Hostile City or Bust by Phil Irwin BOOK review

Book Reviews
Hostile City or Bust by Phil Irwin BOOK review
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May 4, 2007, 05:41

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HOSTILE CITY OR BUST by Phil “The Whiskey Rebel” Irwin; Steel Cage Books, 2006

The Beat Generation, according to the phrase painted outside San Francisco's Vesuvio bar, was “itching to get away from Portland, Oregon.” Contemporary author Phil Irwin, however, reveals in the opening pages of Hostile City or Bust that his own itching to escape Portland had become a torturous hairshirt that entangled him like a straitjacket. He gripes:

I felt thoroughly stifled and trussed-up by so called “progressive” West Coast ways, dreamt up by the same people that have covered so much of the West with drab strip malls and generic condominiums. I saw the city I spent the majority of my life in being gutted of unique neighborhood taverns and cafes…the bars I had frequented for many years one by one had been taken over by aging hippies, pretentious yuppies and alterno-trendies.

This, mind you, was back in the early 1990s. If Irwin—the longtime punk rock piss-taker and zine columnist probably better known as The[e] Whiskey Rebel—tried to set foot in the desperately self-promoting, condo-choked, and wannabe cosmopolitan Portland of the 21st Century, he'd surely suffer a flat-line heart attack the second he stepped into that newly upscale yuppie dreamland.

Speaking of coronary arrest, in Hostile City or Bust Irwin seems to verge on some sort of violent, stress-induced myocardial infarction just about every hour. Y'see, Irwin plans to flee “Snoreland, Boregon” in favor of “Hostile City USA,” i.e., Philadelphia—but on page after obscenity-packed page of this testy travelogue, his move is “cursed” by hassles, setbacks, vehicular issues, vicious twists of weather, unfriendly topographies, and good ol' stupid goddamn humanity. Irwin certainly loves to bitch and moan about mankind, all right. This, after all, is someone who's written musical screeds with titles like “Hatred Is Sacred.” So when a particularly hypertensive trip to the peak of Mt. Rushmore causes Irwin to flip-out completely, his body overloading to the point of possibly fatal breakdown, it's this misanthropy that saves him “like a magic tonic…my bitter hatred towards the enemies I hate the most began to bring me back around.”

Of course, during the East-bound drive he also gets much calmative sustenance from the great god Booze, as well as emotional support from his young son Elvis and his longtime wife (and band co-conspirator) Marla Vee. They tolerate Irwin's cascades of profanities with amazing patience; Elvis even gleefully ticks off the number of times Papa Rebel cusses, as if his father's endless anger is a source of amusement. And, believe it or not, it is amusing to see Irwin—a burly and hirsute beast of a man—boiling over at every ridiculously trivial incident, desperately sucking down fifths of liquor like a bottle-addicted infant, and admitting he often “acted like a fucking baby” during the journey. For such a tough guy, he sure can be a fussy little brat at times—a weakness that he not only cops to, but plays for laughs.

This humor is what transforms Hostile City or Bust from a potentially alienating litany of rage into something funny and sympathetic. Irwin's simple prose and speedy pacing also ensure that the manuscript moves right along, even as his own move to Philly seems to bog down at every step. By the time the family's straining, swaying “war wagon” rolls into Hostile City, it's nearly a disappointment, since Irwin's comically ribald rants have sucked you into his frenzied headspace enough that you're anticipating the next setback he'll escalate to the level of exaggerated disaster—in a sense, you've become a NASCAR fan just waiting for a fiery crash.

On the less-impressive side, however, the text of Hostile City or Bust is itself riddled with dozens of punctuation and spelling errors, basic (and sometimes painful) grammatical flaws that even the most cursory editing job should have fixed before printing. And that's not to mention $12 for a thin 100-page novella seems a little steep for the Whiskey Rebel's target audience of blue-collar boozehounds, redneck cud-punks, and wage-slaving wasteoids. The book publishing business may be brutal these days…but damn! That dozen bucks could buy at least a PBR cube or half-gallon of gutrot scotch!

And yet it's tough to hold much of a grudge against old Reb. During Irwin's first post-relocation Rancid Vat tour, he kept his promise to insult all his old enemies from the Portland stage. No mercy, no politeness—just vituperating verbal payback. Yup, cantankerous and hateful though he may often be, he's an oddly honest fella, no matter how many bridges he burns. Plus he guzzles whiskey, gripes, and whines more than I do. That's an achievement. Ask anyone.

-J. Graham

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