By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Photos by Jay Blakesberg
Daniel Handler and I share a small table in a dark alcove in a small, dark and wondrous old bar called Zam Zam, in San Francisco’s Upper Haight, a short walk from where Handler lives in what I’ve heard is a dark and wondrous old Victorian. The table’s just wide enough to support and the alcove just light enough to reveal, between us, a glass bowl of pretzels, two glasses filled with delicious and dangerous drugs, and a straw porkpie hat equipped with a powerful recording device.
The place is filling up, just slightly, nicely, a low-key, peaceful group leaning or sitting at the dark, crescent-shaped bar. Dinah Washington, Pavarotti, Charlie Parker, Celtic folk, Combustible Edison, big bands on the jukebox. I like this bar.
So does Handler, a kind and wise and reasonable young man of 34. Handler plays accordion. (Not now in the bar, but in general.) So does my friend June. But that’s where the similarity ends. Handler has a 1-year-old son who lives with him nearby, whereas June has an 8-year-old nephew who lives far, far away and attends elementary school. His name is Luke, and his favorite author is Lemony Snicket.
Unfortunately, Luke’s teacher, who’s otherwise quite reasonable, doesn’t approve. "You’re not old enough for Lemony Snicket," I’m told he was told, scolded, really, for bringing a Snicket book to school. I mention this to Handler because, sometimes, when he’s not playing accordion, he’s Lemony Snicket.
"Luke lives in an extremely small town in Iowa," I explain, as Handler washes down the evening’s first pretzels with the evening’s first bourbon.
"Is this a public school, or a religious school?"
"I’m not sure if, in Iowa, they differentiate." (Actually, Iowa has some of the best public schools in the nation.)
"Actually," says Handler, "I heard that the whole state was bought outright by Wal-Mart a few months ago."
Imagine Dickens channeledby Dorothy Parker
As Lemony Snicket, Handler’s now eleven-thirteenths of the way through a 13-volume series of gleefully dark and lovely children’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Through each tale, demented and tragic incidents blight the lives of three inordinately bright and wonderful young siblings, the Baudelaire children. Officially orphaned by fire (unfortunate event No. 1) on Page 8 of the first book, The Bad Beginning, for the next 156 pages and 10 books (so far), Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire are passed around among various distant and demented relatives, as the first of these family members, a tall, rail-thin, nefarious old prick named Count Olaf, plots to gain control of the vast Baudelaire fortune, currently overseen by a well-meaning but inept banker named Mr. Poe. In each ensuing episode, Olaf dons ridiculous disguises that are transparent to the children but convincing to Mr. Poe, who tries, in his own massively incompetent way, sort of, almost, to stop him.
As all around them crumbles or falls or burns or disintegrates and so on, and caretakers are poisoned or torn apart by sharp-toothed leeches and so on, the three young Baudelaires invent things and research things and bite things as necessary to survive each tragedy.
It would all be so terribly terrible if not for the stories’ true protagonist, the mournful, sophisticated narrator. Lemony Snicket tells us these stories in a voice one might expect to come from Charles Dickens being channeled by Dorothy Parker during the course of an interview with Eric Idle in a Monty Python talk-show sketch, after Idle posed the question, "What would happen if you put Edward Gorey, Charles Addams, Roald Dahl and Mervyn Peake in a blender?"
(For those unable to read, someone’s made a very expensive motion picture based on the first three books, trademarked and copyrighted by Paramount Pictures Corp. and DreamWorks LLC and opening December 17 at a theater or drive-in near you.)
* * * * *
When talking with an author of books in which prominent characters are named Baudelaire and Poe (and nary a page passes without some further highfalutin cultural or literary reference), one should feel intimidated by the author’s casual brilliance and, despite one’s public school education, try to impress him with the one thing you actually know:
"Baudelaire translated Poe, didn’t he?" I say, as if the thought had just occurred.
"Mm-hm," Handler replies, duly impressed. "And you’re the first person, ever, to note that. Apart from my editor."
"Really? Damn — I win!"
"I was sure you were going to say, ‘Baudelaire . . . was a French poet, right?’ Then I could say, ‘Wow, you’re so smart for figuring that out. What was it — was it the word Baudelaire that helped?’"
"But with these character names," I press on, hard-hittingly journalistic/slightly buzzed, "are you implying specific relationships between the historic literary figures and your characters, or . . . the other thing that I don’t have the ability to articulate right now because of the scotch and pretzels?"
"You mean, is there a difference between giving a shout-out to a book that I love, and implying that there’s a relationship with them?"