By Poe Ballantine
Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts
Reviewed by Andi
Poe Ballantine reminds me a bit of my weird uncle. A guy who lives in the mountains, lets his hair grow long and buys hundreds of dollars worth of pork at a time to fill up his freezer. Ballantine does not let his hair grow long (that I know of) nor does he seem to live in the mountains or buy pork, but he is an off-kilter fellow full of disturbing adventure stories. And, to the relief of this reviewer, he is a damn good writer.
With a handful of important honors under his belt including a short story and essay included in the yearly “Best of” compilations—in addition to O. Henry and Pushcart nominations—Ballantine is not a big name, and that makes me sad for the state of literature. As I was reading his collection of personal essays, 501 Minutes to Christ, I kept thinking, This is a guy with something to say; much better than ninety percent of the books I just fondled at the library earlier today. However, my purpose here is not to whine and rant against the state of literature (Ballantine does that for me) but certainly to convince you to give 501 Minutes to Christ a try for yourself.
Beginning with an essay entitled “World of Trouble,” Ballantine’s work relates his experiences on the outskirts of society. He seems to be a man somewhat content with selling plasma for mere duckets, living in sleazy motels, traveling the country by bus and writing all the while. It is quite a far flung take on the traditionally romanticized “writer’s life” type of story in which the author moves from adventure to adventure earning his hard-fought wage until time to move on again. That is exactly what Ballantine does, mind you, but it is not nearly as pretty and dreamy as some authors would have you believe (Paul Auster’s memoir, Hand to Mouth, comes to mind).
Not all of 501 Minutes to Christ deals with Ballantine’s forays into the American underbelly. He takes some time to inform the reader about his struggles with writing as well (in and out of the sleazy motels). In the hilarious and poignant, “The Irving,” Ballantine describes a plan to punch Norman Mailer in the face on television. Once he realizes he probably would not win any positive publicity by punching an 80-year-old, he sets his sights on John Irving instead. This half-baked plan is hatched in response to the state of publishing and Ballantine’s opinion that the normal guy, the “have-nots” as he describes himself, deserve a chance in literature. Plus, punching Irving in the face would be a hell of a lot of publicity. Alas, Ballantine does not punch Irving in the face because he realizes that the author is a nice guy, but his thoughts along the road to “the plan” are fraught with humor and ruminations on writing and culture.
My plot began to run along these lines: everyone – us anyway, the have-nots, who make up 90 percent of the population – loves a revolution; a big party; free stuff; a chance to get out of the house, get off work; the stiff, the stale, and corrupt falling under the wheels of progress; the illusion of change; new blood rising to the top. Let’s kick all the stuffed lions down the stairs and shovel these old mastodon carcasses to the side of the road. Boston Tea Party! Martin Luther! Madame Lafarge! Down with tsarist Russia (leave your vodka, though)! And why shouldn’t I be the one to light the fuse?Ballantine has the words to light quite a few fuses, I would say. However, finding his way through the labyrinth of big-time publishing houses, quirky contracts, lame editors and life’s sundry difficulties poses a daunting challenge. I feel sure that whatever challenges life and writing might throw, Ballantine will take them in stride, mix in his unique brand of humor and reflection and, with any luck for us—the readers and reviewers—turn it all into another collection of essays.