Boys of summer

Most men (and plenty of women) would turn up their noses at a paperback novel with a brightly colored cover bearing some cartoonish depiction of a heart/a couple/a title including the word “love.” Chick lit, as a genre, gets a bad rap — like there’s something inherently wrong with fluffy reads involving shopping, relationships and catty girlfriends.

In fact, there’s a lot more to chick lit than “how to snag a man” tales; and there’s a lot to be said for the sheer enjoyment of a good story. But for those who won’t be easily convinced, check out chick lit’s alter ego: lad lit (more naughtily known as dick lit) — fast-paced reads with male main characters, written by guys.

And while the subject matter will appeal to female readers, too, guys shouldn’t be afraid to venture into this section of the fiction aisle. Lad lit covers mysteries, murders, rock, adventure travel and much more.

Don’t fear the reaper

Millington book
His voice darkly comic in that hip, British way, Mil Millington offers a dirty-talking riot of a novel.

Mil Millington’s Love and Other Near-Death Experiences is anything but fluffy, and nary a character dons stilettos. Instead, jazz-radio DJ Rob heads off on a goose chase of sorts when, by showing up late for an appointment, he narrowly escapes being killed in an explosion. Trying to make sense of what it all means, Rob finds himself unable to manage even the smallest decision, out of fear his choice will come with negative consequences.

And somehow Millington makes this funny.

“Stay back! I’m packing heat!” Rob shouts absurdly when he first meets Zach, a recently discharged American soldier who’s also cheated death.

“Oddly, this wasn’t the most stupid thing that I could possibly have said,” the main character continues. “Peerlessly idiotic as it seems, it still pretty easily beats ‘Stay back! I have a can of Mr. Sheen in my pocket!'”

Soon Rob and Zach encounter two women, Elizabeth and Bethany, who are also grappling with the question of why they escaped fate — one by leaving her hotel right before a fire, the other by missing a doomed flight. But this foursome is a far cry from a self-help group.

“Your technique seems … well, you know,” Zach tells Rob, who’s attempting to revive Elizabeth from an overdose. “If she went into [cardiac] arrest I wouldn’t be surprised if you just started hitting her with a chair or something.”

Maybe death isn’t a laughing matter — but Millington’s dark comedy is an offbeat, fast-paced, dirty-talking riot from the beginning. Plus there’s a little nookie. But no Fabio, I promise.

Flying over the cuckoo’s nest

Hornby book
Lad-lit pioneer Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) makes suicide funny in his new one, A Long Way Down.

While suicide isn’t generally considered beach-reading material, Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down — just out in paperback — might change that.

For starters, Hornby (author of High Fidelity and About a Boy) more or less defines lad lit. And, like Millington, he’s taken fairly bleak material (lad lit makes a practice of this) and turned it into something almost life-affirming. I say almost because Down won’t necessarily change readers into Sally Struthers-type samaritans — but learning something about humanity and having a good laugh isn’t out of the question.

The book is told from the perspective of four very different characters: a disgraced TV host, an aging single mother of a disabled child, a washed-up rocker, and a teen with a bad attitude. Each decides to kill him or herself on New Year’s Eve by jumping from one of London’s highest buildings. This is where they meet, and where their stories intertwine. “Why it didn’t occur to us that a well-known suicide spot would be like Piccadilly Circus on New Year’s Eve I have no idea,” one of the characters muses. “But at that point in the proceedings I had accepted the reality of our situation: We were in the process of turning a solemn and private moment into a farce with a cast of thousands.”

“[It] isn’t really about suicide itself … it’s more about what happens when you don’t kill yourself,” explains the New York Times.

Hornby’s strength, as a writer, is his ability to make characters relatable and believable without having to render them likable. Down‘s main voices are narcissistic and whiney without ever losing their ability to entertain. Also in its favor, this novel does not suffer from happy ending-itis — though it falls far from being a downer.

Tell it like it is

Burroughs book
Like David Sedaris? Then Augusten Burroughs will be the next gay, neurotic essayist on your list of favorite authors.

Okay, so Augusten Burroughs doesn’t really do fiction, and he’s not British (as are a majority of this genre’s writers), and, in the end, he doesn’t get the girl. But this pseudonym-ed, openly gay author is holding his own among the lighter reads.

Possible Side Effects, just out, offers more humorous essays culled from personal experience. Comparable to the work of David Sedaris, Burroughs’ stories delve into his relationship with his long-term boyfriend, his quirky friends, his failures in the work place and — perhaps best of all — his dysfunctional upbringing.

“As a rule, I would consume most anything that came from a can. Canned meat particularly thrilled me … And if given the opportunity, I would eat Spam every day of my life,” he writes of his childhood.

The author grew up with a manic-depressive mother who eventually pawned him off on her psychiatrist. Armed with only an elementary-school education, Burroughs managed to become an ad writer and an alcoholic before giving both up to craft witty, biting prose.

Side Effects works, to some extent, like an autobiography in reverse, beginning with anecdotes from Burroughs’ fairly happy present with a partner and two dogs, before going back through his years in advertising working on the Junior Mints campaign, his struggles with alcohol — somehow made darkly funny when compounded by a penchant for spying on neighbors or bingeing on McDonald’s food — a friendship with a woman who punishes bad drivers by flashing them images of hardcore porn, and his youth spent attempting to emulate Julia Child.

“The instant I put him in his little kennel, to go pee myself, I’d returned to find the kennel floor filled with a half-inch of hot pee,” Burroughs writes in a story about house-training Cow, his French bulldog. “The Cow would be splashing in the urine, his coat drenched. Already, I’d given him seven baths.”

Side Effects doesn’t play nice, though occasionally the author tries to temper his snarkiness with an extraneous — and frankly unnecessary — moral. But overall it’s a laugh-out-loud collection of essays that ends all too soon. Thankfully, Burroughs seems to publish a new book at least every year, and, according to his Web site, he’s only just begun.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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