FROM REVIEWS OF WHEN PACINO’S HOT, I’M HOT
by Bennett Lovett-Graff, New Haven Review
So who the hell is Robert Levin? Well, there’s always the Wikipedia article, where you can learn that he’s a jazz critic, a short story writer, and a writer of music liner notes. He seems to have had his heyday here and there—a critical article in the Village Voice about the 1963 March on Washington that drew a year’s worth of responses; a 2004 recipient of “storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story.”
That story is the title of a collection of Levin’s writings, When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot: A Miscellany of Stories & Commentary. Dare I confess that I read this slim 90-page volume over the course of seven dog walks? (Yes, I can walk and read at the same time; I can also chew gum and type.) Let me add that it was one of my more pleasurable dogwalking experiences, which is otherwise a dreadful bore. The reason is simple: Levin is funny. Leaving aside the eponymous lead short story, itself a ribald tale of mistaken identity and the sexual pleasures that can derive therefrom, the miscellany and commentary are laugh-out-loud grotesques, some weirdly Dickensian in their exaggeration of the mundane, others Jamesian in their syntactically elaborate transformations of the bizarre into the clinical or poetic. Only examples will do. In his screed “Recycle This!” on a recycling notice asking residents “to sort and…rinse [their] garbage before leaving it out,” he writes: “So while I’ll allow that self-immolation would constitute a disproportionate form of protest, I have to say that reacting with less than indignation to so gratuitous an imposition would also be inappropriate.” That’s a fairly ornate response to a recycling notice. Like I said, pure Dickens.
Or consider “Peggie (or Sex with a Very Large Woman),” a story so wonderfully offensive that it would be impossible not to relish the absurd attempt to poeticize the physical challenges set before Levin’s narrator: “…Peggie’s particular body could have served as a Special Forces training ground for the field of hazards and challenges its presented. I’m speaking of the twisting climbs and sudden valleys, the crags, the craters and the amazing plenitude of gullies, ravines and bogs that I was, and on my hands and knees, obliged to negotiate and traverse in my search.” And don’t even ask what he was searching for. You can probably guess.
In some ways, Levin is at his best wringing every drop of qualification from a feeling or thought, an instance of rage or fear, often in one long but densely packed sentence. The bathos of the stories and of some of the miscellany—there are cantankerous whines about cashiers and their stupidity, smoking bans, HMOs, aging, the aforementioned recycling notices—is actually what makes it all worth the reading. Levin, in essence, gets more out of the mundane through an overwrought prose style that is utterly apropos to the sensibility behind it.
But there’s no substitute for the man himself, so let’s conclude with his thoughts on when one of God’s “natural wonders”—in this case a solar eclipse—fails to deliver the goods: “I’ll allow that, however disappointing it may be, it’s ultimately of small consequence when He mounts a shoddy eclipse. But it’s something else again when, for one especially egregious example, He leaves you to blow out all your circuits trying to figure just where a mindless inferno of neuroticism like Mia Farrow fits into the notion that everyone’s here for a reason.” Consider my own circuits blown.
by Darran Anderson, 3AM Magazine
“When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot,” an hilarious tale of sexual disaster and delusion.
The titular Pacino story is comic genius—satire at its best. Like Swift’s A Modest Proposal, there is no back-peddling or apology—it takes its suggestion to the nth degree and leaves the reader reeling in the joyful discovery of the author’s tongue-in-cheek. Pacino delivers self-deprecation and humor that packs a punch. No wonder that [it] was a storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story of 2004. In fact, the collection is worth owning just for the joy of reading those first delicious Pacino pages.
This is a story of repeated mistaken identity—sometimes Levin’s character is Dustin Hoffman, sometimes Leonard Cohen, sometimes Al Pacino. The women love him, or the famous man they believe him to be. Sadly, taking the goggle-eyed women home to his place is problematic:
Now before I go on I should point out that my place isn’t exactly a showplace. It suits my budget, but it’s in an old Lower East Side building where the facilities aren’t in their conventional locations. (We’re talking bathtub in the living room, toilet in the kitchen, that sort of thing.) Plus, I share the joint with several legions of cockroaches, an ever-extending family of rodents and an apparently unprecedented and aerodynamic hybrid of the two. (The biologists who’ve come from everywhere to investigate this phenomenon always leave with very concerned expressions on their faces.)
But the fact remains, a woman wants this fellow’s attention, and he’s learned the hard way that correcting her mistake only leads to heartache, sometimes worse.
I’ve given the matter a great deal of thought and I’ll explain this just once. The women I attract are not what you’d call off the top shelf. Though they all qualify as women in the technical sense, are all, that is, in possession of the crucial anatomical components (which, more often than not, are in something like a normal configuration), they are not exactly achingly beautiful, beaming with mental health or candidates for a Star Fleet Academy scholarship. In fact, and without exception, they are pretty desperate people, sick puppies and three-legged cat types. Many of them suffer horrendous hygiene problems and are also myopic to the point of posing a serious threat to themselves. They are usually very drunk as well. Given their condition the service I provide them is every bit as valuable as what they do for me.
The story delivers sublime images, dialogue and descriptions, and a charming little love story too.
A sparrow of a girl, no more than four-foot-ten and alarmingly skinny, Roger had thick black hair that, falling over most of her face, also fell nearly to the floor. The first time I saw her, from the other end of a long and crowded bar, I thought she was a half-opened umbrella standing on its handle.
The Drill Press must be congratulated for creating the vehicle by which to get Levin’s Pacino story on the road. How often does one encounter undiluted intelligent foolishness and tears of laughter?
by Rachel Kendall, Sein und Werden
“Stupidity is among the most effective means available to reduce existential terror to a tolerable disquietude.”
Robert Levin’s collection of short stories and commentary had me laughing out loud with its societal quips and lashes. I had published a story of Levin’s previously in Sein und Werden. “Dog Days” is about a man who is caught in flagrante delicto with his girlfriend’s dog. So I kind of knew what to expect with these stories. Yes it’s bawdy. It might be toilet humour. But it’s very intelligent and it spares no one. It takes the piss out of society.
“‘Sylvia,’ Helen said, ‘why are we talking about your ass now? You know your ass isn’t the issue… I told you what it is; it’s your ankles. They’ve started to make me cross. I can’t help it.’”
Mostly it takes the piss out of its own protagonist.
“A subversive I may be, but I’ve never been of the militant variety. When the SDS was blowing up banks in the early ’70s, I was expressing my displeasure with the establishment by intentionally omitting zip codes—that’ll jam their gears!”
I enjoyed the stories. But I loved the essays. Levin has written for Rolling Stone. He’s written for the Village Voice. He knows about music. He’s co-written two books on jazz. He’s also slightly bitter. A little bit twisted. Someone I can relate to. He talks about sex and death, ie, fear of the unknown, fear of dying without having really lived, fear of pain and terror. He has something to say on the subject of non-smokers: “Like you I’m dealing with an out-sized fear of dying,” where the smoker seizes control of his ultimate cut-off point by taking the risk of cancer out of the hands of death and into his own nicotine-stained fingers,
people who recycle:
“These people are coming from the secret hope that if they suck up to nature by not wasting any of it—and get the rest of us to follow suit—nature will return the favor and arrange to perpetuate their existence in some other package once their current status expires.”
and general stupidity…
“Let me hasten to say that I value stupidity as much as the next man. I do. Stupidity is, after all, one of the best solutions we’ve come up with to the problem of being mortal.”
This is a brilliantly entertaining book, which will have you nodding in agreement whilst feeling slightly guilty for laughing so hard. To conclude this short review, I’ll let the author himself say a few words:
“I wish I could make my cat laugh.”
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by Nathan Tyree, Bookmunch
Terrific new collection blazes a trail on to the Bookmunch “must-read” list…
I had not heard of Robert Levin before When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot arrived in the mail. I’m not really sure how I had missed him. Much of his work has appeared in publications that I sometimes read, and yet he had slipped completely beneath my radar. That fact is something of a shame.
When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot is a slim volume, split about in half. The first forty or so pages are devoted to Levin’s short stories, the second forty or so made up of his commentary. It is the first half of the book that interested me most.
Levin writes rude, bawdy, strange, idiosyncratic tales. His characters are obsessed with sex and with themselves. They tend to be losers and bores (but are never boring). Levin crafts stories often in the first person, with a raw wit and free Id. There is a discomfort (with life, existence, sexuality, the body) that bleeds out of his characters. These are not the strong, sleek, beautiful protagonists that hang about so much of today’s fiction. These characters owe something to Bukowski and Burroughs.
All of the tales that make up this book deserve some level of mention, but a few truly stand out. “Dog Days” is disturbing. “Peggie (or Sex with a Very Large Woman)” is hilarious. I found myself putting the book aside while reading that story, to compose myself and let the laughter trail off so that I could finish reading it. “Spinning the Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception” has one of the best titles I have seen in years…
The title story is most deserving of discussion. “When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot” is a fascinating and nasty tale. It follows an unattractive man. He describes himself thus: “Just under average height, more skinny than slim, and with long, usually unkempt hair hanging over my ears and forehead and down the scruff of my neck, I also have heavily lidded eyes, sunken cheeks and a pallor that’s cadaverous.”
Reading that self description, one may be surprised that our narrator “Gets his pipes cleaned” all the time by a variety of women.
His secret is that a certain type of woman will mistake him for Al Pacino, or Dustin Hoffman, or Bob Dylan, or some other celebrity that doesn’t meet the standard of beauty in the modern world. We are presented with a holy litany of the times he’s been laid due to mistaken identity.
Eventually he falls into a relationship of sorts. He begins living with a girl who has no idea who it is she is sleeping with each night. This girl has the improbable name of Roger (her father had wanted a boy). She is one of the strangest characters I have ever read about. Something in her reminds one of Anthony Burgess’ Enderby. She is flatulent and sort of disgusting in her habits. This girl is a fountain of malapropism, mixed (or twisted) metaphor and strange construction. When excited she is “excruciated”. She wonders why strangers don’t “notarize” her boyfriend (who she initially believes to be Dustin Hoffman) on the street.
The two of them make a strange pair in extremis. It is, in its own way, a sad tale. We know from the start that it can’t end well, and of course it doesn’t. Along the way we are given some of the best characters to appear in a long time.
Any Cop? I’m tempted to call Levin a sick comedian, but how then to account for the pathos and the genuine sadness that permeates these stories? How to account for the fact that I am about to set aside several other books so that I can read this one again?
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by Casey Quinn, Short Story Library
Robert Levin has three things going for him. One, he is extremely intelligent. Two, he has complete control of the English language and makes the most of it. Three, [he] has an unusual sense of humor. The combination of intelligent humor and witty storytelling is effective and the result of it is the collection of short stories and essays entitled, When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot.
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by Jim Chaffee, author of Sao Paulo Blues
When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot is perceptive commentary on contemporary US society. It is also funny as hell, something that the US would be were it not such an overbearing juggernaut. Clearly juggernaut is what the people of the US want from their government, though they seem unhappy about paying for it either with their taxes or their offspring. How long a society given to such fantasia can continue in its present state is anyone’s guess; certainly its collapse will not be funny in local time. For those living in it now, local time may as well be global time. Interesting time.
Levin’s story is set in the new America where everybody’s somebody. Mundane superheros of the big screen or concert stage, usually as dull-witted as the rest of the class and easily as boring, victims of luck, but everyone wants to be one. Easily fixed, however, by parents bearing geniuses, every one of them, or else austistics if not performing at genius standard. An entire generation so smart and talented they need never work at anything (interesting they are not all natural athletes, but perhaps athletic gifts are rarer than intellectual creativity or musical ability or other such trivialities). Born hucksters, brought up on self-delusion, expect more from them: more tulip mania, juvenile writing, mawkish acting and hideous music among other more serious catastrophes as these born masters take the stage after bypassing the tedium of learning, study, reading and of course, thinking, opting instead for video games and non-stop guitar whining, certainly education enough in the brave new world that the US has become.
Enjoy the ride. Levin has the ability to make such horror both telling and hilarious. That is a rare gift indeed. To cadge an almost forgotten liner note written of Pee Wee Russell’s performance with Thelonious Monk at Newport, When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot is a funny snapshot blinking out from the belly of the juggernaut.
by Gabriel Ricard, Unlikely Blog
One of the unfortunate things about books written by comedians is that they very rarely offer anything new to the longtime fan. Exceptions to the rule exist, of course. Lewis Black wrote two excellent books consisting of mostly new material. Steve Martin has written a couple of decent novellas. The majority though are just old jokes rehashed into book form. The bits suffer in the medium because the voice and timing are gone. What’s left is just a transcript of barebones comedy, and that’s very rarely funny.
I only mention this because these thoughts occurred to me as I was reading Robert Levin’s stunning collection, When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot. Every piece in the book is a wonder of talent, humor and tone flawlessly manipulated to tell the story at hand. It was in the title piece itself that I found myself wishing Robert Levin was a comedian by trade. In that story and others I wanted there to be a way in which I could see Levin perform these stories. That’s how strong the voice is in this book. Most of the pieces in the book, especially the hysterical “Get Your Face out Of My Cigarette” and the dry ingenuity of “Redefining Insurance Fraud” are written in a form that’s somewhere between casual, occasionally strange conversation and pure rant. Some of it is fictional and some of it is taken from Levin’s own opinions and grievances. It doesn’t really matter one way or the other. They’re all a pleasure of some kind. They all come from the mind of a man who shows nothing less than flawless confidence in his style.
Confidence is critical in anything that’s meant to amuse, frighten, inform or some combination of those three. Any comedian or performer worth a damn will put self-belief at the top of the essentials list. That’s why Levin should be out there in the world to bring these pieces to life on stage. He brings that confidence to his work on such an outstanding level. You would almost swear that he sweated these stories and opinions through before the brutal graces of a live audience. The best of When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot evokes the spirit and memory of the truly great comedy writers. It’s not surprising that Woody Allen’s name comes up on the back in the book. Levin is probably not Woody’s adopted son, but it wouldn’t be too surprising if Levin has read some or all of Allen’s literary endeavors. The two are by no means identical, but there’s definitely a penchant on Levin’s part for presenting the incongruous as though it’s everyday weather. That doesn’t make the writing dull. It also doesn’t apply to all of them, but the ones that do read like that have clearly taken a page from guys like Allen. Levin goes about the approach in his own way, but the influence is clearly there. Rather than steal from his influences Levin instead uses them to give extra dimension to his own individuality. That’s another mark of a good comedic writer.
When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot isn’t all comedy though. Another stand-out write from the book is the last one, a captivating essay on the jazz revolution of the 1960’s. It’s a little different from the rest of the stories, but it’s no less a great piece of writing. The basic talents of Levin remain in place. He knows what he wants to say, he knows how best to say it, and he has nothing but unflinching coolness in his ability to get us interested. “Free Jazz: The Jazz Revolution of The 60’s” proves that Levin is able to apply these skills to any form of writing he chooses. It just happens to be lucky for us that he seems to prefer comedy. We need humorists like him more than ever. He may not be showing up on Letterman anytime soon, but that’s okay. This book and Levin himself as a writer are just perfect the way they are.
by Books Are Pretty
“Spinning the Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception”—great title, by the way—[is] how you write a story. “Spinning” focuses on male anxiety regarding conception, again asking the age-old questions both men and women ask themselves, “Am I ready?” “Is this really what I want?” “Is my sex life going to be ruined?” These questions grow heavier in the nebbish-y Steve’s mind, and at last his nerves are shot, resulting in a total inability to perform. This continues unabated until his wife, Connie, creatively solves the problem by making the night of contraception a night to remember by being unspeakably filthy. The yin and yang between the two, her strength when his is lost, his caution when she is reckless, form a perfect circle on which new life can begin.
…”Spinning” made for a good lead-in to Levin’s essays, which made up the second half of the book.
[Levin’s] theories regarding the ways religion and politics are used to ward off the fear of death have a strong ring of originality and genuine passion… “Recycle This!” where he describes his aggravation with recycling and the absurdity of washing one’s garbage, is a must-read. Also essential reading is Levin’s 2003 essay “Redefining Insurance Fraud,” where Levin battles insurance companies.
“…most of the 45 million-plus Americans who go without insurance because they can’t afford the premiums oppose the alternative of a not-for-profit system. It apparently hasn’t occurred to them that there’d be no significant risk to capitalism in this solution. We’ve already got “socialized” institutions in this country—fire departments, for example—that hardly infringe on our freedom to take advantage of one another. A few more would still leave us with plenty of opportunities to exploit our fellow man.
“(And speaking of a not-for-profit health care system, does anyone seriously think that dealing with a government bureaucracy would somehow be more brutal than dealing with Aetna, Prudential, or Oxford?)”
Well, yeah. That’s pretty much it.
When Levin’s Hot, He’s Hot…
by Armchair Interviews
This book is a little oddity–half what the writer call “stories” and half what he calls “commentary,” something like essays and editorials.
Most of the stories relate hilarious encounters in sex, from his contention that when some male movie stars are considered “hot,” he is mistaken for them and gets lucky, to things like “Peggie: (or Sex with a Very Large Woman;”) and did we mention impotence and bestiality? (Yup, more sex.)
The commentary essays run the gamut from “Stupidity: Its Uses and Abuses,” quite funny, to a serious and weighty piece on “Free Jazz” and the death of the Sixties. Levin writes in a nervous and chatty style, albeit a very funny one. But underneath his hip humor he has a very dark outlook on life: we’re all going to die, anyway, and culture is our coping mechanism. (Check out “Everything’s All Eight in the Middle East” and “Get Your Face out of My Cigarette!”) My favorites were “Arena” and “Redefining Insurance Fraud,” which are written the way a smart, savvy columnist would write them, to get his point across.
He is the author and coauthor of a couple of serious books: Music & Politics and Giants of Black Music, with numerous published pieces in magazines—from which some of these are drawn.
Armchair Interviews says: Fun and funny read.
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by Ócháni Lele, Majestic/Lit.org
…“All right,” Robert Levin writes, “maybe my book fell a hair or two short of greatness, and for sure, it hadn’t sold very well – even my parents, went my standard joke, waited until it was remaindered to buy their copy. Still, my book had made it onto a library shelf. A library shelf!”
That was the first passage I read in Robert Levin’s collection of stories and essays as I sat there, sipping a diet coke and flipping mindlessly through the pages of this slim volume. The story was titled, “The Author,” and being an author myself, I’d found a point where I could begin connecting with his work. I was hooked. Cautiously, I let myself giggle a little, but soon I was so engrossed in the humor and political incorrectness of the book that I blew soda out of my nose. Seriously!
In the space of 91 pages, Levin examines, dissects, desiccates, and illuminates everything from love, sex, smoking, conception, mistaken identity, art, writing, and politics; and he does it through a bevy of characters conjured from his own life-experience. More important, he does it all with a wry sense of humor and an eloquence of language that can only be described as masterful.
To be honest, Levin hasn’t written a “book” in the classical sense of the word; he’s written a feverishly funny exploration of his own life and social/political views, tying it all together with the title of his opening story, “When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot.”
In truth, Pacino has gotten cold in his old age, and I doubt he’ll ever be at the top of his game again, but Levin is hot with his writing. Spend ten bucks on this amazingly humorous read. It will provide you with an enjoyable evening of laughter and wit.
by Midwest Book Review
5 out of 5 stars. About a dozen funny bone poking short stories and commentaries
From pondering about the universe itself to poop jokes—this is the range of humor that author Robert Levin brings in his short story collection, When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot: A Miscellany of Stories & Commentary. With about a dozen funny bone poking short stories and commentaries, Levin looks at the world from the way it should be looked at—with an eye that cannot take anything too seriously. When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot: A Miscellany of Stories & Commentary, is highly recommended for community library short story collections with a focus on humor and for short story enthusiasts in general.
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by Natalie Wood, Perfectly Write
…All of which brings me to the crazy world of American short story writer and essayist, Robert Levin, whose excruciatingly funny tales and waspish views—interlaced with often unbearably sad meanderings—are as rich, raw, dirty as anything published.
Levin, a jazz journalist, is shackled in a deep, dank, noisome internal cave and diaries his endless struggle for the top with a sort of non-stop yowling reminiscent of a lone wolf baying at the moon. When it is less than first class (some of the essays are imperfect), the stream of consciousness reads less as soliloquy than verbal self-abuse. But at its best, its silvery top notes and sombre cadences reminiscent of the ‘free jazz’ improvisations he holds so dear, this collection of short stories and commentaries—headlined by the laugh-out-loud “When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot,” whose anti-hero is a cross between Woody Allen and Stanley Unwin—is music.
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by J. Kaval, Katha Kshetre (India)
…An American would love to read this book. A British may frown upon the content, an Indian may replace it on the shelf after having read a page or two…because the book does not entice his/her curiosity.
We appreciate the book for it’s author’s versatility and verbosity displayed in his rather humorous stories and essays. The language and the style of narrating are superb. The book is a holy handmaid for travelers both in air and on rail.
For Levin’s tongue-in-cheek response to a not so favorable review see “To My Fans: The Author Addresses His Base.”
When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot is available from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble as a paperback and as a Kindle and a NOOK Book.