“Observations of a Straight White Male with No Interesting Fetishes”

By Peter Welch

12by3 Press, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2014

255 pages, trade paperback, $15

When Peter Welch posted his short rant, “Programming Sucks,” on his blog in April, he was not much more than a jack-of-all-high-tech-trades with a blog, who grew up partly in Down East Maine and had written a memoir about his history of, um, psychological adventures.

Soon after the post went up, he was the internationally known author of a viral blog post who had suddenly sold multiple thousands of copies of the memoir, “And Then I Thought I Was a Fish” (12by3 Press, 2012). Encouraged by the Internet splash, he collected about 20 entries from his voluminous blog into a second book, “Observations of a Straight White Male with No Interesting Fetishes.”

What is going on here?

“And Then I Thought I Was a Fish” is a book-length, minute-by-minute account of Welch’s drug-induced descent into madness while he was a student at the University of Maine in Orono. It depicts the celestial highs and chthonic lows of psychedelic (and other) drug use; encounters with cops; encounters with psychiatric staff and patients; the effects of drugs on the brain; car chases; video games; hippie nonsense; relationships with girls, family members, other girls, friends, drug dealers, and women who would be girls. Among other things. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is hilarious.

It’s also deadly serious, because although the whole period of Welch’s psychosis is recounted with relentless, almost Rodney Dangerfield-style self-deprecation (the book is copiously footnoted — with punch lines), the story itself is cautionary: Hard drugs are freaking dangerous, in ways you can barely imagine and don’t want to experience firsthand.

“Mental institutions are social institutions,” he says in the chapter “Released Back into the Wild.” “They try to make people safe for society. Much as I harp on how little they did for my actual psychosis, they never pretended they could cure me. … Their job was to rehabilitate me to the point where I could be somebody else’s problem.”

So they succeeded, because 14 years later Welch is a functioning computer programmer living in Brooklyn writing rhetorically polished miniature versions of his memoir, some of which are collected in “Observations of a Straight White Male with No Interesting Fetishes.”

The book does not include “Programming Sucks,” but it could. The blog post’s depiction of the fake romance — and fake knowledge — of computer programming struck a multimillionfold chord in techdom because it is an Emperor’s New Clothes statement for the 21st century. If you had to describe what really seems to be going on behind the persistent failure of your computer (subhead: “All code is bad”) and the persistent failure of people who condescendingly purport to know how to right those failures (subhead: “All programming teams are constructed by and of crazy people”) but almost never can without obliterating your files, this sardonic little essay captures it.

The essays in “Observations” take the same wryly excoriating voice to a whole range of post-postmodern topics, from online dating, to comic book conventions, to what constitutes kinky sex (it depends on your frame of reference), to student love, fantasy subway rage, the anticlimax of Hurricane Irene, and the bizarre wanderings of Welch’s own dream-generating imagination (there is no need to worry, he explains, about his fantasies on the existential sufferings of pasta noodles that accidentally slip into the sink and down the drain).

What is going on here is what used to be known as “social commentary”; in other words, it’s a comedic examination of the frictions, predilections and hypocrisies of American moral values, updated to the technology-laced 21st century. If H.L. Mencken had been born 100 years later, come under the influence of Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson, and attended College of the Atlantic, the result might have looked something like this.

“Observations” is a trip into the avatars human nature’s usual suspects tend to take in people born since 1984. Nothing is off limits, everything is hilariously ironic, and all meaning is nominally meaningless. Until the end of the book, that is, where the closing piece is a really lovely evocation of the lonely beauty of the city. The self-deprecating, acid-tongued, amoral moralist does, indeed, have a heart.

For whoever can take it, these books contain some of the most skillful nonfiction prose being written today in off-radar Maine literature. Even though it’s coming from Brooklyn.

Both books are available through Welch’s website, stilldrinking.org, and online book sellers. “Programming Sucks” is also on his website.

Off Radar appears about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].