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Books  |  Reviews

Power Moves: Livin' the American Dream, USA Style by Karl Welzein

The Great American Hangover

July 30, 2013  |  11:30am
<i>Power Moves: Livin' the American Dream, USA Style</i> by Karl Welzein

When I went to a downtown bookstore on the day Power Moves released, I had a hard time finding it. New Fiction rack? No. New Authors? No. Literature? No way. I’d just about headed for the bargain bin when it occurred to me: Non-fiction. And, lo: Power Moves: Livin’ the American Dream, USA Style, by Karl Welzein.

But wait, I thought. Karl’s not real.

For those unfamiliar with Karl Welzein—perhaps better known by his Twitter handle, @DadBoner—he’s the self-proclaimed “President and CEO of Bad Boy City, USA,” a divorced father and weekend (and weekday) warrior from Grand Blanc, Mich., whose epic binges, infectious catchphrases, love of casual chain dining, carnal passions, Guy Fieri and self-styled all-American bad-boy lifestyle—along with a staggering capacity for sophistry and self-delusion—have attracted nearly 150,000 followers since he began tweeting in the spring of 2010.

The premise: Karl’s wife and kids kick him out of his own house for his reckless boozing, forcing him to move into a squalid apartment with an old high school pal, Dave. But Karl loves his newly liberated life, and instead of taking the cue to turn his life around, he hits the accelerator. The @DadBoner feed chronicles in real time, often mid-bender, the delirious highs and disastrous lows of Karl’s blue-collar blackouts. Combined with his irresistibly quotable lingo and unshakable confidence in the face of countless mistakes, it makes for one of the web’s most reliably funny reads.

I’ve evangelized @DadBoner ever since I came across the collected Twitter archive. But over the first few pages, Power Moves the book disappointed: composed mostly of @DadBoner tweets from 2010-2011, moderately edited, the book simply re-presents them as a long form, diary-style memoir with a few new clips and backstory sprinkled throughout. For some unaccountable reason I felt Karl had promised me more.

Stupid, and I soon got past it. The time-stamped tweets fuel the impulsive comedy of the feed, but Power Moves pulls off a similar immediacy. I found the jokes just as funny the second (okay, third) time through—far and away the funniest book of the year, and, in terms of gut laughs per page, the funniest I’ve ever read. The book also offers a different experience than the feed: You read it on your own terms. You can put it down, pick it up again. Pause to reflect, and Karl’s highs and lows suddenly have new weight. The episodes stack on one another for a more extreme read, but also a more evocative one, at once more absurd and more real.

Thanks to an unauthorized outing by Deadspin’s Drew Magary about a year ago, we now know Karl as the brainchild, and in many ways the alter ego, of a comparatively obscure stand-up comedian and writer named Mike Burns. That makes the @DadBoner feed, and now the book, one of a handful of similar long-form Twitter narratives purportedly “authored” by virtual characters (think The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel). Some regard these as the future voice of American fiction.

Not that anyone needed Magary to clue us in to the fiction part. Karl, who regularly blacks out at the wheel and drinks ranch dressing, wouldn’t last three years in the real world. He’s clearly a cartoon. But over three years, 140 characters at a time, the once-anonymous Burns turned Karl’s imaginary lot in Grand Blanc into a dynamic comic universe as vibrant and complete to his followers as Cheers or Monk’s Coffee Shop, Springfield or Pawnee.

He also crafted one of the most singular and compelling American characters of our time. Karl has perhaps the perfect Twitter voice. Punchy and addictive, these sentences hit like the quick pff of an ice-cold domestic, and go down just as smooth: “Love when Gina works on Long Island night. Gina makes the best Long Islands. Plus, she’s got an incredible rack. Not sayin’ that to be creepy, just a friendly comment about Gina.” And his self-serving philosophy routinely pinches tender cultural nerves: “If you don’t have a job that makes you want to kill yourself, you don’t deserve to drink until you want to die.”

I get weirdly emotional about Karl. He makes me want to drink a thousand beers, but at the same time never touch another drop. In his unfiltered honesty, I recognize my darkest and most selfish self: “Memorial Day weekend is the time we drink up all the booze and eat up all the grub that the soldiers didn’t get to.”

My repressed glutton: “I keep cravin’ pizza with mayo on it.”

My own delusions of grandeur: “It’s frustrating to be an idea man trapped in a cage when there’s so many corncobs out there in the big time.”

Like finding pieces of my younger self in Mersault, Ignatius or Bateman, this at first scared me, but ultimately, and secretly, it freed me. I won’t shill Power Moves as a great work of fiction, but I will defend it to the end as great comedy.

And yet I can’t help going further than that. Because instead of despising America, Karl reveres it. His delusional optimism—captured in his oft-repeated tag line, “Really lookin’ forward to the weekend, you guys”—is really just naïveté, an unwavering and endearing faith in the myths of advertising and consumerism that the vast majority of us manage to ignore every day: the right brands get you laid; independence is a virtue; casual chain dining is good for you; Hollywood action heroes are models for the modern man. In one running narrative, Karl goes on the Atkins diet. He proudly eats “just the fillings” of Hot Pockets and Taco Bell and takes the coating off of his McNuggets “for health.”

By blindly embracing these American myths, Karl calls attention to our own absurdity. And unlike a sitcom or cartoon—but just like the rest of us—he can’t seem to reset, no matter how hard he tries to pacify himself: “If you’re feelin’ blue and in a psychotic rage, nothin’ brings you back to normal like a nice afternoon at Chili’s, you guys.” Life wears on him and affects him in a visceral (and dare I say literary) way, and with the book’s long form you can really feel the consequences accrete. The very real prospects of his death or suicide become sources for some of the best punch lines: “Sometimes I worry that I’m going to die all alone in that dump with Dave, without ever havin’ any cool black friends or anything.” So even though he may have more Homer Simpson in him than Huck or Holden, Karl Welzein belongs with Ignatius J. Reilly at the head of the long line of tragic American comic heroes, the undisputed heavyweight champs of loser lit.

But Karl alone couldn’t make this book work. I’d put him up there as one of the most unreliable narrators of all time. Even Don Quixote needed narrative distance, and Karl is Don Quixote multiplied by Don Julio. The real genius lies in Karl’s interactions with a cast of peripheral characters—all well developed by Burns—that belie the satire and expose Karl’s true character. Dave, the “annoying, immature” roommate, but exactly like Karl in every way; Gina, a bartender whose pity Karl mistakes for sexual availability; his boss, whom he just calls “Nosey Lady”; a violent cokehead named Crazy Cooter; and of course his wife: “Ann says I shouldn’t drink while I watch the kids. She also says I shouldn’t take a whizz behind the garage. Ann says a lot of dumb crap.”

Because of characters like these, I most enjoyed the moments when I put the book down to apply my perspective, put Karl in my own words. The distance also softens the sometimes brutal blows of his rampant yet unwitting misogyny and racism, inflating the crude guy humor with the cush air of satire. Still, if you pick up Power Moves, better slacken those cultural tripwires. But to that end, I often laughed harder explaining the scenes than I did reading them, which I take as a sign of good comedy: complexity, context and staying power.

And yet you’ll find no mention of Mike Burns here. Karl even has domain over the acknowledgements section, which feature shouts out to the likes of Jim Beam, 3:57 in “Still of the Night” by Whitesnake and Over the Top (“such a great flick”). By marketing Power Moves as non-fiction, Burns and his publisher made a conscious choice. On one hand, it raises the types of brainbending ontological questions about authorship and the nature of “reality” in the digital era that cause grad students to salivate like Karl over a chicken ranch pizza (“they use ranch for the sauce”). And as a fictional character interacting with the real world through a virtual medium, he suggests another paradox: our real world made entirely of verisimilitude.

But those questions, as old as the novel itself, should pass through you just as quickly as that pizza. As Jonathan Franzen recently pointed out, Daniel Defoe and his publisher intentionally passed off Robinson Crusoe—the book some regard as the first modern novel—as non-fiction for years. You could in fact note parallels here with Crusoe: Karl cast out of domesticity, romanticizing his newfound but ultimately foolish independence (saved by Friday/“really lookin’ forward to the weekend”?); his written account, highly detailed and steeped in verisimilitude; the publisher writing a preface claiming that the book is a true story; the book’s placement on the non-fiction rack.

Obviously all part of the joke. But equally obviously, just the stuff of plain old good fiction. Mark Twain believed that American humor is rooted in performance, and Twitter’s certainly a live act. And I find entertainment and truth in Karl’s character, and art in the narrative’s immediacy, both online and in hand, in the Twitterverse or on the john. And Burns, himself a performer, has hosted a series of live comedy events in Los Angeles and New York as part of a P.R. push behind the book.

He put Karl Welzein at the top of the bill.

Roger is deputy editor and regular contributor at Trop Magazine (www.tropmag.com). He just completed his first novel, I, Sharkosaurus, and he would love to tell you all about it. Especially if you’re a literary agent.

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