Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

From a letter sent by Abraham Lincoln on May 25, 1861, to the parents of Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of Lincoln and the first Union officer killed in the war:
My dear sir and Madam, In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surprisingly great. This power, combined with fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as it seemed to me, the best natural talent, I ever knew.
I found this passage in a post at the LIbrary of America' Reader's Almanac blog that draws on their new volume The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It and Adam Goodheart's acclaimed new book 1861: The Civil War Awakening to tell the story of Ellsworth, a man who found unusual fame even before he became a symbol of the sacrifices that the war would call for, The post is well worth clicking over to and reading, as, I suspect, are both books.

Ellsworth was but the first of those to give, as Lincoln would later put it, "the last full measure of devotion" to their country. The death toll of the Civil War is staggering even when considered against the current population of America; when considered as part of the much smaller nation of the time, it's almost incomprehensible. On this Memorial Day, 150 years later, I'm grateful that, for all our continuing follies as humans, we are no long quite so blithe about sending soldiers to certain death by the tens of thousands. True civilization, by its nature, may forever elude us, always demanding some further refinement of our nature, but in this respect at least we are a bit farther down the road.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Matthew Scudder is back

I wrote last week about how impressed I was by Lester Dent's achievement in Honey in His Mouth of writing a good crime novel built around a fencepost-dumb protagonist. Today, I'm marveling at an even more impressive achievement, this one by Lawrence Block: his new Matthew Scudder book, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, is a crime novel that derives nearly all of its suspense, not from the crime under investigation, but from its protagonist's day-by-day, minute-by-minute struggle to keep from drinking. And it works: the book is completely gripping, as through page after page you alternate between dread and relief, pulled on by the palpable force of Scudder's will even as you (and he) worry that it may not be enough.

Ed Park's review of the book for Time is a good place to go for more; he does a nice job of setting the novel in context of the rest of Block's Scudder books, in which alcohol--and, in the past several novels, recovery--has always played a large part. I think it was from Scudder, rather than from any afterschool special, that I got my first sense of how powerful addiction could be, and how the struggle to overcome it could never quite be definitively won. But none of the novels until this one have focused so relentlessly on that struggle, and it's a testament to Block's writing, and more to his narrative voice as Scudder, that he makes it so compelling. Scudder sits with a Coke as informants drink, and he catches a whiff of whiskey; he walks to fill time he would once have spent drinking; he calls his sponsor at all hours and gets the sort of advice that is familiar to us from Bubbles's struggles on The Wire or David Foster Wallace's brilliant analysis in Infinite Jest, advice that is so simple, so basic, so no-nonsense that it ought not to work--and yet somehow does.

All that should make for a novel that is relentlessly grim, but that's not the case; in fact, A Drop of the Hard Stuff is also a lot of fun--even in extremis Scudder is a gentle ironist at heart, and the book full of the usual Block touches, the humor and observations and asides that make it obvious how he and Donald Westlake could be great friends. My favorite is this playful exchange between Scudder and an informant:
He was frowning in concentration. "Jack, Jack, Jack. Did he have a sobriquet?"

"A what?"

"A nickname, for Christ's sake. And don't tell me you didn't know the word."

"I knew it," I said. "I've come across it in print, but I'm not sure I ever heard anyone say it before. I certainly never heard anyone say it in Poogan's"

"It's a perfectly fine word. And it's not exactly the same as a nickname. Take Charles Lindbergh. His nickname was Lindy--"

"As in hop," I suggested.

"--and his sobriquet was the Lone Eagle. George Herman Ruth, nickname was Babe, sobriquet was the Sultan of Swat. Al Capone--"

"I get the idea."

"I just wanted to keep on saying it, Matthew. Sobriquet. I know it from reading, and I don't think I ever heard it before, and I know for certain I never said it before. I wonder if I'm pronouncing it correctly."

"I'm the wrong person to ask."

"I'll look it up," he said, and he picked up his glass and put it down without drinking. "Hi-Low Jack," he said. "Wasn't that his fucking sobriquet? Isn't that what they called him?"
And just like that, digression is folded back into plot, and Scudder is off on his quest.

Block is a treasure, and the fact that he's still turning out good novels--novels that show that he remains engaged and interested in his craft--is something to celebrate. It's good to have Matt Scudder back.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Given that the world didn't, as predicted, end, let's celebrate its shopworn beauty.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In April, I visited Hawaii for the first time, spending a wonderful week on Maui with my in-laws, and, for all the tourist-trap nonsense, what I found myself thinking about most was the lure of the port, and the wrack and ruin of sailors, adventurers, layabouts, rummies, and ne'er-do-wells that the sea has always attracted. Even I, a land-lubbing lover of routine, born as far from a coast as you can get, felt the draw; it was all too easy to imagine a life of beachfront days and barroom nights.

Which led me to Alvaro Mutis's stories of Maqroll el Gaviero, and their wonderful evocations of the shabby, bypassed ports of the world. I've written about Maqroll before, and, returning to him, I was pleased to find the same mixture of the exotic and the tedious, adventure and ennui, a portrait of a spavined world that, in these forgotten harbors, is slowly winding down. Maqroll doesn't so much have adventures and love affairs as that they have him; the reverse would require a bit too much active desire, too much engagement with this decrepit dinosaur of a world.

This passage, from early in The Tramp Steamer's Last Port of Call, is representative of Mutis's style and outlook:
The tramp steamer entered my field of vision as slowly as a wounded saurian. I could not believe my eyes. With the wondrous splendour of Saint Petersburg in the background, the poor ship intruded on the scene, its sides covered with dirty streaks of rust and refuse that reached all the way to the waterline. The captain's bridge, and the row of cabins on the deck for crew members and occasional passengers, had been painted white a long time before. Now a coat of grime, oil, and urine gave them an indefinite color, the color of misery, of irreparable decadence, of desperate, incessant use. The chimerical freighter slipped through the water to the agonized gasp of its machinery and the irregular rhythm of driving rods that threatened at any moment to fall silent forever. Now it occupied the foreground of the serene, dreamlike spectacle that had held all my attention, and my astonished wonder turned into something extremely difficult to define. This nomadic piece of sea trash bore a kind of witness to our destiny on earth, a pulvis eris that seemed truer and more eloquent in these polished metal waters with the gold and white vision of the capital of the last czars behind them. The sleek outline of the buildings and wharves on the Finnish coast rose at my side. At that moment I felt the stirrings of a warm solidarity for the tramp steamer, as if it were an unfortunate brother, a victim of human neglect and greed to which it responded with a stubborn determination to keep tracing the dreary wake of its miseries on all the world's seas.
I remember a particular recurring moment from childhood: the end of a day in which you've played and played and played, and now you're being called away to bed, but you have a feeling--as strong as any feeling about anything--that if you could just have another few minutes, you could really get something done, you could in some important sense finish what you're doing, make this day of play complete and even perfect. But the call, parental, is irresistible, and the chance is lost. I remember thinking that as an adult, I'd be able to take that extra time, that I'd be able to do what I wanted until it was done, finish things off properly.

But one of the lessons of adulthood, learned slowly, is that you never get it all done, that life--so seemingly manageable from a child's point of view--is simply too crowded and overflowing to ever be fully set in order and instead must be lived in some more or less tolerable state of half-completion. We make our peace with that, of course, to the point that we essentially forget the idea of an alternative. But reading Mutis, with his world of endlessly deferred maintenance and improvements, jury-rigged machines and dreamily static lives, its universe that could use a good paint job, brings the sensation back in all its childhood force.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"They are simply dull, solid, one-hundred percent Americans, who have never been in a night club in their lives," or, New York and "the Real America"

As preparation for a trip this week to New York, I decided to read a Robert Benchley piece from 1928, "The Typical New Yorker," collected in The Benchley Report. Benchley opens with a bit of throat-clearing that perhaps shouldn't have been surprising, but was:
One of the most persistent convictions reported by foreign commentators on the United States (a group which evidently embraces all unoccupied literates of England and the more meditative sections of the Continent) is that the real America is represented by the Middle West. Aside from the not entirely adventitious question of who is to decide what "the real America" is, there arises a fascinating speculation for breeders and students of climatic influence as to why a man living in Muncie, Indiana, should partake of a more essential integrity in being what he is than a man living in New York City. Why is the Middle Westerner the real American, and the New Yorker the product of some complicated inbreeding which renders him a sport (in the biological sense) and a man without a country?
There are two points of interest in that paragraph. First, the obvious one: as Ecclesiastes told us ever so long ago, there is nothing new under the sun, and it's probably safe to assume that urbanites have been being drummed out of the "real American" category since the Articles of Confederation. The second interesting bit is the reference to Muncie: Benchley's article was published (in the Yale Review) in 1928, a year before Robert and Helen Lynd's Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture pinned Muncie down as the heart of the heart of the country; apparently it already had that reputation.

Benchley goes on to question the pervasive notion that country life is superior to city life:
I remember once a mother whose three children were being brought up in the country (and very disagreeable and dishonest children they were, too) saying, with infinite pity of the children of a city acquaintance, "Just think, those kiddies have probably never seen a cow!" Just what sanctity or earnest of nobility was supposed to attach itself to the presence of a cow in a child's life I never could figure out, but there was an answer which might have been made that her own kiddies had never seen the Woolworth Building or the East River bridges at night. Among the major inquiries that will one day have to be made is one into the foundation for this belief that intimacy with cows, horses, and hens or the contemplation, day in and day out, of great stretches of crops exerts a purifying influence on the souls of those lucky enough to be subjected to it. Perhaps when the answer is found, it may help solve another of the pressing social problems of the day--that of Rural Delinquency.
As a refugee from the rural, I heartily agree!

Benchley's actual point is to draw a distinction between the experience of the ordinary New Yorker, going from home to office back home on the same treadmill walked by everyone, even those vaunted Middle Westerners (who surely "have to attend to some sort of office work during the day aside from contemplating Nature in its more magnificent aspects"), and that of the visitor, for whom
New York is the Shrine of the Good Time. This is only natural, for outsiders come to New York for the sole purpose of having a good time, and it is for their New York hosts to provide it. The visiting Englishman, or the visiting Californian, is convinced that New York City is made up of millions of gay pixies, flitting about constantly in a sophisticated manner in search of a new thrill. "I don't see how you stand it," they often say to the native New Yorker who has been sitting up past his bedtime for a week in an attempt to tire his guest out. "It's all right for a week or so, but give me the little old home town when it comes to living." And under his breath, the New Yorker endorses the transfer and wonders himself how he stands it.
I'll be in town for work, so perhaps I can manage to occupy some middle ground--a mix of the treadmill and the ginmill, tiring my friends just enough that they won't object to seeing me when next I land?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Old Filth for your Friday

I'm currently reading Jane Gardam's Old FIlth (2004), with great pleasure. It's an impressive novel, ranging over the long life of a retired barrister and taking in Raj orphans, contemporary England, lifelong regrets, the difficulties of aging, and more, all assembled through deftly handled episodes, memories, and shifts of perspective--that last technique being used particularly well, as Gardam is continually giving us new tidbits of information about the secrets characters are keeping from one another, and the insights they have (or don't have) into one another's behavior and experience.

The book is also funny, subtly so for the most part, but Gardam does occasionally turn the comedy loose and let it edge toward the ridiculous. The following exchange is a good example. It come early in the life of Old Filth (a barrister who got his name because he supposedly coined the acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong"), when, having been rescued from his brutally inattentive caretakers, he's being bundled off to school for the first time:
A short man jumped out and came jollily to the foot of the garden steps. He was talking.

"--I dare say," he said. "Eddie Feathers, I dare say? Excellent to meet you. I am your new Headmaster and my name is Sir. Always SIr. Understood? The school is small. There are only twenty boys. They call each other by their surnames. I have one assistant, Mr. Smith. He is always called Mr. Smith, my assistant, whatever his real name. Different ones come and go. This Mr. Smith is something of a trial but very good at cricket, which I am not. And so, good morning, Eddie, and these are your sisters, I dare say?"

"C-cou-cousins," came out of Edward's mouth. He liked this man.

"I know nothing of girls," said Sir. "I know everything about boys. I am a very good teacher, Feathers, as your father may remember. By the time you leave my Outfit there is not a bird, butterfly or flower, not a fish or insect of the British Isles you will not recognise. You will also read Latin like a Roman and understand Euclid and Greek."

. . .

"Auntie May," said Auntie May to Sir. "I am Auntie May."

"Ah, the redoubtable Auntie May. You are seeing to the girls, I hear? This would be quite outside my territory. I teach only boys. My establishment is very expensive and very well-known. I am unmarried, as is Mr. Smith, but let me say, for all things good should be noised abroad, that here is absolutely nothing unpleasant going on in my school. We are perfectly clean. There is nothing like that."

"Well, that will be a change for him," said Auntie May. "There's been nothing pleasant here."

"So I understand. Or rather I do not understand for such events are beyond comprehension in a well-run Outfit. There is no corporal punishment in my school. And there is no emotional hysteria. One can only suppose that these things are the result of the mixture of the sexes. I never teach girls."
Perhaps it's simply because I have Charles Portis on the brain lately, but isn't there a hint of the Portisean (Portisian?) solipsistic mania in Sir?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A noir numbskull

The only good thing about Hard Case Crime's long break between books--a hiatus, caused by a search for a new distribution partner, that will end in September with a new Lawrence Block novel that features a just possibly NSFW cover--is that it's given me a chance to read some of the earlier books that had fallen by the wayside.

One of those was Honey in His Mouth, a novel that Doc Savage creator Lester Dent wrote in 1956 but never published. It's a fun, bleak little crime novel, but what's most interesting about it is what Dent does with the figure of the noir protagonist. Noir for me is most interesting when it focuses on a relatively ordinary guy who, through bad luck or cupidity finds himself falling through the floor of his ordinary life and into a darker, more dangerous world. Usually, however, a writer--even a very good writer--can't resist the urge to make that everyman just a tiny bit more resourceful, quick-thinking, and calm under pressure than, well, every man. It's understandable: if you're going to put a man under pressure in order to see what it does to him, he can't fold on the first page. But it distances us from the character, encouraging us to project our wishes on him rather than see our failings; it can be fun, but it slights the realism that is in some important sense noir's stock in trade.

Dent doesn't fall victim to that temptation. First, his main character, Walter Harsh, is no hero: he's an extremely small-time con man. More important, Harsh is dumb. Stone dumb. Even more, he doesn't realize it. Instead, like, presumably, all failing con men, he assumes at every juncture that he's in the middle of putting one over on everyone else. He gets picked up by a crew of South Americans who want to hire him to impersonate their soon-to-be deposed dictator, and he barely asks a question, assuming all along that he'll end up on top. Here, for example, he falls for nothing more than a wink:
But Mr. Hassam at once did a thing which set hi min solid with Harsh. What Mr. Hassam did was give the wall safe a knowing glance, then wink at Harsh. He did this so the others did not observe. It had the same effect on Harsh that an orator is striving for when he opens his speech with a gut-buster joke It warmed up the audience, got it interested. The little smoky guy might be an operator, Harsh thought.
Then in this scene, Harsh's stupidity takes a more physical form, an unearned confidence in his fighting ability:
Brother leaned toward him. Hit him in the belly, Harsh thought, but hand him a good one so it would settle things. He brought his right fist up towards Brother's middle, but Brother pushed the hand aside easily.
Just as easily, Harsh gets his eardrums boxed. And, physically or metaphorically, he gets them boxed again and again and again, never letting the lesson teach him his limitations.

A stupid protagonist--a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger effect--is tough to pull off without boring or irritating your readers, but Dent does it, keeping the supporting cast interesting enough and the plot brisk enough that Walter Harsh remains amusing. Most noir plots, if enacted in reality, would end quickly, hero dead; Dent gives us a realistically incompetent lead and still manages to string us along nicely, and keep our interest, for 250 pages. It's quite a feat.

Monday, May 16, 2011

On the bummery with Charles Portis and the Masters of Atlantis

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Last week I promised (threatened?) more selections from Charles Portis's wonderfully strange Masters of Atlantis, and today I deliver!

The following exchange is from a grilling that Gnomon society aide-de-camp Austin Popper endures before the Texas State Legislature, which is worried about the recent arrival in the state of a handful of Gnomons, whom they fear are insurrectionists, malcontents, Communists, etc. I'm going to quote at greater length than I ordinarily would, simply because a lot of the comedy in this scene comes from the twists and turns of the questioning, which are as emphatic as they are ridiculous:
"But you did not always travel in such style, did you? With attendants and a briefcase. I'm thinking now of your years on the road as a bum."

"I was a tramp, yes, sir. I was down and out. I've never tried to conceal that."

"A drunken bum?"

"Yes, sir."

"Calling yourself Wally Wilson?"

"I believe I did use that name at one time."

"Sleeping in haystacks? Stealing laundry off clotheslines and hot pies from the windowsills of isolated farmhouses? Leaving cryptic hobo marks scrawled on fence posts and the trunks of trees?"

"No, sir, I was very much an urban tramp. No haystacks or barns for me. Mostly I walked the city streets wearing cast-off clothes, with overcoat sleeves hanging down to my knuckles. I did live in a box once for about a week. I went from a Temple to a box, so steep was my fall."

"A big crate? A packing case of some kind?"

"A pasteboard box."

"Under a viaduct in the warehouse district of Chicago?"

"No, sir, it was in a downtown park in one of our eastern cities."

"A long box you could stretch out in?"

"A short one. Mr. Moaler lives in what I would call a long box. Mine was very compact. When it snowed I had to squat in it all night with my head between my knees like a yogi or a magician's assistant. Then when morning came I had to hail a policeman or some other early riser to help get my numb legs straightened out again. "

"More a stiff garment than a house?"

"Yes, sir."

"Hunkered down there in your box, slapping at imaginary insects on your body. Your only comfort a bottle of cheap wine in a paper sack. Supporting yourself with petty thievery, always on the run, with Dobermans snapping at your buttocks. Not a pretty picture."

"It was cheap rum."

"The clear kind?"

"The dark kind."

"As an urban bum, Mr. Popper, did you often stagger into the middle of busy intersections with your gummy eyes and make comical, drunken attempts to direct traffic?"

"No, sir. In my worst delirium I never interfered with the flow of traffic. I never drank any hair tonic either."

Now, I know I'm unusually susceptible to this sort of thing--a friend's son once arrived at the ballpark armed with questions about hobos he'd been saving up until he saw me again--but is it possible to read that exchange without laughing? Without wanting to read the whole book? And--here I know I'm edging ever farther onto that limb--without wishing that this were the way the whole world was all the time?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"I love nothing better than to laugh but my life it is not a joke. Or it is a joke if you like but not a good one."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Almost exactly a year ago, I read my first Charles Portis novel, The Dog of the South, and I wrote that it was
crammed from start to finish with oddballs, dropouts, and failures, all of whom cling to this world all the more intensely for the fact that they can't quite figure out what to do with it.
I followed that with True Grit, which is also a wonderful book, if a bit less unhinged: whereas True Grit locates the reader so squarely in Mattie's point of view that we feel as if her own off-kilter worldview colors everything she sees (and, in the case of the book's strange cadences and vocabulary, everything she hears), in The Dog of the South, the crazy is general, manifest in everyone and everything found in our too-busy, too-atomistic, too-stimulated world. Being a fan of oddity, I preferred (and laughed more at) the latter.

Well, The Dog of the South has nothing on Masters of Atlantis (1985). Technically about the members of a secret society and the tribulations they face in trying to gain esoteric knowledge, recruit new members, and keep the organization afloat through most of the twentieth century, what it really is is a long succession of one oddball after another offering his own cracked interpretation of the world, nearly all of them incompatible with nearly all the others. In my description of The Dog of the South, I wrote that one character
seems to regard all the world's facts as equally important; though paring them down or assigning importance might reveal hints of a pattern, it's as if he feels an obligation not to discriminate, as if each and every detail deserves his full care
In Masters of Atlantis, it's as if every character is that character, and Portis has taken all the world's facts (and most of its non-facts), spun them around in one of those old wire baskets that were used to select bingo numbers,and drawn them out one by one.

Having already rambled a long time here, I'll give you just the briefest of samples today; expect more later in the week (that can serve as a warning to those whose taste for weirdness is easily sated). Here's Lamar Jimmerson, leader of the Gnomon Society, reflecting on a woman who has recently moved into the temple in the role of housekeeper/landlady, with the aim of bringing in boarders:
All this, with the best yet to come, the roomers. Soon there would be a pack of coughing drifters bumping around upstairs, alcoholic house painters and clarinet painters, tramping to the bathroom at all hours of the night. Still, to give the woman her due, she had been very decent in offering to mend his clothes and in putting her tiny car at his disposal. She had brought no cats along with her and no miniature dogs. She did not whinny or titter and had not, so far, tried to embrace him.
Portis has a particular genius for allowing trains of thought to thunder along to their eventual destinations, however side-shunted and off-topic those may be. In their extravagance and detail, the pointless ruminations of his characters bring to mind the elongated, distracting quality of Homeric similes, image that get so caught up in their own terms and concerns that their point of origin is quickly lost.

The next passage is a perfect demonstration. Jimmerson, in addition to leading the Gnomon Society, is in the middle of a quixotic run for the governorship of Indiana:
What could he, Governor Lamar Jimmerson, Master of Gnomons, do for his fellow citizens? One service came immediately to mind. As his first official act he would order the Parks Department to install a guardrail all around the base of Rainbow Falls, with plenty of warning signs. Such an inviting place and yet so treacherous. At this very moment white-haired judges and rumpled old family attorneys were down there losing their footing and crying out as they fell and bruised their buttocks on those cruel green rocks, first slick and now hard. But then downstream a bit, below the cascade, all violence spent, wouldn't there be a limpid pool where older men in prickly blue wool bathing briefs could paddle about unobserved with swim bladders under their arms?
I suspect that many of you are now making an expression like the one rocketlass presented when I read her a passage, something my constant laughter left me barely able to do: an eyebrow cocked at an angle perfectly calibrated to express skepticism, bewilderment, and doubts about my sanity in equal measure. And I do understand: I have trouble believing these novels were ever published, let alone that they're still in print; they're just so weird. But for the initiates (and here I am beginning to sound a bit like a Master of Atlantis myself), the pleasures offered by Portis are countless.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Partying in midcentury Chicago

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In my day job, one of the books I've been handling publicity for is Bachelors and Bunnies, a new book by Carrie Pitzulo that argues that Playboy magazine and the Playboy corporation have had a significantly more pro-feminist history and outlook throughout their history than their reputation would suggest.

So it's probably not surprising that, when the protagonist of Frederick Exley's unclassifiable masterpiece A Fan's Notes described his years living in Chicago in the mid-1950s, I found myself seeing my city as the swinging, no-hang-ups party town long ago portrayed by Hef:
There I lived in that section called the Near North Side, a paradise for the young men and women--airline hostesses with airline hostesses, rising executives with rising executives, Junior Leaguers with Junior Leaguers, voyeurs with voyeurs--who overflowed its modern town houses and converted Victorian mansions, men and women who reigned, or were, in youth's obliviousness, sure they reigned supreme there. The section had an absurd though touching notion of itself as the Greenwich Village of the Plains; but the young men I knew there seemed blatantly and refreshingly unburdened with things of the mind, and the fine, corn-bred, yellow-haired girls as succulently wholesome as cream of chicken soup.
It's far from my vision of paradise; my Chicago is much more homebound and quiet, my circle of friends almost lacking rising executives (let alone airline hostesses). But Exley does manage to imbue the Chicago of that era--not yet surpassed in size by Los Angeles, or in cool by San Francisco; still to face the slog of the '70s and the super-slick spruce-up of Daley's '90s; before Rush Street became the Viagra Triangle--with some of the hedonistic magic that was Hef's stock in trade:
If the section was not the Village, it was precisely named: the Near North Side was near to everything. In the morning we descended into the subways and were in a matter of minutes conveyed to the Loop where, after cursorily putting in our days at the altar of commerce, we fled back to Babylon. The bars--The Singapore, Larry's Lounge, Mister Kelley's, Gus' Pub--along Rush Street (Chicago's "White Way") were within five minutes' walking distance from anywhere in the area; in those saloons those genial young men, corn-bred girls, and I nightly got quite happily, quite absurdly, drunk. In the summer we sat around gallon thermoses of vodka and tonic, as tribesmen around the beneficent fire, taking the sun on the most exhilarating city lake front in the world. (I have never sen any other, so I suffer from no competing claims). Behind us rose the dizzying turrets of Chicago's skyline, pale and iridescent facades rising into the azure heavens, buildings all constructed, it seemed, for nothing save the pleasure of our eyes. At evening we wandered from one apartment to another, as from one room in a house to another, as if the entire Near North Side were but a single mansion to which we had a standing invitation.
Now, I realize that it's but a small step from those standing, drunken invitations to the alcoholic wrecks and disintegrations portrayed by, say, the Johns O'Hara and Cheever--and that's even before we say anything about the troubles of gender inequity in the perpetual party Exley portrays--but even so, those glimmers of a lost era are seductive, like the spinning of the Capitol dome as you lay the needle on a new Sinatra record. Pick up your martinis, folks, and let's start dancing.

Friday, May 06, 2011

A tiny little joke

{Dollhouse-scale baloney sandwich photo by Flickr user Miss Millificent. Some rights reserved by the photographer; reproduced under a Creative Commons license.}

Over the weekend I read What's So Funny? (2007) the next-to-last Dortmunder novel. And there was a line in it that made me laugh, not because it was funny, which it only barely was, but because its sheer pointless superfluity--and the fecundity of the comic imagination that such a frothy overflow of jokes suggests--seemed in its way to sum up Westlake's angle on the world: almost everything is funny, if you just pay attention.

And now you want to hear the joke, right? Remember, I warned you that it's not, strictly speaking, that funny. Okay: a group of lawyers, security personnel, and claimants to a disputed inheritance are meeting to discuss plans for moving some of the goods in question, and
The more senior of the NYPD men present, whose name was Chief Inspector Mologna (pronounced Maloney), now spoke.
Well, at least half of you probably now think I'm a lunatic. But that other half: can't you sense the joy--the crooked smile that must have lit up Westlake's face when he typed that? You read a joke like that--pointless, stupid, groan-inducing, included just because it came to mind and a master craftsman makes use of all the tools at hand--and you're reminded of why this guy's one of your favorite writers no matter what mode or genre he's working in.

You other folks should rest assured that the novel does contain a lot of actual comedy, as well as an entertaining heist. The baloney joke's on page 234 of the cloth edition, second paragraph, so you can skip it when you get there if that'll make you happier.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Pithy thoughts on what Ovid called "that rumpy-pumpy stuff."

Alain de Botton came up with a nicely phrased thought this week in his Twitter feed:
So many affairs would be prevented if people could more easily reveal that they would ideally like to sleep with one another--but won't.
In its pithy incisiveness, it sounds like something that ought to have been said by an Anthony Powell character, perhaps Moreland (whose affair with Priscilla Tolland might have been headed off by such a conversation).

That thought sent me back to Powell's Writer's Notebook, a volume whose only flaw is its slimness. I sought out this old favorite:
All love affairs are special cases, and yet at the same time each is the same case.
And this:
It is always a mistake to assume that other people have lower standards than oneself.
Then I encountered this gruesome idea of service:
A is having an affair with B's wife, and tries to teach her habits of punctuality, so that B too shall profit in some way from the situation.
And finally, we get to just one of the many bad outcomes that could result from all this sneaking around and double-dealing, presented here with the sort of admirable matter-of-factness that would, one assumes, go over well at the sort of parties to which one, being dull, is not generally invited:
I must go off now and see a man who is blackmailing me.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Robert Caro on W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel

One of the ways that Robert Caro justifies the incredible length--768 pages--of The Path to Power, the first volume of his biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, is by incorporating a handful of fascinating miniature biographical and descriptive accounts of side characters who played important parts in LBJ's rise. Caro's portrait of LBJ's father, a failed alcoholic whose integrity cost him his state congressional seat, is moving, while his depiction of Sam Rayburn, the powerful Texan who was Speaker of the House during World War II, spends nearly thirty pages in giving a rounded picture of Rayburn's toughness, integrity, and essential loneliness.

The most surprising mini-portrait, at least for a non-Texan, is the final one: that of W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, who in 1939 was elected governor of Texas--and in 1941 US Senator--despite never having previously been a candidate for office, never having worked on a campaign, and in fact never having voted.

Caro spins out the story with obvious relish for its absurdities. In 1927 O'Daniel was a sales manager for Light Crust Flour, which sponsored a radio program featuring a country and western band named the Light Crust Doughboys. When the regular announcer fell sick one day, O'Daniel stepped in, and he stayed.
He began whistling along with the band. He began composing tunes, and writing lyrics. Then he began writing little poems that he recited himself.
I know we live in a less sentimental age, but see if you can wade through the sap in this next paragraph without drowning:
After a while not all songs were about flour. They were tributes to Texas ("Beautiful, Beautiful Texas," "Sons of the Alamo") and to cowboys ("The Lay of the Lonely Longhorn"). There were hymns to an old horse and to "The Orphan Newsboy." Many were about motherhood: "The Boy Who Never Grew Too Old to Comb His Mother's Hair" was a particular favorite, as was another which began: "Mother, you fashioned me / Bore me and rationed me. . . . " The songs were about current events: when the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, the Light Crust Doughboys sang (to the tune of "My Bonny"), "Please Bring Back My Baby to Me"; when Will Rogers was killed, O'Daniel wrote: "Someone in heaven is thinking of you; someone who always was loyal and true; someone who used to be close to your side, laughed when you laughed and cried when you cried." More and more, the songs and poems were about religion--old-time, Fundamentalist, evangelical religion; "It was good for Lee O'Daniel, and it's good enough for me," the Doughboys sang.
As you might expect, the cognoscenti, such as they were, had doubts about O'Daniel's sincerity; one visitor to the studio claimed that, as the band played "That Old Rugged Cross," "O'Daniel leaned over . . . and whispered, 'That's what really brings 'em in!'"

And then, seemingly out of the blue, in 1938 he asked his listeners if he should run for governor:
A blind man had asked him to do so, he said, and he wished they would write and tell him whether or not he should. He received, he said, 54,449 replies. All but three told him to run; those three said he shouldn't--because, they said, he was too good for the job.
His campaign was, if anything, even more ridiculous: he toured in a red circus wagon with the Light Crust Doughboys playing behind him, promising a state pension plan but entirely ducking the question of how he would quintuple the state's funds to pay for it, falling back instead on yet another song to the tune of "My Bonny":
We have builded our beautiful highways
With taxes from city and farm,
But you can't pyramid those taxes,
Without doing our Texas great harm.
Oh, and like many a charlatan before and since, he claimed to be running in order to get the "professional politicians" out of governmment. And he won. Easily . . . at which point he turned out to be less interested in the pension plan than in doing the bidding of the big business interests that had secretly been backing him.

Caro's account of O'Daniel's rise runs for eight pages, and he pops up intermittently through the thirty-five that follow, as he runs against (and eventually defeats) LBJ in the senatorial race. Believe me: there's plenty more eye-popping strangeness in those pages. I won't say they're worth reading the whole book for, but they are an indication of the pleasures in store if you do tackle it.