When I picked up When Pacino's Hot, I'm Hot, a collection of stories and essays by Robert Levin, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I'd never read him before, and I was going more on what other reviewers had said about the book than actually having any interest of my own. Some of the comments made the book sound pretty good. Unfortunately, what I received was nothing like what I had been led to believe. Whether Levin's just isnít my style or whether it is truly bad, this book annoyed me more than it did anything else.
The book is divided into two sections: fiction and commentary. Some of the stories are better than others, but none of them really grabbed me. Probably the most effective was "Arena," a short piece about a man who's going through some midlife depression, sure that he's going to die soon, and how standing up for himself against a trio of thugs gives him a new consideration of the type of man he is. That he's not a loser. There's no real heft to the story at a scant five pages, but it does what it wants to do very well. If Levin included more stuff like this in the book, I would have been much happier.
Instead, we get garbage like "Dog Days," where the narrator (most of them aren't named) gets caught by his girlfriend having his way with her dog. He goes through the horrible guilt and attempted penance that he feels he must do to make up for this cosmic wrong. While it's the worst story in the book, it does have the funniest line, so I guess that's something. Again, maybe it's just my taste, but stories regarding bestiality, even if that's just a starting point for the comedic angst, leave me cold. Levin's characters are simply strange creatures, unpleasant to read about and thus not very interesting. "Dog Days" is the worst in that respect, too, but this problem occurs in almost every story.
The only one where this isn't the case, and this story has other problems, is "The Author." The narrator goes into the library and discovers that the one book that he has had published isn't on the library shelf. After two years of its being there in pristine condition, it's gone. But when he goes to the counter, the woman there can't find any record of it having been taken out. The fact that his book may just be gone from the shelves, never to be seen again, unhinges him a little bit. As an aspiring author myself, I could see this happening to me (though not this intensely), so the story was actually quite interesting. Unfortunately, its short length is marred by almost a page of a personal problem between the two librarians that the author happens upon. I'm sure Levin meant to say something with these two characters, but I couldn't fathom what it is.
Halfway through the book we get to the essays, and my interest level plummeted from its already low threshold. Most of them are just rants, whether about recycling or the stupidity of the general public or HMOs (said rant being one I completely understand), and thus they're not really that interesting. His "Foul Shots," a collection of quick remarks about everything from George W. Bush to the female anatomy, comes across as tired. Worse, some of these essays showcase a violent tendency that I'm sure Levin is using as hyperbole, but it makes the essays even less readable for me.
The essay section begins with the aforementioned rant about stupidity, which is the most intense as far as the violence goes. I completely understand the authorís annoyance - in fact, I share it. But the essay is so far over the top (one of the stupid people he actually says gave him "a twenty-four-hour period in which I experienced a profound reluctance to leave my apartment, answer the phone or take any kind of nourishment") that it loses its effectiveness. I enjoy Swiftian satire, but when it's just a rant, what's the point?
A connecting theme does run throughout most of the stories and essays in When Pacino's Hot, I'm Hot: the theme of mortality and how we're all afraid of dying. Whether it's the depressed narrator in "Arena" or the real reason behind recycling programs (those who are proposing and forcing these programs down our throats are just looking for some kind of personal legacy before they die), Levin seems to have a fascination with exploring the human fear of dying, or at least dying unknown. Even the problems in the Middle East boil down to fear of mortality! The opening paragraph of his essay on the Middle East is this:
"Can we, just for a minute, dispense with the hand-wringing and acknowledge that the problem Israel and the Palestinians have with one another is actually their mutual solution to the problem of being mortal?"
Granted, this essay was written in 2002, but its inclusion here without commentary (his rant against anti-smokers from 1994 has some clarifying comments at the beginning) indicates that he still believes this.
Overall, When Pacino's Hot, I'm Hot was really hard for me to get through, and it's only 91 pages long. Almost every time I started a story or an essay, I got irritated really quickly, either with Levin's style or with his characters. A couple of decent stories ("The Author" and "Arena") and a few poignant essays ("Free Jazz: The Jazz Revolution of the '60s" and "On Turning Sixy") do not make for a good read. If you must pick this book up, do it at the library or a bookstore where you can sit for a moment, read the decent stuff, then put the book back.