THEMES? WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ THEMES! (Monthly Book Report: August through December, 2018)

The last five months of 2018 were a busy time overall but a slow reading period. I read as many books in January as I read from August to December. Still, such as they are–a pulp near-masterpiece set in the world of pro football; a couple from a pulp master (one of which was a re-read); a tantalizing book about the original October Surprise; and a WWII combat memoir by Great Britain’s last great man of letters. if there was a theme in there, I couldn’t find it.

North Dallas Forty (1973)
Peter Gent

Though it occasionally bogs down in Gent’s need to project his protagonist’s (a wide receiver on a Dallas Cowboys-style team named Phil Elliot) sensitivity, most of this goes by like a speeding bullet. Some of its more sensational aspects have long since lost their shock value but Elliot’s moral outrage and eye for both his circumstance’s patent absurdity and his own fatal attraction to it, give it enough relevance to count as a pulp classic. For all its keen insider awareness of the world it depicts, the novel a kind of detective story. Not whodunit or even “why done it,” but will the only man who has any sense of moral order even survive, let alone solve anything.?

Even if you’ve seen the excellent 1979 movie with Nick Nolte, you won’t know the answer until the very end.

And you won’t be comforted.

Dead Low Tide  (1953) and The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1975)
(John D. MacDonald)

Dead Low Tide is early MacDonald and it shows. Things that would later become hallmarks of his best writing–the eye for physical detail and physical space, the craft of his action scenes, the knack for trenchant social commentary–are all present but in nascent form. Without their full development, the story’s tragedies play more like bummers than events that might scar either the soul or the social fabric. It would rank in the lower third of the Travis McGee novels and is nowhere near as good as Cape Fear. Still a swift read, though. You can spot the talent, struggling to find a proper form.

There are no such problems with The Dreadful Lemon Sky, one of the most important pulp novels ever written.

I reviewed it a couple of years ago and mentioned its prescience in giving a full-blooded portrait of a Bill Clinton-style Southern pol on the make in the Deep South circa 1975.

But there’s much more. It’s really a layered look at the men who are always working behind the scenes to give us such lovely choices (and Clinton’s sociopathy isn’t unique among post-modern pols–it isn’t even unusual, something I don’t think would have surprised MacDonald if he had lived to see it) and the social order where such men breed.

You can take cold comfort from MacDonald dispatching his villain by having him stung to death by fire ants–the most Florida death you’ll ever find. But you can’t say we weren’t warned.

Trick or Treason: The 1980 October Surprise Mystery (1993)
Robert Parry

For those who have forgotten, or never knew, the “October Surprise” was a theory that held Vice Presidential nominee George H.W. Bush and other high ranking members of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign conducted secret meetings with Iran to ensure that American hostages would not be released before that year’s presidential election and boost Jimmy Carter’s chance for reelection.

I have a personal stake in the subject for two reasons. One is that, in the early 80s, my father sat next to a retired general at a rubber chicken dinner on the Southern Baptist missionary circuit. Without divulging anything classified, the general nonetheless strongly intimated that, at very least, Carter’s hostage rescue mission was sabotaged by forces inside the American government as part of a plot to make him a one-term president. The Intelligence Community, as it has come to be called, didn’t care much for Ronald Reagan either. Their hopes lay in Bush himself (one of their own) or Ted Kennedy (who, after Chappaquiddick, they owned outright and who did indeed mount a strong primary challenge to Carter that year).

All of which leads to my second level of personal interest–my belief that 1980 was the year said Intelligence Community fulfilled the program that had begun with John Kennedy’s assassination (whether they had anything to do with the assassination is almost irrelevant–they certainly took advantage of it to begin whittling away the power of the elected government which they held in complete contempt, then and now) and reduced all subsequent choices to their own preferences.

Which left only one question for me, as I perused Parry’s rather dry book. Did it tend to prove or disprove my theories?

I’m disappointed to say it didn’t do much of either. But since it is not so much an account of any government or campaign’s shady dealings as proof of just how difficult it is to pin down even one fact such forces don’t want you to know, it still served a purpose. It showed me how unlikely either the October Surprise or any other possible misconduct in high places will ever see the light of day.

If that’s something you need to have proved beyond all doubt, this is the book for you.

Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma (1992)
George MacDonald Fraser

Though Fraser was never shy about offering his own opinion, this is really a memoir of his unit. It took me a while to sort them out, in part because Fraser has them speak in their own voices. Here’s a sample:

“We’ll all get killed”

“Fook this!”

“Whee’s smeukin’ then?”

“Booger off Forster, scrounge soomw’eers else.”

“Ahh, ye miserable, mingy Egremont twat!”

. . . .

“Idle Scotch git. Ye want us to strike the fookin’ matches, an a’?”

Having spent a few hundred pages with “Jock” MacDonald’s crew, I now long for the chance to call someone an “idle Scotch git” but I confess page after page of this took some getting used to. I wasn’t even aware of the comradery creeping up on me until near the very end, when, in one of the last British campaigns, in Burma, on a field far from Glory’s eye, Fraser made me feel the loss of men who, a moment before, were nothing more than an annoyance to either author or reader.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Knowing the creator of Flashman had a rare ability to journey through the British Empire’s mighty time and space, never losing sight of either its majesty or its absurdity, it was only to be expected that he would be a master observer of his own role in its dying breath.

…Til next time. I promise it won’t be so long.

HOW THE SYSTEM REALLY WORKS…(Segue of the Day: 11/23/18)

…And why it never changes.

I spent Thanksgiving and Black Friday reading and listening to a cache of vinyl (heavy on Chet Atkins) which was given to me a couple of years ago and I hadn’t had time to absorb.

My reading yielded this:

“When corruption reaches the highest precincts of government, the protection mechanisms for the people who inhabit those precincts are so powerful that they are almost impenetrable…What we saw in Watergate and what we saw in Iran-contra and what we saw in October Surprise–we saw those defense mechanisms used to discredit honest politicians and honest journalists.”

(Former House of Representatives investigative attorney Spencer Oliver, whose phone was the one the Watergate spies were trying to tap when hey were caught, quoted in Trick or Treason: The 1980 October Surprise Mystery, Robert Parry, 1993)

Then, for a break, I caught up with my on-line dailies and found this,  which is a fifty-minute primer in how it works currently:

This makes me wish I had gone ahead and posted my take on the resignation of Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes last week. If I had, I could have touted my own insights and prescience. Anyway, this is what happened.

Republicans: If she resigns now, we won’t look into this too closely.

Democrats: She’s resigning.

To be honest, I previously capped corrupt votes (by Republican subtraction and Democrat addition) at around ten percent because, beyond that, you risk things getting out of hand.

I think things may have gotten out of hand.

Corruption works like that.

Boy, do I know how to have fun on the holidays!

THE SECURITY STATE….AT YOUR SERVICE! (Segue of the Day: 8/10/18)

Meddling in elections is nothing new (we’re the best at it, in fact, 81 known meddles since WWII, not counting what’s been done here at home–the Soviet Union is a distant second (36) and, having gone out of business, is falling further behind every year!)

THEN (1980):

After the (Iranian) revolution, Madani was rewarded for his courage by gaining important posts in the post-revolutionary government. Madani was named the new government’s first defense minister and then was appointed governor general of oil-rich and strategically vital Khuzistan province.

Madani’s chief rival in the presidential election was Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, an academic who had stayed with Ayatollah Khomeni during his long exile in Paris. But the U.S. government, looking for any sign of rationality in Tehran, favored Madani. Responding to the pro-Madani appeals of the Hashemi brothers [NOTE: Paul Manafort/Tony Podesta style power brokers and shady deal facilitators of the time], the CIA agreed to funnel a modest sum of covert aid to the admiral’s campaign. Madani had known the Hashemi brothers since childhood.

At lunch, Jamshid (Hashemi) said his brother handled $500,000 in campaign money for Madani, but “very little, too late, reached Iran.” At the polls, in the Islamic republic’s first presidential election, on January 25, 1980, Madani garnered only 17 percent of the vote, losing handily to Bani-Sadr. The CIA demanded an accounting of the money and concluded that only about $100,000 had reached Iran. To blunt CIA anger, Cyrus (Hasemi) returned $290,000.

Between bites of poached salmon at Grosvenor House, Jamshid claimed that Madani’s defeat did not end his brother’s wheeling and dealing with the U.S. government. Instead, Cyrus continued to trade on his contacts in Iran, offereing to help the Carter Adminstration settle the hostage crisis. To that end, and with the State Department’s blessing, Cyrus ferried messages to and from Europe, typically jetting to the Continent on the Concorde and staying at posh hotels.

But the Hashemi brothers’ dual sets of U.S. contacts–one the Carter Administration and the other the Republicans (i.e. Reagan-Bush Campaign)–began to cross in March 1980…..

(Robert Parry, Trick or Treason: The 1980 October Surprise Mystery, 1993)

NOW (2018):

Sharyl Atkisson becomes, so far as I know, the first person to go there, re: the necessary shape of the Security State’s “insurance policy”:

Assume, for the sake of argument, that powerful, connected people in the intelligence community and in politics worried that a wildcard Trump presidency, unlike another Clinton or Bush, might expose a decade-plus of questionable practices. Disrupt long-established money channels. Reveal secret machinations that could arguably land some people in prison.

What exactly might an “insurance policy” against Donald Trump look like?

She spells it out here.

The names change. The arrogant, self-serving nature of “intelligence” services does not.

Hey FBI. Hey CIA…I’ll take my chances on what comes after. Here’s to the day you’re gone:


Just a reminder: My father, then an active missionary, related a conversation he had with a recently retired general on the Southern Baptist rubber chicken circuit, circa 1982, in which the general, without giving away any classified secrets, expressed his strong opinion that what’s now called the Intelligence Community had sabotaged the Iran Hostage Rescue Mission. I didn’t give it much thought until a few years later when the details of the Iran/Contra “scandal” began emerging. I’ve given it a lot of thought since.

From reams of recent reading, a couple of small nuggets (all that is ever available to seekers of an understanding that cannot be got from journalism):

“Carter, I say, was not a stupid man,” Copeland recalled, though adding that Carter had an even greater weakness. “He was a principled man.”

(CIA spymaster, Miles Copeland*, quoted in Trick or Treason: The 1980 October Surprise Mystery, Robert Parry, 1993, republished 2016)

The best-case scenario looking forward is that Donald Trump is successful with rapprochement toward North Korea and Russia and that he throws a monkey wrench into the architecture of neoliberalism so that a new path forward can be built when he’s gone. If he pulls it off, this isn’t reactionary nationalism and it isn’t nothing.

(“Donald Trump and the American Left” Rob Urie, Counterpunch, August 6, 2018)

We live in interesting times. Other news today announced Saudi Arabia suspending flights to and from Canada in response to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau taking sides with the Iranian government against the improbable US/Saudi/Israeli coalition that has formed since Donald Trump’s inauguration.

I say interesting because Trump is the first president since Jimmy Carter to actually attempt some sort of action in opposition to the mullahs.

Every president in between (That’s Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama for those keeping count) condemned Iran in no uncertain terms rhetorically….while doing whatever it took (including, in Reagan and Bush the Elder’s cases, breaking a plethora of American and international laws and, in the case of both Bushes, waging wars against Iran’s most implacable and capable enemy, Saddam Hussein) to ensure Iran’s “Revolution” both survived and thrived.

I watch this stuff with extra interest because of what I mentioned above and because Carter and Trump are the only two presidents in my voting lifetime (which began in 1980) who have ever represented even a smidgen of my political beliefs.

It’s only a smidgen–I agreed with Carter more, but he did less–and, for different reasons, neither man inspires any warm personal feelings.

But, as Rob Urie has it, it’s not nothing.

The CIA (i.e. “Intelligence Community”) that first undermined Carter, then supported every action designed to strengthen Iran in the 35 years since, is the same CIA that is at work against Trump now–which may be why Carter (the last president to go to war with the Agency–and Trick or Treason, which I should be reviewing next month, is the history of where that got him) is the only living president who occasionally says nice things about Trump (or at least Trump’s policies).

More to the point: I enjoyed Urie’s essay, despite reams of the usual leftie blather that–even if a hundred million corpses had to be stacked to prove it–was old and dry before Herr Marx’s head hit the last pillow. He deploys phrases like “neoliberal” like they’ve never gone out of style.

Then again, he may be on to something. For those who have forgotten, Neoliberals were those whose rhetoric Neoconservatives sharpened and usurped in order to snatch bigger paychecks from the Overlords. Now that they are looking for a new home (George Will, Max Boot, Bill Kristol** are among those on record supporting Democrats in the mid-terms–supporting as in, The Republic Will Surely Fall if You Don’t!) the phrase, the older, softer, phrase may well come back in style.

If so, we can look forward to Will and Kristol getting the tongue baths they used to get from Fox News from Rachel Maddow.

Won’t that be fun.

Meanwhile, since this is a No-Sting zone, I’ll pass over “Every Breath You Take” (one of the Police’s few good records–see below for the connection) and declare my continued unyielding opposition to the Security State, for however long they reign as the most implacable enemy of decency, foreign or domestic, by giving you the real anthem of devotional paranoia:

*Copeland was the father of Police drummer, Stewart Copeland. No idea how far the apple fell from the tree but I knew there was a reason I never liked them.

**Will, Boot and Kristol were never identified as neoliberals. Most who were are retired or dead. They are the new names pasted on to the old types represented by their bootlicking spiritual forefathers)