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Saturday, December 19th, 2009

Time Event
3:35p
Not quite connecting ...
This is yet another dollar store find … which is, for a change, not that much of a surprise. The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures is a follow-up to a documentary series that author Louis Theroux shot for the BBC in the '90s. As those of you “following along at home” may have noticed, there is a definite trend of documentary-related books ending up at the dollar store not too long after their publication (this had its American release in 2007), and the current volume certainly seems to fall in line with that pattern!

In this case, however, the disconnect is fairly easy to nail down … the theme of this book is the author following up with ten of his previous documentary subjects, a decade or so past when he had first tracked their “weird” lives, and if one hasn't seen those programs, one is coming to this book totally cold, and dependent on the author to set up the “why” of these folks being featured. Now, the “weird” of the title is probably not the best descriptor for the people involved. They are participants in various “non-mainstream” American Subcultures, but aren't particularly remarkable in and of themselves. Theroux uses individuals within these contexts as a window onto the particular industry/movement/profession but really spends most of the book reflecting on his reactions as an “outsider” (although he is of dual UK/US citizenship and has lived extensively in the States).

His premise here is that he might be able, in follow-up visits without a camera/production crew, get “closer” to his former documentary subjects, and so find deeper insights into their “subcultures”. So, he ends up moving to Las Vegas, buying a car, and seeing who he can track down. In most cases, he is forced to concentrate more on peripheral individuals who may or may not know the original subjects, and not so much on those folks, who in a number of these proved to be somewhat elusive.

Each chapter is devoted to one of these “weird” people … first a fellow who had been very big in “UFO circles” when Theroux was shooting his program, but who had “disappeared” from that scene; the author eventually tracks him down, but the bulk of this deals with other UFO enthusiasts, with a brief visit with the original subject at the end … next there's a young guy who had been a budding porn star at the time of the BBC series, but who had also moved on, and was very hard to find; again, much connecting with folks in the industry, followed by a brief visit with the subject in his new “normal” life … then there's the one “celebrity” of the bunch, Ike Turner, who Theroux had an abortive attempt at a documentary of a tour previously; this encounter likewise falls apart, leaving the author musing on issues of trust and control … next was a story about a fellow who had followed Colonel Bo Gritz up into the mountains of Idaho, only to not have the apocalypse they were anticipating come to pass and slowly fade into less dramatic lifestyles … this was followed by a swing through Nevada's legal brothel industry, in search of a particular “working girl” that he'd featured previously; not surprisingly, she was also very hard to track down, so this chapter deals with a lot of other people in that milieu with a brief denouement of contact … his next subject was an Aryan Nations member, back when that group was news, but it wasn't by the time the author got around to writing the book, and the guy had lost most of his “oddness” … in an strange (and perhaps cynical given how it plays to the preceding subject's views of minorities) juxtaposition, he follows this up with a visit to Mississippi and a small-time pimp/rapper that had featured in one of his TV segments, here he has better access but far less contact being no more able to fit into the subject's world than had the author hailed from Alpha Centauri … which could well be where his next subject wished to be, as he was a survivor of the Heaven's Gate cult, who had been given permission to leave before their mass suicide; here too, much of the chapter is spent with other former members, but it does provide a very interesting look into a somewhat unique situation … it's then back to Las Vegas for the next subject, a sleazy “millionaire seminar” scammer, Theroux's access to the subject was very limited, so this again deals mainly with “victims” of the scam, some still quite devoted to the program … finally, he's back in neo-Nazi land, tracking down the girls (and their mom) of the hate-rock band “Prussian Blue” (you may have seen pics on the web of the cute blonde twins in their “Hitler smiley face” t-shirts), resulting in the author trying to probe the kids' devotion to their Mother's (and grandparents') political/racial stance, to the irritation/frustration of all involved.

While, as “slice of life” features, these are all interesting enough on their own, yet without the connection to the preceding documentaries to cause one to particularly care about the subjects, it's a pretty weak set of stories, more the sort of things that might be “filler” in a magazine that the core of a book.

As I noted, I got The Call of the Weird (in hard cover) from the dollar store, however it does appear to still be in print in a paperback edition ... just in case you were anxious to run out and find a copy. The Amazon new/used guys have "like new" copies for two bucks (plus shipping), so you might consider that if you can't find a dollar store copy. Again, this was a mildly engaging collection of stories, but you'd either have to have been a fan of the BBC documentaries to really be into this enough to pay retail!


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