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!

ACTIVISM, CORPORATISM…AND THE SECURITY STATE ABIDES

I promise this post–unlike your average root canal–will be more fun than it sounds!

The issues change…the dynamic never does. From 1973:

Richardson was an activist and I respected him for it. But all I needed to know about the war had been babbled to me years ago by a drunken political science professor I had met at the Michigan State Varsity Club Chicken Fry. After several stiff drinks he confided to me that not only did he work for the CIA, but he had been in on the final planning of Diem’s assassination. I pointed out that Diem was still alive.

“I’ll tell you this,” the professor had spit, his eyes blazing from my rebuff, “the son of a bitch’ll be dead in six weeks.”

The “son of a bitch” was killed three weeks later. Since that time I have tried to ignore politics; if a man with no innate political interests at all could find out such things because he was a football player, I didn’t want to know the real secrets. Thomas Richardson was finding out that the hero status of professional football merely allowed him to become privy to the bigger lies.

(North Dallas Forty, Peter Gent, 1973)

I saw the movie based on Pete Gent’s novel when it came out in 1979. I remember it being pretty good though I haven’t seen it since. Very seventies.

Fifty pages in, the novel is already deeper and better and more farsighted–the kind of high quality pulp that has made up the bulk of our national literary achievement since WWII.

Of course the war hanging over North Dallas Forty (the novel at least) is Viet Nam and, if time (the beast!) allows, I may have to finally get around to reading Normal Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? when I’m done just for the sake of comparison.

Our wars don’t hang over us any more. We just ignore them, with or without the CIA’s assistance. Keep the army all volunteer. Keep the casualties to an acceptable minimum–with “acceptable” defined by a compliant media. Keep time and the empire rolling along.

Gent seems to be catching it at a crucial turning point. He had been a player for the Dallas Cowboys in the sixties. People had a lot of fun, when the book was first published and again when the movie came out, trying to decide who was who in his fictionalized account. If Thomas Richardson, the black player Gent’s stand-in, Phil Elliot. references above (the next paragraph deals with Richardson’s frustrated attempt to get fair housing for black players), was based on anybody real, then whoever he is can probably relate to Colin Kaepernick these days.

I’ve never been a red hot fan of the NFL and I can think of a thousand good reasons why I wouldn’t mind seeing The League fall flat on its face–not least being the capacity of the professional game’s authoritarian nature to rot the national soul. Before pro football became the national sport we never lost a war. Afterwards (round about the time Gent’s novel is set) we’ve never won one–and, as I like to point out now and then–we never will.

Our best hope, then, is to become adept at avoiding them. If Colin Kaepernick and other protesters can help that come about, I’ll support them whole-heartedly.

I’m guessing fat contracts with Nike aren’t the way–or the point–but, if he proves me wrong I’ll be happy to admit it.

Meanwhile, the great pulp novels–of which I already suspect North Dallas Forty is a fine example–have been far better at telling us why than any “serious” literature, let alone history or journalism.

Now if we only still had great pulp novels  (I’m working on it, folks, I’m working on it!)….we wouldn’t have to leave it all up to the rock and rollers:

…See, I told you it would be fun!

LEARNING ABOUT THE AIR (Race in America: 1977)

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the first couple of days.

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

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

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

It seemed outside agitators had come to Lower Alabama.

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

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

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

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

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

Because it was in the Air.

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

I did what I always did.

i practiced the careful art of doing nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And not even I could get out of every assembly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was the memo.

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

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

Who was going after who.

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

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

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

“Who got Ross?”

At which point there was a small silence.

Apparently nobody had Ross.

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

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

Then I rolled my eyes.

Then I held up my book.

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

At which point we all started laughing.

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

Who knows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coincidentally or not, it didn’t come off.

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

Even then, the Air was still the Air.

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

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

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

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

What next?

Monday morning my ride took me to school like always.

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

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

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

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

That was when I learned to respect the Air.

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

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

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

It’s useful, respecting the Air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they’ll keep on telling you.

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MRhwjnJ4F0

 

HEROES AND VILLAINS (Book Report: 7/15)

One Fearful Yellow Eye (John D. MacDonald, 1966)

onefearfulyelloweye2

In which MacDonald/McGee catch the Literary Virus, Pulp Strain. Not the worst case I’ve seen by any means (he had a thing for Updike which, for a thriller writer, is probably not quite as bad as having a thing for Mailer) but dreary enough. The one strong element is that the monsters aren’t revealed until late, much later than usual. Keeping you in suspense about who to watch out for isn’t one of the hallmarks of the series and delaying the identity of the real villain works when not much else does. And if they’re Nazis on the run? Well, it wasn’t as tired a trope in 1966 as it is now.

The other hallmarks are here: sex therapy, don’t get too close to McGee to early in the story if you’re a female of the species because the ride isn’t gonna be worth it, sharp social insight. For once, though, the plot doesn’t really pick up any pace, not even at the end when the pulse should be pounding.

It’s possible MacDonald sensed he was foundering, because he took a whole year off before publishing….

Pale Gray for Guilt (John D. MacDonald, 1968)

PALEGRAYFORGUILT

…Which is much stronger. Not quite up to the very best in the series but definitely back on track.

Forty-five pages in we get this:

“Near the cities, all the old highways of America pass businesses that have gone broke. End of the dream. The spoor of a broken marriage can be kept in a couple of cartons on a shelf in the garage. Broken lives can be tucked neatly away in graves and jails and sanitariums. But the dead business in a sub-marginal commercial strip stays right there, ugly and moldering away, the frantic advertising signs of the final convulsive effort fading and tattering over the weeds.”

On the money, of course. MacDonald rarely puts a foot wrong when he hones in on tattered dreams. But that passage isn’t just tossed in to show us how prescient McGee can be. It’s deep in the marrow of the plot, which springs from a dead business that has been subsumed by a rapacious, big-dog-eats-small-dog process which has become so familiar in the decades since that it’s become virtually impossible to think any other process could exist and which here leaves plenty of broken lives before its done.

Incidentally it’s been said about California, but it might be truer that what happens in Florida eventually happens everywhere and the twinned sociopathies of the big time businessman who stomps on small businesses with all the care and concern an elephant spends on a caterpillar underfoot and the small town cop who does the system’s bidding at the business end of the affair are each the stuff of today’s headlines, not the mention the stories that never make the papers.

Again, a strong entry and more proof that, at least in the McGee series, MacDonald did most of his really first-rate writing about the place he knew best.

The Day of the Jackal (Frederick Forsyth, 1971)

DAYOFTHEJACKAL1

A political thriller that is all thrills, no politics, and stronger for it. The plot is a step-by-step manual for political assassins (this concerns one targeting Charles DeGaulle) which has since inspired a few real life attempts. The tension generated is remarkable by any standard and especially so for a book where we know the famous target died in bed.

The skill displayed throughout is considerable, far more than I expected based on, The Dogs of War, which is the only other Forsyth I’d read. But the key to the technique isn’t revealed until fifty pages from the end when the Jackal, having murdered a woman he’s been using for a temporary cover with his bare hands goes about her bedroom calmly altering his physical appearance in order to assume yet another identity and you read: “The naked body on the floor he ignored.”

Up until that moment it’s been possible to believe the Jackal is simply a cool, calculating professional, different from a plumber or an accountant in degree rather than kind.

After that moment, he’s revealed as a psychopath and far more chilling for having had his soul masked under expert journalism for three hundred pages prior.

Highly recommended, even if you’ve seen Fred Zinneman’s excellent movie version numerous times and enjoyed it as much as I have.

Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee, 1957)

WATCHMAN1

Reviewed here.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Christian Bale Emerges From the Holiday Shuffle….By Disappearing Into Someone Else)

Busy, scatter-shot week this.

–Saving Mr. Banks was actually charming (I feared it would only be pseudo).

–YouTube revealed that the reason Jennifer Aniston’s pseudo-strip scene in We’re the Millers fell flat in the theater was due to incompetent editing…Whew! I was worried that Jen had lost it there for a minute.

–The pseudo-hardcore of The Wolf of Wall Street proved, once again, that Marty Scorsese is the Norman Mailer of film directors (that is, an artist whose reputation for seriousness, or even basic competence, is completely mystifying) and also reminded me that he’s the only director who manages to get me actively rooting for his characters–all of them–to die. Not so much in hopes that they’ll go to some just reward as so that the movie will mercifully end. At least it was a notch up from the last time I subjected myself to one of his masterpieces in an actual theater. In that one he had me rooting against Jesus.

–Finished a biography of John Knox which I should be able to review next week and started the Library of America’s Ring Lardner collection which has put me in the exceedingly rare state of looking forward to getting up mornings.

What rose to the top out of all that–besides a lovely Christmas–was Christian Bale’s performance in American Hustle, which is so lived-in, intense and finely nuanced that he actually drags the whole movie to a level of awareness I’m pretty sure its makers didn’t think remotely possible.

The director, David Russell, is known for being quirky and here, that doesn’t really jibe with the story’s more or less classically “redemptive” structure. But, through all the stops and starts (high point, directorialy speaking, is the eerily effective use of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” over a slo-mo beginning, so good it survives being cut off a good minute too soon; low point is the disco scene which is not-quite-right on so many levels that explaining why would require its own post), Bale’s immersion into character somehow keeps the movie’s pulse beating.

Eventually, he literally pulls everyone else into themselves and elevates the whole enterprise. No small feat in a movie about con-men where Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper–who might not be the two shallowest performers on the planet but are certainly in the running–are the other main players and Jennifer Lawrence is laying on one of those walk-throughs (much lauded, I notice) that feel like a screen test delivered by an Oscar winner who can’t figure out why she’s being bothered when everybody knows she’s going to get the job anyway.

Like I said. It stops and starts.

Sooner or later, though, they all have to come up to Bale’s standard. It’s almost as if he left them no choice–as if his character’s reality finally became theirs.

I say this as someone who thought Bale made the perfect Batman for Christopher Nolan because he seemed so completely devoid of all remotely human qualities–just the kind of black hole that Nolan’s “vision” needed. I assumed Bale was basically a well-chosen cabbage, but this performance opens up the possibility that he was actually acting, which–even as a possibility only–certainly puts me in my place.

May have to go back and give those a second look.

Meanwhile, I wish American Hustle had found the sense of tragedy it seems built for (but then resolutely fails to deliver). In that respect it reminded me of the recent version of What Maisie Knew and was, finally, a bit of a letdown.

But the Method so rarely delivers what it is forever promising that it would be curmudgeonly not to acknowledge how far it can go when it works. Granted I don’t catch a lot of movies in theaters (only caught these because I have a friend who was exceedingly generous with AMC gift cards for the Holidays) but this was by far the best performance I saw this year.

God, I may end up having a rooting interest on Oscar night.

Very disorienting.

I better cross my fingers and blow out some candles. The New Year hasn’t even started and I’m already seeing hob-goblins everywhere!