HOLLYWOOD DOES WAR AND PEACE….AND HOLDS ITS OWN (And Then There Was Hollywood: Sixth Rumination)

War and Peace (1956)
D. King Vidor

It’s impossible, of course. Novels far less great and complex than War and Peace have tended to school anyone who dared to film them in the vicissitudes of economic and critical failure. Especially with a finely wrought Russian-language version available from the Soviet era (1966 to be exact) having been brought in at twice the length with what amounted to an unlimited budget, what’s to be expected of a Hollywood-financed version filmed in Italy a decade earlier with a bewildering array of international stars not even bothering to attempt Russian accents?

Well, whatever we had a right to expect, a great deal was delivered.

Not the novel, mind you. Even the six-hour Soviet version couldn’t do that. But taken on its own, King Vidor’s effort is more than impressive. After years of enjoying it–and accepting that the miscasting of Henry Fonda as Pierre is not subject to rectification by time-travel and a word in the producer’s ear–I’ve even begun to lean towards it having more than a little greatness in its bones.

Vidor was a pro’s pro–one of a mere handful of important American directors from the silent era still going strong in 1956. Having made every kind of film (and as entertainment no less), he was well suited to making one where every kind of drama–romantic, familial, political, martial, diplomatic, religious–must be sustained in order for the thing to work at all. Now that I’ve reached the point where I can quit worrying about why and how someone as quintessentially ill-suited to play a big bear of an emotionally tormented Russian as Henry Fonda was chosen for the lead, I can fully enjoy the precision with which Vidor directed each of the film’s dizzying variety of modes, and the grace with which he, keeping close concert with the source no matter how much had to be elided, wove it all together.

I can also appreciate how right most of the remaining cast is. That Dutch-Anglo Audrey Hepburn would make as great an English-speaking Natasha as we’ll have, or draw a relatively relaxed performance out of her then-husband, Cuban-American Mel Ferrer, is no surprise. But she’s not a patch on Sweden’s Anita Ekberg (as Pierre’s supremely haughty first wife, Helene), Italy’s Vittorio Gassman (as Helene’s snake-in-the-grass brother and Natasha’s seducer, Anatol), Austria’s Helmut Dantine (as Dolokhov, an especially strong reminder that cads often make the best soldiers when there’s a real enemy to fight), England’s Wilfred Lawson (unbeatable as the aging Prince Bolkonsky), Austria’s Oscar Homolka (as General Kutuzov, Russia’s military savior) or the Czech Republic’s Herbert Lom (a definitive Napoleon).

With all that going on, Vidor needed some thread to hold his (or, if you like, Tolstoy’s) story together.

It took me a long time to notice that the thread was religiosity, which grows from ritual to faith as the story develops…and Napoleon’s army advances.

Given how closely I usually attend such themes, I credit Vidor (and Tolstoy) for integrating it so thoroughly and naturally, for making it not merely a theme, but part of the film’s air.

It’s what give Natasha’s betrayal of Prince Andrei the quality of sin, without which it’s merely a spoiled tryst….

It’s what gives Pierre’s protection of her the quality of a knight’s honor…

which would otherwise seem ridiculous in any setting as modern as even the Napoleonic era…

It’s what lies, unspoken, at the heart of key reversals in the lives–and spirits–of characters as diametrically opposed as Pierre and Dolokhov, on their twinned-journeys from this….

to this…

It’s what holds Kutuzov upright as he’s driven remorselessly backwards by Napoleon’s onslaught…

knowing he’ll be rewarded by Faith in the end…

and, unlike any other film I’ve seen where Napoleon Bonaparte plays a key role, it establishes what he lacked…

…which was belief in something higher than himself.

It’s also what allows a viewer to grasp in shorthand what Tolstoy was at such famously long-winded pains to articulate as “the Russian soul.”

And, in true cinematic fashion, it’s done mostly by showing, not telling. Such long speeches as there are boil down to Pierre and Andrei playing philosophes….

…aping the intellectual airs of the French who are coming to destroy them, rousing themselves to gut-level emotional commitment only when Moscow stands ready to be consumed by fire (in scenes, I might add, that are as impressive and harrowing as Gone With the Wind‘s burning of Atlanta, to which there are an essay’s worth of literary, cinematic and historical parallels)….

The rest of the time, Vidor allows the haunted, glorious imagery of Orthodoxy to suffuse scene-after-scene so that, by the time it’s foregrounded, it seems to have sprung more from Nature’s design than man’s. An icon peeking from the side of a frame, a quick sign of the cross as a medallion is handed over or as Pierre, the skeptic, enters a rare church service, set a tone which allows the great Act of Faith–the abandonment of Moscow “the holy city”–to seem less miraculous than dutiful. In a word, the film accomplishes, through its use of music, painting (not to mention painter-inspired cinematography), sculpture and iconography, what few explicitly “religious” films have ever done, which is demonstrate the power of cohesive Faith. Russia’s class-bound society–portrayed with a concise, gimlet eye in the film’s early scenes–responds to the invader as one because the abstract nature of God allows what only belief in God can: real humility for those previously favored by Nature or Fortune…

and real dignity for those punished by same. ..

Of course, it helps that Vidor knew his way around a battle field…

…as this movie, which offers so many other things, also gets the shock of war–so carefully planned one minute, so arbitrarily executed the next–as right as any film ever has.

Listening to the pounding of the French drums at Borodino, you can understand why a man with God-like ambitions would define himself by war’s fleeting glory….and feel his loss when the God he sought to replace turns his back and casts him down…

…only to be reminded that he’s earned his fall by the destruction he’s wrought…

…a fate worth pondering as the modern beast, whispering W-W-three-e-e–e, continues to slouch, quite literally, towards Bethlehem, and stupid people seeking no more than a medal and a bigger office, dream once more of war with the Russkies and convince themselves that this time–this time!–it will be different.

WENDY HILLER GROWS UP…AND GROWS OLD (Segue of the Day: 5/29/17)

I Know Where I’m Going (1945)
Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Fred Zinneman

Wendy Hiller, now virtually unknown to anyone but film buffs, was one of those periodic Brits (they were common in her day, but Helen Mirren, for instance, continued the practice well into ours) who preferred the stage to the screen. In the case of the actors who went that route, I never thought the best of the men–Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson–were much of a loss, fine as they sometimes were.

The never-were performances of the women, however–Hiller, MIrren, Vivien Leigh– amount to a cultural gap.

Hiller was perhaps the most devoted stage-hound of them all. She was in some Hollywood productions, but there were no West Coast sojourns. She forever preferred the West End and was thus content to be the first British actress nominated for an Oscar in a British film (1938’s Pygmalion, her second film, where she was a luminous and definitive Eliza Doolittle and for which she likely would have won by acclaim if the film had been an American production, such as the following year’s Gone With the Wind), star in a mere 21 films over a 55-year career, and go for long periods without appearing on film at all.

I Know Where I’m Going, which captures perhaps her greatest performance (I say perhaps only because I haven’t seen them all), was only her fourth film. It came four years after her second and seven years before her fifth. I suppose if you are only going to do something once in a decade you might as well be indelible.

it took me a long time to get around to this one and Hiller, not the film’s famous writer/director team, who in my handful of brief encounters elsewhere have seemed more impressed by their own eccentricities than anyone who isn’t an Anglophile could be, was the main attraction.

This was my second viewing, and it was lovely and romantic and breathtaking all over again with the added touch that I got past the magic sparks Hiller and Roger Livesey keep throwing off just enough to notice that it’s also one of the great weather-and-landscape movies. Coming from 1945–a year that still has powerful resonance for anyone with a sense of history (let alone History)–the two leads serve as literal embodiments of the national character, a character that is now lost (to the world anyway, I can’t speak for how the Brits feel about themselves).

I can’t recall any other film where True Love is so closely tied to, and complicated by, not only to traditional notions of honor, but the very landscape and its most brutal elements. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Hiller’s attempt to reach a remote Scottish island where her conveniently rich and doltish fiance awaits and Livesey’s attempts to “help” her. She’s continually cut off by a series of obstacles–howling gales, rising seas, whirlpools. obstinance thicker than the Scottish accents–and finally risks her life, and those of others, not so much to reach her fiance, as to get away from Livesey, who has begun to suspect as much, but dares not hope she’ll act on either his wishes or hers, and dares even less to smash his sterling character by actively pursuing a woman who is spoken for.

Both characters–and both actors–reside within a  mindset which firmly accepts that, if there will always be an England, it will be because people like themselves will finally do the right thing. Just what that right thing is, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out and, even if you aren’t surprised, the final scene is still likely to thrill anyone harboring a trace of romance in these days when no dates ever resonate but we simply drag endlessly and remorselessly on, toward the place where England is no more.

Which makes Hiller’s supporting-but-still-indelible presence in A Man for All Seasons--seven years after her previous filmall the more poignant in hindsight. Filmed barely twenty years later, set four hundred years earlier, she might be fifty years older.

There’s a reason they call it acting I guess.

The England that would always be is just coming into being on the screen, mid-wifed by the conflict between Henry VIII and Thomas More over the matter of Anne Boleyn (defined variously by Robert Shaw, Paul Scofield and Vanessa Redgrave, all proud products of the England that would always be and was just beginning to be no more). But while all the more famous characters are products of their time and breeding (it’s among the best cast and acted movies within the realm of human ken), it’s Hiller’s Alice More–illiterate, intemperate, unromantic, sensible, everything her earlier embodiment of the National Character was not–who knows best what’s really at stake. It’s as if she’s the only one who sees that an England built on Henry’s sand, rather than her husband’s rock, will be doomed to come a cropper in the end, even if the end will come out the other side of an Empire upon which, as the old saw had it, the sun never set, and, as a late-arriving wag riposted, the blood never dried.

The end, that is, that the Wendy Hiller who marched to bagpipes toward a curse-ridden castle and whatever fate awaited her in the final frames of I Know Where I’m Going would just live to see….and perhaps mourn.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (August, 2016 Edition)

…Not including Grease, which I wrote about here.

I’m not sure if I’m going to make this a regular feature or not, but some people liked the last one a while back so I thought I would look at my last ten every now and then and see if they made anything worth writing about.

Seemed to be the case this time. It wasn’t depressing at least. That must be worth something these days!

Anyway, here goes, again in reverse order (30 days, 10 movies):

(NOTE: “Umpteenth Viewing” means I’ve seen it more than five or six times and don’t feel like counting up exactly how many.)

August 29–Escape From Fort Bravo (1953, John Sturges, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For the strongest evocation of cavalry life in the west outside of John Ford…and for going places Ford didn’t.

For William Holden, at his hard-bitten best, becoming humanized by love and death. For Eleanor Parker being lovely and unique, yet again. For the role of William Demarest’s  lifetime, a lifetime in which he was never less than formidable and rarely less than perfect.

Also for John Sturges’ first foray as an action master. As iconography, that aspect of his career climaxed a decade later with Steve McQueen jumping a fence in The Great Escape. But, for pure mounting tension, he never bettered this. No one did. A good movie all around, especially for its rare look at Yankee/Confederate relations during (as opposed to after) the Civil War. In that, and most other respects, it’s about a thousand times better than Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee. But it’s most valuable, I think, for having what may be the best scenes ever filmed regarding the intricacies, terrors and pure hardships of actual Indian fighting.

So, at last: For its very Fordian reminder that the West was not won–or lost–easily. And that it was won–and lost–by people, not demography.

August 28–The Peacemaker (1997, Mimi Leder, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For its clear-eyed look at the pulp future we are now living in. Forget the absence of chemistry between George Clooney and his leading lady (in this case a snappy Nicole Kidman). Except for Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (filmed in that serendipitous eye-blink when she could set a match on fire by looking at it), that’s been a given and here, for once, it doesn’t really matter. Just wait for the great action sequences (there are four of them–trains, cars, helicopters, a ticking bomb) and the burning climax, where this man…

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…says “It is now.”

For that, I’ll watch it until “now” is no more…which I know won’t be in my lifetime.

August 24–Kaleidoscope (1966, Jack Smight, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Warren Beatty in a heist flick that’s almost as good as 1970’s Dollars (about which I’m sure I’ll have more to say some other time).  For an impossibly daft and gorgeous Susannah York, saying, “Oh no. You came out of nowhere in a little red sports car and no mummy and no daddy. I’d hate to find out that you were real.” For Susannah York saying  a lot of other things.

What else do you need? An ingenious and original plot? Scotland Yard mixing in? Jane Birkin trying on clothes? A crime lord who bonds with York over their shared Napoleon obsession?

Don’t worry. It’s got all that, too.

August 20–Gone With the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming (and others), Umpteenth Viewing)

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For the story of Scarlett O’Hara, which, believe it or not, is what the movie is about (I mention it because, the way the pearl-clutchers go on about all the “baggage,” you’d never know her story was worth telling). And for too many other reasons to count, the whole kit-and-caboodle deserving its own post some day.

For now, I’d just like to point out that Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett launches more assaults than Indiana Jones. I always start out promising myself I’ll keep count of how many times she punches or whips or dirt-clods or hair-pulls somebody. I always come up with some number between ten and fifteen. But, like the movie, and Leigh’s unmatchable performance, it never feels quite stable or exact.

August 13–Strangers on a Train (1951 Alfred Hitchcock, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For the two truly great scenes that open the movie, the first played between Farley Granger’s chump and Robert Walker’s psychopath, the second between Granger and Laura Elliot, playing the chump’s hard-bitten, soon-to-be ex-wife.

After that I always slog on, hoping it won’t all fall apart again. But the psycho always ends up killing the wife and that jars because, as played by Elliot, she’s the kind of girl who, in real life, would eat him for lunch and have the chump for a side. You get plenty of Hitchcockian dream-scapes after that, but these haven’t stood up as well as his best. I’ll lay aside the “logic” of trying to win a life-or-death tennis match in a certain amount of time (which can never be guaranteed) instead of losing it in a certain amount of time (which can). But I keep hoping The Master at least won’t have a policeman shoot at a carousel full of children this time around and kill the operator by mistake, with no discernible consequence except putting all the kiddies in mortal danger.

Alas, it seems to happen every single time.

I’ve usually enjoyed this, and I’m sure it’s some sort of formal “masterpiece.” But I have to confess that, each time around, it’s putting me to sleep a little earlier.

August 7–White House Down, 2013, Roland Emmerich, First Viewing)

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Caught it on TV and stuck with it to remind myself how worthless this world we made can be. I’m willing to bet Hollywood didn’t make a single major studio movie between 1930 and 1960 that was this bad. Today, I take its crappiness for granted and give it six out of ten stars or whatever. I mean, it didn’t make me kill myself. That’s something, right?

August 6–The Naked Prey (1965, Cornel Wilde, Third Viewing)

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For the glorious African landscapes, never bettered, even in documentary footage. For its stark reminder that civilization is a very thin veneer. For its refusal to accept that barbarism is civilization’s antidote and its simultaneous admission (in its slave-raiding scenes) that “civilization” is not always easy to define.

For Ken Gampu’s watchful, burning eyes.

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For the uninitiated, the story involves Director/Star Wilde transferring John Colter’s famous run from the Blackfeet to a white hunter’s escape from the Zulus. Not recommended for anyone sensitive to realistic scenes of animal slaughter, human torture or Man’s grasping nature.

August 6–Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest, Fifth Viewing)

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

For its reminder that I like De Niro better as a comic actor than a dramatic one (and I’ll grant that he’s a fine dramatic actor even if I don’t think he’s quite what others make of him…and I’ll also grant that I’m not one who thinks comedy is harder…but he’s still a truly great comedian). For making me laugh harder than any other movie made in the eighties….or anything else that happened in the eighties. For Dennis Farina’s best role. And for its one scene of heartbreak, played with De Niro’s estranged daughter, where the weight of all those Scorcese pictures lands gently, gently, without smothering the scene or letting anyone off the hook.

August 3–The Major and the Minor (1942, Billy Wilder, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Ginger…at all ages. I especially like the way she swallows a cigarette.

Oh, and for Billy Wilder’s first Hollywood directorial effort. She got it for him. He thanked her the usual way. He didn’t.

August 2–5th Avenue Girl (193, Gregory La Cava, Third Viewing)

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This one wobbles a bit.

Still: For Ginger. For the Straight-From-the-Depression lessons in the ethics and ethos of New Deal capitalism.

And for: “Oh why don’t you mind your own business!”

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 9: “(He’s) The Great Imposter”)

“(He’s) The Great Imposter”
1961
Artist: The Fleetwoods
Writers: Sharon Sheeley, Jackie DeShannon

GREATIMPOSTER1

(NOTE: This might also be titled “More Scenes from an Actual Boyhood,” in keeping with my series of occasional push-backs against the incipient nihilism that, for me, defined the movie Boyhood. It now surpasses my Patty Loveless piece as the longest I’ve written for this blog…never say I didn’t warn you!)

In the spring of 1974, in the space of a single school day, I got my friend Bryan elected president of our middle school and hooked him up with the hottest girl in seventh grade.

The last words he said to me as we were being separated by the kids crowding toward the buses were:

“I’m gonna kill you!”

Coincidentally or not, I left both politics and matchmaking the following day, never to return.

Best to quit while you’re ahead.

Oddly enough, that wasn’t even close to the strangest thing that happened to me that day.

And therein lies a tale.

*   *   *   *

Sometimes the way you know somebody is complicated.

The way I knew Bryan was this:

When I was a very small child–four, five, six, like that–my dad, between his careers as a carny and a preacher, was a paint contractor. Somewhere around that time, he landed an ongoing arrangement with a local architect. That’s a nice deal for a contractor. Plenty of guaranteed work, especially in those halcyon days when the NASA-fueled Space Coast was up and coming (this was the early to mid-sixties) and the Old Florida was being consumed by the New Florida at gerbil-wheel speed and with about as much sense of proportion or higher purpose.

Anywhere from Titusville to Cocoa Beach to Melbourne, condos and housing developments were sprouting like spring violets, only faster and year round.

Hence, for a paint contractor, a prominent architect’s contract was nothing to sneeze at.

The architect had a son, Craig. He and I were the same age and my mother was already in poor enough health to make looking after me a trial, so it was deemed a good thing all around for me to spend a lot of the days when my dad was working for Craig’s dad at their very cool and very large River Road house. We got tight, Craig and me. Our families even got tight, as much as could happen across white collar/blue collar lines in that time and place, given that Craig’s mom was something of a social climber. And, for a few years, so it went.

Then, one day, when I was maybe six, my dad came home and told my mom that Craig’s dad had asked him to paint up some condemned houses he had somehow acquired because that way he could get a buddy of his at the county inspection office to give them a wink-and-nod clean bill of health and sell them at a profit as opposed to bearing the expense of knocking them down. This was probably business as usual for that time and place, but my dad was troubled enough to run the proposition by my mom.

As anyone who ever knew my mother could have told anyone who didn’t: That was the end of that.

No more contracts from Craig’s dad. No more family visits. No more playing with Craig.

So the years went by.

I probably thought about Craig once in a while, but I had lots of friends in those days, and he went to private school (expensive!) and I went to public school (free!), so I got over it soon enough. First grade came and went and then so did second and third and fourth grades.

Then fifth grade came along and I showed up for the first day of school and went out to P.E. for second period and looked across the old school yard and, lo and behold, there was somebody who looked an awful lot like…Craig?

So I said: “Craig?”

And he said: “John?”

And, as kids will sometimes do, we picked up right where we left off.

This wasn’t necessarily a given. Kids can change a lot between 5/6 and 10/11. And who knew what he had been told about what went down between our fathers?

Plus, he was a whiz kid. And a natural leader.

I was just a guy. But I did get good grades. I had my mom to thank for that. She couldn’t keep up with me when I started running around so she had me sit still and taught me to read and write when I was three. By the time I got to school, I was able to give a stronger impression of book smarts than just about anyone who lived in my neighborhood and, in those days, that was how they separated you at school. By test scores and grades and such–and, not surprisingly, those qualities broke down pretty closely along neighborhood lines.

The upshot of this was that I spent the first four grades hanging with the NASA kids at school. NASA kids came from NASA parents, or, more specifically, NASA dads–a type known everywhere, but especially highly concentrated in this time and place of whence I speak–and they were under what you might call a very particular kind of pressure.

You didn’t hear too much about Type A personalities back then, but, on the proving grounds lying between Titusville and Cocoa Beach and Melbourne, we were familiar with the concept.

I mean, if you heard about an umpire and a Little League manager getting into a heated discussion over whether the manager’s ten-year-old bat boy was removing the bats from the field of play with sufficient speed and efficiency, and if the umpire was said to have then picked up one of the offending bats and heaved it over the nearest fence (reports varied as to whether he had taken any real care to make sure it didn’t hit anybody) and the umpire and the manager were said to have soon afterwards ended up throwing punches and rolling on the ground, you pretty much just shrugged and said, “Yep, NASA dads.” (My first-year Little League manager and my second-year Little League coach, both gone on to higher things by then, pulled this off in my third year. The Bad News Bears had nothing on us!)

If some girl in our fourth-grade class went home with an A+ on an Earth Science exam and her parents showed up at the principal’s office the next day demanding to know how the school that was being supported with their tax dollars could possibly give an A+ on an Earth Science test to a little girl who couldn’t answer any of the questions they had naturally put to her in order to see how much she was really learning, you pretty much just went, “Yep, NASA parents.”

If some “visiting” coach showed up at your Babe Ruth field and made you (and by “you” I mean me) practice turning the double-play seventy-two times in a row while all the kids he didn’t like stood around and watched….well, you just had to keep reminding yourself we didn’t beat the Russkies to the moon by sending a bunch of shirkers across the Indian River every morning!

I guess what I’m saying is, we thought the NASA kids were driven. Very tough stuff. Very high end.

And they were.

But it wasn’t until the private school kids showed up that we understood what max-driven really meant.

The reason the private school kids suddenly showed up at our school was that their parents all had contracts with the private school (grades one through six) when the private school found itself in budgetary straights. This caused the private school to renege (or so all the parents said) on the contracts, which had stipulated that if you had two kids in the school at the same time, the second one was half-price (or maybe it was free–the memory hazes) until the first one graduated. When the school changed the contracts, the parents, who were mostly doctors and lawyers and, yes, architects, decided if they all stuck together they could get the school to back down. They stuck together, alright, and those budgetary restraints must have been real, because the school did not back down. That was how Craig and David and A.J. and Julie and Lea and Bryan and all their little brothers and sisters ended up in public school at the start of the fifth grade.

And, because I had been friends with Craig when we were four-five-six, I was suddenly more or less friends with most of them, too.

Including, of course, Bryan, who I would one day do such great things for….

*    *   *   *

In those days–four, five, six right on up to eleven, twelve, thirteen–I belonged everywhere.

I belonged in the neighborhood. I belonged at church. I belonged at the ball park. I belonged at my friend Paul’s house. I belonged in whatever trailer park was in walking distance if it had a kid my age who liked to shoot hoops or throw any sort of ball around. I belonged with the NASA kids and I even belonged, finally, with the private school kids.

I pretty much took all that for granted in those days, though I realize in retrospect it wasn’t something just anybody could have pulled off. I was counted shy and that actually worked to my advantage, because I was one of those who was counted shy, “until you get to know him.”

Which everybody did, eventually, because if you stuck me anywhere in the matrix of neighborhood-school-church-ball park, there was enough overlap for me to just about always have an in by virtue of knowing somebody from another part of the matrix. The thing with Craig was mere serendipity, but the rest was more or less inevitable, given who I was and where I was.

So I can’t say “belonging” with the private school kids felt other than natural, even if it was a little weird sometimes to be the only one at the lunch table who had taken a hundred and six on an extra credit test when a hundred and ten was available. (Even if I only heard, “So, uh, what’s the problem there Ross?” twice a year, it was, all of a sudden, two more times than my previously laid-back self wanted to hear it.)

If anything nonplussed me, it was the constant maintenance of different veneers, depending on circumstances, while holding on to my basic personality. I managed it well enough, probably because I didn’t actually know any other way to be. Of course, there were awkward moments here and there, but I didn’t really think about it unless I had to. (The toughest instance of being forced up against it–of “having to”–came in junior high, when it became increasingly evident to the others in the private school gang that I wasn’t being invited to my friend Craig’s cool house on the River Road for various social events that tended to gather there because even the other private school kids didn’t have, you know, a cool house on the River Road. I’m sure some of them had swimming pools–I’m betting none had a dock. Finally, one day, somebody–my friend Bryan if memory serves–ended a long discussion at the Monday lunch table of how much trouble they had finding a sixth to make an even number for a bowling party that had launched from Craig’s cool house the Saturday before by suddenly giving me a very quizzical look and asking “Why didn’t we just call John?” Seeing that my friend Craig looked as though he wanted to dig a hole in the lunch room tile and crawl in, I quickly conjured a white lie about not being able to come anyway because I was doing such and such that day, implying that Craig knew all about this beforehand. We never talked about it, then or later, but a few months later my friend Craig signed my yearbook, “To my life-long friend” and underlined “life-long,” so, if I never knew what he had been told about what happened between our dads, I knew, and always had, the only thing worth knowing. He didn’t care any more than I did. When it came to belonging everywhere, I’d have to say the good generally far outweighed the bad.)

*   *   *   *

I bring up this history to give you some idea of what my world was like when my friend Bryan showed up in our afternoon typing class on the first day of the second semester of the eighth grade and started mooning over “the new girl in chorus.”

Even being the one who belonged everywhere–the one who could move easily between worlds, who could needle and be needled mercilessly without dropping the usual stitch or tramping on the usual nerve-endings, the only one, really, in any of my worlds, who truly got along with everybody in any given world, let alone betwixt and between–I still couldn’t see where this one was headed.

Since the time I had first known Bryan in the fifth grade, I’m pretty sure he had never been without a girlfriend for more than a few weeks at a stretch. Even if it wasn’t really that way, it seemed that way. Bryan always had a girlfriend and she was never anybody we went to school with. It wasn’t something he bragged about, or even talked about much. You just always knew he had one. (Okay, he tended to talk about not having a girlfriend when he didn’t have one–he just didn’t talk about the ones he actually had when he had them. With my friend Bryan, having a girlfriend was actually normal. Not having a girlfriend seemed as weird to him as having one would have seemed to the rest of us.) When he broke up with his latest, just before Christmas break in the eighth grade, our friend Bob, who we had met in the seventh grade (different elementary schools, though I had played baseball against him in Little League), wanted to bet me–or somebody–that Bryan would have a girlfriend by the time we came back to school.

The rest of us had known Bryan a lot longer than Bob had. No takers.

So it was wild enough that Bryan had even arrived at the beginning of the second semester of the eighth grade bereft of a current squeeze. But to hear him talking that way about a girl who actually went to our school and apparently had just moved there was almost surreal. Naturally, we wanted details!

And we got them. You know, at least to the limits the average eighth grade vocabulary can accommodate such.

We got that she had long brown hair and gorgeous brown eyes and a slammin’ body and, was, you know, just generally a fox (the word we used then, which these days has been replaced in the common parlance by words like “hottie”–yet more proof, if anyone needs it, that God has turned His back).

Hey, what else did we need to know?

Nothing, that’s what.

Well, maybe find out her name. Just to help out our friend Bryan of course.

So it did put us on a mission. Any girl who had impressed Bryan at all, let alone so profoundly, was definitely worth going on a mission for.

It turned out, though, that discovering her name was no easy task.

Eighth Grade Chorus was too big for roll call (the teacher checked a seating chart), so that was no good. None of the girls Bryan was tight with (not a few, though they were mostly uptown types) seemed to know who she was or where she had come from. And, of course, he didn’t want to lose any all-important cool points–with us, with himself, but especially with the fox herself–by being seen to act too eager.

So, for a time, we were stuck.

Certainly none of the rest of us had noticed any mysterious brown-eyed foxes walking the halls or showing up in our other classes. We had a bona fide mystery on our hands.

The mystery went on for a while. I’m gonna say until some time in February at the very least. Day after day, Bryan would walk through the door of the typing room. Day after day, we would eagerly crane our necks, hoping for a sign. Day after day, we would be met with a glum shake of the head. No further intelligence. Day after day, then, of desultorily working our way through our typing assignments before convening to the corner where the fast-typing kids could gather and converse if they kept it quiet while the slow-typing kids finished their assignments. Day after day of Bryan assuring us, in his world-wise manner, that this girl “just has something!”

What can I say? We were stuck in the Florida public school system, being experimented on with classes like “Worthy Use of Leisure Time” (I only wish I was making that up). We needed something to keep us going. Conjecturing about the brown-eyed goddess in Bryan’s Eighth Grade Chorus class beat anything else available.

And then, one day, patience was rewarded! The glum shake of the head was replaced by a can-do smile and a firm nod. There was palpable excitement. Some sort of breakthrough had clearly occurred. We raced through our assignments (well, the boys anyway…Lea, Cheryl, Nanette? Not so interested.) Whoever got there first, Bryan made him wait. David, Bob, me, we all had to be there for the “announcement.”

“I found out her name!” he said when we were at last fully assembled. Big news. How did he find out? “Well, she was walking out the door after class and somebody called her name and she turned around and answered so I know it was her!”

And….

“Her name is Michelle!”

And then I got a very funny feeling. What you might call rather conflicted emotions.

Things I very much wanted to be true and things I wished very much were not true all washed together in a roiling sea. When it came to dealing with the absurdities of life on the eighth grade level, I suddenly found I was not as far above the average as I liked to think.

Nonetheless, if what I thought was true was really true, I knew I had to come clean.

Maybe if my friend Bryan had walked into typing class back in the first week of January and thrown this name at me I could have teased him a bit, led him on. But with all this water under the bridge, I knew I had responsibilities. Sometimes belonging everywhere carries some burdens along with the rewards.

First, though, I had to be sure of my information.

So I said:

“Uh, what was she wearing?”

Very slight incredulous pause…Then:

“You know her?…You know her!”

Boy, my friend Bryan. He was quick on the uptake.

“Well, maybe…Uh, what was she wearing?”

Now, I don’t remember anymore what she was wearing, my friend Michelle, but whatever information that my friend Bryan relayed on the subject, it did indeed fit the description of what she was wearing when she got on the bus that morning.

So I said: “Bryan, there’s good news and there’s bad news….”

*    *    *    *

Sometimes, the way you know somebody is extremely complicated.

The way I knew my friend Michelle was this:

When I was maybe ten (or could it have been nine? surely it wasn’t eight–the memory hazes), Michelle’s mother brought her five kids to our church. Her mother had a problem of sorts, the fact of which, not the specifics, was somehow conveyed to my mother, as all problems in our church or neighborhood tended to be if they involved needing a spiritual rock to lean on.

I gathered pretty quickly that part of the problem might have involved food and clothing.

Shelter they had, if squeezing a woman and five kids (oldest something like twelve, youngest something like four) into a seventeen-foot Airstream parked fifty feet from US 1 could be called shelter. “Money problems” was probably the fairest way to put it. I also gathered my mother might have helped them with this in some way or other. It’s possible that, if she did, they themselves never knew it as that was how she preferred to operate. It’s also possible they knew it very well. Certainly from that very first day they would hear no word against her.

Beyond that, they could sing. My mother was a choir director (adult all the time, youth when nobody else could be found, which was most of the time) and she loved anybody who wanted to sing–who didn’t need to be coaxed and cajoled.

Michelle’s family liked to sing and they were very good at it. They were all very good at it and they all liked it, but Michelle was a good bit better than very good and liked it best of all. So, once it was pretty well established that they were going to be around for a while, there was a lot of rehearsing going on at my house. Solos, duets, trios, mother-daughter, sister-sister, Michelle’s mother and my mother, Michelle and her mother, Michelle and my mother and so on and so forth.

A few years down the road, of course, that singing talent got Michelle promoted from the seventh grade chorus to the eighth grade chorus over Christmas break.

It turned out the brown-eyed goddess was Michelle from the neighborhood, whose older brother had gotten along with Bryan like a cat and a dog back in the fifth grade before he got moved up a grade.

Had to tell Bryan that part right off. No hiding it.

Then I had to make some decisions about what else to tell him.

I figured it was safe to share that the goddess was actually a month older than me, though a grade behind. (“She’s not stupid is she?” Bryan asked somewhat incredulously. I was able to answer in the negative. Honor roll in fact. Probably better grades than him or me. “She got kept back a grade because her family moved around a lot,” I said and left it at that. If Bryan got the idea her family was military or NASA or some other standard narrative of constant moving about with which we were all too familiar, then it was an idea I let him keep. I had my friend Michelle to consider at this point and I realized, maybe for the first time, that I wasn’t the only one who had to work at belonging everywhere.)

There were some things I didn’t share, then.

If you were playing touch football and she got by you there was no sense chasing her. She was gone.

Figured he could find that out for himself.

Her family still lived in a trailer park, though in a much nicer one (her mom had remarried). Nothing anybody needed to know there. Bryan was a private school kid but I didn’t think he cared. If he did, I didn’t want to find out (turned out he didn’t, by the way).

Oh, and one other thing.

About a year after they had moved in up the road from us and I started going up there in the afternoons to play those football games with her and her brothers and whoever else was interested on any given day–about a year after they took me in as one of their own, a degree of trust they extended to me and my mother and, so far as I could tell, no one else–Michelle’s mother came to my house one afternoon when I wasn’t there and told my mother what the real problem (the problem behind all the “money problems”) was, after which, Michelle’s brothers were free to come play at my house, but I wasn’t to go to the trailer park again until further notice.

Naturally, I asked why, and was told two things: First, I didn’t need to know just now and my mother would tell me when she could. Second, I wasn’t to tell anyone else about this new arrangement.

It all had to do with their father showing up a week or two before.

I had seen him a couple of times already, before “the visit” from Michelle’s mom. And he was a sight to behold.

Michelle’s mother was probably in her late thirties–a tall, dark, handsome woman with five gonna-be tall, dark and handsome kids (including, of course, one goddess-in-the-making). Her father looked to be about five feet four and easily sixty, though, of course, he could have been a good deal younger. No telling what chain-smoking and stress will do to the complexion and, as it turned out, he had some real good reasons for experiencing stress. He had extremely watery, pale blue eyes which were greatly magnified by coke-bottle lenses. His hands were palsied and his breathing had an even worse version of my mother’s occasional death rattle in it, except his were not occasional. He seemed like a decent stick to me, the time or two I saw him. And he clearly loved his kids to death and they clearly loved him no less.

The story I got eventually–not right away, but long before I was in a position to decide just what my friend Bryan strictly needed to be told about my friend Michelle–was that he was a top counterfeit man (or maybe accountant) for some crime syndicate.

The memory hazes and the original information wasn’t exactly crystal clear but it was something along those lines.

Evidently, he was wanted by the FBI or the Treasury Department or the Secret Service. One of those. Anyway, he had come above ground because he was dying of emphysema or lung cancer–one of those–and he wanted to see his kids one last time.

Michelle’s mother had warned my mother to keep me away because she didn’t want to risk my being caught up in the inevitable visit from the Federales, which, not too long after, did indeed come to pass, conducted by whatever service was in charge of catching him (Treasury, if memory serves).

He died not long after. Whether in prison or at home on bail is, you guessed it, hazed by memory and, I now find, beyond the powers of Google to recover. After which Michelle’s mother got on with her life.

How much of the story I got was really true?

Who knows.

Some of it certainly. Maybe a good bit of it. Probably not all of it (how rarely, after all, at ten or any other age, do we get the whole truth and nothing but the truth). But, true or not–whole or not–it was what I knew at the time and it was one more thing I figured my friend Bryan did not need to know several years down the line.

Not from me anyway.

After that, back there in the typing room, it was all logistics.

Mainly: Did I just know her, or did I really know her?

“Trust me,” I said. “I really know her. That’s the good news.”

“Okay,” Bryan said. “So what’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is she has a boyfriend.”

Boy, nothing crushes the old can-do spirit like the specter of the hottest girl in the seventh grade turning out to be tight with one of your best friends and then discovering, just a breath or two later, that she might be tied down for life, because, as we all know, those junior high romances are forever!

Well, we all do know that, in junior high, they feel like forever, at least when they involve the object of your particular desire.

We had come a long way down this road. I felt the need to offer Bryan some hope, and to make it sound like real hope, springing forth from a fount of hard-earned wisdom, even though it was really just a hunch.

I was in the eighth grade myself after all.

So when Bryan said, inevitably:

“So who is he?” which, of course, in the eighth grade and beyond, is always code for “Who is he and what can we do about him?” I was able to say, “Well, he’s this kid named Drew. He lives down in Melbourne and I don’t think you have much to worry about because he’s a jerk,”–at which point my friend Bryan perked up a bit, as if to say more, more and I was able to add, confidentially–“Look, I know Michelle. She’s been going with him for a couple of months and the only reason she hasn’t seen through him yet is because she only sees him on Sundays at church and then she goes over to his house for dinner or something. He’s one of those who puts on a show for the grownups and the girls.”

“So you think there’s a chance she’ll break up with him?” Bryan said, very cheery all of a sudden.

“Yeah,” I said. And I suddenly realized that I actually believed it. I did know Drew and I certainly knew Michelle and there was no way it was going to last. “Give it another month, maybe two.”

“And you’ll let me know right?”

Naturally, at this point, I looked around the table and kept my expression dead pan.

“No, Bryan,” I said. “I’ll do everything in my power to keep you from ever finding out.”

We had all been under a lot of strain. Highly irrational, eighth grade-style hilarity ensued.

*    *   *   *

So March came around and Michelle, for reasons she certainly did not discuss with me (I was very careful not to ask, she was equally careful not to tell), broke up with Drew the Jerk.

And then things got complicated.

Maybe Bryan got cold feet. Sure there had been lots of girlfriends but this was the brown-eyed goddess! This, it seemed, was different. None of that just having me put in a good word for him. No simple junior high wing-man stuff. Too risky. There had to be some grander, utterly foolproof plan. Failure was not an option!

Whether or not this in any way affected his decision to run for president of the school-wide, very-big-deal, mock political convention our social studies’ teachers had latched onto as a proper means of teaching us about the true value of the political process in the Age of Watergate, I have no idea. I mean, I assured him that Michelle was not the sort to be impressed by such things–and he actually liked hearing that even if he may not have quite believed it–but I’m not really sure I got through to him.

Besides, he and I had a track record of success, politically speaking.

As I mentioned above, we had gotten tight in the fifth grade. In the sixth grade he ran, successfully, for president of the student council (which was the closest thing to being president of our elementary school) and I had been his campaign manager.

The fact that I belonged everywhere had come in very handy in the sixth grade. I think Bryan had an idea it would come in very handy again.

There’s no need to go into too much detail on this front, because, of course, this post is really about a song by the Fleetwoods called “(He’s) The Great Imposter.”

Suffice it to say that my belonging everywhere mattered a lot less in our middle school that was fed by five elementary schools, three of which didn’t come anywhere near overlapping with any of my other worlds, than it had in our own elementary school. What did matter, as it turned out, was that Bryan was a popular kid and I just happened to discover a hidden gift for being a hellacious political operative, a rare combination of practical math whiz and go-for-the-jugular, bare-knuckled dirty tricks groin-puncher who, once I had the math nailed down as the first ballot droned on (and it became evident that Bryan was going to come second to another popular kid from a bigger elementary school, but a runoff would be required for a majority), started hanging around the Teachers-In-Charge (the day’s equivalent of back room political bosses) over by The Big Table (our version of the proverbial smoke-filled room).

The big bosses were very concerned that we wouldn’t have a winner before the day was out.

This was a rather big deal, since the school board had only approved letting everyone out of class for the entire day on the condition that the day ended precisely on time. Given that the local paper had the weekend section reserved for us and local television and radio were there to, you know, announce and interview the winner, let’s just say the specter of school-wide embarrassment loomed. Not to mention the end of all similar future projects!

We had a Secretary and a Treasurer and a Veep.

It wasn’t going to look too good if the victory picture had a blank spot where the Prez was supposed to be.

Knowing this much, and spying the enemy’s (the civilized notion of “opponent” was long gone by then) campaign manager wandering about trying to gather up stray votes in states where his candidate already had large, solid majorities, I spent my energies getting the bosses to enact a small rules change. Whoever got the majority in a particular state got the entire state. Block voting would replace proportional voting. Probably not exactly the way the Bull Moosers (for whom our convention had been named) had done it, but the Bull Moosers never had to be on the bus home by 3:30 either!

It would definitely make things go faster. They could announce the change between the first and second ballots.

Good. Because, by then, I would have the swing states who had voted for the candidates who wouldn’t be on the second ballot–and the states Bryan had won only by a vote or two–all wrapped up.

It took some legwork. I started following the bosses–er, teachers–who were spreading out to inform the various state chairmen of the impending rule change, suggested by me, and I kept on following them until I had the headcount I needed.

Then I went back to the head boss (Mrs. C, this is such an unfair description of you!) and said, oh yeah, one other thing.

And what was that?

Well, if we wanted to be sure we were done on time, we better also make it against the rules for anybody who had already committed to either candidate to change their mind.

Fair enough. Made sense.

Votes promised were votes delivered!

As the results of the first ballot were being announced I did a quick recount of what the second ballot was going to look like.

Various party chairpersons had already promised me enough votes to win.

The people had spoken!

After that, I repaired to the back of the gym, put my feet up and smiled beatifically whilst my friend Bryan, stuck on the podium with no idea whatsoever as to what I had been up to, gave me various incarnations of the evil eye.

 *    *    *    *

And that is where my friend Michelle came looking for me about an hour later as my candidate, aka her not-quite-secret admirer, rolled toward victory.

“So,” she said, after she had sat next to me for a few minutes and we asked about each other’s moms and so forth. “It looks like your candidate’s gonna win.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”

Then she congratulated me or something along those lines and I accepted it with a weary smile.

I didn’t brag about my shenanigans.

I had a pretty good idea she wasn’t there to talk about me.

“I hear he’s interested in me,” she said pretty soon after that.

At which point I was able to smile again and say, yes, he was very definitely interested in her.

“Does he really want to go steady?”

Easier and easier.

“Yep, he really does.”

“Well,” she said, “what kind of guy is he?”

I liked that she trusted me.

It was only a long time after that I realized this trust might be an especially valuable thing, given what I knew and what she knew that I knew and given that we were each, in our own way, tasked with belonging everywhere.

Whatever I failed to realize at the time, though, it made me genuinely happy to tell her that my friend Bryan was indeed a good guy. And to mean it. And to know that she knew I meant it. That I, who had teased her relentlessly on a thousand other days, wouldn’t put her on about a thing like that.

I figured that was it. Last hurdle cleared. She had finally gotten to know Bryan a little bit in chorus (or to put it more accurately, Bryan had finally gotten to know her). Just the week before, he had told me that he brought my name up for the first time and mentioned that he was a friend of mine and that this little revelation had gone over very well. It all had the feeling of tumblers clicking into place. It probably wasn’t the way I would have gone about it, but I figured–correctly no doubt–that my friend Bryan knew a lot more about this romance stuff than I did.

So I was a little surprised to find that there was one more hurdle.

Right out of the blue, she said:

“He’s not anything like Drew is he?”

I mean, of course I assured her he was nothing like Drew. And, of course this was true.

And, of course, this turned out to be the thing she really wanted to know–and that she really wanted to hear from me.

By which I mean from me, specifically.

As in: I wouldn’t have expected it from anybody else regarding the whole Drew thing, but you should have warned me.

Maybe that wasn’t exactly the way she meant it, tone-wise, but that was the way I heard it.

Which was odd, because, to tell the truth, there was no way for her to know that I knew anything at all about Drew. I knew Bryan didn’t tell her, because there was no way he was on that kind of footing with her yet. (Given that the footing in question was the kind where you feel comfortable enough to start talking about your junior high crush’s old boyfriends, he probably never would be, if he knew what was good for him. But, in any case, he certainly wasn’t there yet.)

I knew I hadn’t told her.

I knew Bryan didn’t know anybody in the worlds Michelle and I shared–the neighborhood, our church–well enough to have leaked anything accidentally.

I certainly hadn’t told anyone else who could have told her.

And God knows she had never seen me hanging around with Drew himself because, well, that had never happened.

And yet, somehow, she knew that I knew.

About Drew.

You know: The Great Imposter.

*    *    *   *

Sometimes, the way you get to know somebody is by glancing off each other at the slightest of tangential angles, barely leaving a mark.

The way I got to know Drew was this:

Our church had a revival.

Not in name only. Those happen all the time. At least once a year in any self-respecting Southern Baptist congregation.

Usually, a “revival” is a ritual. A chance to hear a different preacher than your own for a few days. Maybe take up an extra offering or two. Put a few conversions and rededications on the books. Possibly even add a new member or two.

This particular revival was different. It was the only revival I was ever part of that was actually a revival–the Holy Ghost sweeping in, allowing no one present to indulge the safety of denial.

Ours was a small church, pulling maybe sixty people a week at the time.

Ours was also a wounded church. Deeply wounded.

We had been founded as a mission by a larger church in the early sixties (a church whose pastor through most of my childhood, eventually to be referred to by my mother as simply, “that puke,” would one day be a leader in the unholy movement that bound evangelical bodies to the Republican Party, an unmitigated disaster for both sides, but that’s another story for another day). After we became a full-fledged congregation, officially part of the Southern Baptist Convention, with my mother (though not my father, who converted only years later) as a charter member, the church grew for a while and then it split.

Then it reformed and began growing again. And it grew for a while and then it split.

Then it reformed and…well, you know what happened next.

Only the last time it happened, this most recent time, had only been a couple of years earlier and it had been the most painful of all, in part because we thought we had been experiencing a genuine revival then!

We had fallen for the oldest trick in the book–a charismatic preacher with something to gain!

That part might have been easy to guess. But the part we didn’t get right was that we thought we were the gain.

It turned out he had other fish to fry, but in order to fry them properly he had to hook them first.

So hook us he did.

He was Brother Herbert (actually Dr. Herbert but, for some reason “Doctor” always went with a last name–I never once heard anyone call him Dr. Herbert–and I’m not going with last names here because this thing called the internet has a long reach and, even though I know for a fact he’s now gone to his reward, I don’t want to dignify his memory with honorifics) and, like I said, he was charismatic.

Charismatic enough to double the membership (yet again). Charismatic enough to lead my father back to Christ. Charismatic enough to lead me to Christ. Charismatic enough to bring Michelle’s whole family into the fold. Charismatic enough to baptize us all.

Charismatic enough to lead my father into the ministry and get him ordained by our deacons.

Very, very charismatic.

Savvy, too.

He waited until he thought he had a solid majority before he made his big move, which was to convince the congregation to change our affiliation from Southern to Independent Baptist.

He probably did have a majority too. A solid majority.

He only had one problem.

He didn’t have my mother.

And, if he didn’t have my mother, then he didn’t quite have all those women like Michelle’s mother who had, one time or another, needed a rock to lean on.

And that meant he didn’t have a majority after all. Any majority.

Which meant we weren’t going to vote to change our affiliation.

Southern Baptist we would remain.

And that meant Brother Herbert was going to be moving on and taking enough of us with him that we were cut deeper than we had ever been cut before.

The cut was deeper in part because of the sheer numbers–maybe forty people, which is a lot when you start with a hundred.

But it was deeper than that because now, unlike those other times, there was a cult of personality involved. Now, people who had been the closest of friends weren’t merely going to separate churches. They weren’t speaking to each other.

A few of them weren’t even speaking to my mother.

Which meant that, for some of them, there was no more rock to lean on the next time the wind blew.

And the wind will blow.

Life goes on.

Charismatic preachers look around one day and conclude that their work is done. The new flock that broke away from the old flock isn’t meeting in the fire hall any more. They’ve got their own auditorium now and their new affiliation is secure and–as part of a head count designed strictly to increase a flock–they’ve probably reached their limit.

All of which means it’s time to move on and be charismatic somewhere else.

So Brother Herbert left the flock he tore away from us and went somewhere else to carry on with his mission to grow the Independents and the new Independents were left with a new church that was fighting even harder to survive than our church was.

And the wind blew harder. It blew into all their lives and all of ours, but it blew hardest into the life of my mother’s friend Doris, who had left to be part of the new flock and hadn’t spoken to my mother for two years until she called on the phone one day and my mother answered and Doris was crying.

She was crying from pain–because her husband had just been diagnosed with cancer. And she was crying from shame–because she had followed a charismatic preacher to another church and fallen so far under his spell that she had stopped speaking to my mother.

And she was crying from desperation–because she was going to have to live in Orlando while her husband was getting treatments and she had a friend who could take in one of her boys who was in junior high, but no one who could take in the other because he was still in elementary school and had to maintain residence in our school district to avoid being transferred to another school at mid-year, only to be transferred back when her husband either recovered or didn’t.

Above all that, she was crying because she had poured her heart out to someone else who hadn’t spoken to my mother for a couple of years and they had said “Call Barbara,” meaning my can-hardly-breathe, hardly-stand, hardly-see mother, and Doris couldn’t bear the thought of it, because the one thing worse than not having the rock to lean on anymore would have been to crawl back to the rock and find that it was no longer there.

She was crying, then, because she couldn’t possibly see how my mother could take her back.

The only thing my mother couldn’t understand was how Doris could have ever thought she wouldn’t.

“But Doris,” my mother said, when it was clear Doris couldn’t quite believe there was nothing to forgive. “I never left you. I never would.”

When she realized that my mother truly didn’t understand what the fuss was, Doris started crying so hard she had to hang up and call back later.

The upshot was that Doris’ son, Jimmy, several years younger than me, came to live with us for a couple of months.

And from there, from my mother insisting there was nothing to forgive, the healing began.

People began speaking to each other once more, calling each other on the phone, asking for personal forgiveness and the Lord’s. There were shared services.

But there were still two churches. Two buildings. Two congregations.

The wound was too deep to overcome that.

So when Brother Dan–so charismatic he made Brother Herbert seem like a dead jellyfish washed up on one of our beaches–came up from Big City Baptist (I’m being coy, because I’m not naming names, but let’s just say it wasn’t very “big”–or even “city”–except in comparison to us), to preach that year’s revival at our church, we were maybe a little more prepared than usual for that once in a generation arrival of the real thing–the moment when the air comes truly alive.

Whether we were extra well prepared or not, we certainly knew one thing. The Spirit was upon us like never before. And, even when you’ve been fooled before, when it really happens, it is not mistakable for anything else.

Brother Dan preached up a storm and what he preached we were ready–desperate–to hear.

It’s probably safe to say he was of fundamentalist stock, which was a bit unusual for us (though hardly unheard of). He laid down the law, kept it straight and simple, and people flocked forward.

Then they told their friends and family and the friends and the families came in droves and they flocked forward, too. There were conversions and rededications  and new memberships by the score.

The first dreary, ritualistic night Brother Dan took to the pulpit, in the Summer of ‘73 (or thereabouts–the memory hazes), we were pulling fifty of our own (though he brought at least that many more with him.)

Within a week we were breaking a hundred and within a few months we were pushing past two hundred, setting attendance records right and left.

And we had a new sister church in Big City Baptist. A new congregation to meet with, pray with, congregate with, fellowship with and raise our consciousness with.

One of the ways we Baptists like to raise consciousness is by prayer retreats and pretty soon we had one. Our congregation (all ages) and Big City Baptist’s (all ages) retreated to a place called Lake Yale for a weekend of reflection.

At Lake Yale, the grown-ups had their own cabins and the kids had theirs.

The kids had theirs divided by age groups.

And, of course, gender.

That wasn’t exactly where I met Drew. I’d seen him around in all the group-mixing between his church and mine.

But that was where I got to know him. Just a little.

Just enough to know I didn’t need to know him any better.

It wasn’t any big deal really. Drew was a classic say-anything, do-anything, live wire kind of natural leader (a lot like my my friend Craig in that he was a natural, but completely different in that he was also looking for the job, as opposed to having it fall to him in the course of human events). Within the 12–14 age boys’ group at Big City Baptist he was the King, the straw that stirred the drink.

Within our group of boys the same age, we didn’t have a King, or a straw, or a natural leader. We probably all knew each other a little too well for any of that.

At least that’s what I thought.

Drew seemed to think otherwise. Because when he had his Big Idea, there in the boys cabin at Lake Yale, it seemed more than usually important that I, of all people, go along with it.

Or else that my own boys, the boys I had known my whole life, turn on me.

One of those.

Natural leaders who look for the job instead of having it just fall to them are kind of like that. They don’t much care for the idea that somebody–anybody–is going their own way, unless maybe it’s them, in some carefully arranged snit designed to test the Court’s loyalty and, ultimately, draw it closer around.

It was all supremely ridiculous, of course.

And supremely serious.

Another of boyhood’s inevitable tests.

Drew’s Big Idea, which I didn’t so much resist as roll my eyes at, was a Lake Yale Panty Raid to bond us beyond mere fellowship rituals and bible studies.

I have to confess that, to this day, I don’t quite know what a “panty raid” is for. Is the object to see panties? Steal them? Scare the girls who are wearing them?

I swear I didn’t know then and I swear I don’t know now.

If you know, please don’t tell me.

The main thing to bear in mind about panty raids, for the purpose of following this story about “(He’s) The Great Imposter,” is that Drew wanted very badly to lead one.

As a matter of fact he was going to lead one. Anybody who didn’t want to follow clearly risked not achieving favored status at the Court of Drew.

So he tried me on and I yawned him down for two basic reasons.

One was that I wasn’t interested. It sounded kind of stupid and pointless even before Drew announced the target was not the cabin with girls our own age but–rise Spartacus!–the cabin with the high school girls!

Now, I didn’t know much about the high school girls who went to Big City Baptist. But I knew the high school girls who went to our church. I had known them my whole life, too. And I knew if we showed up looking for their panties, the only thing that would keep them from wearing us out, both physically and verbally, was if they died laughing first.

So there was that.

But there was also a second reason–one which might be recognizable to those who have known me since–and that was my natural tendency to belong everywhere having a limit.

All the places I belonged, there was one place I never belonged even a little.

I never belonged to anyone’s Court.

Let’s just say that, when the moment of truth came, the boys I had grown up with–under Drew’s spell to a man, except for me and my friend Ricky–basically told Drew, “You might as well give it up.”

It would be a long time before most of them saw through Drew. But they knew me.

They knew if I said I wasn’t going, the usual taunts weren’t going to make me.

There were some huddled conversations.

I heard the word “chicken.”

Or maybe it was “chicken?”

I heard the word “Naw-w-w-w.”

I heard “He’s just….”

I didn’t hear the rest, if there was any “rest.”

Me and Ricky stayed behind.

The rest of them, Drew’s old Court and his new one, went on the Panty Raid.

Me and Ricky spent half an hour assuring ourselves that we weren’t missing anything, mostly by not talking about it. If I know me and Ricky, we probably talked about baseball instead.

Then we went to sleep.

I didn’t wake up when Drew and his various Courts returned.

I had to wait and hear about the Panty Raid the next morning.

“So how’d it go?” I asked my friends Carson and Bruce, though, judging from the mournful expressions all around, and Drew’s own highly uncharacteristic reticence, I could make a pretty good guess.

“Aw-w,” Carson said. “They locked the doors and shut the windows….We couldn’t get in.”

Bruce nodded. Or grimaced.

“Oh,” I said.

There was no sense pointing out the obvious.

I hadn’t thought of it the night before. It had played no part in my resistance. But in the cold light of day, something besides the morning sun shone clear.

On top of everything else, Drew was a loud-mouth. The kind who gives things away. Apparently, the only people who hadn’t known about the “panty raid” a full day ahead of schedule, were the boys in Drew’s Courts, who had followed so faithfully along the night before.

That’s the grown-ups for you. Always doing reconnaissance. Always keeping an eye out.

Always knowing kids better than they know themselves.

At least that’s how it was back then, when there was still such a thing as a “grown-up.”

It had evidently been decided that the best punishment for Drew was a full day’s worth of high school girls asking him if he had gotten a good night’s sleep and junior high girls assuring everybody that if they thought what the high school girls had in store was something you should have heard what they had cooked up.

If only Michelle had been there.

But she wasn’t. I don’t know why, but I know she wasn’t there because there’s no way she would have been going with Drew a scant few months later if she’d had the glimpse of who he really was that was available for just the briefest of moments that following day.

She never saw that Drew–Drew in defeat, hanging his head, snapping at his Court, looking for scapegoats.

Truth be told, he stayed away from me. But I kept an eye on him. Just for that day. Just to see if he was any better than I thought he was.

He wasn’t.

So, from then on, I knew who he was. But I didn’t tell anyone. I certainly didn’t tell Michelle. Not before she started going with him, which–in the mysterious manner of certain attractive females everywhere, came about without her seeming to be the least bit interested until the day he was walking into church with his arm around her.

And, until the thing with Bryan came along, I never gave it much thought.

Six months, I thought. Tops.

I knew Drew. And I knew Michelle.

I knew Michelle was a good kid, like me, and she’d see through him soon enough.

I also knew half the girls in our church, the ones who had been at Lake Yale and should have therefore known better, were what you might call green with envy.

See, if you didn’t know Drew as anything but the King of his Court–if you weren’t paying close attention that one day he let the mask slip just a little–he was considered quite a catch.

I could hardly begrudge Michelle a catch–a “take that” in the face of all those girls she was competing with who had never given her the time of day because….Well, because she wasn’t really one of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “us.”

She was the second of five kids who had showed up in our church with a single mother who turned out not to really be single but a criminal’s wife (and, believe me, the years hadn’t made him any less of a criminal, or her any less single, second husband or no second husband!)

Somewhere in there, I realized that Michelle, who seemed so naturally sociable, had it harder than me.

Odd a duck as I was, I belonged. At least in the neighborhood and the church, I belonged as much as anyone.

I could choose to join in or stand apart. She could only choose to stand apart. Any joining in had to come by way of an extended hand.

Which never came from anyone but my mother or–by extension–my mother’s son.

I suppose that absence of true belonging might have been part of why Michelle wasn’t on that retreat with the rest of us. Part of why she didn’t get to see Drew at his worst in the Summer of ’73 and had to wait until she saw whatever made her break up with him in the Spring of ’74.

It might not have seemed like so much fun to be on a retreat and stuck in one of the girls’ cabins if you weren’t one of the girls.

There had, in fact, been only one very brief moment when Michelle was such.

It came after one of Brother Dan’s very first sermons–one of those sermons that lit the fire that very first week he came to us a solid year before.

It was the night he preached about pants and dresses.

It was an aside really. He wasn’t the kind to make an entire sermon about men wearing pants and women wearing dresses. He wasn’t the kind that was ineffective and comical in other words.

No, he slipped it in.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said in the middle of his real preaching. “God frowns upon it.”

Men wearing dresses, he meant. And long hair.

And women wearing pants, he meant. And short hair.

“God frowns upon it and I believe it’s wrong.”

Just that. No more. Straight back to preaching.

I honestly didn’t think anything about it. I didn’t imagine that anyone would, what with the Spirit moving through us in so many truly profound ways.

I was not, however, a teenage girl faced with the dread prospect of having to wear dresses to school. Every day. In Florida. In 1973. Like Quakers or something.

So I didn’t take much notice of the knot of girls who gathered outside in the dark after the invitation that night and were whispering, whispering, whispering among themselves with what was obviously far greater urgency than usual.

I did note that it was an odd grouping. Odd because it included all the usuals…plus Michelle.

For once, included, and–not unusual for her in any group where she was included–animated.

A shrinking violet she was not.

But, as I say, I didn’t think much of it, even so.

A quirk. Nothing more.

Who knew what girls got excited about?

Not me, certainly.

I was standing beside my mother, though, and they kept looking over at us. We were gonna be there for a while (my mother and me and probably some of the girls as well) because the leading men of the church (who, by now, included my fully ordained father) were still in the auditorium, down front, counseling the night’s tidal wave of converts and re-commitments and new memberships.

Finally, they fell silent and began moving towards us in one body.

I won’t say their names. It doesn’t matter. They were good kids, too, and if they didn’t take to Michelle beyond the requirements of Christian duty simply because she had dropped in from a world so utterly alien to ours and their mothers weren’t my mother, that’s nothing I can hold them accountable for in that moment or any other.

But I can remember them. I can see them as clearly as I can see the hand in front of my face.

And I can hear them, too.

To a person, they might not have noticed I was alive. They were fixated on my
mother.

“Mrs. Ross,” one of them said, to my mother, the barely-breathing, barely-seeing, barely-standing rock. “Are you gonna wear pants?”

My mother didn’t miss a beat.

She probably knew what they were going to ask before they did. And she probably knew that the one who did the asking would be the very one who resented her most for being a such a hard-ass about things like choir practice.

Anyway she had her answer ready.

“Well,” she said. “I just bought a beautiful new pants suit last week. And I’m sure the Lord wouldn’t want the money I spent on it to go to waste.”

I can see them now, spreading like a flock of sparrows. And I can hear the voices–whispered a moment before, now bold and confident, like they were proclaiming a new  and much-improved Gospel.

“Mrs. Ross says it’s fine.”

“Mrs. Ross is gonna wear pants!”

“Mrs. Ross….”

The case was closed.

Brother Dan held a lot of sway in that moment and rightly so. He had brought the fire.

But his influence only stretched so far.

No mother was going to have to make her daughter quit wearing pants–or quit wearing pants herself.

The real authority had spoken.

And every teenage girl in our church had known–as I, until that moment, had not–who the real authority was.

So, for one moment, Michelle, who loved to sing and was the apple of my mother’s eye, and all those girls who privately, or not so privately, thought my mother was a hard-ass for making them practice so much, were one.

It didn’t last. And I’m guessing that even if it had, there was enough water under the bridge for Michelle to watch Drew the King watching her and think: “Why not?”

Why not have her mother take her down the road to Big City Baptist every Sunday morning? Why not make half the girls in our church (and I do not doubt half the girls in his) jealous?

Why not believe he was who he seemed to be when he was putting on a show for the grown-ups and the girls?

And why not feel like I should have told her who he really was–if indeed I read her right, when she said:

“He’s not anything like Drew is he?”

“No,” I said, knowing my word would count, that we both knew what we both knew, about a lot of things. “He’s nothing like Drew.”

She left it at that. We talked a little while longer, about this and that. Then, eventually, as the vote count mounted ever higher for Bryan–stuck on the podium the while, trying so hard not to pay us the slightest bit of attention and, if you don’t count having his eyes sticking out about a foot from his head and not being able to turn away from us or pay the least bit of attention to his impending victory in the closest thing the school had ever had to a school-wide election, succeeding admirably–she stood up.

“Well,” she said, just before she strolled away. “You can tell him if he asks me, I’ll say yes.

*    *    *    *

So Bryan won the election.

He gave his victory speech. He stayed after for pictures. I think he had to talk to the guy from the radio.

The memory hazes.

Kids kept filing out. Including Michelle.

I stayed, of course.

I thought Bryan might want to thank me or something.

Plus, I figured he would want to hear the news.

You know. The real news.

The whole thing wrapped up around 3:25.

Five minutes to spare!

There were maybe fifty kids left by then. Enough to make a crowd when we all made for the exit.

Bryan fought through the crowd to get to me.

I’m pretty sure a Red Sea full of Egyptian chariots would have constituted no credible barrier at that point.

When we were finally face to face, he had a look on his face I had never seen before.

“Congratulations man,” I said.

He grabbed my shoulder.

“What did she say?”

I decided to keep it simple. It wasn’t my style, but I had a sense of occasion.

“She said yes.”

His eyes narrowed.

“Yes to what?”

The other kids moved around us and we were, at last, alone.

“She asked what kind of guy you were and I told her,” I said. “And she said if you ask her to go steady, she’ll say yes.”

He dropped his hand from my shoulder and that expression I had never seen before deepened. His lips got very tight and he looked me straight in the eye in that way that boys almost never do.

I looked back, smiling.

“You’re lying,” he said.

I laughed. Which was probably the wrong thing to do.

“Bryan,” I said, “I’m not lying. Believe me.”

“You think I can’t tell,” he said. “But I can tell.”

“Bryan, I promise I wouldn’t lie about a thing like this.”

For just a moment–one brief, flickering instant–he seemed almost assured.

“That’s really what she said?”

“Yeah, that’s really what she said.”

He refused to look away and I refused to stop smiling.

I mean, come on. You gotta have a little fun in this life.

He sighed.

“You can’t fool me,” he said. “I know when you’re lying.”

“Bryan….”

It was time to go to the bus.

He pointed his finger in my smiling face, more in sorrow, it seemed, than anger.

“If I find out you’re lying,” he said, “I’m gonna kill you.”

*    *    *   *

Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley–the first truly great and truly successful all-female song-writing partnership in the history of American music (if anyone has joined them since, I haven’t heard about it)–wrote “(He’s) the Great Imposter” in the very early sixties.

It became a modest hit (#30 in Billboard) for the mighty Fleetwoods in 1961.

From which point it has never quite left whatever is left of the nation’s collective conscious.

I probably first heard it in, yes, 1973, when my sister and my brother-in-law took me to see what was, after Gone With the Wind (courtesy my parents) and 2001 Space Odyssey (courtesy my brother who had to explain the ending to me after I fell asleep, hahahahaha!) my first “adult” movie.

americangraffiti3

There was a modest, though I imagine serious, discussion about whether my twelve-year-old self should be allowed to go. It had some cursing in it, apparently, and I think the deal was that my sister would hustle me out of there if anything crossed the line. Or maybe I was just supposed to cover my ears.

Anyway, it turned out there was nothing in it I didn’t hear on the junior high bus (the one I rode with Michelle) every day. Nobody had to cover my ears and I liked the movie very much–I even thought I recognized a lot of the characters as types who went to my own school, maybe saw a little of my future self in the Ron Howard character, was knocked out by Cindy Williams, and genuinely moved by the famous ending.

I was just old enough to wish they’d shown more of the blonde in the Cadillac!

americangraffiti1

One thing that didn’t make much of an impression on me was the music.

By which I mean it really made no impression at all. No song stood out. If anything, I probably found a few spots annoying because I couldn’t hear the dialogue.

That’s a funny admission now. It would have seemed a strange reaction to anyone who knew me even three or four years later.

But in those days, I didn’t know from the fifties–or 1962. I had been born at the tail end of 1960 and, if you don’t count Peter, Paul and Mary, I doubt I knew the chorus to ten “pop” songs that had hit in my lifetime.

In some ways that was good. I certainly missed a lot. But when my personal floodgates finally opened a few years later I was ready to be swept away.

I mention this because I can’t pretend the snatch of “(He’s) The Great Imposter” that plays in American Graffiti made any impression on me at all–even though it’s one of relatively few songs I can say for certain where and when I first heard it.

When did it make an impression? That I know.

It was when the radio died (to my ears anyway) a year or two after I started listening to it in 1975-76. That was when I started haunting bargain bins in places like Woolco or Woolworth’s for the few records I could afford and, modern radio being dead to me, I started moving backwards in time.

Beyond guaranteeing it very definitely wasn’t the cover that grabbed me, I don’t know exactly when this album came home with me….or, beyond me knowing it contained a couple of hits, exactly why:

fleetwoods3

I do know it was sometime in the very late seventies. And that, while I loved the big hits like “Mr. Blue,” and “Come Softly To Me” and “Runaround” and liked all of it, the song that really grabbed me, in that way that never really lets go, was “(He’s) the Great Imposter.”

The song is sung from the perspective of a romantic male who has lost his love to….well, somebody like Drew. I didn’t think about Drew when I heard it. I’d met a few Drews by then. And I had never lost anyone to somebody like Drew because there had never been anyone to lose (and, as it turned out, never really would be, though I didn’t imagine that part then).

But it’s right there in the first line, as it’s written and as it’s sung, everything you need to know about how you will feel, if it’s really love and she really does fall for him when she could have, should have, fallen for you.

Now I went and lost her
To the Great Imposter

This was so completely me–not even the real me, but the imagined me that would actually never come to be–that if you had told me S. Sheeley and J. DeShannon were women (and very young women, at that) when they wrote it, I would have immediately assumed they were geniuses of the first order.

Which, as it turned out, they were, but my point is, I didn’t need to know anything else about them to know that they were already my idea of genius.

I’ve never been able to find out anything at all about the inspiration for the song, or the specific circumstances in which it was written. Did it spring from personal experience? Sharp observation? Theoretical discussion?

Professional diligence?

A deadline maybe?

I really don’t have any clue.

But this is a song, written by very young women, which is telling a story from a very specific male perspective.

Most love songs, whatever their angle, can be sung from the perspective of either gender. Sure some make more sense coming from a woman (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” comes to mind, so does “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” which acquires a stalker edge when sung by a male). But they can still be sung credibly by a man, just by changing a word or two. Same for most songs that make more sense coming from a man (“This Guy’s In Love With You” for example).

Very few make total sense–both lyrically and emotionally–from one perspective and virtually no sense at all from the other. “(He’s) The Great Imposter” is one of those few. And it goes a lot deeper than “her” rhyme-flowing a lot easier than “him.”

I stood and watched her fall,
Couldn’t help her at all”

Oh can’t she see,
tomorrow’s misery?
Soon she’ll learn her fate
But it will be too late

All her friends they just watch her
For they know the Great Imposter.

Note her friends.

Believe me, “all his friends” don’t stand around watching him fall for some girl and pine about it. Maybe one does, if there’s a man-crush thing going on (and a Drew will tend to have one of those lingering about, it’s true, but then, he is the Great Imposter, not the man in the shadows), but not the whole gang. Not even if the whole gang is the actual Imposter’s own Court. It’s not the way boys think. And it’s certainly not the way they admit they think.

And, of course, “he” isn’t going to “fall” and find “misery” in the way a girl will, i.e. by getting pregnant out of wedlock, which is the lyric’s clear implication, even if it couldn’t be spoken when the song was written and first recorded. And that implication would be a thousand times less potent for being made explicit even if the times had allowed it.

So a song that’s less than two minutes long and seems to have one, very direct, perspective, really encompasses a world deep enough to qualify for true, and deep, narrative. Lots of very fine films and novels have offered less.

It’s one of those high school setups, common in early rock and roll but never done better than here, that sets you up for a life time. Anyone with any perception at all can find a way in. Even the Imposter, if, by chance, he ever grows up.

If that’s all “(He’s) the Great Imposter” was, it would just be a great song, written by a couple of great song-writers, and a great record, recorded by a great vocal group.

But that’s not all it is.

That’s just the beginning

*   *   *    *

Listen, I’ve heard the record a thousand times. The first few times I heard it, it cut me to pieces. Any time I laid the record down, I would deliberately let my fingers fall limp, faux causal, pretending I wasn’t going to let it reach me. Every time I lied to myself. Every time it reached me and every time I knew it would. I wanted to stop listening and I wouldn’t have stopped for the world.

Then, one of those early times, I thought of Drew and Michelle and, yeah, maybe me.

And ever since then–thirty-five years or more–it has always cut me to pieces…and always made me smile.

The song has no ending.

There’s doom and finality in some of the lines and, certainly as the Fleetwoods sang it, in that way of theirs that nobody should ever bother trying to follow, in the very air of the thing.

She won’t see through the Imposter in time. The misery will be deep and permanent. The narrator will never find another like her because, well, there is no one like her.

If he does find another, he’ll go around the world to avoid admitting it, even to himself.

But, since the song has no ending, it doesn’t have to remain static, or even abstract.

It could play out a thousand ways.

I knew that by the time I really heard it.

*    *    *    *

A lot had gone by, by then.

The day after Michelle told me she would say yes and Bryan said he would kill me if she didn’t, she said yes.

They were still going steady a few months later when I moved away.

They were still going steady the following summer when I came back for a visit and saw Michelle for the last time.

As far as I ever knew they were still going steady when she moved a few months after that.

And that was that.

We all moved on. Most of us, in the modern American fashion, moved quite literally.

I’m sure Bryan didn’t have too much trouble finding another girl friend, but, for the record, I never saw him again after that spring.

Except for Michelle and the kids at my church I never saw any of them again. After the following two summers I never saw any of them at all.

Last I heard, my friend Craig’s parents still had their cool house on the River Road but, our family relations being what they were, I never dropped in.

Last I heard, some time in the late seventies maybe, my friend Ricky was pitching for a small college in Texas and had just thrown his arm out after going 5-1 with an ERA under 2.00. After that, no word.

Last I heard, my friend Carson’s family had put a chain across their property to separate it from the falling-down trailer park where my friend Bruce used to live when it wasn’t falling down at all. I don’t know if Carson or his family were home. There house was a long way behind that chain. I didn’t bother to honk the horn. I just drove away.

Last I heard, my friend Bruce won a college baseball game on a fine spring night in South Florida with a last inning home run some time in the early eighties. Instead of taking the team bus from Central Florida, he had driven down so he could stay after the game and have dinner with his South Florida girlfriend. On his way home he evidently fell asleep at the wheel and drove full speed into the back of a semi. I heard his parents moved away about a year later because they couldn’t stand the memories looking back at them everywhere. I doubt that the trailer park in front of my friend Carson’s gate going straight downhill thereafter was entirely a coincidence.

I certainly never saw Drew again.

Except in my mind’s eye, whenever “(He’s) the Great Imposter” plays.

I changed and the world changed.

I went from belonging everywhere to belonging nowhere, a status that would ultimately maintain.

I survived. I ain’t complaining.

But sometimes a song is a way back. A way back into the life you had–not as memory but as shared feeling. But, more significantly, a way back into the life you didn’t have and didn’t miss until you realized it had passed you by. Into the roads not taken as the poet famously said. At which point you realize you’d like to have certain chances again, but also realize you probably wouldn’t do anything different because you are who you are, stuck in the same old skin.

Drew was a Great Imposter and Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley nailed him to a tee.

But Michelle wasn’t really the girl in the song. She didn’t really fall (except just hard enough that she might have written a song about it, if she’d grown up to be a songwriter, like maybe Sharon Sheeley or Jackie DeShannon).

Bryan certainly wasn’t the boy in the shadows.

And, like I said before, I wasn’t really the boy in the shadows either. Just the boy who would be, metaphorically speaking. Because I was the boy with the blinders on.

Around the time I really began to hear “(He’s) the Great Imposter” the road turned in such a way that my father, who had, by then, graduated from the bible school that had pulled us away from the Space Coast to begin with in the summer of ’74 and, along with my mother, been appointed a Southern Baptist Home Missionary for North Florida, found himself speaking at the church Michelle’s family attended, somewhere around Jacksonville. They invited him home for Sunday dinner and to spend the afternoon. When Michelle, who was working her way through college, came in, she asked if he had a recent picture of me. It happened that he did. My senior picture.

I won’t say what my dad said she said about me when he showed it to her. It doesn’t matter.

I’ll just say that if I had possessed enough sense to get in the car and drive three hours, instead of sloughing it off, (even though I knew, from the weird, bemused expression in my father’s voice when he repeated what she said, as if he couldn’t quite believe it, that, for once, he wasn’t exaggerating, things he didn’t quite believe being the only things that had that effect on him), I might have gained a whole different perspective on the range of perspectives that make up “(He’s) the Great Imposter.”

That’s how I know it’s greater than anything Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin ever wrote.

Not better. I’m a rock and roller, but I’ll concede nothing’s better than them.

Just greater.

It has space in it. Space for any of its three characters, who might be any of us at one time or another, to grow into.

Sometimes the only reason the boy in the shadows isn’t pining is because he’s too stupid to see what’s in front of his face. I was never in love with Michelle–was happy to play wing-man for someone else and not think twice about it–for the stupidest of all reasons.

She was Michelle from the neighborhood.

I was too blind to see.

It took a decade and Sharon Sheeley and Jackie DeShannon and the Fleetwoods and the Woolco bargain bin and my eighty-dollar turntable to open my eyes.

By then it was too late to do anything but listen to the record one more time and be cut to pieces.

And smile.

Because it wasn’t so much that they–all of them, Sharon, Jackie, Michelle, The Fleetwoods, my mother–knew so much more than I did about guys like Drew, the Great Imposter.

It was that they knew so much more than I did about guys like me.

 

SAM SPADE AT THE MULTIPLEX (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Maltese Falcon
(John Huston, d. 1941)MALTESEFALCON1

Whenever classic films make it out to the hinterlands I make an effort to see them, partly in hopes that theaters will book more of them. I don’t know how much good it does. I paid double the usual matinee price for this one this week and saw it in the company of exactly one other patron.

But I’ll keep going anyway, if and when I can, because of the good it does me.

I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon well over a dozen times and read the book three or four times. This was even the third time I saw it on a big screen, (more than any Golden Age film except Gone With the Wind which I’ve seen four times in theaters). I can’t say I’ve always learned from it, though I’ve certainly always enjoyed it. But this time, it definitely stretched me, not entirely in pleasant ways.

One thing that’s always pleasant–and rewarding–is watching Humphrey Bogart’s face, and that’s probably the most important way the big screen enlarges the experience. Even the biggest televisions can’t offer the same opportunity for nuanced scrutiny of a performance like the one Bogart gave here, the one that truly shaped his lasting star persona. Remembering the masterful ways he deployed and varied that persona over the next decade and a half, in Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, The African Queen and even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (where, to tell the truth, he went a tad self-conscious, though the overreach probably created the space where he found his take on Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place), it can become easy to forget the degree to which every bit of it–hence every shade of his celebrated modernity–was on display in The Maltese Falcon.

It’s not so easy to forget it when you’re watching the movie. Because it’s all there. The sardonic wit, the heroic (or, if you prefer, antiheroic) stoicism, the edge of pure sadism (including large doses of misogyny and homophobia which, were they anywhere near as prevalent in the iconic performances of, for instance, John Wayne, would surely be routinely excoriated by a left-leaning illuminati which has both insisted that the performance is the man and idolized Bogart for those very same qualities for half a century and counting), the assurance of the beast in the urban jungle who operates as a law unto himself, and the inability or unwillingness to separate any of these qualities from the rest, to regard any of them as less than absolutely essential.

Writing in the early seventies, Pauline Kael famously observed of Dirty Harry that “this action genre has always had fascist potential and it has finally surfaced.” But whether fascist is the right word for that potential (I’d argue not quite but that’s a long, interesting debate), there was no “finally” to it. The only meaningful distinctions between Sam Spade and Harry Callahan are the hare-vs-tortoise speeds at which their respective brains work and whatever dime-size wedge can be put between Spade’s sort of private eye serving the inept police and Callahan’s sort of policeman serving the even more inept public.

What Kael might have been getting at was that Clint Eastwood’s Callahan made it impossible to continue either missing or dismissing the above-and-beyond-the-law dynamic that Bogart’s Sam Spade had hardly concealed, though he at least made you swallow it with a smile.

It could all be very seductive.

Dorothy Parker, who I’d rate as an even sharper knife than Kael, may have started the whole “white knight” school of lit-crit that became so curiously bound up with the rise of the hard-boiled detective genre when, in her review of Dashiell Hammett’s source novel for TMF, she declared that Spade had made her go spoony in the same way that Sir Lancelot had when she was a wee lass.

That’s a dangerous spell for any man to cast. Especially when he’s casting it while slapping around women and gardenia-scented queers on such a regular basis and insisting “you’ll take it and like it.”

It’s the liking it that marks the first step into the danger zone. You know: It’s not enough for me to slap you. It’s not even enough for you to accept it. What really matters is that you like it.

That certainly sounds like an idea waiting for a definition and fascism is certainly one that springs to mind.

Sitting in a quiet movie theater all these decades later and marveling at the glory of it all–the perfection in casting, direction, lighting, mood, dialogue woven into an indestructible plot–it’s still easy to miss the road to hell at the center of both Spade’s troubled conception and Bogart’s thrilling execution.

You can learn a lot about a society by studying its heroes. I’m not sure Hammett quite intended for us to take Spade into our national mythology in such an uncomplicated manner. Whether the lethal mix of bravery, hubris and cruelty generated by Bogart and John Huston struck so deep because it carries a touch of naivete that Hammett, having been both a Pinkerton and a commie, surely did not possess, I don’t know.

All I know, all I was reminded of this week, in between the news-channel marathons that are carrying on blithely, cluelessly, while the country that once produced all these things so imminently worthy of devotion circles the drain, was what a dangerous man this Humphrey Bogart still is.

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I hope he’s also still on our side.

STIRRING THE POT ONE LAST TIME (WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS…BUT WILL NEVER GET)

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(Mary Badham and Harper Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird)

I’ve been reading To Kill A Mockingbird for forty years and tracking lit-crit theory on it for thirty. I’ve read volumes of praise and damnation in about equal measure. I’ve read what is likely to be Lee’s definitive biography (by Charles Shields and quite good). I’ve seen the movie ten or twelve times, most recently a couple of weeks back in Birmingham’s restored movie palace, the Alabama Theater, with an enthusiastic full house on Father’s Day.

I’ve read reams of speculation about Lee’s personal life, numerous theories on why the book is so popular and its author so reticent, seen the relevant documentaries about book, film and Lee herself.

I’ve read an awful lot about why she never published again (until this week, of course), including her own theories, which were mostly what you’d expect (pressure of expectations, nowhere to go but down, etc.) and mostly interesting because, even coming from her, they were clearly never more than theories.

One thing I’ve never read is anything remotely intelligent about the book itself.

That lack of intelligence–the willingness to let emotion rule every single mindset, for or against, over half a century, bridging every conceivable cultural or political divide–is par for the course when an enormously popular, era-defining book touches the Race Nerve.

If you can’t explain it, put gauze on it. Kick the can down the road. That’s the American way.

It happened with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (better to fight one of history’s bloodiest wars than get at the root of the problem). It happened with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which was finally bound to be turned into a tract for Good-Liberals-Who-Love-Them-Some-Negroes-and-Rednecks, no matter how many times Huck sold Jim down the river). It happened with Gone With the Wind (an insider’s thorough damnation of Confederate folly which naturally became the lasting touchstone for Lost Cause nostalgia).

And it happened, most intensely of all, with To Kill a Mockingbird, a warning shot across the bow of the then-ascending Civil Rights movement. That movement crested with a series of legal victories that had begun with Brown vs. Board of Education, several years before Lee took an editor’s advice/command to heart and started revising the book now being released (Go Set a Watchman), and would end with Lyndon Johnson signing a Voting Rights Act and a Civil Rights Act which, between them, amounted to the Federal Government’s century-in-coming solemn promise to finally start enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment.

It’s a measure of both our collective reading comprehension and how little we expect of ourselves that Atticus Finch came to be regarded (by worshippers and skeptics alike) as “saintly.” Evidently, the mere presence of a conscience is enough to give a man such qualities, because the Atticus of the book certainly possesses no others that could be called extraordinary and, despite some previous reservations, after having finally seen the movie the way it was meant to be seen, I have to say, neither does Gregory Peck’s film Atticus.

It’s true that Peck’s Atticus is loftier than Lee’s original conception. He’s Gregory Peck. How could he not be? But the nuance he brought to the role is a lot more evident when his face is writ larger than life. Make him thirty feet tall and the human element emerges. The movie is, in every respect then, excellent. There’s a reason I’ve watched it a lot. A reason I was willing to drive five hours to finally see it the right way.

But the movie still misses the book’s essence. Narratively, it doesn’t change anything vital, but, in pursuing a necessarily streamlined narrative, it does leave something else out.

What it leaves out was defined in another context before the sixties were done.

What it leaves out are hearts and minds.

It’s hard to change the law, Harper Lee essentially said, over and over, as she gave matchless dimension to the small town Alabama she meant, in her own words, “to be the Jane Austen of.”

It’s a lot harder to change people.

That message went missing from fifty years of snark and praise.

It’s still missing.

Fifty million people read her “children’s book.” A few hundred literati took occasion, year by year, to sneer at it for its “obviousness” and simple-mindedness.

But I keep wondering.

If it was all so obvious and all so simple, how was it we failed so thoroughly to look under its New Testament message and heed its Old Testament warning?

I have no idea whether an aging, infirm Harper Lee knew what she was about when she approved the release of Go Set a Watchman (with what all the folks who misread the first novel for half a century are assuring us is a very different Atticus). I ordered the book today so I’ll find out soon enough whether it’s worth writing about.

But whatever its worth is, it won’t change the long-misidentified import of Mockingbird itself.

Fifty years ago, Harper Lee had a better handle on the future than any of her celebrated southern colleagues who have Library of America volumes dedicated to them.

Despite the disappointment she later expressed over the failure of the Civil Rights era to finally do much more than put yet another band aid on America’s festering wound, (a failure some of her friends have speculated was perhaps another reason for her writer’s block), she wasn’t really Atticus, looking up from his paper for a moment and wondering aloud if maybe some day we’d get it right, if maybe the trial he’d lost was a small stepping stone in the right direction.

She knew better.

She knew Atticus hadn’t changed a thing.

Then, of course, she had an advantage. Believe it or not, the writer always does.

She already knew the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, a fact that seems to have been lost in the “what’s-this-now!” hornet’s nest the book’s fifty-something-years-in-coming release has now stirred up as we sit and watch some more cities burn.

And which kind of hornet’s nest might that be?

Oh, you know.

The kind the chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, church-going Methodist lady from Monroeville always did such a fine job of avoiding herself.

What else are you gonna do, when you’re surrounded by the very fools who set the world on fire just so they could watch it burn?

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…Okay, I better quit now. Before I get all emotional.

LITERATURE FROM THE GOOD OLD TWENTIETH CENTURY

[In the further interest of acquainting my loyal readers with my general frame of artistic reference–and just for fun–here are a few notes on “My Favorite English Language novels of the 20th century that I actually read in the 20th century” (and actually compiled at the end of it because, hey, that’s my idea of fun!)…Among books I’ve read for the first time since, I would add Nabakov’s Bend Sinister and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. Among books I’ve re-read since, I would add Charles Portis’ True Grit and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I’ve come to realize is at least as conveniently misunderstood and widely abused by the Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate as Gone With the Wind is by the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve. But I’ll stick with the ten I picked at the time. It’s not like anything that’s happened since has made me think any less of them!…These are in no particular order.]

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway 1926)

The book that not only made Hemingway’s reputation but placed in on such a firm foundation that it was able to more or less survive everything that happened after 1939. Which is saying something.

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner, 1929)

This sort of made Faulkner’s reputation and certainly justified it. It also put Joycean invention at the service of compelling narrative, the very thing Joyce himself took such pains to avoid. Afterward, Faulkner took considerable pains to avoid such things himself, but once, at least, he was the equal of the old masters.

Old New York (Edith Wharton, 1924)

I felt like I had been there. And that Ms. Wharton was the only person who could ever make me want to go back.

A Mouse Is Born (Anita Loos, 1951)

Is it mere coincidence that the best, funniest and most effectively absurdist novel I’ve read about Hollywood is also among the most ignored? Somehow, I never think so when I’m reading it.

The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler, 1953)

A man solves a murder (in a Hollywoodland not so far removed from Ms. Loos’) using little more than the very same attitude that will refuse to let him pretend the solution–or any solution–ever had the slightest chance of changing anything that might have been worth changing.

Judgment on Deltchev (Eric Ambler, 1952)

The greatest of the world’s seeming endless supply of spy novelists, defining the Twentieth Century, thusly: To participate was to lose.

The Man In the High Castle (Phillip K. Dick, 1962)

When I first read this, I was still young, and I thought Dick’s vision was a touch hyperbolic (though still genuinely unsettling). My subsequent running engagement with reality has long since brought me around to his way of thinking.

Burr (Gore Vidal, 1973)

Most of the reasons America was bound to come up a bit short, winding their dry, anecdotal way through what is likely the best historical novel written by an American.

A High Wind In Jamaica (Richard Hughes, 1924)

Tragicomedy about children and pirates. Its original American publisher insisted on calling it “The Innocent Voyage.” For as long as it stood, that represented the least accurate title in the publishing industry’s long, ignominious history of mislabeling things.

Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936)

The Old South taken apart more thoroughly and savagely than Faulkner, General Sherman or James Baldwin ever could–meaning by a more or less sympathetic insider. Interesting–and subversive–that Scarlett O’Hara, every genteel southerner’s living nightmare, has come to represent their “way of life” in the public imagination so thoroughly. As the century’s most famous English-language literary character by a wide margin (and the only American literary character of any era who is both fully three-dimensional and undeniably iconic), she will probably do so forever. Believe me, they deserved less.

 

WHY IT MATTERS…THE CASE OF TARANTINO V. FORD

Okay…Why I think it matters. Let’s stay classy here (also introducing a new category which I’m calling John Ford, John Ford and John Ford):

First, two images:

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From Pulp Fiction (1994) (Director, Quentin Tarantino)

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From Wagonmaster (1950) (Director, John Ford)

Obvious similarities, of course:

In each case a man is casually shooting another man, who is helpless, prone and unarmed.

Enough similarities that it might be a visual quote but I don’t think that’s provable or even germane. John Ford gets “visually quoted” so much it could be a visual quote that arrived in Quentin Tarantino’s brain seven times removed or just by osmosis.

And, in any case, the similarities don’t matter nearly as much as the differences.

In the first picture the man doing the shooting is loquacious to a fault, in the second the shooter hasn’t said a word in the entire film.

In the first picture we’re supposed to identify with the shooter because he’s cool, hip, post-modern and clearly a figment of the imagination–also because we have nothing invested in his victim. And just oh-by-the-way, we’re supposed to keep identifying with him, no matter how many other unarmed men he shoots…or how many moronic psychopaths he lets go free.

In the second picture, we’re supposed to identify with the victim, who is paying for the “crime” of having–on orders–delivered lashes to the bare back of the shooter’s brother (or cousin, it’s never made entirely clear, but in any case he’s family) for assaulting a Navajo woman. And we’re supposed to identify with him even though he’s a minor character who hasn’t been particularly likable and would have been unlikely to become any more so had he lived. Beyond that, we’re also supposed to identify with him because he’s a fictional character–one rooted in the possibilities of human history and behavior–as opposed to a philosophical construct (i.e., the hit man as the thing he never is in life–the coolest cat in the room).

That is, unlike the “character” (i.e., construct) we’re supposed to identify with in the first picture, the man on the ground in the second picture–who we identify with only in this very brief instant–is someone who might have actually existed in something like real time and space and someone we might have known–and quite probably disliked despite his having never done anyone any particular harm–somewhere along the way in the journey through our own  time and space.

There are plenty of other differences–like the scene from Wagonmaster taking place among realistically portrayed hard men (some good, some bad, all recognizable) who barely bat an eye at the sight of a cold-blooded murder while the scene from Pulp Fiction features one highly unrealistic hard man terrorizing boys made, miraculously, out of screaming cardboard–but those will do for now.

*  *  *  *

To be blunt, I’ve never cared much what artists are “really” like.

In the first place, outside of being on intimate terms with them personally, what they are really like is generally unknowable.

And the first place pales next to the significance of the second place, which is that the thing which is most unknowable about any artist is their precise relationship to their art–that is, the extent to which what they are “really like” has any bearing on what we find in their finished products.

Oh, we can know a few things in a vague and generalizing way, and it’s sometimes pleasing or even instructive to know those things. And, yes, the “real” person might even be showing through sometimes.

It’s just that we’re extremely unlikely to know precisely when or how and not knowing precisely means we really don’t know at all.

The only thing more unlikely–if we ever got that that far and still somehow found ourselves standing on solid ground–would be knowing what the when and the how “really” mean.

I mean, the real person we think we’ve just glimpsed could be fooling us. He is an artist after all.

So we might be able to judge whether something is bearing down on him. What effect war or displacement or drug addiction or a nasty divorce or a happy childhood or a too close association with the Angel of Death might have had. Something along those lines might even become obvious.

But that’s not the same as reading the soul–or the soul’s intent when it’s dipped in the process of creating artifice.

For that, I think it’s best to start with the art–if we’re going to start at all–and work backwards to the point that interests us.

Bearing in mind that this point will be different for each person who does make the effort. And that the relationship between the soul and the soul’s intent will still be best measured by what we know of the art, not what we know of the artist.

*  *  *  *

Which is to say I don’t care much about what Quentin Tarantino or John Ford are/were really like.

I know I wouldn’t care to have lunch with QT and I doubt I would have wanted to spend much time with Ford either. (I called Tarantino a liar the other day and that was only based on his tendency to lie, but, being fair I should have mentioned Ford was no better. There are distinctions I could make–the propriety of lying about oneself versus lying about someone else, for instance–but for the purposes of the argument at hand they don’t really matter. For the purposes of this argument, call them two SOB’s of decidedly different stripes…and then call them, for the moment, equal.)

Either way, I do not pine for their company.

I do get suspicious, though, whenever an artist, posing as critic, goes after another artist’s character when it would presumably be at least as easy to go after their art.

In such cases, I tend to suspect–without knowing of course (I’m not that much of a hypocrite!)–that the attacker might be covering for something. It doesn’t matter what that something is. What matters is that the attacker has called both his own trustworthiness and the value of his motives into question.

Maybe in this case it doesn’t really matter. Maybe Ford is secure enough in the pantheon that what Quentin Tarantino has to say about him makes no difference.

Maybe we don’t need to do any more than what a number of bloggers and their commenters have done in spades on other sites–that is, throwing up some variation of the “Quentin Tarantino is a pimple on Ford’s ass!” defense.

Maybe that’s all that’s required.

I think we should be careful, though.

It’s not like we haven’t seen this kind of thing engaged in before.

*  *  *  *

The most famous case of one important American artist attacking another is almost certainly Mark Twain’s 1895 essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” which Twain wrote as a combination literary critique and character assassination.

The essay had no more justification than Tarantino’s recent attacks on Ford, and was just about as ham-handed.

And–in keeping with the main theme here–who knows what Twain’s real motivations were? We can speculate that he was writing out of jealousy of Cooper’s fame or reputation. That he really did hate Cooper’s books to such a degree that he lost his own hold on rationality. (Lost it entirely, incidentally, as his opinions were his opinions, but not a single one of his numerous factual assertions about Cooper’s “offenses” was true). That his own considerable debt to Cooper was stuck in his subconscious, lying uneasy in the very place that was bound to raise the most terrible bile, unreleasable by any means but public vitriol.

Or that he was just having a bad day.

It could have been any or all of these things or something else entirely.

But the “why” of it is neither here nor there.

What should trouble us about Twain’s essay is not its fundamental silliness or dishonesty (or his similar, but less famous, opinions regarding Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James or pretty much anyone whose reputation threatened to eclipse his own), or the emotions that may have driven him to write it.

No, what’s troubling about the essay is its effect.

I wouldn’t personally rate Cooper as highly as Ford but that his reputation has suffered severely–and unfairly–at the hands of a fellow artist’s petty assault, delivered long after he himself was beyond offering up a defense, is almost undeniable.

*  *  *  *

How undeniable?

Well, we can study a few bits of anecdotal evidence (the only kind that’s ever really available in these rather abstract debates, so I’m afraid it will have to do).

TAKE 1935.

That’s the year (forty years after Twain’s essay) when Ernest Hemingway published Green Hills of Africa, his account of a safari he and his wife took, where he somehow found the occasion to include this famous-ever-after aside:

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Notice: Up Mark Twain

Notice: Down anything that preceded him (Cooper included)…or anything that happened along between him and, well, Hemingway.

Hold that thought….

Then…TAKE 1981:

I was taking an English class at Florida State titled something like “Popular Literature in American History.” The teacher was excellent at his profession and, so far as I know, a perfectly decent human being. The gist of the class was to study books which had been enormously popular in their own time, but which had no particular lasting literary merit. At one point during the course, he happened to mention how fortunate we were that he had decided to take a break from Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans that semester. (At which point the brown nosers which no English class can do without and who always–always!–pose as contrarians, spoke up long and loud. As such types are ever mindful of the value of getting on the teacher’s good side in any class where the memorization of mere facts is of next to no value, you can imagine the bashing old Fenimore received from their tender mercies. Twain’s essay, of course, had a prominent place among the name-dropping portion of the show–and was accepted as representing an unassailable truth somewhere along the order of the higher laws of mathematics.)

My response to this was rather strange.

I had been raised to the notion (mostly passed along by my father) that Cooper was a great, important writer, and I had read The Pathfinder in high school (on my own–it wasn’t the sort of thing that got assigned in the sort of high school I attended, which ran more to field trip movie versions of Shakespeare and dialogue-only abridgments of Dickens for “serious” literature assignments) and very much liked it.

I’m not sure I had ever actually heard Cooper’s name in any sort of English lit context since then.

But I knew how to act and what I should believe. I knew I wouldn’t have spoken up in his defense, even if I had been used to speaking up at all (which I wasn’t).

The feeling against him was strong enough and pervasive enough that I had grokked his fundamental uncoolness–his absence of pure “literary” value and, thus, any value at all–with no word having need been spoken.

So it was in English class in 1981.

Now…TAKE ANY NUMBER OF RECENT YEARS:

…Where I’ve come across several cases, right across the political spectrum, suggesting all you ever need to know about Cooper in general, and the Leatherstocking Tales in particular, can be found in….you guessed it, an essay by Mark Twain called “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

Then…TAKE 2012 (oh God, please do take it):

The Library of Congress publishes a list of 88 “Books that Shaped America.”

The fact that the list came out to “88”–rather than some round figure–strongly suggests that those responsible for its compilation meant to arrive at an exact idea of everything which could not be reasonably excluded (a risk if the round figure were too small–say fifty), but also without padding (a risk if the round figure were too large–say a hundred).

Cooper did not place a book on the list, leading to two important and obvious questions:

Is he someone who could be reasonably excluded from such a list?

If not, why was he?

The answer to the first one is simple.

No, he’s not.

Cooper wasn’t just the first really important American novelist–a distinction that should have earned him a place on any such list all by itself. He’s also a genuine titan. A flawed titan to be sure…but, when it comes to American literature, only Henry James even comes close to being any other kind.

Now James is not on the list either, but that actually makes some sense. He spent most of his adult life in England and most of his personal and professional time becoming the epitome of that old saw “more English than the English.” And even if he had not, you could make a fair claim–without resorting to reverse snobbery–that he did not write in such a way that his books, by the sheer inimitability of their brilliance, ever had much chance of “shaping” America.

But Cooper is a very different thing. The Library of Congress itself made a point of noting that the list was not based on literary merit (easy to see when you peruse the list itself) but was meant to be just what it said.

Namely, books that shaped us.

To be honest, when I heard the list had been published but hadn’t yet seen it, I assumed Cooper was the only writer (or at least the only fiction writer) who was guaranteed a spot!

Call me crazy, But I figured if we were going to have an official list from the national library celebrating not the “greatest” books but the most influential–the ones that helped make us who we are–then the man who, in the space of about five years in the early 1820’s, invented the spy novel, the sea novel, and the western (and not the “American” versions, which he eventually did for the novel of manners and the murder mystery, but the things themselves) might just have a place.

Especially if some number of his novels did indeed have substantial literary merit.

More especially if his shadow was hanging over nearly every novel that did make the list and hanging with particular heaviness on the most highly regarded of the “literary” entries.

Sometimes this shadow is obvious.

Herman Melville (on the list with Moby Dick) knew where the sea novel came from even if the Library of Congress doesn’t. We don’t have to guess, because he told us so and this is one case where we can probably take an artist at his word.

Twain himself is on the list with a novel we didn’t really need Leslie Fiedler–or even D.H. Lawrence–to tell us had taken its gestalt straight out of Cooper. (Though we evidently did need Ernest Hemingway to tell us it was the source of all modern literary good.)

Sometimes the shadow is not so obvious.

But that doesn’t mean it is any less present, or any less real.

Hemingway himself–the exalter of Twain–is on the list with For Whom the Bell Tolls,  his own last, mighty swing at greatness. The novel, that is, where he set out after Cooper (not Twain) and burned himself to figurative ashes trying to do once what Cooper had done repeatedly, all while getting no closer than shouting range–though he did get closer than Twain, who had set out after Cooper a time or two himself.

Hemingway’s great contemporaries are there, too.

There’s Faulkner with The Sound and the Fury (that’s the one where he copped Cooper’s ending from The Deerslayer for his revised edition).

There’s Fitzgerald, inevitably, with The Great Gatsby, which ends with what may be the most famous passage in American literature. You know, the one where his narrator imagines the Dutch sailors reaching the shores of Cooper’s wilderness (though Cooper was never glassy-eyed enough to pretend this arrival was “the last time man came face to face with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” For that level of delusion, you needed a modernist).

I could keep going. What’s On the Road, but Cooper’s frontier refracted? What’s Red Harvest but Cooper’s spiritual wilderness made modern and urban? What’s The Grapes of Wrath but Cooper’s abiding concerns about the rape of the land turned scatological?

Okay, all of those books are about other things, too. But they–along with most of the others acknowledged by the L of C–each have Cooper’s DNA deeply embedded.

And that’s not even getting into Cooper’s wider influence, nowhere felt more deeply than the visual narrative arts–you know, film, television, whatever is coming next. (It’s not like John Ford or Quentin Tarantino themselves are untouched…and, given how much he likes to pair a white man with a dark-skinned blood brother, I’d say Tarantino more than Ford.)

So if Cooper’s all that…Well, why isn’t he on the list?

And why isn’t he on any number of other similar lists I’ve seen in recent years?

Is it a question of “literary merit?”

Well, sticking to this particular list, let’s just say that Zane Grey is on it. Not to mention Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I happen to love Riders of the Purple Sage and Tarzan of the Apes for what they are.

But come on.

Is it a question of being too early–of being on the other side of some invisible wall built by time and progress?

Then how to account for Washington Irving? Not to mention Benjamin Franklin?

So it must be some version of political correctness then.

Right?

Isn’t that the last, worst explanation for every screwball thrown in screwball land, yea, verily these many years?

Well, that could be it.

But then how to explain the presence of Gone With the Wind (you know, the one where headstrong Judith and spiritually pure Hetty from The Deerslayer are re-imagined as Scarlett and Melanie–even down to their abiding fates as, respectively, jilted lover and corpse)?

Has all suddenly been forgiven?

Surely not.

So you can see where we might be running out of options here.

How there might only be one explanation left.

And how that explanation might well be summed up in the headline, “Mark Twain Once Wrote an Essay Called ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.’..and the World Listened.”

Yeah. That could be it.

Unprovable again. But in this case, it almost has to be the truth. Maybe Sherlock Holmes could think of some other explanation that accounts for all the available facts, but I sure can’t.

So now we go back to those two images at the top there (come on now, admit it…you thought I forgot!)

And we ask ourselves…does it really matter what Quentin Tarantino says about John Ford?

Let me first say what I think doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter–in the least–why QT said what he said.

It doesn’t matter if the real reason is the son’s need to kill the father, or the white boy’s need to bond with the Other, or the simple man’s confusion when confronted with complexity and ambivalence, or the amoral artist’s discomfort with the moral (as opposed to moralistic) one, or the straight-line jealousy of a deeply ambitious filmmaker who, for all his ducking and hiding and peeping out from behind his genre obsessions, desperately wants to be thought of as great, as auteurist even (and maybe has got far enough down his own road to glimpse just how hard it would be to ever begin that other journey, let alone finish it) lashing out at someone who made masterpieces the way most of us pour milk on cereal, routinely, calmly, not caring much if a little splashes over the side.

That’s what I think doesn’t matter. The undiscernible “why” of it.

What does matter–what matters a lot–is what we make of it.

If Ford is greater than Cooper (and he is), and Tarantino is nowhere near being Mark Twain (and he isn’t), that’s all the more reason to push back.

Because what matters–okay, staying classy here–what I think matters, is doing what we can to prevent a scenario whereby some future version of Hemingway writes something along the lines of, “All modern cinema comes from a single film by Quentin Tarantino called Pulp Fiction,” and has his twaddle taken seriously.

Lest we think this is far-fetched, we should probably note that Tarantino (and what he represents) are taken at least as seriously today as Twain (and what he represented) was in 1895. And while the present is always impressed with itself, it may never have been so impressed as it is today, in part because the past has never been caught receding quite so rapidly.

So history is moving Tarantino’s way–the way of homage over creation, of sensation over memory, of the feel-good cult of the individual over the prickly annoyances that attend the preservation of community–and will likely accelerate.

Throw in that Ford, even more than Cooper, was/is cantankerous in both his person and his art–and that ever-impressed-with-itself-modernity is ready to accept virtually anything in an artist except his being a threat to easy assumptions about its own validity–and I don’t think a version of Hemingway-exalting-Twain-all-out-of-proportion-to-reality popping up forty years or forty days from now is even a little far-fetched.

All that’s before we even get to the final problem.

Cooper and Twain (and Hemingway for that matter…though not so much my eighties-era English teacher or the present representatives of the Library of Congress) were part of the same universe. It was/is possible to love all three of those writers (as I do) without practicing some kind of cognitive dissonance.

The split between Ford and Tarantino (and what they each represent) is much deeper. That split is a new kind of challenge. The challenge of choosing.

Truly choosing.

When it comes to Tarantino v. Ford, there really is a good deal more at stake because it’s possible to care about one, the other, or neither…But I’ll submit (while staying as classy as I can) that it is not possible to truly care about both–at least not without.seriously misunderstanding (and thus distorting beyond any comprehension that is rooted in their “finished product”) one or the other.

And when, in what I suspect is a rather near future, it really does come time to choose, my ever-classy self thinks we should be very, very careful which fork in the road we decide to follow.

UPDATE: I meant to highlight this link somewhere above but forgot. It’s academic and therefore may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it should probably be required reading next to the Twain essay in question.

ALL GOOD JOURNEYS MUST COME TO AN END

After visiting the Sun Studios on Friday morning and Shiloh on Friday afternoon, we drove to Birmingham, which was the original destination. (Had a friend coming to help me do some serious work on my house. Lives in North Dakota. Traveling by train. Thought he was coming around Aug. 5 or so. Delayed by work on his end and had to push it back about 10 days. Told him something like, “Well, the thing we gotta do in Birmingham–which was originally gonna be a nice break in our labors–is only happening on Aug. 18th.” Decided if we were going to do it, I better meet him somewhere along the way…Then decided the best meeting point was probably Memphis…Then realized it was all going to happen during Elvis Week…Sometimes these things work out.)

Anyway, what was happening one day only in BIrmingham was that their restored movie palace, the Alabama Theater, (which I blogged about a few weeks back) was showing Gone With the Wind on Saturday night.

The movie you probably know–though I can tell you that I had experienced it on the big screen three times previously (not to mention a couple of dozen times on VHS or DVD, including the time I watched it with the sound off and the time I listened to it with my eyes closed, all in a feeble attempt to understand Ms. Leigh’s genius for complex narrative, which no other actor has come close to matching in any medium that leaves a permanent record, though she herself got in the ballpark another time or two) and if you haven’t seen it in a place like the Alabama Theater, you haven’t really seen it–so I’ll leave you with a tour of the theater itself…(Photos courtesy of Dan Watson as per usual)

Bear in mind

Bear in mind as you scroll through that the city was planning to turn all this into a parking lot. Evidently someone wanted the pipe organ and–because of the cost of demolition and removal–figured out they could buy the whole building for not too awful much more…

 

This is the ticket booth

This is the ticket booth. I guess you can tell it was not shipped over from the local multi-plex.

...Just some knick-knacks for the lobby.

…Just a little knick-knack for the lobby.

Yes those are mirrored ceilings.

…And, yes, those are mirrored ceilings.

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...More stuff slated to be paved over.

…More stuff once slated to be paved over.

Oh yea

Oh yeah, they are showing a movie…

Our seats await...

Our seats await…Side balcony!

Soon after

Soon after, the 2,300 seats were mostly filled…GWTW can still pull a crowd.

 

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And, everywhere you look…details, details, details….

And finally

And finally, the restroom lobby. Be it ever so humble…

 

The wall

The wall that covers the pipe organ pipes…And created the expense-of-removal issue that saved the Alabama Theater!

Play on...

Play on…

Re-enactors

Re-enactors providing the icing on the cake…

Saying goodbye...

Saying goodbye…

No really...

No really…

 

I promise.

I promise.

Thus ended the Southland Tour…Now my photo-happy friend and I are faced with several weeks of drudge work replacing my warped and rotted hardwood floor. The happy dream is over! But it sure was fun while it lasted…and I’ll always have the memories.