THE CRIMINAL WITHIN.
Be Your Own Undertaker: How to Dispose of a Dead Body, by A.R. Bowman. Paladin Press. 56 pages. $10.
Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, by Rex Feral. Paladin Press. 144 pages. $10.
Rolling Thunder: Turning Junk into Automobile Weaponry, by Ryan K. Kephart. Paladin Press. 72 pages. $12.
Fugitive: How to Run, Hide and Survive, by Kenn Abaygo. Paladin Press. 96 pages. $12.
101 Sucker Punches, by Kurt Craven. Paladin Press. 11 pages. Crrently out of print.
The Heavy Duty New Identity, by John Q. Newman, Loompanics Unlimited. 17 pages. $12.95
How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found, by Doug Richmond. Loompanics Unlimited. 17 pages. $12.95
Silent Death, by Uncle Fester. Loompanics Unlimited. 144 pages. $16.95
Snitch: A Handbook for Informers, by Jack Luger. Loompanics Unlimited. 149 pages. $16.95
Getaway: Driving Techniques for Escape and Evasion, by Ronald George Eriksen 2. Loompanics Unlimited. 48 pages. $8.95
Gaslighting: How to Drive Your Enemies Crazy, by Victor Santoro. Loompanics Unlimited. 116 pages. $14.95
A genre of how-to manuals indulges our darkest fantasies
At the information desk of a downtown Manhattan Barnes & Noble, I ask about a title--Be Your Own Undertaker: How to Dispose of a Dead Body. The young man behind the desk doesn't miss a beat. "Has it begun to smell?" he asks, with a perfunctory grin that acknowledges yet undercuts the small joke between us. He knows there's no corpse in need of disposal; my inquiring openly about such a book in a Barnes & Noble is proof enough. And I know he knows this; indeed, any slight self-consciousness on my part stems from my awareness that buying this book is akin to purchasing one of those tourist T-shirts depicting a revolver above the tired tag line "Welcome to New York." But this book is a hipper jest, something truly arch. That doesn't mean it lacks gruesome details on how to rid yourself of an inconvenient body: Before you sink the stiff in the river, author A. R. Bowman advises, don't forget to "take a long, sharp object, like a tire iron or a very, very large screwdriver, and drive it through the corpse numerous times" to allow for the release of buoyant gases during decomposition. And if you've got to remove incriminating ballistic evidence from a head wound, you can "cut the skin off the forehead, break up the skull bone behind it, and reach in with long tweezers, chopsticks, or something similar..." Bowman's earnest, intimate tone--"if you find yourself gripped by a constant urge to visit or look over the site ... resist it"--is both eerie and hilarious, but the true capper to the joke is my purchase: I, a mild-mannered work-a-daddy, seek out, among the gardening books and cappuccinos of a corporate superstore whose cheery employees are only too happy to help, a book whose predicated reader is a recent murderer.
Be Your Own Undertaker is published by Paladin Press, of Boulder, Colorado. A descendant of the underground presses of the 1960s, Paladin, along with another quirky publisher, Loompanics Unlimited, of Washington State, evinces an antigovernment, antisocial tilt with its numerous titles devoted to drug production, bomb building, and anarchism (despite the fact that the company got its start reprinting Army manuals). Paladin and Loompanics have updated the marginal mimeograph-and-stapler approach of the ad hoc Sixties press and now pump out hundreds of titles apiece. Both publishers report sales of more than 300,000 books each year, with roughly 90 percent ending up in American hands, and this overwhelmingly native popularity, together with the lower-middle-class mindset ostensibly being catered to, implies that these books are no longer blueprints for the revolution but rather the literary equivalent of pink flamingo lawn ornaments.
For the most part, retail sales for both companies are catalogue-based, but the Virgin Megastore in Times Square carries more than two dozen Loompanics and Paladin books grouped together, genre-style, on their own shelf. The books shrewdly ride the current mainstream trend toward how-to and self-improvement manuals, with the difference being that their readers find instruction in knife fighting, survivalism, methamphetamine manufacture, sniping, lock picking, wiretapping, shoplifting, and smuggling. The Paladin catalogue lists fourteen different titles on gun silencers alone; Loompanics lists over a dozen guides to psychedelic drugs. Together, the offerings constitute a riotously intensive and extensive encyclopedia of underground arcana.
Loompanics claims to offer "The Best Book Catalog , in the World," and, unlike mainstream catalogues, whose listed books must be read in order to inspire or to entertain, the Loompanics catalogue is itself an object of literary delight. My guess is that most readers don't order either of these publishers' catalogues to find just the right book on street fighting but rather for the camp thrill. They have a laugh over the choice juxtaposition of Close Shaves: The Complete Book of Razor Fighting and Breath of the Dragon: Homebuilt Flamethrowers, or they savor a presumed cause-and-effect relationship between Threesome: How to Fulfill Your Favorite Fantasy and its adjacent title, How to Dump Your Wife. With hundreds of carnivalesque pages, these catalogues score high on what television programmers term the "Hey Mabel" effect--"Hey Mabel, you can use Liquid-Plumr and Tylenol to build a bomb!" Although the offerings appear to give voice to a chorus of libertarians, it is difficult to believe that the whole thing isn't a put-on, an elaborate media prank offering a satiric tour of our homegrown lunacies.
If Loompanics and Paladin editors are winking at their readers (does "Loompanics" recombine "lampoon" + "comics" + "panic" + "loom"?), it is impossible to say so for sure. The same ethos governs many of the nation's over-the-top sideshows--the National Enquirer, Jerry Springer, Melrose Place--and, like them, Loompanics and Paladin books appear to be self-parodies. All of these books state that they are "sold for informational purposes only," but this legal handwashing acknowledges potential danger with what seems to be another big wink. The guidelines for prospective Loompanics authors may call for "stuff that rattles the cage of consensus reality," but the cage-rattling fellow with a dead body on the kitchen floor isn't going to dash out and buy a book about getting rid of it; that book will be bought only by someone whose very distance--social, psychological, and economic--from such a likelihood makes it both legally safe and emotionally tolerable for him to own it.
To say that how-to manuals on knife fighting and blowguns are but clever party favors for the smirking cognoscenti is not to dismiss the practicality of the information conveyed. If your bar-brawling skills are in need of polishing, look no further than Kurt Craven's 101 Sucker Punches. He analyzes "seriously effective moves used by the FBI, bouncers, and security guards for Elvis Presley" to school you in such strategies of the sweet science as the "Kiss-My-Ass Kick" and the "Grab-Hair/Smash-Face-Against-Table Attack." While arguing over a parking space, you can give the Modified Hair Lift a try: "Take a pinch of hair between fingertips and thumb at each of his temples and lift sharply a few inches .... [O]nce the victim grimaces and comes to his toes, spin his head in either direction by pushing with one hand and pulling with the other. Pain and momentum will turn his head and shoulders into the proper position for the application of a Choke Hold." Such is the fate of the hapless sucker who trucks with a Paladin reader. Unless, of course, your sucker is another fan of the press and has read Peyton Quinn's A Bouncer's Guide to Barroom Brawling: Dealing with the Sucker Puncher, Streetfighter, and Ambusher. Then you may be pitting your chapter against his verse.
As if readying to serve as a satisfied "straight" customer in a Paladin advertisement, James Edward Perry, a onetime convict street preacher, seemingly set out to prove the value and utility of the book Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors in 1993. According to Maryland prosecutors, Perry employed twenty-two of the book's pointers when he performed contract murders on a mother, her son, and the boy's nurse; the book was found in his home after the arrest. An attentive reader, he had followed the instructions of author Rex Feral, a purported professional killer, to run a file down the gun barrel in order to foil ballistics tests and to shoot out the eyes of his victims so as to insure death. Rex Feral, it turns out, was a divorced mother of two (as of this writing, Paladin refuses to divulge her real name) who had originally submitted the manuscript as a novel. In a letter to the publisher at the time of her submission, she wrote that her ideas came "from books, television, movies, newspapers ... my karate instructor." She teaches business ethics that could be cribbed from the Kiwanis Club: "Expenses generally run between $500 and $5000.... The money will cover travel, lodging, food, accessories such as disguises and equipment.... Any amount left over belongs to you. But don't cut any comers trying to make an extra buck. Give the man the most professional job his money can buy."
That Rex Feral did not, as the author confessed in the letter to Paladin, "even own a gun" probably wouldn't have dampened Perry's appreciation of her fourteen-point shopping list for making a disposable silencer. No doubt he checked off such tasty kill-tech items as "drill rod, 7/32 inch" and "80 grit sandpaper." And it is precisely these kinds of details--with their shop-talk snap and crackle--that the ironist finds exquisite; they occupy the camp juncture where methodical and serious intent meets flippancy and disbelief. The survivors of Perry's victims are suing Paladin for aiding and abetting the murders, and the Supreme Court has refused to hear the publisher's appeal to dismiss the case on First Amendment grounds. Howard Siegel, the survivors' attorney, doesn't buy the free-speech argument, and last summer described Paladin in the Washington Post as "a correspondence school for crime" and Hit Man as "a recipe for murder." By the time this case goes to trial--with a pro-Paladin brief submitted by other, more mainstream companies, including the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, and ABC--this paperback, with its comic-book cover (a shiny-suited gunman, replete with fedora, holds a gun outside a half-opened door), may supersede its camp niche and end up being sold in gift shops everywhere, right next to Dilbert calendars and magnetic poetry kits. Until then such publicity only sharpens its kitsch cachet and lends to the aura of danger a thin undercoating of actual blood. Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh was another proud Paladin reader; he owned a copy of Homemade C-4: A Recipe for Survival. No doubt the whiff of carnage informs other Paladin and Loompanics titles, thus twisting their ironic reception into a double reverse: it's a joke, but the book is very real, which makes it even more of a joke, because you wouldn't use it, though you could, if it weren't really a joke.
This duplicity draws an audience whose attraction depends on apparent authenticity. We can claim to keep a skeptical, if not dismissive, eye; we can say that we enjoy these books solely as "cultural artifacts"; yet central to this pleasure is the belief that someone, somewhere, takes them seriously. This is the "real reader" of these "real books," and against the foreground of presumed unself-consciousness (at least on the part of the publishers) and credulous reception by a not-so-great unwashed, the ironic reader can fancy himself interested in criminal how-to books only insofar as they are tokens of trailerpark Americana. Held aloft by sociological distance, he can imagine himself skimming the surface of a turgid pool of pathological defectives who buy 101 Sucker Punches because they truly want the answer to Craven's opening query: "What is a Sucker Punch? And why should we use it?" But just as it hardly matters whether the editorial intent is straightforward or not, it is equally irrelevant whether such readers exist; it is enough that they should exist.
If the appearance of authenticity gets someone to buy a Loompanics or a Paladin book, what gets him to keep it? Could it be that very same faith in authenticity? If honest-to-God criminals and miscreants might use these books, the purchaser might reason, then maybe there's some information within worth having around. This is the same reason I held on to my Boy Scout Handbook: it was full of detailed instructions on how to track deer, or tie a knot, or rig a sail, or hoist an injured buddy. Loompanics and Paladin how to books are the Boy Scout Handbook's dark cousins; they can help you out if you ever need to rig a bomb or hoist a buddy's corpse.
Just as pipe-smoking dads of the Fifties maintained a shelf of woodworking, car-repair, and fly-fishing manuals, the Popular Mechanics male still prides himself on his fix-up chops. But nowadays you can't remedy the glitch in your software with a ratchet wrench, or restore the cruise control in your car with a mallet. Grittier than the rarefied guides that accompany Windows 98, Loompanics and Paladin books serve as objects of nostalgia for a more hands-on epoch. Ryan K. Kephart's Rolling Thunder: Turning Junk into Automobile Weaponry has that irresistible bang and clang of hard-core know-how. With it you can trick up your Honda to bristle with options like a timed detonator, a gasoline mine, or a directional projectile launcher. Kephart's schematic diagrams and peremptory, numbered instructions--"1. Obtain a 20-ounce cola bottle (minimum) and hollow out the neck end"--percolate with the reassuring rhythm of American manhood's Urlanguage. The countdown rhetoric propels the reader toward accomplishment--in twelve easy steps your car could be ready to electrocute a menacing hitchhiker: "[F]lick the switch, wait for a reaction to the impulse ... then get out and run. Leave the switch on while running and don't look back."
The can-do ethos of such dark-side handbooks not only links them to rugged individualism but bolsters their appeal as objets trouves, relics of a bygone era when problems were solvable on the kitchen table or at the workbench. In Silent Death, a treatise on "poisons and the art of killing with stealth," the author, Uncle Fester, waxes melancholic about the decline of technical smarts: "It is a sad commentary on the brutish times we live in that the use of deadly substances as a means of homicide is virtually unheard of. Instead of the quiet dignity of an effective poison, those with homicidal intent seem to impulsively reach for a gun, knife or club." The deliberate put-on factor may sound high, but any doubt as to the practicality of the information he provides is quickly dispelled by a meticulous, citation-heavy account of poison manufacture. "For those unable or unwilling to tackle the more technically demanding tasks of nerve gas manufacture or botulin culture," one chapter begins, "Mother Nature's bounty has provided a considerably more low-tech alternative: Ricin." Ricin, we learn, "is an exceedingly toxic protein found in castor oil bean," good for both "assassination" and "mass-attack situations." One big advantage is the "delay in the onset of symptoms," which means that "a target most likely will not realize it is under attack." As exhilarating as it is disquieting, this kind of thing can't be read without a thought to who else has read it, and in this way the book acquires a certain potential energy in your hands. Are these the same sentences, you wonder, that a terrorist or scheming husband has underlined?
For an audience weaned on action movies, the obvious appeal of this terrain of sucker punches and armored cars is obvious. More than a few screenwriters, no doubt, keep Loompanics and Paladin titles handy for those scenes when someone has to explain, for instance, why the head won't sink. But not all the vicarious thrills involve knives and detonations. Identity changing, Loompanics reports, is the hot trend now. There's brisk trade being done in titles about disappearing and ID switching, and no wonder, since books such as How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found by Doug Richmond, Fugitive: How to Run, Hide and Survive by Kenn Abaygo, and The Heavy Duty New Identity by John Q. Newman surface at the convergence of two American traditions--the how-to book and the escape narrative. The potent allures of disappearing have been evident ever since Huck and Jim took to their raft. The day you bum your driver's license might be the day you skip merrily free of an avalanche of debt, or a maddening spouse, or unsavory revelations about those photos you've been downloading from the Internet. "To a man of a certain age," writes Richmond, "there's a bit of magic in the very thought of cutting all ties ..." This cowboy romance, long comprising equal parts fear of being fenced in and desire for frontier expanses, has slid markedly toward paranoia. The crazies who rant about bar-code IDs being branded on our arms merely register the extreme end of a broader American suspicion of credentials and dossiers. There's something un-American about identity papers, after all; in movies the voice asking for them is always a foreign one.
Much of the language describing the physical side of identity change and disappearance could just as easily be recounting religious conversion. Like a country preacher baptizing a sinner, Newman warns, "You must leave far, far behind your old lifestyle and city.... You must break these old habits 100%." If you're thirty pounds overweight, lose it; short hair, grow it longer; dress dumpy, start dressing better; speak with an accent, suppress it; "swing your arms about yourself" when you walk, stop it. Now no one will "think twice about the `new' you being connected to the `old' you." Best of all, no one who knows that you cleaned out the family bank account, sold your brother-in-law's car, and knocked up his wife will know the new you either. An abiding faith in self-invention as self-redemption undergirds these makeover plans. As an immigrant people we are, in fact, a nation of runaways, and this heritage bequeaths a promise of not merely the pursuit of happiness but the pursuit of a "permanent new identity [under which] you will be able to live the rest of your life, or at least until the statute of limitations has run its course...."
Leafing through scram manuals in a lawn chair behind the split-level is as far afield as most purchasers will ever get. Yet imaginations will surely tingle at the tale, retold by Richmond, of a hassled dad who couldn't earn enough as a schoolteacher and was forced to pump gas on the weekends: "`Can you imagine the humiliation of a forty-year-old man pumping gas, or the anger that grew inside him every time a neighbor or colleague pulled in for a fill-up?'" To avoid crushing alimony and child support, he split. He "`found a job more interesting than he ever imagined he could get. And he's with a wonderful woman now who earns her own keep, to boot.'" Stowing an escape manual around the house is like having a boat in the back yard: every so often you take a look at it and dream.
If Loompanics and Paladin how-to books satisfy our inner Boy Scout's craving for practical know-how, they also tap into that desire's underlying creed: Be Prepared. We have to be ready, and readiness means knowing how to do things--whether that's flinging Minuteman missiles across the ocean or wiring your passenger seat to electrocute a carjacker. You don't have to be a survivalist to feel the fear; even ordinary Americans are proactive paranoids: we build bomb shelters, stash pistols in the nightstand, rig our homes with alarms, and videotape our babysitters. In Getaway: Driving Techniques for Escape and Evasion, Ronald George Eriksen 2 draws on the code system of awareness used by the 82nd Airborne: "In Condition Green, you are completely relaxed and unalert. If you are violently attacked while in the condition, you will most likely be destroyed. In today's violent times one should never be in this condition." Eriksen recommends that you "vary the times and routes to and from work.... Always park so you have a fast exit from your parking space, ... [c]heck rear-view mirrors frequently." Condition Orange, when "your mind is focused on the danger," is the place to be.
In the radiant light of Condition Orange, Loompanics and Paladin books glow with the promise of preemptive solutions. This is the knowledge "they" don't want you to have; hence the samizdat appearance of the books. In Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon describes "creative paranoia" as "developing at least as thorough a We-system as a They-system." Books filled with the rough science of criminal mayhem are passports to an alluring, homegrown We-system, one that allows the reader to recast himself as a rebel against government and conventional morality even as he seeks a salve for his anxiety.
"If you're a typical American," Jack Luger writes in Snitch: A Handbook for Informers, "someone has probably already informed or snitched on you." His guide to ratting for sheer spite or cold cash (a bald man on the cover whispers into a pay phone as it spews coins) conjures cartoon-paranoiac scenarios in which you report your plumber to the Internal Revenue Service because he signs over your payment check to someone else, indicating that he may be avoiding taxes. "At home," Luger instructs, "observe your neighbors carefully, and note how they live. You may notice that one neighbor has a car that's apparently beyond his means, or that his wife wears a mink coat that makes you wonder how he can afford it on his salary." What may tempt you to accept this view of society as a nest of predatory spiders is the way it charges day-to-day living with the luminous heat of the hunter and the hunted: the new administrative assistant is a company spy; you can curry favor with the cops by squealing about the marijuana plants next door; somebody's asking how you vacationed in Hawaii. Snitch grants you a peep-show look at an underworld of dirty deals and betrayals just beneath the surface of your glad-handing, please-and-thank-you life. It's a world you fret over yet somehow long to wade into, prepped with savvy, and master. According to Luger, "The fundamental principle of security is information control."
A candidate for flagship of the Loompanic and Paladin lines could be Victor Santoro's Gaslighting: How to Drive Your Enemies Crazy. Santoro, the author of several other titles on revenge, gets right to the matter: "The purpose of gaslighting isn't pure physical destruction, but destruction of your target's intangible assets: his confidence, self-esteem, and reputation.... With just a little bit of luck, you can eventually reduce your target to a shapeless mass of shivering, quivering jelly."
The trickery Santoro outlines may range from fiendish--telling a male friend who has been sleeping with your wife that you are HIV-positive--to farcical--slipping an anti-abortion bumper sticker on a co-worker's car when his supervisor is a pro-choice advocate--but most of it falls within the familiar precincts of backstabbing. For instance, "Exposing a minority target's incompetence on the job," Santoro notes, "will have several healthy effects: It will justify the feeling that your target is holding his job only because of `quota hiring.' ... He'll be frozen out socially, and fellow employees won't offer him the help they might provide to others having a difficult time at work.... Incompetence, if properly documented, can stand up as grounds for termination." Glaring bigotry aside, Gaslighting is quite funny in places--consider the effort involved in thinking through what could be done with an enemy's unattended camera: "use it to take a close-up picture of an accomplice's genitals"--but the reader is ultimately creeped out by the instructions. People do write poison-pen letters, tape colleagues, make harassing phone calls, and get co-workers fired, and the book's utilitarian aspect therefore hits so close to home that there is something almost distasteful about buying it. I didn't bat an eye picking up my corpse-disposal book at the neighborhood bookstore, but Gaslighting I preferred to receive through the mail.
Although often posed as "How can I hurt them?" the underlying question asked by Paladin and Loompanics titles is "How will they hurt me?" And perhaps this explains why Loompanics and Paladin books seem to require an ironic response; anything else would be an admission that you are really afraid of someone disappearing on you, of being sucker-punched, of being poisoned, of being sent unprepared to federal prison camp. Could it be that their popularity, rather than proving the vitality of an antigovernment, survivalist movement, attests instead to a growing We-system of bed wetters, whose night terrors may be faced only between book covers?
In his 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," Richard Hofstadter notes that our various national anxiety attacks are marked by "this appearance of the most careful, conscientious, and seemingly coherent ... evidence for the most fantastic conclusions." The Loompanics-style how-to guides muster up just such a facade for suspicions both public and private. Their meticulous preparations against everything from nosy neighbors to nuclear war justify, indeed amplify, the very fears they seek to allay, so that, at best, holding on to Uncle Fester's rules of "good poisoning" becomes an act of bravado, announcing (to guests, to yourself) that you worry so little about a nerve-gas attack on the subway that you keep its recipe on your bookshelf.
Be Your Own Undertaker opens with this commonplace assessment: "In today's world, any person may, at any time, suddenly be subjected to a violent and probably senseless attack with no provocation. Given this sad fact, it is clear that self-defense must be taken seriously and may someday mean the difference between surviving such an attack and becoming a faceless, lifeless statistic." Regardless of whether there is "careful, conscientious, seemingly coherent evidence" for this view, we hear it all the time. Many people reject this worldview as too corrosive, a kind of self-poisoning, but others are drawn to its stark, Hobbesian candor. Are these the people who buy a Loompanics or Paladin book and then keep it around because it satisfies some need for a legible, navigable world? "Think before you act," advises Abaygo in Fugitive, "but trust your instincts.... Learn the ways of nature. She will provide for he who takes what she offers-and strike down the man who hesitates." Trust your instincts--the ones that tell you to run, to hide, to lash out. You would never really do these things, of course--I mean, who would?--but if, after it has outlived its usefulness as a coffee-table conversation piece, you hold on to that book about performing a contract murder, or getting rid of a corpse, or changing your identity, or ruining a colleague, or creating automobile weaponry, can you ever really be sure why?
Albert Mobilio is the author of The Geographics, a book of poems. His last review for Harper's Magazine, "Made Men of Letters," appeared in the October 1997 issue.