Big Laugh Comedy
Official pub dat May 8th
By Evan Rodriguez
If you, or one of your friends, has ever been caught pants down pissing on a cop car, or trying to melt as much ice as possible in a men’s room trough, you might have a kindred spirit in Robert Dean and his book of essays, Existential Thirst Trap. The lowbrow potty shenanigans at the outset might dupe you into thinking that Dean’s musings and meditations are primarily Horatian, set in dive bars and filthy bathrooms. More often than not though, Dean is pointing out his own flaws rather than society’s.
The collection overall is unironically blue collar Americana in that Carl Sandburg and Studs Terkel vein. Dean is from the South Side of Chicago by way of New Orleans. Firmly planted in the elder end of the millennial generation Dean has straddled two worlds: the analog and the digital, playing in the streets and being dominated by social media, the real world and the simulacra we now swim in, homophobia and inclusivity. This is reflected in his 28 essays as only someone that has actually lived through these past four decades can capture. At his most cutting you’ll find yourself in vulnerable pockets of his psyche as he interprets his hard-edged vantage through a Jameson fever dream or a lucidly hazy morning at the keyboard.
“On days when the world gets heavy and a long, hot shower can’t shake the demons away, there’s always the fantasy of giving it up and bum-rushing the void. That might be nice - realizing you weren’t that good, nothing you said was that special, and you are mediocre despite your best efforts. What do you do when you finally accept things like this? Keep pounding, I guess.” He writes in “Plan B”, an affirming inspirational love letter to himself, as he explores this idea of a professional back up plan most have been told to retain in case plan alpha falls by the wayside. Not to spoil the piece, let’s just say Dean is philosophically and intrinsically opposed to such notions. While this frightens him to no end, he is resolute in his chosen path as a writer.
At his most seemingly earnest Dean still retains a sense of humor. In “Little Bastard” he writes an apology letter to a potentially gay “Kid” he and his friends used to torment in his neighborhood. After a fairly woke reflection regretting the homophobic epithets hurled and the physical harm threatened, Dean writes in the postscript of the essay that he tracked the “Kid” down and he had zero memory of him and his friends' assaults. “Since the publication, the power of the Internet led me to this guy. I apologized. He didn’t remember me,” he writes.
Existential Thirst Trap is peppered with the hard earned humor of not taking yourself too seriously, that only someone who has been told no half of their professional lives can pen sincerely.
There are prevalent recurring themes in Dean’s collection: music of all kinds, loss, writing, Jameson, anxiety, depression, the void, and perseverance. He has clearly spent more than a few moments in self-exploration and on his station in life, which allows him to articulate a certain feeling he has with these 26 letters of ours that is often self-reflective. We live in a confessional and hyper-conscious time and this is essentially Dean’s memoir in three acts: Free State, Rotten Heart, and Good Men and Gators. The work is emo, and as Dean reminds us often, he is a naturally “sad” person, but Existential Thirst Trap is engagingly casual. In some instances I might tire of this atmosphere; instead, the reading experience is like meeting a stranger at a bar and ending up drunk hugging, exchanging contact info as the lights come up.
The most moving and existential essay I found to be “Free State”. It also happens to be one of his most succinct. He begins, “I shared a bottle of cheap wine with a painter. I was down in my hideaway, Galveston Island. We sat in his studio garage swapping war stories, one glass at a time. He told me about pedaling a bike around paradise, making a living by splashing a rainbow of paint against the world.”
I must admit, I’m a sucker for most things Galveston. Dean definitely has taken the time to embrace the castaway island and just gets it on a primordial level. He explores an ineffable emotion in this vignette, cutting to a core I have yet to read any other writer tackling the island. He channels the humble rough and tumble esoteric vibe a certain Galveston exudes, a feeling that can only be conjured by the brackish waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the hurricanes she conjures.
“We took dark dives into the ether, knowing the folks around us were just pretending when they said the world wasn’t crumbling beneath their feet. It’s a free state. A free fall. The painter and I understood that was the reason the whiskey hit harder. The fear made our bottles seem a little less empty,” Dean writes.
Dean’s affinity for Galveston also figures in the essays “Some Disaster” and “Old Dudes”.
Dean is attempting to make sense of the chaotic zen that is his chosen life as a working writer. His self-reflective loop can be seen as over-used, but this is also part of the charm of his writing. Existential Thirst Trap gives many fucks, along with the undeniably brazen honesty of an acutely aware young man’s journal, distilled through the lens of an old soul who has seen many moons and closed many a bar. But maybe that is Dean’s meta joke after all, grinning at the world that is laughing with him in its cosmic indifference. He clinks glasses with you in a dimly lit hole in the wall as y’all attempt to parse out this human nature thing.
Evan Rodriguez is a freelance journalist living and working in Austin, Texas. He writes for The Austin Chronicle, and has written for Kirkus Reviews, Austin American-Statesman, and austin360.com. Rodriguez writes prose and non-fiction, he is currently piecing together his fourth novella, forthcoming from nowhere (yet).
Robert Dean’s Existential Thirst Trap was released yesterday and is available most places you buy books including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.