How to Cheat Literary Death: a review of Christopher Howard's Tea of Ulaanbaatar

Tea of Ulaanbatar by Christopher Howard

I don’t normally read awful books. I try even harder to not buy them. But when I saw that John Dolan, the author of one of the most hilarious books I’ve read in a long time, had a blurb on the back cover of Christopher Howard’s Tiboli Taboo, I had to check it out.

The link that Dolan and Howard share is Capricorn Publishing, a small independent publisher. Dolan’s Pleasant Hell was published by Capricorn in 2005. It’s a brilliant book that follows Dolan growing up in the psychedelic Bay Area in the late-60s, but instead of joining in with the party, he fumbles awkwardly from one cringe-inducing social situation to the next. I highly recommend it. Anyway, Howard’s debut novel, Tiboli Taboo, was published shortly afterwards in 2005 by Capricorn. It even has a corny advertisement for Pleasant Hell on the last page.

Tiboli Taboo sat on my shelf for a couple years because I couldn’t get past the first couple pages. I didn’t touch it until recently when I was leaving for a two-week trip. It was the only book on my shelf that I hadn’t read.

Bringing this book was a mistake. Like the first couple pages, the rest of the book also contained some of most rotten and half-assed writing I’ve ever exposed my eyes to. But I was in the middle of nowhere for a good chunk of time, so I read it anyway.

The book is about a guy named Maynard who, after job failures following the recession, joins the infantry and goes to Afghanistan. He and his buddies, whose dialogue is mostly racial slurs and sexual comments, end up stealing a bunch of ancient artifacts. They blow peoples’ heads off, rape young girls (after cutting their heads off), and scream “HADJI!” all along the way. Then the Afghanis they stole the artifacts from end up being part of a well-connected, super-secret society and one of the items they stole turns out to be magical. Like the ring from The Lord of the Rings, this magical box possesses its owners, making them crave its power-giving presence. Thrown in-between all that are a bunch of flashbacks to Maynard’s ex-girlfriend, murderous Afghanistan gore scenes, monologues about the 9/11 hijackers (holy shit, these are so corny!), and scenes from life in Chicago before and after war.

After reading the book, I got curious about what Howard might be up to these days. I saw that he’d managed to build somewhat of a literary career. He was a finalist for a 2008 National Magazine Award for a short story he published in McSweeny’s. Then he was selected to write a short story that was published as an Amazon “Kindle Single.” Then I saw something that shocked and confused me: a debut novel by Christopher Howard calledTea of Ulaanbaatar came out in May 2011. The publisher, Seven Stories Press (a large publishing house who’ve done stuff including Vonnegut in the past), reportedly “snapped up” the novel, according to an article about Howard by the Peoria Journal Star.

Was this a different guy? It had to be. Nobody can publish two debut novels. But they had the same name. They had the same middle initial. (Tiboli Taboo lists its author as “Christopher Robert Howard” and Tea of Ulaanbaatar lists its author as “Christopher R. Howard.”) So I ordered the book.

The back cover of Tea of Ulaanbaatar calls itself a “striking debut” that “announces Howard as one of the most inventive and ambitious of a new generation of American novelists.” I opened it up to the author bio. The author in the picture looked so similar to author of Tiboli Taboo, that I had to compare them side by side. They had the same little squinty eyes, oddly shaped ears, hairlines, identical sideburn lengths, large chins and small round noses. They have to be the same person!

Chris Howard from the inside of Tea of Ulaanbaatar

Caption: Christopher Howard from the author's bio inside Tea of Ulaanbaatar. Compare with below photo.

Christopher Howard from the back cover of Tiboli Taboo

Caption: Christopher Howard from the back cover of Tiboli Taboo.

For anyone who might not know, an author’s debut novel is his or her first (and for some, only) chance to make a mark on both the “literary world” and the publishing industry. Getting a novel published these days is a pretty big deal. Simply: publishing a novel costs a lot of money. Printing costs are high, you generally have to print a minimum of several thousand of them, and then there’s the huge time/labor investment of editing and copy editing. When you bring a large publishing house into the picture, you add even more people to get paid, and the author’s up-front payment. That’s a lot of risk. So, as an author, if you blow it for the publisher and your book just sits there, your career is generally fucked. On the other hand, there are a lot of magazines, literary journals, newspapers, and literary foundations who concentrate solely on debut novels. So if an author’s first book is great and he or she wins a lot of awards, that author basically gets a ticket to, at least, a second and much more lucrative publishing deal.

Reading Tea of Ulaanbaatar was a drag. Stylistically, it’s a blatant Cormac McCarthy rip-off. It has no punctuation to indicate when someone is speaking. But unlike McCarthy’s deliberate, locked-down phrasing, Howard’s imitation comes closer to a cloud of sloppy fragments. Details like who the hell is speaking were an annoying task to figure out, especially in passages with inner thoughts and multiple people speaking all at once.

Regardless, the book is about Warren, who is in Mongolia working with the Peace Corps. He comes across a rare drug that is known only in Mongolia. Tsus, as it’s called there, is a potent, addictive “blood red” tea that causes its users to have psychedelic visions and violent tendencies.

Despite warnings from his American coworkers to never try it, he does anyway. From there it becomes clear that Howard doesn’t have much personal experience with drugs because Warren goes from drinking the tea to smoking it to being addicted like a lifeless toy. Descriptions of the drug, its high, or its addictive pull – when they occur at all – are generic and unconvincing.

The plot moves along. He meets a girl whose brother is a psychopathic drug dealer and before you know it, Warren and his coworker are setting up a drug distribution deal to move tsus into America. A bunch of people get killed randomly here and there.

Eventually, Warren is overcome with visions of armies marching to war, more random violence, and the future in general. I’ll spare you the rest of the trite details, cheap reflections on American consumerism, and other crap like that, because this book isn’t worth reading.

The closer I got to finishing Tea of Ulaanbaatar, the more similarities I noticed between it and Tiboli Taboo. In both novels, the main characters love and know a lot about knives. Both characters talk about working in cubicles before escaping to their current jobs and they both repeat the same clichés about American “consumer” culture when talking about home. Both novels quote popular music in an awkward way: “[insert lyric in italics], said [insert artist name] [insert where music is coming from].” Both characters obsess about their ex-girlfriends. Both characters’ fathers are described as smelling distinctly like “cotton.”

Tiboli Taboo takes place, for a large part, in Western Washington State, in the cities surrounding the Fort Lewis Military Base. Christopher R. Howard was stationed at Fort Lewis for a period of time in the early 2000s.

Tiboli Taboo by Christopher R Howard

Caption: Tiboli Taboo by Christopher R Howardi.

Pretend for a second that Christopher Howard from Taboo and Christopher Howard from Ulaanbaatarwere different people. Comparing them brings up a lot more similarities. The back of Taboo says that Howard “attends graduate school in Illinois.” An article about Ulaanbaatar says Howard got a master’s degree from the Illinois State University. The back of Taboosays “he is 31 years old.” That would’ve been in 2005. Jump roughly six years forward to 2011 and articles about Tea of Ulaanbaatar put him at 36. And like I said before, if they aren’t the same person, they’d have to be twins because they look identical.

There are so many similarities between the two that they have to be the same person. But they couldn’t, could they? A relatively prestigious publishing house wouldn’t try to pass off a second novel as a debut, would they? So I contacted both Capricorn Publishing and Seven Stories Press. Capricorn Publishing never responded to any of my e-mails, but Seven Stories Press did. They insisted that I was confused. Or in their words: “Sounds like an interesting book, but no, it's a different Chris Howard!”

Clearly his first book didn’t make an impact on the publishing industry in any way. It’s 224 pages of nu-metal lyrics, racial slurs, and chintzy gore. To 99.9% of all authors, that equals literary death. But for some reason, Christopher Howard got a second chance. Maybe Seven Stories Press knew about Tiboli Taboo and decided to pass Tea of Ulaanbaatar off as his first novel anyway. Or maybe they “snapped it up” so fast that they never even Googled his name. Is he going to still be eligible for some of the prestigious first book awards for this year? Winning a prize like The Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award would be a massive steroid injection to his career, not to mention the eight thousand dollar bonus. Either way, I won’t be holding my breath for that verdict. Two debuts or not, they both still suck. And I don’t think he’s going to fool many people about that.

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