Leyner, Mark 1956–

views updated

Leyner, Mark 1956–

PERSONAL: Born January 4, 1956, in Jersey City, NJ; son of Joel (a lawyer) and Muriel (a real estate agent; maiden name, Chasan) Leyner; married Arleen Portada (a psychotherapist; marriage ended); married second wife, Mercedes; children: Gabrielle. Education: Brandeis University, B.A., 1977; University of Colorado, M.F.A., 1979. Religion: Jewish.

ADDRESSES: Agent—Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

CAREER: Panasonic Co., Secaucus, NJ, advertising copywriter, 1981–82; Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Brooklyn, NY, lecturer in English, 1982; lecturer, Jersey City State College, 1982–84; freelance copywriter, 1984–88; freelance writer and novelist, 1989–. Columnist for Esquire; writer for MTV's Liquid Television; creator of audio series Wiretap, 2002–.

WRITINGS:

I Smell Esther Williams and Other Stories, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1983.

(Editor with Curtis White and Thomas Glynn) American Made, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1986.

My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1989.

Et Tu, Babe, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 1992.

Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 1995.

The Tetherballs of Bougainville, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 1997.

Contributor of stories, articles, plays, and poems to magazines, including Fictional International, Esquire, Mississippi Review, Rolling Stone, Semiotexte, and Between C and D.

ADAPTATIONS: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, I Smell Esther Williams and Other Stories, and Et Tu, Babe were all released as sound recordings (read by the author) by Dove Audio in 1990, 1991, and 1992 respectively.

SIDELIGHTS: "By turns imaginative, verbose, and iconoclastic, Mark Leyner is a humorist and experimentalist who tackles the often ridiculous products of post-modern culture and squeezes new hybrids out of them, ranging from military academies of beauty to weight-loss camps for terrorists to custom-built designer electric chairs," wrote Roy C. Flannagan in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Leyner's novels and short story collections to date—I Smell Esther Williams and Other Stories, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, Et Tu, Babe, Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, and The Tetherballs of Bougainville,—depict a warped, gonzo world in which literally anything can happen, and usually does. "I feel like I'm living a writer's life at warp speed," Mark Leyner told Boston Globe contributor Joseph P. Kahn. "In three years I've gone from being a fringe avant-gardist to a cult object to mainstream novelist." Jonathan Yardley, writing in the Washington Post Book World, observed that reading Leyner's books "is like watching a blend of Saturday Night Live and Monty Python; they have the energy and insouciance of high-risk, off-the-wall performance." "When you have been called America's best-built comic novelist by The New York Times, personal trainer to pop-culture heavyweights everywhere," Kahn argued, "you are liable to say, do and write almost anything."

Leyner began his writing career as a poet at his New Jersey high school. When he moved on to Brandeis University, he began experimenting with using poetic techniques in fiction. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to have the kind of fiction that was as dense with imagery and dense with excitement and pleasure as poetry is,'" Leyner commented to Los Angeles Times contributor Irene Lacher, "'and have a kind of fiction that didn't have all kinds of dumb transitional pages where you're getting people off a plane to a hotel?'" Leyner's first venture into this type of prose was I Smell Esther Williams and Other Stories, which "was written in graduate school" at the University of Colorado, Kahn explained, "and is regarded today by its author rather like an old prom date who rebuffed his advances in the back seat of her father's convertible."

Leyner's second book, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, was published in 1989 and established him as a favorite of the collegiate undergraduate literati. "That manic volume of surreal prose poetry," wrote Lacher, "offered cameo appearances from the Pope's valet de chambre and Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl—not to mention such unlikely inventions as Le Corbusier-designed jeans and the fearfully sexually over-mature Joey D., who at 4 1/2 revved a tricycle with a turbocharged V-8 engine." Lacher went on to explain, "Leyner is regarded as the Writer for the MTV Generation, the spiritual stepson of William Burroughs and Lenny Bruce, only with a high-tech sheen."

The author noted in a clip reprinted in Harper's magazine that he supported himself "by doing advertising copywriting" while working on My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. The novel's success allowed Leyner to devote himself full-time to writing and also gave him a theme for his next book, Et Tu, Babe. "The novel (using the term in the loosest imaginable sense)," stated Yardley, "is about 'the most intense and, in a certain sense, the most significant young prose writer in America.' His name is Mark Leyner." The character Leyner, who in many respects resembles the author Leyner, is obsessed with self-promotion. He has even gathered a group of enthusiasts, called Team Leyner, to assist him in his publicity stunts. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote, "The reader learns of such bizarre phenomena as weight-loss camps for terrorists; penile-growth hormones; medical cheese sculptures (sculptures of human organs, made of mozzarella and havarti), interactive computerized laser-video players that insert Mr. Schwarzenegger as the actor in any movie … and 'visceral tattoos,' that is, tattoos inscribed on people's internal organs with radioactive isotopes."

"I figured Team Leyner would reach some kind of apogee in the middle of the book, when it would be most powerful," Leyner told Bloomsbury Review interviewers John and Carl Bellante. "The Leyner character would be at his most megalomaniacal. His delusions of grandeur would be full-blown. Then gradually, the Team Leyner minions, personnel, and staff would start deserting him." In the end the Leyner character is left alone, and finally even he vanishes—mourned in passing by such celebrities as Connie Chung and Carl Sagan. "If the world is a leopard-print cocktail lounge on the Titanic," declared Carol Anshaw in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, "Leyner is at the piano, noodling out 'My Way.'" "Mr. Leyner," concluded New York Times Book Review contributor Lewis Burke Frumkes, "is a very funny man who has written a very twisted book."

Leyner's 1995 collection of short stories, Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, continues his exploration through the manic world he perceives around him. "Tooth Imprints," explained Kristan Schiller in the New York Times, "is based on occurrences in Mr. Leyner's life … spun into surreal tales that satirize the media-crazed, image-obsessed society he beholds—and accepts." "The results are intermittently hilarious," Kakutani stated in the New York Times, "but also silly and highly sophomoric." The work "lacks the abrasive, experimental edge of his previous fiction," observed Jonathan Bing in Publishers Weekly, but "it nevertheless exhibits all the whimsy, irreverence and biting sat-ire of his best work. The protagonist is still, much of the time, Mark Leyner; yet his persona is gentler, more circumspect, given to tender reflections about the pressures of fatherhood and professional freelancing." Rick Marin argued in a Newsweek review of Tooth Imprints that though the novel is "Leyner's most accessible opus to date, it is emphatically not for everyone. Then again, what good book is?"

Leyner returned to Team Leyner with his 1997 title, The Tetherballs of Bougainville, "the most unified of Leyner's books in terms of its formal structure and theme," according to Flannagan. The same critic went on to note that the "book satirizes the conventional bildungsroman, complete with adolescent antihero (the thirteen-year-old 'Mark Leyner'), the death-exile of the father (who, in Leyner's twisted version, refuses to die), and the rites of sexual initiation with an older woman." Written as autobiography, screenplay and movie review, The Tetherballs of Bougainville twists three familiar narrative forms into the story of Mark Leyner, a thirteen-year-old, who waits in a New Jersey prison to witness his father's execution. It just so happens that this junior high schooler is on deadline to turn in a screenplay for which he has already been awarded the $250,000-a-year-for-life Vincent and Lenore DiGiacomo/Oshimitsu Polymers America Award.

When his father's years of PCP ingestion save him from the lethal injection, all is not lost, for the female warden overseeing the execution only has eyes for young Mark. Infatuation turns into an extended and athletic sexual romp in this "gonzo parody of a wannabe writer's coming-of-age," as Paula Chin described the novel in People. Taking up the publishing theme, Trevor Dodge, writing in Review of Contemporary Fiction, concluded that this novel "is both postmodern product and parody, a full-blown riot in the coffers of the New York publishing industry and a testament to Leyner's whipsmart comedic genius." Chin however was less positive in her evaluation, finding that Tetherballs "may give you a few chuckles, but it gets tiresome pretty quickly." Other critics had higher praise for The Tetherballs of Bougainville. Writing in Entertainment Weekly, A.J. Jacobs noted that "you don't read Leyner for the plot. The plots just there so he has a place to hang his hilarious, postmodern prose poetry—a mixture of pop-culture references, brand names, scientific mumbo jumbo, and zeitgeist-skewering satire." Similarly, Booklist's Joanne Wilkinson dubbed the same novel a twisted comic tale, further commenting that Leyner "turns in his funniest, most inventive novel yet." For Library Journal's Michele Leber, the book is "impressively researched satire," and for a Publishers Weekly contributor Leyner presented himself as "jaw-slackeningly inventive." The same critic concluded that Leyner "is one of our most talented comic writers," and that he is at "his horny, hip, encyclopedic best" in The Tetherballs of Bougainville.

Mark Leyner commented: "My work isn't animated by a desire to be experimental or post-modernist or aesthetically subversive or even 'innovative'—it is animated by a desire to craft a kind of writing that is at every single moment exhilarating for the reader; where each phrase, each sentence is an event. That's what I'm trying for, at least. This, I think, is what gives my work its peculiar shape and feel—it's because I want every little surface to shimmer and gyrate that I haven't patience for those lax transitional devices of plot, setting, character, and so on, that characterize a lot of traditional fiction. I'm after the gaudiness, self-consciousness, laughter, encoded sadness of public language (public because language is the sea in which all our minds swim).

"I don't feel part of any artistic movement or 'ism.' But I feel linked to artists who launched their careers reading billboards aloud in the back seats on family trips, who spent their formative Saturday mornings cemented to their television screens with Crazy Glue, who grew up fascinated by the rhetoric of pentecostal preachers, dictators, game show hosts, and other assorted demagogues, who were entranced by the outlandishly superfluous chatter of baseball announcers filling air-time during rain delays, and who could never figure out the qualitative difference between Thackeray's Vanity Fair and E.C. Segar's Popeye the Sailor.

"I said in an article once that we need a kind of writing that the brain can dance to. Well, that's the kind of writing I'm trying to write—thrashing the smoky air of the cerebral ballroom with a very American ball-point baton."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 92, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 292: Twenty-First Century American Novelists, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2004, pp. 222-230.

PERIODICALS

Bloomsbury Review, July/August, 1993, pp. 5-7.

Booklist, March 1, 1995, George Needham, review of Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, p. 1179; October 15, 1997, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Tetherballs of Bougainville, p. 388.

Boston Globe, November 9, 1993, p. 29.

Entertainment Weekly, October 9, 1992, Margot Mifflin, review of Et Tu, Babe, p. 54; March 17, 1995, Mar-got Mifflin, review of Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, p. 84; November 7, 1997, A.J. Jacobs, review of The Tetherballs of Bougainville, p. 80; April 26, 2002, Noah Robischon, "Wired for Weird."

Harper's, July, 1990, pp. 43-44.

Library Journal, September 1, 1997, Michele Leber, review of The Tetherballs of Bougainville, p. 218.

Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1992, pp. E1, E4.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 11, 1992, p. 6.

Newsweek, March 27, 1995, Cheech Marin review of Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, p. 68.

New York Times, October 13, 1992, p. C17; February 19, 1995, p. J13; March 7, 1995, p. C18.

New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1992, p. 14; April 23, 1995, p. 12.

People, April 24, 1995, Eric Levin, interview, p. 27; April 24, 1995, Nancy Jo Sales, review of Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, pp. 27-28; November 10, 1997, Paula Chin review of The Tetherballs of Bougainville, pp. 41-42.

Publishers Weekly, March 16, 1990, Penny Kaganoff, review of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, p. 65; August 24, 1992, review of Et Tu, Babe, p. 61; January 30, 1995, review of Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, p. 85; March 6, 1995, pp. 44-45; July 21, 1997, review of The Tetherballs of Bougainville, p. 181.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1995, Steven Moore, review of Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, pp. 246-247; spring, 1998, Trevor Dodge, review of The Tetherballs of Bougainville, pp. 226-227.

San Francisco Review of Books, winter, 1992, p. 40.

Time, October 12, 1992, John Skow, review of Et Tu, Babe, p. 90.

Village Voice Literary Supplement, November, 1992, pp. 25-27.

Washington Post Book World, October 4, 1992, Jonathan Yardley, review of Et Tu, Babe, p. 3.

ONLINE

Team Leyner: The Unofficial Mark Leyner Links Page, http://www.spesh.com/leyner/ (July 26, 2004).

About this article

Leyner, Mark 1956–

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article