The words "NPR commentator" fill some people with dread and loathing, and the reaction is not entirely undeserved. Andrei Codrescu is not among those who deserves such a brush-off, though — he comes equipped with the kind of grim, cutting wit that only seems possible for a direct-line descendant of H.L. Mencken — or, in his case, a Romanian emigre who's disgusted enough for any three lifetimes but somehow retains enough wonder for a dozen of them. No Tacos For Saddam compiles a number of monologues and essays from his NPR days, many of which were featured in print in his book Zombification, and the best praise I have for it is that while it inspired a lot of laughter, it was all with him and not at him, and some of it was more that I might not cry.
Codrescu is an embodiment of a type that I find myself both drawn to and irritated by, although more the former than the latter: the grouchy uncle, a dispenser of travelogue, sidelong observation, and aginbites of inwit (as Joyce would have put it). He is suitably appalled by modern life, but not so much so that he can't savor the parts of it that haven't yet been strip-mined or turned into the $1.50 tree museums Joni Mitchell lamented in "Big Yellow Taxi". In "The Difference", his stomach turns at yet another Burger King going up nearby, not so much because of the vileness of the cuisine but because a month from now no one will ever remember that it didn't exist. But in "Summer", he talks about all the things that drew him to make New Orleans his home:
I live in New Orleans because it's lush. Sexy. Chatty. Rotten. Everything grows as you look at it. There's music that comes out of the cracks in the sidewalk. People are sweating. There's always a drop of sweat heading somewhere as they walk down the street. It's not America. Time is different. You can eat things that are bad for you. You can breath the air, which is filled with calories and music. ... There are no clocks on New Orleans. The only clocks they have here are on funeral parlors. You have to die to find out what time it is.
Tacos is divided more or less evenly between both kinds of pieces, the ones where he shakes his head and the ones where he nods with recognition and love. Most of the head-shaking is aimed at things that are supposed to be "modern", "progressive", or — worse — "cultured", but which just end up embarrassing everyone involved. "Crab Enchiladas" is a good example of the former, where Codrescu visits one restaurant after another in despairing search of a simple meal and instead discovers to his horror that everyone is cheerfully inventing food with reckless disregard for the gastronomic consequences:
A glutinous rice pancake was wrapped thickly around a core of mayonnaise-infused crab meat with chunks of ginger in it. Surrounding this assemblage were halved blue potatoes. Yes, blue. When my eyes rolled almost involuntarily out of my head, the waiter smiled an ineffable "Yes, I am Gregory" smile and explained that these potatoes were indeed blue, naturally blue, and that the establishment, the neighborhood, and the city of Seattle were mighty proud of the fact. Disregarding my low-class doubts, I tried one of the damn things. They were not only blue, they were raw.
On the other side of the plate is "Onions", a nod rather than a head-shake, where Codrescu uses his love of the onion to reminisce about childhood "powered by the pungent queen of veggies" and engage in a little tongue-in-cheek philosophizing about the onion as a symbol. It's the kind of thing that would sound horribly precious out of anyone else's mouth, but out of his it's sincere and even sly.
Sometimes Codrescu uncorks full-blown MAD Magazine level satire: "Eternal Youth" zings the idea that the less you care about your health, the longer you live, and so the world is in truth peopled by two-thousand year old men who "arrived at their great age with the aid of daily doses of yogurt, cigarettes, vodka, and dubious birth records. ... With the exception of their eyelashes, which reach to the ground, they are in very good shape." Codrescu's nasal tones are not suited to long stories — it can wear on unaccustomed ears after some time — but it allows for the kind of deadpan delivery that make the funny moments sidesplitting and the weighty ones a little more poundiferous.
Tacos was one of the releases from the short-lived Gang of Seven label, which also produced spoken-word records by Lynda Barry (the hilarious Lynda Barry Experience) and Spalding Gray's Monster In A Box, although the latter is best experienced by way of the movie made from the same performance. It's a shame things seemed to have ended there for the label, but if this disc whets the appetite Codrescu has plenty of other material in print to delve into. Besides, anyone who titles a piece "Obscenity In Search Of Art" has my pre-emptive approval.
Other Lives Of The Mind