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The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture

The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture

by Nathan Rabin

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Nathan Rabin viewed pop culture as a life-affirming form of escape throughout his childhood and adolescence. As an adult, pop culture became his life. Head writer for A.V. Club for more than a decade, Rabin uses specific books, songs, albums, films, and television shows as springboards for dissecting his Dickensian life story in his acclaimed memoir The Big


Nathan Rabin viewed pop culture as a life-affirming form of escape throughout his childhood and adolescence. As an adult, pop culture became his life. Head writer for A.V. Club for more than a decade, Rabin uses specific books, songs, albums, films, and television shows as springboards for dissecting his Dickensian life story in his acclaimed memoir The Big Rewind.

Rabin writes movingly and hilariously about how pop culture helped save him from suicidal despair, institutionalization, and parental abandonment during a childhood that sent him ricocheting from a mental hospital to a foster home to a group home for emotionally disturbed adolescents. A fun book about depression, The Big Rewind is ultimately a touching narrative of a motherless child’s search for family and acceptance, and a darkly comic valentine to Rabin’s lovable, hard-luck dad.

With comic dissertations on everything from The Simpsons to The Great Gatsby, and from Grey Gardens to Dr. Dre, The Big Rewind chronicles Rabin’s improbable yet all-too-true journey through life, and its fortuitous intersections with the dizzyingly wonderful world of entertainment.

Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner
…full of caustic wit and bruised feelings. The result is a lo-fi, sometimes crude book that is nonetheless more effective (and affecting) than it has any right to be…The Big Rewind…has something real and scuffed and quite winning at its core.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Rabin, a writer for the Onion's arts section, endured a dysfunctional childhood marked by parental abandonment, a stint in a mental hospital and an adolescence spent in a group home and a drug-ridden co-op house. And in this memoir, he views his life through the blurry lens of formative cultural influences. His episodic narrative recounts a sarcastic, insecure youth's gonzo misadventures with a cast of freaks, misfits and aloof or cruelly promiscuous girlfriends, then moves on to adult run-ins with air-sick celebrities, bored prostitutes and nutty Hollywood types. Convinced that cultural tastes reveal the soul, like a My Space page, Rabin opens each chapter with an earnest (though rarely incisive) appreciation of some favorite in a personal canon that ranges from rap albums to The Great Gatsby, and intrusively peppers his writing with pop culture references. There are, alas, limits to the evocative power of pop culture references, and the author's arcane allusions-"Susanne and Jack's relationship was like a gender-switched version of the star-crossed duo in the Stephen Malkmus song 'Jenny and the Ess-Dog' "-test them. Rabin's vigorous, smart-assed prose sometimes brings the sideshow vividly to life, but it's marred by self-conscious fanboyism and labored jokiness. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
With pop culture as his guide, the head writer for The Onion A.V. Club reflects on his turbulent, angst-ridden youth. In a tone-setting opening paragraph, Rabin fantasizes about his ideal funeral, which he imagines as a "wildly excessive tribute to me, me, me," before concluding that "not even death's sweet release can keep me from being self-indulgent and wasting everyone's time." His coming-of-age memoir affirms half this statement: It is self-absorbed, overly self-aware and occasionally self-pitying; it is not, however, a waste of time. Thanks to his acerbic voice and dark humor, the author transforms his miserable childhood and prolonged battles with depression into an improbably entertaining, even uplifting tale. When Rabin was 12, his father left his comfortable governmental job and relocated the family to Chicago, where they quickly tumbled into poverty. With his father unable to care for him, the author spent most of his high-school years in a group home for underprivileged adolescents, where he used pop culture as a refuge from his despair, familial neglect and sexual frustration. While the author's personal struggles continued at the University of Wisconsin, he also happened to be in the right place at exactly the right time-the upstart satirical newspaper The Onion was still based in the college town. Once he joined the publication's entertainment division, Rabin was able to put his undying love of pop culture to productive use. Oddly, it is when he begins to write for the A.V. Club that the memoir loses its momentum. His run-ins with celebrities are not particularly insightful, and the lengthy section that he devotes to his ill-fated television show, Movie Club, veers betweenwide-eyed naivety and condescension toward his fellow participants. Still, Rabin's raw humor and infectious enthusiasm are more than enough to overcome the narrative dry spots. Alternately engaging, maddening, hilarious and excessive.
From the Publisher
“[The Big Rewind is] written with [Rabin’s] trademark humor, quirkiness and self-deprecation. It’s an homage to pop culture." —USA Today

“Nathan Rabin had the kind of childhood that aspiring memoirists dream of.” —TimeOut New York

“With his uncanny grasp of cultural zeitgeist, Rabin could unseat Chuck Klosterman as the slacker generation’s vital critical voice.” —Heeb Magazine

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I've wasted far too much time fantasizing about my funeral. It would begin with the Magnetic Fields' The Charm of the Highway Strip and Quasimoto's The Unseen both being played in their entirety, followed by screenings of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Rushmore, Jules et Jim, and Grey Gardens. An appropriately solemn, grief-stricken Sir Too $hort would stop by to perform "Gettin' It" backed by a full gospel choir, the ceremony concluding with a dramatic reading of Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280, with the ghost of Warren Oates in the lead role. Hey, it's my fantasy. Fuck verisimilitude. All in all, this wildly excessive tribute to me, me, me would take up the better part of two days. Not even death's sweet release can keep me from being self-indulgent and wasting everyone's time.

It'd be a veritable deathapalooza, a far-out posthumous happening that would sum up my dark life through the entertainment I loved. But this book is not about my funeral. It's about my life and the way music, books, films, television, and, to a much lesser extent, haikus, bumper stickers, and Love Is... comic strips shaped and molded me, along with countless other members of my generation, a lost tribe of latchkey kids raised on hip-hop and Quentin Tarantino, a demographic for whom pop culture references constitute an invaluable common cultural currency. It's a fun book about how popular culture helped me survive my lifelong battle with depression, that treacherous foe Winston Churchill referred to as "the Black Dog" and that I, for reasons I no longer remember, call "Vice Admiral Phinneas Cummerbund."

As a child and teenager, pop culture was a life-affirming form of escape. As an adult, pop culture is my life. I live, think, eat, sleep, and dream pop culture. For I have the world's single greatest job. For over a decade I've had the honor of serving as the head writer for The Onion A.V. Club. As a film critic/hip-hop writer it has been my distinct pleasure to interview Sir Mix-ALot and Bernardo Bertolucci, RZA and Anna Karina. Actually I'm not as much of a professional anomaly as you might imagine: New Yorker film critic David Denby was briefly a member of the Wu-Tang Clan under the name Syanide Assassin, and Gene Shalit famously had "Thug Life" tatted on his stomach in the aftermath of 2Pac's death.

My career has taken me to some curious places. I once accidentally asked Angelina Jolie if she wanted to live inside of a chimpanzee. Seth Green once bounded into a room and, without saying a word, sat in my lap. Topher Grace vomited profusely mere inches away from me after I retrieved his lucky hat. I've asked Steve Albini to share the secrets of his boudoir for an elaborate one-off parody of men's magazines called The A.V. Club for Men. Focus group respondents for my poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic-cable movie-review panel show (Movie Club with John Ridley) speculated that all the male critics on the show were "gay" and that the show as a whole was "too gay."

The Big Rewind tells my shaky life story through the sturdy prism of popular culture. Each of this memoir's twenty-two chapters begins with a book, song, album, film, or television show that helped define the corresponding period of my development or provided a framework for me to better understand myself and the world around me.

It's my heartwarming tale of triumph over adversity™ in book form. Incidentally, I've not only trademarked the phrase "heartwarming tale of triumph over adversity™"; I've also trademarked the concept of triumphing over adversity in a heartwarming fashion. So if any of you youngsters are even thinking about overcoming formidable obstacles, you'd better think twice unless you want to pay me big-ass royalties.

In a blatant wash of generational pandering, every sentence in this book contains a Mr. Show and a Simpsons reference. That might seem unpossible, but I think this shameless gimmick will embiggen the book's commercial and literary value in a most cromulent fashion. And oh, the profanity! Every curse word and profane phrase known to man, from "Cunt-fucking Christ on a Crucicracker" to "Thassa lotta salami, Mr. McGillicuddy!" resides within the following tome. If you've ever screamed it in a moment of rage, possibly after whacking your thumb with a hammer, you'll find it in these pages.

The Big Rewind also provides an unprecedented look into the glamorous life of a film critic, a giddy existence that revolves around living in one's own filth and dressing like a hobo. Hey, if it's good enough for Boxcar Pete and Sam the Tramp, then it's good enough for me.

This is a darkly comic book about the intersection of my life and the dizzying, maddening, wonderful world of entertainment. But it's also about a motherless child's search for family, a quest that took me from a mental hospital to a foster family whose patience and generosity knew only strict and unyielding boundaries, to a group home for emotionally disturbed adolescents, to the scuzziest, most drugged-out co-op in Madison, to The Onion and a deranged pirate ship of a television show that began as the answer to my childhood fantasies but ended a comic nightmare, and finally to popular culture, where I found my lasting family in the art and junk that has sustained me through the years.

Like an ideal family, our personal pantheon will never let us down. Ella Fitzgerald's version of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" will never abandon you. Belle and Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister will never run off with your best friend. John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces will never tell you that it finds the prospect of having sex with you less appealing than watching back-to-back reruns of The Golden Girls.

My unwitting collaborators in the strange journey we're about to embark on together include an Orthodox Jewish reggae superstar, a New Wave gay cowboy, the world's most famous reclusive author, a suicidally depressed rapper, Preston Sturges, F. Scott Fitzgerald, a cinematic visionary who traded the false god of cinema for the even falserer god of Marxism, impoverished relatives of Jackie Onassis, the black community, and best of all, real, live sideshow freaks! Yes, real, live sideshow freaks!

In the following pages I hope to attain a Cronenbergian state of spiritual and physical communion with the pop culture that means the most to me. I will explain the meaning, value, context, and significance of my personal pantheon and in return my personal pantheon will hopefully help explain me.

Lastly, I would like to apologize to my family, friends, and to society as a whole for the role my penis plays in this book. I understand that no one wants to read about my sex life, but as diligently as I tried to leave him out of it, the Kid stayed in the picture.

Copyright © 2009 by Nathan Rabin

Meet the Author

Nathan Rabin is a staff writer for The Dissolve, a new film website from the popular music website Pitchfork. Previously, he was the head writer for The A.V. Club, the entertainment guide of The Onion, a position he held until recently since he was a college student at University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1997. Rabin is also the author of a memoir, The Big Rewind, and an essay collection based on one of his columns, My Year of Flops. He most recently collaborated with pop parodist "weird Al" Yankovic on a coffee table book titled Weird Al: The Book. Rabin’s writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Spin, The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Nerve, and Modern Humorist. He lives in Chicago with his wife.

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