The free parking next to the Lyceum was already full when I arrived twelve minutes before showtime. A plaid-wearing Maddox sprinted across the asphalt and through the beams of my headlights, rushing to grab a last-minute pick-me-up from the café a few doors down.
The other artists were better than I'd feared. The photographer's work downstairs had an air of the surreal that I appreciated. The singer-songwriter made me laugh a few times. The fresh-faced comedian was genuinely funny. The MC's story started slowly but drew me in. Despite the talent on display, I was only interested in one performer: Maddox.
A bit of history first: It's 1999. I wear eye-bleedingly loud shirts. I haven't stormed out of Mom's house yet. In a year, Grandma Grace will get Guillain-Barré from a flu shot. I haven't stumbled across Maddox's site yet.
If a literary canon of the early mainstream Internet were ever codified, Maddox would be in it. His first (and only) traditional job was working for a telemarketing company, which he hated so much he created a website where he could vent in hyperbolic fashion. Its layout has remained the same for twenty years, a testament to Web 1.0. He was one of the pioneers of winking-at-the-audience satire, taking things to their illogical conclusions, setting up ludicrous straw-men to rail against them, and penning long tirades against the poor artistic skills of children (the subject of his second book, I Am Better Than Your Kids).
He painted himself as a put-upon intellectual and manly pirate. His tirades were shot through with the frustration of knowing (or at least believing) he was smarter than 99% of the population and was unable to curb their idiocy. This was unique at the time and wasn't cocooned in thick layers of analysis, listicles, and retweets. Maddox made ranting on the Internet look cool and countercultural. His style has been xeroxed so often and for so long it seems crass or childish now, but back then? He seemed to be cut from the same cloth as George Carlin: no sacred cows were above critique.
It's 2004. I check Maddox's site weekly. I'm taking Intro to Psychology, planning to ask Mairead out, and playing D&D on Sunday nights. I will end up in the ER with alcohol poisoning in March.
It's 2006. I buy Maddox's book and laugh at it. The crude, hyperbolic humor makes me feel like I'm part of some secret club, disdainful of the plebian masses. Maddox's relentless prodding at popular ideas of what is good, right, or minor annoyance taught me a healthy skepticism: to question what is implied or assumed by a statement, to ask who benefits, and to be unafraid to call out nonsense when I saw it.
It's 2014. I'm still resentful about being turned down for a spot in the MFA program but haven't refined it into motivation. I'm working at a job I despise and polishing off a bottle of Jim Beam Black per week. The only thing that keeps me sane is The Biggest Problem in the Universe, a weekly podcast featuring Maddox and his then-friend Dick Masterson, a satirist, comedian, and rageaholic. A reviewer once accurately described the podcast as "a dumb man pretending to be smart and a smart man pretending to be dumb screaming at each other." Dick as the slightly immoral everyman was a natural foil for Maddox's over-intellectualizing, and they broke free of the oft-quiet, oft-overproduced "podcast style." It was one of my favorite things, but it couldn't last.
The podcast, considered by many to be his best work due to the chemistry among the hosts and their audio engineer, Sean, was the catalyst for Maddox's downfall. It showed us what was behind the quips and posturing. Two years after it began, tensions spilled over and Maddox imploded. He attacked his co-host's reputation, hurled baseless accusations, got him kicked out of a comedy troupe, and continued to harass him. He burned the friendship and the goodwill he'd accumulated with most of his audience. In one move, Maddox proved what we'd feared: it wasn't an act. He was small-minded, petty, frustrated, and unable to get outside of his skull for longer than brief periods.
Maddox was convinced that the success of Biggest Problem was due to the format, not to the vitriolic, hilarious, honest chemistry between the hosts, with their audio engineer chiming in as the reserved, zinger-dropping voice of reason. "Success" for him is a rote set of steps to be repeated until the desired result occurs. No organic engagement with fans, no evaluation and acceptance of criticism, just a + b = c. Maddox is whatever he decides to be at the moment, pulled toward a nebulous goal by a tenuous logic.
On September 20, 2017, I found out that Maddox would be in Alexandria the night of September 23rd at a small reading/performance showcase at the Lyceum. Its whitewashed façade, Doric columns, and association with Aristotelian philosophy evoked an air of refinement suited for an ambitious intellectual. It provided a stark contrast to Maddox's teenage basement lair described and mocked on Biggest Problem, where he would pound on the ceiling with a broom handle to summon his mother, who would bring him "soup and correspondence." Maddox's website bio, attire, and selected reading (F*ck Whales, formerly known as The Best Book in the Universe, his soon-to-be-released third book) were at odds with the cerebral trappings.
I joked to a friend, "The Great Magnet told me I should go," but it wasn't that simple. Who would be going: Maddox's teenage follower or the bitter and disappointed former fan? Could I be a dispassionate observer of whatever happened? I bought a ticket and tried to untangle myself. I chose an alarm-red shirt, screen-printed with a double reference to the 2016 Doom remake and a six-year-old meme. It fit meeting Maddox, a visual shorthand marking me as his kind of people. Did that mean I accepted everything he said and did? Did I owe him anything? Was stepping out the door with that t-shirt disingenuous?
Maddox spent the first half of the show sitting in the back-right of the audience, anchored to his phone, expressionless. After getting water and a slice of Butterfinger pie during the intermission, I caught up with him and introduced myself. He lit up and shook my hand. I told him I was a big fan. Easily, he came back with, "Me too." I asked him the kinds of questions I thought he'd appreciate:
1. Do you think the rise of social media/comments sections on everything has made everyone dumber, or were we always surrounded by idiots?
2. What do you think of the newly-announced Dragon Ball fighting game?
Intellectual and plebian in a fifty-fifty split. The former implying that we are part of an exclusive club, immune to this thought disease, that we've transcended it—Us against Them. The latter appealing to our mutual inner child. His answers:
1. It's always been there, but they (idiots) now have a platform. Their arguments are trite, not well-considered, and unhelpful noise.
2. If it's as polished as Arc System Works' previous games, it'll be worthwhile. (He liked an early build he saw at a convention.)
We talked briefly about earlier fighting games and the unofficial Metroid 2 remake, and I recommended an article and a video that he might enjoy. Then he withdrew an early copy of F*ck Whales from the inner pocket of his red tartan shirt.
"I've been working on it for two years," he said reflexively, a parry of a question I didn't ask.
"Yeah, I remember you mentioned it on Biggest Problem," I replied.
What I didn't add was, "in 2014." He announced the then-untitled book on his site, and I signed up for the mailing list as soon as I could. Schedules slip. I've been beating my head against a novel much longer than I'd like to admit, but step one is being honest with yourself. Either Maddox believed the two-years line, or he repeated it often enough that he wanted to believe it. I didn't fire any barbed questions in reply.
The MC tapped Maddox on the shoulder, saying that the intermission was wrapping up. "Okay, got it," said Maddox, waving him away.
"You going to be sticking around afterward?" he asked.
"Yeah, sure," I replied.
"Cool. Find me then," Maddox said, turning toward the stairs.
I downed another glass of water, mulling over the conversation we'd had. Aside from the book timeline delusion, he didn't seem like the petty prima donna he was accused of becoming. He was amiable, opinionated, and prone to hyperbole, the kind of guy you'd see at a Marvel movie or play Crawl with. Then again, it doesn't take much to pretend to be a functional human for ten minutes, as I've learned from many former roommates.
Everyone found their seats, and the MC introduced Maddox, who shuffled on stage sans his trademark Party City crown. He read from the title chapter, an absurd tirade about the inadequacy of whales and their failure to live up to the standards of a productive human (they don't invent things, speak, or read; they can't operate tools; what has a whale ever done for you, etc.). It was pristine, untainted Maddox, the same sort of railings ensconced on his site and spewed into a microphone for Biggest Problem. There was no refinement or evolution. The frustrated teen in me listened with rapt attention and laughed at the absurdity, but the adult was underwhelmed: That was worth a decade of waiting? No one booed him. No one thundered, "Maddox lost!"—a bit from Biggest Problem. He got some chuckles and then applause when he stepped off stage.
Other artists presented, but I'd retreated into my own head, trying to reconcile the two versions of someone I'd considered a role model. Maybe the reason I'm so fascinated with him is that we're more alike than I want to admit. There's an uncomfortable mirroring of our lives. We both worked in a call center and longed to escape. We consider ourselves high-minded and quick-witted enough to avoid being taken in by popular opinion and fallacies, we're prone to overthinking instead of acting, and we're both criticized as being awkward and try-hards. We've both overreacted and projected, blaming a longtime friend for our own behavior.
Maddox's fallout blanketed a swath of the Internet, whereas mine was limited to a small, close-knit group. A friend I'd known since 1999 (a year after Maddox's site went live) got engaged, and I wasn't invited to the bachelor party. In retrospect, I wouldn't have invited me either, but at the time I thought I was owed this by virtue of knowing him for so long. I saw him as the recipient of good fortune, of somehow pulling success out from under me. This was delusional (life is not a zero-sum game), but I believed it until it infected the way I talked about him to others. I clung to that belief so desperately that I called him in a fury the morning after said party, pouring hatred into his hungover brain. Then I hung up on him mid-sentence. I stood there shaking, waiting for the rage to pass and be replaced with the bliss of superiority. It didn't happen. A few days of solitude and a gut-wrenching phone call later, I'd managed to repair the relationship, get re-invited to the wedding, and realize the extent of my mistake.
Self-awareness is hard-won, painful at times, but essential. The moment when you stop and think, "Maybe I was a jerk, whether I intended it or not," can save your reputation, your job, and your relationships. I've lost friends without it. It's much easier to let the venom fly and trade it for a genuine feeling of righteousness or superiority. Being "right" can be addictive, but it costs.
As the crowd began to file out and the murmur of muted conversation spread throughout the exhibits, I stood at the bottom of the stairs, hoping for but also dreading a glimpse of Maddox. A minute passed, and I checked my email. Another minute, and I examined a lighthouse lantern on display in the lobby, the Fresnel lenses reminding me of aiming lights and running cues in high school plays. I meandered outside, hopping up onto a concrete divider. The café had closed an hour ago, a lone beverage-slinger polishing the copper espresso machine under dimmed lights. I looked over the dregs of the audience, strangers fanning out into the balmy night. No Maddox.
How badly did I need some finishing touch to the evening? I walked the three blocks to my car, earbuds in but silent, mulling over the performance. A few times I stopped and looked over my shoulder. Nothing.
Does Maddox's short fuse spring from a deeply-ingrained inferiority? Does the resentment from years of being ostracized and painted an outcast drive him still, so that even when he's accepted, even when he has books, fans, and precious views, the same spite says, "This isn't good enough. Your audience is the same as you, you haven't grown, and you aren't legitimate. Flee, before you're dragged back down." Is the rage that made him and his contemporaries famous the same thing that destroys them, like Wormtongue whispering lies in Théoden's ear and keeping him stagnant?
I could see myself succumbing to that trap. I now consider Maddox a strategy guide for what not to do. There's a running joke that everyone makes money off Maddox except Maddox. Every opportunity he somehow reliably squandered, pulling defeat from the jaws of victory—proudly, in the case of keeping his site ad-free. He went from being a New York Times bestseller and underground sensation to the butt of countless jokes, interspersed with mutterings of, "Sure is a shame, huh?" His possessiveness—not only of a former girlfriend but also of his fans—speaks to a scarcity mindset, a deep-seated insecurity that if he's not actively defending what is his, something or someone will take it. In that way, he considers his fans things, not people. He acted contemptuous of the masses so often and for so long that it became his truth. He built his persona on pointing out the vanity and lack of self-awareness in others, so when he displays it, all his fans, well-versed in these arts, sink their teeth into him.
Part of what so enraged Maddox's former fans, myself included, was his transactional attitude, the belief that every move and every word uttered needs to be a deliberate maneuver toward more success. He disavowed certain chapters of his first book, The Alphabet of Manliness, a satirical celebration of turbo-masculinity, in an attempt to get ahead of potential cries of misogyny. He's branded himself apolitical, progressive, and now some flavor of cultural critic by having independent and/or conservative creators on his podcast. His April Fools' Day site update redirected to a fake "progressive" news page that calls everyone and everything Hitler. Every expression of dismay from a former fan (including myself) follows the same format: "I used to like the guy. Alphabet of Manliness was hilarious/unique/inspired me to write/podcast/make videos, but in the last few years, he's just . . ." followed by the written equivalent of a sigh or headshake.
In November 2017, when faced with a dwindling income from crowdfunding, a damp squib of a book release, and the spread of tales of his erratic behavior, Maddox doubled down. He sued Dick, former friends, Patreon—anyone and anything tangentially associated with the alleged harm inflicted upon him. He finally put a price on his discontent, how much cash he thinks it would take to make him happy: somewhere north of $400 million. Dick called the lawsuit "career-ending" and, despite everything that happened since Biggest Problem ended, recorded a heartfelt plea for Maddox to stop, to gracefully bow out and be free.
It's early 2018. I've lost fifty-five pounds (and gained back twenty). I haven't had a drop of alcohol in four months. I reapplied and was accepted into the MFA program. Eighty-thousand-plus words of a pulp-adventure novel sit on my PC, with multiple backups. Maddox's site (The Best Page in the Universe) still lingers in my browser's autocomplete. I go there and read some old essays, taking pulls from a tumbler full of cold coffee so strong I can almost pretend it's Guinness. He tears into X-meets-Y comedies (including some favorites of mine, Die Hard with a Vengeance and Lethal Weapon) with sledgehammer subtlety:
Possibly the only thing worse than black-guy-meets-white-guy movies are east-meets-west movies. Replace every black stereotype with an Asian stereotype and you have your typical kung-fu action comedy. Tired. They sometimes try to market these movies as "suspense thrillers." What the hell is a suspense thriller? When you go to the rental store, do you ever say to yourself "I'm in the mood for a suspense thriller?" No, because if you did you'd look like an asshole. It's one of those bullshit buzz phrases marketing people use to hype up a movie so gullible suckers like you will see it.
I don't laugh but feel something deflate inside me, nostalgia escaping some unnamed-yet-vital-organ. I read more, and difficult questions start to form. Was he ever good? Did I read too much into his work, building him up until Maddox-as-he-is bore only a passing resemblance to the real Maddox? Would I gain anything by systematically deconstructing him? Did I really learn critical thinking/nitpicking from him, or did I learn them by osmosis, philosophy courses, an academic summer camp, and debates with Dad? Was Maddox ever clever or was he always a dumb man pretending to be smart? If so, what does it say about me that I enjoyed him unironically, or at least remember doing so? Can I appreciate enjoying it then, even if I can't now? I frequently roll my eyes when things are judged out of context; H.P. Lovecraft was a thoroughly unpleasant, weird little dude, but he spawned a whole subgenre of horror fiction. Yet here I am, judging Maddox's early work by current standards.
The last question is the easiest yet most painful to answer: Why squander every opportunity? When I was seven, I saw a two-panel cartoon that I've never been able to get out of my head. It's a woman, seemingly imprisoned, pulling her face to the bars to glance at freedom. The second panel shows that there's nothing behind her and she's the one keeping the bars in front of her. As much as he flails and rages, the root cause of Maddox's unhappiness is himself. Deep down, most vices and flaws come from fear, and I know the cycle well.
For years I would write just enough to tell myself I was writing, but not enough to get anything done. It was always playing scales, never a jam session. When I forced myself to get serious and stick to a schedule, I'd panic at facing a blinking cursor and a blank page. I'd type a line or two through tears. Fear is usually described as cold, but it can simmer—a thousand-and-one matches struck at the core of your being. Fire ants, crawling around, burning through your veins, devouring you in bed as you thrash about. All your hopes, dreams, desires? The fear corrodes them, sucks the color right out. I had nighttime panic attacks, flailing into consciousness, tangled in sheets soaked with sweat before dragging myself to an unfulfilling job. Eventually, I pushed past it; another year of no progress was worse than the panic I felt staring at a blank page. Considering how long Maddox waited between books, and how he let himself slide into irrelevance, maybe his panic won out.
If someone keeps making the wrong choice over and over, they're being rewarded somehow. Maddox gets to keep his distorted self-image intact as he recedes further from reality. His lawsuit was dismissed in May 2018, and he probably doesn't have the funds to refile correctly. This early Internet titan has been reduced to lashing out and mass-blocking former fans on social media. I watch him and think, There but for the grace of God go I. He was clever at times, but never wise.
I've been advised, "Never meet your heroes." I met Christopher Titus, who hadn't aged since his sitcom ended in 2002. I met Mark Waid, who shook my hand and signed my copy of Irredeemable. A tour poster autographed by Christina Scabbia hung above my desk for the better part of a decade. George Romero told me at HorrorCon to "stay scared," although the picture of us shows me grinning like an idiot. Shaking hands with and getting autographs from Jim Breuer, Nina Osegueda, and Cam Clarke are all fond memories. The only one I regret meeting was Maddox; not because he's exactly who I thought he was, but who I'm afraid of one day becoming.
Title image "Doomed" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.