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.

AMERICAN TRAGEDY

WARNING: Proceed With Caution. Spiritual Speculation Ahead.

I found myself shaking hands with him. I got out of the car hastily, and after it drove away I wiped my hand on the side of my trousers. I felt dazed. He had focused a compelling personality upon me the way somebody might focus a big spotlight. He had that indefinable thing called presence, and he had it in large measure. I tried to superimpose the new image the upon the fellow I had met in Jack Omaha’s house, listlessly tying his tie after a session in Jack Omaha’s bed. That fellow’s anger had been pettish, slightly shrill. I could overlap my two images of the man. I wondered if my previous image had somehow been warped by the great blow on the back of my head when the explosion hurled me off my feet.

This man had been engaging, plausible, completely at ease. He made me feel as if it were very nice indeed to be taken into his confidence. There were dozens of things I wanted to ask him, but the chance was gone. The chance had driven away in a gleaming limousine, cool in the heat of the morning.

Yes, if he could project all that to a group, he could be elected. No sweat.

(John D. MacDonald, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1974…In the character of Travis McGee, offering the best description of Bill Clinton (aka “Frederick Van Harn”) anyone has managed, in fiction or elsewhere…note the date)

“By God, there’s nothing twisted about a man liking his pussy and going after it any danged place he can find it.”

(John D. MacDonald, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1974… In the character of Judge Jake Schermer, Bill Clinton’s (aka Frederick Van Harn’s) most succinct apologist, in fiction or elsewhere. Note the date.)

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Mark 8:36 (KJV)

Same for a woman.

The cruelest irony of Hillary Clinton’s final defeat is that she failed because she never managed to believe in the first lesson any meaningful definition of feminism should have taught her–the value of herself. The Quaker women who–driven and consoled by the Christian conscience, rather than nagged and annoyed by it in the manner of the modernist–assembled in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, to launch the women’s rights movement, could have warned her of the cost.

Had she heeded their lessons–and those of the Methodism in which she herself was raised–she might well have become President long since.

She had all the other qualifications…and had them “in large measure.”

Instead, she chose, by all accounts with the utmost care, a different path. She chose to hitch her wagon to a rising male star and to place complete trust in his ability to drag her to the top with him.

Imagine how she felt on the day she realized she had married not only the man she thought she married (and he really was that man who “could be elected”) but also the man described–perfectly–above. Imagine how she felt, wherever she was along the journey (and it may have been as late as when she was presented with the unassailable evidence of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress), when the harsh reality became inescapable.

Imagine how she felt the day she finally realized There’s nothing he won’t do….

Imagine how she felt when she realized that the man she had wrapped all her dreams around deserved to be stung to death by fire ants, like Fred Van Harn, but that such things only happen in pulp novels, never in real life. That if her husband was the conscious-less horn dog she never quite believed he was, he was probably also the lip-biting rapist and dixie-fried racist gunrunner she never quite believed he was either. And that, even if he was none of those other things she could never again quite disbelieve, he was still a conscious-less horn dog who would go to any lengths to personally and politically humiliate her (exactly where were his legendary persuasion skills, when Hillary-Care was going down in flames?…the same place his famous “political judgment” was the day he waited for Loretta Lynch on a Phoenix tarmac?) on the biggest stages in the world.

Imagine how she felt the day she realized she had married a man who would stop at nothing to keep her from doing the one and only thing that made it worth marrying him in the first place.

I don’t mean becoming America’s first woman president, though there is that.

I mean letting her breathe. For a minute.

Imagine how she felt when she realized that Hillary Rodham had long since disappeared into Hillary Clinton who disappeared into Hillary Rodham Clinton who finally disappeared into “Hillary Clinton”–more brand than name–all for the purpose of serving evil’s endless banalities so that she could one day do the greater good her Methodist soul kept telling her would some day make it all worthwhile, only to find that, at the last possible moment, she had fallen one single grinding, humiliating, soul-killing inch short.

And that she had come short because, instead of believing in herself and marrying some small town businessman or college professor content to live in her shadow and perhaps even be in love with her, she had instead done it the old-fashioned, old-world, self-arranged political marriage way, and was now finally forced to accept the awfulness of her choice.

Now hold all that in mind and walk a mile in her shoes.

Imagine that the star you hitched yourself to finally revealed himself as the scum of the earth. This after you spent nearly half a century trying to convince yourself you could one day wipe the stains clean, only to discover that the very voters who so readily forgave him his sins abandoned you in large part because, consciously or otherwise, they managed to convince themselves you–the very first “you” that you should have held on to, the one who was never quite all the way hidden from view–should somehow have not only known better than to keep forgiving him, but than to marry him in the first place.

Imagine realizing that the old “well their sex life is their own business” trope really meant “well HIS sex life is HIS own business…but from you we expected better” all along.

Imagine that you had enough of the Methodist missionary spirit left in you to suspect they might be right.

Imagine you had long ago abandoned your own innate social conservatism for libertinism; your economic liberalism for feudalism; your wariness of radicalism for the cloak of radical chic that finally clung too far from your skin for any genuine radical to trust you, but not far enough for anyone else to believe you could any longer cast if off at will.

Not to mention trading your disdain for corruption for the pettiest, most transparent forms of influence peddling,

Imagine that, in losing one self after another, you had ended in a place where no deal was too shady, so long as it pulled you one step further up a ladder which would only be worth climbing the first rung if you made it all the way to the top.

Imagine discovering, here at the very last, that you were the toughest, smartest, best-positioned-by-history woman to achieve the thing you burned to achieve….and it turned out you had, at the very beginning, chosen the only path that would have led any place but the place you wanted to go.

Imagine that you had chosen the only path that could have led you here, where you have at last gained exactly what the Good Book said you would…

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…and where the only song left to sing, is this one.

 

MARKING TIME (Monthly Book Report: 2/16)

The Affair (Lee Child, 2011)

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I kind of liked the Tom Cruise movie based on Child’s Jack Reacher character and I saw a couple of the books cheap in a thrift store so I decided to give the series a go. This is the sixteenth entry (the series began in 1997), but, serendipitously, it’s told in flashback, so the action takes place a few months before the action of the series’ first novel. In other words, I wasn’t as far out of the loop as I might have been.

Good pulp always has it’s finger on the pulse of the future and Child has apparently decided that the only way ahead is to trust in our superheroes, who, along with the usual manly virtues, must combine the qualities of Superman, Super-Sleuth and Sociopath in about equal measure.

In other words, we’re doomed.

Skillfully done (laying aside the usual caveats about a book set in the south by a writer who doesn’t have much feel for the region), but I can’t help wondering if Child actually knows how creepy his hero is.

Maybe if I read further….

(NOTE: Child is a professed admirer of John MacDonald’s Travis McGee series and comparing the two can make you appreciate just how hard it is to bring a touch of something more than craft to such endeavors.)

Personal (Lee Child, 2014)

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Verdict’s in:

We’re still doomed.

Child still doesn’t know how creepy his hero is.

Those matters being respectively obvious and unresolved, all that’s left is the plot, which is meh. Up a notch for no sex therapy.

The Dreadful Lemon Sky (John D. MacDonald, 1974)

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After Child, a return to the McGee was refreshing, though this is just above middling.

The jabs at the march of profit-driven history flow sharp and terse: “I found a shopping center and found that they had left some giant oaks in the parking lot. This runs counter to the sworn oath of all shopping center developers. One must never deprive thy project of even one parking slot.”

There’s more than that of usual, but I confess I still admire McGee in action to McGee contemplating his navel. Unfortunately the balance favors the latter here, at least until the very end, when death is all around and leaves a genuine pall.

And the character sketches are among the sharpest in the entire series, including an eerily perfect template for Bill Clinton, if Bill Clinton had never made it out of Arkansas…or Florida.