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Excerpt: Cal Pender

It had often occurred to Cal Pender, formerly Chuck Prout, that he had to be the only person who’d ever moved to Las Vegas and discovered his spiritual side. It was one of the many ironies of his recent life. 

His previous life hadn’t been rich in irony. It had just been rich, and it was all because of the line. Yes, he used to tell people when they asked, he sure was that Chuck Prout. And when they’d beg him to say the line, he’d strap on a grin, like the performing monkey he’d become, and say it: “So come on down to Chuck Prout Dodge, where we’re prout to serve you!” He’d paid some green kid of a freelance copywriter $75 for the slogan way back in the early days, when he just had the one dealership down on Washington near National. And then, God help him, he’d had the bright idea to buy some cheap local TV time and put his mug on the tube. It had been the most successful and the worst decision of his life. Inside a year he was famous all over Southern California. You couldn’t turn on your TV without seeing him in that ridiculous spangly suit, hair done up in that absurd pompadour like he was Porter Wagoner, his face tanned like latigo leather. He was a smart guy with a head for business, and even he couldn’t figure out how one idiotic catchphrase could induce so many people to buy their new cars from him rather than the guy next door. It wasn’t even a good catchphrase. It didn’t make sense. But within 36 months he was its prisoner, like he was working for the line rather than the other way around. He spouted it at ribbon-cuttings, at personal appearances, on local radio shows, and in an increasingly bizarre series of cheaply-produced TV spots: Chuck in a spaceship, Chuck riding an elephant, Chuck in hand-to-hand combat with the Abominable Snowman, Chuck in a Japanese headband breaking a stack of fake boards with his forehead, Chuck in an oversized toque and walrus mustache doing the line in pidgin Swedish, Chuck and some homies from Compton doing the line in rap. And the more sales boomed, and the more new dealerships he opened, three in the first two years alone, the less he felt like a real person, with a marriage and a home and an interior life, than the keeper of some exotic, unpredictable animal named Prout to serve you! It was ridiculous. It was intolerable. He had everything he’d ever wanted and there wasn’t a week when he didn’t contemplate putting a gun in his mouth and blowing the roof of his head clean off. And he would have done it, except for the absolute conviction that when the paramedics arrived they’d look down at his remains and one of them would say: “Hey, I think it’s that ‘Prout to serve you’ guy!” 


Excerpts from a recent conversation with a medical tech

q: So what do you do?
a: Uh, I'm a writer.
q: Oh, yeah? What do you write?
a: I just published my second book. It's a novel.
q: Oh, yeah? Fiction or non-fiction?
a: Uh... fiction?
q: Uh huh. And what's it called?
a: "Thanks For Killing Me."

q: So the guy came back.
a: I... what?
q: The guy. He got killed, and he came back. And now he's saying thanks. Like a ghost.
a: I...
q: And what was your first book?
a: Oh. It was a fake advice book.
q: A what?
a: A fake advice book. A parody of advice books.
q: Oh, I don't know about that.
a: Tell you what, just go ahead and push an air bubble through that line. Seriously. It's fine. I want you to.*

*All dialogue guaranteed verbatim except for last line, which was only spoken in my head



First of all, I'd like to clear up the popular misconception that the only new Twitter followers I've had in the last month are SEO guys who want to kill me.

There have also been a lot of porn spammers.

THANKS FOR KILLING ME continues to be a reliable mid-level seller at the fine retailers which carry it, with ebook sales oustripping paperback sales by about 10-to-1. This means I've had little impetus to do the extra work necessary to put the book within the reach of brick and mortar booksellers, and I have to admit this feels funny, and not in the "ha-ha" way. But the market advantage of the digital format, particularly at a low price point, is just too crushing. It would only be sentiment, to be honest, that would convince me to go brick and mortar at this point. It isn't an impossible prospect, but it is an unlikely one. The surprising lesson in the marketing saga to date has been how powerfully irrelevant physical bookstores seem to be for my purposes. I don't like this, but I have to admit it.

Meanwhile, work continues on the still-unnamed sequel to TFKM, which picks up in Las Vegas three days after the conclusion of the first book and centers on Joe Harbin (with appearances by some of the lovable scamps who made their debuts in THANKS). I'm at the unenviable stage of what newsweekly writers used to call "breaking rocks" -- that is, doing the hard work of answering questions and laying groundwork. The frustrating part of this is how absolutely essential it is even though it puts zero words on the page. It's the hard work that makes it possible to put words on the page. It's when I'm engaged in this preliminary work that I really miss being in a writers' room, because there's no silence more profound than the one your story problems come wrapped in. Problems and silence -- that's where I'm at today, although in the spirit of full disclosure, when I say "silence" I actually mean "listening to Monkees albums on Mog." Hey, you have your process and I have mine. 


If I did in a horrible accident, an SEO guy did it

In my day job I blog about technology and popular culture at A couple of days ago I read a piece in TechCrunch written by a putative expert on SEO, or search engine optimization, which is a set of practices aimed at increasing traffic to given web sites. (It's based on the idea that the sites which turn up at the top of Google searches are the ones with the most incoming links, so you want to encourage people, by a number of means, to link to your site. As an example, one might pepper one's content with hot-button words like "iPad," "sex," or "naked pictures of Cat Deeley," regardless of whether those search terms actually have much to do with the subject at hand.) The author of this post, a venture capital guy named Ryan Spoon, used a variety of jargony nonsense words in his TechCrunch post, and this seemed to me emblematic of a broader problem with SEO -- that it's a con, and an insidious one at that, because it has the end effect of driving down the editorial quality of online content. So I decided to to blog about it. You can read the original post here.

Unsurprisingly, this made some SEO professionals very cross with me. Some of them made good points in rebuttal; some of them didn't. The response that just made me sigh, though, came from a self-described "SEO expert" who chose to identify himself as "bigpoppa22." (For the record, I posted my Forbes piece under my real name, which is "Bill Barol," with no numbers.) Among other things, he didn't care for the headline of my post: SEX, FREE iPAD, NAKED PICTURES OF CAT DEELEY, 8 WAYS TO LOSE WEIGHT RIGHT THIS SECOND AND LEARN FRENCH WHILE YOU SLEEP. I thought it was a reasonable piece of satire under the circumstances. To be on the safe side, though, I took the extra step of including a picture of Cat Deeley (fully clothed) and captioned it "This is Cat Deeley. There is nothing about her in this post." I figured, Well, that ought to make it clear: It's a joke, see? 

No such luck. Mr. Poppa22 was extremely stern in his disapproval:

I also find it ironic that you used keywords that are completely irrelevant to the purpose of your article in the title in order to attract more readers. A cheap tactic that is indicative of your lack of journalistic integrity.

Now you have read something by an SEO expert that speaks comprehensible English

Oh dear. 

I run up against readers like this from time to time. They not only don't get the joke; they militantly don't get the joke, and are very very angry with you. The natural temptation is to face-palm yourself and mutter Jesus, buddy, it was a joke, but this is a fruitless road to go down because there has never been, in the history of jokes, a single one that got funnier after you had to explain it. The recipient of the explanation will either fail to buy it (in which case you're right back where you started) or be embarrassed (in which case he'll dig in his heels). You can't win this one. So what did I do? I directed a polite reply back his way to the effect that gee, it was satire, and I was sorry he didn't get it, and I'd try to do better and make it clearer next time.

So what's to be learned here? Nothing much I didn't already know: A certain percentage of people who comment on Internet posts tends to be very very angry with you. But the episode did reinforce one lesson I've learned before, and it's useful to keep it in mind as I continue to search for ways to promote THANKS FOR KILLING ME online, and to grasp for a voice and a tone in that promotion: Satire is what closes on Saturday night, and on the Internet it's always Saturday night.



In the wind. On the hustings. Blasting down the straightaway in a nitro-burning funny car. Forming a super PAC.* Peering in your kitchen window. Riding the rails across the endless expanse of America's heartland, the railroad bulls on its tail. Chasing rainbows.** Hurtling down the face of a 25-foot swell at Mavericks, screaming in terror every inch of the way. Filling in some of the blanks in its stamp collection. Napping. Learning Spanish.*** Thinking about things. Getting its head together. The point is, it's one day into a new year, and that means it's time to wait hang on how many days? Seriously? Well, what happened to the other three weeks? What the hell has THANKS FOR KILLING ME been doing with itself for three weeks that it somehow can't account for? Look, THANKS FOR KILLING ME, we're all just here because we love you, and we're concerned. Now, we're going to go around the room and -- remember, just like we talked about -- everyone's going to speak in turn and we're going to keep it to feeling words and check the blame at the door. And while we're doing that, why don't the rest of you take a second to post a glowing review at Amazon or iTunes, and think back, way back to late last year when you first discovered what New York Times bestselling author Kevin Baker calls a "sparkling debut," and reflect on how very many of your nearest and dearest might enjoy receiving it as a reasonably-priced gift. THANKS FOR KILLING ME has all sorts of ideas for 2012, and can't wait to share them with you in the weeks and months ahead. So let's not hurt each other, okay? Okay.


*TFKMericans for America
**Surprisingly easy, as it turns out, due to the fact that rainbows are stationary
***By sometime late in 2012