“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!

TRUE WRITER (Charles Portis, R.I.P.)

People did not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenger her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, though I will say it did not happen every day.

(True Grit, the beginning)

With Harper Lee, one of exactly two modern American writers I wouldn’t have minded knowing. Like her, a writer who detested fame and headed for shelter.

Ports wrote five fine novels. One of them, True Grit, has a claim on being that elusive thing: The Great American Novel. Anyone who has formed their impressions from either or both of the two fine movies made from it knows less than half the story. There are things film cannot catch, though Portis was one of the few post-war writers who actually understood and exploited this.

True Grit actually is the novel the crit-illuminati always wanted Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be, with all the latter’s acerbic wit (and then some–Mattie Ross was a good deal tougher and more articulate than Mark Twain, never mind Huck Finn), and none of its rambling, episodic plot line. It’s a masterpiece of narrative as well as tone, a combination American novelists have so often striven for and so seldom achieved. You can feel how big the country is for once, and how wild, without losing track of the characters’ inner lives, all the more impressive for being given to us entirely through dialogue and first-person narration.

Arkansas native Portis reportedly got the idea for the narrator’s voice from his time as a Fayetteville newspaperman in charge of an editorial desk that specialized in trimming stories turned in by stingers from the outlying counties. Most of the interesting ones came from sharp-minded older women who had been raised on Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Victorian language and manners. Portis became frustrated by his boss’s insistence that he leave their most interesting stories and piquant turns of phrase on the cutting room floor. True Grit was, more than anything, his homage to them and his recognition that they were a fast-vanishing breed, without which, our big, wild country was already becoming lesser by the time he brought the novel to market in the late 60’s.

Good (and hilarious) as his other novels are, it was True Grit, and its two now near-iconic central characters, Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn, that vaulted him to the rank of a writer who could stand next to giants, If you want to count the Americans who have written a novel as good or better, you won’t need your second hand (and that’s even if you include not-really-Americans like Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov).

He passed from complications of Alzheimer’s and Dementia this week, at 86, after decades of turning down interviews and being tagged “recluse.”

Really, though, I suspect some piece of him left a long time ago, when he wrote the finest ending of any novel I know and unless you’ve tried your hand at serious fiction, I don’t think you can realize just how hard it is to achieve perfection…or how empty the world can become once you have.

Time just gets away from us. This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.

(True Grit, the ending)

And where could he go after that?

To a better world waiting I hope.

SOUP TO NUTS TO NAZIS (Monthly Book Report: February 2019)

In January, as a New Year’s Resolution, I committed myself to read at least five books a month. In February, I decided to increase the goal to ten. Met it! Top of the world, Ma, and all that. With all the other irons I have in the fire, I doubt I can keep the pace, but, for now…

Barrack-Room Ballads (1892)
Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s famous collection of poems dedicated to the British Tommy at their Empire’s high tide (you know, the one we’ve tried to slavishly imitate). He knew that Empire’s sun-never-sets-blood-never-dries underbelly first hand. He also knew what and who maintained it, and that hey did so shorn of any glory except what a simpatico spirit such as himself could shed on them.

And, oh, by the way, nearly every line still sings. He wasn’t just a great popular poet, but a distinctly musical one, at least the equal of Stephen Foster for rhythm, power, and ingenuity. I imagine he taught the Beatles a thing or two, if only subconsciously.

He was far more political of course than either Foster or John Lennon. He had seen what was under the underbelly as well and, cold-eyed as he often was about what was glimmering up top (where the merchant and officer classes rubbed shoulders with celebrity, royalty and each other–sound familiar?), was still more wary of collapse than of decadence. At least until the Great War came along, he was the poet laureate of the Devil he knew and this is where he found his purest form of expression. Recommended as an antidote to Gilbert and Sullivan, and vice versa.

The Story of Motown (1979)
Peter Benjaminson

A publishing industry quickie (they proliferated in the late seventies) that serves as a sketch biography of Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the most important men in the history of 20th century America.

It’s earned a reprint because it catches Motown at the moment of its imminent decline, which, not coincidentally, was closely related to Gordy’s increased detachment from his creation. That is was Gordy’s creation, and a near-perfect reflection of his titanic strengths and not inconsiderable weaknesses for as long as he remained at its core, Benjaminson leaves no doubt. There’s no way he can do full justice to either in the space allotted and nobody in a position to provide that space was looking for a door-stopper tome on Berry Gordy or Motown in 1979. You have to put up with the usual narrative shortcuts (many of which I spend my blog-life refuting), but this is a good, swift introduction to a subject which, like the American Revolution, we can never know enough about.

Camino Island (2017)
John Grisham

Though I’ve seen several of the movies based on his work, and they’ve all been pretty good, this is the first Grisham novel I’ve read. I’m assured by those in the know that it’s atypical and would have guessed as much without those assurances. Even here, I can attest he’s the good popular novelist I always heard he was. It’s an easy read. The only thing missing is the necessary ingredient in any pulp that seeks to provide something more than a temporary diversion: a sense of danger.

It’s not that I didn’t want anybody to die. I didn’t. Or that I wouldn’t have felt sad if they did. I would have.

It’s that I never thought they would. I’ll read more in the future for sure, but I might choose more carefully.

The Dud Avocado  (1958)
Elaine Dundy

Dundy is known to Elvis fans for writing Elvis and Gladys, the best book about E’s relationship with his mother, and one of the best books about him from any angle.

This is her only famous novel and it has devoted fans across the board.

Now that I’ve finally read it, I’ll call myself a semi-devoted fan. It’s an American-in-Paris tale with a twist, the twist being not so much that Dundy’s protagonist is a woman, but that she’s a generation late (check the publication date) and knows it without quite being willing to admit it, even to herself. The comedy, quite sharp and satisfying, comes from the narrator’s understanding of how self-conscious and temporary it all is, not just for her, but for everyone. Add that to a sharp, satirical eye for physical and psychological detail and the act of reading it can be judged very much like seeing Paris once upon a time. It’s something everyone should do at least once.

Whether the necessity of reading The Dud Avocado in order to feel you’ve experienced one of life’s great pleasures will fade along with the idea of Paris itself is something we will discover when that idea is gone. For now, if you can’t quite feel the vitality of the idea itself, you can at least feel the echo as you read along, chuckling where you once might have laughed out loud.

The Heat of the Day (1948)
Elizabeth Bowen

I spend a lot of reading time in the company of good writers–the older I get the less patience I have for anyone who is less than good.

But it’s always a little shocking to find myself back in the company of a great one. The only previous novel of Bowen’s I’d read was Eva Trout. That was a long time ago and made enough of an impression that I knew I could never renew the acquaintance casually.

This one involves a strange menage-a-trois, the more interesting half of which is never consummated either physically or emotionally (hand a merely good writer that scenario and see if they can pull it off). It takes place in war-time Britain and portrays in luminous, hard-hearted detail a handsome widow’s relationship with the two men who seek the replace her husband, one a suspected spy, the other the government agent pursuing him. The plot is the plot, and a good one, but there are only three or four ways it can go, and it goes one of them. Any special notice the novel receives or deserves (and it has received and deserved quite a bit), is due to Bowen’s exquisite command of language, which is on a level with Mrs. Wharton and Henry James. If that’s your sort of thing, this is for you. If it’s not, you’ll have to be satisfied with never knowing what you’re missing.

Don’t be surprised if that includes Elizabeth Bowen having your number.

Don’t worry, though. You are hardly alone.

The One From the Other (2006)
Philip Kerr

Fifteen years after his Berlin Noir trilogy was a bit of a sensation in the world of hard-boiled crime fiction, Philip Kerr resurrected his Berlin-born detective, Bernie Gunther, in a post-war setting.

As often happens with successful pulp novelists, Kerr’s books got longer over time as his ambition grew.

As does not often happen, this one pays off. The length entails growth for a change. His post-Chandlerisms still don’t work. (Have they ever worked for anyone but Chandler?) But this one has an emotional resonance that goes beyond the milieu and the plot and touches the detective himself.

Post-War Germany as depicted here is a place where there is literally no safe harbor and Bernie Gunther’s attempt to find one ends in real tragedy. I look forward to finding out if Kerr resolved the danger Ross Macdonald–one of the few pulp writers who managed to go this far and further–identified as using up your character. MacDonald’s solution was to give his detective no dimension at all, to have him operate as a ghost in the machinery of his surroundings. Kerr has cut himself off from that possibility. Bernie Gunther now has dimension.

It will be fun finding out where Kerr took it from here.

The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (1996)
Eugene Davidson

This is the second part of Davidson’s magisterial study in political character. The title is odd on the surface since the vast bulk of this lengthy book details (some might say ad nauseam) deals with what most would consider Hitler at high tide as, step-by-step he conquered or cowed all of continental Europe from the Enligsh Channel to the suburbs of Moscow.

But Davidson’s point–which he’s not alone in making, though few have gone to such lengths or addressed the issue with this much scholarship and erudition–is that Hitler’s weakness came from the same source as his strength. That the megalomaniac is always bound to overreach because every success can only tempt him to go further.

That’s a comforting thought I suppose for those who survived him. But, of course, tyrants just as evil, rapacious and ambitious (Hitler and Mao come to mind) have died in bed with all their dreams intact (as Mao’s still is).  By focusing only on Hitler’s words and deeds as they related to his accrual of first political, then military, then imperial, power, and avoiding speculation about the inner man, Davidson has certainly rendered an important service. It should make anyone who has the stomach for it want to look deeper…

Large tomes on Hitler, Stalin and Mao that promise to do just that have rested on my shelves for years.

I feel them beckoning.

The Plot Against America (2004)
Philip Roth

Philip Roth. Hmmmm…

Good writer. I might have guessed that from the only book of his I’ve read previously which was the slight-if-engagiing Goodbye Columbus.

Then again, my attempts to read a few others of his, plus my encounters with his generation’s other ponderous heavyweights (Mailer, Updike, Bellow), had put me off this for years, so any surprises I discovered regarding this late-period novel’s crisp delivery were pleasant ones.

The main problem is that he has set the novel in an alternate universe and he’s not the man for the job, even if he assigned it to a prepubescent version of himself (named Philip Roth no less). Philip K. Dick would have known that the story here was inside Charles A. Lindbergh, the man Roth has winning the presidency in 1940 and leading America down the path of isolationism, effectively siding with Hitler in his fight against the Brits and Soviets.

It’s not one of history’s more likely what-ifs. Despite being a leading spokesman for the original America First movement, and a well-known laissez-faire attitude about the Nazis when he wasn’t praising them, Lindbergh never expressed the least interest in running for office. There were many he could have had for the asking, though the presidency wasn’t one of them. He’d have had to fight for that, so to make his parallel universe persona credible we would need to be inside him.

Without that perspective, which Dick would have known was essential and Roth doesn’t even attempt, this impeccably-written novel would go nowhere even if the author had the stomach to bring his tragedies front and center instead of assigning them to the margins. They’re still felt, but more as an exercise in mental gymnastics than a gut-punch.

Not just what if, then, but merely what if.

Wasted opportunity then. All that good writing, too. Shame that.

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over  World War II, 1939-1941(2013)
Lynne Olson

All of which is why I’m glad I read The Plot Against America in tandem with this history of the wrangling between the interventionists and the isolationists in the years leading up to America’s entry into WWII.

Without resorting to the usual minutiae, Olson is able to get at the essential characters of the story’s two protagonists in a way that gives them just enough dimension to see them in the human terms such history usually deny such outsized characters. Somewhat alike in their icy aloofness and relative indifference to any damage they might be doing to the people closest to them, they differed in one key aspect: Roosevelt was a thoroughly political man who accepted socialization as part of the process while Lindbergh was a thoroughly apolitical man who found himself dragged into political situations because of his enormous fame and the area of his expertise (flying) which happened to coincide with military interests that couldn’t exactly be ignored with the world on fire and America bound to play some role.

What that role would be was a question that consumed both men. Lindbergh ended up having his personal and historical reputation shattered by his belief (shared by tens of millions of Americans even after the fall of France and right up to Dec. 7, 1941) that no European war was worth what an American intervention would cost. Once the evils of National Socialism were fully exposed by its defeat, no one who had been blind to the known depredations of the thirties could expect to fully recover.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, by far the more devious of the two on matters of principle, was vaulted to near-sainthood by having his half-hearted commitment tuned into full-bore interventionism by events. (Before Dec. 7 he was all for things like conscription and Lend-Lease, but little more committed to the idea of American boys sacrificing their lives for the good of humanity than the strict isolationists Lindbergh represented, and often accused of dragging his feet by those who are always ready to commit someone else’s life to their latest cause. In other words, the political man was a political realist and the foot he kept in each camp might have ensured his reputation irrespective of Amerian’s involvement or noninvolvement, so long as neither prospect involved actually losing.)

Olson does a fine job of telling the basic story, and that job entails leaving a crucial aspect of Lindbergh’s character, his pursuit of a double-life, until the very end, where it damns him more thoroughly than even his most dubious public pronouncements (of which there was no shortage).

Whether Roosevelt himself is redeemed only by forces beyond his control or deserves full credit for such foresight as he possessed, given that it was just enough to preserve Western Civilization for a few decades past its sell-by date, is left to the eye of the beholder.

The Last Battle (1966)
Cornelius Ryan

The last leg (though second published) of Ryan’s epic trilogy of the Allied invasion of Europe from Normandy onwards. As the title indicates, this one is dedicated to the fall of Berlin.

The books are all classics of  the New Journalism Ryan helped invent, of history and of popular literature. Though unlike the others (The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far) this one did not contribute a common phrase to the English language, it is just as thorough, just as fast-paced and just as vital. If anyone has bested his accounts of the events to which he chose to dedicate himself, I’m not aware of it and in any case, it’s unlikely any serious scholarship going forward can fail to take him into account. He might end up being the Edward Gibbon of the Reich’s defeat.

I waited far too long to read them all. Ryan’s are among the rare books I can finish at my age and feel like I’m finally a little bit closer to being educated.

…And now I must go start working on next month!

BACK ON TRACK…MEANING SCARY AGAIN…BUT ONLY IF YOU’RE PAYING STRICT ATTENTION: HOMELAND SEASON 6

Homeland: Season 6

In Season 6, Homeland pulls off a miracle. In the past, including the anemic Season 5, the show has always worked best when Carrie Mathison is off her meds. That’s because Carrie has always been best at her job–keeping herself both interested and alive (she’ll settle for the second part if it comes to the rest of us, as it periodically must, in order for us to be interested as well)–when she’s gone full manic-depressive. How people who actually have the condition feel about it I don’t know nor can I judge how “realistic” this portrayal of mental illness is. But, up to now, and strictly in a narrative sense, Crazy Carrie has been interesting Carrie. More to the point, Crazy Carrie has been best adapted to deal with the cauldron around her, which only involves the security of the free world.

In Season 6, Crazy Carrie is kept firmly on the sidelines. It’s the stories that  count…and they all work.

Of course this comes with caveats. Stable Carrie is still way less stable than most people, even the monsters who surround her (and who feed and are fed by her) in the Homeland universe. And it should go without saying that not every scene works in a 12-episode arc. Maybe Shakespeare or Henry James could have kept everything boiling without wandering too far afield. But that’s too much to expect from teams of anyone, let alone teams of Hollywood moderns. Master Narrative has turned out to be a solitary art after all.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand amazed at what Homeland does do–which is continue to poke a stick in the eye of the Security State’s own principal Narrative.

The Security State, however named, insists on one message: You need us.

If they were ever pressed to elaborate (as they never are) they might expand that a bit:

You KNOW you need us.

That’s their message and it is relentless.

You can tune in the broadcast channel of your choice, read the newspaper you like best (or least), or listen to talk radio, and have this message reinforced and underlined twenty-four hours a day. I doubt even Alex Jones or Michael Savage (Jones is parodied but not really captured here by the usually reliable Jake Weber, loaded up with a Texas accent Jones, a Texan, doesn’t have, and a Manchurian Candidate subplot that works pretty well in context but doesn’t score any points for originality–the idea of the rabble-rousing flamethrower being in bed with the enemy he publicly despises was old and tired when Joe McCarthy was in diapers) would really contest the idea that the CIA (or NSA or FBI or any other alphabet agency) perform useful functions if/when they are managed properly. No one else who could be called mainstream even questions the absolute necessity of the Security State’s existence.

Well no one else but whoever is responsible for Homeland.

That none of our intelligence services have ever done any demonstrable good–and have done much demonstrable harm (even the FBI, even in the operation of their one legitimate law enforcement function, which is the pursuit of criminals operating across state lines), has mattered little to the overarching public narrative.

That’s how it is with Security States. Once you permit one to exist, it will have a single, unalterable goal: It’s own survival.

This is what Homeland has done an even more brilliant job of portraying than its popcorn predecessor, 24.

One thing it hasn’t done at all well–something 24 didn’t do well either except in Seasons 1 and 5–is integrate the Personal stories with the Political and Spy stories.

This has been more disappointing in Homeland because Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin are much better actors than Keifer Sutherland–and they are playing much more interesting characters.

I’m not quite prepared to call them three-dimensional. That’s a tall ask on television. But that such a question can even be considered is extraordinary.

Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson do, after all, have inner lives. And those inner lives impact how they do the jobs that keep them, and us, interested. The principal dynamic from the beginning has been Carrie’s hope/belief that she can somehow walk away from it all running into, around and (occasionally–she did try to have him killed) over Saul, who knows she can’t and knows he can never let her know. Not unless he wants to lose his best agent/asset, which she remains, always, even when, as here, she’s not working for him. In his mind, letting her go would be the same as losing himself, which–also in his mind–would be the same as losing the world.

One reason Homeland, especially Season 6, works so well, is that very little of this is foregrounded. Despite the occasional blunt, obligatory confrontation scenes–most of them intelligent though hardly deep or even clever–most of this seeps out of the air. It’s walking around inside the characters and the less they talk about it, the more undeniable its presence becomes.

The other reason Season 6 is the best since the first is that everything else finally links up with this half-buried dynamic.

Yes, Carrie’s now a full-time a mom, but that just means the State has another especially creepy and suffocating weapon to use against her. Among other things she can’ t go off her meds. At least not until the State makes a mistake and actually takes the child away–then makes clear how contingent seeing her daughter is on Carrie behaving herself before (in a twist that may or may not be revealing…is it really a mistake? or just one of those glitches even the most rigorous police state cannot avoid?) pushing their advantage too far. In an especially deft move, we don’t see Carrie’s full response. We only see Saul, in her house, staring at the signature handiwork of her manic phase that we’re familiar with from earlier seasons.

From that foundation, the story builds out. The Peter Quinn angle is finally strong and has a powerful conclusion–one that links into the fates of two characters played by actors who are given enough space to compete with Claire/Carrie and Mandy/Saul and are more than up to the task. That  F. Murray Abraham’s  Dar Adal is all that isn’t surprising. He and his character have been strong since first appearing and Abraham’s qualities as an actor are well established. But Elizabeth Marvel, saddled with the show creators’ assumption that Hilary Clinton would be President as this season unfolded, is a revelation.

My only impression of Marvel going in was as the older Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers fine version of True Grit, where she was the only weak link.

Here, she’s all presence. It’s like seeing a real-life Mattie become President, with all the terror that implies (a Mattie who wanted to avenge her father’s blood was terrifying only to his killer–a Mattie who wants to be President should scare everyone).

Of course the show cheats a bit. Whether they were caught completely off-guard and had to go with a contingency plan or simply had the foresight to have such a contingency in case Clinton lost I’m sure no one will ever credibly explain. (Someone may explain. They may have already done so. But I credit these same people with schooling me on the perils of trusting anyone.) Either way, they were caught with the prospect of an obvious Hilary stand-in. So they did the only thing they could and turned her into Donald Trump. And not the actual Trump but the Trump of liberal nightmare. Marvel’s Elizabeth Keane has Trump’s foreign policy (or at least his public campaign strategy) of curtailing the empire (i.e., the part that has him at war with the Security State in the first place). She has mobs in the street yelling death threats and “Not my President.” She’s being shivved from every side.

And she’s merciless.

Had she even (unimaginably) given it a go, the real life Hilary could never have pulled this off.

But Elizabeth Marvel does. Among other things, she does for the idea of a woman President what Hillary couldn’t do (and I’d of said the same if she won), which is what Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer did for the idea of a black president in 24.

Makes it seem as natural as breathing. So much so that I can easily imagine this performance changing the outcome of the election if it had happened two years earlier.

The Hillary-as-the-real-Trump–whether planned all along, or conjured on the fly–works better than even those of us who believe any stick is good enough to beat the Security State with could have hoped. The shadow war Trump has played out with our Stasi wannabes in the “real” world bursts into the open in Season 6 of Homeland.

And I won’t give the ending away. But if the show’s creators really did plan this all along, and really did think Hillary was going to be elected President in 2016, they’re even braver than I thought.

Which is going some.

*NOTE: Critics Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes: Homeland delivers introspective comfort food with a satisfyingly strong leading female character and story lines that continue to surprise.

Introspective comfort food?

See what I mean about the Security State controlling the Narrative?

HIGHBROW, LOWBROW (Monthly Book Report: 12/1/17)

The past month’s completed books include a western, a thriller and F. Scott Fitzgerald. A theme? Who knows…

Tender is the Night (1934)
F. Scott Fitzgerald

“It sounds like nonsense to me.”

“Maybe it is, Dick. But, we’re a rich person’s clinic–we don’t use the word nonsense.” 

Tender is the Night was Fitzgerald’s fourth and last completed novel. The literati now argue whether it’s a greater work than The Great Gatsby and the best I can say after finally catching up with it is that it’s a legitimate argument.

And while I can’t agree with those  (Ross Macdonald was one) who believe Fitzgerald’s best work was a step upward and onward from Henry James, his care with language was similar and his ear for the just-right phrase was sufficiently honed by this time to make his subsequent rapid demise a genuine tragedy of letters. Except for Nabokov–American only by accident–no “serious” American writer has shown similar facility with the language since.

The plot of Tender is the Night concerns a semi-autobiographical tale of a Fitzgerald stand-in, Dick Diver, become enamored of, then saddled with, a damaged beauty, Nicole Diver, who is a stand-in for the writer’s dazzling, troubled wife, Zelda. I suppose there’s fun to be had drawing parallels between the real-life Fitzgeralds and the fictional Divers. But that aspect didn’t interest me much. This isn’t a novel whose interest needs to be limited to the personal. Fitzgerald covered a narrow range, but within that range he was filled with penetrating insights. He’s worth reading not least because he had a fair bit to say about those who accrue power–and a great deal to say (much of it heartbreaking, but a good bit more bracingly cynical) about those who either stand by or are shoved aside by the people who will ultimately decide the fates of those less predatory.

That was not an insignificant well of knowledge for a writer to deepen and freshen in the 1930s….or now.

A beautiful book. I wonder if the same qualities that allowed him to write it, prevented him from living long enough or well enough to finish another.

The Eagle Has Landed (1975)
Jack Higgins

Higgins was one of several pen names adopted by Henry Patterson. It happened to be the one he was using when this novel made his name and he was stuck with it ever afterward.

I’m not exactly sure how many copies have ever shifted under “Jack Higgins” that wouldn’t have done the same under “Henry Patterson” but it’s sort of appropo, both in its mundanity and its duplicity, that a man whose Big Idea (the one every super-successful pulp writer needs to permanently hook whatever name he’s using into the Public’s grasping maw), involves an assassination attempt on Winston Churchill by a compromised man whose embattled sense of integrity ends up costing him success, should write under a pseudonym that isn’t even catchy.

That said, it’s damn effective. Given that you know his protagonist isn’t going to succeed–and that, unlike Frederick Forsyth’s “Jackal” or Ken Follett’s “Needle,” he isn’t going to be revealed as a sociopath, even though he’s on the darkest mission imaginable–Higgins’ ability to keep the finger turning the pages is near miraculous.

The Nazis hardly lost their usefulness to pulp writers in the decades since, but this, Follett’s Eye of the Needle, Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, and the similar-themed books by Len Deighton were the peak of the form. I’m glad I read it and Higgins’ is certainly a good enough writer that I’ll look for a chance to explore his work further. I keep hoping I’ll find one who hit it out of the park more than a time or two.

The Quick and the Dead (1973)
Louis L’Amour

Stranger: “They figure to kill you Mister.”
Settler: “What?”
Stranger: “They’ve seen your woman.”

Westerns were a big part of my youthful reading and I’ve revisited the genre here and there in the years since, but I haven’t read any L’Amour in decades. I found a stack of his books at a sale table in my little town’s fall festival antique show. At a dollar a pop, I figured what could it hurt?

I don’t know about the rest, but this, the first I read, was a nice little surprise. L’Amour and the other western pulp masters have never been embraced by the illuminati the way the crime writers have. And this very typical fare isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind. But if you have any feel for the genre, it’s a fine way to pass a weekend. L’Amour didn’t get to be the form’s all time bestseller by failing to understand its virtues. Those lines above set the story’s stage.

It doesn’t need anything grander, because L’Amour has a clear sense of what’s at stake besides mere survival:

Too proud to live in genteel poverty they had chosen to go west. They had no desire to seek gold, for to them wealth lay in ownership of land and in its cultivation. They wished to find a green valley where they could sink roots and live out their lives.

Now they were alone, and until now she had not realized what loneliness meant, nor what it meant to live in an ordered, law-abiding community. There had been occasional thefts, and she could remember a murder once, some years before, but the law had been there, and public opinion, with its protective shield of what was accepted and what was not.

There had been so many restraints, legal and social, between them and the savagery that lay innate in so many people. Out here the bars were down. There was no such restraint…not yet.

They’ll live in their green valley when eight men have been killed or run off. Not before. Then they’ll be free to impose the restraints of civilization which the Great Thinkers of the decade L’Amour was writing in were so engaged in casting off.

It’s that and the perfect placement of that  “and public opinion” that gets you.

I’ll be reading more L’Amour. (For the record, this was made into a superb TV movie with Sam Elliot as the Stranger, Tom Conti as the Settler, and a lovely turn by the ever-underestimated Kate Capshaw as the woman the bad men have seen. Not to be mistaken for the Sharon Stone campfest of the same name, it can be viewed or downloaded here).

CRIME AND ESPIONAGE OF COURSE….THE RETURN OF THE BOOK REPORT (3/17 through 10/17)

Sorry for the delays folks. Eye trouble (minor but annoying); time-time-time; working on my own book; the need to, for the first time in years, monitor what’s left of Politics. Etc., etc., etc.

Anyway, the book report is back. I’ve only read eight books in the eight months it’s been gone. Two will be handled at some point in other venues. The remaining six are all crime or spy novels of one sort or another. It’s been that kind of year.

March through June:

Cop Hater (Ed McBain, 1956)

Ed McBain was the pen name Evan Hunter (of The Blackboard Jungle and Last Summer fame) used for his “87th Precinct” police procedurals. Eventually there were more than fifty. Having never read one, I decided to start with his first.

It’s solid. A good basis for a series. Hunter/McBain liked to pat himself on the back a bit for having policemen–the only people actually authorized to investigate crimes– catch criminals (especially murderers) without the help of private eyes and such. The romance of realism.

Of course, the best private eye fiction doesn’t generally involve solving murders but trying–and most often failing–to prevent them. If a murder to two gets solved along the way, that’s okay, too, as long as it gets smoothly incorporated into the larger narrative.

Then again, a lot of private eye fiction isn’t very good and I think what McBain/Hunter meant was that if you were going to have a lengthy series based entirely on pursuing criminals (as opposed to say, family secrets), then only a cop made sense. Especially if Erle Stanley Gardner had already wrapped up the Fighting Defense Attorney market. He was right in that, and his leap to the next level was in realizing that the idea of a genius operating inside a police department had already been done as well as could be (see below)….but no one had written a series focusing on an entire department. That was his ah-hah moment. Once he perfected the formula it made him millions. The story of Cop Hater is pretty humdrum. But the sharp writing was there from the beginning:

The heat had persisted all day long, a heavy yellow blanket that smothered the city in its wooly grip. Carella did not like the heat. He had never liked summer, even as a kid, and now that he was an adult and a cop, the only memorable characteristic summer seemed to have was that is made dead bodies stink quicker.

I’d change “all day long” to “all day,” but otherwise that’s haiku-perfect. Much more of the book is merely swift and serviceable…And I doubt, at a book a month (the series ran past fifty, more than Sam Spade, The Continental Op, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Easy Rawlins combined), he ever made the leap to higher ground for more than a page here and there.

But I’ll be interested in finding out at some point.

World enough and time please.

July/August:

Maigret’s First Case (Georges Simenon, 1949)

Speaking of geniuses working within the system…

I’ve read half a dozen Maigret novels over the years, always with guarded pleasure: Expert writing, a little chilly around the heart.

The chill breaks here. Maigret had debuted, in print, in 1931. By 1949, he and Simenon were world-wide institutions. But this “first” case is set in an earlier time. Much earlier. 1913 to be exact, a year that was, in some ways, closer to 1813 than 1931, and closer to 1318 than 1949.

Simenon remembered that lost world and he lets the reader see and feel what he remembers. The series as a whole worked on many levels–I really do hope I live long enough to read all seventy-six novels–many of which I’m sure have stronger stories. But here the principal value is painterly, as Maigret hurries or marches or strolls through the streets of a lost Paris and Simenon’s inimitable eye catches a telling detail around every corner at every speed.

And, as the young inspector deals with France’s pre-Great War class system, his creator is not above suggesting–ever so subtly–that such systems are bound to fail.

Hardly prescient in 1949, but certainly worth remembering in any year in a world where Franco-level hubris seems almost quaint.

Hostage: London (Geoffrey Household, 1977)

Household was a former British Intelligence officer (WWII) and nearing eighty when he published Hostage: London. He was most famous as the author of Rogue Male. (Big game hunter stalks Hitler for sport but does not kill him, with terrible consequences for much more than the World. Fritz Lang turned it into Manhunt, a film that caught the small scale, insidious evil of the Nazi state and deepened and personalized it in a manner seldom seen in the forties or since–I haven’t read the book so I can only speculate how much of the inspiration derived from the novel). But he hadn’t lost his fastball. After Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima (likely unmatchable) this is the best novel I’ve read about the inner workings of a terror cell. Since the modern stakes of nuclear holocaust were barely imaginable in the days of James and Joseph Conrad, this is almost bound to have an air of implausibility, meaning I’m not sure even those writers could have done more with this than Household does. Anyone contemplating blowing up a nuclear device in a major city is truly psyhcopathic. So the only option left to Household is to have his inside man wrestle with a split conscience as he realizes the full implications of his comrades going a bridge too far. Of course he can’t accept the carnage and must turn on them….But what about the cause he still believes in?

The map by which the protagonist slips into madness is skillfully drawn. There are no wasted words.

No real lessons for our time either, Thank God, except this: If someone wants it badly enough, it will happen. And the line between wanting the very worst just badly enough–and not quite enough–is being daily tested somewhere.

The parting gift of a man who, having been born in 1900, when James and Conrad still walked the earth, had, perhaps. lived too long and seen too much.

Highly recommended for those happy few who need no comfort.

September/October:

XPD  (Len Deighton, 1981)

Skilled. Deighton was always skilled. 1981 was just about the last moment when the old “What If Churchill secretly met with Hitler to negotiate a truce and what if the modern world found him out!” premise could be taken with at least a grain of far-fetched credibility.

Maybe England really would have fallen apart! Within those limits Deighton sustains a certain tension and keeps a complicated story moving without let it sink in too deep or run completely off the rails. But there’s now attached a kind of poignance I’m not sure he intended. He seems to have still believed, as late as 1981, that there would always be an England.

We know better now.

The Player on the Other Side (Ellery Queen, 1963)

“Ellery Queen” was a pseudonym deployed by two New York cousins, David Nathan and Emanuel Lepofsky, who wrote “professionally” under the names Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, respectively.

Got that?

The Player on the Other Side was a comeback novel, after the pair had dried up in the late fifties (whether writer’s block or that other old bugaboo, “creative differences” was to blame may have been unclear, even to them). Apparently the writer’s block part was a legitimate problem, because Science Fiction ace, Theodore Sturgeon (pictured below the cousins above), was called in to ghost-write, with how much supervision from the cousins, one can only guess.

The result?

A very fine whodunit–exemplary of the form, especially coming so late in the game. I read it in my early teens and hadn’t revisited since (or any Queen for probably twenty-five years or more). It’s still highly engaging and even has some haunted qualities in the early scenes. It ran out of steam at the very end, mostly because, by then, the revealing of the murderer wasn’t really surprising, even to someone like me, who always makes a point of not guessing. But the ride was still enjoyable and I envy at least some aspects of an age where the quality of pulp writing was better than anything we can expect from “literary” magazines today.

Breakout (Richard Stark, 2002)

I wrote about Richard Stark (a nom de plume for pulp genius Donald Westlake) in the last book report. Long story short, I put a lot of effort into reading Stark/Westlake’s Parker novels in order….and missed one!

Well, now I’ve read it and all I said about Stark/Westlake/Parker previously still stands. This one had a neat and memorable premise. Parker gets caught and sent to a holding prison somewhere in the midwest. Facing life in prison if he’s extradited to California, he rounds up a couple of confederates and makes a break. One of the confederates has a job (breaking into a jewelry warehouse, but that hardly matters) lined up and his price for helping Parker and one of his cellmates make the break is they have to help him with the robbery.

if you know Stark/Westlake/Parker, you know things will not run smooth. Suffice it say that Parker keeps jumping from fire to frying pan and back again. Really a kind of transitional novel between running storylines, but it more than holds it pace and place.

Now I just gotta decide if I want to spring for those last three in the new editions! In any case, one more check mark on the “done” side of the Life List, with much fun had by all!

THE RIGHT WORD (Adventures in Language: Second Journey)

It’s a short journey this time, but I just came across a bit of writing in Geoffrey Household’s Hostage: London (1977 and promising to compete with Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima as the best novel ever written about the inner workings of a terror cell–see Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes and Eric Ambler’s pre-war spy novels for the best novels written about innocents caught up in a terror web, which isn’t quite the same thing), that made me smile:

When the patrol had reached the millpond and turned back on their beat, Mick slipped away ahead of them. From where I was I could not see the pool of light flickering over the ground and in and among the tree roots, but its effect on the police was immediate.

Almost any good writer could have written those sentences and conceived the simple actions involved (a member of the cell drawing off the police so the narrator can proceed with his appointed rounds). But I like the clarity and specificity of “tree roots.” Leaving it at “trees” would have been perfectly acceptable to most writers and nearly all readers. But the “pool of light” is in the mind’s eye of the character. If the light were “flickering over the ground and in and among the trees” if would raise a conflict–subconscious in all but the most attentive reader’s mind, but likely to nag all but the least attentive–that the first rate writer would hate himself for accepting. If the light is playing among the trees, how has it remained only in the Narrator’s mind’s eye and not come to his actual vision? Plus, even if the light were shining directly behind him, not only would it flood his vision, it would find him out.

But among the “tree roots?”….All eyes–in the Narrator’s mind, the police patrol’s heads, or the reader’s imagination–are looking down…while the man trying to save London from a nuclear blast by betraying his fellow terrorists slips away.

Conflict resolved. Intensity heightened. Plot moving. All due to a right word, which, if it were not present, would have the best readers wondering what it is that’s….not quite right.

That’s the kind of writing that will put you in competition with Henry James.

And make your fellow writers take a moment to offer a salute.

SPOOKS, REAL AND IMAGINED (Monthly Book Report, 8/16)

This month’s offerings are both from the world of pitch-black secret ops: a re-read of Kingsley Amis’s fantastic sixties-era spy novel, The Anti-Death League, and, Compromised, Terry Reed’s account (with John Cummings) of his days triangulating between the gun-running, money-laundering and dope-dealing elements of the eighties’-era CIA and the multi-generational power struggle for political control of the U.S. government that ensued, the effects of which linger on.

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Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA (Terry Reed and John Cummings, 1995)

“There’s a lot goin’ on here besides patriotism.”

(C.I.A./D.E.A. operative, Barry Seal, shortly before his murder, which occurred right after a judge “misguidedly” ordered him kept in plain sight, where his enemies could find him.)

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Terry Reed was a mid-level CIA asset in the eighties who, through a combination of misguided self-will, cruel luck and the peculiar brand of stupidity that often strikes intelligent people in the name of patriotism, got his ass caught in a muddy sling during the “Iran-Contra” phase of American decline-and-fall. This is his story, told with co-author John Cummings (a veteran journalist who had cut his teeth covering the mob), so, of course, you have to discount some inevitably self-serving elements.

That said, a book like this isn’t really about what’s “true.” In the real spook world Reed and Cummings describe, in sometimes excruciating detail, truth is a commodity and “facts” are the most uncertain things of all. It depends on who’s telling the tale and all that. The real issue is whether any given story is credible. Not, did it happen just this way, but could it have happened pretty much this way.

On that level, I found Reed’s account credible to the point of mind-numbing obviousness.

It’s not an easy read. Neither Reed nor Cummings seems to have possessed any knack for story-telling and a good editor could have probably cut two hundred turgid pages out of this nearly seven-hundred-page affair. And, of course, this is hardly a book that will be worth the slog for anyone who carries even a single drop of water for any member of the Bush or Clinton families.

For the rest of us, this is chilling stuff

Compromised‘s very mundanity makes the book’s tales of the Security State’s kudzu-like growth and rapacity in the go-go eighties all the more throat-grabbing. Get deep enough inside something so very much like the most reasonable assumptions behind the otherwise inexplicable rise (and rise, and rise) of the Bush Empire in Texas, the Clinton Empire in neighboring Arkansas, and the Security State everywhere, and you don’t know whether to gag or just stop breathing. The condemnation is thorough-going. If this thing had any style I might have just slipped into a bathtub about half-way through and opened a vein.

To put it in shorthand: This is as close a look as we’ll ever likely have at the exact machinations used by the sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating, Bush and Clinton cabals, to turn Texas and Arkansas into full-fledged Banana Republics, on the way to doing the same for the good old U.S. of A.

The point man running the game in between what, at that point, were the Vice President’s office in Washington D.C. and the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas (then home ground for a secret base training Nicaraguan rebels), was a wide-eyed, gung-ho C.I.A. operative who Reed knew in his operational days as John Cathey. His real name, of course, turned out to be Oliver North, the modern era’s Edward Lansdale.

This was a fact Reed discovered about the same time everyone else did, long after he had gotten an up-close-and-personal look at how the Clintons and Bushes each thought they had used the C.I.A. to get dirt on the other, only to discover that the Security State, of which the C.I.A. was/is only the most visible tip, had used their own mendacity (which, in Clinton’s case, had included the incredibly stupid move of skimming from the C.I.A.s cash-laundering operation embedded in his state’s banking system) to get a vice grip on them in turn.

Wild-eyed notions to be sure.

But, knowing what we know now, nothing in this book–a virtual, organic sequel to both Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (better, as it happens, than McCoy’s own update, The Politics of Heroin), and The Quiet American, Graham Greene’s fictionalized account of Lansdale’s early career in Southeast Asia–seems the least bit outlandish. If it does no other service, it certainly debunks the old notion that “wild-eyed” conspiracy theories are just that because, in the land of the free, there’s NO WAY you could ever hush a thing like that up!

If you believe that, Compromised should be mandatory reading.

That being the case, the appropriate response to the shrill phrase “this country,” so prominent in any political season, and nauseatingly so in this one, is affirmed yet again by this tale of days supposedly gone by.

What country?

The Anti-Death League (Kingsley Amis, 1966)

He was handed the transcript of a wireless message announcing Jaggers’ arrival by helicopter at the exact moment when the machine could be heard taking off from the meadow. No further information was given.

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I know I swore off Sir Kingsley a while back on the basis of life being too short to spend any more time with his world-weary nihilism, even if he still made me laugh.

But I wanted to re-read this, after a quarter-century plus, to confirm or deny my suspicion of its atypicality.

Consider my suspicion confirmed. Perhaps the cover of genre was good for him.

In The Anti-Death League, Amis pulled off the impossible and applied his trademark acerbic wit to a genuinely riveting, even moving, spy novel. Spy novels rivet and move–when they do–by casting small men (they seem to always be men) as improbable movers and shakers in large events that sweep over them and leave them, and us, scarred by the experience. There probably haven’t been more than ten really good ones, all, so far as I know, by Brits or adopted Brits (like Joseph Conrad and Henry James, whose heart-stopping The Princess Casamassima qualifies directly, even if you don’t accept the proposition that all his best novels qualify indirectly).

I have no idea what prompted Amis the Elder to adopt, for the length of this one novel, the view that human beings might be a source of something other than misery and crapulence, but the evidence that he managed it is on every page. In addition to an engrossing spy-narrative (rare in itself), he manages a fine love story and a real philosophical treatise on the nature of God and the Universe, all so beautifully interwoven that you can forgive a bit of awkwardness in dove-tailing his several plots and even his inability to keep nature from taking its course on a thud of a last page where he can’t help killing a dog, of all things, to prove how meaningless it all is here, among the humans he had, for once, so fiercely and painstakingly evoked.

TEN THINGS I REALLY BELIEVE

No, really…

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

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

(2) Raymond Chandler’s plots were great.

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

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

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or the Pulps…

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That’s Mister James and Mister Hammett to you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, aren’t we?

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

…so saith the burning bush.

MEET THE NEW ATTICUS, ALMOST THE SAME AS THE OLD ATTICUS…UNLESS IT’S THE OTHER WAY AROUND (WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS BUT WILL NEVER GET, DUTIFULLY UPDATED)

WATCHMAN1

The initial cycle of anticipation-publication-reaction to Harper Lee’s long lost first novel Go Set a Watchman now being effectively completed, we can safely take stock of what we know about the three nagging questions surrounding its release.

The first is whether Lee, now in her late eighties, more or less inaccessible to the public for half a century, long ensconced in an assisted living facility and, for the first time in her career, without the oversight of her longtime literary executor and recently deceased older sister, was in any position to properly approve the book’s release.

The answer to that one is likely to remain elusive, in part because the other two questions–is the book worth reading and is it any good (given the unique circumstances, these two questions are, for once, not the same)–don’t have clear answers either.

Despite the awkward patches one would expect from an unedited draft by a young, first-time novelist with no previous publishing history (having now read the book, I don’t find any reason to question the public story of its provenance, though mysteries will likely remain about the separate legal and ethical questions surrounding its sudden “rediscovery”), it is also what one would expect from Harper Lee, even as she seems, more than ever, to exist separate and apart from Atticus and Scout Finch.

And what should we expect?

Well, a skilled, though yet unpolished, popular novelist, who had rejected modernism but was quite aware she couldn’t write like her pre-modern heroes (Austen, Twain and Hawthorne, whose “Young Goodman Brown” Lee likely plumbed for Watchman‘s structure and overall tone, though how consciously we’ll never know) and expect to be published in the 1950s.

To wit (and purely at open-to-a-page-and-point random):

Alexandra’s voice cut through her ruminations: “Jean Louise, did you come down on the train Like That?”

Caught offside, it took a moment for her to ascertain what her aunt meant by Like That.

Bang, bang. Crisp as you please. Maybe not so original now, when we have seven thousand young-woman-goes-home-and-deals-with-the-changes-in-herself-and-others novels and scripts floating around. But not bad for the fifties.

And, besides, that’s four sentences and two jokes in Twain, a full paragraph in Austen and half-a-page in Hawthorne, with a strong likelihood that nothing would be as nicely judged as that “offside” for a girl brought up in the region where football is a religion.

It’s also everything you need to know about Aunt Alexandra and her relationship to Jean Louise Finch.

There’s plenty of that throughout the book. Certainly enough to keep the pages nicely turning if the pleasures of literary economy are on your smile list.

Not surprisingly, there are also a fair share of passages that are nowhere near as succinct or as good, especially toward the end, when the homilies Lee would later be criticized for in TKAM itself, fall thick and heavy, more like bludgeons than To Kill a Mockingbird‘s gentle life lessons.

That said, there’s nothing standing between this and a really first rate novel that a good editor couldn’t have fixed.

Even as it stands, it’s perfectly respectable.

It’s as good or better than, for instance, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Watch and Ward or This Side of Paradise, to name the first published novels of three men, Twain, Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, rightly considered masters of English prose, all of whom presumably had the benefit of an editor (and all of whom, like Lee herself, lest we forget, went on to much greater things).

I haven’t read Hawthorne’s first novel, Fanshawe, but since he later made a serious effort to have every existing copy burned (he missed one, which is why we still have it), it’s probably safe to assume it wasn’t a masterwork either.

There are also plenty of first novels that are better than Watchman, some considerably better. But, on the whole, taken even as a rough draft, it falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Which leads to the one question I’ve found really interesting in all this.

What does Watchman tell us about the career Lee might have had, if Mockingbird‘s other-worldly success hadn’t set off a chain reaction so fierce it finally burned off her previously considerable ambition?

It’s all speculation, but I think we can make some logical assumptions:

Assume TKAM had been a strong but not iconic bestseller.

Assume that a movie was made but managed to cut no deeper than the perfectly fine version of All the King’s Men based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel (which won an Oscar for Broderick Crawford as Mockingbird did for Gregory Peck but otherwise left no mark).

Assume that Harper Lee’s spirit survived the visits to Death Row at the Kansas State Penitentiary. (That’s my own best, entirely unproveable theory for why both Lee and Truman Capote shut down for good. If you think it’s far-fetched, try imagining Jane Austen, just after she wrote Sense and Sensibility, deciding to spend long hours in gaol, confronting the perpetrators of a shocking, grisly murder. Then ask yourself if we’d have all those other fine novels had she done so? Food for thought, perhaps. Especially if, like me, you spent a few minutes here and there in the politest part of some prison yards with your missionary father and so know just a tiny bit about what the air is like in there.)

Assume Harper Lee could then have gone on writing and publishing, having some sort of normal career.

Then what?

I think it’s likely she would have fallen in with the Sane Southerners (Eudora Welty, her friend Horton Foote, perhaps the Agrarians) and been at literary, if not personal, odds with the Crazies (Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Capote himself, with whom she did eventaully fall out ….If you’re wondering about Faulkner, he straddled both camps, which is one of the reasons he’s Faulkner).

Given that Lee’s wit was as sharp and caustic as any of the rest, we’d have certainly had more gossip and an additional literary feud or two.

We probably would have had a series of well-written novels that gave us some nice insight into the life and times of Southern Alabama mid-century and later.

We would also have been certainly quite a different country, one that didn’t need To Kill a Mockingbird quite the way we do.

Since we’re the country we are, as opposed to the one most sane people wish we were, I’m just as glad things worked out the way they did.

The one thing that would have been missing from Go Set a Watchman if it had been published in its own time in anything like its present form, is a sense of why Jean Louise Finch, so cruelly betrayed here, felt as strongly about her past and her home–not just Atticus–as she did.

When Harper Lee’s editor suggested she explore Jean Louise’s autobiographical childhood flashbacks, I suspect that was really the question she was after answering.

If it wasn’t her question, it pretty obviously became Lee’s by some other means during the writing of TKAM.

Because for all the scant attention paid it in the current sturm und drang, the salient fact is that Watchman was written first.

To Kill a Mockingbird was an attempt to reconcile the Atticus and the Maycomb that Scout Finch/Harper Lee remembered from  her childhood with the air of fear and loathing that dominated the 1950s. Not the other way around.

I’m sure at least some reviewers have made this point. I’ve only read twenty or so and that’s a drop in the bucket. But I think I’ve read enough to say it hasn’t exactly been a common theme. Even those who insist, fairly enough, that the Atticus of Watchman is a logical extension of the Atticus of Mockingbird, don’t seem to quite grasp that the Atticus of Watchman is the one Harper Lee wrote about first.

For the shock Jean Louise feels at being Young Goodman Brown-ed in her own Alabama town to really register, you have to know that other, earlier Atticus.

Whatever its literary merits or lack thereof, Watchman is valuable at least this far: It clarifies that Atticus was/is a man of conscience. Not a saint or a Christ figure.

That, oddly enough, was the kind of English Major symbolism Lee left to the Crazies who are now beloved by the people they set out to please.

Yes, the Atticus Finch of Watchman is a segregationist. The scenes where Jean Louise actually confronts him on this aren’t handled particularly well, either as to placement in the plot (too late in the action) or exposition (way too talky and, dare I say, legalistic, even for a lawyer and his daughter). But, as the foundation, not extension, of Atticus Finch’s character, they’re neither contradictory, as some have claimed, nor perfectly consistent, as the usual suspects among the Sub-Texters insist.

As drama, the scenes don’t work very well. As exposition, they’re overwrought.

As an insight into how polite white southern families attempted to deal with the issue of the century among themselves and the impact such attempts were likely to have in the communities they were trying to preserve at all costs, they’re right enough.

There is nothing about the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird that says he would have let go of his world easily. Whatever else Harper Lee made of that fictional character based on her father, and the town where he raised both her fictional stand-in and herself, she didn’t play them false.

And, despite a hundred crit-illuminati claims to the contrary, she didn’t take the easy way out.

If Watchman does nothing else, it at least makes what should have been obvious all along, clearer still.

Not that I expect everyone to finally get it.

Too much of a leap after all. Atticus Finch has been an Official Liberal Hero for half a century. Gregory Peck played him in a movie for God’s Sake.

Let’s just all hope that the rumored third manuscript doesn’t contain the scenes where Atticus, who, in Watchman, holds the exact position on segregation in the mid-fifties that Lyndon Johnson did, explains to Scout why he’s changed his mind ten years later.

You know.

Like that too cussedly inconsistent and imperfect for fiction character Lyndon Johnson actually did.

Damn Southerners.

You can’t tell what they’ll do.

HARPERLEE3