Portrait of the Artist as a Non-Artist

American Guitar Stallions, by Keith Pille
Reviewed by Keith Pille

I come to bury American Guitar Stallions, not to praise it. Which is good, because burial, not praise, is what this stinking sack of crap merits. Deep burial. In a fortified and lead-sealed vault. American Guitar Stallions is easily among the worst novels of the new century. If anything, its very status as a novel is doubtful. It possesses some, but certainly not all, of the commonly- accepted elements of a novel. Characters? Well, there’s one, at least, and a few supporting cutouts—most notably a sex-crazed girlfriend who appears only in wordy smut scenes. Plot? Not really. Theoretically, we’re reading about a lovable rogue’s efforts to win an unlikely American Idol-style guitar contest; but for each page of competition we get six of verbose description of how it feels to play “Back in Black” through a vintage amp. A unifying theme? Insight into the human condition? Emotional hooks? Nowhere to be found.

What Stallions does have is words—38,614 of them. This number, in fact, represents half of Stallions’ claims to being a novel; any collection of words that large must be some sort of book, and this is certainly no technical manual. The rest of its claim comes from Stallions’ having been willed into existence during National Novel Writing Month.

For the past five years, a growing crowd of masochists around the world have dedicated November to clogging their computers or notebooks with awful prose in pursuit of writing a fifty-thousand-word novel in thirty days. They register at the NaNoWriMo website, where they post information about themselves and their projects, and where they can log on daily to update their word counts. FAQs and forums provide tips for reaching fifty thousand (set a daily quota and stick to it; don’t be afraid to write total dreck) and a supportive community.

And now a confession: I am the wretch responsible for American Guitar Stallions. And while I have left the world of forced-march fiction for the greener pastures of weirdly self-referential journalism, the Twin Cities have emerged as a hub of NaNoWriMo activity. More than three hundred people in the state of Minnesota signed up for this year’s campaign, working on projects ranging from “sort of the great American immigrant novel, with the Yugoslav civil war as the backdrop” to a Norwegian adaptation of Goodfellas.

Gathering at a St. Paul coffee shop shortly before the ordeal was to begin, this year’s participants were giddy with optimism. A rookie who went by the handle “Tomislav” (naturally, he’s the one working on the immigrant novel) drew cheers by boasting, “This is going to be my first year finishing NaNo!” Others related cautionary tales. “Sasha’s novel had a breakdown,” warned participant Cory Strode, speaking of a previous-year participant. “In about the last ten thousand words, where she was literally telling herself she couldn’t do it in the novel itself…the novel was going along and then all of a sudden, ‘There’s no way I can do this. I am such a horrible writer and this completely sucks.’ Ten thousand words of that.” I had grown accustomed to the silly grin usually affixed to Strode’s face, but now it had twisted into a kind of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I horror.

Reaching that final goal requires the novelist to produce an average of just about seventeen hundred words a day, a daunting task even without worrying about quality. Why do people put themselves through this? The most common answer to this reasonable question is that everyone says they want to write a novel, but no one ever sits down and does it. NaNoWriMo (yes, we really call it that; it’s both a nod to the postmodern impulse to reduce everything to an acronym, and a willful kind of rule-bending that, I think, says a lot about this whole stressful misadventure) offers a tough-self-love way to beat the urge to procrastinate, to silence your inner censor by drowning him in sheer volume. Grinning Strode falls into this camp, estimating that he writes more every November than he does in all the other months of the year combined. Mischievously confusing his first- and second-person, Strode said, “I honestly think that without the pressure, you don’t write.” Other writers nodded their heads in agreement, and I remembered my own because-it’s-there feeling of challenge that resulted in Stallions.

Balancing the pain, all NaNos look forward to the sweet feeling of logging onto the website on November 30 and recording that they have forced themselves across the fifty-thousand-word finish line. Megan Spencer finished previously by “giving myself a word count, every single day….I managed to stick to it last year.” And then? “I printed it out, put it in a binder, and thought about editing it, but didn’t because I was almost failing a few classes and had finals.” Harsh, yes, but she’s still finished one more novel than most people.

Binder-banishment sounds like just the thing for American Guitar Stallions. The prose feels as though it had been written by a sixth grader with more ambition than vocabulary. Stallions possesses a strange, lurching rhythm; the text leaps forward with something resembling writerly energy for maybe two paragraphs before settling into a tired, forced plod in which the English language is visibly stretched and disfigured by an apparent insistence to use five words where one will clearly do. Invariably, this continues for bursts of seven pages (which, coincidentally, would be about seventeen hundred words) and ends awkwardly, without warning, often in mid-action. The cycle repeats itself. At one point, possibly the climax, there is a seven-page transcript of pointless jokes emailed between the main character and his friends that feels suspiciously genuine, almost cribbed from real life.

Stallions’ ending is appropriately incompetent. You can identify the exact spot at which the author flamed out from the effort of churning out word after word of egregious crap, the psychic burden of bringing so much verbal violence into the world finally taking its terrible but inevitable toll. One minute, the main character is preparing himself for another round of competition. The page turns, the goal is within reach, and “He loses and his girlfriend leaves him. THE END.” Given the book’s near-total absence of plot progression, it’s tough not to find this fitting. Anything else would have looked out of place at the end of this miserable milk-mustache on the face of American letters.