The Far Side of the Dollar (Ross MacDonald, 1964)
Mid-level MacDonald, which means as good or better than anybody else’s high level except Chandler’s or Highsmith’s, the only American “thriller” writers who rate a legitimate comparison.
I first read MacDonald’s oeuvre (much of it two or three times) in the eighties. I was a lot younger then and was mostly impressed by his coiled spring plotting, which isn’t matched by any writer I know of, irrespective of genre or level of stylistic acumen.
If anything, my respect for that element of his books has grown. I’m a long way past thinking “plot”–let alone true, complex narrative–is easy.
But these days, I’m even more impressed by the clarity and nuance of his vision.
There’s a tendency among the crit-illuminati to apply the word “noir” to virtually anything that involves crime and is the least bit ambiguous. I’ve seen it applied to MacDonald plenty of times.
But noir is fantasyland and a particular kind of fantasyland at that. MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels take place in a world which, if it isn’t quite real, isn’t quite unreal either. (I can speak with some authority on the matter because I partly grew up in a world–Central Florida in the sixties and early seventies or, more specifically, working class communities stuck between trailer parks in the literal shadow of NASA’s rockets–that left a very definite impression on my formative mind, an impression of being both real and unreal in ways that MacDonald’s books, set in Southern California around the same time, capture perfectly.)
Maybe it was because I read the final chapters of this particular book with Thunderclap Newman’s Hollywood Dream for background music (and never was there a more perfect soundtrack for any literary experience), but the weight of both the looming apocalypse and the more troubling seeds of long term erosion are present in MacDonald’s books to a greater degree than anything else I’ve encountered from that period or any other.
I never thought he was less than a fine writer and I’ve never taken any fine writer for granted. But working my way back through his books these days I’m becoming convinced that he achieved something rarer and better.
He wasn’t just good, he was right. (So good and so right that I can readily forgive him for being very, very wrong when he–or Archer anyway–once said rock and roll was “music for civilizations to decline by”…I’d say rock and roll was more like the last thread holding ours together, but, hey, we all make mistakes!)
Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me (Pattie Boyd with Penny Junor, 2007)
Boyd’s an accomplished woman in her own right. She was the era-equivalent of a super-model when she married the “quiet” Beatle in the mid-sixties (he soon made her quit), and, in the years since she finally detached herself from Harrison’s snake-in-the-grass buddy Eric Clapton in the late eighties, she became a gallery-worthy photographer.
In the space between–the years when she inspired most of the great music either man ever made and, thus, the reason so many folks bugged her for so long to write this memoir–she served as the principal muse and personal doormat for two dry-stick Englishmen who had been rescued from life’s humdrum by a bit of luck and their considerable talents.
Why and how she managed to draw heights from them they rarely, if ever, approached otherwise is surely a story worth telling.
Alas, one cannot find that story here.
Pattie seems to have been (and to still be) what used to be called a good egg. It’s her defining quality and one way to stay a good egg is to keep seeing the good in people who deserve less.
I can’t deny there are moments to behold here–an underlying narrative yearning to breathe free:
“While the Beatles were recording the White Album, George wrote a song called ‘Something,’ which he released as his first A-side single with the Beatles. He told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that he had written it for me. I thought it was beautiful–and it turned out to be the most successful song he ever wrote, with more than a hundred and fifty cover versions. His favorite was one by James Brown….My favorite was the one by George Harrison, which he played to me in the kitchen at Kinfauns.”
That’s a genuinely lovely passage that sums up the strengths and weaknesses of the book’s general paint-by-numbers, as-told-to approach. It’s the entirety of what she has to say about inspiring one of the greatest love songs ever written (you can take Frank Sinatra’s word for it if you don’t care for mine) and by itself it could hardly be bettered.
But the same style of understatement is pretty much applied to her entire life. That might have been a refreshing approach if she had stuck to momentous occasions. But when so many anecdotes hinge upon some variation of “my self esteem had never been lower” or “we drank far too much” or “Barbados is such a lovely island” or “the view was breathtaking” or “we had no idea how much damage drugs could really do,” or “I should have left much sooner but I thought a woman was just supposed to put up with such things,”** the mind does go a bit numb and the eyes do develop a tendency to glaze.
Don’t get me wrong. Much as I wanted somebody to shake her by the collar and tell her to stop letting famous men wipe their feet on her, I had empathy for Boyd throughout. Mostly because her famous husbands frankly creeped me out:
“What I didn’t know [about Clapton’s sudden proprosal of marriage, several years after he had wooed her away from Harrison and long after he had established a pattern of treating her like dirt, begging her to take him back yet again, and writing a song about it] until Roger Forrester confessed a few days after the wedding was how the whole thing had come about. He and Eric had been playing an endless drunken game of pool at Roger’s house in Finley Green and they had had a bet. Roger had bet Eric that he could get his photograph in the newspapers the following morning. Eric bet him ten thousand pounds that he couldn’t. So Roger went straight to the telephone and told Nigel Dempster, then gossip columnist on the the Daily Mail, that Eric Clapton would be marrying Pattie Boyd on March 27 in Tucson, Arizona. By the time they woke up the next morning, the story, plus photograph, was emblazoned across the Daily Mail and the two went into a total panic. What to do? A few million people now knew about the wedding; the only person who didn’t know was the bride. Hence the hasty phone call–and the desperation for an immediate answer.”
There’s a lot of that sort of thing, so, when I wasn’t nodding off, I found myself frequently wanting to drag the not-much-better George Harrison’s ghost back from Karma-land so I could give him a good reaming before I went off to punch Eric Clapton in the face.
But the reason this supremely cautious entry in the beleaguered annals of styleless, say-nothing prose exists is because its author was, with Michelle Phillips, one of the two great “muses” in the history of rock and roll.
And between reading it cover-to-cover and putting Layla and Other Love Songs–made in direct response to Boyd’s initial rebuff of an advance by Clapton that included a threat (subsequently carried out) to start shooting heroin if she didn’t relent and, to my mind, the only truly sustained greatness of his career–through the headphones one more time, I’m afraid I can really only recommend the latter.
**Time presses and I don’t do this for money, so I didn’t go back and look up these “exact” quotes. Trust me, the redundtant sentiments are accurately captured even if the words are not.