Comedian Nathan Lund on Vonnegut, serial killers and the proletariat
Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
Nathan Lund, a member of the Fine Gentleman's Club, may not strike Denver comedy fans as a man of letters with his wooly appearance, but those who listen closely will not be surprised: There's a lot going on under his direct, unvarnished style of joke-telling. An integral figure in the local scene, Nathan Lund is right at the center of what promises to be a banner month for Denver comedy, as he's performing at the High Plains Comedy Festival and mounting a festival with the other fine gents at the end of August. Lund is also the host of a weekly open mic on Fridays at Three Kings, in addition to a regular feature at Too Much Fun, the Fine Gentleman's Club Wednesday night event at Deer Pile. This week, Westword caught up with Lund outside of a dreadful comedy show in Aurora to discuss wrestling, serial killers, Vonnegut and politics.
Westword: Thanks for agreeing to do an interview on such short notice.
Nathan Lund: I've been wanting to do one of these since I read Sam's. So, alright, let's talk about books in Aurora, the land of 25 books! They've got the Anarchist's Cookbook here and they've got 12 Habits of Successful Drug Dealers. Let's talk about books, me and you, outside this weird show in Aurora. Let's talk about books. Books, man. Books.
What do you like to read? Are you reading something now?
I'm reading A People's History of the United States for the first time and some of the information if just infuriating. Because it's been the same from the beginning, literally from Jump Street, which was in Boston. In 1640. It was fucked from right then, from so long ago, when the whole power structure we're struggling against now was set up. Howard Zinn explains it all so quickly, with multiple examples of what was happening in Colonial America. He describes how Columbus just decimated, decimated as in literally kill-every-tenth-dude, the native tribal population. He thought that he'd bumped into India, but that the voyage was much shorter than he expected, and I guess he thought "well, I better just start killing people." That's how the first few hundred pages have been so far. I doubt the rest of the book has anything that will make me feel better about our history though. I'm excited to keep reading it though, because it's such a seminal book. Anybody who is pretty smart and pretty counter-culture has read People's History, so I'm excited to finally get to it.
You're a Johnny-Come-Lately.
It happens to me all the time. I haven't read a lot of the books that people consider essential, seminal, and classic. We could do a list of books I haven't read and it would be like the anti-book club. I have read a lot of random things, and will randomly connect with people who've read the same stuff,but I missed out on some of the basics. I don't have all my bases covered. I haven't even seen the Godfather movies.
Yeah, there's a lot classic books that I missed too. I hadn't read People's History until now, I haven't read Heart of Darkness, but I might've read the Cliff's notes.
We're you not into reading at school? Did you use Cliff's notes as a shortcut often?
Not too much. I used Cliff's notes on War and Peace, which was a pretty smooth move.
Westword: What are some of the random things you have read?
Nathan Lund: My favorite book is 1984. I love that book. I have a tattoo on my arm that says "Thought Criminal" based on 1984. I was really amazed by Crime and Punishment and also The Stranger. I read and enjoyed The Death of Ivan Ilych. The Metamorphosis and, of course, Fahrenheit 451.
I think those qualify as classics.
Sure, but I'm not well-read in any major authors -- or any authors, really, except that I've read almost everything that Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote. I was really into Bret Easton Ellis for a while, so I've read most of his books. Him and Chuck Palahniuk.
When did you read 1984? Was it assigned to you in school?
I read it for school, but it wasn't assigned. I was in AP Literature and there was a giant list of classic novels to choose from and study. I might have picked 1984 because it was one of the first books on this huge list. They were listed alphabetically and the numbers were before the As.
That's actually how I first got my hands on A People's History of the United States. It was elective reading for my AP U.S. history class.
Didn't that blow your mind? Up until you're seventeen, you have no idea what the truth is. Especially in school.
Yeah, and this was Colorado Springs, so my parents and seemingly every other authority figure were super-conservative. That book was incredibly foundational for me as a young liberal, and I think other young people should read it, too. There's nothing better than having your faith in the political system completely undermined before you're even old enough to participate in that system.
So much of it is about the class structure. It's also about how conflict over meaningless differences like race and religious beliefs prevent people from uniting against that structure. It's similar to the theme of 1984, empowering the proletariat.
Do you think people have lost sight of that theme?
I don't know. People still use Orwellian language all the time. Big Brother is the name of a reality TV show. How reductive is it that this book that changed so many people's lives is known for inspiring the name of that awful show my mom watches? Is it just because there's a bunch of cameras? People don't think Big Brother is this surveillance state that crushes you, they think it's a shitty CBS reality show, where people try to bang the other contestants and get their own spin-off show. It's such a dumb name.
When did you get introduced to Vonnegut? DId you have a cool reading mentor?
I got into Vonnegut in college. A lot of cool stuff was from my sister, and she had read Vonnegut before me and told me I'd like him. When I was in college, I worked at a middle school for a year, and that middle school's library was also the public library for the whole area, so it was a great library. That was my senior year, so I didn't have a ton of hard classes, so I had time to read a lot of the books I had wanted to read, and that included Vonnegut. Also Bret Easton Ellis and a lot of Chuck Palahniuk, who I don't really like as much anymore. I haven't read many of his more recent books, but anytime I re-read something of his, I think, well, okay. That's what I liked in college, when I was kind of smart, but only just starting to figure things out outside of school. I just started meeting more different people and being exposed to more.
A lot of young dudes seem to go through a Palahniuk phase.
Fight Club is still a good movie.
I think even Palahniuk himself has admitted that David Fincher's movie told that story better than the book.
It's definitely more stylish. I've talked about this with Sam [Tallent], how his characters don't feel like real people. They seem sort of detached, too quirky to exist, and only there to spout off random facts. Choke still sort of holds up. So does Survivor. Same with Bret Easton Ellis. His books are shocking and cool when you're younger, but when you get older, you realize that it's not what you really want to be reading. I don't know what you should be reading, but Glamorama is not it. Glamorama is 5,000 pages but still totally empty. I think I gravitated toward edgier stuff because I didn't really question religion till I left high school. When I read The Inferno, I was kind of terrified that Dante had nailed it with his description of Hell, and that I was fucked because I'd had sex with a couple people. Literally two.
When did that change?
Eventually, I just had to put it out of my mind. I didn't have the ammo to fight the religious upbringing that I had. My bible study class read Revelations in like seventh grade. That messed me up, because the church I went to thought that Y2K was going to be the end of the world. So that theme of inevitable punishment was really hammered home growing up. That's why Cat's Cradle struck such a tone with me. College is when I realized how fucked up religion was, and government. That's why Vonnegut is so cool, because he's a humanist and he loves people, but he hates the way people come together to ruin each other's lives. When Vonnegut said, "We're just here on this earth to fart around, and don't let anyone tell you different," it's like the whole Bill Hick's "it's all a ride" thing. Some things sound really simple, but they can also be the most profound. If that really is all there is to it, it doesn't mean that there's no moral code and you can go around killing everybody and take the heads off little kids. We could die at any moment, we need to connect and love other. Don't be so angry, don't fear people you don't know.
You've read Helter Skelter a bunch, right?
Yeah, like maybe ten times. I just read a book on the Son of Sam, and I love the movie Zodiac, speaking of Fincher, even if some research I've done disagrees with the movie's contention that Arthur Lee Alan was really the Zodiac.
There's a great serial killer book that you have to read if you're into that sort of thing. Have you ever heard of Devil in the White City?
No, is it fiction?
It's about H.H. Holmes and all the stuff going on during the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.
Is he the murder-house guy?
Yeah. He's fascinating to me because he's a serial killer, but also like an old-time huckster. A lot of his murders were motivated by insurance fraud.
There are so many of these prolific serial killers in America. I think Manson was so huge because not only were these horrible murders, but they were wrapped up in Hollywood and the counter-culture, too.
Were there any big comedy books for you?
I have been a big fan of comedy and wrestling for a long time, and I've read a lot of books about both. I love a great road story. Wrestlers are some of the best storytellers because their lives have been so crazy. Comics are similar, traveling the road. That's when you get into the crazy situations that make for great stories. I Killed is a book that every comedian should read. It's full of great stories from the road. It has stories from everyone, from Carrot Top to Chris Rock. They tell stories about how great and terrible the road can be. Either way, wrestling and comedy were intriguing to me because not everyone has a story when their co-worker took a shit in their gym bag.
What are some good wrestling books?
The best wrestling books are mostly biographies. The two best wrestling books are Undisputed by Chris Jericho and Have a Nice Dayy by Mick Foley.
Nathan Lund and the rest of the Fine Gentleman's Club can be seen each Wednesday, performing stand-up as part of their essential Too Much Fun! showcase at Deer Pile.And don't miss this week's Westword for more on Lund and company.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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