The Pharmacist‘s Mate is, as its publisher says, “a very sad and very moving” book. It is the fourth offering from the crew that publishes McSweeney’s, a literary magazine that is so doggedly droll and idiosyncratic that you want to tear your hair out despite kind of liking the thing. According to the notes, The Pharmacist‘s Mate won a contest dreamed up by McSweeney’s principals Sean Wilsey and Dave Eggers, who were inspired by a “very old and strange book about electrical engineering on boats” they found in a Reykjavik bookstore. McSweeney‘s decided to offer to publish the best book submitted on the subject of electrical engineering on boats. Amy Fusselman, a journalist whose claim to fame has heretofore been as the author and editor of a zine called Bunnyrabbit, won the contest.
The Pharmacist’s Mate is not about electrical engineering or boats, as it turns out, which is only briefly disappointing. It is a thematicized memoir, a diary as prose poem; Fusselman weaves her experiences with artificial insemination and her musings on being a punk guitarist together with excerpts from her recently deceased father‘s WWII diaries (he is the pharmacist’s mate of the title, and the only character to have anything nautical or mechanical going for him at all). But even for all this dying and conceiving, this isn‘t a book about Life and Death. No, Fusselman’s concoction is at heart a surprisingly great rock & roll book.
The book itself is made of riffs surrounded by lots of blank space. As a book, it has the virtues of a great punk tune, in that it‘s very raw and intense, yet also gallows-funny, and brief (91 pages). This is a book you could write in your garage, with very little equipment. Lots of people could start writing books like The Pharmacist’s Mate, and maybe they should.
As an author, Fusselman remains unassuming, her musings more epistolary than authorial — reading her book is much like stumbling upon a bright college roommate‘s secret diary. On Page 14 Fusselman transcribes the lyrics to a punk song she wrote in college called “I Love My Mom”: “I love my momI love my momShe’s no sex bombBut she‘s my momShe sends me foodWhen I am goneShe’s old, she‘s cool, my mom rules . . .” etc. Then she says, “we played it like a rant . . . at the time I wrote it I was mad as hell at my mom and dad, and the song was like an imitation of how I was loving them then, through clenched teeth. And now, when I sing the song, I remember specifically how I held my dad’s hand and sang it to him in the hospital, two days before he died.”
Perhaps it does take an adult to gather the wherewithal to explain youth culture. Still, who would have thought that a woman in her 30s, mourning her father and trying to get pregnant, would be able to evoke the allure of “. . . these people onstage, standing there, wiggling little strings on blocks of wood slung around their necks . . .” But, Fusselman explains, “that‘s the thing right there, that makes me believe in everything that makes no sense.” Which includes Life and Death, of course.
Amy Fusselman will read from The Pharmacist’s Mate at Midnight Special, 1318 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, on Sunday, May 27, at 2 p.m. For more information, call (310) 393-2923.