Phonehead Dead End

Editor Tommy Dean, Fiction, March 26th, 2014

Either elaborate or eliminate...

phonehead review eric barry nailed magazine

Eric Barry’s novel Phonehead had the potential to be a contemporary keeper. A story about a semi-successful actor who becomes a telemarketer to pay off his credit card bills is relevant to young readers whose existence largely consists of office ennui and debilitating debt. Add in a penchant for sardonicism and sleaze, along with a page-count that’s just shy of 200, and one has a book fit for a generation of overtly ironic twenty-something-year-olds raised on Ritalin and Internet porn, who love to name-drop Bukowski.

There’s one crucial element missing from Barry’s work: the writing. The content lacks style, coherency, and meaning, from individual sentence structure to the work as a whole.

The book is filled with anti-climactic anecdotes that fail to progress the plot. The main character West visits a car dealership, but doesn’t buy a car. He enrolls in college, but decides not to go to college. He gives a hot girl a backrub on the train, but declines sex with her in the bathroom, because he “wasn’t up for banging a stranger.” These superfluous sub-stories result in an overabundance of chapters—200 in total—and dead weight paragraphs that fail to evoke anything in the reader. For example: “The next day we drove to my friend Keith’s house in Carlsbad. Keith owned a dog. Isabella liked dogs. The dog licked her toes.” Either elaborate or eliminate.

Like most rookie authors, Barry relies too heavily on his own narration and neglects exposition. His attempts at clever commentary result in puerile prose: “Sales was one big emotional mindfuck—the goal was to have a symphony of sperm shooting at the client’s prefrontal cortex.” Or sometimes they just make little sense: “I took Emily up to her apartment and gave her something to cry about. I blew my tension out on her really hard.”

Furthermore, the author’s verb usage is off point. Your character doesn’t float down into a chair; he sits. Your character doesn’t glide into a room; she walks. Your character doesn’t prance up the courtroom steps, unless he is literally prancing, but no one prances to jury duty.

Barry was the perfect candidate to tell the tale of a semi-successful actor who’s endured show business and its inherent career instability. He’s made a living in Hollywood, and appeared in television shows like Without a Trace and Boston Public, and starred in John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented. Barry may not be A-list, but he is a careerist, and getting screen time is demonstrative of artistic ambition. While ambition is also necessary for writing a book, there’s a threshold of aptitude and artistry one must cross before bringing a story to paper.

Unfortunately, with the unprecedented power writers have to publish and distribute their works via Amazon, that threshold is diminished. This may advantage talented authors that major publishing houses ignore, but it takes out the crucial middleman, literature’s casting director, whose reputation and profit margins are at risk, who says, “No, this is not good enough to print.”

I’m not telling Barry to stop writing, I’m telling Barry—and the scores of other self-publishing authors—to refine his craft, write a first draft, then burn it, right a better draft, then burn it (repeat this process no less than three more times), get an editor with a chip on his shoulder to mark the manuscript with a red pen until it looks like a bloody murder scene, and then, and only then, think about pushing the work into the public sphere.

I stand with self-publishing authors—they may be our greatest allies in the war against Oprah’s Book Club. But they must have the tact to match their tenacity. Otherwise, their words aren’t worth the dead trees they’re printed on.

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Tommy Dean

Tommy Dean is a New England native, one-time Bay Area denizen, and a current Midwest resident. He’s worked as an assistant editor and content writer to pay the bills, but likes to spend his afternoons crafting his caffeine high at the local coffee shop while typing madly about whatever enters his mind. Follow him on Twitter @tommymdean or check out his misadventures here.