SECRET POLICE FORCES….

…always come to the same end.
(Raymond Chandler)

He wasn’t the only writer who knew as much:

“Haydon also took it for granted that secret services were the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.”

(Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carre, 1974)

Bill Haydon is the Soviet mole smoked out by le Carre’s hero George Smiley at the end of the novel. By then the author has made it clear that Smiley agrees with Haydon in principal and that his betrayal is one of form rather than substance. He even says as much (Smiley, but maybe le Carre too)….you know, because secret police forces are the same everywhere.

Just keep these things in mind next time you wonder what the latest talking head on CNN who used to work for the Swamp State (usually C.I.A) really thinks of you behind that furrowed brow and gentle smile of concern. Remember, everywhere you see a nightmare, they see a dream.

Oh wait, did I forget to wish everyone a Happy Easter?

AND AGAIN, FOR WHAT I PROMISE IS THE LAST TIME…TO ROBERT MUELLER! (Late Night Dedication: 7/24/19)

Yes, loyal readers, you all know Raymond Chandler’s mantra by now: All secret police forces come to the same end.

But the means are pretty predictable too. In Democracies, one common feature is dredging up some doddering figurehead who has been kept sufficiently respectable for public consumption and isn’t quite so far gone as to need a bib at feeding time. Such was Robert Mueller presumed to be until the geniuses who run the Democratic side of Congress compelled today’s testimony, likely to be his last major public appearance.

Alas, good ol’ Bob has passed the point where he can be cleaned up and presented for the cameras. Just following both sides on Twitter today, it became pretty clear by early afternoon that Mueller was insufficiently familiar with the investigation he led, or the report issued under his name, to be held liable for any actions taken or not taken. To the extent the comings and goings of the last two-and-a-half years had any coherence at all, it is now being laid at the feet of Mueller’s top aide, Andrew Weissmann, a man with a history of corruption that–pardon the expression–swamps Mueller’s own.

Can’t wait until they drag him into the light.

Of course, if we had a functioning government and a real country, men like Mueller and Weissmann would never have come anywhere near the levers of power. They would have been shunted off to small towns, the tender care of Ryker’s Island, or a handy electric chair, decades ago and an antidote like Donald Trump–a rat big enough and mean enough to tear the throats out of all the other rats–would never have become necessary in the first place.

Try catching anyone emerging from their carefully constructed delusions long enough to take responsibility for that tonight.

Hey Bob….She’s winking at you. I promise. And there’s no way she’ll be slipping some Intelligence Community-approved powder in your warm milk that will cause your convenient death to be reported as a sudden attack of natural causes. Drink up, buddy!

TO ROBERT MUELLER, FORMER HEAD OF THE FBI DON’T YA’ KNOW (Late Night Dedication: 3/24/19)

 All secret police forces come to the same end. 
Raymond Chandler

Yes, Robert Mueller’s real job was to take over the Bring-Trump-Down-By-Any-Means-Necessary investigation from an already severely compromised FBI and muck about until it could be handed off to someone else (likely some House committee headed by the likes of Adam Schiff or Elijah Cummings or Jerry Nadler, next to whom Mueller looks like the love child of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie) .

But Donald Trump knows, even if his enemies don’t, that Mueller’s investigation was the last that had any chance of being sold as “bipartisan” or “objective” or “credible” or “strictly professional” or whatever euphemism for fake honesty his media handlers were pushing in a given week. And that’s why there’s only one record that fully captures the Swamp State’s gift to their sworn enemy, the one man on the face of the earth they’ve spent three years proving they hate even worse than they hate you…

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!

JUST HOW SLIGHT IS OUR HOLD ON CIVILIZATION ANYWAY? (What We Should Expect From Critics: Seventeenth Maxim)

One of the delights of reading “The Big Sleep” again is being reminded of all the ways in which it differs from the mystery/crime pulp culture it helped bring into the American mainstream. For instance, the trench coat. Bogart made it iconic in Howard Hawks’ film version of “The Big Sleep”; he seems to have worn the same one in “Casablanca.” But the annotators note that the Marlowe of the book wore it “not for fashion but because it’s raining.” There’s no mention of the famous fedora and, unlike the legion of private eyes who followed him, Marlowe was smart enough not to carry a gun (he did keep one in the glove box of his car).  

(Allen Barra “Raymond Chandler: American Hard-Boiled Truthdig, Dec. 30, 2018)

Is there anything more annoying than sharing a passion with a doofus?

Barra clearly loves Raymond Chandler. Enough to overrate him, which, in my book, is hard to do.

But Jesus H. Christ.

Literally nobody, ever, thinks The Big Sleep was the film where Humphrey Bogart made the trench coat “iconic.”

Just in case somebody might be tempted to think, Hmmm, wonder if he could be right about that?--think maybe The Big Sleep (1946) was released before Casablanca (1943)–Barra promptly, without drawing a breath or, more characteristically, cluttering things up with a stray clause, sets us straight with one of those lazy constructions that pass for wit among the junior ranks of the Crit-Illuminati.

He seems to have worn the same one in Casablanca.

You know, the film where Bogart did make the trench coat iconic, three years before The Big Sleep was released to a high level of acclaim, popular success and influence which came nowhere near the levels achieved by Casablanca.

Then he approvingly cites the authors of the book he’s reviewing: the Marlowe of the book wore it “not for fashion but because it’s raining.”

Here’s a funny thing.

Every time Bogart’s Marlowe appears in a trench coat in The Big Sleep, it’s raining.

I know, I just made myself watch it for the umpteenth time, something Barra, an avowed fan of the movie and its director, Howard Hawks, may or may not have done. As with most film critics, watching it doesn’t necessarily mean he saw what was there. I mean, which one of these truly iconic images did he think came from The Big Sleep?

I haven’t read the just-published The Annotated Big Sleep (I’m not even sure how I feel about such a thing existing), so I don’t know whether Barra is giving the book’s notation proper context or not.  I suppose it’s possible that Annotated‘s annotators are to blame for the error. And I’m not even going to entertain the idea that the annotators didn’t know a trench coat from a top coat.

If so, it was Barra’s task to catch them out, even in a positive review. But whether he merely fell down on the job or completely misrepresented their views, he still qualifies as the poster child for the Seventeenth Maxim:

Lest you be taken for a doofus, never forget the name of the movie where Bogart made the trench coat iconic.

BROKEN RECORD….

 All secret police forces come to the same end. 
Raymond Chandler

All who believe in this country’s values must vote for Democrats this fall. Policy differences don’t matter right now. History has its eyes on us.
James Comey (July 17, 2018)

One of the interesting aspects of the last two years has been counting up all the ways ordinary citizens–who tend to vote straight party tickets ninety percent of the time NO MATTER WHAT–pretend that political party loyalties matter the same way inside the beltway and the permanent D.C. bureaucracy that was built to manipulate them.

I can’t say how many folks I’ve encountered who thought there was some kind of significance, for instance, to James Comey (or any number of others) being “life long Republicans.”

He’s now joined dozens of other “life long” Security State assets of both parties in admitting how much that means.

I would hammer out a warning to liberals all over this land…Be wary of such support, lest they do for you what they’ve done for “conservatism.”

Take it Madge….

I ALMOST HATE TO KEEP DOING THIS…

But I wouldn’t want my readers to be among those surprised when former FBI director and current Trump-huntin’ Man of the People Special Counsel Robert Mueller comes to a bad end and/or just lets the side down

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

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

Cue Gene….

Cue Eddie…

 

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

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

Marilyn needs no explanation.

Why Raymond Chandler?

Maybe because he was forever saying things like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The House of Dies Drear (Virginia Hamilton, 1968)

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

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

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

Miss Pym Disposes (Josephine Tey, 1948)

MISSPYMDISPOSES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True Grit (Charles Portis, 1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like all truly great fictional characters, she stands alone.

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

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

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

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

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

There were reasons why

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

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

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

More’s the pity?

We’ll find out soon enough.

TEN THINGS I REALLY BELIEVE

No, really…

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

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

(2) Raymond Chandler’s plots were great.

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

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

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or the Pulps…

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That’s Mister James and Mister Hammett to you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, aren’t we?

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

…so saith the burning bush.