To Live and Die on Zug Island Ryan Bartek

To Live and Die on Zug Island is a memoir of author Ryan Bartok’s formative years in the rough and tumble world of 90s Detroit. A sort of magnum opus for Bartok, this book was written over an 18 year period with drafts separated by decades of experience and maturity. 

Fashioning himself as a punk rock Jack Kerouac (that’s obviously Aaron Cometbus, but okay), Bartok takes the reader through grimy streets filled with gang violence, drug abuse, and a cast of very colorful but rarely relatable characters from his neighborhood. 

Early on, he writes, “Any critic in the way gets bulldozed.” Well, I guess that’s me. This book is fucking terrible. What could have been a fascinating snapshot of American life in the last era before the Internet changed life for everyone, we get meandering ramblings from a truly unlikeable person who seems to be daring the reader to put the book down on every page. Not only is Bartok his own biggest fan, this collection of self-aggrandizing tales goes nowhere and is frequently confusing and pointless. Add to this some of the most overwrought, overwritten prose that has ever been painted purple, and you have a chore to slog through rather than a book to read. 

For example, consider the following passage: “You are about to read the lives of 100 men – no consistency save for a consistency of dueling opposites. In their freedom of shapelessness, thoughts liberate & confine… Philosopher, assuredly – though tongue in cheek; Poet, certainly, but as a desideratum dermabrasion born posthumously into an antiquated age of mongrels.” What does that mean? Who cares? I’m sure it sounded great to the author in his journal, but imagine over 300 pages of this self-important musing. Also, nearly every single page has numerous grammatical and punctuation errors. It is a stream of consciousness that could use a filter.

Even when Bartok gets close to relatability, he ruins the moment by inserting a sardonic edginess into the proceedings. For instance, when his beloved grandmother is near death after a battle with cancer, he writes, “Grandma was in the last 10 minutes of her life, and mustered the strength to give me one last smile. This sickly deathbed smile, blackened gums, bleeding teeth…” His desire to come across as edgy, tough, and emotionally impenetrable makes him less the anti-hero he wants to be and more a damaged and off-putting asshole. 

I could run through more of these disconnected episodes, such as the one where Bartok and his buddies react to the 9/11 attacks by hopping in a car with katana swords (really?) and driving through the predominantly Arab-American suburb of Dearborn, or maybe the one about the church his friend wants to start at raves where everyone takes communion of MDMA and worships house music, but what’s the point? These stories have no thematic connection and are just vehicles for Bartok to show how much of a misunderstood “bad kid” he is. While disjointed collections of vignettes like Kerouac’s On the Road or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting can stitch together a time and place with rich detail, this one does not. Despite all the attempts at transgression and darkness, the book is never relatable enough to create an impact.  

This brings me to the passage that completely lost me. Bartok describes a game that he and his friends used to play called “N—–“ (as in the racial slur, repeatedly appearing unedited and in all caps in the book). He describes it as a sort of a human fox hunt where “If caught within 15 minutes by the ‘Slave Hunters’ the ‘N—-‘ would have no choice but to take in exactly 2 minutes of full-blown lynching.” Now, I did stupid, insensitive shit as a kid. You did stupid, insensitive shit as a kid. But I never engaged in cruel games that belittled the horrors of slavery. And, if I did, I would not casually throw the story around today as an amusing anecdote of a simpler time. Unacceptable. It’s this sort of urge to offend, to stare down the reader and demand (apologies to SSD), “How much pretentious bullshit can you take?” that led me to close the book and not look back. I wish Bartok peace because he is more troubled than he lets on. And if he decides to write another book, I hope he hires a goddamn copyeditor.