Wilting at Tinmills

An introduction to Expresso Tilt

by Derek Davis

I can't remember how, when or where I first came on this strange, seedy, no-graphics, all-yellow cover that said, simply, "Expresso Tilt No. 4, Spring 1986. For people who need a miracle." I think I found it somewhere on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Or maybe rolled up inside a discarded raincoat. Inside, printed on a grade of paper one lower than any I had previously known to exist, were ads for steak houses in Newark, Delaware, a letter to the editor purportedly from Stephen Stills, a history of Frederick's of Hollywood, some of the few worthwhile poems I've ever seen printed in a little magazine, wacked-out fiction, cartoons from far beyond left field, and a consistent tone of informed satire. It was simply the most entertaining magazine, except maybe for The Realist, that I'd ever picked up.

As I later learned, Expresso Tilt was the unique and irrepressible alter ego of editor Mike Walsh. It meandered for ten issues only from late 1984 till the fall of 1990. Over it's short life, the quality of Expresso Tilt was consistently high.

Yes, it's that good. Satire's an art that few really master. Most honk through the easy route: parody, which takes the form of an original absurdity and bedecks it with uproarious substitutions which can be spleen-dangeringly funny at the time but carry no impact a year later, when the immediate context has been lost. True satire reaches underneath; it grabs the heart and soul of its object, and it squeezes.

Don't listen to anybody who says otherwise: satire can't be defined. It mixes underlying admiration with the perverted condemnation. It loves, hates and is shocked by the object of its intentions. But writing it is some kind of automatic process, a direct link among emotion, brain, and typing fingers.

If you want to know how to recognize magnificent satire, just read Mike Walsh's Bad News in Babylon, which uses the AIDS crisis as a springboard to an inversion of all our country holds unconsciously sacred. And then read his Sorry. Both are funnier than Hare Krishnas on hot coals. And both are deeply disturbing; they make you want to look over your shoulder or slink to a corner where you won't be noticed. Offhand, I don't think I've read social humor of this quality five times in my life.

As I said before, there's some remarkably good poetry and short fiction (I especially recommend Mark Morganstern's Story for a Cold Night, a tale of stunning humanism without cheap sentimentality), plus glimpses of bizarre Americana (The Vision of S. P. Dinsmoor by B. Amundson) and the unclassifiable cartoons of Marc Landau. And the letters -- there have never before been letters like those to Expresso Tilt, and, sadly, now that Expresso Tilt is no more, there never again will be.

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