"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Book Review

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. 

New Hope for the Dead

 

A treat: Lawrence Block on Charles Willeford:

Charles Willeford took writing very seriously, and applied himself to it wholeheartedly for some 40 years. He started out as a poet; his first book, Proletarian Laughter, was a collection of poems. He began publishing paperback fiction while serving his second hitch in the military, and kept at it, and worked hard at it.

With the Hoke Moseley novels, he got a taste of the commercial success that had for so long eluded him. When I learned of his death, I was struck by the irony of it; he was just beginning to get somewhere, and the Fates took him out of the game.

To Live and Die in L.A.

Dig this article on Raymond Chandler by Jonah Raskin over at Boom:

Raymond Chandler relished finding names for his quirky characters, including Philip Marlowe, the pipe-smoking, chess-playing private eye—a literary kinsman to Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett’s solitary sleuth—whom I first met in the pages of fiction as a teenager and whom I have known more than fifty years. Sometimes the names are dead giveaways about the morality or immorality of the character, sometimes they’re opaque, but I’ve always found them intriguing and an open invitation to try to solve the mystery myself. In his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939) Chandler calls the bellicose gangster Eddie Mars, the smut peddler Arthur Gwynn Geiger, and the top cop Captain Cronjager. In The High Window (1942), Lois Magic is the femme fatale, Linda Conquest is a torch singer, and Leslie Murdoch is the effete son of a nasty heiress who has murdered her own husband and brainwashed Merle Davis (a wholesome girl from the Midwest and a victim of sexual assault) into thinking she’s guilty of the crime. Nice people, Marlowe observes wryly.

Born in Chicago in 1888, near the end of the Victorian era, raised in England among elite Edwardians, and transplanted to Los Angeles in 1913, Chandler saw California through the eyes of an English eccentric. A veteran of World War I who was wounded in action in France, and a child of Prohibition and Depression America, he recognized that crime was an industry in both boom and bust times, and a rich field for a writer. Then, too, as a displaced person and an alien in the Southern California world of cars and freeways, among phony and lonely people, he tapped into a vast reservoir of mass discontent. In his seven novels, all of them set in and around Los Angeles, he depicted the world as a vile place inhabited by loathsome people. A cynic, he envisioned no way to escape nastiness—certainly not by going to the movies, which, in his view, offered much the same trite boy-meets-girl story over and over again and trivialized psychological issues and social problems.

“Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him,” Chandler wrote of LA. He added that it was “a city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.” Chandler loved and hated LA in much the same way that Balzac loved and hated mid-nineteenth-century Paris and F. Scott Fitzgerald loved and hated Jazz Age Manhattan.

[Featured Image Via the most cool: Daylight Noir]

Tipsy

If you’ve never read John O’Hara’s first novel, do yourself a favor. Penguin Classics has published a new edition of the book with an introduction by Charles McGrath, excerpted over at The New York Review of Books:

Originally published in 1934, John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra is still the only American novel I know that begins with a scene of a married couple—Luther and Irma Fliegler—having sex and on Christmas morning, no less. Later in the book, another married couple—Julian English, the novel’s protagonist, and his wife, Caroline—make love in the middle of Christmas afternoon. Julian has been dispatched on a disagreeable errand, and Caroline rewards him by waiting in their bedroom in a black lace negligee she calls her “whoring gown.” About their lovemaking, the novel says, “she was as passionate and as curious, as experimental and joyful as ever he was.”

Before O’Hara, sex in American novels—polite novels, anyway—was mostly adulterous, not something that proper married women engaged in, or if they did, they weren’t known to enjoy it. Appointment is a genuine love story, charged with eros but stripped of sentimentality, and the relationship between the Englishes is more convincing and more satisfying than that of, say, Gatsby and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, or Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Though unfaithful to her, Julian can’t stop loving Caroline, and after O’Hara devotes a whole chapter to her intimate thoughts and sexual explorations before marriage, the reader can’t help falling a little in love with her, too. Caroline, for her part, reflects at the end of the book: “He was drunk, but he was Julian, drunk or not, and that was more than anyone else was.”

The speed with which the book was written may account for the urgency of its storytelling. O’Hara began it in December 1933, when he was just twenty-eight, and wrote it in something like white heat, finishing in a little under four months. Set in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a lightly disguised version of Pottsville, where O’Hara grew up, the entire action of Appointment in Samarra—Julian English’s whirlwind of self-destruction—takes place in just thirty-six hours, and its breakneck pace is startling and exciting. Even on a second reading, when you know what’s going to happen, you tear through it still not quite believing in what’s just ahead and what’s already been established by the novel’s epigraph, taken from W. Somerset Maugham’s play Sheppey (in which Death speaks of meeting a merchant in Samarra): an appointment in Samarra, we know from the beginning, is an appointment with death itself.

The Ones You Can Depend On

Over at the New York Review of Books here’s Gary Wills on Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power:

Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson—this is the fourth volume of a planned five—was originally conceived and has been largely executed as a study of power. But this volume has been overtaken by a more pressing theme. It is a study in hate. The book’s impressive architectonics come from the way everything is structured around two poles or pillars—Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy, radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step of the story. Caro calls it “perhaps the greatest blood feud of American politics in the twentieth century.” With some reservations about the word “blood,” one has to concede that Caro makes good his claim for this dynamic in the tale he has to tell.

There are many dramatic events, throughout the volume, that illustrate Caro’s theme. I begin with one that could seem insignificant to those not knowing the background on both sides, because it shows that even the slightest brush between these two triggered rancorous inner explosions. Johnson, newly sworn in as president, had just come back to Washington on Air Force One from the terrible death of John Kennedy in Dallas. Robert Kennedy sped up the steps to the plane and rushed fiercely down the length of the cabin through everyone standing in his way (including the new president) to reach Jacqueline Kennedy. Understandable that he would first of all want to comfort the widow? Yes, but. This was the first of many ways Bobby (called that throughout) tried in the first days to ignore the man who had ignominiously, in his eyes, supplanted his brother by a murder in the man’s own Texas.

Caro understands that Bobby was determined not to see Johnson, even if he saw him—so he did not see him. But Johnson saw him not seeing, and hated him the more. That is how hate narrows one—narrows what one wants to see, or is able to see, in order to keep one’s hatred tended and hard.

The Banter Gold Standard: Parker

Here’s our pal Luc Sante on Richard Stark’s Parker. Stark, aka, Donald Westlake, was recently profiled by Michael Weinreb over at Grantland.

Luc’s piece is featured in several of the Parker books recently re-issued by the University of Chicago Press. If you’ve never read the Parker series, you’re in for a treat.

“Parker”

By Luc Sante

The Parker novels by Richard Stark are a singularly long-lasting literary franchise, established in 1962 and pursued to the present, albeit with a 23-year hiatus in the middle. In other ways, too, they are a unique proposition. When I read my first Parker novel–picked up at random, and in French translation, no less–I was a teenager, and hadn’t read much crime fiction beyond Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. I was stunned by the book, by its power and economy and the fact that it blithely dispensed with moral judgment, and of course I wanted more. Not only did I want more Parker and more Stark, I also imagined that I had stumbled upon a particularly brilliant specimen of a thriving genre. But I was wrong. There is no such genre.

To be sure, there are plenty of tight, harsh crime novels, beginning with Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and there is a substantial body of books written from the point of view of the criminal, ranging from the tortured cries of Jim Thompson and David Goodis to the mordantly analytical romans durs by Georges Simenon. There are quite a few caper novels, including the comic misadventures Parker’s creator writes under his real name, Donald Westlake, and the works of a whole troop of French writers not well known in this country: José Giovanni, Albert Simonin, San-Antonio. The lean, efficient Giovanni in particular has points in common with Stark (anglophones can best approach him through movie adaptations: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le deuxième souffle, Claude Sautet’s Classe tous risques), but with the key difference that he is an unabashed romantic.

Stark is not a romantic, or at least not within the first six feet down from the surface. Westlake has said that he meant the books to be about “a workman at work,” which they are, and that is why they have so few useful parallels, why they are virtually a genre unto themselves. Process and mechanics and trouble-shooting dominate the books, determine their plots, underlie their aesthetics and their moral structure. A great many of the editions down through the years have prominently featured a blurb from Anthony Boucher: “Nobody tops Stark in his objective portrayal of a world of total amorality.” That is true as far as it goes–it is never suggested in the novels that robbing payrolls or shooting people who present liabilities are anything more than business practices–but Boucher overlooked the fact that Parker maintains his own very lively set of moral prerogatives. 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.

Parker is in fact a bit like the ideal author of a crime-fiction series: solid, dependable, attentive to every nuance and detail. He is annoyed by small talk and gets straight to the point in every instance, using no more than the necessary number of words to achieve his aim. He eschews short cuts, although he can make difficult processes look easy, and he is free of any trace of sentiment, although he knows that while planning and method and structure are crucial, character is even more important. As brilliant as he is as a strategist, he is nothing short of phenomenal at instantly grasping character. This means that he sometimes sounds more like a fictional detective than a crook, but mostly he sounds like a writer. In order to decide which path the double-crosser he is pursuing is most likely to have taken, or which member of the string is most likely to double-cross, or the odds on a reasonable-sounding job that has just been proposed to him by someone with shaky credentials, he has to get all the way into the skin of the party in question. He is an exceptionally intelligent freelancer in a risky profession who takes on difficult jobs hoping for a payoff large enough to hold off the next job for as long as possible. He even has an agent (Joe Sheer succeeded by Handy McKay). Then again he is seen–by other characters as well as readers–as lacking in emotion, let alone sympathy, a thug whose sole motivation is self-interest.

And no wonder: Parker is a big, tough man with cold eyes. “His hands looked like they’d been molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins”; the sentence appears like a Homeric epithet somewhere in an early chapter of most of the books. He might just possibly pass for a businessman, provided the business is something like used cars or jukeboxes. He doesn’t drink much, doesn’t gamble, doesn’t read, likes to sit in the dark, thinking, or else in front of the television, not watching but employing it as an aid to concentration. Crude and antisocial at the start of the series, he actually evolves considerably over its course. Claire, whom he meets in The Rare Coin Score, seems to have a lot to do with this–by Deadly Edge they actually have a house together. And Alan Grofield, first encountered in The Score and recurring in The Handle, among other titles, twice in the series becomes the recipient of what can only be called acts of kindness from Parker, however much Stark equivocates on this point, insisting that they merely reflect professional ethics or some such.

Parker is a sort of super-criminal–not at all like those European master criminals, such as Fantômas and Dr. Mabuse, but a very American freebooter, able to outmaneuver the Mob, the CIA, and whatever other forces come at him. For all that he lives on the other side of the law, he bears a certain resemblance to popular avengers of the 1960s and ‘70s, Dirty Harry or Charles Bronson’s character in Death Wish. He is a bit of a fanatic, and even though we are repeatedly told how sybaritic his off-duty resort-hotel lifestyle is, it remains hard to picture, since he is such an ascetic in the course of the stories. He is so utterly consumed by the requirements of his profession that everything extraneous to it is suppressed when he’s on, and we are not privy to his time off, except for narrow vignettes in which he is glimpsed having sex or, once, swimming. But then, writers are writing even when they’re not writing, aren’t they?

After The Hunter, all the remaining titles concern jobs gone wrong, which seems to account for most of Parker’s jobs, barring the occasional fleeting allusion to smoother operations in the past. The Seventh is, naturally, the seventh book in the series, as well as a reference to the split from the take in a stadium job. The actual operation is successful; the problem is what occurs afterward. It represents the very rare incursion, for the Parker series, of a thriller staple: the crazed gunman. Along with The Rare Coin Score, it is one of Stark’s always very pointed explorations of group dynamics. The Handle, with its private gambling island, ex-Nazi villain, and international intrigue, is (like The Mourner and The Black Ice Score) a nod to the espionage craze of the 1960s, when authors of thrillers could not afford to ignore James Bond. If The Seventh is primarily aftermath, The Handle is largely preamble. In The Rare Coin Score (the first of four such titles, succeeded by Green Eagle, Black Ice, and Sour Lemon) the culprit is an amateur, a coin dealer whose arrested development is so convincingly depicted the reader can virtually hear his voice squeak. Sharp characterizations abound in this one–its plot turns entirely on character flaws of various sizes.

The Parker books are all engines, machines that start up with varying levels of difficulty, then run through a process until they are done, although subject to different sorts of interference. The heists depicted are only part of this process–sometimes they are even peripheral to it. Parker is the mechanic who runs the machine and attempts to keep it oiled and on course. The interference is always caused by personalities–by the greed, incompetence, treachery, duplicity, or insanity of various individuals concerned, although this plays out in a variety of ways, depending on whether it affects the job at beginning, middle, or end, and whether it occurs as a single dramatic action, a domino sequence of contingencies, or a gradually fraying rope. The beauty of the machine is that not only is suspense as effective as it usually is, but its opposite is, too: the satisfaction of inevitability. Some Parker novels are fantastically intricate clockwork mechanisms (The Hunter, The Outfit, the seemingly unstoppable Slayground, the epic Butcher’s Moon), while others hurtle along as successions of breakdowns (the aptly acidic The Sour Lemon Score, the almost sadistically frustrating Plunder Squad).

Like all machines but unlike lesser thrillers the novels have numerous moving parts, and the more the better–more people, more subplots, more businesslike detail, more vignetted glimpses of marginal lives. Stark’s momentum is such that the more matter he throws into the hopper the faster the gears turn. The books are machines that all but read themselves. You can consume the entire series and not once have to invest in a bookmark.

But I Like It

Here’s a good piece on Keith Richards’ memoir by Rich Cohen:

Life is not a standard addiction memoir, because Richards sees his addiction as anything but standard. It’s not a weakness, not a disease. It’s martyrdom. “They imagined me, they made me, the folks out there created this hero,” he writes. “Bless their hearts. I’ll do the best I can to fulfill their needs. They’re wishing me to do things that they can’t. They’ve got this job, they’ve got this life . . . but at the same time, inside them, is a raging Keith Richards. When you talk of a folk hero, they’ve written the script for you and you better fulfill it. And I did my best.” In other words, Richards taunts death so that we can be free.

Much of the trouble between Jagger and Richards must come from the simple fact of longevity. They are locked in a partnership that started when they were too young to make lifelong commitments. How would you get along with your high school friends if you still had to depend on them today? Richards, a sentimentalist, cannot help but compare how it was then to how it is now with sadness. “Mick has changed tremendously,” he writes, “only thinking [back] do I remember with regret how completely tight we were in the early years of the Stones. First off, we never had to question aims. We were unerring in where we wanted to go, what it should sound like, so we didn’t have to discuss it.”

In the end, it does not matter that Richards is unfair to Jagger or that Richards sees the world through a coke-addled lens. In this book, as in his music, Richards’ real obligation belongs not to Jagger or anyone else. It belongs to the reader, and to the art. At this, Richards succeeds brilliantly. The result is a classic book of rock & roll.

While you are at it, check out Cohen’s 1994 Rolling Stone cover story on the band.

The Minor Fall, the Major Lift

My mother’s father died in the spring of 1995. I went to Belgium for the funeral with my brother and sister, mother and step father. We stayed at my uncle’s house and for the three days we were there he played Jeff Buckley’s Grace constantly. It was a mournful soundtrack and the songs are inseparable from the mental pictures and emotions I keep with me from that trip.

I don’t imagine I would have heard the Buckley record, let alone be so moved by it, unless it had been such an indelible part of saying goodbye to my grandfather, staying in the home of his only son, a man with whom I shared little language but ardent feeling.

That trip and Buckley’s album came to mind today.

Here is Janet Maslin in the Times on The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, & The Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’:

The album containing “Hallelujah” came out on an independent label in 1984, and then it languished. See Ms. Simmons’s account for an understanding of why, by 1991, the world was nonetheless ready for a Leonard Cohen tribute album: “I’m Your Fan,” put together by the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles. This album prompted a major overhaul of “Hallelujah” by John Cale, once of the Velvet Underground, who re-edited the lyrics, coming up with a version that has proved more enduring than Mr. Cohen’s. Mr. Cale’s stark, exquisitely pure rendition, with an emphasis on the song’s eroticism, is by some lights (like this one) the best “Hallelujah” ever recorded.

A remarkable stroke of fate sent Jeff Buckley, then an aspiring young troubadour, to stay in a New York apartment that happened to contain a copy of “I’m Your Fan.” Buckley heard the song and, like many who have heard it, claimed he had no idea who had written it. But he included an intensely, beautifully ethereal version of it on his 1994 album, “Grace,” giving it a young man’s hypercharged sensibility rather than the Cohen-Cale seasoned one. When Buckley died young (as his doppelgänger father, the singer Tim Buckley, had), “Hallelujah” developed a cult following. “Leonard penned it, but Jeff owned it,” Mr. Light writes.

[Photo Credit: jucanlis]

More than Somewhat (Raymond Onion)

From my dear friend Mike Fox in London comes this on Damon Runyon:

“Raymond Onion”

I was about ten or eleven-years-old when I read my first book by Damon Runyon. It was called Johnny One-Eye. I’ve only just learned that it was a short-story first published in Colliers Magazine in 1941. The book that I read in the late Forties, titled Johnny One-Eye, was a one-inch thick hard-cover in black rexine, and I have always thought it was complete novel. However, the facts being the facts, it must have been a compilation of Runyon’s work.

Normally, at that time of my life, I rarely read books. I blame my school for that: stuffing young kids’ heads full of Shakespeare, George Eliot, and the Brontës. Whenever I tried a book, I put it aside after a few boring chapters, thinking that I just didn’t like books (rather than comics and magazines). I was yet to realise that, simply, I hadn’t yet read anything of personal interest to me written in everyday language that I could understand.

Johnny One-Eye, I remember, had sat on my bedroom mantelpiece over the fireplace for many months. It was my mother’s book, taken out from Boots the Chemists Lending Library at probably sixpence (5c) per week. Obviously, being above such things, my mother never bothered to return it. Again, I seem to remember, I may have had a dose of the ‘flu at the time, enough to keep me in bed for a day or two, and it was then most likely that I reached for the book and read it – and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I can honestly say that it was Johnny One-Eye, and later, Tomboy, a junk paperback about New York City street gangs (then controversial but of some note as a ‘first’ today), that my older sister had just finished, which set me to reading to the extent that reading is something I’m almost addicted to today. I became a dedicated reader as a young teenager.

Last week, on researching Johnny One-Eye, I found that more than a few of its present day book reviewers are disseminating an error in describing its plot. They state that Johnny One-Eye was a dog, when in fact it (he) was a kitten. They have mistakenly taken as their source the eponymous 1950 Pat O’Brien film, whose producers made the change from cat to dog for reasons known only to them and Damon Runyon, who was duly screen-credited for Story.

For me, the remarkable thing about Runyon was that his all-American characters pretty much described my father, his friends, and cohorts from the large community of Jewish spielers in the East End of London, where my father was born. A course bookmaker, my dad would take me along to visit his friends on the other side of town on occasional Sundays, to watch him and them all sitting round a blanket-covered table, drinking whisky and smoking havanas, playing rummy for money with a double-deck of cards. Better than that, my dad would take me for lunch at any one of a dozen fine kosher delis and restaurants where I wolfed down dishes of lockshen soup, plates of salt-beef and latkes, chrane, pickled cucumbers and rye bread – and we’d carry home cholas and hot beigels and the greatest cheese-cake I’ve ever tasted in my life. (Note: British Jews say ‘byegul’ unlike the American ‘baygul’. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Similarly: shmairil and schlemiel; shmock and schmuk; salt-beef and corned beef; smoked salmon and lox.)

So, I actually knew Harry the Horse, Benny the Blond Jew, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, the Lemon Drop Kid, et al, long before I introduced myself to Runyon.

Why I loved Runyon on my first reading was much more about his language, his scrupulous use of the present tense, and his characters rather than his plots. In fact I didn’t care for his ‘normally’ written work about non-Broadway subjects much at all. But I’m sure that if I read them now, as an adult, I’d like them; probably very much. Sadly, I learned not too long ago that Runyon was a noted anti-Semite. I’m sure that was a hard thing to be in a Jewish town like New York peopled by characters he wrote about that were almost certainly and mainly Jewish. How could they not be? Never mind all that, I love Runyon and his Broadway, and like The Pat Hobby Stories, I go back to them again and again when I feel enough time has passed for me to enjoy them anew.

So, to answer your question: with Runyon (and Pat Hobby) I have no favourites. The whole of them, taken together, is my favourite, just like my kids.

From your ever-lovin’

Oink!

PS: A poignant little story about my pre-teen reading.

When I was about nine-years-old I somehow came into possession of a Bugs Bunny comic. This was rare because in the immediate post-war period Britain was pretty much bankrupt and anything imported was severely restricted to the necessities. Every dollar was needed to pay our huge war-debt to the United States. I loved Warner Bros. cartoons because they were the very best, and because they had Mel Blanc. At the end of the Bugs Bunny comic was a little ad offering a year’s subscription for a dollar (if I remember right). Now, it happens I actually had a US dollar coin that a very kind Canadian serviceman lodging in one of our flats had given me. So I cut out the ad, filled in my address, dropped in the dollar coin and posted it off to an address in Poughkeepsie (I’ve never forgotten the name). Sure enough, weeks later, a copy of Bugs Bunny dropped through our letter-box and continued doing so for one year. Only as an adult did I realise what a very kind gesture this was. The air mail costs must have eaten up any profit to the publishers after just a couple of weeks. I find that very, very touching, and now you know why I love America.

 

…Forget Their Hiding

Pete Townshend’s “deeply felt but often ungainly” memoir, Who I Am, is reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in the Times:

What Mr. Townshend does manage to do here with insight, verve and sometimes grandiosity is describe how the Who and its music evolved: how the group “set out to articulate the joy and rage” of the generation that came of age in the “teenage wasteland” that was post-World War II Britain, under the shadow of the atomic bomb and deeply alienated from the established class system. This is why the Who’s early sound — with all the screaming feedback and distortion, the wrecked guitars and Moon’s frenetic drumming — was so aggressive and explosive.

“I wasn’t trying to play beautiful music,” Mr. Townshend explains. “I was confronting my audience with the awful, visceral sound of what we all knew was the single absolute of our frail existence — one day an aeroplane would carry the bomb that would destroy us all in a flash. It could happen at any time. The Cuban Crisis less than two years before had proved that.”

This is Mr. Townshend in his rock theorist mode — familiar to fans, who have read his music essays and reviews, or listened to his ruminative interviews. He speaks candidly in these pages about the influence that artists like the Kinks and Bob Dylan had on him, recalling that when he first sat down to try to write songs for the Who, he isolated himself in the kitchen of his Ealing flat, and listened to a few records over and over again: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”; Charles Mingus’s “Better Git It in Your Soul,” from “Mingus Ah Um”; John Lee Hooker’s “Devil’s Jump”; and “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MGs.

He proves equally engaging as a sort of rock historian, describing the musical landscape in Britain in the early 1960s, when rock exploded on the scene. He describes how it upended the old order represented by the swing music that his father, a clarinetist and saxophonist, played in a band called the Squadronaires. And he charts how the Who came to push the boundaries of rock, creating one of the most acclaimed early concept albums (“The Who Sell Out,” 1967) and pioneering the form of the rock opera with “Tommy” in 1969.

As Mr. Townshend sees it, the Who’s ascendance would eventually be undermined by the rise of punk rock in the late ’70s. Though Who songs like “My Generation” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” became “anthems for a particular time,” Mr. Townshend writes, by 1981 “a gulf had opened up between the Who and the new younger generation.

“I had to accept that we had reached our peak of popularity at Woodstock, and however famous and successful we still were as a band, our ability to reinvent ourselves was declining as we continued a long slow descent from that moment when Roger sang ‘See me, feel me, touch me, heal me,’ the sun rose up behind us, and my guitar screamed to 500,000 sleep-tousled people.”

Here’s more Pete from Alexis Petridis in the Guardian.

Hot Damn

 

 

There won’t be a better book about the Yankees this spring than “Damn Yankees,” edited by Sports Illustrated veteran Rob Fleder. Consider a line-up that includes Frank Deford, Dan Okrent, Roy Blount Jr, Richard Hoffer,  Bruce McCall, Leigh Montville, Jane Leavy, Rick Telander, Dan Barry, Tom Verducci, and Steve Rushin.

Will Leitch has a hilarious article about the uncensored joys of watching a game in the stands at Yankee Stadium; Charlie Pierce offers a wonderful take down of Jerry Seinfeld’s glib “rooting for laundry” routine; William Nack and Michael Paterniti deliver elegant pieces about the Bronx Zoo Era team; Bill James gives us the 100 best seasons ever by a Yankee catcher, and J.R. Moehringer and Colum McCann come through with beautiful memoir essays. And then there’s our man, Pete Dexter, who writes about Chuck Knoblauch in such a strange, funny, and true manner that his story will stick with you for a long time.

The book will be out this spring. And it’s a keeper.

 

The End of the Affair

Graham Greene was one of the first novelists that I liked. I think I read three or four of his books before I was twenty. I haven’t revisited him in a long time but he came to mind when I read about a new book by Pico Iyer. Check out this excerpt from The Los Angeles Review of Books:

It’s not of great cosmic interest that Graham Greene seems to be writing my life, even as I’m so proud of making it up myself. Or that he reads me better than many of the friends and family members who see me every day do. But what’s more intriguing is that all of us have these presences inside our heads, who seem somehow to shadow us, and in ways we can’t quite explain. “I can’t listen to Joni Mitchell’s Blue,” a friend once told me. “And I can’t stop listening to it. It’s as if she stole my diary and is broadcasting its secrets to the world.” “I’m almost afraid to see what Henry James will write in the next sentence,” another friend says. “Because it’s so close to my life that he might be telling me what I’ll do and think tomorrow.”

These days, in our virtual lives, this sense of spectral affinity may be more intense and unnerving than ever. Every other celebrity seems to have a stalker who feels he’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s other half, if only she would wake up to the fact; and many of us probably know more about Princess Diana or Tiger Woods, at least when it comes to their intimate lives, than about our siblings or parents. It’s almost as if we have one official life, in which we look and sound like our mother or father; but underneath is a more mysterious life in which we’re really closest to Zadie Smith, or that painter who’s produced our portrait without ever meeting us.

One of the writers who was most interested in this secret universe — we dream, again and again, of a place we’ve never seen in life, but almost never of the building in which we live; we meet a stranger at a party, and feel she knows us better than the old friends we came with do — was, as it happens, Graham Greene. At the age of 16, after failing to run away from the school where his father was headmaster, he was allowed (unusually for his time and class) to go and live for six months with a dream analyst in London, and the man’s glamorous wife. For much of his life thereafter he kept a careful diary of his dreams, meticulously indexed, and two of his novels, he said, came straight from dreams. The last book he prepared for publication before his death was a record of his dreams.

And here is a review of Iyer’s book in the New York Times Book Review.

Book It, Dano

Here’s ten sports books from 2011 to keep in mind as you tackle that holiday shopping list:

1. “The Whore of Akron”

Scott Raab’s hugely entertaining memoir. I didn’t know what to expect, I thought it could just be a gonzo stunt. Then, after enjoying the first thirty pages, I wondered if Raab would be able to sustain the goodness for an entire book. Would he bang away on one note the whole time? Would the joke wear thin? Hardly. The book gets deeper as it goes along, without losing it’s light touch. A deeply moral, funny, and often moving work.

2. “At the Fights”

The wonderful boxing compilation edited by George Kimball and John Schulian.

3. “21: The Story of Roberto Clemente”

A fine graphic novel portrait of the great Clemente.

4. “Fenway 1912″

Glenn Stout’s definitive history of the making of Fenway Park. Not just for Red Sox Nation.

5. “Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel”

Leigh Montville+ Evel=and a good time had by all.

6. “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand”

A terrific collection of our man Schulian’s best sports writing. A must-have.

 

7. “The Extra 2%”

Jonah Keri astute take on how the Tampa Bay Rays compete against the monsters of the American League East.

8. “Flip Flop Fly Ball”

The picture book of the year from the one and only Craig Robinson.

9. “Sweetness”

Jeff Pearlman’s best book yet.

10. “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training”

Josh Wilker goes deeper into movies.

One Last Whiskey Dawn

No Regrets: A Hard-Boiled Life

By John Schulian

The train to glory left without James Crumley, who seems to have been too busy examining life’s gnarly side to bother catching it. There are no best-sellers for him, no money-bloated deals with Hollywood–just hard-boiled novels that are better than anybody else’s because all those lost nights stashed in the margins make each one a survivor’s story.

Crumley has never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but he knows how blood looks when it’s spilled against a backdrop of whiskey dawns, cocaine pick-me-ups, and wall-shaking sex. His is a wisdom acquired by bellying up to the bar in roadhouses where bikers, ranch hands and oil-field workers beat each other senseless for playing the wrong Merle Haggard song on the jukebox. It’s no life for the delicate, but the delicate don’t have a taste for Crumley’s novels anyway, so the hell with them.

The time is right for saying so now that Crumley has again unleashed Milo Milodragovitch, one of his two memorably unapologetic rogue heroes. Milo comes barreling back in “The Final Country” because he needs something to keep Texas and a woman who’s the queen of mood swings from driving him crazy. To tell the truth, he’d rather be home in Montana after reclaiming his father’s stolen inheritance and snagging some unlaundered drug money in the process. Failing that, he uses a sap on a sucker-punching lady bartender, knocks the teeth out of a one-armed man’s mouth, and almost twists the nose off a security-company executive’s face–all before the shooting gets serious. Crumley, for what it’s worth, says Milo represents his kinder, gentler side.

They’ve both passed 60 without a whimper, no problem for Crumley, but strange territory for a hero in a genre that avoids aging as if it were a homely blond. Be advised, though, that when readers first met Milo, in “The Wrong Case,” in 1976, he was in strange territory for a PI then, too–the modern West–and he survived nicely. So when he talks about the two white streaks in his hair early on in “The Final Country,” he isn’t worried. It’s like he says: “I’m old, babe, but not dead.”

Of course, he comes close to making a liar of himself when the simple job of tracking down a runaway wife puts him in the path of a drug dealer “no larger than a church or any more incongruous than a nun with a beard.” The drug dealer, fresh out of prison, is looking for a woman, too, and when he doesn’t succeed, he decides the next best thing is to kill a bar manager. In the midst of the mayhem, over drinks, naturally, he and Milo connect. So it is that Milo decides to help a guy who doesn’t look like he needs any.

The set-up is straight out of Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely,” which Crumley admits and which, when you think about it, is only fitting since he has been described as Chandler’s “bastard son.” Anyone who doubts the accuracy of that label should read Crumley’s 1978 masterpiece, “The Last Good Kiss.” With all due respect to Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke and the genre’s other heavyweights, it’s the best hard-boiled novel of the past 25 years. Some admirers swear it is even more than that, comparing it to Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” To make their case for Crumley’s artistry, true believers don’t have to go any farther than “The Last Good Kiss’s” first sentence:

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

The hero of “Kiss” is C.W. (Sonny) Sughrue, whose last name, as Crumley once explained it to me, is pronounced “sug as in sugar and rue as in rue the goddamned day.” Sughrue is a little younger than Milo and he isn’t as bright, but he’s a lot meaner, which comes in handy for a private eye wading through obsessions, sordid pasts and the dark places in men’s souls. When questioning a particularly difficult thug, Sughrue shoots him twice in the foot: “‘Once to get his attention…and once to let him know I was serious.’”

Culture critic Greil Marcus recalled that quote in the issue of Rolling Stone devoted to the September 11 attacks, as if to suggest that America can play as rough as any terrorists. But the quote’s presence so many years after it appeared in a novel that didn’t sell all that well also suggests an enduring fascination with Crumley. It’s not just that there’s enough demand for his six novels before “The Final Country” to keep reviving them as paperbacks; it’s that there are people who pay upwards of $300 for leather-bound copies of scripts he has written for movies that were never made. And there are even more people, it seems, who will gladly recall finding this expatriate Texan in his Missoula, Montana, lair and joining him in debauches worthy of rock stars.

Documentation of such events is hard to come by, if not impossible, but nothing Crumley has written or said in interviews discourages the telling of such tales. “I think there are more people who drink a lot in America than ever show up in fiction,” he said once, the implication being that he was one of them. And he said, and implied, the same about drugs. But there was a 10-year lull after 1983’s “Dancing Bear” that left the impression his excesses may have gotten the best of him. When he finally reappeared with “The Mexican Tree Duck,” he used the acknowledgments to thank his agent for sticking with him and his publisher for gambling on him. The sentiment didn’t sound like it was coming from someone who’d been lounging on top of the world.

Three years after that, Crumley delivered “Bordersnakes,” which teamed Milo and Sughrue for the first time. And now there is “The Final Country,” his finest work since “The Last Good Kiss,” a splendid balancing act between Milo’s sense of moral outrage and his flare for the outrageous. It’s good to know there’s still a private eye who can enjoy a ménage a trois and then face down a rich, corrupt Texan he sees as “a hyena in the rotten wake of the multinational prides.”

Crumley obviously has a full head of steam, and the news from his camp is that he’s deep into writing his next Sughrue novel, “The Right Madness.” It’s hard to say what’s driving him. Maybe he feels the dogs of mortality nipping at his heels, maybe he has decided to get the most out of his vast talent. Not that he has ever given the impression of someone burdened by regrets. He did, however, apologize the day he showed up 10 minutes late for a writers’ panel on which he was the cult hero.

“I lost my watch,” he said.

“Any idea where?” asked an unsuspecting straight man.

“Yeah,” Crumley said. “I threw it out a car window in El Paso in 1978.”

Crumley died in 2008 at the age of 68. This piece originally appeared on MSN.com (12/3/2001).

The Holy Greil

A new book on the Doors, reviewed by Steve Zeitchik in the L.A. Times:

At first glance, the Doors seem to be an unusual object of study for Greil Marcus, the music critic and cultural historian who likes to draw connections between punk music and world history (“Lipstick Traces”) or Elvis Presley and the American myth (“Mystery Train”). The Los Angeles band is, after all, an act that these days mainly gets airplay for a few scattered hits such as “Light My Fire” and “Break on Through (To the Other Side).” They wouldn’t seem substantial enough for Marcus’ intense gaze. And besides, didn’t Oliver Stone already spend too much time engaging us in a discussion about the Doors’ legacy?

But as he often does, Marcus dives deep, in this case into rare tracks, seminal performances and offhand interviews. The band of Morrison, Manzarek, Densmore and Krieger — referenced by last name only, like old high school friends (they are of course the late frontman Jim Morrison as well as keyboardist Ray Manzarek, drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger) — is in fact worthy of the author’s scrutiny. As he makes clear, this is a band “at war with its audience,” and thus merits a paradox-riddled Marcus-ian exploration.

Readers don’t need to be especially familiar with the Doors’ music to appreciate Marcus’ meanderings. But they’ll need to know, or at least quickly adjust to, the author’s unique blend of rock criticism, cultural commentary and first-person narrative, which once again takes the form of impression more than argument. It’s not often one finds a meditation on a song — say, the Doors’ ode to that woman fashionably lean and late, “Twentieth Century Fox” — wandering into a discussion of the Pop Art movement, post-feminist sexual politics and the author’s own childhood.

And also by Dwight Garner in the New York Times:

The best piece of advice I’ve heard someone give an aspiring rock critic is this: For God’s sake, don’t try to write like Greil Marcus.

It was meant as a compliment. Mr. Marcus’s style — brainy but fevered, as if the fate of Western society hung on a chord progression — is nearly impossible to mimic without sounding portentous and flatulent. This voice is so hard to pull off that 15 percent of the time even Mr. Marcus can’t do it. He takes a pratfall in the attempt.

But, oh my, that other 85 percent. Reading Mr. Marcus at his best — on Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Sly Stone, the Band, Sleater-Kinney, Dock Boggs or Randy Newman, to name just a few of his obsessions over the years — is like watching a surfer glide shakily down the wall of an 80-foot wave, disappear under a curl for a deathly eternity, then soar out the other end. You practically feel like applauding. He makes you run to your iPod with an ungodly itch in your cranium. You want to hear what he hears. It’s as if he were daring you to get as much out of the music as he does.

Mr. Marcus’s acute and ardent new book, “The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years,” is his 13th and among his best. I say this as someone who has never cared deeply or even shallowly about the Doors, a band that to my ears (I was 6 in 1971, the year Jim Morrison died in Paris) has always been classic-rock sonic wallpaper.

And here is a recent profile of Marcus by Sam Whiting in the San Francisco Gate.

[Photo Credit: SF Gate]

Here We Go Round Again

Found a couple of intriguing posts about a new book, “On Rereading,” by Patricia Meyer Spacks.

First, from Nathaniel Stein at the New Yorker’s Book Bench:

“One cannot read a book: one can only reread it,” Nabokov said. I thought of that line while reading “On Rereading,” Patricia Meyer Spacks’s charming and strange blend of memoir, literary criticism, and scientific treatise. Spacks, a literature professor and a former president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, systematically revisits “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Golden Notebook,” the novels of Jane Austen, and other milestones of her reading life. She hopes to justify the usefulness—or at least to solve a bit of the mystery—of an activity that she loves but also, at times, doubts.

Few would question looking at a great painting twice, or watching a favorite movie again and again. But, perhaps because rereading requires more of a commitment than giving something a second look, it is undertaken, as Spacks puts it, “in the face of guilt-inducing awareness of all the other books that you should have read at least once but haven’t.” It engages, she fears in her darker moments, a “sinful self-indulgence.” Never mind Nabokov, or Flaubert, who marvelled at “what a scholar one might be if one knew well only five or six books.”

And here is Lisa Levy, over at The Millions:

In his often anthologized essay “On Reading Old Books,” William Hazlitt wrote, “I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire to ever read at all.” This is a rather extreme position on rereading, but he is not alone. Larry McMurtry made a similar point: “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change. When I sit down at dinner with a given book, I want to know what I’m going to find.” In her recent study On Rereading Patricia Meyers Spacks uses McMurtry as an example of someone who rereads to stubbornly avoid novelty, and unapologetically so. His refusal, like Hazlitt’s, to read anything new makes rereading a conservative if comfortable experience, vehemently opposed to the possible shock of the new.

Spacks herself feels slightly differently. She writes, “No reader can fail to agree that the number of books she needs to read far exceeds her capacities, but when the passion for rereading kicks in, the faint guilt that therefore attends the indulgence only serves to intensify its sweetness.” In Spacks’s scenario rereading is a forbidden pleasure, tantalizing and, contra Hazlitt and McMurtry, with an element of time wasted — an extravagance. The choice Hazlitt and McMurtry easily make weighs more heavily on Spacks, who knows she forgoes a new book every time she picks up an old one.

Yet there are far more positive spins put on rereading in Spacks’s book and elsewhere. Pleasure, after all, needn’t be a negative. Elsewhere in his essay, Hazlitt brings up a point which is raised often by rereaders: “In reading a book which is an old favorite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links on the chains of personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life.”

I am not a voracious reader of fiction and have only read one novel, “The Sound and the Fury,” more than once. But I re-read non-fiction all the time, especially essays and articles. I like the idea of revisiting a novel, to see how my feelings may have changed but also as a way to remember where I was when I first read it.

Another project. I’m down.

[Photo Credit: Ashinine]

About the Errors…

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach begins in the middle of a streak. Scrawny shortstop Henry Skrimshander has never made an error. Not in Little League, not in high school. And when he matriculates at a small, venerable, liberal arts school called Westish College, he remains perfect.

The streak exists not only during games but in between as well. He’s never made a bad throw in practice; a ball has never hit a pebble and skipped past his glove during drills; never lost a ball in the sun while having a catch. He’s been flawless for fifteen straight years.

Henry works hard at the game, perhaps harder than anybody, since nothing else matters to him besides playing baseball. He’s memorized Hall of Famer and personal hero Aparicio Rodriguez’s book, The Art of Fielding and internalized the practical advice on positioning, balance, and physical preparation. The meaning of the more philosophical passages has eluded him as he starts college, but he’s memorized those too.

The book starts percolating when scouts and agents descend on Henry as he scoots up the draft board towards the first round. In the game he’s set to match his idol’s college errorless streak his errant throw sails into the dugout and shatters his roommate’s eye socket.

The first bad throw of Henry’s life spawns others and he unravels. By the time a ballplayer counts 15 years experience, he’s learned the humbling nature of the sport. The paltry rates of success that stand for excellence and the failure to constantly replicate even the most routine gestures bend a player’s expectations. But since Henry’s never made an error, he’s never had to confront this essential truth about the game and his identity collapses when he fianlly does.

The meat of the book is about how Henry and his estranged mentor, catcher Mike Schwartz, the guy responsible for bringing him to Westish in the first place, attempt to overcome the errors. But Mike, distracted by his new girlfriend Pella and brimming with resentment from Henry’s lurking draft day success, offers only warmed-over platitudes for Henry’s soul and countless sets of stadium stairs for his legs.

The inadequacy of their response is obvious to any baseball fan. How can they recover magic that they made no attempt to understand in the first place?

Unfortunately, not one character in the book is in the least bit curious about the source of Henry’s supernatural fielding ability. And anyone that has played one season of baseball at any level would instantly recognize 15 years of perfection as supernatural.

In The Art of Fielding however, even die-hard ballplayers accept the perfection without comment. And when Henry’s first error touches off a crisis of confidence and eventually a total systemic failure, the other players treat him like a player in a bad slump, expecting hard work or the right attitude adjustment will eliminate the errors and restore his factory settings.

But he’s already the hardest worker and already has the best possible attitude. So how’s that supposed to fix the problem? Perfection at this absurd length cannot be earned through practice. And if his ability is indeed supernatural, with all the hard work running parallel at best, then the sudden loss of his ability requires a different treatment than this book imagines.

A ballplayer could react to a terrible slump in a number of ways. But all of them should be vastly different to a person reacting to the loss of a supernatural gift. A slump usually begins with the wrong mix of flawed mechanics and dumb luck and spirals into Adam Dunn-level tragedy when the player gets trapped inside his own head. Henry’s situation is closer to Prometheus and his gift of fire than it is to Adam Dunn and his buck-fifty batting average.

Because all of the characters ignore this essential difference, the baseball in the book loses integrity – a distraction that I could not tolerate.

I’m sure Harbach has loftier intentions than examining Henry’s fielding ability, but he wrote a book around a baseball team – and from what I can tell, nobody’s been shy promoting it as a baseball book. At the very least, the context of the baseball season should serve as the binder of the story, but since the author doesn’t get the baseball right, the binder dissolves. What’s left is still good enough to carry your interest for a while, but since the baseball is palpably unreal, it taints the other stuff too.

And what was gained by Henry’s lifetime of perfection if the source of that gift is not an element of the story? So that his error can be an original sin? An expulsion from his Diamond of Eden? The extreme nature of Henry’s predicament lends itself more easily to that metaphor, but for me, a similar construct was still achievable without involving the miraculous.

Harbach would have been better served if he had taken Henry to the natural limits of baseball. An outstanding fielder in the midst of a record-tying streak. And when that guy flubs a throw and falls into a bottomless slump, Henry’s story could play out as it does without the necessity of an eye roll.

It’s not just the unspoken presence and sudden disappearance of magic that serves to dislodge the baseball fan from making an intimate connection with this book. Henry’s teammate (and roommate) Owen Dunne gets away with reading books on the bench until such time as their red-ass Coach Cox tells him to pinch-hit.

Owen’s homosexuality is accepted by the team without the slightest hesitation. That’s probably not plausible at a college in a state that elected Scott Walker Governor; even the most enlightened eighteen year olds are prone to confusion and snickering when they find themselves spending a lot of time in cramped locker rooms.

But let it slide in the interest of progress. Still, there’s not a competitive baseball team in the country that’s allowing a bench warmer to clip a reading lamp to the brim of his cap so he can curl up in the corner of the dugout with a steaming cup of herbal tea and the latest Barbara Kingsolver novel.

That’s not Division III college baseball. That’s not even the Amherst English Department’s softball team. Perhaps Tanner Boyle lacked the SAT scores to play at Westish, but he’d have that reading lamp sticking out of Owen’s ear before the end of the first inning. Or he’d end up in the garbage can trying.

These things could have transpired in a different kind of book. In a funnier book. In a book that was candid about its alternate, enhanced reality. In science fiction, perhaps. But this story takes place in a crafted, hyper-reality, a reality that breaks with ours for effect only before darting back under a mutual cover. The physics of this world are the same as ours, and under those rules, we know that baseball players can’t be perfect for long.

If W.P. Kinsella conceived of a shortstop that didn’t make an error for 15 straight years, someone else in the story would have noticed.

Duly Noted

Coolness.

Rod ‘N Reel

Here’s a good piece on a new book about Heminway:

From his father, who loved the natural world, Hemingway learned in childhood to fish and shoot, and a love of these things shaped his life along with a third thing, writing. Almost from the first there is his distinct voice. In his journal of a camping trip he took with a friend when he was sixteen years old, he wrote of trout fishing, “Great fun fighting them in the dark in the deep swift river.” His style was later said to have been influenced by Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, journalism, and the forced economy of transatlantic cables, but he had his own poetic gift and also the intense desire to give to the reader the full and true feeling of what happened, to make the reader feel it had happened to him. He pared things down. He left out all that could be readily understood or taken for granted and the rest he delivered with savage exactness. There is a nervy tension in his writing. The words seem to stand almost in defiance of one another. The powerful early stories that were made of simple declaratives seemed somehow to break through into a new language, a genuine American language that had so far been undiscovered, and with it was a distinct view of the world.

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