What's this stuff you say about the consumptive nature of love, anyway?" That's the musical question writer-translator Lorie Marie Carlson asks Oscar Hijuelos on the 32-song lit-rock compilation CD Stranger Than Fiction (Don't Quit Your Day Job/Oglio, $24.98). Hijuelos's answer is "I Want to Eat," a savory song of love he intones in a Lou Reedy voice well suited to his quirky lyrics ("I want to eat your mother, I want to eat your brother-in-law/Want to eat your venetian blinds, your motorcar, your orange rinds").
Norman Mailer's singing debut, "Alimony Blues," is hardly the greatest thing in the world. Yet Norman Podhoretz's ex-friend executes the song with enough bluster to compensate for the fact that he apparently lost his voice long before he helped found the Voice in 1955. Mailer, who has already secured a place in rock history for his radical use of the word "fug," takes another shot at pop immortality when he brays, "Alimony costs so touching [sic] much." In stark contrast to his cantankerous cacophony is Norris Church Mailer's plaintively off-key contralto on "You'll Come Back (You Always Do)," a sweet-and-twangy ballad Norman cowrote with Angelo (Twin Peaks) Badalamenti.
Standouts among the numerous covers are Maya Angelou and Jessica Mitford's giddy "Right, Said Fred," Walter Mayes's passionate and parodic "Johnny Get Angry," and especially Robert Reich's karaokean "Chain Gang," wherein the former labor secretary hammers vowels and consonants with a conviction that would do B.J. Snowden proud. Amy Tan employs similar vocal techniques on "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," a mildly kinky rendition supplemented by a photo of a leather-clad Tan reproduced in the liner notes.
Many cuts on Stranger Than Fiction are neither strange nor good enough to sustain the double CD, proving that even writers with kazoos need smart editors. But the royalties go to a good cause: the PEN Writers Special Fund, which assists editors and writers who are singing some serious financial blues.