You know what’s easy to make fun of? Zen. It’s also easy to make Zen of fun.

No more reversed sentences, I promise. Or will I reverse promises, as your sentence? FUCK–

A while back, I was feeling lazy, so I thought I would do a “Zen interpretation” of Top Gun, which would save me on giving any shits, because Zen. I was mostly using it as an opportunity to mock dreadlocks and Keanu Reeves. I did a search for “top gun zen,” and, as always, searching for things related to Top Gun was a bad idea.

This is technically a book the way vomit is technically food.

I read TOPGUN Zen: The Importance of Mysticism, Science, Air Combat and Daily Life cover-to-cover, hoping to gain an understanding of what it’s like to be a pilot. I also hope to gain an understanding of the title, which, apparently, is trying to convince us of “the importance of daily life.” Either people in the aviation community repeatedly need assurance that life is worth living, or an “in” was misheard as an “and,” meaning this book’s first typographical error is on its cover.

The book comes from the mind, body, and soul of one Barry Kaigen McMahon, which translated from the Japanese means “Barry Kaigen McMahon.” The back of the book assures me that he is to be respected for a bunch of things that sound stupid, like receiving “Dharma transmission” or giving a talk at the Naval War College on “Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and Buddhism.” The important part is that he is a pilot. Okay, honestly, it’s also important that he is a surfer and a golfer, as he gets into how Zen these activities are as well, but his publisher convinced him that flying jets is the coolest (read: most marketable to dumb people) thing he does, so go with that or they’ll have to title the book Why Zen is Really Neat to This One Guy.

Pictured: this one guy.

So, is this the perfect stocking stuffer for the Top Gun fan on your list? Open your mind and receive my transmission.

First of all, this is the second work I’ve encountered this year that name-drops physicist Brian Greene to cover up the fact that it makes no goddamned sense. The first was the Tony Scott film Déjà Vuwhich listed him as a consultant in the credits. This book merely thanks him for giving the author “an appreciation of physics,” which you can already tell is a nice way of saying, “I didn’t understand this, but it reminds me of a fortune cookie.”

Ten bucks says the author watched “The Elegant Universe” baked.

If you’re wondering how often the Zen-speak gets out of hand, the very first paragraph mentions that Zen is both simultaneously simple and difficult. And I already simultaneously hate and fucking hate this book.

You might think that Barry here is wasting his life getting into all this spiritual mumbo jumbo, but he has a very good reason for it: his first girlfriend broke up with him. This is where he first felt true suffering, at his Catholic high school, when a girl he loved told him no. I guess I should be glad that he suppressed what I assume is the average military response to the word “no,” but now he’s violating logic, science, common sense, and the English language, so I’m torn. And so is his fragile heart. He tells us that instead of running away and joining a foreign legion, he joined a foreign religion. “Legion” kind of sounds like “religion.” And I’d like to “Barry” my fist in this book’s face.

Does the phrase “American Zen” instantly make you laugh and/or picture Michael Dudikoff from American Ninja? Then this is the funniest book you’ve never read since those Chelsea Handler memoirs on your vodka table. (What, you don’t call it a coffee table?! No, really, you sound fun.) McMahon delicately pushes that fine line between star-spangled patriotism and the wisdom of the ancients, so you, the American consumer, never think Zen sounds too foreign or faggy. Though he also fills the book with mom jokes for your mom and boner jokes for your dad, because ‘Merican Zen isn’t all serious!

HEAD’S UP: Mirth flows like water from the following CHAKRA CHUCKLES!

Actual quote on the nature of time for your mom: “We get up at the sound of the alarm clock, we eat when it’s time, we punch in and out at work, and we go to bed at a preordained position of Mickey’s hands.”

Actual quote on Western medicine for your dad: “And thanks to the miracle of modern medicine, we can even use drugs to get an erection! (But remember that erections lasting more than 24 hours should seek immediate medical attention.) I’m not sure I’ll need a hard-on in my coffin.”

There goes the Navy, talking about stiff cocks again! No, that’s just a coincidence. Top Gun is a fictional film about the Navy, it’s not all post-volleyball wang-on-dong rough-housing in real life. Just ask Barry about all the different forms of desire a Zen student must deal with…

“The simple need, the pure desire is unmistakable. We are primates by origin and nourished by interaction with other human beings, other vibrant nervous systems. In my case, this arises as joy in sharing life with my wife, in family gatherings, competitive manly company in sports, friendly reminisces with old friends in the Navy and from school and with those engaged in Zen. When it comes to relationships, as a heterosexual I’ve always been attracted to women, although below the waist and above the neck have never quite understood each other.”

What happened, Barry? What did that Catholic girl do to you?

Is this her? You want I should Zen her, Barry?

Sorry if this review seems to be all over the map, but it’s still more organized than any of Barry’s thoughts. One minute he’s talking about how much he really liked reading Mutiny on the Bounty, then he’s talking about how Zen is like swordfighting (with swords). In fairness, he often keeps his focus for an entire chapter, but… why are these things connected? And don’t answer “Zen,” smartass. This book is like bragging that you have a well-stocked freezer section next to your expansive sex toy display. What fucking store am I in, Barry? “Things you can buy” is not a type of store.

You may have noticed that I haven’t said anything about jets yet. Well, there isn’t much on them contained here. Yeah, that cover is a sham. It’s a sad day when I buy a book expecting to laugh at dumb cliches about flying a plane, and all I get are just dumb cliches about… being… a… guy? Who does… stuff? At one point, Barry goes balls-deep on the effects of suffering, and he drops these bombs of wisdom:

“If I hold to negative thought patterns and identify with conceptual structures of who I am, I can easily suffer as a result. If I am dehydrated yet drink only coffee, I’ve compounded my problem because coffee is a diuretic. And if I believe it’s an enemy in front of me and squeeze off a missile, but in reality it’s my wingman that I’ve subsequently shot down, I create waves of pain and suffering that extend, literally, forever.”

Obviously, shooting down an enemy pilot does not create any pain or suffering, because pilots from other countries aren’t people.

Pictured: I wanna say… a chair, maybe? Is that a chair? Definitely not a person, though.

Barry isn’t oblivious to the criticism that a man trained to kill is also part of a religion that is supposedly about peace. (Or is it really? *wanking motion*) He’s a master of the Eastern ways of American bullshit, though, so he answers questions of morality with eighty more questions. So fucking Zen, right, ladies? But after I’ve scribbled “answer the fucking question” in the margins several times, Barry flies a plane directly into my mind:

“Frankly, I would shoot an intruder or a terrorist. In my view, my compassionate responsibility lies first with my family and those I’m charged to protect. I don’t know what karmic interactions led the intruder to my house or the terrorist to my airplane, but with all due respect to their humanity, they are going to need another rebirth to get it right.”




TOPGUN Zen contains many passages on science, and honestly, I had to skim them. Here’s why: imagine you’re flipping through the channels on TV and you see this really neat documentary on the Big Bang. It’s pretty informative, and seems factually accurate, but then they wrap it up with, “And that’s why you need to sort your Tupperware by color.” And then the credits tell you this documentary was produced by a massage therapist.

The fuck? Every passage on science in this book reads the same way. Barry will tell you a couple facts about string theory (as he understands it), then he’ll quote some ancient book with a passage about strings and wait for you to say, “Whoaaaaaa, that can’t be a coincidence! Old Asian dudes knew quantum mechanics before scientists? My mind has simultaneously exploded and imploded, Mu!”

Oh, are you familiar with Mu? It’s a Japanese word that means “emptiness” or “no” or “nothingness.” Take your pick. It’s the most important word to Zengineers, because I don’t give a fuck. Agh. Barry has a “moment” about how “Mu” is a clever answer to any question. Q: Can a dog understand Buddhism? A: NOTHINGNESS. Ohhh, and the panties hit the floor! TOPGUN Zen is full of shit like this, where the most exciting ending to a story is nothing fucking happening. Christ, Damon Lindelof must be really into Zen.

After all, Buddhists aren’t into logic. Especially in regards to plots.

Here, try this on for size: Barry introduces us to the koan, which is a question, sentence, or idea designed to be repeated that sends a Zen student off in a frenzy of reflection. (Sort of like Cinema 52… oh no!) You know, like what’s the sound of one hand clapping? And then you come back with your bullshit answer and your teacher smiles like a child molester. Anyway, Barry claims that one Zen student attempted to answer a koan for six fucking years, only to suddenly hit upon an answer in the form of this poem:

 “Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu!”

Barry goes on to praise the brilliance of this poem. For a while. And no, the question wasn’t something like, “What do twenty cows say?” Zen jokes aren’t so obvious. It was about why we use fans if the wind is everywhere. Ugh.

Another bowel-opener: two of the greatest swordfighters in all the world finally met to fight for an audience of hundreds. On this day, we would ultimately know who truly was the more skilled with a blade. The two entered the arena… and didn’t do a fucking thing. Just stood there for a bit. For what would be the point if they were both the greatest? And everyone present agreed: it was the greatest fight they had ever seen.

I’ve decided this book is for three kinds of people: pilots, hippies, and idiots. 

Or Tim Robbins researching a role.

Look, this book is awful. Just straight-up awful. Do not give this to a Top Gun fan or a pilot or anyone you love who might be contemplating suicide. It’s packed with the same cliched shit you can hear from your grandfather or The Matrix, it’s only tangentially about aviation, and I’m pretty sure the eight or nine times he claims to be stating a fact, those are fresh from his ass, too. He claims to love science but shits on technology, which makes me wonder what sort of arcane wizardry a jet is. He’ll use a bit of Eastern wisdom, then throw in a down-home phrase like “big time” or “tough shit” to really eagle it up. If thought were deed, I have done terrible, terrible things to this book. Violent things. Guided missile things. Catholic school things.

In the introduction, Barry claims that “if this book confuses you, I’ve probably done a decent job.” Barry, learn from your own lessons on simplicity: this would have been a better book if you wrote “Mu” on a single piece of paper and told your publisher to best it in a swordfight. Let’s see him market that.