Express Reviews 

Porn stars meet circus freaks, and rock stars die.

Killing Yourself to Live
By Chuck Klosterman
Scribner, $23

Here's the gist: Spin writer rents car to visit places where the music died -- from the Rhode Island nightclub where ninety concertgoers perished in a freak fire to the Georgia intersection where two Allman brothers were killed in motorcycle accidents, and beyond. As for the larger point of this contrived odyssey, well, there isn't one. The music mainly died in empty fields and lonely roads. To make up for that, we're treated to discursive diversions: interesting, at times hilarious, but not terribly satisfying. Self-indulgent even for a rock critic, Klosterman suffers from a cloying generational affliction: a chronic inability to relate to anything without a pop-culture crutch. Witness this bit on three sorta ex-girlfriends: "If Diane is Dolly Parton's Jolene and Lenore is a fusion of the Big Bopper's Libido with Nikki Sixx's scariest wet dream, Quincy is akin to the girl in Ben Fold Five's 'Kate,' multiplied by the woman described in Sloan's 'Underwhelmed,' divided by the person Evan Dando sings about in The Lemonheads' slacked-up, Raymond Carver-esque dope ballad, 'Buddy.'" Annoying? Yes, yes, sweet Jesus, yes! He puts his finger on interesting ideas -- such as that Graceland represents "the religiosity of garbage culture'" -- only to abandon them because, hey, the road doth beckon. -- John Dicker


Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star
By Rich Merritt
Kensington, $15

It couldn't be a saucier mix: Gay. Marine. Porn. Star. Are you flipping through yet? If so, you might be disappointed. Merritt first came to prominence as a not-totally-anonymous poster boy for gays in the military. He was featured in a New York Times Magazine article and then later outed by The Advocate, which touted him as "The Marine who did gay porn." Merritt turns what could be compelling material into a bland -- and, at 468 pages, long -- bit of reportage. Though his writing style is clean, fluid, and solid, he often fails to delve beyond the sensationalistic nature of his material. In fact, for all its length and unusual content, this book contains surprisingly little reflection. Instead, Merritt presses ahead breathlessly to reveal his story. At times, readers will stay right there with him -- his clean writing surges from one point in the tale to the next with relatively few bumps -- but at other times all this forward motion gets exhausting and a moment of insight would provide the perfect breather. Since Merritt is no longer a Marine or a porn star and is now a lawyer, he has gone past the struggle that saw him trying to cover his sexuality with lies and female companionship. If only he had written this memoir with an immediacy that truly evoked the way he felt ten years ago -- when he was simultaneously being promoted to captain and starring in X-rated flicks -- his saucy story would be better served. -- Allison Landa


Freaks & Fire
By J. Dee Hill
Soft Skull, $24.95

The Big Top is back, in edgy postmodern form, and in his introduction to this look at "the underground reinvention of circus," Hill promises to explore a mysterious subculture. These modern primitives -- radical sideshow performers who skewer and otherwise torture themselves onstage and do tricks with axes, lizards, meathooks, and bodily fluids -- seek to entertain fellow "freaks" while reestablishing tribal bonds lost in the disconnect of modern society, as Hill would have it. An insider, he unfortunately uses a lot of six-dollar words to say how amazing these misfits are while only sometimes showing why. To be fair, Hill doesn't always get in his own way, and we see the motivation and dedication behind it all. But he is overly enamored with these misfit darklings, and is often more apologist than investigator. He makes fun of locals who protest performances, and expresses disdain for viewers who don't "get it" -- even when the performers take it in stride. Phil Hollenbeck's photos are truly breathtaking, but without captions the reader is left guessing who's who in the larger troupes. The book is poorly edited, with style and grammar inconsistencies, extra words floating around, incorrect usage, and at least one easily debunked urban legend presented as fact. Freaks & Fire was truly a good idea. Too bad it's not much more. -- Keith Bowers


They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky
By Alephonsion Deng, Benson Deng, and Benjamin Ajak, with Judy A. Bernstein
PublicAffairs, $25

Never mind trying to grasp the enormity of genocide -- it's challenging enough to absorb individual suffering. In this harrowing account by three young survivors of the continuing depredations perpetrated against Christian and animist Sudanese by their own Muslim-dominated government since the 1980s, the reader follows three boys through a childhood and adolescence alternately spent enduring forced labor, wasting away in squalid refugee camps, and trudging hundreds of miles, barefoot and starving, toward the elusive promise of peace. Part of a massive, amorphous group called the Lost Boys of Sudan, the authors -- two brothers and their cousin -- escaped the annihilation in their pastoral villages, only to watch many other refugees die of hunger, thirst, disease, and violence perpetrated by animals and by their fellow human beings. The three authors, all of whom are now young men striving to assimilate into American culture, take turns telling their story. Because it's difficult to tell them apart on the page, this narrative device sometimes confuses the reader. Nevertheless, the trio's lyrical eloquence, combined with the gut-wrenching clarity of their recollections, powers this testament to human endurance in the face of overwhelming trauma. -- Mark Nichol


The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories
By Lavanya Sankaran
Dial, $23

In this elegant debut, a Bangalore resident offers eight intertwined glimpses into the life of her Indian hometown, which a new tech boom has turned into the next Silicon Valley virtually overnight. Sankaran deftly explores a terrain unfamiliar to many readers, yet doesn't let a fascination with local color threaten the universality of her stories. The clash between old ways and new money might be especially raucous in India, but the lonely chasm between the generations is hardly unique to the subcontinent. In "Birdie Num-Num," a matchmaking mother with an American-educated daughter contemplates the upheavals of feminism: "It isn't fair, being trained to do something all your life, and then, when it is too late to change, being told that it was all a mistake." In the collection's strongest story, "Closed Curtains," an elderly man with an Alzheimer's-afflicted wife "adopts" the young, modern housewife across the street as his surrogate granddaughter, while his own children, successful emigrants to Australia, never call. Behind the joking cliché of the "generation gap" lies a stark truth: The world is being remade by the efforts of bright young minds in India, the United States, and beyond -- while many people are left behind, whether because of age, education, or money. Families feel these spaces stretching wider and wider, and contemplate them with envy, frustration, and regret. -- Summer Block


Passion Is a Fashion
By Pat Gilbert
Da Capo, $18.95

British music journalist Gilbert takes an extensive look back, forward, and into the present moment at the Clash, who confirmed their punk-legend status long ago with songs such as "London Calling." Aiming to introduce the band to a new generation, Gilbert laboriously recounts the Clash's triumphs and disappointments; the book's structure, a now-and-then, mostly works but at times feels like reprints of magazine pieces, replete with authorial intrusion. Still, he portrays beautifully the fine art of falling apart as acted by individuals who all come across here as likable, especially the late but irreplaceable Joe Strummer. Gilbert seems to hold back when writing about Strummer's death, perhaps in deference to a forthcoming biography by a colleague. It's that kind of generous spirit that guides the book, which is likely to last while weightier tomes languish in dustbins. "You've gotta wear pointy shoes," Strummer once said, "so you know which way you're going." -- Susan Compo

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