kinds of artists to try their hands at writing fiction. Everyone from Mary Pickford (The Demi-Widow) to Gene Wilder (My French Whore) to Molly Ringwald (When It Happens to You) has attempted to become a successful scribe. Whether or not these wannabe wordsmiths triumph is another matter entirely.
I recently finished Pete Townshend’s short story collection, Horse’s Neck (1985). In spite of a preface which claims that each tale in the book explores Townshend’s “struggle to discover what beauty really is,” it would seem that the “struggle” fought by the former Who guitarist was still ongoing at the time of publication. The stories are mostly rather depressing anecdotes about failed marriages, failed love affairs, failed careers, etc., all surrounded by alcohol-fueled stumbles between waking and dreaming. Half the time the writing is of a staccato, Hemingway-knockoff style, while the other half of the time Townshend is most concerned with proving that his vocabulary is bigger than your vocabulary. Let it never be said that Pete Townshend was shy with similes either. My personal favorites are “…and lovers would blend smoothly like butter and flour cooking in a roux” and “that night he danced like Martha Graham on the lavatory, his legs spread.” Exciting. Adverbs get some attention too: “Her lips shone and glittered, her teeth sparkled moistly.” Instead of echoing the protagonist’s sense of lust for this young woman, the idea of moist teeth just sounds like an unfortunate dental condition.
(What a classy comment from England’s Times.)
The trickiest part is whether to believe in the usual authorial fallacy – that the work is autobiographical – or to read the works as fiction. One piece, “Pancho and the Baron,” is quite obviously about the deaths of Keith Moon and The Who’s manager, Kit Lambert. The facts behind that story are enough to make you question the levels of veracity and memoir in all of the stories. One story in particular, “A Death in the Day Of,” is the only good story precisely because it might be true, inspired not only by the loss of Townshend’s rock & roll lifestyle but also by his 1983 appointment as an acquisitions editor at publishing company Faber and Faber.
Mind you, I don’t judge creativity too harshly if it has a purpose. I can’t for the life of me figure out what the point of Townshend’s stories was, though. A number of them revolve around obsessions with horses, culminating in the somewhat bizarre sexual content of the last two stories. Example: “The horse is beautiful. Its mane is flowing and clean, its coat brushed and smooth. Its eyelashes are long and curved. The horse is now before me, it bares its teeth and its tongue flicks out…” I’ll stop myself there. (Also, there’s a story where the main character’s object of attraction is a foal. Is that equine pedophilia? Is that actually a thing?) What’s especially hard to believe about how bad these stories are is the knowledge of how beautiful and affecting Townshend’s lyrics could be. How is it that a guy who could pen “Sunrise,” “Go to the Mirror!” and “Love, Reign o’er Me,” among dozens of other great tunes, couldn’t string non-musical sentences together? Even the “About the Author” section is problematic, indulging in some revisionist history by stating that “in 1984 Townshend left The Who to concentrate on his solo career, publishing, and writing.” The truth, of course, is that the band fell apart after years of difficulties, not to mention Townshend’s alcohol and drug addictions.
Pete Townshend is not the only artist-turned-author deserving of such a critique. When I read James Franco’s short story collection, Palo Alto (2010), right after it was published, I was pretty disappointed. Three of the stories – “Lockheed,” “American History,” “I Could Kill Someone” – showed promise, but otherwise the product was a pretentious series of musings. I like that Franco engages in so many different types of media interaction, but he should stay away from writing books and stick to reading them in one of his eight billion college classes. It doesn’t appear to matter, though, since Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola, has made her directorial debut with a cinematic adaptation of Palo Alto, due in theaters this May. As long as producers are willing to provide money, projects are bound to happen anyway, regardless of what the source material’s critics say.