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Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Adam Resnick's 'Will Not Attend' Is the Funniest Book About Pennsylvania Hillbillies You'll Ever Read

It’s commonly perceived that the people who live in Northeastern/Central Pennsylvania are rednecks or white trash. As a lifetime resident I can assure you that’s not completely true. We’re more like a weird missing link between the two extremes. Living in Northeastern/Central PA is like living in the scummier real world equivalent to Tom Scharpling’s Newbridge or the parts of Blue Velvet where people find severed ears lying in the streets and angry men violently belittle you for drinking the wrong beer. A little less than half of my graduating class in high school were either practicing or reformed arsonists, a nearby community center closed when somebody realized — after seven years — that the roof was never actually connected to the building, an unexplained manure fog mysteriously enveloped the area several weeks ago. This is the unvarnished reality of Northeastern/Central PA. It’s odd, it’s dreary, it’s unforgivably bleak and only the lucky few manage to escape.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t laugh about it.

Adam Resnick — the man who has given us such enduring cult favorites as Get a Life, Cabin Boy and Death to Smoochy — was one of the lucky few who managed to escape from Northeastern/Central PA and in his first book, an essay collection entitled Will Not Attend, Resnick candidly recounts his hellish upbringing in the area. Resnick’s acidic yet still oddly loving portrait of teenage burnouts, publicly defecating hillbillies and anyone who ever cut a birthday cake with a pocket knife will be hilarious for anyone fortunate enough not to live anywhere near Northeastern/Central PA. For everyone else, Will Not Attend will be like laughing at your reflection in a funhouse mirror until you realize that’s not a funhouse mirror and that ugly, distorted reflection is really you. But again, at least I can laugh about it.

Most of the essays found in Will Not Attend carry a sort of tainted nostalgia, an unsentimental look at the past that recalls Resnick’s criminally overlooked HBO series The High Life. Setting the delightfully pitch-black tone, Resnick’s memoir opens with “An Easter Story,” a bittersweet recollection of doomed puppy love that finds a six-year-old Resnick attempting to woo a proto-kindergoth outcast at an Easter egg hunt only to inadvertently scare her away after the pair discovers a disturbing picture of a horse. Other curdled trips down memory lane include Resnick pissing off a surprisingly religious 650-pound-man at a county fair sideshow as well as trying and failing to curse his possibly pedophiliac 5th grade English teacher with some useless bauble he bought out of the black magic equivalent to the Lillian Vernon catalog. A streak of self-loathing runs through these stories with the anti-social Resnick repeatedly finding himself struggling through a humiliating or deeply irritating experience. However, that trenchant quality is occasionally undercut by an almost subliminal level of sweetness. Particularly in “Booker’s a Nice Guy,” which finds the author’s intense father giving a ride to a mysterious gold toothed stranger that Resnick and his brother misidentify as their beloved school janitor, and in “Boy 6,” a startling and uproarious recounting of the difficulties involved with growing up in a household with five sociopathic brothers that is capped off by a very tender moment between Resnick and his daughter.

Of course, not every essay in Will Not Attend is about Resnick’s disastrous formative years, some like the Harvey Pekar-esque “The Strand Bag,” are dry examinations into life’s little irritants while others, like the standout “Playground of the Shrew,” hilariously reveal what happens when the most miserable bastard in the world sets foot inside the happiest place on earth. Resnick’s withering take on an ill-advised vacation to Disneyworld he took with his family and cretinous sister-in-law contains some of the book’s funniest turns of phrase. Such as his description of the restaurant in the hotel he stayed in (“a cavernous shitbox located in the polyurethaned bowels of The Wilderness Lodge”), adults who enjoy Disney parks (“vapid dickwits”) and general observations about the implicit creepiness of Disneyworld (“Music began. It was one of those drippy, syrupy deathbed melodies that could come only from the deranged minds at Disney” and “…Jiminy Cricket came over the loudspeaker, sounding like Jim Jones in Guyana…”).

Like some of the better British comedy writers, Resnick’s projects have always retained a sort of admirable viciousness. But now without the restraints of network censors or useless studio notes, Resnick’s cynical sensibilities are surprisingly raw and consistently hilarious. Too often comedic essay collections have a tendency to err on the side of twee and precious but Will Not Attend has a bracing scumminess that spoke to me in ways that very few books ever have. Although it’s far too early to say this, Will Not Attend could very well be one of the funniest books released this year and I’m not just saying that because I was a publicly defecating hillbilly burnout whose grandfather cut birthday cakes with a pocket knife.

Although that’s part of it.

Mike Sullivan has been writing semi-professionally for the past 14 years and will be homeless dead or both within the next two. Mike would also like you to know that writing in third person only serves to heighten his intense self-loathing.

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