“TIME JUST GETS AWAY FROM US” EDITION (Book Reports: 3/19 to 3/20)

Charles Manson, William Blake, Gettysburg, Little Rico, Catholic guilt, the Normandy Invasion, Harper Lee, Brett Kavanaugh, and spies, spies, spies….All in a year’s reading and what’s not to like?

Okay, I knew last year was a zoo and I had fallen behind but this is ridiculous….let me just review the past year’s reading in passing with brief commentary and try to do better in the future:

A Loss of Patients (1982); Getting A Way With Murder (1984); Thicker Than Water (1981); The Grass Widow (1983)
Ralph McInerny

Like most series procedural whodunits these kind of blend together. The detective is more interesting than the plots and I found the Catholic element (this is the Father Dowling series) involving, perhaps because I knew so little about it. A quick way to pass the time though I came out of this run thinking I had probably got what there was to get.

Six Armies in Normandy (1982)
John Keegan

This reads like a Cliff Notes version of Cornelius Ryan’s classics The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far, covering the Normandy Invasion and subsequent actions in far less time but also with far less insight and passion (though to be fair, passion was not exactly Keegan’s forte). Still, well written and so a good book for anyone with a passing interest in an important subject. I cautiously recommend it in hopes those who find it interesting will want to dig deeper.

Passport to Peril (1951)
Robert Parker

In all honesty I picked this up cheap and used thinking it might be an early effort by Robert B. Parker of Spenser For Hire fame (whose work I keep meaning to acquaint myself with). Turns out it was by a modestly popular spy fiction writer of the early Post-war period. It was short, I’ll give it that, but despite the spy novel being an American invention (Fenimore Cooper in the 1820’s), the Brits have always done it better.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (2019)
Casey Cep

The title’s a bit sensationalist. The book concerns some interesting personalities, with Lee foremost among them. There’s a little bit of new info on her, which is valuable for those of us who love her great book, but Cep’s real achievement is in giving a snapshot of rural Southern life (Alabama), especially race relations, in the Post Civil Rights 60’s and 70’s. As someone who has lived in neighboring North Florida from 1974 onward I can attest to the quality of Cep’s research, even if her insights aren’t necessarily sounder than the average carpetbagger’s. Worthwhile as long as you don’t go in with any exaggerated expectations about plumbing Harper Lee’s mysterious depths.

Justice on Trial (2019)
Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino

This was the hot-off-the-presses account of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings told from the perspective of two conservative journalists. As far as perspectives go, it’s about what you would expect. No one with a strong opinion on the matter is likely to have their mind changed either way. But the book succeeds admirably in what I suspect was its real goal: As a snapshot of the purely political process everything in Washington D.C., and especially the selection and confirmation of Supreme Court justices. The sausage-making is about what you would expect in a “free” society where the important laws are made by executive order or judicial fiat. Be warned: however you felt/feel about Kavanaugh or his chief accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, this blow-by-blow account of the process will likely turn your stomach.

33 1/3 The Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las (2019)
Ada Wolin

I plan to write about this elsewhere. Let’s say I was not entirely amused.

When Eight Bells Toll (1965)
Alistair MacLean

MacLean was already starting to wind down a bit, though he wouldn’t completely exhaust his formula for another decade. It’s no Guns of Navarone. It is, however, an efficient Cold War thriller by one of the masters of the form and I was happy to reacquaint myself with it. Recommned for completists of either MacLean or the action/espionage form he helped pioneer.

Call For the Dead (1961); A Murder of Quality (1962); The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963); The Looking Glass War (1965)
John le Carre

I’m coming at last to a project of reading all of le Carre’s George Smiley novels in order. These are the four short ones (I’m just coming to the end of the first long one, which is only Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).  I’d read three of these previously though The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was the only one that left an impression. It was the only one that left an impression this time either and the impression was again a deep one. It’s swiftly paced and has a claim on being the greatest spy novel ever written. Not my favorite perhaps, but it’s the one that feels the most like it could have really happened not least because it accepts the tragic view of life the author would adapt in some of the later novels, both in this series and generally. He’d never be better though. The rest here are skillful and entertaining. It’s to his credit that he was almost alone among pulp writers in improving on a good start so dramatically.

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties (2019)
Tom O’Neill

and

Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family (2018)
Jeffrey Melnick

And I swore I wasn’t going to read any more Manson books. To be fair, these aren’t really books about Manson or his family as much as attempts to make Vince Bugliosi–the prosecutor who put Manson away in a case where he had a lot less evidence to work with than, say, the prosecutors of O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony–pay for his success. I didn’t find either book very convincing. If I were going to recommend one, it would be O’Neill’s. But there’s nothing here to add to Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, Ed Sanders’ original version of The Family (avoid the updated versions), or Jeff Guinn’s Manson bio, which I reviewed here.

The Killer Angels (1974)
Michael Shaara

A re-read. One of the great historical novels and one of the great war novels. If you want to be inside the minds of the commanders on both sides who decided the fate of the Union by what they did or did not do during three days in July, 1863, this is as close as you can come without doing the research Shaara did yourself. That task wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining and I doubt you would learn all that much more. He was good on the facts and even better on the Truth that facts cannot contain. As may times as I’ve seen Gettysburg, Ron Maxwell’s superb battle film based on the book, in the years since, reading the novel again still brought fresh appreciation of everyone involved. One fo the few novels that’s a must read for anyone who cares about the American Experiment.

Little Caesar (1929)
W.R. Burnett

Burnett was a well known novelist and screenwriter of the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. His prose style was so spare he made Dashiell Hammett read like Henry James. It’s as subtle–and effective–as the movie still at the top of this page, taken from the classic gangster film it became. You’ve been warned!

The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics Edition) (1977)
William Blake

Hey, it took me almost thirty years, but I got there. At the beginning of 2019, I set myself the task of reading the 600 or so pages left when I dropped it on the shelf back in the early 90’s. Finished Christmas day. Well worth it. Helps to read aloud. I promise.

Fr 2020, I’m taking on the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe…Have to average four pages a day to get there by New Year’s. We’ll see…

And now back to our regular programming!

THE FASCISM THING (Adventures in Language: Seventh Journey)

This post isn’t about the Continental Op….but all will be explained.

I receive updates from several email feeds that keep me abreast of the new philosophical wine being poured from old political bottles. The one that pours furthest from the Left at the moment is Medium (I have several others that move round the table and blot the mind from various Conservative and Liberal angles).

Here’s one I got this week, although it was published in early June, when Ninth Phase Trump-is-Hitler mantra was swirling around the issue of the Mexican border (I think the Eighth Phase was “Stormy Daniels” but don’t hold me to it–my attention span isn’t what it used to be).

By all means click through and read the whole thing but there are a few things I want to highlight.

First, I know little about the author, Umair Haque. His brief online bio states he is director of a “media lab” and an “influential management thinker.” That sounds like a standard euphemism for bootlicker to me, but your mileage may vary.

In any case, he does show a certain mastery of commissar thinking.

To wit:

He begins with a headline: “IS AMERICA UNDERGOING A FASCIST COLLAPSE?” (perhaps not composed by him, but, for once, an accurate evocation of what the essay is about–he uses the phrase “fascist collapse” several times).

Of course, the essay answers the headline’s question for those few who didn’t know already–we are in fact in the midst of a fascist collapse!

Next we get this:

Here is the textbook definition of a concentration camp: “a guarded compound for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, political opponents, etc.” 

Note the ready imposition of totalitarian language–the hammer that always lies at the top of the bootlicker’s tool box.

“The textbook” which provides this particular definition (which you may have thought was the proper province of dictionaries but what do you know?) is Dictionary.com which is not a textbook and is neither more nor less authoritative than any number of other dictionaries-not-textbooks. Thus, in the space of “the textbook definition” Haque allows me to go all Continental Op* and count at least three lies (he’s an exemplar of the crowd who insist we not mince words by using soft substitutes like “falsehood”) in the space of three words.

By “the” he means “a.”

By “textbook” he means “dictionary.” (Textbook would apply, in this case, to a standard work on concentration camps or perhaps fascism, about which more in a minute.)

By “definition” he means something that would be provided by a dictionary–which Haque used even though he insisted it was a textbook, or, rather “the” textbook–and include the full meaning of the word being defined.

Which brings us to “etc.”

What comes after etc. in the source Haque himself cites is this:

especially any of the camps established by the Nazis prior to and during World War II for the confinement and persecution of prisoners.

Now don’t blame him for cutting it short. He didn’t want you to be led astray by equating the “cages” at the US/Mexican border (shown in a dramatic photo above his essay, which, of course, was taken in 2014), with the Nazis right up front.

That comes later, after he’s tied Nazism to Donald Trump’s current practice at the aforementioned border (since rescinded–the essay is from June–by Trump’s own executive order–because that’s just what Hitler, who, in case you are wondering what the “forcible suppression of opposition” about to be mentioned below looks like, had a hundred and thirty of his chief political opponents, including members of his own party he deemed insufficiently loyal, assassinated [not arrested, assassinated] within days of assuming power, would have done), through reliance on rhetoric instead of fact.

That’s the second tool in the bootlicker’s box.

For fun, here’s a “dictionary” definition of fascism (the real issue):

1 often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.

That’s from Merriam-Webster, which used to be considered “the” dictionary, if  one accepted there could be such a thing.

I wonder why Haque didn’t use that one, even in truncated form? Hmmm…

Trump does exalt the nation, although since it’s the American nation, it is tricky to presume he’s exalting it, or race, “above the individual”–“centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition” being anathema to Americans generally and Trump supporters in fierce particular (follow other lines of reasoning in the Medium universe and you’ll find this cantankerousness to be precisely the problem)–or that the faces whom the world’s “management thinkers” tend to front would really excoriate him for proposing such devices, so long as they were the clear beneficiaries. (And it gets to extremes here: At one point, Haque even suggests we are in an era when the leader is beyond criticism–to suggest Trump is being treated as “beyond criticism” is an order of delusion usually associated with heavy use of psychotic drugs.)

As for the rest: The bulk of Trump’s policies–deregulation, rollback of Obamacare, tax cuts, and, lately, moves to implement prison reform and decriminalize weed–have been almost universally away from centralized government. There are arguments to be made, for and against, any of these policies, but even their fullest implementation hardly constitutes oppression, political or otherwise. The one major exception to this anti-authoritarian strain is immigration, where his sins have amounted to enforcing laws long on the books which previous administrations enforced at whim, when they needed a talking point about being tough. (Remember, all the photos of cages, including the one from Haque’s article, that left so many women in my Twitter feed unable to sleep at night, were from the Obama administration and those who reminded them, however gently, were immediately blocked–not me, incidentally, I know better than to challenge such a precious reality with mere facts.)

There’s a lot more in this vein throughout Haque’s piece before it comes to the point he really wants to make, which is that we never did achieve perfection (who knew?) and were always a fascist country anyway.

After all, the Nazis got all their best ideas, like concentration camps, from us.

I guess he thinks those of us who consumed this idea with our Chomsky and Cheerios in 1983, need reminding. Else a new generation needs grooming.

But, as I always used to ask even then: If we’ve always been fascists anyway, how can we “collapse” into fascism now?

And, oh by the way, when did Fascism ever amount to a collapse?

The two most famous fascist countries (Italy and Germany) rose from collapse.

So did almost every other brutal authoritarian regime or party in the history of the world.

First collapse, then tyranny.

And, of course, we are on the path to collapse. I doubt Donald Trump can do anything about that. But it’s civilizational, not political collapse. The political system is working about as well as it ever did–about as well as any ever has.

And it’s about as close to “fascism” as it ever was–within far shouting distance but no closer.

Donald Trump hasn’t altered that equation either.

I might have more to say about that later–why people are really afraid–and it might even have something to do with the “larger truths” Time magazine had to insist they were pursuing when they put out an issue featuring a cover of a little girl who had been horribly and forcibly separated from her mother, knowing full well that no such separation had occurred, and knowing no one would hold them accountable when the lie (we’re not to call them falsehoods remember) was exposed within forty-eight hours…Now that‘s civilizational collapse on the road to tyranny.

And still nothing new.

Meanwhile, Fascism might or might not be the form of tyranny that follows the collapse.

But when the real collapse comes–the one management thinkers at Medium, Time and elsewhere are always thirsting for in the name of “resistance” because it will gift us with the opportunity to reform–there will be some form of tyranny.

Which is why I view “management thinkers,” whatever their professed ideology, with a jaundiced eye.

They are always pointing at some big, shiny ball above your head, so that you’ll be less mindful of the soft, tiny, relentless erosions beneath your feet.

When the chaos comes, after all, there will be an awful lot of managing to do.

These thinkers see themselves charging a pretty penny to rescue us from ourselves then.

And they are a class supremely confident in their ability to find the right boot to lick in order to get paid.

That’s because not one of them has ever been in the room with the Devil.

Else they’d know better.

Remind ’em Eddie….

*From Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op story, “Golden Horseshoe.”

“I was reading a sign high on the wall behind the bar:

ONLY GENUINE PRE-WAR AMERICAN AND BRITISH WHISKEYS SERVED HERE

I was trying to count how many lies could be found in those nine words, and had reached four, with promise of more…..”

My formula for happiness: Read more Hammett. He may have been a communist, but he was no management thinker.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (March, 2017 Edition)

Previous rules apply… Reverse order. Umpteenth viewing means it’s a lot and too much trouble to count. Etc….42 days, 10 movies)

February 6-Where Eagles Dare (967, Brian Hutton, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the crackerjack plot (not usually the first thing that comes to mind in a thriller). For the headlong fusion of momentum and anarchy that Quentin Tarantino and his arty acolytes are forever running out of breath trying to catch. For Richard Burton’s voice, which could make lines like “Broadsword calling Danny Boy” sing. And for the Polish actress, Ingrid Pitt, who has maybe ten minutes of screen time and who, if she had been allowed to kill as many Germans as the perfectly respectable female lead, Mary Ure, would have been the sexiest thing in the history of film. She’s pretty close as it is.

February 12-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (962, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

I always watch top-tier John Ford films with an idea of getting to the bottom of them. I never do. What, you think it’s possible to get to the bottom of a film where  Ken Maynard’s seventh billed Doc Willoughby is in a bar, falling off his feet, declaiming “Gettysburg? You’ve heard of Gettysburg? Two hundred and forty-two amputations in one…” and, the fifteenth time you watch it, you realize that he’s just explained why there are so many drunken doctors in post-Civil War westerns? Or that anyone but Ford would have cut the line off so that you never know One What?…Day? Week? Battle? Hour?

Okay, Robert Altman maybe…but he would have insisted on you noticing.

February 13-Dial M for Murder (1954, Alfred Hitchcock, Umpteenth Viewing)

So I can feel chic, of course. Not an everyday occurrence but sometimes even I have to digress from the norm. I save this for the rare occasions when I don’t want to feel like I’m seeing too much of how the world is made. That’s what happens when I watch Andrew Davis’s superb (I’d even say superior) 90s remake, A Perfect Murder. Sometimes you just need to escape into a world where John Williams’ dour Scotland Yard Chief Inspector can handle Ray Milland as he smiles and smiles and remains such a perfect villain you can easily imagine him wanting to off Grace Kelly for God’s sake.

February 19-Run of the Arrow (957, Samuel Fuller, First Viewing)

Because it was mostly unavailable and legendary for decades. And it’s a 50s western. Worth the wait? Yes. The fine performances you would expect from Rod Steiger, Brian Keith, Ralph Meeker. Plus a sympathetic view of not only Native Americans, but the staunchest of the Confederate holdouts and their own curious brand of honor. On a first viewing I didn’t come away thinking I’d seen a masterpiece. But it was moving and intriguing enough for me to know this won’t be my last visit…And, oh by the way, that’s a poster.

February 19-The Lion in Winter (968, Anthony Harvey, Second Viewing)

To see–and hear–Pete and Kate converse. Not as good as Becket (which just missed this list). Not as good as a local stage version I saw a decade or so back. But if you like your politics literate and bit unstable…

February 20-Blow Out (981, Brian DePalma, Third Viewing)

Speaking of unstable. For the modern zeitgeist. For career best performances from John Travolta, John Lithgow and, especially, Nancy Allen (playing the kind of woman who is almost always treated with contempt in American film and American life) and for the one DePalma film I’ve seen that justifies his reputation. I understand the mixed responses, then and now. I didn’t get it the first time I watched it way back when. A subsequent viewing set me straight. This third viewing confirmed its value. The one film from the eighties which had to wait for the world to catch up to it? To everyone’s regret?

Yeah, that could mix a response or two.

February 23-A Fistful of Dollars (964, Sergio Leone, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, because one of the twitter writers I follow (Mark Harris wrote something interesting about the Man With No Name Trilogy. This is my least favorite of the three by far but it’s still pretty entertaining. I kind of like that it takes a classic, flawless story-line and turns it into a fever dream which might even lift the eyebrow of a modern Hollywood producer.**

I realize that’s saying something.

(**Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, was turned into a samurai movie, 1961’s Yojimbo, by Akira Kurosawa, who later successfully sued Leone for copyright infringement, even though neither he nor Leone ever credited Hammett, or, it seems, quite admitted they borrowed from it.)

February 25-Rush Hour (998, Brett Ratner, Third Viewing)

Because I was flipping channels and it was just beginning. And because the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker chemistry jumps off the screen every time. It jumps off the way Fred and Ginger and Myrna and Bill still do. Only modern Hollywood would have wasted the new version on two uninspired sequels and left it at that.

March 20-The Law and Jake Wade (958, John Sturges, Umpteenth Viewing)

For perhaps the best of Robert Taylor’s many fine stoic leads. For Richard Widmark’s riveting turn as what amounts to a jilted lover. For the coiling tension in a script that serves as a reminder that spurned friendship can burn as deep as the worst fights between siblings or spouses. For the way Taylor’s shoulders slump at the end of a final showdown that’s on a par with Winchester ’73. (No surprise given John Sturges in the director’s chair.) And for a standout supporting cast, led by Robert Middleton’s sad-eyed outlaw lieutenant and Henry Silva’s messed up kid, always keeping one eye open for the chance to be captain.

March 20-Experiment in Terror (962, Blake Edwards, Umpteenth Viewing)

Crisp. The opening sequence is as good as it gets. It brings the “terror” close enough that it never stops resonating, even in the few relatively mundane spots of what is essentially a well-made procedural. And it’s always worth remembering a time when the sisters next door could be played, believably, by the likes of Lee Remick and Stefanie Powers, even if it comes at the cost of also believing the FBI can protect you.

…Til next time.

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.

virginiahamilton1

josephinetey1charlesportis1

The House of Dies Drear (Virginia Hamilton, 1968)

HO-- USEOFDIESDREAR1

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)

truegrit1

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.

buddyholly1

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.

bigsleep3

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…..

henry-james2

or the Pulps…

hammett1

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.

fatsdomino1

(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.

kurtcobain

(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.

deerslayer

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:

libertyvalance1

“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)

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.

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.