Reviewed by Sheila Ashdown
In the fly-by-night world of zines, longevity is an admirable trait. Keith Rosson's Avow, started in 1995 and still going strong at issue #23, is one such long-running and much-admired DIY venture. The Best of Intentions: The Avow Anthology, now in its second edition, collects issues #11 through #16 in their entirety, plus snippets of the first 10 issues and a scrapbook. Though The Best of Intentions is a hodgepodge of stories, poems, interviews, illustrations, found art, and more, Rosson's memoirs are clearly the strongest element. Here, a wide sampling of subjects -- art, music, childhood, love, friendship -- are filtered through Rosson's thoughtful and self-deprecating sensibility and rendered in his precise, evocative prose.
Rosson is particularly adept at taking the reader inside an experience even when he feels like an outsider. One such piece is "Would You Like Some Cheese and Beer with That Wine?" Here, Rosson ruminates on art openings (he is also a painter) as an event where his expectations are perpetually unmet, though he likens himself to Charlie Brown, saying, "It's a football I just keep kicking at." According to Rosson, (1) no one buys your work when you really need the money, (2) "you will never get laid," and (3) "you will get drunk." In the end, he decides to drink beer rather than schmooze awkwardly with the gallery patrons, because "the art speaks for itself, which is a good thing because I usually end up slurring my words with pieces of free cookies falling out of my mouth." Leave it to Rosson to take an experience that should by all rights be a feather in his cap and knock all the pretension out of it.
Some of the best pieces, though, are Rosson's re-visitations of the mortifying moments of his childhood and teenage years. Highlights include "G Is for Getting Caught Pulling It to [MTV's] The Grind" and "Stories about Keith Getting His Ass Kicked," which is a multi-part series that includes stories of Rosson getting beat up, on different occasions, by a girl, a sixth grader, and an LSD-gobbling hick, among others. In "One Large Libido with a Side of Tuna and Broccoli, Please," Rosson -- who at the time of writing is probably mid- to late-20s, though he refers to himself as "fucking old, man" -- digs into his romantic archives to tell the story of his 19-year-old self. This story, of his ill-fated first (and only) date with a gal for whom he cooked a tuna-and-broccoli goulash, is exemplary of Rosson's credo that "sometimes all you can be is an excellent bad example." However, as is his signature, he finds an eloquent way to both make light and make meaning out of his experience (in this case, the wisdom of hindsight):
I know, I know, why not hit up a fucking cookbook? Why not call up my mom and say, "Hey, I've got this date with this girl and all I know how to make is this broccoli and tuna glop seemingly brewed in the deepest caverns of Hell. Any suggestions?"....Hindsight, as they say, has excellent vision and we can always, in retrospect, see where we bumbled off into the brush with our compass twirling wildly in one sweaty fist.
Rosson's memoirs are oftentimes laugh-out-loud funny, but are laced with a sharp sense of isolation and humiliation that will resonate with all former teenage outcasts. For the reader, though, the pain is mitigated by the obvious fact that Rosson has followed a straight line from his past hardships to his present-day capacity for empathy. As he says, "I've eaten some shit over the course of my life...and tried despite that to see and speak kindly." It seems that this empathy extends to anyone or anything in an underdog position: a lonely elderly man, a woman insulted on the street, kids being teased on the bus, a dying bird, and many others. It's as if Rosson walks around feeling the world's collective hurt and finding ways to render it with humor and tenderness.
Overall, the presentation of this anthology is a beautiful mess -- a mishmash of typefaces, handwriting, and skewed layouts, peppered with illustrations and photography -- that ultimately shows the ragged line of Rosson's journey from adolescent to adult, not to mention his trajectory as a writer and artist. Despite the scattered quality of presentation, there is something essential that comes across in The Best of Intentions -- Rosson from the ground up -- and readers will come away not only with a sense of the author's personal history, but a reminder that "we are here now, at least for a while, walking and breathing and loving and fucking up. That life is sometimes bookended in hilarity, sometimes in darkness."
Books mentioned in this post