Category Archives: Power


I teach fiction classes for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, which is awesome.  For my last class in the current session I’m teaching, my regular return student, Anabel Graff, who’s also awesome, convinced the class to do the thing where everybody thinks of some weird word or phrase, and then everybody writes a little storylet involving all the words/phrases.  The words/phrases that had to be included were:


Car trouble

Agenbite of itwit

Barrel of hay

Cecilia Babbage


Here’s my piece.  It’s kind of funny, and I figured what the hell, I’ll post it on this blog.  Enjoy.  Or don’t.  Whatever.

The Whippersnapper

(Some Hideously Clichéd Situations Involving a Barrel of Hay, in the Tense of Present)

By Benjamin Hale


“God!” says Cecilia.  “I’ve never felt so alive!”

“Me too, baby,” says the barrel of hay.  “Me too.”

It is a torturously hot day.  The desert wobbles hazily with heat waves all around them.  Hopeful, presumptuous vultures reel in their gyres overhead.  They are sailing, fucking sailing, doing about ninety-five down Highway 35.  The backseat is loaded with Hefty bags stuffed full of hot cash, as they have just robbed Texas First National.  A messy job.  Shot two men dead in the getaway.  Figure they have about twenty-five minutes to pilot Cecilia’s now-late husband’s midnight-blue Caddy across the border before every pig in the Lone Star State picks up their scent on the radio.  The barrel of hay is at the wheel, Cecilia in shotgun with her bare feet kicked up on the dash, the wind winsomely whipping her hair into a flurry.  They are in a car, and they are in trouble.  Big trouble.  But somehow, she’s never felt this good in years.

Cecilia Babbage turns to the barrel of hay.  A few stray strands of hay are blowing out of the top of the barrel in the wind.  Goddamn, this barrel of hay is the sexiest thing she’s ever laid eyes on.  The ruggedness of the rough-hewn staves.  Even the barrel of hay’s flaws turn her on.  The multiple felony convictions.  The knothole in the barrel’s side, through which she can see clear through to the hay inside him.  The missing rivets in the hoops.  The bung hole.

“Barrel of hay,” she says.  “I love you.”


All told, agenbite of inwit has had better days.

“You’re fired, inwit,” said the boss, arms akimbo, belly sagging, cigar wet and fat between his chomping teeth.  “Clear your desk!”

Lousy stupid boss, agenbite of inwit grumbles miserably on his drive home.  Long commute.  Guess this is the last time we’ll have to do that.  The cardboard box half full of office supplies sitting on the passenger seat beside him bucks and rattles over the bumps, looking as pathetic and forlorn as agenbite of inwit feels.  Agenbite of inwit is not looking forward to explaining to the wife why exactly he’s arriving home in the middle of the day.

He parks the car in the garage, but does not get out right away.  Delaying the inevitable.  His head is a swarm of nasty thoughts.  Financial worries.  Debts.  Mortgage default.  Kids will be in college soon.  He rests his forehead against the steering wheel and listens to the feeble ticking of the engine cooling down.  Briefly, he catches himself wondering how long it would take to die of carbon monoxide poisoning.  He is a failure.

Regret.  Remorse.  These things practically define agenbite of inwit.

He takes the keys out of the ignition and enters the house.

Right away, something seems definitely not right.

“Hello?” he calls.  His voice echoes off the white walls.  “Cecilia, I have some bad news.”

Where the hell is she?

Going up the stairs, agenbite of inwit feels his feet growing slower and heavier with each step, as if gravity is condensing with his ascent.

He hears noises.  Coming from the bedroom.

Oh God.

The noises are unmistakable.

Agenbite of inwit stands in the hallway before the closed bedroom door.  For a long time.  Trying to decide what to do.  He knows the gist of the situation—but not the particulars.  Does he really want to see this?

Sick curiosity gets the better of him.

He opens the door.

The room is hot—moist with sex, as steamy and reeking as a rhino pen.  The windows are fogged.  His wife, Cecilia, née Babbage, is sprawled across the bed, on her hands and knees, her fingers clawing at the sheets as if for dear life, her face twisted into a grimace, an expression of ecstasy so intense it almost looks like a wince of pain—an expression he knows well, but has not seen in years.  Legs spread as wide as a four-lane freeway, she proffers herself, arching her ass into the air, while, kneeling behind her, a barrel of hay slams in and out of her like a jackhammer.  The bed wobbles and creaks, knocks against the wall.  Their wedding photo on the bedside table is lying on its face.

Slap, slap, slap, slap, go the glistening globes of her sweaty ass against the coarse wooden slats of the barrel of hay.

“Oh, Cecilia,” says the barrel of hay.

“Oh, barrel of hay,” says Cecilia.  “Yes, yes!  Harder, harder!”

And then the barrel of hay looks up, and notices agenbite of inwit standing in the doorway.

Agenbite of inwit cannot believe his eyes.

How could she?



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Filed under Christopher Hitchens, evolution, Literature, Morality, Nerds, Power, Religion, Sex, Writing

An ape like me

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Filed under Anger, Apes, Douglas Adams, Environmentalism, evolution, Film, Frans de Waal, Literature, Monkeys, Morality, Music, Power, primatology, Religion, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Uncategorized

Washington Post

Check out Ron Charles’ review of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore in today’s Washington Post!

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Last night was the first official public event for The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, at Book Court in Brooklyn.  It was a hell of a lot of fun.  Meanwhile, check out Christopher R. Beha’s fantastic review that will be appearing in this weekend’s New York Times Sunday Book Review.

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Also, reviews!

Bruno has been reviewed by:


San Francisco Chronicle

Entertainment Weekly

Barnes & Noble


Also, Entertainment Weekly chose Bruno for its “Must List” for this week, and Amazon selected Bruno for its “Best Books of the Month” feature for February.

Good news!

And please look for the review this weekend in The New York Times Review of Books.

And please go check out the piece I wrote for the “When We First Fell in Love” feature on Jonathan “West of Here” Evison’s blog, Three Guys One Book.


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Ring the bells

The official publication date of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is today, February 2, 2011.  Please go immediately to the bookstore nearest you and buy ten copies.  Or here, here, here, here, here, or here.

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On Human Social Dominance Hierarchies

I think about power dynamics in human relationships often.  I’m not sure if I was so obsessed with this before I started studying apes so much, but I think on some level I always have been.  I read about this fascinating research about a year ago in Franz de Waal’s book, Our Inner Ape:

Scientists used to consider the frequency band of 500 hertz and below in the human voice as meaningless noise, because when a voice is filtered, removing all higher frequencies, one hears nothing but a low-pitched hum. All words are lost. But then it was found that this low hum is an unconscious social instrument. It is different for each person, but in the course of a conversation people tend to converge. They settle on a single hum, and it is always the lower status person who does the adjusting. This was first demonstrated in an analysis of the Larry King Live television show. The host, Larry King, would adjust his timbre to that of high-ranking guests, like Mike Wallace or Elizabeth Taylor. Low-ranking guests, on the other hand, would adjust their timbre to that of King. The clearest adjustment to King’s voice, indicating lack of confidence, came from former Vice President Dan Quayle.

The same spectral analysis has been applied to televised debates between U.S. presidential candidates. In all eight elections between 1960 and 2000 the popular vote matched the voice analysis: the majority of people voted for the candidate who held his own timbre rather than the one who adjusted.

(The one candidate who did not adjust the timbre of his voice during the debate who did not go on to become president was Al Gore, who won the popular vote by a wider margin than Kennedy in 1960.  Also, I like to say that we have scientifically determined who is more or less important than Larry King.  Larry King is apparently the measuring-stick of cultural relevance.)

I was fascinated but not at all surprised by these findings.  De Waal brings up this study to illustrate how similar human patterns of social power dynamics are to those of apes (chimps in particular—bonobos are famously lovey-dovey, although, as recent observations indicate, not so benign with each other as to be above the occasional infanticide and subsequent cannibalism (that’s a link to an article about the cannibalism incident that rocked the bonobo world a few months back, by Vanessa Woods, who is the hottest bonobo expert in the world (it’s a testament to my geekiness that I actually have a “celebrity crush” on a primatologist))).  Anyway, I felt a little vindicated when I read that; this is from my book:

I looked up at their faces. I thought I could detect that Norm was visibly irritated that the man had introduced himself to Lydia—and then introduced his wife to me, the chimp—without first acknowledging him, and even further irritated that he had done so in front of the Important Man. The Important Man seemed to consider himself above such things—the battlefield of gestures, words, manners—the whole delicate metalangauge of human social posturing. What apes do with thumping on their chests, throwing clumps of grass, banging on logs—human beings do in subtler ways. There’s very little difference, otherwise.

But what made me think of this today was the film I watched last night, The Big Kahuna.  Based on a play by Roger Rueff, The Big Kahuna is exactly the kind of thing I love: a small, smart, sad, vicious film mostly set in one room, with three characters, none of them women, being unrelentingly nasty to each other in very witty ways.  It’s like the cinematic equivalent of a glass of neat Scotch.  Like Glengarry Glen Ross, The Big Kahuna is about desperate salesmen, and most of the action has to do with social power dynamics.  There is a particularly amazing scene early in the movie: Peter Facinelli (who I’ve never seen in anything else) is a fresh-faced, naïve company rookie straight out of school, and Danny DeVito is a gruff, chain-smoking oldtimer who’s been doing this shit for years; they’re sitting in a chintzy suite in a convention hotel, preparing for a nametag-and-open-bar-type party; the young guy clearly deflects power to Danny DeVito’s character; as they’re talking, it cuts back-and-forth with short scenes of Kevin Spacey walking into the hotel, checking in and riding the elevator up to the suite; the moment Kevin Spacey walks into the room, the power dynamic immediately shifts.  His mere presence poisons the well.  You can watch Danny DeVito’s social potency instantly wither.  What had been a friendly enough atmosphere, after the addition of a third point in the social triangle (the chest-beating alpha male), suddenly becomes a social warzone.  I’ve seen this happen countless times, especially in all-male company: everyone belittles and humiliates each other until a clear dominance hierarchy is established.  It’s a process extremely similar to displaying behavior in chimps.  It makes me wonder if chimps are as unconscious of it as we are.

And with that I give you the most surreal Larry King interview I’ve ever seen.  This is his bizarre interview with Marlon Brando in 1994 (Brando granted him an interview, but insisted they film it at his house).  I strongly suggest you watch all six parts on YouTube.  Marlon Brando barely answers his questions, takes off his shoes, sings and kisses Larry King on the lips.  And I’m sure he does not adjust his vocal timbre.

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Filed under Anger, Apes, Film, Frans de Waal, Literature, Nerds, Power