LEARNING ABOUT THE AIR (Race in America: 1977)

(This is a new category which I’ve been thinking about adding for a while. Most of them will also be additions to my informal, uncategorized series which I like to call “Scenes From an Actual Boyhood” a play on Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, in which he fantasized about boyhood and left out anything and everything pertaining to boys that didn’t fit the dream life of middle-age soccer moms.)

Back in the Spring of ’77, a time in American history which seems to have left no trace on the future, I was in my junior year of high school in the Florida Panhandle, that part of Florida which is sometimes jokingly, sometimes wistfully, referred to as L.A.: Lower Alabama.

One Monday morning I showed up at school, stepped out of my ride’s car in the parking lot, and felt something different….something I hadn’t felt since the spring of ’74 when I was in the eighth grade in another part of the state known, then and now, as the Space Coast.

I had been in Lower Alabama for three years by then, but the culture shock hadn’t worn off. (Comes to that, I’m not sure it’s worn off yet–must be some reason I prefer living like a hermit.) That feeling in the air when I got out of the car that Monday morning was the closest I had ever felt to a real connection between the two places.

So I knew right away it had something to do with the one thing every Southern place shares with every human space occupied by what are now called “multi” cultures: Race Tension.

The Tension soon had physical manifestations: The sound of a body being thrown against a classroom wall. Black kids with picks and blades trying to decide whether they wanted to descend from the school’s back door to a parking lot (yes, the same one my ride parked in) full of rednecks standing next to pickups with hunting rifles hung in the back windows (the black kids thought better of it–first Rumble averted). Reports of a fight. An actual fight. Then another actual fight.

That was the first couple of days.

After that: A teacher promising to give everybody ten points on next week’s test if the violence planned for Friday recess (planned by who, nobody knew….the plan had its own life, like the new Air) failed to materialize. White boys muttering darkly about the privileges granted blacks. Black kids muttering darkly about the privileges granted whites. Me telling my ride how not entirely unhappy I was to no longer be riding the bus where, in my freshman and sophomore years, I had usually been the only white kid (an experience worthy of its own post some day, now that I’ve opened this can of whup-ass memories).

And, of course, discussions all around about “here it all came from.

A general consensus formed, among white folks at least, that a black kid from New York had moved to the area. Though he didn’t go to our school, he shared Vo-Tech classes with some who did. Word was he had a habit of calling the local kids Uncle Toms for not standing up to the Man, meaning White People, meaning….us. Word was some of them had decided to show him–and us–what they were made of.

It seemed outside agitators had come to Lower Alabama.

Once that idea took hold, no amount of Confederate cannon-fire could have dislodged it.

The additional word was this had all come to some sort of head–at a party? a club? an impromptu meeting of a newly formed local chapter of the Black Panthers?–the weekend before the Monday I showed up  at school and, from the nearly empty parking lot, with no evidence available to the eye or ear that suggested it was anything but another school week, I thought, unbidden: This feels like eighth grade.

Through all that I’ve described above and more, that feeling persisted and grew for two full weeks. Every day a little stronger.

There were moments when it not only seemed possible that some terrible thing might happen but that–no matter how many times we white kids reassured ourselves that it would be absurd, ridiculous, suicidal, for black kids to “riot”–there was simply no way it wouldn’t happen.

It was coming. There was no way to avoid it.

Because it was in the Air.

And what did I, no great respecter of the Air, do through all this?

I did what I always did.

i practiced the careful art of doing nothing.

Except for the day when the art of doing nothing sort of accidentally became the art of doing something.

My usual nothing consisted of sitting around during break times–recess, lunch, school assemblies I had a habit of spending in the library—with my nose in a book.

None of that changed during the two weeks of the Race Tension.

Come recess, lunch, assembly, you could still find me, alone in a room, or off in a corner somewhere, reading.

And the time you could be most alone, I found, was recess.

I actually did get out and about a bit at lunch. Even I had to eat.

And not even I could get out of every assembly.

But literally nobody else stayed in his seat reading a book during recess.

Which is why I found it a little odd, on Wednesday of the second week of the Tension–to find myself in Social Studies (my next class), during recess….and not alone.

I was sitting in my usual seat. Second row if memory serves (and dammit, memory, you better serve–this is a memory piece!). And there were several kids sitting behind me.

The room had risers, so they were not only behind me but above me. All black kids–four? five?–whispering among themselves. Whispering, I assumed, because they did not want to be heard by the only other occupant of the room. Namely me. The only white boy.

As time passed, their voices got a little louder. This was a phenomenon I was already a bit familiar with, one which time has consistently reaffirmed: If you are in a room with a group of people from which you are for some reason excluded, they will begin by worrying about whether you can overhear them. If you are quiet long enough, they will become worried that you don’t hear them.

So their voices got louder. And, eventually, I heard them.

They were talking about the Rumble. The new Rumble that was going to be, if nothing else, more effective than the Rumble that had broken on the wave of all those rednecks standing next to all those shotguns. It was going to be more effective because it wasn’t going to be a Rumble. At least not according to any definition I had ever heard.

This was all going to be planned, rather like D-Day. Nothing would be left to chance this time!

Come Friday recess, every black kid was going to find a white kid–their special white kid, by prearrangement with all the other black kids, so there would be no duplication of effort–and “get even.”

This was the memo.

By the Wednesday before the Friday of the new, improved Rumble, everybody had gotten it. Some of the white kids were complaining because all they were allowed to pack was a pocket knife, which wasn’t much good against a steel pick. At least a couple of white kids were rumored to have started carrying their own steel picks (though I confess I never saw one).

And what the black kids who were sitting up behind me at recess on Wednesday in my Social Studies classroom were talking about–I see you Michael. I see you Daryl, Jeffrey, Ricky….Walter, is that you?–was the memo.

Who was going after who.

More time passed and I heard some names: “I got ____!” “You got____?” “Who got ____?”

I also heard their growing indifference to my presence becoming mingled with their increasing need to engage me–their awareness of my awareness of their awareness.

So, finally, one of them–Jeffrey, is that you?–speaking low enough to pretend he didn’t want me to hear and loud enough I couldn’t miss it.

“Who got Ross?”

At which point there was a small silence.

Apparently nobody had Ross.

Which I took for a good excuse to put my finger in my book, bend the page over the finger, and turn around.

I made sure to smile the smile with which Michael and Walter, at least, were intimately familiar and to shake my head.

Then I rolled my eyes.

Then I held up my book.

“If ya’ll get it figured out,” I said. “You know where I’ll be.”

At which point we all started laughing.

Did it matter? Did it matter that it was me? That it was them? That I reacted the way I did? That they reacted the way they did? That I was there, where I always was? That they were there, where they never were?

Who knows.

Maybe the Rumble–the Big One, the Efficient One, the One that Couldn’t Possibly Fail to Come Off This Time!–would have failed to come off anyway.

Maybe one of the hundred other things that can prevent such a thing would have happened and the whole thing would still have died on the vine.

Maybe one–or ninety-nine–of those things did happen and I never heard about it.

So far as I know, none of the others who were in that room with me, ever ventured any ideas about why it never came off. They certainly didn’t say anything to me. After the other kids started filing in, on the Wednesday-Before-the-Friday after recess, it was like it never happened.

What I did notice was that, for me–and I suspect for them–the air broke in that moment we all started laughing.

It broke because, in a single instant and all together, we realized how stupid it all was–and, far more important in our teenage world, how stupid it would all look….if it even tried to come off.

Suddenly, we all saw there was only one way for it not to come off stupid, not to come off looking the one thing no teenage boy ever wants to come off looking–and that was for it to never come off at all.

Coincidentally or not, it didn’t come off.

Of course, when I got out of that class an hour later and walked the halls again, amongst all those people who hadn’t been in that room, I realized that the Air hadn’t broken for anyone else. For everyone else the Tension was still real and palpable. For them, the Rumble was still inevitable and queasy-making. It was still all of that even on Friday afternoon, after first recess, then lunch, had passed into history, and the Rumble hadn’t come off.

Even then, the Air was still the Air.

It still promised we had come to a place–a place perhaps even teenagers in Lower Alabama in a time as lost as the late seventies must come to now and again to feel alive–where anything was possible.

And me and the kids who didn’t know the answer to “Who got Ross?” and everybody else, spent the weekend wondering what the following week would bring.

The confidence in the power of absurdity to finally embarrass everyone into inaction–the power I had felt so strongly in my Social Studies room at recess on the Wednesday-Before-the-Friday–waxed and waned.

Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I shook my head. Sometimes I felt a little queasy.

What next?

Monday morning my ride took me to school like always.

Monday morning, on the drive in, me and my ride made some lame jokes to each other about what the new week would bring.

Monday morning, we drove into the parking lot and nothing felt any different there inside the car, where it was just us, with the Air left over from the weekend and the Friday before.

Monday morning, we rolled to a stop and then opened our car doors like usual.

Monday morning, we stood up in the actual air…and knew instantly that the Air was normal again, and that there was no more explanation for the return of Normalcy than there had been for its abandonment exactly two weeks earlier.

That was when I learned to respect the Air.

Since then, I’ve learned to pay attention to it as well.

It’s how I once knew something as historically insignificant as that it was okay to stay in our seats the last time FSU and the local HBC, Florida A&M, played basketball, even though a hellacious fight (which ultimately resulted in the suspension of the game) was breaking out on the court.

It’s also how I knew, as far ago as the summer before last, something as historically significant as that Donald Trump–a man I had never previously spent ten seconds thinking about–had a real chance to become President of the United States (and why I felt confident predicting his win on this blog).

It’s useful, respecting the Air.

Among many other things, it keeps you from being too surprised.

And, as I’ve mentioned here a time or two, it’s also defined my respect for artists, especially popular artists.

The best of them know the Air far better than you or I do.

They also know it way-y-y-y-y better than the highbrows do.

The Air belongs to the pulps, the singers, the comedians.

That’s why Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were able to dream Rock and Roll America into being while the intelligentsia slept. It’s why Philip K. Dick’s “science fiction” novels have the jittery feel of the modern Security State down to a tee, while Norman Mailer’s “political” novels feel like ad copy and the famous dystopian models of Orwell and Huxley read like tracts. It’s why Ross Macdonald’s detective stories carry the weight of impending middle class doom and John Updike’s are strings of adjectives. It’s why Mary Weiss’s voice, from 1964, carries everything true that would come to pass in the cross-cultural maelstrom known as “punk” and why Johnny Rotten–who didn’t have the Air–always sounded like a fake to anyone who did. It’s why the primal scream of the inner city crack epidemic can be heard and felt, years earlier, in the voices of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, or the comedy of Richard Pryor, but not in the most beautiful or painful or lucid essays of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. It’s why the muffled moan of the “White Death” meth epidemic that has since descended upon Appalachia can be heard in Patty Loveless’s voice a quarter century ago.

The Artists–the real artists–know. They’re the canaries in every modern coal mine. They’ll tell you about the Air if you let them.

And they’ll keep on telling you.

Whether the big Rumble building just now comes to pass or not.

 

RIDE ON JOSEPHINE (Monthly Book Report: 11/16)

All mystery this month. I’ll be reviewing a book of interviews with Ross MacDonald for BWW shortly. Meanwhile I reached the half-way mark in my Josephine Tey Re-read Project, finishing A Shilling for Candles and The Franchise Affair….two novels as different as the pre- and post-war years in which they were published..

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A Shilling For Candles (Josephine Tey, 1936)

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The date is telling. This is an old-fashioned, stiff upper lip, “there will always be an England” style mystery, about as conventional as Tey got. It was her second novel, following on The Man in the Queue from the previous decade (she made her bones as a playwright in between). I won’t say the future isn’t felt here–that WWII isn’t right around the corner–but it’s felt as something to be held a arm’s length.

Again, Tey rides with Inspector Alan Grant and, again, she attaches her mystery to Show Biz. The theater in Queue, the cinema here. As always, the character bits are sharp-edged and beautifully compressed. On her movie star victim (found drowned on the beach of a private hideaway in the novel’s opening sequence):

Nor yet when, tiring of song-and-dance pictures, her ambition had reached out to drama; her rocket had shot to the stars under its own power, it would seem. This could only mean one of two things: that she had remained virgin until her marriage at twenty-six (a state of affairs which Grant, who had a larger experience of life than of psychology textbooks, found quite possible) or that her favor was given only when her heart (or her fancy, according to whether you are sentimentalist or cynic) was touched. Four years ago Lord Edward Champneis (pronounced Chins), old Bude’s fifth son, had met her in Hollywood, and in a month they were married. She was at that time shooting her first straight film, and it was generally agreed that she had “done well for herself” in her marriage. Two years later Lord Edward as “Christine Clay’s husband.”

That single paragraph is powerfully redolent of Tey’s style–one she would go on to perfect at even higher levels after civilization managed to survive the storm clouds gathering deep in the book’s background. The fundamental natures of Show Biz, Hollywood, Scotland Yard, the British national character, and most of the insights you need into three principal players (including the one who’s death has set the story in motion) are all delivered in a single, short stroke. There’s never a moment when you are not aware that you are in the hands of a first rate writer.

The only letdown is the mystery itself, which–despite the lively presence of a tomboy who would have provided a plum role for Hayley Mills if anyone had been smart enough to make a film of this thirty ears later (no one could play her half so well now…thus has England gone)–is along pretty conventional lines. Not only do I not remember who the culprit finally was, a mere two weeks later, I don’t care that I don’t remember.

It would have been easy to guess, from the evidence of her first two novels, that Tey would go on being an acute practitioner of the Agatha Christie school.

Then the war came.

The Franchise Affair (Josephine Tey, 1948)

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This was Tey’s second post-war novel. While it’s not as disturbing or haunting as Miss Pym Disposes (it turns on the dread of failed reputations, unfairly tarnished, rather than the tragedy of a casual murder which punishes everyone but its perpetrator), it is very much in line with her new tone.

No aspect of “civilization” can be taken for granted.

This time the girl who might have been played by Hayley Mills a generation later (again, if someone in either Hollywood or the British Film Industry been the least bit on the ball), is a budding sociopath. A Lolita type arrived just a hair too early for the modernist eye to fall on her and give her a definitive shape (and yes, Stanley Kubrick wanted Mills for his film version of Nabokov’s novel…of course he did). She’s chilling enough, even in the background. I suspect, however, that writing Miss Pym, had taken something out of Tey, a less worldly and accomplished writer, in the same manner that Under Western Eyes took something out of Conrad, and Bend Sinister took something out of Nabokov. The dread builds nicely through the first two thirds of the book and then just sort of disperses, leaving a very nicely drawn middle age love story in its place.

Even there, Tey could be accused of pulling her punch. Not only does the monstrous child not rise to the level of murderer (casual or otherwise), or at least get away with her mischief, but the love story is reconciled on the last page, when it would have been far more poignant and realistic for it to remain broken.

It’s almost as if–perhaps wondering for the first time if there really would always be an England–the Scotswoman who had been born Elizabeth MacKintosh, could not bear to face the cold reality.

For that, she can certainly be forgiven.

[NOTE: The Franchise Affair, along with two subsequent Tey novels, Brat Farrar and The Daughter of Time, both of which I’ll be reviewing in due time, are routinely listed among the greatest crime novels ever written. Why Miss Pym Disposes, her greatest work, does not make these lists is….a mystery. Anyway, the ending reminded me a great deal, in both tone and incident, of the ending of the great Powell-Pressburger film from a few years earlier, I Know Where I’m Going. Somehow it worked better there. Given Tey’s interest in the cinema, I wonder if she was perhaps influenced by that film’s happy glow. One could see how. It starred Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey and it’s worth any effort to track it down.]

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.

UTOPIAS, DYSTOPIAS, MYOPIAS AND A BRIEF ROUNDUP OF THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Monthly Book Report: 8/15)

Since I’ve disconnected my television satellite and I’m not currently working on any side projects, I’m starting to have more time to read. I don’t know if the trend will last, but for now, I’m making two changes to the book report.

First, when there are more than the usual three or four books, I’m going to try to put them in categories, rather than simply reviewing by strict chronology according to the date I completed them.

Second, my policy with book covers up to now has been to post a copy of the edition I read, if I can find it. Seems like the more I read, the more of a chore and/or impossibility that becomes, so, starting now, I’m just going to use the cover of the edition I like best. Based on this month’s experiment, that will probably mean lurid for the pulp, stately for the classics, and functional for everything else.

So, sticking to the announced categories…

Utopias

Well, a pastoral anyway…

The Prairie (James Fenimore Cooper, 1827)

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And so, at long last, I fulfill a teenage promise to myself and finish the Leatherstocking Tales. This was the third written of the five, but the last chronologically for the character of Natty Bumppo. I’ve written at length elsewhere about the modern world’s odd and foolish neglect of Cooper, but I have to admit this was my least favorite of the series.

Cooper’s usual strengths, namely his unsurpassed descriptions of a wilderness Fitzgerald could evoke so swiftly and efficiently on the final page of The Great Gatsby in part because Cooper had done the heavy lifting for a century’s worth of readers in a pre-visual age, his action sequences, and his ability to wring real tragedy from melodramatic plots and a more than occasionally turgid literary style, are all present here, but severely muted.

Moving the setting from the upstate New York he knew like the back of his hand to midwestern plains he knew chiefly from the witness of others robs his descriptive passages of their authority.

Dealing with a landscape and tribal cultures he knew less than well meant he had to basically transport his stock characters into unfamiliar and sometimes ill-fitting skins.

With Chingachgook killed off and Natty aged out of both his heroic skill set and his appeal as a leading man (who broke a heart in The Deerslayer and had his broken in turn in The Pathfinder), the romances fail to spark.

And with the conflict between the woods and the town (or the fort) replaced by a roving fight between rootless and unsavory settlers, more unsavory Sioux, and noble Pawnees (standing in for the noble Delawares of Natty’s younger years), the great theme of civilization encroaching on the wilderness and vice versa never comes to life until the very end.

Even so, the book is hardly without worth. There’s some good comic relief from a naturalist who is Natty’s equal for stubbornness and pluck, though not for intelligence. (If classic Hollywood had taken on the story, Donald Meek could have played him perfectly).  And there’s a genuinely horrific scene, after the not-for-the-faint-of-heart fashion Cooper had mastered if not invented, in which the rude settlers are forced to punish one of their own for killing one of their own.

Plus, Natty’s long day’s journey into night is handled with grace and aplomb, a fitting end for the character, even if the series carried on until the 1840s and found its pinnacle in The Deerslayer, set first and written last, by which time Cooper knew a lot more than the thing or two that had already made him America’s first major novelist, and an undismissible guide to our national psyche, by the time this was written.

Myopias

Jake’s Thing (Kingsley Amis, 1978)

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Yet another reminder that, if satirists have their uses, they also have their limits.

Based on his famous and, as the English say, spot-on preference for John MacDonald (“by any standards a better writer”) over Saul Bellow (“a human heart chap”), plus happy experiences with The Anti-Death League (a genuinely great spy novel from 1966) and Lucky Jim (his misanthropic career maker from 1954), I’ve cut Sir Kingsley a fair bit of slack over the years.

That slack has now stretched to cover The Green Man (1969), The Russian Girl (1992) and this. And unless somebody can convince me he had another Anti-Death League in him–or at least a novel which isn’t yet another variant on Lucky Jim–I’m done.

I’m done even though this had a smile on nearly every page, a laugh on more than a few and a potentially intriguing premise: “Is male menopause any sort of crisis for a misanthrope?”

Amis was a Conservative Hedonist. He practiced a style of world-weary, seen-it-all, Englishness that probably reached its peak with Lucky Jim and had evidently worn thin by the time the Sexual Revolution got up a real head of steam. Conservative Hedonism was certainly preferable to it’s Liberal counterpart. Real Hate is more bracing than Fake Love in both Art and Life. But it’s lost its sting now that the age of cultural collapse it foreshadowed has arrived in force.

Laughter’s precious, alright, but it’s not worth the supercilious slog that Amis began extracting from his readers as the price of the ticket. And, God help him, somewhere along the way he started trying to invest in character development, almost always a deadly notion for a satirist.

One can ponder “Jake Richardson,” or Kingsley Amis, and get a glimpse into why and how civilizations fail alright. It’s when enough people who might have done better, don’t.

Not saying there’s no value in being reminded.

But one reason I never got into Seinfeld or Larry David or any other recent version of the lineage Amis the Elder (his son, God help us, writes too) had picked up from H.L. Mencken (a truly corrosive misanthrope who was evidently a frustrated Hedonist, always the kind who both start this sort of thing and are bound to be the best at it), is that, at some point, very soon after you take its measure, the corrosiveness is just plain tiresome.

Life’s too short.

Oh yeah. The “thing” is impotence…or lack of desire to perform even in the face of undiminished capacity….or the male member.

One of those. Or maybe all of them.

All nice subjects for satire. This would have made a great short story, so if I do try Amis again it will probably be through that route.

I’m old enough myself to have commitment issues whenever I get ten pages into a novel and realize it’s already going in circles around a very familiar track.

Dystopias

NOTE: I usually avoid dystopian novels written by anyone but Philip K. Dick, for the same reason I usually avoid novels about psychotics written by anyone except Patricia Highsmith. If a standard exists, met over and over by the standard setter, why bother with the rest? That said, the classics of certain genres do beckon when I’m in the mood to further my education, hence, the following:

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1931) and Brave New World Revisited (1958)

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Huxley’s great insight was his recognition that the old truth about Religion and Art being incompatible with the New Age’s rising Gods (one of which is, amusingly, always called Science or, even funnier, Reason, the other of which, given that it covers everything from political boot-licking to industrial criticism, must never, ever be called anything as mundane as Journalism and therefor can never, amusingly or otherwise, be called anything at all) was reaching a new, feverish pitch, even when he knocked his original dystopia into a novel of sorts.

The world more or less survived the first go-round with Perfection. Fascism came and went. Soviet style communism was still going strong when Huxley “revisited” his own vision in the late fifties, but has come a cropper since.

We’ve found new ways to terrorize and undermine ourselves here lately.

Still, his vision was on-track in the macro sense. We’ve been fairly resistant to Big Brother, but we do love our machines and our drugs and we are using them to reshape ourselves into something already recognizable as the very subversions of “brave” and “new” that Huxley glimpsed in outline in the early thirties.

Like most dystopian novels (Dick excepted), Brave New World is a bit of a chore once the premise is established, but I’m glad I finally read it–sense of accomplishment and all–and I agree with those who insist it was a more likely vision of the future than Orwell’s.

Still, it’s less likely than the vision at the back of all the other western visions, laid down by John the Revelator after a mad dream incurred on the Isle of Patmos. Like I said. Only Philip K. Dick has got past him.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1986)

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…And while I was in a dystopian mood, I thought I might as well tackle this one.

It’s a little more engaging than Orwell or Huxley. There’s an approximation of a human character at the center (she narrates) and a neat twist at the end. The vision itself isn’t very complicated or compelling. It’s made up out of bits and pieces of standard dystopian rubble and glued together by the even more standard Good Liberal horror of (and complete misunderstanding of) Evangelical Christianity. Anyone who has ever attended a Wednesday night business meeting at the local First Baptist, or understands even a little bit about how the chaotic anti-structure of Protestant sects actually works, will get a wry smile out of the notion that such folks will be running the New World Order, Star Chamber fashion, any day now. (The Handmaid’s Tale is set in what is supposed to be a disturbingly near future.)

On the positive side, the book is well written and there are a lot of sound general insights. Nothing that couldn’t have been gleaned from a good captivity narrative, mind you. (I know, because I just finished a captivity narrative myself and have been studying the sources.)

What really made this a grind, though, was that the specifics, despite being oh-so-carefully rendered, simply weren’t very convincing. It read like a philosophical treatise, not something the author felt in her bones.

So a lot like Brave New World–or 1984–after all.

The book was published in the eighties. If Atwood wanted to remain contemporary a generation hence she should have put jihadis in control of her world.

Of course, if she had, she would probably be dead or in hiding now.

I have no idea whether this was a failure of imagination on her part, or a failure of nerve.

And, despite her obvious skill, no desire to investigate further.

…the Usual Suspects

The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (John D. MacDonald, 1968)

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Jesus. The first half of this is so touchy-feely I thought I’d picked up a Harlequin Romance by mistake. There are letters for God’s sake, and no sign of the usual gimlet eye, sizing up the late twentieth century, let alone any sort of adventure going on.

It picks up in the second half. But even then is seems more like a misguided attempt to imitate Ross MacDonald than anything I’d want or expect from the McGee.

Weakest of the series so far.

Dress Her In Indigo (John D. MacDonald, 1969)

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I hate to say it, but the late sixties were not a good time for MacDonald/McGee. At least this time around he has the makings of a good story. even if it’s back to Mexico with not much to say that he hadn’t already said better.

There are too many twists and turns here and they don’t all make a lot of sense. When the bereaved father of a lost girl turns out to be not the out-of-shape midwestern businessman we’ve been led to believe but a stone cold torturer/murderer, the problem isn’t so much that it’s a stretch, or even that it’s a long stretch. It’s that the revelation comes as a total surprise to McGee, but not to the reader.

Believe me, I’m a pure sucker. You can have me agape with the least effort imaginable. But even I saw every twist coming, except for one very small, and genuinely unsettling one near the very end.

In short, too much sex therapy, as had become the norm (though at least this time around it’s the various fantasy women providing and McGee receiving). Too much intricate plotting (leave it to the other MacDonald, i.e. Ross, not to mention Agatha Christie, for they were good at it). Too much Meyer (I like Meyer, we all like Meyer, but McGee doesn’t need a true Watson). And yet again, no really memorable villain.

The McGee was clearly in a slump. The late sixties had thrown both him and his creator. I have fond memories of some of the books coming up so I’m looking forward to a rebound. This was a little better than the last one, but it’s also the first in the series that had me checking page numbers, which is the equivalent of checking your watch in a movie, wondering just how much longer until it’s over.

Eye of the Needle (Ken Follett, 1978)

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Having finally caught up last month with The Day of the Jackal, which story I knew from the fine film version, I decided to give this one, which inspired an even better film, a try.

Turns out the movie was a solid improvement (whereas the film of Jackal just held its ground). In part, because more liberties were taken.

The book is fine, a definite page turner, but it isn’t quite as good as Jackal, which was even better than the movie it inspired.

I don’t know if Follett was attempting a spin on Forsyth or anyone else, but coincidentally or not, his central track, in a story with an otherwise rather similar structure, ran opposite.

In Jackal, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in that case a paid murderer, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of espionage) from being revealed as a sociopath until the last possible instant.

In Eye of the Needle, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in this case, a German spy loose in the England of WWII, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of unpaid murder) from being revealed as something other than a sociopath. This is where the movie was an improvement (even though most critics didn’t get it…do they ever?).

Here, the murderous spy is merely cold-blooded, a standard Nazi-oid type most of us have encountered so frequently in fiction and film we’re bound to find ourselves stifling an occasional yawn by now, now matter how skillfully he’s rendered.

The film changed a few key sequences to hint at a man who got into it for excitement and love of country but knows he has lost his soul along the way. Given that for a premise, his affair with a lonely woman makes strong dramatic and emotional sense. In the novel, it’s far more mechanical and efficient. Still compelling, mind you, but the compulsion is strictly intellectual.

The movie of Eye of the Needle leaves an echo. The novel, well done as it is, is over when it’s over.

MY MORE OR LESS FAVORITE ALBUMS BY ARTISTS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Volume Four: The Eighties)

Ross MacDonald once had Lew Archer say that as a man gets older, the women he’s interested in should get older too. For what it’s worth, the women in this little survey–the women of my own generation or the one right before it–have remained the women I’m interested in. Purely spiritually of course.

The early eighties, especially, were a breakout period for women in rock and roll that was unlike anything seen since the early-mid sixties. I’m sure the fact that music has been steadily shoved back to the sidelines in the generations since, assuring that such things happen no more, is purely coincidental.

I mention all this because it turned out well over half the records in this last installment were made by the women I’ve grown older with. Beyond that, I’ll let any obvious themes emerge on their own. This was fun.

Blue Angel (1980)

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The lead singer was a superstar in waiting. As one of rock’s last visionaries, she was ready here, her vocal style fully formed. The world would catch up a few years later. Through some combination of experience and nature Cyndi Lauper was already able to sing, “I’ll take it like a man,” and make the mighty Gene Pitney sound like a four-year-old, which, believe me, he wasn’t.

Pick to Click: “I’m Gonna Be Strong” (Television performance. Later on, she recorded another version for her first greatest hits package which actually got past this…but she’s the only one who could have.)

Warren Zevon Stand In the Fire (1980)

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Zevon rarely caught the reckless abandon of his lyrics in the studio. He captured it in spades here and sustained it for an album-long assault. He sounded like nothing so much as man who was raging against the dying of the light, like he already knew the ripped-and-torn seventies would be the last decade anyone ever missed.

Well, anyone who wasn’t part of the conspiracy anyway.

Pick to Click: “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” (alternate live take)

REO Speedwagon Hi Infidelity (1980)

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Everything anyone would ever need to know about the eighties in a sleazy album cover, a catchy title and a single genius line. The rest sounds real good to me, but, really, who cares what the rest sounds like?

Pick to Click: “Take It On the Run” (For those who may have forgotten, that’s the one that begins “Heard it from a friend who/Heard it from a friend who/Heard it from another you’ve been messin’ around.” Welcome to Hell.)

Robin Lane & the Chartbusters (1980) and Imitation Life (1981)

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At the time, pretty much everything written about Lane (L.A. born show-biz kid who became the leader of a Boston based punk band which ended up sounding fashionably New Wave on their albums) mentioned that she was an Evangelical or “born again” Christian. I only mention it here because nobody seemed to ever draw the logical conclusion about the black hole in her voice. Weird how the illuminati tend to forget (or is it ignore?) that a belief in God contains an inherent belief in the Devil.

Strictly on the formal side, there is an awful lot of what the Go-Go’s and, especially, the Bangles, got up to directly after.

If you want to know how good they had to be to make it, you could start by considering how good she had to be to not quite make it.

Picks to Click: “When Things Go Wrong” (Robin Lane…live) and “Send Me an Angel” (Imitation Life, sorry, couldn’t find “Pretty Mala”)

Rachel Sweet …And Then He Kissed Me (1981)

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Her major label debut and there’s some gloss on the basic concept, but she cut through it effortlessly. The commercial push was behind a duet with Rex Smith on the indestructible “Everlasting Love” which scraped the Top 40 and generated one of the great Devil’s Island videos.

But some idiot or other failed to see the potential in her greatest vocal and it was left for Pat Benetar to scoop and score with a just-fine version that wasn’t half as good. Two years later Sweet was out of the music business, yet another might-have-been. This was the best of her.

Pick to Click: “Shadows of the Night”

The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat (1981)

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On their way to cracking the code that had kept every female band from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm to the Runaways safely on the fringes, they made the rest of the New Wave bands sound like they weren’t trying. That was no particular shame on the New Wave, because the dirty little secret was that they made pretty much every pre-New Wave band sound like they weren’t trying either.

This took nine months to climb to number one on the Billboard Album Chart, at which point the general word was that we could expect a wave of highly successful all female bands.

Still waiting for that.

Pick to Click: “Can’t Stop the World”

Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)

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Hence the flood. One of a wave of mega-million sellers that made up rock and roll’s last gasp as a force that defined something more than itself. All of the others (Thriller, Born In the U.S.A., Purple Rain, Eliminator, Scarecrow, 1984, et al) were by well established acts who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long since.

Every one of them sure sounded like the present in 1984 and that’s exactly what they sound like now.

1984.

Despite a production style that’s as dated as any, Lauper still sounds like she’s singing about a future in which she would be the only one left standing. The future that is now.

It’s 2015 and there are individual cuts here and there on those other albums that sound great. This is the only one I still listen to at all…and I listen to it obsessively.

Pick to Click: “Money Changes Everything” (The album’s fifth hit single and probably the most radical recording to ever hit the Top 40 even before you take into consideration when it was released.)

The Bangles All Over the Place (1984)

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Honestly, I thought they sounded a little cold around the heart at the time. I was wrong. They were just coolly taking the world’s measure. As perfect a folk rock record as anyone’s ever made, up to and including Dylan and the Byrds.

Now, if only folk rock had still been a thing…

Pick to Click: “Silent Treatment”

Los Lobos How Will the Wolf Survive (1984)

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I mean, the rest of their career, at least as much as I’ve been able to keep up, suggests they’re archivists on some level, but this sounded like a deep well from the gut to me in its day and I’ve never stopped drinking from it. I forget it for a while, sure. But every time I pick it back up it sounds new again. I don’t need all my fingers and toes to count the albums I can say the same for. The album Donald Trump’s Republican rivals would be playing at every campaign stop if they had any brains (and, no, I have no idea if we should be glad that they don’t…I’m a pox on all their houses sort from way back).

Pick to Click: “Our Last Night” (live from 1987)

Minutemen Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)

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Revolt that had no chance whatsoever of coming into style. I bought it nearly thirty years ago and listened to it once, transfixed. I swear I’ll listen to it again some day. When I’m old enough to fully accept that it either is or isn’t what I hope it is.

Pick to Click? Er, no.

The Go-Go’s Talk Show (1984)

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Revolt going out of style. Those ugly, blocked lines separating them were more real than symbolic. They saved my life and then broke up. Can’t forgive, can’t forget. May write about it some day. Stay tuned.

Pick to Click: “Beneath the Blue Sky”

Todd Rundgren A Cappella (1985)

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A weird and compelling amalgamation of Brian Wilson’s brain, circa 1966, transmuted through Thom Bell’s melodic sensibility, circa 1973, and Daryl Hall’s larynx, circa 1977. Or something like that. This album could be an appropriate soundtrack for a teleconference on euthanasia, a street revolution, or a CIA sponsored convention on “Torture in the Third World, Effective or No?” Honestly, I don’t listen to it very often. But when I do, my mind ranges very far afield and I invariably end up with a slow, dreamy smile on my face which I’m convinced enhances my enigmatic appeal immensely.

Pick to Click: “Mighty Love” (unfathomable)

Katrina and the Waves (1985)

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I think it’s pretty obvious by now I like Power Pop a little more than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does. This isn’t one of those acts who are worthy of Hall consideration, of course, but it just goes to show how thin the line is, because it’s easy to imagine this perfect little album being a springboard to a lot more than one hit single. It’s also easy to imagine it never being even that. Mysteries of life I guess.

Pick to Click: “Going Down to LIverpool”

Cyndi Lauper True Colors (1986)

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Backlash was inevitable. She was too…something. The nasty comments about her audacity in covering the by-then sainted and martyred Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” obscured what she did with it, which was explode it from the inside, cast it into the future (This future, did I mention? The one where the wars never actually end? The one only the visionaries could see?) and segue it into “Iko, Iko.” That’s supposed to be what albums are for, especially if it sells seven million worldwide and all. Instead she got endless grief and a broken career which is now often deemed that of a mild underachiever because she only sold fifty million records.

Pick to Click: “Change of Heart”

Terence Trent D’Arby Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby (1987)

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Sweep and scope like nobody’s business. Star in the making. Took a few years off. Made another album. Walked away. Never walked back. Maybe said all he had to say. Sure sign things were falling apart. Guy like this having no more to say.

Pick to Click: “If You Let Me Stay”

House of Schock (1988)

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Oh, I guess what I said here (with links worth pursuing).

Other Pick to Click: “Love In Return”

Neneh Cherry Raw Like Sushi (1988)

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There was a moment there when it seemed impossible that she wouldn’t be a major star. It didn’t happen, but this was a hip hop apotheosis and Madonna supposedly spent a whole lot of time obsessively breaking down a certain single…May as well close the eighties, and the series, with that particular mystery dance.

Pick to Click: “Buffalo Stance”

MY MORE OR LESS FAVORITE ALBUMS BY ARTISTS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Volume 2: The Seventies)

Okay, on with the Seventies…the decade with the mostest.

Some additional notes: I mostly avoided country artists for this series because I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible. Charlie Rich, who probably has a decent shot at the Rock Hall some day (I mean, they’ve nominated Conway Twitty, which is way more of a stretch), would have had four albums on the Sixties’ list if I’d been more inclusive…but then I would have started wondering about Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall (each of whom would make as much sense as Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson, who get mentioned a lot as potential Rock Hall nominees). Who knows where that might have led? I decided to keep the stopper in the bottle, so to speak. Maybe it will make for its own post some day–“country-pop-rock-confusion-salad-days” or something along those lines.  That said, the Seventies were even more of a strain and I did finally decide to include a Tanya Tucker album, for reasons explained below.

To that, I’ll just add that I regret not being able to include the New York Dolls’ first two LPs because the Nominating Committee had the good sense to put them on the ballot a time or two, thus rendering them ineligible here. That did it for the punk representatives. (X-Ray Spex just missed the cut because I like their titles better than I like their music, unfortunately, a common reaction for me…and, yes, I know calling the Dolls punk, instead of “pre” or “proto” or something more technically appropriate, will rub some the wrong way. Sorry, I can only call it how I hear it.)

So without further adieu:

Thunderclap Newman Hollywood Dream (1970)

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Note: One shot band who Pete Townshend famously discovered/produced etc.  and therefore British to the core. Don’t let that fool you. It’s also the soundtrack of Ross MacDonald’s Los Angeles, just as it reached the final stage. When it comes to both the form and spirit of decline, we always seem to get there first on the page and the Brits always seem to get there first on record.

Pick to Click: “Something In the Air” (going obvious for once because the times demand it…theirs and ours)

Lulu: New Routes (1970) and Melody Fair (1970)

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Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times to recreate the artistic and (at least relative) commercial success of Dusty Springfield’s 1969 Dusty In Memphis. He kept coming close. Given how epochal Dusty In Memphis is, that’s saying something. These albums are each genuinely great on their own and they gain force in tandem (along with a third album’s worth Lulu recorded around the same time) on the CD set I wrote about a length here.

The quote at the top of that piece still cuts.

Picks to click: “Feelin’ Alright” (New Routes) and “After the Feeling is Gone” (Melody Fair)

Swamp Dogg Total Destruction to Your Mind (1970)

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Note: A straight soul version of Revelations. “Did concrete cover the land? And what was a rock and roll band?” No, really.

Pick to Click: “The World Beyond”

The Stylistics The Stylistics ()1971) and Round 2 (1972)

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Note: A Philly soul super-group who eventually found their way to Thom Bell and major stardom. Coming across their Best of in late-seventies America was like hearing the apostles with the Vandals at the gates. I didn’t hear these albums until the CD reissue boom of the nineties, by which time they sounded more like prophets without honor. No act, Beatles included, has ever released two better albums out of the gate.

Picks to click: “You’re a Big Girl Now” (The Stylistics) “It’s Too Late” (Round 2 and fair competition for the best Carole King cover ever, up to and including “One Fine Day,” “The Locomotion” and maybe even “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”)

Helen Reddy I Don’t Know How to Love Him (1971)

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Note: This contains the now mostly forgotten version of “I Am Woman,” which doesn’t sound as great here as it did in the more polished hit version that has taken a forty-something-year pounding as a definitive version of seventies’ era have-a-nice-day excrement, as agreed upon by everyone from Greil Marcus to Bill O’Reilly. I’d say the length and intensity of that pounding is the truest measure of how much it still frightens people. Reddy was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed feminism for the same reason Chris Evert was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed (non-Olympic) women’s sports…nothing mitigates fear quite like the assurance of normality. This isn’t actually her strongest album (the follow-up Helen Reddy is freer and further ranging and “Tulsa Turnaround” shouldn’t be missed). But if “I Am Woman” had never existed, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” would have still had everybody quaking if they had only stopped to listen (and gotten Yvonne Elliman’s fine but straight-from-Broadway version out of their heads). “I couldn’t cope…I just couldn’t cope” is as fine a line-reading as exists on record and I’ll just add that when the girls in my junior high came in with reports of their NASA dads stalking out of the TV room or throwing shoes at the set, you always knew who had been on the night before.

Pick to Click: “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”

Jackie DeShannon Jackie

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Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times….Rinse and repeat. Except this time, instead of taking a British girl south, he took an actual southerner who was every bit the singer Dusty and Lulu were but also a Hall of Fame level songwriter. Still didn’t get a hit out of it and, in fact, this was where the trying basically ended. In its original vinyl version, which is what I’m including here, it was merely one of the best albums of its era and recognized as such by virtually no one. In the epic extended version released on CD a while back (with another album’s worth of material added) its an era-summing epic. I keep meaning to write about it at length but, for now, I’ll just say that the original LP is still a keeper.

Pick to Click: “Full Time Woman”

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band

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Note: Depending on how you count, the 3rd or 4th ace band led by keyboardist Manfred Mann. This one started out sounding like an attempt to carry on in the tradition of the Band or Fairport Convention (right down to the ace Dylan covers the Mann’s bands had been assaying since before anybody heard of the Fairports and the Band were still Dylan’s touring band) at the moment those two entities were disintegrating…and even they didn’t do it any better.

Pick to Click: “Part Time Man”

Big Star #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974)

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Note: In the CD era these have been released as an incomparable two-fer and that’s the way I’ve become used to listening to them. In their day they charted a future that eventually came and even charted (see R.E.M.) without ever sounding quite as good or quite as ready for any punch the world could possibly throw. I wrote about Big Star and the music on these albums (plus a few other things) here.

Picks to Click: “Feel” (#1 Record) and “You Get What You Deserve” (Radio City)

Dobie Gray Drift Away (1973)

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Note: Hey, that cover is almost weird enough to grace a Swamp Dogg LP. But the sound is all ache. The sound of an open-hearted black man in Nashville, refusing the believe his talent won’t triumph. For one brief shining moment, it did…everywhere except Nashville.

Pick to Click: “Drift Away” (Because no matter how obvious it is, or how great the rest of the LP is, if “Drift Away” is an option, it’s always the pick)

Raspberries Starting Over (1974)

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Note: Nice consensus pick for the era’s Great Lost Album but just because it’s Conventional Wisdom doesn’t mean it’s not so. My personal pick would actually be their 1976 Best of, which I can’t include because it’s a comp, even though it’s inevitably a little stronger than this cut-for-cut and also one of the greatest concept albums ever released…alas, never on CD. Of course, if I had picked this one up in 1980, that time I saw it, sealed, for a buck-ninety-eight, in a bargain bin at a T,G and Y in DeFuniak Springs, instead of on scratchy vinyl, for fifteen bucks, in a used record store, twenty-five years later (never having set eyes on it in between)? Well who knows? But in any case it is plenty good enough to belong here. And, of course, they broke up immediately afterwards. Didn’t the title clue you?

Pick to Click: “Starting Over” (Because, of course, it’s the last song on their last pre-breakup LP) Bonus Pick: “Overnight Sensation” (Eric Carmen, from 2005, sounding like time had stood still for thirty years, waiting for him)

Toots and the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)

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Note: This is a bit of a cheat. It’s a sort-of comp since it combines the key cuts from a couple of earlier albums that weren’t much distributed outside of Jamaica. But it coheres plenty and these guys are not much mentioned for Hall of Fame status. They should be. Because this is jaw-dropping and, if anything, their earlier stuff, which has been released on various comps, was even better.

Pick to Click: “Country Road” although, really on the “Drift Away” principle established above, I really must add this.

Boston (1976)

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Note: In theory, every big faceless corporate concept I’ve ever distrusted, in one nice, convenient, easy-to-hate package. Just look at that cover! But that’s just theory. In reality, it’s the greatest D.I.Y. record ever made. You want contrived, try the Sex Pistols. This is hard rock out of Beethoven, the James Gang and a Boston basement. If theories held, it should have sounded the way last week’s fish smells. For some, it did and does. For me, it rings true. Maybe the only album that’s sold twenty-five millions copies and is still underrated. Baby, that was rock and roll. Like it or not. And, I might just mention, a fine sequel to Starting Over.

Pick to Click: “Hitch a Ride”

The Persuasions Chirpin’ (1977)

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Note: Black men, singing a cappella in 1977, about a past that never quite was and a future that had no chance of ever arriving. I had some additional thoughts here. To which I’ll only add, don’t go looking for better. There’s no such thing.

Pick to Click: “To Be Loved”

Boston Don’t Look Back (1978)

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Note: Wait. They did it again? Exactly the same? That must surely make this the funniest “up yours” title ever….the end draws nigh.

Pick to Click: “A Man I’ll Never Be”

Tanya Tucker Tear Me Apart (1979)

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Note: The end of Tanya’s attempts to go mainstream. I can only guess she missed because, finally, she had too much rock and country in her voice and not quite enough pop. I’m making an exception to the country exclusion, though, because this really is a rock and roll album (right down to copping Suzi Quatro’s producers and redeeming “San Francisco” of all things). So much so that it was the only album she released over a thirty-year stretch which didn’t produce a country hit. Plus she had already made the cover of Rolling Stone as a country singer, anyway, and did it when country really wasn’t cool, assuming it ever actually was in those sort of places. All of which makes her as likely and credible a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Willie Nelson in my book. Oh yeah, this was also a fine album. And I wouldn’t pick anybody else, or any other song, to close down the Seventies’ portion of our program. (Suggestion: Don’t play this when you have a parent in a nursing home. Just wait until they pass. And then wait a while longer. Trust me on this.)

Pick to Click: “Shady Streets”

Third and final installment on the Eighties to follow…Don’t worry, if I haven’t lost you by now, I’m sure I’ll lose you then!

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

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

TKAMSPACEK

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)

NEWHOPE

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)

ROGUEMOON

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.

WHERE WE WERE THEN…WHERE WE ARE NOW (Quarterly Book Report: April–June, 2014)

THEN:

UNDERGROUNDMAN2

 

The Underground Man (Ross MacDonald–1971)

Classic from his late period. By then, he was getting serious reviews in serious places (to the extent that was possible in 1971, which, though limited, was not quite as limited as in the decades hence). They were earned. He was always a master plotter (and almost unique in that respect among thriller writers), but his books went way beyond thrills or even the world-weary (and wary) moralism of the classic hard-boiled school (frequently, and conveniently, rearranged into amoralism by the crit-illuminati).

At this point in Lew Archer’s long journey, things like Kent State and Viet Nam are in the air without being specifically referenced. Instead, the whole sad tale is told in passing phrases, tossed off, almost haiku-style, which are both transcendent and very time-and-place specific:

I had no children, but I had given up envying people who had.

Or:

“She sounds like a kook. But it’s hard to tell about young people nowadays.”

“It always was.”

Or:

He had to live out his time of trouble as she had. And there was no assurance that he would. He belonged to a generation whose elders had been poisoned, like the pelicans, with a kind of moral DDT that damaged the lives of their young.

That, bear in mind, from 1971–before the fall, when it was still possible that the center might just hold. I’m not sure anyone writes like that now.

You know, now that the center hasn’t quite…

Which maybe means all that wary moralism was never quite as easy as he made it look.

STILL THEN:

 

RADICALCHICWOLFE

Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (Tom Wolfe, 1970)

Good…and prescient.

Not as good or prescient as Ross MacDonald, but he does come at the very same moment from a very different angle. Like Jean Renoir or Cecille B. Demille, Wolfe had/has a genuine and nuanced feeling for the travails of the upper classes which is given full reign–no pun intended–in the classic essay on the spectacle of the Bernsteins (Lenny and Mrs.), and their social circle, being fleeced by the Black Panthers back when getting fleeced by radicals was, as the title has it, “chic.” Here, where Wolfe has friends (or at least friendly acquaintances) in the fight, the zingers keep coming:

Well, anyway, one truly FEELS for them. One really does. On the other hand–on the second track in one’s mind, that is–one also has a sincere concern for maintaining a proper East Side life-style in New York Society. And this concern is just as sincere as the first, and just as deep. It really is.

Or:

…Friends of the Earth was Radical Chic, all right. The radical part began with the simple fact that the movement was not tax deductible.

Or:

These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big–these are REAL MEN!

Alas, also like Renoir and DeMille, Wolfe was a bit crude when dealing with common clay, that is anyone not perched, however precariously, inside the magic circle of some real or imagined court. And, lacking their optimism, he ends up with a curdled view of the middle and lower classes (as opposed to a rather absurdly romantic one). That cynicism shines through in “Mau-mauing” which takes up the second half of this little volume. It’s still perceptive, but–given its cast of well meaning government bureaucrats and street hustlers–there’s nowhere for Wolfe to place his small store of human empathy. Thus, for all his tactile skill, the  second part grows tiresome rather quickly. The zingers, oddly enough, lose their sting as he reaches a state of full-blown contempt.

I can see why he had to turn to fiction–and why I’m still not likely to be his preferred audience.

NOW:

HITMEBLOCK

Hit Me (Lawrence Block, 2013)

Assassin lit as pure entertainment. And, for once, it actually is purely entertaining. It’s a bit of a cheat, giving an amoral man a sort of conscience (faithful to his wife, won’t kill kids, that sort of thing). But this very cheat–once accepted and combined with Block’s considerable devotion to craft–also makes it dangerously seductive. (It’s part of a series and it’s the first I’ve read of either Block or the series, so I can’t speak to the norm–but what I basically mean by “dangerously seductive” is that one can enjoy it immensely while also recognizing such a book could only be conceived–let alone published, let alone published without fanfare, let alone enjoyed–in a society that has rotted from the inside….That is, it’s a sign we’ve forgotten everything worth knowing. Sort of like Ross MacDonald imagined we would.)

See ya’ next quarter!

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.