Lives Of Loud Desperation

The Immature Heroes Of Mike Sacks’ Hilarious Parody Novels

Mike Sacks is a veteran comedy writer and master of the short humor piece, whose work can be seen everywhere from McSweeneys to Vanity Fair. He’s been so prolific that, in 2011, Tin House Books published a bucketload of them in the collection Your Wildest Dreams (Within Reason).

In between writing those, Sacks co-wrote the parody Our Bodies, Our Junk and published two bestselling books of highly illuminating interviews with top humor writers: And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Humor Writers About Their Craft and Poking a Dead Frog. And that’s not counting his currently running comedy/interview/ sketch podcast “Doin’ It With Mike Sacks.” (Gimbal)

So what’s the next step on such a unique career trajectory? Following the path of many writers, Sacks turned to his childhood for inspiration. He didn’t draw from his own life, but rather two streams he waded through: Bad 1970s pop culture and exurban Maryland alpha-male-ism.

The results: Stinker Lets Loose! and Randy! Both present themselves as “found” works that Sacks claims to have discovered in obscurity and brought to the world. At first blush, this may seem a little gimmicky. But very quickly the reader becomes absorbed into Sacks’ droll comic world and enters the psyche of two hilariously pathetic men leading outsized lives.

Stinker is, per Sacks, the 40th anniversary re-release of a novelization of a made-up (but entirely plausible) 1977 “race across the country while avoiding the fuzz” movie like Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run. Sacks commits to this 200%. The first page contains a convincing billing block for the fictional movie, the cover bears the perfect fonts and faded-sepia color, and (my favorite touch), boasts of “more than 25 BLACK & WHITE photos from the movie!”

More to the point, the story hits all the tropes of a justifiably forgotten genre. There’s the hokey adoration of “trucker culture,” the rich babe in a hot-pink jumpsuit (“purchased at Frederick’s of Hollywood – not on credit”) who mysteriously finds Stinker and his low-rent entourage intoxicating, and, of course, his federally-mandated primate co-driver, “Rascal.” The story, too, is perfectly on-point. Stinker, whose only job appears to be having skanky sex inside his big rig, Miss Becky, gets hired by “The Big Man” to deliver a six-pack of ice-cold Schlitz Beer to President Jimmy Carter. “Helping” him are his friend Boner driving a Trans-Am, a morbidly obese comic relief named Jumbo, the aforementioned babe and simian, and a mentally challenged “mountain boy” named Buck who seems to spend most of the book cussing or napping.

Along the way, Stinker and company encounter everything that the Dukes of Hazzard did and more, from a black-suited nemesis determined to bring them down, to a literally impossible pond jump, to the always slightly threatening vigilance of “smokeys” (highway patrolmen). But a plot synopsis doesn’t do justice to Sacks’ singular voice, which fully inhabits the can-do-don’t-care worldview of Stinker and his pals. For example, here’s a description of what he keeps inside Miss Becky:

Stinker’s trailer was [packed] with trophies and plaques and even a few stolen, deflated Mylar balloons reading “FELIZ QUINCEANERA!” Also, a framed $100 check for having won the 1971 National Strutting Championship. Quite a few pickled genitals, too. And a wall covered with glossy professional stripper photos – framed!

Sacks also richly furnishes the book with adoring references to the cheesiest of 1970s culture, from Stinker blasting “down-home country tuneage… on his Panasonic RH-60 8-track” to Jumbo passing out atop an “Evel Knievel #1 American Hero” pinball machine.

“#1 American Hero” is also a title that the protagonist of Sacks’ Randy! would likely adopt for himself. In this “full and complete unedited biography and memoir” of a man identified as “Randy S,” we delve into the uproariously delusional psychology of a very familiar male type.

Randy S lives in the DC-adjacent Maryland area, and also does not seem to have employment. Instead, he subsists off a windfall from selling his grandmother’s farm. But for all that, he seems to be constantly busy: updating his handwritten “Underrated Journal” (sample items: “Inspector Gadget – the movie” “Having sex with a strobe light blasting” “Billy Baldwin. He’s not as puffy as the rest of those jokers.”), filming his porn-parody magnum opus Horndog Day, and throwing “holiday parties” in February at his “$950,000 condo” to curry the love of his fellow homeowners.

These episodes are interspersed with cracklingly funny lists of things like “Cool Randy Inventions” (ex: “Mudflaps on a wheelchair that read, ‘MY OTHER RIDE IS YOUR MOM’’), “Randy’s Hates,” “What It Would Take to NOT Go Out With a Girl,” and “Places That Randy Would Most Like to Die” (#1: “At the head of a conga line in the Mexican section of EPCOT center”), and, yes, black-and-white photos.

But along the way, we also get a glimpse into a personality type that has lately been very much in the spotlight: The white American male with zero doubt or introspection, especially as regards the other sex. Randy’s one area of vulnerability is an unrequited love for Mel, who he knew in the seventh grade. During the Junior High talent show, he called her up onstage to “pull a rabbit out of a hat,” only for her to pull one out that was horrifyingly no-longer-living. He then tried to win her back by writing an entire epic novel about a mythical land ruled by a King Randy, that also contained descriptions of Mel and her nether parts as “the flaming gates of Zomoloff.” As a compliment.

Unsurprisingly, this traumatized Mel, and she took legal action. Yet Randy is still so self-positive that he seems, at worst, bemused by her reaction. He still sends her the finished manuscript to show what a good guy he is. And near the end of the book, he ambushes her as an adult (pretending to be a client bringing work to her law office), where his confrontation with her reveals his arrested adolescence in all its pimply, Drakkar Noir-scented glory.

Both Stinker Lets Loose! and Randy! share a common DNA. They feature self-satisfied males trafficking in a sea of mediocrity that they proudly believe is “living their best life.” Both also toggle between disturbingly dark sentiments clothed as brags, and endless specifics and details of the worst of Americana, also praised as markers of accomplishment and status. If that sounds odd, it’s because the conceit of both projects is.  And yet Sacks’ assured voice drives us believably and hilariously through both adventures, smoother than a “labia-red naugahyded” 18-wheeler trucking its way to the American Girl Doll Café for “the best-ever chicken tenders.”

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Rob Kutner

Rob Kutner has written for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Conan, and is also the author of Apocalypse How: Turn the End Times into the Best of Times, and the graphic novel Shrinkage.

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