Somehow I missed The Minus Times the first time around, but it's fair to say most people did too.
Even now that Featherproof Books is issuing The Minus Times Collected: 20 Years / 30 Issues, this enigmatic bastion of wryly surreal writing—by literary luminaries such as Dave Eggers, Barry Hannah and Tom McGuane, and rising stars like local author Wells Tower—is still flying under the radar. It doesn't even have a Wikipedia page yet, but this is probably by design.
With its unpredictable release schedule (years might pass between issues), sporadic newsstand appearances and utter lack of self-promotion, The Minus Times, which originated as a free handout in Austin, Texas, has always been hard to lay hands on. Even as a sanctioned publication ("a proper magazine with a cover and contributors that would feature exceptional writing not found in other 'literary' publications," in the words of founder Hunter Kennedy) under the auspices of the record label Drag City, The Minus Times has remained the province of a rare few. So it's good news that readers can now experience for themselves a project that has generated its own mythos and reliably attracted luminaries from the worlds of art, music, photography and writing to its pages.
It began as the passion project of Hunter Kennedy, who in the mid-'90s banged out early issues on his Prohibition-era typewriter during late-night sessions at the publishing office where he toiled during the day as a low-level assistant. Availing himself of both a place to work and a means of production (i.e., the office copier), he would mail these initially one-page missives to his friends, many of them as yet unheralded writers who would later become contributors. As it has evolved from one-man show to group effort, The Minus Times has remained consistent with its earliest iterations. And it has retained its handmade flavor: The Minus Times Collected is a hefty, softcover slab with the look of an uncorrected proof. It's printed on thick paper stock, in the original "typewriter"—with all of its imperfections lovingly maintained—conveying the impression that the absolute minimum has been done beyond arranging the 30 issues in a stack, adding an intro and a preface, and wrapping it in a rough, workmanlike cover. This is no fancy compendium trumpeting cool new extras and a foreword by Salman Rushdie. In fact, the lack of finished-ness extends to the prose itself—numerous typos and misspellings appear throughout (including on page 1, "ameanable"), presumably to preserve the purity of the endeavor. As a copy editor, this makes me wince, but perhaps I need to get over it.
There is a wealth of striking, un-clichéd, ultra-modern fiction to be savored herein. Along with the boldface names are striking works by Minus Times regulars Patrick Dewitt and Brent Van Daley and local artist/ musician Harrison Haynes. If there's a common aspect, it's an unblinking, deadpan bluntness, even when describing beautiful things, and certain themes emerge: the creative process, body horror, addiction, mortality, lust.
The fantastical is presented in a hyper-detailed, unemotional prose that might remind some readers of the works of Mark Leyner and George Saunders. Even relatively straight reportage, like a producer's account of setting up an interview between Ali G and Marlin Fitzwater, fits with the zine's tone of keeping a straight face in a world gone ridiculous. That Kathy Egan piece, it should be said, is one of the rare contributions by a woman, and indeed, a fair amount of the humor comes off as male-centric. I can't imagine a woman writing a story that begins, "After we fucked, she left."
The compendium is manna for anyone with a fondness for the list form and its varieties. Sometimes these lists are straightforward, as in the case of Sam "Iron & Wine" Beam's "Netflix w/ Subtitles" recommendations; sometimes, as in the case of Mike Fellows' three extremely catholic mixed-tape playlists, the effect is more far-reaching. Rendered in columns to approximate the layout of a cassette tape insert, with asterisks next to songs by Wings and Keith Carradine indicating "dead," even though these artists are not quite dead, this almost stumbles into outsider-art territory, limning the strange, subjective qualities of the cult of pop music obsession. Brad Neely's "Plans for an Art Series" is some kind of tour de force, with the list format playing straight man to 234 numbered items organized into categories such as Famous Decapitated Heads ("52. Goliath"), Tombstone Epitaphs ("96. See you soon!") and Pompeian Petrified People Who Were Instantly Frozen in Mid-Act ("198. A lady putting poison in her husband's food").
And there are poems (the kind you won't find in The New Yorker), imagined press releases and an off-kilter crossword by Independent Weekly contributor Brian Howe (17-Across: "Keanu Reeves's post-Dogstar band"). There's a photo-realistic filmography of fictional Hollywood hack Logan Van Steele ("National Lampoon's 'Battle of Vicksburg' – Co-star"). David Berman of Silver Jews, a frequent contributor, offers poems as singular as his singing voice, along with maxims ("Biographers are the new ambulance chasers") and a reference to "a porcelain Steve Miller statue in the foyer."
There's so much world-class arcana on display that on occasion I had to will myself to settle down and enter the five-page confines of a piece of fiction, because what I really wanted to do was skip ahead and find something else as crazily amusing as "Deleted Sports Card Facts" ("Once put a bunch of wasabi in a teammate's mouthguard") or more from the annals of "Terribly Personals" ("SWPF, 25, ISO, Vegas-born poet, 5' 8''-5'10'', no phone, drug problem. Must have killed with bare hands. Box 7").
Each issue explores precincts of the human condition that are both strange and familiar. Nowhere is this more true than in the paper's ingenious interview template, which seems as apt for the Minus Times sensibility as the much longer and more high-minded Marcel Proust questionnaire is for Vanity Fair. These seven questions, with their interest in dreams, awkward moments, missed opportunities/ second chances, early family memories and "artists you respect," echo the themes and concerns that continue to provide the paper with such rich subject matter. These questions yield telling responses from such revered artists as the photographer Robert Frank, Dan Clowes of Eightball fame, Stephen Malkmus of Pavement and Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power), whose reply to "Your very last meal, and what's on the radio" was "Chicken tacos with perfectly cold Sol beer and lime, in Tulum, listening to a sweet, slow Mexican version of Kumbayah, My Lord."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Accidental anthology."