Funny, Scary, Sexy Portals to Expression: On Jack Skelley’s “The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker”

By Gabriel HartJune 24, 2023

Funny, Scary, Sexy Portals to Expression: On Jack Skelley’s “The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker”

The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker by Jack Skelley

AUTHOR/POET/MUSICIAN/CULTURAL CRITIC Jack Skelley “can’t explain why” The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker took so long to be properly released “except to say that nature and fate conspire against art.” Skelley recently joked that he’s been staging “THEE GREATEST COMEBACK IN THE HISTORY OF INDIE LIT!” And he’s not wrong, given the almost four-decade gap between his first book, Monsters (1982), and his recent deluge: Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson (2021), Interstellar Theme Park (2022), and now The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker (2023), which originally appeared in two long out-of-print chapbooks in 1984–85.

“All my life I have never not been writing,” he says, noting years full of lower-key fiction parceling and nonfiction. “But in 2020, there was an explosion of writing and publishing, and the resurrection of FOKA epitomizes this. You can imagine the jolt I felt to learn that after nearly four decades this book will finally be published. By Semiotext(e), no less.”

Now that he’s “approaching geezerhood,” Skelley calls the time gap “freakish,” wondering what comparisons exist for other lost-and-found novels.

But waiting is often fermenting—even four decades may prove that timing is everything. “From today’s vantage I can see now that FOKA snapshot ‘autofiction’ in its genesis,” he says. “Before it had a name. Before Chris Kraus’s stunningly fucked-up and confounding I Love Dick. Before its present suffusion into literary fiction.” Though Skelley believes autofiction “is a misnomer”—that “all fiction is rooted in autobiography”—the recent resurgence of autofiction (or what he called the “Rise of The Literary Thrill-Seeking Industrial Complex”) might owe a buried debt to Skelley’s rambling L.A. odyssey, capturing a time and place that could never happen again through the eyes of a weirdo among weirdos, long before our gentrified dystopias attempted to preserve their endangered weirdness.

One of the strangest, most audacious winks Fear of Kathy Acker bestows is the fact that its contents have little to do with her. Yet Skelley pays substantial tribute to Acker in his introduction, pointing to his own literary puberty in which she was a catalyst: “[H]er vastly funny, scary, sexy portals to expression opened at a susceptible period. […] It was a nascent and fertile moment when Kathy, at the peak of her powers, disrupted me, erupted in me.” After hearing the chapbook discussed on the radio in the 1980s, Acker sent Skelley a postcard that would become a crowning endorsement of the work: “[D]espite my dislike of seeing my own name I think you’re a good writer […] Never what’s expected,” she wrote.

About one-fourth of FOKA’s 135 pages consists of commentary by poet Amy Gerstler, author/critic Sabrina Tarasoff, and Skelley himself, taking the rare opportunity to fully contextualize his work. And while his jagged, repetitive (loopy?) style seems akin to modern alt-fiction like Marston Hefner’s High School Romance (2022), FOKA is best ingested as a time-capsule document rather than as one of these “newer narrative” novellas, its inclusion of event flyers and an index of “character” bios offering an intimate scrapbook element.

In 1982, transgressive godfather Dennis Cooper released Skelley’s avant-prose-poetry collection Monsters on his Little Caesar imprint, and while this cements him as Cooper’s contemporary, Skelley’s brand of transgression bespeaks the TV-fried, wide-eyed wonder of a disappointed utopian—a rock-kicking, innocent angst that sets him apart not only from Cooper but also from today’s younger Cooper devotees, some of whose debauched confessionals come across as predictable and self-indulgent. Instead, Skelley uses “the self” as an experiment in falling-leaf susceptibility, deploying his terminal insignificance as a perpetual shadow of “those stupid trendy punks” and offering a rare real-time critique of what many fluff as authentic yesterdays:

All they ever do is take drugs and put on makeup and practice their pouts in their greasy Hollywood bathroom mirrors. […] These punks and posers like to pretend they are some kind of subversives; they think they are fighting the dominating hierarchy of ruthless Hollywood tycoons. But actually their subculture is a smeared replication of upper echelon Hollywood decadence, with the same twisted domination rites and pecking orders, and everyone looking for a way to upstage everyone else.

It is for this reason that when I go to Hollywood parties I never talk to anyone.

Since FOKA was written when Skelley was in his twenties, a period when anger often eclipsed the expressiveness he now fiercely wields, the older, wiser author shows restraint in not changing a word of his original text, opting to preserve its primitive, hyperactive energy. And with this, of course, comes an overamped libido that often detours the narrative. But amid these fluid, horny threads, which could seem merely lecherous in lesser hands, Skelley maintains his innocence by choosing the untouchable as his objects of desire. Erratic pornographic fantasies of Marie Osmond and William Shatner swirl around more inanimate Ballardesque sexualizations:

They insert their hard-bodied BMWs into the downtown garages and zoom up the elevators of glass towers, like sperm in a hard dick. […] The dick towers gather in a mighty phallic symphony of a skyline. They’re all hard and pointed. Ready for action.

As aggregated in the index, Skelley’s characters blur the lines between punk fringe (Paul Roessler, Steve and Jeff McDonald, Lydia Lunch) and cultural-center spotlight (Billy Idol, Dennis Wilson, Olivia Newton-John), deconstructing the concept of “icon” by leveling the playing field. Personas are interchangeable while intents, purposes, and even death certificates are negotiable:

“William Blake,” I say, “what are you doing here?”

“I’m painting in Rick Lawndale’s garage. In fact, I’ve become Rick Lawndale for the month of August. I will co-inhabit his spirit and paint a series of TV lunch trays as Rick Lawndale, and Rick Lawndale will exhibit them at LACE Gallery so that all of Los Angeles will attend his Visionary Genius.”

If not its actual progenitor, FOKA manifests a shared consciousness with the quirky, irreverent fan fiction we see today in books like Island Time (2022) by Olivia Kan-Sperling, who used Kendall Jenner and Lil Peep as fictional totems to conjure forensic sensualities. If this sort of celebrity worship seems trite, remember that Dennis Cooper would regularly insert teen-idol photos of Leif Garrett and Billy Idol into issues of his journal Little Caesar as accompaniments to provocative underground poetry and prose, like a proto-mood-board ritual of wish fulfillment. “I have this dream where writers are mobbed everywhere they go, like rock stars and actors,” Cooper wrote in the first issue. But young Skelley still found room to roam in Hollywood, nor could his ranting be contained:

Everybody is walking and driving around there with one goal in mind: to be a celebrity. And everyone is a second-rate celebrity, everyone is a lousy actor or writer or singer or waiter or hooker or bum, even the bums are celebrities, and everyone has a screenplay under their arm, and everyone is telling everyone else make room for themselves, ’cause they’re going to be the next big thing. Hollywood is bursting beyond its seams.

Young Skelley seemed to possess either a sixth sense of FOKA’s potential to be legendary or a preemptive fear of its being forgotten, given the way he inserts his metafictional asides, insisting via kaleidoscopic speculations that the “neo-primitivist (or is it retro-modernist?)” text was fanatically popular in real time:

Mike will then say, “This is so totally Fear of Kathy Acker!” and run outside of his Downtown loft and into the street. […]

The telephone rings. It’s Rick Lawndale.

“Jack,” he says, “Can I be in Fear of Kathy Acker?”

“Yeah, Rick,” I say, “but you have to do something weird or funny so that it’s interesting and not boring.”

There’s fine print in the contract we sign with Los Angeles, stating that we can be whomever we want to be so long as we remain in the confines of the experiment and obey the hierarchy of its designers. This disclaimer is so small, in fact, that only the demure will notice it down there, since our eyes are already gazing at our shoes, hoping the soles stay relevant. But relevance is relative, and as stillborn revivals like The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker will testify, the older the work, the further its echoes reverberate.


Gabriel Hart is a writer living in Morongo Valley in California’s high desert. His most recent book is the literary-pulp collection Fallout from Our Asphalt Hell (2021).

LARB Contributor

Gabriel Hart is the author of the literary-pulp collection Fallout from Our Asphalt Hell (2021), the poetry collection Unsongs Vol. 1 (2021), and the dipso-pocalyptic twin novel Virgins in Reverse/The Intrusion (2019). He lives in Morongo Valley in California’s high desert and is a regular contributor at LitReactor and The Last Estate.


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