Fear Of Hat Loss In Las Vegas by Brendon Burns

Book review by Steve Bennett

The title might be obtuse, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Brendon Burns is evoking the spirit of Hunter S Thompson with his debut book. Hell, the publishers have even borrowed the ink-scrawled typeface of the great gonzo writer for their cover font.

Like Thompson’s seminal work, this is a full-throttle, drink and drug-fuelled, debauched road trip through Nevada; though compared to Fear And Loathing, this has a much clearer narrative, and a lot more references to hack stand-up comedy.

The book tells of the time, a few years back, when Burns decided to cheer up recently-dumped fellow comedian Barry Castagnola with an escape-from-it-all trip to Vegas. With typical self-important bombast Burns paints this not as a typically raucous lads’ week away, but as some sort of mystic quest, pursuing a mental photograph he has convinced himself has transcendental meaning.

They are joined on their trip first by Paul Provenza, an implausibly well-connected comic best known for directing the illuminating movie The Aristocrats, and second by Barry’s down-on-his-luck father Keith. But lest you think a parental figure might stem the industrial quantities of crystal meth, magic mushrooms and potent spirits consumed, think again. It’s not all that long until ‘Provenz’ is treating Castagnola Snr to a Vegas hooker.

For all Burns’s spiritual pretensions, this is really a voyage into male friendships. These may be comedians, freer to indulge all their arrested-development whims than your regular 9-to-5ers, but the truth is universal. Bonds are formed on this trip through a series of in-jokes and catchphrases which, to his credit, Burns lets the reader in on.

The motivation ‘because it’d be funny’ is used to justify any ill-advised, possibly illegal, behaviour. An hilarious line is also an argument-sealer, because as Burns puts it. ‘We comics are a funny bunch… we actually think that if something is amusing, then it’s a logical viable argument.’ That sort of thinking inevitably gets them into ill-advised scrapes which, experienced vicariously, make for first-class anecdotes. With it’s similar themes of Vegas excess, this book is literary equivalent of last year’s movie hit The Hangover – if you like one, you’ll like the other.

‘This book is based mostly on bullshit’ says the foreword, but the events are described with the conviction of someone who lived them – and the people in the story are most definitely real. Perhaps it’s a reference to the impetus behind the events, which do tend to be based on some bullshit idea (normally from self-confessed delusional loudmouth Burnsy) than the truth of what happened.

The book does flag a bit towards the end, as indeed our protagonists’ much-abused bodies do, especially once they return to Los Angeles. I swear a chapter about them appearing on the zoo-format Outlaw Radio is included only so Burns can recount Provenza telling the room ‘Brendon Burns is one of the greatest comics I have ever seen’ and bracketing him with Hicks, Kinison, Pryor or Carlin. Burns is not a man troubled by modesty.

Yet for all his swagger, he’s eminently likeable, with his heart in the right place. It’s that which makes the book so readable. It only usually takes someone to tell him he’s being a dick, for him to hold his hands up and admit it. ‘I’m a top bloke, but a bit of a cunt about it,’ is how he sums himself up, wrapping up the story in a charmingly warm epilogue.

With a personality like that – especially in his drug-fuelled days – perhaps it’s best you encounter him in print than in person. Though as fans of his stand-up will know, in those extremes are where comedy lies, and where Burns is most at home.

  • Fear Of Hat Loss In Las Vegas is published by Bantam Press tomorrow, priced £10.99. Click here to order it from Amazon at £8.24

Published: 4 Aug 2010

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