Monroe-Kane dwells on lurid tales of excess.
In 1992, Charles Monroe-Kane heckled the president of the United States. It was during George H.W. Bush’s news conference at an economic summit in Munich, to which the then-22-year-old environmental activist had finagled a pass.
His less-than-brilliant plan was to stand up and shout, “The homeless in the trees are mourning your economic decisions. Repent, dear King, or go to Hell,” and get arrested. Instead, he flubbed his line, and Bush invited him to ask an actual question. He came up with something about nuclear power.
Years later, in an interview with Ira Glass for This American Life, Monroe-Kane looked back on this episode with embarrassment and regret. The Madison resident, who now works as a senior producer for the Wisconsin Public Radio-produced program To the Best of Our Knowledge (and is a former host of Director's Cut), wishes he had said something more profound. “I still haven’t come up with what I should have said,” he admits. “And that really makes me sad.”
Monroe-Kane tells this tale about halfway through Lithium Jesus: A Memoir of Mania, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, and at that point I was still rooting for him. By the end of the book, I was sick of him.
Raised in a nomadic family that prized eccentricity, Monroe-Kane plunged headlong into religion when he was a teenager. He traveled to far-away places in need of salvation, such as Haiti and the Philippines. Later, as a young adult, his wanderlust continued, and he spent several years in Prague. Often accompanying him on these journeys were the voices in his head — faint, fleeting, frightening. (Originally considered schizophrenic, Monroe-Kane was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder.) His portrait of mental illness is alternately heartbreaking and exhilarating.
He achieves a few triumphs, like starting a record label and helping start Europe’s first internet cafe. He also experiences some crushing defeats, as he embraces a series of dangerous passions: Jesus, activism, drugs, sex, more drugs (Ecstasy, LSD, meth), more sex (orgies, polyamory, S&M). He doesn’t struggle with his addictions so much as indulge them fully. His account is lurid, often distasteful and occasionally pornographic, like when he tells how he “slammed Carey up against a wall and sodomized her as hard as I could.”
Hey, WPR guy: TMI.
Writing about mental illness and addiction are well-worn genres that can open new avenues of understanding. But Monroe-Kane evades empathy by being so resolutely self-centered and self-indulgent. He fancies himself “a sentimental dreamer” and a “helpless romantic,” but for the most part seems less idealistic than obnoxious. The best he manages are cloying appeals for pity, as when he muses, “The tabs on my tongue or the pills in my throat, the bong hits, the bottles drunk, the anonymous pussy...with each act a part of me was lost.”
Boo blanking hoo.
That Monroe-Kane has emerged from this wreckage as something of a success is a triumph. How he did that and what his new life is like might have been a more uplifting story. But it’s one Monroe-Kane largely ignores, as he dwells on the debauchery. And that really makes me sad.
Lithium Jesus was a brave book to write and a brave book to publish. Too bad it’s such a drag to read.
[Editor's note: This story was corrected to note that Monroe-Kane is a former host of Director's Cut.]
A book launch for Lithium Jesus will be held at Central Library Sept. 23 at 7 p.m.