"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Bookish

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

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Dwight Garner reviews The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lapore. He writes that is is “a long, strange thing to chew on”:

On the one hand, the story it relates has more uplift than Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane or her eagle-encrusted red bustier. It’s a yea-saying tale about how this comic book character, created in 1941, remade American feminism and had her roots in the ideas and activism of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.

On the other hand, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is fundamentally a biography of Wonder Woman’s larger-than-life and vaguely creepy male creator, William Moulton Marston (1893-1947). He was a Harvard graduate, a feminist and a psychologist who invented the lie detector test. He was also a huckster, a polyamorist (one and sometimes two other women lived with him and his wife), a serial liar and a bondage super-enthusiast.

Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?

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Now, if that’s not the best book title of the year I don’t know what is.

Here’s James Guida writing about the lessons of Dr. Funkenstein over at The New York Review of Books. 

[Photo Credit: George Clinton]

Bronx Banter Interview: Levi Stahl

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Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008) was one of our most prolific and entertaining writers. Now, we’ve got this posthumous treat: The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, published by the University of Chicago Press and edited by Levi Stahl. The book is a ton of fun. I recently had the chance to catch up with Stahl. Hope you enjoy our chat.

Q: When did you start reading Donald Westlake?

Levi Stahl: I first encountered Westlake via Hard Case Crime: they published Lemons Never Lie, one of the novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark about the heister Parker’s associate Alan Grofield. I was impressed by it, but in that way that happens when you read a lot, I just kept moving and didn’t dig deeper.

Then on the day before Thanksgiving in 2007 I was at the office—and if you’ve ever been in the office the day before Thanksgiving (and don’t work for Butterball), you know that absolutely nothing happens. You’re there just in case something catches fire. That day, nothing was even smoldering, so at lunch I went browsing at my local bookshop, 57th Street Books, and plucked from the shelves what would end up being the penultimate Parker novel, Ask the Parrot. Back at my desk, I set to reading, and two hours later when my wife arrived for the long drive downstate to my parents’ house, I had to apologize: I had promised to do the driving, but now there was no way I could do any driving until I’d finished this book and found out what happened.

I was hooked. By Christmas I’d read ten or so Parker novels, all harvested from the used book market, and was making the case to colleagues at the University of Chicago Press that we should try to bring the series back into print. Now, almost seven years later, I’ve read all 100 of Westlake’s books—the Westlakes, the Starks, the Samuel Holts, the Tucker Coes, and the one-shots from Timothy Culver, Judson Jack Carmichael, Curt Clark, and even “The Vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.” And almost all have been worth reading—even the couple that I would regard as truly weak offer some elements of interest.

Q: Damn, Westlake wrote 100 books? And you read them all? Man, that’s daunting. Okay, before we even get to the collection you’ve assembled, what Westlake titles would you recommend for someone who’s never read him before?

LS: The two series are an obvious starting point: trythe first Parker book, The Hunter, and the first Dortmunder, The Hot Rock. Neither is necessarily the best in the series, but they’re both quite good, and they give a clear sense of what these books are up to and whether you’ll like them.

From the standalones, I tend to recommend Somebody Owes Me Money, a hilarious first-person narrative from a put-upon cabby that opens, “I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent”; Killing Time, an early, hardboiled work that is clearly in thrall to Hammett and Red Harvest but satisfying on its own terms; 361, a crime novel that was written deliberately with no explicit emotional signposts; God Save the Mark, a brilliantly funny collection of cons and nonsense; and The Ax, a 1997 hardboiled crime novel that is also a dissection of contemporary economic pain, as a laid-off print shop manager decides to kill the competition for the job he’d like to land. It’s so unrelenting it can be hard to read at times.

Q: Also, for the uninitiated, can you talk about the difference between Westlake’s two most famous protagonists?

LS: What may be more interesting about Parker and John Dortmunder is a relatively underappreciated quality that they have in common: they’re both extremely good at their jobs, yet their well-laid plans always go spectacularly wrong. The difference comes in how they respond to that. Parker, while remaining utterly emotionless, is bothered when a job goes sour, and he then takes whatever measures are necessary, up to and including extreme violence, to extricate himself from the problem, preferably with the loot. Dortmunder reacts to problems with an unsurprised shrug of his shoulders. Everything has always gone wrong for him, so why should this time be any different? Parker is an existentialist, Dortmunder is a fatalist.

Dortmunder actually emerged out of those very differences: Westlake started writing what he thought was another Parker novel, in which Parker and a gang have to try multiple times to steal a giant diamond. When he got to the third or fourth time the gang tried to steal the diamond, however, he realized he couldn’t keep going: Parker would have already cut his losses and moved on. But he liked the concept enough that he created a heister who would just keep plugging away at it, and with that, The Hot Rock started really rolling, and John Dortmunder was born.

The other big difference is that Dortmunder actually likes and cares about his gang. They’re almost as much friends as colleagues, and it shows in his willingness to continue to put up with their irritating, silly quirks. Parker, on the other hand, sees his colleagues as mere tools, useful yet, like all tools, prone to failure. So the one time he does truly extend himself for a fellow heister—risking his life, and the job, to save Alan Grofield in Butcher’s Moon, it astonishes not just the other guys on the string, but the reader, too. The Parker novels are popcorn, or shots of whiskey; the Dortmunders are chicken soup, or a PB&J. You go to them on different days, for different reasons, and they deliver what you’re looking for.

Q: Okay, to the collection that you’ve edited. How did this project come about?

LS: I discovered Westlake the nonfiction writer via Trent Reynolds’s excellent Violent World of Parker site. He had posted a scan of an Armchair Detective article from the early 1980s that reproduced a talk Westlake had delivered at the Smithsonian about the history of hardboiled private eyes in fiction. That piece revealed Westlake to be a serious thinker about and critic of the crime genre, and it made me wonder what else he might have written. Quick searching turned up enough to build a book proposal, deeper library research fleshed it out nicely, and—best of all—a trip to the Westlake house to go through his files, courtesy of the endlessly gracious Abby Westlake, turned up a bounty of little-known and never-before-published pieces.

Q: With a guy as prolific as Westlake, how did you decide what to choose from—not only single pieces—but categories?

LS: The categories actually came last, when I looked at my giant stack of papers and realized, belatedly, that I would need to put them in some sort of sensible order. But once I started doing that, making stacks of pieces on Westlake’s own work, of pieces on other writers, of letters, etc., the very act of sorting helped me figure out whether I wanted to include the couple of pieces that were on the bubble. For example: you could probably do a whole book of Westlake interviews, but once I gathered what I had, it became obvious that the two I should include were the ones that focused largely on his film writing career, as most of the other topics that come up in interviews (his life and his books) were covered elsewhere.

My early readers, Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime and Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, were also extremely helpful: seeing what pieces interested these two genre experts most, and which were less effective, helped to transform the early manuscript into something more compact and potent. The only piece that I knew from the very start had to be in the place it is was the final letter. The moment I read it, pulled from Westlake’s filing cabinet, I knew I had the last words of the book.

Q: Westlake’s generosity toward his peers—Rex Stout, Charles Willeford, even a review of a George Higgins novel come to mind—is admirable. He seemed not motivated by professional envy but professional admiration. I like the note he tacked up at his desk, NO MORE INTRODUCTIONS, but the truth is, he was very good at writing them, wasn’t he?

LS: He really was an astute and generous critic of other writers. His essay on Peter Rabe, whom he greatly admired and acknowledged was a huge influence, is the perfect example. In the book that section opens with a letter from Westlake to Rabe telling him he’s going to be writing about his work and asking some questions; the letter is appreciative, funny, and generous, and Rabe responded enthusiastically. However, knowing that Rabe would eventually read the essay clearly didn’t stop Westlake from offering strong criticism of his weaker books—but at the same time, the admiration for Rabe’s achievement is so strong, clear, and well grounded in detailed analysis that the overall effect is to make you come away wanting to read more of Rabe’s books. Ultimately, that’s the effect of all of Westlake’s introductions: it’s the job of the person writing the introduction to make you see what’s special about the writer being presented, and Westlake was spectacularly good at that.

Another example of his ability to analyze and offer criticism of crime fiction is the letter to David Ramus. Ramus had—I’m not sure through what channel—sent Westlake the manuscript of what would become his first novel, On Ice. I don’t know what he was expecting, but what he got was a detailed examination of what did and didn’t work in the book, with suggestions of how things could be done better—suggestions given, explicitly, not to say that Westlake’s way was right, but that another way was possible. The letter, and the investment of time it represents, is an act of stunning generosity. The most entertaining moment in that letter? “Finally, I have one absolute objection. We do not overhear plot points. No no no.”

Q: Can you describe how he used humor in his books? His wife said he wasn’t jolly in real life, but witty, loved to laugh and loved making people laugh.

LS: In his foreword to this book, Westlake’s friend Lawrence Block takes issue with my characterizing Westlake’s writing as being filled with jokes. It’s wit, rather than jokes, says Block, and I think he’s basically right. Perhaps the biggest thing I took away from my time researching this book was that Westlake hardly ever wrote a full page of anything—be it fiction or a business letter—without finding a way to get some humor into it. He just seems to have seen the world that way: everything is a tiny bit ridiculous, because, well, look at us? We’re not really very good at this living stuff, are we? Yet we have the audacity to make plans and think we’re in control. That illusion is the source of so much of Westlake’s humor. Everything is always going wrong, and that in and of itself is funny, if you look at it the right way. As he put it in his piece on Stephen Frears, “If we aren’t going to enjoy ourselves, why do it?” He really seems to have written, and lived, with that motto in mind.

Q: The most delightful surprise in the book is the chapter on the Goon Show, the British radio comedy hit that was the precursor to the Pythons and Beyond the Fringe.

LS: Wasn’t that unexpected? Westlake was a comic writer, obviously, but like you I was still surprised to find him writing about the show, and weaving his appreciation of it into a short autobiographical essay. I’d thought a lot about his genre forebears and influences, but I’d never given the same thought to the influences on his comedy.

Q: What did you find that surprised you?

 

LS: For me the biggest surprise was more structural: I knew that Westlake had written for Hollywood, but it wasn’t until I was going through his files that I realized what a big part of his work, and income, it was. Even as he was writing 100 books, he was also turning out screenplays, and treatments, and pilots, and rewrites, most of which never made it to the screen. That was a big reason why I wanted to include the two interviews that focused on film, and the piece on Stephen Frears: it’s a side of Westlake that I think even those of us who are big fans don’t necessarily know about. (My only regret with the book, meanwhile, is that I couldn’t find a way to work in even a single reference to Supertrain!)

Q: What were Westlake’s experiences with Hollywood like? Several of his books were made into movies, some of them good—The Hot Rock, Point Blank. I didn’t know it at the time but I first remember seeing his name in the credits for The Grifters and a very good, creepy movie, The Stepfather.

LS: He worked hard with Hollywood and drew a substantial part of his income from there throughout his life. But he always seems to have held it at arm’s length. You get the feeling that the loss of control and independence that working with Hollywood, even in the relatively isolated role of screenwriter, required sat awkwardly with Westlake’s lifelong iconoclastic, individualistic, rebellious streak. There’s a reason that he didn’t like, and didn’t stick in, the Air Force; that same reason seems likely to be why Hollywood never truly seduced him.

Q: In a letter, Westlake described the difference between an author and a writer. A writer was a hack, a professional. There’s something appealing and unpretentious about this but does it take on a romance of its own? I’m not saying he was being a phony but do you think that difference between a writer and an author is that great?

LS: I suspect that it’s not, and that to some extent even Westlake himself would have disagreed with his younger self by the end of his life. I think the key distinction for him, before which all others pale, was what your goal was: Were you sitting down every day to make a living with your pen? Or were you, as he put it ironically in a letter to a friend who was creating an MFA program, “enhanc[ing] your leisure hours by refining the uniqueness of your storytelling talents”? If the former, you’re a writer, full stop. If the latter, then you probably have different goals from Westlake and his fellow hacks.

But does a true hack veer off course regularly to try something new? Does a hack limit himself to only writing about his meal ticket (John Dortmunder) every three books, max, in order not to burn him out? Does a hack, as Westlake put it in a late letter to his friend and former agent Henry Morrison, “follow what interests [him],” to the likely detriment of his career? Westlake was always a commercial writer, but at the same time, he never let commerce define him. Craft defined him, and while craft can be employed in the service of something a writer doesn’t care about at all, it is much easier to call up and deploy effectively if the work it’s being applied to has also engaged something deeper in the writer. You don’t write a hundred books with almost no lousy sentences if you’re truly a hack.

Q: I loved the piece that Westlake’s wife wrote about his working habits.

 

LS: Isn’t it great? In her tongue-in-cheek, yet insightful essay “Living with a Mystery Writer,” Abby Adams Westlake talks about the differences she would see in her late husband depending on which of his many personas he was writing as. In discussing his Timothy J. Culver pen name, she describes his writing set-up:

“His desk is as organized as a professional carpenter’s workshop. No matter where it is, it must be set up according to the same unbending pattern. Two typewriters (Smith Corona Silent-Super manual) sit on the desk with a lamp and a telephone and a radio, and a number of black ball-point pens for corrections (seldom needed!). On a shelf just above the desk, five manuscript boxes hold three kinds of paper (white bond first sheets, white second sheets and yellow work sheets) plus originals and carbon of whatever he’s currently working on. (Frequently one of these boxes also holds a sleeping cat.) Also on this shelf are reference books (ThesaurusBartlett’s1000 Names for Baby, etc.) and cups containing small necessities such as tape, rubber bands (I don’t know what he uses them for) and paper clips. Above this shelf is a bulletin board displaying various things that Timothy Culver likes to look at when he’s trying to think of the next sentence. Currently, among others, there are: a newspaper photo showing Nelson Rockefeller giving someone the finger; two post cards from the Louvre, one obscene; a photo of me in our garden in Hope, New Jersey; a Christmas card from his Los Angeles divorce attorney showing himself and his wife in their Bicentennial costumes; and a small hand-lettered sign that says ‘weird villain.’ This last is an invariable part of his desk bulletin board: ‘weird’ and ‘villain’ are the two words he most frequently misspells. There used to be a third—’liaison’—but since I taught him how to pronounce it (not lay-ee-son but lee-ay-son) he no longer has trouble with it.”

In an interview conducted by Albert Nussbaum, Westlake went into a bit more detail about his approach:

“If I work every day from the beginning of a book till the end, my production rate is probably three to five thousand words a day–unless I hit a snag, which can throw me off for a week or two. But if I work every day I don’t do anything else, because everything else involves alcohol; and I don’t try to work with any drink in me, so in the last few years I’ve tended to work four or five days a week. But that louses up the production two ways; first in the days I don’t work, and second, because I do almost nothing the first day back on the job. This week, for instance, I did one or two pages monday, five pages Tuesday, five Wednesday, fourteen Thursday, and three so far today.” He went on to say that he used to complain to his second wife, “I’m sick of working one day in a row!”

Q: Craft was central for Westlake. In some ways, his Parker books are an appreciation of craftsmanship, aren’t they?

 

LS: When I first started reading the Parker books, what struck me was that they were essentially books about work. In the first one I read, Ask the Parrot, Parker sets up a hidey-hole in an empty house, carefully sawing off some screws in the wood that’s boarding it up so that he can get in and out easily without being detected. The activity is described in detail, and I’m pretty sure Parker doesn’t ever end up needing the hideout. But it was part of doing the job (in this case, the job of staying alive after a failed heist), so Westlake included it. (I wrote a bit about the Parker novels as books about work on my blog way back in December of 2007.)

Luc Sante, in his foreword for some of Chicago’s Parker editions, put the same point this way:

“Westlake has said that he meant the books to be about ‘a workman at work,’ which they are, and that is why the have so few useful parallels, why they are virtually a genre unto themselves. Process and mechanics and troubleshooting dominate the books, determine their plots, underlie their aesthetics and their moral structure. . . . Parker abhors waste, sloth, frivolity, inconstancy, double-dealing, and reckless endangerment as much as any Puritan. He hates dishonesty with a passion, although you and he may differ on its terms. He is a craftsman who takes pride in his work.”

There’s a passing line in The Man with the Getaway Face that has stayed in my head for seven years now: “When the mechanic came in at seven o’clock, he looked at the truck in disgust. He got interested, though, being a professional, and worked on it till nine-thirty.” That’s what a professional, a craftsman, is: a person who actually cares about, and becomes deeply engaged with working his best at, the job at hand.

[Photo Credit: Pictures of Westlake via Omnivoracious and Grantland; Drawing by Darwyn Cooke]

She Works Hard for the Money

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Here’s a treat from Longform, an excerpt from Studs Turkel’s 1974 book, Working:

You get up at six, you fix breakfast for the kids, you get them ready to go on to school. Leave home about eight. Most of the time I make biscuits for my kids, cornbread you gotta make. I don’t mean the canned kind. This I don’t call cookin’, when you go in that refrigerator and get some beans and drop ‘em in a pot. And TV dinners, they go stick ‘em in the stove and she say she cooked. This is not cookin’.

When I work, only thing I be worryin’ about is my kids. I just don’t like to leave ‘em too long. Wlien they get out of school, you wonder if they out on the street. The only thing I worry is if they had a place to play in easy. I always call two, three times. When she don’t like you to call, I’m in a hurry to get out of there. (Laughs.) My mind is gettin’ home, what are you gonna find to cook before the stores close.

They want you to get in a uniform. You take me and my mother, she work in what she wear. She tells you, “If that place so dirty where I can’t wear my dress, I won’t do the job.” You can’t go to work dressed like they do, ‘cause they think you’re not working—like you should get dirty, at least. They don’t say what kind of uniform, just say uniform. This is in case anybody come in, the black be workin’. They don’t want you walkin’ around dressed up, lookin’ like them. They asks you sometimes, “Don’t you have somethin’ else to put on?” I say, “No, ‘cause I’m not gettin’ on my knees.”

I had them put money down and pretend they can’t find it and have me look for it. I worked for one, she had dropped ten dollars on the floor, and I was sweepin’ and I’m glad I seen it, because if I had put that sweeper on it, she coulda said I got it. I had to push the couch back and the ten dollars was there. Oh, I had ‘em, when you go to dust, they put something . . . to test you.

You know what I wanted to do all my life? I wanted to play piano. And I’d want to write songs and things, that’s what I really wanted to do. If I could just get myself enough to buy a piano … And I’d like to write about my life, if I could sit long enough.”

[Photo Credit: Brandon Stanton/Humans of New York]

New York Minute

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Mr. Cab Driver…from Pete Hamill:

Taxi drivers are the most enduring oppressed minority in New York City history. Race, ethnicity and religion are not sources of the oppression. It lies entirely in the nature of the work. Trapped for about 12 hours each day in the worst traffic in the United States, taxi drivers must suffer the savage frustrations of jammed streets, double-parked cars, immense trucks, drivers from New Jersey — and they can’t succumb to the explosive therapy of road rage. Their living depends on self-control.

At the same time, they face many other hazards: drunks behind them in the cab, fare beaters, stickup men, Knicks fans filled with biblical despair, out-of-town conventioneers who think the drivers are mobile pimps. Some seal themselves off from the back seat with the radio, an iPod or a cellphone. All pray that the next passenger doesn’t want to go from Midtown to the far reaches of Brooklyn or Queens. They hope for a decent tip. They hope to stay alive until the next fare waves from under a midnight streetlamp.

[Photo Credit: Matt Draper]

The City That Never Sleeps

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Man, this review of Thomas Beller‘s slender new biography of J.D. Salinger, really speaks to me. Writing in the Times Book Review, here’s Cathleen Schine:

Salinger, Beller notes, writes about New York landmarks like Grand Central Terminal or the Museum of Natural History in an “offhanded way. . . . They are not monuments to be ogled, they are part of the landscape through which his characters move.” Beller writes about New York in the same easy, familiar way. He has also found a way to write about J. D. Salinger, surely a literary monument if ever there was one, without ogling. Salinger, like New York, becomes inevitable, a landscape.

…Because Beller gets New York with all its nuances of class and money, he understands the Salinger family’s triumphant rise from Upper Broadway to Park Avenue and what it must have meant not just to the proud parents, but also to a boy leaving the familiar Jewish West Side for the WASPy Upper East Side. Beller bestows on his insights an invigorating physicality. As he stands in Central Park one cold, blustery day facing the now defunct private school Salinger entered in 1932 (and was expelled from in 1934), he says, “A lot can happen in the interval between school and home, especially when school and home are two points at opposite corners of Central Park.” With that simple observation — that Salinger made his way across the park twice a day, five days a week, often getting home just in time for dinner — the park’s prominence in “The Catcher in the Rye” and other Salinger works takes on a new poignancy. But the park and the city are there, Beller says, “in all kinds of ways that are less quantifiable.” A writer’s influences can be “nonliterary and often unconscious. The street lamps in Central Park at dusk, or the gray hexagonal-block sidewalks that line the perimeter of the park, which look the same today as they did when J. D. Salinger was a kid, are present in his writing without ever being mentioned. The city is itself a worn and used thing, the stones smoothed by a million heels pounding on them like tidal waves on rocks, its landscape unforgiving but also a refuge to which one can adapt, and within which one can, at least for an afternoon, disappear.”

[Photo Credit: Ric Garrido via Loyalty Traveler]

Don’t Burn the Garlic

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I recently told a friend of my interest in telling stories with pictures and he recommended Cartooning, by Ivan Brunetti. This slim volume is a written version of a class Brunetti teaches on the cartoon format (he doesn’t care for the terms graphic novel and I don’t blame him). It is broken down into a 15-week course. There is no point in cheating or cutting corners. Brunetti insists that the reader, or student, follow each assignment. If they do, they’ll arrive at a place where they’ve acquired some fundamentals.

Dig this, from Brunetti’s introduction:

Most Italian dishes are made up of a few simple but robust ingredients, the integrity of which should never be compromised. It is a straightforward, earthy, spontaneous, unpretentious, improvisatory, and adaptable cuisine, where flavor is paramount: not novelty, not fashion, not cleverness, and not prettiness. If it tastes good, it will perforce also look good (note that the inverse is also true). It is a cuisine entirely based on a relative few, but solid and time-tested, principles. The techniques are not complicated, just hard; mastering them really takes only time, care, and practice. Originality, as Marcella Hazan instructs, is not something to strain for: “It ought never to be a goal, but it can be a consequence of your intuitions.” One plans a meal around what is available and what is most fresh, usually a vegetable, allowing this ingredient to suggest each course.

…Once you know the basic principles, what you are “going for,” you can add your own personal touch. The most important thing is the potential misstep at the beginning that can ruin the entire dish: don’t burn the garlic. If you do, it will not matter what fancy or expensive ingredient you add to try to cover it up; it will still taste bad. Thus, what I hope, in essence, is that by the end of the book you will learn not to “burn the garlic” and to create art based on sound principles.

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[Picture by Will Eisner]

New York Minute

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From a 2005 Paris Review Interview with Charles Simic:

INTERVIEWER: You’ve often said New York is your favorite city: Was it love at first sight?

SIMIC: It was. It was an astonishing sight in 1954. Europe was so gray and New York was so bright; there were so many colors, the advertisements, the yellow taxicabs. America was only five days away by ship, but it felt as distant as China does today. European cities are like operatic stage sets. New York looked like painted sets in a sideshow at a carnival where the bearded lady, sword- swallowers, snake charmers, and magicians make their appearances.

[Photo Credit: Andre Robe]

 

A Sense of Where You Are

Waves crash on the shore at Polperro, Cornwall.

From Clancy Martin’s review of Geoff Dyer’s new book:

This is what I love about Geoff Dyer’s work: His feet are never on the ground. But where his younger narrators fight the feeling that they don’t belong, the grown-up Dyer embraces it. He makes his home in the unstable elements of air and water. When at the end of “Another Great Day at Sea” he finds himself in the desert of Bahrain, he tries to find some romance in it — but even the beer he’s been desperately desiring, all the time he was on board, is dull: “I looked at it, all golden and cold and sweating before I tasted it. It tasted like . . . well, like beer. It was O.K. It wasn’t the beer of my dreams, the ‘Ice Cold in Alex’beer I’d been longing for.” And his thoughts turn to the sailors on the aircraft carrier he’s just left. When he arrived he couldn’t bear the thought of the two weeks to come; by the time he departed he “had become thoroughly habituated to life on the boat,” recognizing that his time on board was simply more stimulating, more interesting than the life to which he was returning. Being “at sea” — being awkward, off-balance, confused, trying once more to fit in when you know you can never fit in — is where Geoff Dyer is most . . . well, if not most comfortable, most himself, most alive.

For more on Dyer, check out his interview with the Paris Review

[Photo Via: R2-D2]

Scary Monsters

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I tried to read The Hobbit when I was a kid but I thought it was boring and I didn’t make it too far. I never read J.R.R. Toilken’s famous Lord of the Rings triology. But I did enjoy Joan Acocella’s review of Toilken’s newly-published translation of Beowulf:

As an adult, Tolkien could read many languages—and he made up more, including Elvish—but the number is not the point. Even in secondary school, Carpenter says, “Tolkien had started to look for the bones, the elements that were common to them all.” Or, in the words of C. S. Lewis, his closest friend, for a time, in adulthood, he had been inside language. Perhaps he couldn’t come back out. By this I don’t mean that he couldn’t talk to his wife or his postman, but that Old English, or at least that of “Beowulf,” was where he was happiest. He knew how it worked, he loved its ways: how the words joined and separated, what came after what. Old English is where he spent most of the day, in his reading, writing, and teaching. He might have come to think that this language was better than our modern one. The sympathy may have gone even deeper. Like Beowulf, Tolkien was an orphan. (He was taken in by his grandparents.) He grew up in the West Midlands, and said that the “Beowulf” poet, too, was probably from there. He did not have difficulty living in a world of images and symbols. (He was a Catholic from childhood.) He liked golden treasure and coiled dragons. Perhaps, in the dark of night, he already knew what would happen: that he would never publish his beautiful “Beowulf,” and that his intimacy with the poem, more beautiful, would remain between him and the poet—a secret love.

[Picture by Jeffrey Alan Love]

After Action Report

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Phil Klay’s collection of stories about the war in Iraq and its aftermath, Redeployment, is worth picking up. Not long ago, the good folks at Longform posted “After Action Report”. 

It is powerful, disturbing material.

We figured that the kid had grabbed his dad’s AK when he saw us standing there and thought he’d be a hero and take a potshot at the Americans. If he’d succeeded, I guess he’d have been the coolest kid on the block. But apparently he didn’t know how to aim, otherwise me and Timhead would have been fucked. He was firing from under fifty meters, a spray and pray with the bullets mostly going into the air.

Timhead, like the rest of us, had actually been trained to fire a rifle, and he’d been trained on man-shaped targets. Only difference between those and the kid’s silhouette would have been the kid was smaller. Instinct took over. He shot the kid three times before he hit the ground. Can’t miss at that range. The kid’s mother ran out to try to pull her son back into the house. She came just in time to see bits of him blow out of his shoulders.

That was enough for Timhead to take a big step back from reality. He told Garza it wasn’t him, so Garza figured I shot the kid, who everybody was calling “the insurgent” or “the hajji” or “the dumbshit hajji,” as in, “You are one lucky motherfucker, getting fired on by the dumbest dumbshit hajji in the whole fucking country.”

When we finished the convoy, Timhead helped me out of the gunner’s suit. As we peeled it off my body, the smell of the sweat trapped underneath hit us, thick and sour. Normally, he’d make jokes or complain about that, but I guess he wasn’t in the mood. He hardly said anything until we got it off, and then he said, “I shot that kid.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You did.”

“Ozzie,” he said, “you think people are gonna ask me about it?”

“Probably,” I said. “You’re the first guy in MP platoon to . . .” I stumbled. I was gonna say “kill somebody,” but the way Timhead was talking let me know that was wrong. So I said, “To do that. They’ll want to know what it’s like.”

 

Write On

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Adam Begley’s new biography, Updike, reviewed by Orhan Pamuk in the Sunday Book Review:

Aside from his enormous talents and Protestant work ethic, Updike’s defining characteristic is his signature style, which he owes to his desire to be a graphic artist, and to his stunningly visual memory. Like Proust, like Nabokov and like Henry Green, all of whom influenced him, Updike wrote sentences that work through the precise meeting of visual detail and verbal accuracy. Updike was fully aware that this precision required a wide verbal range and ingenuity; indeed, when he criticized Tom Wolfe’s failure to be “exquisite,” Updike’s point of comparison was his own style.

And here is Louis Menand’s Updike appreciation for the New Yorker:

Updike wanted to do with the world of mid-century middle-class American Wasps what Proust had done with Belle Époque Paris and Joyce had done with a single day in 1904 Dublin—and, for that matter, Jane Austen had done with the landed gentry in the Home Counties at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and James had done with idle Americans living abroad at the turn of the nineteenth century. He wanted to biopsy a minute sample of the social tissue and reproduce the results in the form of a permanent verbal artifact.

Updike believed that people in that world sought happiness, and that, contrary to the representations of novelists like Cheever and Kerouac, they often found it. But he thought that the happiness was always edged with dread, because acquiring it often meant ignoring, hurting, and damaging other people. In a lot of Updike’s fiction, those other people are children. Adultery was for him the perfect example of the moral condition of the suburban middle class: the source of a wickedly exciting kind of pleasure and a terrible kind of guilt.

It’s easy to understand why people identify Stephen Dedalus with Joyce, and why they identify the narrator of “In Search of Lost Time” with Proust. But it’s strange that people persist in identifying the protagonists of the Olinger stories and the Maples stories and the Rabbit books with Updike. Those characters are Updikean in certain limited ways—unusually sensitive, unusually death-haunted, unusually horny. But they are not unusually smart or unusually gifted. They could never have created John Updike. And only Updike could have created them.

[Photo Via: The. Buried. Talent.]

The Real Harlem

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Darryl Pickney reviews a terrific book of photography for the New York Review of Books:

Old heads in Harlem will tell you that in the 1960s, particularly after the riot of 1964, white policemen were afraid of walking an uptown beat. They were reluctant to come through even in patrol cars. Those who did were often on the take. White landlords would try to collect the rent, guns at their hips. Their black tenants defied them and in many cases the landlords walked away from their buildings, left them to run down.

Harlem was the place where you could do or get anything and get away with it. People would disappear for days into the cathouses and shooting galleries. One guy told me that at his corner of 124th Street and Lenox he once saw the garbage collectors in their truck nodding from heroin. They were parked for hours, the trash uncollected when they finally left. Delivery trucks at stoplights got held up. Sometimes a driver would be enticed by a woman to a room where he was then tied up. Down in the street, an orderly line was forming for the sale of his truck’s contents.

Drug money circulated fiercely. People could get shot in the middle of the afternoon and if you chanced to be on the street where it happened, you knew that you had seen nothing, heard nothing, and would say nothing. Many gave up because the streets and the schools were so bad, especially middle-class blacks who could at last go elsewhere. But jobs were plentiful in the city. If you didn’t like your boss, an old head told me, you could quit and have a new job by the end of the day. Some people had jobs as well as welfare. Blacks felt that they ran the place. You could pass out on a traffic island in Harlem and no one would bother you all day long. The only people around in those days were black, old heads say. If whites found themselves in Harlem, then they had to run. But you can meet whites who have spent their lives in Harlem, in their family homes, tolerated because they’d always been there, hadn’t run.

Buy Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto here.

Million Dollar Movie

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In the latest issue of the New Yorker, David Denby reviews Mark Harris’ new book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War:

In early 1944, John Huston made a film about an infantry unit’s tortuous struggle to clear the Germans out of San Pietro, a small town northwest of Naples, and the surrounding countryside. When “The Battle of San Pietro” came out, in 1945, it was hailed for the power and the grit of its combat scenes and for its portrait of civilian misery, and Huston was praised for his courage. The film has been honored in those terms many times since. Yet, as Harris reports, the scenes in “The Battle of San Pietro” were largely re-created after the town had been taken from the Germans. Huston had access to official accounts of the struggle, culled from interviews with soldiers who had fought in it, and he used maps and a pointer to keep the American tactics and the chronology straight. But the bloody progress of the G.I.s across fields and along a stony ridge outside the town was staged; Huston’s actors were soldiers whom the Army assigned to the project. The men certainly look the part, their faces fatigued and worried. Huston asked them to stare into the camera now and then, as people do in newsreel footage. At times, the camera jerks wildly, as Ford’s camera had in Midway. Huston turned the signatures of authenticity into artifact.

“San Pietro” ends with text that demurely admits that some of the footage was taken before or after the actual battle—which hardly amounts to full disclosure. Harris has seen the mass of uncut footage, and he’s indignant about the imposture. Yet the issue remains complicated. Certainly, it’s dishonest to claim that something is authentic when it’s not. But all movies are illusions of one sort or another, and perhaps it’s best to say that some illusions are truer than others. In the case of war, what kind of representation brings you the most vivid and the most accurate sense of a terrible event? Steven Spielberg, staging the D Day landing in “Saving Private Ryan,” delivered a greater sense of the deadly turmoil on Omaha Beach than either John Ford or George Stevens, both of whom were in Normandy during the landing, with multiple crews and hundreds of cameras. Many of the cameras were unmanned or didn’t work; the footage recorded that day is largely out of focus or grisly in a fragmentary way.

The War Department wanted morale-building movies for the home front, and, under pressure, both Ford and Wyler softened their groundbreaking work. Ford added hokily reassuring dialogue (spoken by Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda) to “Midway”; Wyler included scenes of ceremonial visits to the Memphis Belle by top generals and by the King and Queen of England. In “The Battle of San Pietro,” Huston offers no such reassurance. As the soldiers advance through smoke and mist, many of them falling to machine-gun fire, the tone of the narration, which Huston himself speaks, is grim. The beautiful old town, when the Americans get there, is nothing but rubble. The survivors look exhausted—not jubilant but merely relieved that their part of the war is over. Huston not only presents the physical hardships of battle; he creates the war as a cultural and moral catastrophe. The sense of desolation is broken only at the end of the movie, by a scene of children playing in the street, their innocent faces making a minimal claim against despair. Even if the images are mostly contrived, “San Pietro” is aesthetically of a piece—and magnificent.

Geek Love Revisited

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I’ve never read Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love but I remember it being a big deal when it came out and also recall seeing it in bookstores for a long time after that.

Over at Wired, Caitlin Roper celebrates Geek Love at 25:

KURT COBAIN AND COURTNEY LOVE were fans. Terry Gilliam—former Monty Pythonite and the director of Time Bandits, Brazil, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—calls it “the most romantic novel about love and family I have read. It made me ashamed to be so utterly normal.” In the ’90s, Harry Anderson, the magician and actor (he played the Judge on Night Court) optioned the film rights and wrote a movie script himself. Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist, adores it. “Certain books,” he says, “are so imaginative that they suck you into a world that you’d never known existed. They make you feel like you’re being let in on this secret. It’s life-changing.”

The book is Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, a dazzling oddball masterpiece published 25 years ago this month. It’s the tale of a circus sideshow called the Binewski Carnival Fabulon that hits hard times. (The titular “geek” refers to a sideshow performer who bites the heads off chickens.) When some of the show’s performers defect, its proprietors—Aloysius and Crystal Lil Binewski—decide to breed their own stable of freaks. Their methods are experimental and more than a little disturbing: They mess with their own DNA and biochemistry using various drugs, insecticides, and radioactive materials. It works: Lil gives birth to a boy with flippers for hands and feet, a set of Siamese twins joined at the waist, a hunchback albino dwarf, and a regular-looking baby with telekinetic powers. The Binewskis become freak superheroes, a team of way-weirdos, each with his own skills and powers.

It hardly sounds like mass-market material. But Geek Love has been a perennial best seller, and its cultural influence has been prodigious. The book has inspired and moved writers, artists, and performers to tell their own wild stories. Novelist Karen Russell read Geek Love for the first time when she was 15. She picked it up expecting a story of nerds in love, but found something else: “I felt electrocuted when I read that first page with Crystal Lil and her freak brood. I stood there in the bookstore and my jaw came unhinged. No book I’ve read, before or since, has given me that specific jolt.” Harlan Ellison describes Geek Love as “transformative” and adds: “Not only for its time and its subject matter, but for Katherine Dunn’s attack on the material. She had a stout voice and a clear insight.” Then there’s Jim Rose, who read Geek Love when he was a 30-year-old American touring Europe as a stunt performer with his wife’s family circus. The novel inspired him to launch his own sideshow in the US, the Jim Rose Circus, which toured with Lollapalooza, Nine Inch Nails, and then on its own through the ’90s. “Geek Love forces a movie into your head while you read it,” Rose says. “You barely even realize you’re reading words.” The only other book he could think of that had the same effect on him? Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (It must be the scene where the lady gets a hatchet in her head.)

[Illustration by Brandon Zimmerman]

Listen Up

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Flavorpill collects 15 writers reading their own work. 

[Photo Via: Stipha]

Million Dollar Movie

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Jeanine Basinger in the New York Review of Books:

Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck were separated by fifteen years in age, and arrived in Hollywood more than a decade apart. Although both were famous stars, neither ever won a competitive Academy Award. (Gardner was nominated once for Mogambo and Stanwyck four times, for Stella Dallas, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number. She received an honorary Oscar in 1982 for her “unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”) Both were at the top during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, but one difference between them is fundamental: Ava Gardner was a product of the “star machine” and Barbara Stanwyck was not.

Gardner, from a not very well off but stable North Carolina family, arrived in town with a minimum of security and no acting experience, but was fed into a system that might be expected to take care of her if she behaved. Stanwyck, coming from a hardscrabble background in New York, arrived from Broadway with the security of a contract and solid experience, but took up her career independently and never let anyone own her.

Gardner’s security came with a price. Unable to pick and choose, she was assigned pedestrian films she had to carry (The Great Sinner in 1949, My Forbidden Past in 1951). She wasn’t given many opportunities to grow as an actress. The studio didn’t need that from her, and because of her spectacular looks, she presented something of a casting problem. Who would believe Ava Gardner as a nun, or a rocket scientist, or a neglected working girl in a tuna cannery? She was born to grab the spotlight, and having shaped her image as “a magnificent animal” (her billing for The Barefoot Contessa, 1954), Hollywood was content to present her that way.

Gardner became resentful and restless, and began to carouse, have affairs, and create problems. She didn’t care if she caused a scandal, particularly when she took up with the married Frank Sinatra and became the most famous “other woman” of her time. Ironically, it was easy for her studio to fuse this off-screen behavior to her on-screen persona, and the role of “Ava Gardner,” bad-girl-good-time-gal-sex-symbol, became an unbreakable image.

Stanwyck’s independence meant that she could negotiate her films and salaries, but she had to accept that she had no priority in any studio’s plans for casting. She lost significant roles as a result, such as the lead in Dark Victory (1939), which went to Bette Davis. Wilson points out that a studio “would have steadily built her up picture after picture,” as MGM did with Gardner, but Stanwyck didn’t want that: “She found it a constraint.” Stanwyck had to fight to get good films, but she had her own supporters, including her first husband, Frank Fay (an established born-in-a-trunk performer), a shrewd agent, Zeppo Marx (the fifth Marx brother), and particularly director Frank Capra, who saw what she was capable of and who guided her in four of her earliest films. As curator of the Frank Capra Archives, I spent many hours talking to Capra about his career, and Stanwyck was a subject he loved. A great admirer of her talent, discipline, and professionalism, he always stressed that since Stanwyck was never owned by a single studio for any length of time, no specific image was created for her. She had to create her own.

New York Minute

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Nice piece by Roger Angell in the latest issue of the New Yorker:

What I’ve come to count on is the white-coated attendant of memory, silently here again to deliver dabs from the laboratory dish of me. In the days before Carol died, twenty months ago, she lay semiconscious in bed at home, alternating periods of faint or imperceptible breathing with deep, shuddering catch-up breaths. Then, in a delicate gesture, she would run the pointed tip of her tongue lightly around the upper curve of her teeth. She repeated this pattern again and again. I’ve forgotten, perhaps mercifully, much of what happened in that last week and the weeks after, but this recurs.

Carol is around still, but less reliably. For almost a year, I would wake up from another late-afternoon mini-nap in the same living-room chair, and, in the instants before clarity, would sense her sitting in her own chair, just opposite. Not a ghost but a presence, alive as before and in the same instant gone again. This happened often, and I almost came to count on it, knowing that it wouldn’t last. Then it stopped.

People my age and younger friends as well seem able to recall entire tapestries of childhood, and swatches from their children’s early lives as well: conversations, exact meals, birthday parties, illnesses, picnics, vacation B. and B.s, trips to the ballet, the time when . . . I can’t do this and it eats at me, but then, without announcement or connection, something turns up. I am walking on Ludlow Lane, in Snedens, with my two young daughters, years ago on a summer morning. I’m in my late thirties; they’re about nine and six, and I’m complaining about the steep little stretch of road between us and our house, just up the hill. Maybe I’m getting old, I offer. Then I say that one day I’ll be really old and they’ll have to hold me up. I imitate an old man mumbling nonsense and start to walk with wobbly legs. Callie and Alice scream with laughter and hold me up, one on each side. When I stop, they ask for more, and we do this over and over.

[Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe]

Clearing the Bases

teddywilliams

 

From an essay I wrote about Richard Ben Cramer’s Esquire story on Ted Williams for the latest e-magazine from The Classical:

They came to Ted Williams the way those eight ill-fated adventurers came to Everest, thinking they could scale it, conquer it, reduce it to something mortals could comprehend. John Updike almost made it to the top when he wrote that gods don’t answer letters, but Ed Linn got off just as good a line in Sport magazine summing up Williams’ last game: “And now Boston knows how England felt when it lost India.” Leigh Montville weighed in with an almost poetically profane biography, and now Ben Bradlee Jr. has delivered a massive biography of his own at nearly 1,000 pages. But none of them—and I’m talking about a great novelist, two splendid sports writers, and a deeply committed researcher here— made it to the top of the mountain where dwelled Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, the Kid.

Richard Ben Cramer did.

He had only 15,000 words to work with, and he had to scheme and skulk and send flowers to get those, but he climbed inside Williams’ life and mind and special madness the way nobody before him did and nobody after him has. His story – “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” – reached out from the pages of Esquire‘s July 1986 issue and grabbed you by the collar. Once you read his first sentence – “Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those” – you didn’t need to be forced to go the rest of the way.

Check it out here. 

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver