On Quixotica: Howard Junker's AN OLD JUNKER

Philip Kobylarz

A cornucopia of urbanity. An armoire of intellectualism. A cabinet of curiosities. A museum of the quotidian. An herbarium of the fruition of a mind. A college of what isn’t taught in the grove. A compendium of compendia.

All of the above describe Howard Junker’s autobiographical-novel-slash-finished-work-in progress, An Old Junker: A Senior Represents—a collection that blissfully defies definition. A series of blogs stemming from his decades-long stint as the editor of Zyzzyva is the literal classification. A more vague attempt towards defining the wealth of knowledge, sentiment, cantankerousness, and insight this volume possesses might just position it somewhere between daybook and memoir.

Junker, the enigma, defines bohemianism in our post-post-modern contemporary society. Born on the coast where it is believed that the ocean is on the correct side, he is the product of some of the country’s finest learning institutions, an ex-Navy man (having whimsically served that branch in land-locked Memphis), a writer featured in some of the nation’s finest magazines, and a jack-of-all-trades who, unlike many others who espouse such a moniker, is a master of at least four. Three are editorship, writing, encouraging literary aspiration. The fourth is knowing.

In what can be seen as a series of perceptive vignettes, Junker describes the literary goings-on of the vibrant life of the mind that he has greatly participated in and contributed to during a lifetime in the intellectual hub known as the city by the bay. What the reader finds in the course of his musings are countless references to and about writers, delvings into their temperaments and attitudes, and invaluable perspective into the craft of writing, along with a bit of the melodrama that comes with existing within the milieu of the intelligentsia.

Interspersed with such accounts are biographical details that tell a story, somewhat fragmented, of how he became one of the most influential editors in the era that pre-dated technology’s destruction of literature (as the world had known it) and how he created one of the most respected literary magazines of our time. A more detailed and in-depth historical account would be appreciated in the form of a biography of Zyzzyva itself, and we might wonder if Junker has such a project on the backburner.

In Jarrell-esque style, the writer picks apart the academy, the pretentiousness of some who are named unabashedly, the state of the art itself, and our current zeitgeist with characteristic piquancy and bite. His ruminations on the Bard and the status quo are entertaining swerves into critical thinking much appreciated by those of us who rue the days when newspapers featured a wealth of book reviews, and the reporting almost outweighed and out-spaced the advertisements.

Some friends, some literary heroes, some classics serve as other topics for Junker’s profound improvisations upon interrelation and the relative meanings of . . . he connects in his personal epistemology. His commentaries range also to food criticism and the evolution of the literary magazine world. In all of his broad scope, there is much darkness before the storm and even a ballsy section entitled “Denunciations.”

It is exactly via Junker's steely gaze into the craft of writing (which has sadly become more of a corporate endeavor) that we can understand something important about the state of the American mindset. For this, Junker can be easily elevated to the status of cultural critic, however much this idea might make him cringe.

The book’s failings are obvious; there is little attempt to mask them. They are as follows: 1) at one hundred and forty-two pages it is much too brief, 2) the writer might have revealed more of the secrets about the ugly underbelly of literary life, Hollywood-reporter style, and 3) it will leave the acolyte who desires to know such aforementioned secrets desperately desiring more. It remains speculative if the latter particular shortcoming was masterfully planned.

An Old Junker sells itself as a “predictably autobiographical nonfiction novel,” although it is thoroughly novel without technically participating in the genre, and it is anything but predictable. Reminiscent in style and pre-post-Modern flair of this reviewer’s favorite hard-to-label book, Melville’s Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant, Howard Junker has created a portrait of what it is to be a writer in a certain place and time. His work is a personal odyssey of a mind that is self-admittedly eccentric and one that is ever-fascinated with the refined madness it encounters.

Philip Kobylarz's book, rues, is available from Blue Light Press.

An Old Junker: A Senior Represents
Howard Junker
If SF Publishing, August 2011
ISBN 9781453717196, $10 paperback
144 pages