ONLY THE NAMES CHANGE….A WORD ON THE “ELECTION” (Great Quotations)

Billy Wilder once told an interviewer that, of all the people he had known in Hollywood (which was practically everyone), the two people he was asked most about, by far, were Marilyn Monroe and Raymond Chandler.

Marilyn needs no explanation.

Why Raymond Chandler?

Maybe because he was forever saying things like this:

The FBI is a bunch of overpublicized characters, Hoover himself being a first rate publicity hound. All secret police forces come to the same end. I’ll bet the s.o.b. has a dossier on everybody who could do him damage. The FBI throws up such a smoke screen that they make the public forget all the tough ones they never broke. Sometimes I wonder if they ever did break a really tough one.

(Raymond Chandler, Letter to James Fox, Jan. 18, 1954, from Raymond Chandler: A Biography, Tom Hiney, Grove Press, 1997, p 181)

That was from the days before the Security State was quite so firmly entrenched.

Gee, wonder how he’d feel this week, when James Comey convinced all the people who, back in July, were telling themselves things really had changed, that nothing has changed,  and all the people who, back in July, were telling themselves that nothing had changed, that….hey, maybe things have changed!

To those who dare to put their trust in secret police forces on the days they bring “good” news…please, I beg you….come back to the light and grow old with me.

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SUFFER THE CHILDREN (Monthly Book Report: 6/16 and 7/16)

NOTE: I didn’t finish any books in June, hence the combo…Upon receiving a sensible reader recommendation I’m making a small change to the usual formula and will henceforth be listing the books reviewed at the top of the post. I’m also going to include snapshots of the authors when they are available. It’s all part of my  learning curve.

Reviewed this month: Virginia Hamilton’s The House of Dies Drear; Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes; Charles Portis’s True Grit. A so-so ghost story with some interesting sociological elements and two of the best post-war novels written in the English language. Common theme: Youth observed or remembered.

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The House of Dies Drear (Virginia Hamilton, 1968)

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This one has a fine premise: a black professor moves his southern family to a mysterious, possibly haunted, Ohio farmhouse that was once a key station on the Underground Railroad. The story is told in plain-speak, mostly from the perspective of the professor’s teenage son, Thomas Small.

Unfortunately, it’s far too languid in tone and pedestrian in style to work as either a crime novel (it won the Edgar’s juvenile award for its year) or a ghost story. The requisite tension simply never ratchets.

What it does do well is catch the rhythm of bourgeoisie black family life in a period of massive upheaval. The period goes unmentioned anywhere except the copyright page but some of the tension of the age creeps into the atmosphere anyway, especially in the first third. That the denouement of the actual ghost story which makes up the book’s final third turns out to consist of mundane plotting told at a lumbering pace is therefore all the more disappointing.

Miss Pym Disposes (Josephine Tey, 1948)

MISSPYMDISPOSES

“But do you have to know the human structure in such detail?” asked Lucy.

“On Tuesday morning we do,” said the Thomas who slept. “After that we can forget it for the rest of our lives.”

Middle-aged spinster and lady authoress, Lucy Pym, comes to visit an English girls’ school at the invitation of its devoted headmistress, who once did Lucy a kindness in their own school days. What could be more English than that?

It starts as a comedy of manners in the classic style and ends as a lacerating psychological horror story, as if tracing a long arc from Jane Austen to the yet-to-be-published Patricia Highsmith. Even on a re-read it’s hard to catch Tey devising this nightmare, as opposed to observing it. The final horror feels close, almost unbearably claustrophobic, much like Conrad’s achievement in Under Western Eyes or Nabokov’s in Bend Sinister.

But those were novels about the long reach of terror states, and, if anything, Miss Pym Disposes is rendered more devastating by its bucolic setting and miniaturist’s attention to detail.

There isn’t even a dead body until very near the end. By the time it arrives, off-hand observations like “The use of a book so tiny that a mapping pen had been necessary in order to make the entries legible could have only one explanation.” have accumulated subtly and thoroughly enough to build a mountain of dread, which grows, word-by-word, until, with the last page, it falls on both the reader and the world Tey has so delicately constructed with horrific, shattering force.

Not simply one of the finest crime novels ever written, but as good a post-war English language novel as I’ve read. So good it’s even a match for…

True Grit (Charles Portis, 1968)

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The only novels I’ve re-read more than a time or two in adulthood are the crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and this one. That covers a fair range of concerns if not style–if anything links them it’s a tendency to elide everything that isn’t necessary.

As I’ve grown older, I find I appreciate this quality in more than fiction. Time grows short.

The basic story of True Grit is now familiar to millions of people who have seen either of the two good movies made from it. (I wrote about some of the reasons film-goers who haven’t read the book might be missing something here.)

In the Arkansas of the late 1920s, an aging spinster named Mattie Ross, sets out an account of the great adventure of her youth: a trip by her fourteen-year-old self into Indian Territory (present day Eastern Oklahoma), in the company of U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, and a Texas Ranger named Labeouf, to avenge her father’s murder.

Many have noted the book’s miracles of economy and tone. I second those notations. It manages to make the plain, realistic voice of a tight-fisted Presbyterian old maid sing in every line, including first and last sentences unlikely to ever be bettered.

Many have also suggested Mattie herself bears some resemblance to both Huck Finn (through age and geography) and Captain Ahab (through temperament).

I’ll let others hash that out and just say that Mattie would probably have had little use for either and would have understood that neither character’s creator was likely any more enamored of her than she of them.

Like all truly great fictional characters, she stands alone.

That doesn’t mean Portis wasn’t drawing on deep wells.

He said in later years that Mattie’s voice came from his time as a stringer on Little Rock’s principal paper. As the youngster in the building he was put in charge of editing the reports sent in by various rural county representatives who were invariably older women of something near Mattie’s vintage with their own ideas about what ought to be in a newspaper. He was repeatedly forced, by “journalistic standards,” to cut out all the good stuff. But he retained the memory of their clear styles and no doubt prickly insights. Mattie was his homage.

The mastery of that voice alone might have secured the book a high place. But it stands even taller because, beneath the voice, Portis sensed a previously concealed connection between two sturdy American archetypes: The Spitfire and The Frontier Spinster.

The former had been granted a long, proud tradition by the time True Grit was being written. The nineteenth century’s models, Judith Hutter and Jo March, had given way to Scarlet O’Hara and Scout Finch in the twentieth.

The latter had been routinely ridiculed (as spinsters have been everywhere through most of human history) and never been treated with anything like the dignity or force Portis discovered in Mattie (let us not say “created”–in life, she had always had it).

There were reasons why

If the crit-illuminati have had a far more complicated relationship with Mattie Ross than with Huck or Ahab or pretty much anyone else, it’s because her stinging, arch-conservative, Christian voice can’t help reminding them (or us) which character represents the rock upon which civilizations are built. Seen from this side of the great cultural divide (a divide that was opening wide even as Portis was writing), it can get very confusing trying to decide whether we should be laughing with her or at her.

And by the time you get around to deciding, she might have broken your heart.

You might have realized in that split-second delay, that, having granted her this one moment in fiction, we’ve cast her, and her memory, aside in the world, having sold ourselves on the notion that it is no longer necessary to produce people who will ride into the Choctaw Nation in the dead of winter to kill the bad men.

More’s the pity?

We’ll find out soon enough.

TEN THINGS I REALLY BELIEVE

No, really…

(1) I am the reincarnation of Charles Hardin Holley.

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This was revealed to me some time ago and normally I wouldn’t buy it with a three-dollar bill. But the burning bush was very convincing.

(2) Raymond Chandler’s plots were great.

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I mean, just because you don’t know whether the Spirit of Carmen Sternwood, Los Angeles or the American Dream killed the chauffeur…

(3) Not unrelated: Nearly all great prose fiction to date was produced by the Victorians…..

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or the Pulps…

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That’s Mister James and Mister Hammett to you!

(4) The truest definition of rock and roll is as a musically and culturally aspirational train that left the station the first time Antoine Domino’s left hand, a piano and a recording device were put in a room together.

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(5) The second truest definition of rock and roll is as a corrosively nihilistic trainwreck that, unfortunately, did not simply end the day this sad young man, in what an entire collapsed culture had by then taught him was an act of courage, blew his brains out.

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(6) Not unrelated: “America” is now in the past tense. Sorry, folks, it was an idea whose time had not yet come after all. No pictures available. But there is news at 11:00….Every night!

(7) I don’t believe there was/is such a thing as “The Great American Novel,” but if forced to both convert and choose, my top three contenders in the stretch would be The Deerslayer, The Long Goodbye and True Grit, with The Man in the High Castle coming up on the outside and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sneaking up on the rail.

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True confession: I’ve read most of the crit-approved contenders, but I’ve been saving Moby Dick for either old age or “next month” for about thirty years now.

(8) The most abused quotation in the history of quotations is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “There are no second acts in American lives.” I went into the reasons here.

(9) Not unrelated: The greatest line in American fiction was uttered in a movie called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which also happens to contain the second most abused quotation in the history of quotations (“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”) That one gets all the ink, perhaps to keep us from thinking too hard about this:

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“Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden….Aren’t you proud?”

Well, aren’t we?

(10) If it turns out this is all we were, we did have some things to be proud of…

…so saith the burning bush.

MIDDLEBROW AT HIGH TIDE (Quarterly Book Report: July–September 2014)

To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee–1960; Audio by Sissy Spacek–2006)

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I’ll save any complicated thoughts I have about Lee’s much misunderstood novel (so often perceived by both its admirers and detractors as a rather simple celebration when in fact it was a stark warning) for its own post some day. For now, I’ll just mention that Spacek’s much-admired reading, which I’ve been meaning to get hold of for years, deserves every bit of the lavish praise it has received. A perfect match of narrator and material.

New Hope (Ernest Haycox–1998)

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A collection of Haycox’s stories from the 1930s, threaded together by some common themes and characters, concluding with his “New Hope” stories, which are a pulp version of Winesburg, Ohio. The stories are romantic but the tone is spare and unsentimental. The best Western pulp writers have received nowhere near the acclaim that the Crime pulps have and that’s a bit unfair. If there’s no one quite at the level of Hammett/Chandler/MacDonald in the genre there is still quite a bit of fine writing and here “The Hour of Fury”–written in the same era as Hammett’s end and Chandler’s beginning by a man who was admired by Faulkner and Hemingway, among others–is easily as good as their short fiction. At three hundred published stories in less than twenty years, I don’t doubt that he wrote too much (and some of that deadline strain shows here and there in this collection) but if three or four dozen were on a level with “Hour” and “Stage to Lordsburg” (the superb source story for John Ford’s monumental Stagecoach, which is available in the Criterion release of that film), then he, like Dorothy Johnson and a few others from the genre, is probably worthy of a look from the Library of America.

Rogue Moon (Algis Budrys–1960)

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Hardcore sci-fi from the golden age, meaning it’s a novel of ideas. In this case, the idea is an interesting and rather prescient one. Something is peeking in from another dimension and using the dark side of the moon for a base. The U.S. security state (yes it was already in full swing) has come across the thing and assigned scientists to study it. They keep transporting men (in the manner that would become familiar on Star Trek a few years later) and having them returned in various states of madness because their “other” bodies have experienced death.

So the lead scientist decides that they need a man who courts death–an early Evel Knievel type say.

Good thinking. Especially since the head of personnel has a perfect example in mind and he’s anxious to get the man out of the way so he can have a run at his gorgeous girlfriend.

See, I told you it was a novel of ideas!

In all seriousness, though–given pulp limitations–Budrys does a good enough job of keeping the balance between the human story and the somewhat abstract (he doesn’t over-explain, which is a place where sci-fi so often tends to fail) extra-dimensional elements. I can’t say it was a page-turner, but the pace was lively enough and the ending was both a genuine surprise and–given how little I thought I had invested in the two not-very-likable main characters–oddly touching.

QUARTERLY BOOK REPORT: 3/14 (Walter Mosley Walks the Walk…and I Finally Catch Up)

(NOTE: Since most of my scant reading time is now devoted to material for BWW (all reviews accessible under that category at the right), the Monthly Book Report is, at least for now, going to have to become the Quarterly Book Report. I’ll change back if I start getting time to read more, but, for now, I’ll be lucky to read more than a book or two on my own stick in any given quarter.)

Black Betty

Black Betty (Walter Mosley–1994)

Whenever I start reading a new-to-me detective series written in the American vein (called “hard-boiled” for the usual mix of not-very-good reasons among which bleeding obviousness is actually far from the worst), the first question that always arises is whether it raises the game invented, refined and still (for my money) defined by the Big Three: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.

Black Betty–the fourth of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins’ series and, as of this week, my introduction–doesn’t exactly lead me to believe that he has raised the game, but it certainly provides some strong evidence that he has at least broadened it.

That’s no small feat.

Since it’s the first Rawlins (and the first Mosley) I’ve read, I can’t say where Black Betty stacks up in the series–whether it’s prime, low or middling. But it has enough good and interesting elements that I’m definitely eager to read more.

As many before me have doubtless pointed out, Mosley’s series is marked by two distinct departures from the Big Three (and from most of the rest of American detective fiction). First, he’s trying to make his main character three-dimensional. Second, he’s telling his stories from an African-American perspective.

On the first matter, I don’t think he’s terribly successful, at least not in this entry. Yes, Rawlins has more “character”–meaning more real history, family connections, childhood memories and so forth–than his standard models. Not that this requires much. Hammett’s Continental Op didn’t even have a name. Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe had a name and not much else. MacDonald’s Lew Archer had at least a few of the elements of a specific–as opposed to archetypal–character, but not so many that they intruded on, or, if you prefer, distracted from, the narrative. Unfortunately, while Easy Rawlins has a lot of dimension compared to his most obvious predecessors, I don’t think he has nearly enough to make him interesting in and of himself.

At least not in this one book, which has warm “humanizing” moments with Rawlins’ adopted children and random departures into civics’ lectures (the book is set during the early sixties) that are nowhere near strong enough to stand on their own and add nothing whatsoever to plot, character, theme, etc. I’ll have to suspend judgment on the overall effectiveness of this element until I’ve read some more of the series but here, at least, it landed with a series of small, annoying thuds.

I definitely will be reading more, however–probably the whole thing. Because Mosley’s second inventive feature–the perspective of Black America–is completely compelling.

This is literally Ross MacDonald’s turf–Mosley has even gone back to the same time period–seen from a completely and refreshingly different angle.

Going back to a few of MacDonald’s novels myself in recent years has given me a whole new appreciation for them, one which I wrote about briefly here. And Mosley has made a world that is every bit as compelling, even if Rawlins himself usually seems like the very sort of (admittedly morally ambiguous) narrative convenience that the Big Three always took their detectives to be. That’s not a bad thing. When Mosley leaves him alone–just a man with some sort of conscience trying to do a dirty job–the novel hums. It’s precisely when he tries to broaden the character that the thing begins to slog.

If that turns out to be typical of the series, that’ll be a bit of a shame because Mosley is very nearly MacDonald’s equal in terms of plotting (which is saying a mouthful). And, by presenting Black America’s version of this world, a world where the middle and lower classes are, of necessity, much more communal and far more tightly bound to each other than they are in White America’s version of same, he’s given himself a big, rich canvas to paint on.

Civics lessons and warm family moments–indifferently rendered as they are here, in a story that covers admittedly familiar tropes but is delivered with sufficient skill as to make familiarity beside the point and has a corker of a denouement to boot–can, ironically enough, only hold him back.

 

SEGUE OF THE DAY (12/13/13)–(So, Just What Are the Limitations of Popular Art Anyway?)

Explanations below, but, for starters, a salute to the late Ms. Robinson, who died of cancer in 2000 at the age of forty-five (complete with a Paul Williams intro that demonstrates just how far Show Biz hadn’t come while the culture was moving at light speed):

Now to the main point:

A few days ago, Terry Teachout posted a link to his current Wall street Journal column in which he opines on the “limits” of popular art. You can read the whole thing here but the gist is about what you would expect from a cultural conservative and he’s certainly not entirely wrong.

But it’s funny that no one ever seems to say much about the limits of High Art. I mean, one reason so-called popular art has taken up so much space in the Post-War era is that High Art has been failing so miserably.

And, of course, I spend a lot of time around here arguing that the point of “culture” at any level called “art” is to engage. That means history, politics, sex, religion, love, hate, war, poverty and so on and so on and skooby-dooby-doo.

Oooh-sha-sha.

See, there’s Popular Art giving me a voice. Engaging.

Believe me, I’d be very happy if what passes for High Art in the modern age managed to do the same.

Now, I didn’t want to stack the deck, so rather than respond to the ideas in Teachout’s essay by specifically seeking the safest available high ground (something like the Rolling Stones in 1969, or Robert Johnson in 1937, or Raymond Chandler in 1952, the first and last of those being things Teachout has evinced a limited understanding of in the past which suggests he probably hasn’t quite thought this thing all the way through) I decided I would just weigh in on the next thing that happened to pop up in the course of my day…see how far that would take me.

So, from a few nights ago, when the “next thing” happened to be a mix disc I had just assembled as a copy of an old mix tape (Volume Fourteen of a twenty volume set, and, please, believe me when I say, social relevance was the furthest thing from my mind at the point of original assembly, unless “social relevance” means imagining just how far my Theory of Shindig and Hullabaloo Dance could stretch), here goes (original recording dates in parens):

Soul Survivors “Expressway to Your Heart” (1967)–Epochal black producers (Gamble and Huff) have their first hit guiding a white group imitating a white group imitating a black group while Philly International was still a gleam in somebody’s eye.

Young Rascals “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (1965)–The specific group the Soul Survivors were imitating. They happened to be white boys signed to a record label owned by white men who specialized in selling black music to, first, Black America and, later, White America as well, but weren’t above selling white acts to black people or white acts to white people if they could smell a profit. Would have made Beethoven’s head spin, I tell you, but they made it look easy.

Candi Staton “Young Hearts Run Free” (1976)–An exemplar of one of mid-period disco’s deeply mixed messages. These days, slick magazines are full of articles with titles like “Can Women Really Have It All.” Then as now, the answer was Yes and No. Sorry but I’d rather listen to Ms. Staton work out the ambiguities than read what our modern Platos have to say on the subject.

Wilson Pickett “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (1970)–A black man, who sounds like he knows he’s caught in a trap, begs–and begs, and begs–for a black woman not to leave him at the first historical moment when it was possible for her to even think about doing so.

Abba “SOS” (1974)–Swedish woman sings “I tried to reach for you but you had closed your mind” back to the man who wrote the lines for her to sing. He happened to also be her husband at the time. No, really.

John Waite “Missing You” (1984)–Okay, this is just a nice, pop-obsessive record about pretending not to miss someone who kicked your heart to pieces and who you would take back in a second if they would have you. Nothing High Art couldn’t handle in other words.

Cher “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” (1971)–A major star, singing in the voice of one who never got the chance, spits back at everyone who ever spit on her.

Cher “Half Breed” (1973)–Ditto. Only more so.

Styx “Too Much Time on My Hands” (1981)–I’m actually not sure what this is about. Possibly unemployment but I’m not gonna stake my reputation on it.

Roxette “The Look” (1988)–Pure confection. No discernible higher meaning except it was the-best-Prince-record-made-by-somebody-other-than-Prince, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

The Who “Who Are You” (1977)–English rockers lament/celebrate their escape from the lives the system had planned for them. Self-destruction caught up with the drummer shortly thereafter. Whether this record would still sound like it’s chasing him if he’d somehow never been caught is one of those nice existential questions that should be mulled in Philosophy 101 classes everywhere….but probably isn’t.

AC/DC “Get It Hot” (1979)–A salute to rock and roll. Good topic. Well played.

Heart “Straight On” (1978)–An epic blues played, sung, conceived and executed by seventies-era white people from the Pacific Northwest (who many sardonics of ill repute believe are the whitest people who have ever lived so go ahead and have your snicker) and also a late-feminist sequel to the Shangri-Las’ proto-feminist “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” that demonstrates just how far the earth had turned in a decade. If there’s been a novel or play that did as much, I missed it. If I happen to run into one somewhere, I bet I’ll have the bring up the fact that it doesn’t get the job completely done in four minutes.

Randy Newman “I Love LA” (1982)–Love and mockery, joined at the hip and permanently reinforcing each other.

Randy Newman “It’s Money That Matters” (1988)–The History of America in the New Gilded Age. (The ethics of which were so thoroughly and seductively appalling/appealing that, unlike the first Gilded Age, they have survived the inevitable economic bust. More than one in fact. Goodbye us, in other words. Thanks Randy!)

Jackie Wilson “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (1967)–A call-and-response Top Ten hit and permanent radio staple that perfectly captures the last historical moment when it seemed possible for the Civil Rights movement to become a lasting social triumph as opposed to a purely legalistic one.

Steve Miller Band (1976) “RockN’ Me”–A rocker’s ode…whether to groupies or to the One Left at Home, I’ve never been quite certain.

Huey Lewis and the News (1983) “Heart of Rock and Roll”–A promise that rock and roll would keep on a goin’. Naturally it was already a bit ill, though a few years from being terminal. The song works because it is completely devoid of irony, self-awareness or any other complicating factor. Well that plus it has a good beat and you can dance to it.

Standells “Dirty Water” (1965)–The eternal, existential struggle between Puritanism and its discontents, distilled to one hundred and sixty-eight perfect seconds.

Blues Magoos “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet” (1966)–“Nothing can hold us, nothing can keep us down.” I bet High Art never manages to go anywhere that line doesn’t when it finally does work up its nerve and get around to explaining either the successes or the failures of “the Sixties.”

Tommy Tutone “867-5309/Jenny” (1981)–Stalker pleads with the Object of his Affection not to change her phone number. In other words, 7,000 guest shots on the Law and Order franchise, explained well ahead of time.

The Jacksons “Enjoy Yourself” (1976)–Or, as the full line goes, “Enjoy yourself, with me…You better enjoy yourself.” Question for the class: Whose enjoyment is more important? His or hers? Hey, that’s Michael on the lead. Does that make it any clearer? Or the “better” any more disturbing?

Vicki Sue Robinson “Turn the Beat Around” 12-inch Version (1976)–Broadway chanteuse speaks in tongues over a History of Poly-rhythms so complete it proves conclusively the inherent funkiness of the flute. In direct response to Terry’s essay, I consider this aiming very high indeed. (And just as an aside, I’ve never quite been able to forgive Gloria Estefan for later deciphering the lyrics. And I’ve really, really tried. And just as another aside: I once heard a music critic explain the superiority of seventies music over sixties music–and express complete contempt for anyone who might have even thought of disagreeing with him–by using the name of this record, plus the words “Come on!” as his entire argument. As an unabashed lover of the music of both decades, I’m an agnostic in that particular debate, but I’ll just say I did know what he meant.)

Ohio Players “FOPP” (1975)– “The rich can Fopp and, uh, so can the po’, you can Fopp until your ninety-fo’” Hey, it took a while (decades or centuries depending on when you prefer to start counting), but when Democracy finally started producing Manifestos like this, the Soviets were basically toast, regardless of who we elected President.

Rick James “Superfreak Pt 1″ (1981)–The groupie as Goddess. No ambiguity about this one.

The Doobie Brothers “China Grove” (1973)–Flannery O’Connor weirdness with a slightly better sense of rhythm and no room for the abiding contempt of the human species that intellectuals of all stripes seem to find so comforting.

Of course, each of these responses amounts to only one of several possible responses. No point in making High Art’s head spin trying to keep up.

BTW: High Art, I feel like I should give you a hug. You lost this round, but a week earlier and you might have come up against Volume Twelve. Bad, that. Would have meant dealing with “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Brother Louie.”

Count yourself lucky.

JUNE BOOK REPORT (6/13–The Sixties…Refracted)

The Far Side of the Dollar (Ross MacDonald, 1964)

A re-read.

Mid-level MacDonald, which means as good or better than anybody else’s high level except Chandler’s or Highsmith’s, the only American “thriller” writers who rate a legitimate comparison.

I first read MacDonald’s oeuvre (much of it two or three times) in the eighties. I was a lot younger then and was mostly impressed by his coiled spring plotting, which isn’t matched by any writer I know of, irrespective of genre or level of stylistic acumen.

If anything, my respect for that element of his books has grown. I’m a long way past thinking “plot”–let alone true, complex narrative–is easy.

But these days, I’m even more impressed by the clarity and nuance of his vision.

There’s a tendency among the crit-illuminati to apply the word “noir” to virtually anything that involves crime and is the least bit ambiguous. I’ve seen it applied to MacDonald plenty of times.

But noir is fantasyland and a particular kind of fantasyland at that. MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels take place in a world which, if it isn’t quite real, isn’t quite unreal either. (I can speak with some authority on the matter because I partly grew up in a world–Central Florida in the sixties and early seventies or, more specifically, working class communities stuck between trailer parks in the literal shadow of NASA’s rockets–that left a very definite impression on my formative mind, an impression of being both real and unreal in ways that MacDonald’s books, set in Southern California around the same time, capture perfectly.)

Maybe it was because I read the final chapters of this particular book with Thunderclap Newman’s Hollywood Dream for background music (and never was there a more perfect soundtrack for any literary experience), but the weight of both the looming apocalypse and the more troubling seeds of long term erosion are present in MacDonald’s books to a greater degree than anything else I’ve encountered from that period or any other.

I never thought he was less than a fine writer and I’ve never taken any fine writer for granted. But working my way back through his books these days I’m becoming convinced that he achieved something rarer and better.

He wasn’t just good, he was right. (So good and so right that I can readily forgive him for being very, very wrong when he–or Archer anyway–once said rock and roll was “music for civilizations to decline by”…I’d say rock and roll was more like the last thread holding ours together, but, hey, we all make mistakes!)

Thunderclap Newman “Something In The Air” (Trippy period television performance!)

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me (Pattie Boyd with Penny Junor, 2007)

Boyd’s an accomplished woman in her own right. She was the era-equivalent of a super-model when she married the “quiet” Beatle in the mid-sixties (he soon made her quit), and, in the years since she finally detached herself from Harrison’s snake-in-the-grass buddy Eric Clapton in the late eighties, she became a gallery-worthy photographer.

In the space between–the years when she inspired most of the great music either man ever made and, thus, the reason so many folks bugged her for so long to write this memoir–she served as the principal muse and personal doormat for two dry-stick Englishmen who had been rescued from life’s humdrum by a bit of luck and their considerable talents.

Why and how she managed to draw heights from them they rarely, if ever, approached otherwise is surely a story worth telling.

Alas, one cannot find that story here.

Pattie seems to have been (and to still be) what used to be called a good egg. It’s her defining quality and one way to stay a good egg is to keep seeing the good in people who deserve less.

I can’t deny there are moments to behold here–an underlying narrative yearning to breathe free:

“While the Beatles were recording the White Album, George wrote a song called ‘Something,’ which he released as his first A-side single with the Beatles. He told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that he had written it for me. I thought it was beautiful–and it turned out to be the most successful song he ever wrote, with more than a hundred and fifty cover versions. His favorite was one by James Brown….My favorite was the one by George Harrison, which he played to me in the kitchen at Kinfauns.”

That’s a genuinely lovely passage that sums up the strengths and weaknesses of the book’s general paint-by-numbers, as-told-to approach. It’s the entirety of what she has to say about inspiring one of the greatest love songs ever written (you can take Frank Sinatra’s word for it if you don’t care for mine) and by itself it could hardly be bettered.

But the same style of understatement is pretty much applied to her entire life. That might have been a refreshing approach if she had stuck to momentous occasions. But when so many anecdotes hinge upon some variation of “my self esteem had never been lower” or “we drank far too much” or “Barbados is such a lovely island” or “the view was breathtaking” or “we had no idea how much damage drugs could really do,” or “I should have left much sooner but I thought a woman was just supposed to put up with such things,”** the mind does go a bit numb and the eyes do develop a tendency to glaze.

Don’t get me wrong. Much as I wanted somebody to shake her by the collar and tell her to stop letting famous men wipe their feet on her, I had empathy for Boyd throughout. Mostly because her famous husbands frankly creeped me out:

“What I didn’t know [about Clapton’s sudden proprosal of marriage, several years after he had wooed her away from Harrison and long after he had established a pattern of treating her like dirt, begging her to take him back yet again, and writing a song about it] until Roger Forrester confessed a few days after the wedding was how the whole thing had come about. He and Eric had been playing an endless drunken game of pool at Roger’s house in Finley Green and they had had a bet. Roger had bet Eric that he could get his photograph in the newspapers the following morning. Eric bet him ten thousand pounds that he couldn’t. So Roger went straight to the telephone and told Nigel Dempster, then gossip columnist on the the Daily Mail, that Eric Clapton would be marrying Pattie Boyd on March 27 in Tucson, Arizona. By the time they woke up the next morning, the story, plus photograph, was emblazoned across the Daily Mail and the two went into a total panic. What to do? A few million people now knew about the wedding; the only person who didn’t know was the bride. Hence the hasty phone call–and the desperation for an immediate answer.”

There’s a lot of that sort of thing, so, when I wasn’t nodding off, I found myself frequently wanting to drag the not-much-better George Harrison’s ghost back from Karma-land so I could give him a good reaming before I went off to punch Eric Clapton in the face.

But the reason this supremely cautious entry in the beleaguered annals of styleless, say-nothing prose exists is because its author was, with Michelle Phillips, one of the two great “muses” in the history of rock and roll.

And between reading it cover-to-cover and putting Layla and Other Love Songs–made in direct response to Boyd’s initial rebuff of an advance by Clapton that included a threat (subsequently carried out) to start shooting heroin if she didn’t relent and, to my mind, the only truly sustained greatness of his career–through the headphones one more time, I’m afraid I can really only recommend the latter.

Derek and the Dominoes “Anyday” (Studio Recording)

**Time presses and I don’t do this for money, so I didn’t go back and look up these “exact” quotes. Trust me, the redundtant sentiments are accurately captured even if the words are not.

 

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.

 

FOR TODAY, SOME FUN LINKS…

Noel Vera on Django Unchained (and QT generally)

 Walter Mosley on Raymond Chandler

 And, now that Kathryn Bigelow has published what is likely to be her defintiive response to the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty‘s presentation of the torture state (and now that I’ve finally seen the movie), my quick two cents:

Much ado about nothing on either side. The movie isn’t clearly pro- or anti-torture. It is, I thinkpretty clearly pro-security state–as in, it accepts more or less unconditionally (as does the director’s editorial) that we need one. Given that acceptance, no moral stance is possible, here or elsewhere. Once we’ve accepted the permanent need for a security state, then we’ve accepted the “need” for torture, assassination and all the other dubious “strategies” which are the life-blood of security states in all times and places (including arresting you tomorrow, in order to find out what you know). Whether any particular itch is being scratched at this or any other moment is immaterial. The salient matter is that the barriers are down.

This isn’t a political site so I’m not here to convince anyone that they should or should not agree with my particular position on any of this, just to argue that the fierce debate surrounding this movie has been conducted on mostly spurious grounds–should or should we not torture–as opposed to serious ones–should or should we not have secret police forces in “free” societies. A movie about that subject, by a film maker as skilled as Bigelow, would be worth the heat this one has generated.

As it is, from my perspective, by far the most disorienting aspect of this very well made movie is that the Navy Seals look, act, move and speak like my nephew’s old weekend softball team.

 There might be another post in that…I’ll have to stew on it for a day or two!