Sunday, April 28, 2013

What Nero Wolfe was disliking on TV in 1966

As I've noted before, one of the great pleasures of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books is their essential timelessness. Like Wodehouse, Stout found his world--essentially 1930s New York--and stayed there. Both authors make passing acknowledgments of change, but they don't allow external changes to affect their characters or settings in any substantial way.

Which is one reason that I always notice when Archie mentions that Wolfe once in a while watches TV. Wolfe gets a TV pretty early--a real Stout fanatic would have the date at his fingertips, but I'll just say I vaguely remember him having one in a novel from the very early 1950s (and having a remote for it!). But Death of a Doxy (1966) is the first time I've encountered any specifics about what Wolfe actually watches. Archie, having been out all day on a Sunday, thinks it likely that while he was gone Wolfe engaged in
his weekly battle with television. That may occur almost any evening, when he has got disgusted with a book, but usually it's a Sunday afternoon, because that's when TV is supposed to be dressed for company. He turns on one channel after another, getting grimmer and grimmer, until he's completely assured that it is getting worse instead of better, and quits.
What Wolfe fan doesn't immediately want to know what Wolfe was watching on that Sunday in January or February of 1966?

I turned to my old friend Jim Ellwanger, whose knowledge of TV is encyclopedic. Within hours, he'd replied in great, fascinating (to this fan of Wolfe and TV history) detail:
My first thought is that my father turned 17 in February 1966, and being in New Jersey, he got the same TV channels Nero Wolfe did in Manhattan -- and probably had the same opinion about them.

Anyway, I actually have a TV Guide from the time period in question, the January 29, 1966, issue.

It's not the New York City edition, it's the Western New York State edition. Still, I can tell you exactly what network shows aired (and it's a pretty safe bet that they all aired on the owned-and-operated stations in New York):

12:30 (CBS) Face the Nation: "Scheduled: Secretary of the Treasury Henry H. Fowler is interviewed in Washington by CBS News correspondents Martin Agronsky and David Schoumacher; and Edwin L. Dale, Washington Bureau, New York Times. (Live)"

1:00 (NBC) Meet the Press: "(COLOR)" [unfortunately, no further details in this TV Guide]

1:30 (ABC) Issues and Answers: "Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon is interviewed in New York City by White House correspondent William H. Lawrence." [This is the predecessor to what's now "This Week."]

2:00 (ABC) NBA Basketball: "The Cincinnati Royals meet the Hawks at Kiel Auditorium, St. Louis. Chris Schenkel and Bob Cousy report. (Live)"

2:30 (CBS) CBS Sports Spectacular: "Scheduled: hunting and bowling. The finals of the $100,000 National Individual Match Game Bowling Championships are telecast live from Lansing, Mich. Also: Hunting authority Lee Wulff narrates films of turkey and quail shooting in Georgia. (Live and tape; 90 min.)"

4:00 (NBC) NBC Sports in Action: "Scheduled: lumberjacking and the Wengen International Ski Races. The ski races started Jan. 11 near Wengen, Switzerland. The World Lumberjack Championships were held last fall at Hayward, Wis. (60 min.)"

4:00 (ABC) The American Sportsman: "(COLOR) Actor Fess Parker joins guide Fred Bear to track down a Canadian grizzly in Northwestern British Columbia. Off Islamorada, Fla., fishing expert Joe Brooks goes after tarpon. Also: a comic underwater look at an Australian grouper (sea bass) that can't decide whether to swallow an attractive but somewhat suspicious piece of bait. (60 min.)"

4:30 (CBS) Ages of Man: "(SPECIAL) Sir John Gielgud reads from the works of Shakespeare in the conclusion of this adaptation of his one-man Broadway show. (60 min.) 'Mister Ed' is pre-empted." [In this, its final season, the regular time slot for "Mister Ed" was Sundays at 5:00 -- its last first-run episode aired 2/6/66.]

5:00 (NBC) Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom: "(COLOR) 'Chacma Country,' second of a two-part study of the chacma baboon. In Southern Africa's Victoria Falls region, host Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler follow the baboons on a search for water and food."

5:30 (NBC) G.E. College Bowl: "(COLOR) The University of Tulsa (Okla.) vs. Newcomb College, New Orleans. Moderator: Robert Earle. (Live)"

5:30 (CBS) Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour: "Ted Mack introduces tenor Victor LaTorre; the Dukes, vocal-instrumental group; Elyse's Twirlettes, baton twirlers; singer Ronald Henry; tap dancer LaVerne Huselton; the Fraine Brothers, vocal group; ventriloquist Cassie Booker; and singer Linda Powell."

In addition to Nero Wolfe's network stations (2/WCBS, 4/WNBC, and 7/WABC), he also had three independent stations (5/WNEW, 9/WOR, and 11/WPIX) and an educational station (13/WNDT), and, if he could get UHF, he also had a second educational/public-interest station (31/WNYC). The latter two may not have been on the air for all of Sunday afternoon; the one educational station in Western New York, 17/WNED in Buffalo, didn't sign on until 4:00 P.M., and its programming looked like this:

4:00 Antiques: "George Michael shows a collection of antique bottles, and describes their origins and uses."

4:30 French Chef: "Julia Child shows how to prepare Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba) cake."

5:00 Open Mind: "'What Kind of Preschool Education for Your Child?' A discussion of the relative merits of the progressive, public and Montessori methods of early education. (60 min.)"

As for the programming that aired on the independent stations, as well as on the network stations in between network programming, there were a couple of syndicated series and specials that were on multiple stations in Western New York:

The Flying Fisherman: "(COLOR) Gadabout fishes for bass at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee."

Ski Championships: "(SPECIAL) In the first of three televised meets sponsored by the newly formed National Professional Ski League, skiers compete individually and as members of three-man teams. Entrants in today's races, taped Jan. 26-27 at Stratton, Vt., are Olympic gold medalists Stein Eriksen (Norway), Pepi Gramshammer (Austria), Christian Pravda (Switzerland), and Hias Leitner (Germany). (60 min.)"

Other than that were the movies. Some of the titles that aired in Western New York on this particular Sunday:

The Ghost Goes West (1936)
Elephant Boy (1937)
Ma and Pa Kettle (1949)
The Son of Hercules in the Land of Darkness (1964)
Reap the Wild Wind (1942)
Drum Beat (1954)
Damn Yankees (1958)
As they say: education isn't so much about knowing the answer to a question, as knowing where to get the answer. Jim, that's where.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The fate of Samuel Holt

In between bouts of research for my forthcoming Donald Westlake nonfiction collection last weekend, I also read one of the forty or so Westlake novels I'd not yet gotten to, Sacred Monster (1989). It's far from his best: a story of a self-involved movie star whose only mode of existence is playing a part, but no Westlake book I've encountered yet is worthless, and this one has its moments.

The bit that amused me most, however, comes in an aside, when the star is recounting his life story and tells of a new house he and his wife moved into, which had until recently been owned by
a television star named Holt who'd committed suicide when his series was canceled.
That, Westlake fans will quickly realize, is surely Samuel Holt, star of a Magnum, PI-style crime show--and author of four books about his inadvertent real-life adventures solving crimes . . . which were written by Westlake in the early 1980s and published under Holt's name as a Richard Bachman-esque test of the market. In the foreword to the Felony and Mayhem editions of the books, Westlake explains that he'd gotten his publisher to agree not to put his name on the books, and he was ready to see whether he could sell just on the strength of his writing--but then
The first book was published, and in the window of my local bookstore was a sign saying Samuel Holt was me. The publisher had told his sales staff the "secret," and encouraged them to pass the news on to the bookstores.
Coming at this from the other end--working in a publisher's marketing department--I have to admit that it would be very hard to grit my teeth and not share the secret.

Despite what we learn in Sacred Monster, however, I'm not at all convinced that Holt actually killed himself. He just didn't seem like that kind of guy: he's not exactly happy-go-lucky, but he's resourceful and determined, and while his show was clearly important to him you don't get the sense from the books that it's a matter of life and death. All these years later, we'll likely never know, but I suspect foul play. Does that loose-lipped publisher have an alibi?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Spring is here?

Saturday morning we woke to snow covering the roofs and the cars. Today, we touched sixty degrees, and the kite-eating tree in the lakefront park was displaying the broken bones of its first victim. Spring is here--and more than six hundred years later, we still follow Chaucer's lead in this season:
Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open eye-

So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
And that's where I'm headed tomorrow: a pilgrimage to Donald E. Westlake's house, to look through his files with the help of Ethan Iverson, who knows Westlake's work as well as anyone on the planet. Blogging may therefore be a bit spotty in the coming days--and even the coming months, frankly. Editing a book is a new plate to add to my juggling act, and since it comes with a deadline, with all the looming that implies, it has to take priority. Hopefully the occasional dry spells here will be more than made up for down the road by the appearance of the book. I spent most of the weekend using the University of Chicago Library--from my couch!--to dig up more nonfiction pieces by Westlake, and the combination of what I found and what I've got on the way from other libraries has got me very excited about the project!

So thanks for your patience, and enjoy the spring. If, that is, you're in one of those areas that's bothering to have it. As for Chicago, I'll believe it's here to stay around July.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Things to do with books--other than read them, that is

On a Friday night at the close of a strange and unpleasant week, I'll turn the mic over to Ford Madox Ford, who, on being asked by an American editor to write a few hundred words on the uses of books, replied, in this letter from September 14, 1929:
Books can be useful from so many points of view. In my early days, for example, I used to use the Encylopedia Britannica as a trouser-press and certainly the house that was without it was to be pitied. Books are also very useful for pulping; bibles and other works set over the heart will deflect bullets; works printed on thin india paper are admirable if you happen to run out of cigarette papers. Their use for that purpose is in fact forbidden in France where there is a tobacco monopoly. In fact, if you are ever without a book you are certain to want one in the end. For the matter of that, my grand aunt Eliza Coffin used to say: "Sooner than be idle, I’d take a book and read." According to her the other uses of books were (1) for the concealing of wills (2) for the ditto of proposals of marriage by letter; (3) for pressing flowers; (4) folios piled one on the other will aid you to reach the top row in the linen cupboard; (5) they have been used as missiles, as bedsteads when levelly piled, as wrappings for comestibles; (6) as soporifics, sudorifics, shaving paper etc.

I was once accused of using slices of bacon, at breakfast, to mark my place in a book. That is untrue.
Glad we got that last bit cleared up.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Brothers Keepers

Donald E. Westlake wrote more than 100 novels. It's a daunting number, but fortunately there are plenty of places where a reader just coming to his work can begin. Like comedy? Try the first Dortmunder novel, The Hot Rock, or the standalone Somebody Owes Me Money, with its brilliant opening line:
I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn't so eloquent.
Want something more hard-boiled? Try 361, which Westlake himself described as an exercise in writing with absolutely no hint of emotion, or the first Parker novel, The Hunter.

One place not to start is with Brothers Keepers (1975). Yet as I was reading it recently, I kept thinking that it serves almost perfectly as a demonstration of the qualities that make a Westlake novel entertaining. It's about a monastery in Manhattan whose residents realize that they're about to be booted so that the property owner can build a soulless office tower. Westlake described the writing process to Ethan Iverson like this:
I have to tell you a teeny thing about the genesis of Brothers Keepers. It all began with a title; The Felonious Monks. They would commit some sort of robbery to save the monastery. So I started it and introduced them and realized I liked them too much to lead them into a life of crime. So, to begin with, there went the title. "Okay," I said, "let's see what a caper novel looks like without the caper." Turned out to be a love story; who knew.
Surprisingly, it works--and what makes it work is the simple fact that shines through even the hardest-boiled of Westlake's novels: this is a man who enjoyed writing. He enjoyed setting difficulties and seeing how he could get out of them. He enjoyed pointless asides, and dumb jokes, and goofy displays of knowledge. All those come into Brothers Keepers at some point, and they're delightful.

The light touch of the opening gives a good sense of Westlake's off-kilter sense of humor:
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been four days since my last confession."

"Yes, yes. Go on."

Why does he always sound so impatient? Rush rush rush; that's not the proper attitude. "Well," I said, "let's see." I tried not to be rattled. "I had an impure thought," I said, "on Thursday evening, during a shaving commercial on television."

"A shaving commercial?" Now he sounded exasperated; it was bad enough, apparently, that I bored him, without bewildering him as well.

"It's a commercial," I said, "in which a blonde lady with a Swedish accent applies shaving cream to the face of a young man with a rather prognathous jaw."

"Prognathous?" More bewildered than exasperated this time; I'd caught his attention for fair.

"That means, uh, prominent. A large jaw, that sort of sticks out."

"Does that have anything to do with the sin?"

"No, no. I just thought, uh, I thought you wanted to know, uh . . . "

"This impure thought," he said, chopping off my unfinished sentence. "Did it concern the woman or the man?"

"The woman, of course! What do you think?" I was shocked; you don't expect to hear that sort of thing in confession.

"All right," he said. "Anything else?" His name is Father Banzolini, and he comes here twice a week to hear our confessions. We give him a nice dinner before and a nightcap after, but he's surly all the time, a very surly priest. I imagine he finds us dull, and would rather be hearing confessions over in the theater district or down in Greenwich VIllage. After all, how far can a lamb stray in a monastery?

"Um," I said, trying to think. I'd had all my sins organized in my mind before coming here, but as usual Father Banzolini's asperity had thrown me off course. I'd once thought I might jot down all my sins in advance and simply read them from the paper in the confessional, but somehow that lacked the proper tone for contrition and so on. Also, what if the paper were to fall into the wrong hands?
He goes on to confess stealing an orange Flair pen from one of the other brothers, for which he's given "two Our Fathers and oh, Seven Hail Marys."

Westlake's plots are airtight--even this crime novel without a crime features a complicated plot--and efficient in their workings. But while he never wastes any time, he also doesn't hesitate to use time, to take advantage of what's offered in a scene to have a little fun, even silly, mostly pointless fun. The best example of that in Brothers Keepers, a scene that had me giggling to myself on the L, is when Dwarfmann, the guy who's going to build the office tower, unexpectedly draws a Bible verse and begins combat:
"My days," he said, "are swifter than a weaver's shuttle. Let's get back down to business."

I'm sure Brother Oliver was as taken aback as I was. The imagery, in Dwarfmann's rattly style of speech, seemed wildly inappropriate. Then Brother Oliver said, in distinct astonishment, "Was that from Job?"

"Chapter seven, verse six," Dwarfmann snapped. "Come, come, if you have something to say to me, say it. Our time is a very shadow that passeth away."

"I don't know the Apocrypha," Brother Oliver said.

Dwarfmann gave him a thin smile. "You know it well enough to recognize it. Wisdom of Solomon, chapter two, verse five."

"Then I can only cite One Thessalonians," Brother Oliver said. "Chapter five, verse fourteen. Be patient toward all men."

"Let us run with patience," Dwarfmann or somebody said, "the race that is set before us."

"I don't believe," Brother Oliver told him, "that was quite the implication of that verse in its original context."
The duel continues for nearly two pages, and after Dwarfmann leaves, the monks are still a bit stunned:
Shaking my head, I said, "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose."

Brother Oliver gave me a puzzled look. "Is that New Testament? I don't recognize that."

"Uhh, no," I said. "It's Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice." I cleared my throat. "Sorry," I said.
As much as any writer I can think of, Westlake demonstrated that he understood that we aren't coming to these books to improve ourselves, or learn life lessons (though, to be fair, you can learn a hell of a lot of life lessons from the Parker novels), but to have fun. And if he's getting the most possible fun out of the writing, we're likely going to feel the same way in the reading.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Turning to Johnson

From W. Jackson Bate's Samuel Johnson: A Biography:
Because he was so susceptible to symbols, his impulse had always been to deny their power over the imagination and to try to put them at arm's length. The dignity of human nature required this if one was to remain a "free agent." Typical was the way he would dismiss the effect on us of the seasons ("imagination operating on luxury"). But now, in many ways, he was changing--not changing in his character but in what he said or admitted.

As November came to Litchfield, which he could reasonably doubt that he would ever see again, he felt the poignance of autumn as never before. One of Horace's odes especially (IV, vii) haunted him--the one in which the large revolving changes of nature, destroying and re-creating, are contrasted with the hopes and destiny of short-lived man. Before Johnson left Litchfield he translated it into English verse. The snows of winter--the ode begins--are melting as spring returns. The fields and woods are again green. But the human being, after entering his own winter, will not return. He will be like those millions of others who have entered the night--"ashes and a shade." The ode, in its clear-eyed existential honesty and mellow acceptance, typifies what Johnson had prized in Horace when he was a boy at Stourbridge--a union of qualities he had associated with Cornelius, who had seemed to the half-blind, half-deaf, awkward youth such a model of grace and classical acceptance of fact. Of the many translations of this famous ode, none catches the spirit of Horace more closely. At moments it is even more condensed than Horace. "Each revolving year," says Horace, "each hour that snatches the day, bids us not to hope for immortal life." Johnson wrote, "The changing year's successive plan / Proclaims mortality to man." Yet this is balanced by a flourish of stoic gaiety that goes beyond Horace. "Who knows whether the gods," asks Horace, "will add tomorrow's time to the sum of today?" In Johnson this becomes: "Who knows if Jove who counts our score / Will toss us in one morning more?"

Friday, April 12, 2013

Dickens and Dostoevsky

The piano is eating up all my time tonight (remind me--why did I agree to be in a recital Sunday?), but I don't think you'll complain when you see what I have for you: a link to a story from the April 10 issue of the Times Literary Supplement wherein Eric Naiman takes last year's very strange kerfuffle over a purported meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky--noted in Claire Tomalin's biography and others--and starts pulling threads.

If I may engage in some wild, Friday night mixing of metaphors: the unraveling threads send Naiman down rabbit hole after rabbit hole into a world of fake names, fake citations, fake articles, and fake books, and even fake letters to the editor. I found it dizzying and deliciously entertaining, and I suspect that anyone even peripherally connected with academia--and its occasional log-rolling and insularity--will, at minimum, be amused.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Spidey's back!

Today I've got three quick things that I failed to work into last week's post about Spider-Man. A warning, though: comics, clearly, are off my usual beat, and we're getting pretty deep into the weeds on this post, so if superhero comics aren't your thing, you might duck out and come back later.

1 I can't believe I failed to note the appeal of Spider-Man's driving idea: With great power comes great responsibility. For an eleven-year-old, it doesn't get much simpler, or profound, than that. Then you add in the fact that Peter Parker is perpetually discontented with being Spider-Man--which is confusing to a kid because who wouldn't want to be a superhero?--and you've got a potent recipe for adding emotional complexity to simple stories, and beginning to introduce a young reader to irony, contradiction and ambiguity. And all with six lines that I'm guessing Stan Lee came up with over lunch one day when he had some pages to fill and no more time to get it done.

This will give you an idea of how much time I used to spend with each issue back in 1986: I used to pore over the Post Office–mandated Statement of Ownership, Management and Circulation that Marvel ran in each title once a year. Seriously--the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man I read, #275, included it, and I was fascinated from the start. The USPS required them to list their base subscription price, their ownership down to holders of 1% of the stock, bond-holders, and, most interesting, their "Extent and Nature of Circulation"--numbers that I watched and compared, year after year, like the young nerd I was. They printed 476,932 copies of issue #275, down a bit from the twelve-month average of 498,367. Of those, a stunning 169,577 on average came back as returns from newsagents and stores. The death of the drugstore spinner rack solved that problem for comics companies, but I bet they'd be willing to take it back if they could get those overall circulation numbers back with it. (Oddly, DC never ran that statement; presumably they were set up under a different type of mailing license?)

3 To close, I'll share a discovery I made about fifteen years ago when I was reading through a long run of issues from the late 1970s. That period wasn't one of Spidey's best--it feels stagnant, with Peter Parker is running in place, so that more than at any other time you can feel the drag of having characters who can't really age. And in issue #188, from January of 1979, there's a letter from Kurt Busiek, at the time a reader but later to be an innovative, clever writer of comics for Marvel and other companies. I'm going to quote at length both because I haven't spotted this letter elsewhere online and because Busiek, at eighteen, did a remarkable job of diagnosing what was wrong with Spider-Man at that moment:
Dear Marvel,

When Spider-Man first appeared on the comics scene, he was immediately a smash hit because (if we are to believe the hype) he dared to do what had never been done before-to be unpredictable, to have that funky element of real life that you never know what's going to happen next. Spider-Man is stil the same as he was back then. But this is not such a good thing. Spidey is still daring to be different, but different from whwat super-heroes were in 1960. He was unpredictable back then, but he has now established a record of doing "unpredictable" things over and over again. Speculating about what will happen next in Spider-Man is like wondering if the good guys will win on your seventh viewing of Star Wars. Spidey has degenerated into a red-and-blue Mego doll; other than the fact that he's a nice package, he's the same as most of the other super-heroes around. He is no longer in the vanguard.

I was talking with some friends about issue #182 where Parker proposes to Mary Jane. It was fairly obvious that she was gonna say no. I mean, when has Marv Wolfman ever exhibited the urge to change something so it shows? Still, we mused, Spider-Man's concept is that of radical change. Wolfman is the new writer, so maybe he's trying to bring back the old unpredictable Spidey. We were wrong. We were caught on guard.

After so long with Gerry Conway and Len Wein, I thought we might be seeing daylight with Marv. So maybe his Spider-Woman and Nova mags aren't up to par. Dracula certainly is. Maybe we'll see that taut chracterization, those nice conflicts, in a super-hero mag. Maybe not. Blast! The idea of a married Parker, bouncing between a teacher's assistant job, the Bugle, home strife, and the usual plethora of super-villains, really appealed to me. It would open up a new vista of stories, guaranteeing that the writer would do something new. But with MJ's turn-down in #183, it is not to be.

I'm sure that Marv thinks he has gobs of "new, exciting ideas that'll really throw ya for a loop, effendis!" But I doubt it. You can't kill off another supporting character, and I'm sure readers wouldn't want you to. You've done it twice (Capt. Stacy and daughter), it won't be any good again.

But maybe you could clear up some of the long-running plot threads and replace them with new ones we're not expecting. Spider-Man's biggest gimmick is his cavalcade of personal problems. What's wrong with his life that hasn't been done before. A three-year-old could clear up Parker's life. Take his "wanted by the police" schtick. That has not only been over-used in Spider-Man, but in most of Marvel's other books as well, not to mention a few of DC's. Why not clear him?

Is Spidey in the forefront of the field today? When people ask that question Marvel usually points to the sales figures and says, see, see, ain't he great? Well, that red-yellow-and-blue goon at DC has pretty impressive sales figures, too, but in no way is he in the artistic forefront of the industry. Which is where Spidey was back in the Stan Lee days. Spider-Man was once famous for his radical changes. Not raditional comic book "changes" that appear for about eight issues and fade away to be replaced by the standard. I mean lasting changes like Peter's high school graduation, his love life, and the Gwen Stacy affair. Something that will still be important fifty issues later.

This may seem a little emphatic and overemotional, but believe me, this letter has been building for some time. The Mary Jane affair was just the proverbial straw. Thanks for the chance to berate you like this. It may not help, but it makes me feel better.
The editors' response is very polite, if a tad defensive--but most amazing is that they apologize for not having printed his letter in full! There's more that they cut out!

Seems to me there's only one proper response to a letter like that: "All right, kid, send us a script. Let's see what you can do."

Monday, April 08, 2013

Details, details

Every once in a while as a reader you encounter a detail in a novel that is so perfect, so unusual, and so strictly unnecessary, that you can't help but assume it comes direct from the author's experience--adapted as needed for the fictional situation, but still seeming to carry with it a whiff of reality that extends beyond the page.

My two favorite examples come from Joseph Conrad and Lawrence Block. In The Nigger of the "Narcissus", Conrad tells of a terrible storm:
On the lee side another man could be seen stretched out as if stunned; only the washboard prevented him from going over the side. It was the steward. We had to sling him up like a bale, for he was paralysed with fright. He had rushed up out of the pantry when he had felt the ship go over, and he had rolled down helplessly, clutching a china mug. It was not broken. With difficulty we tore it away from him, and when he saw it in our hands he was amazed. "Where did you get that thing?" he kept on asking us in a trembling voice.
Conrad of course drew on his experience at sea throughout his books, but that one moment--the extraneous detail of the miraculously (and inconsequentially) unbroken china cup feels as straight from life as anything else in his fiction.

Lawrence Block's moment comes in the best Matthew Scudder novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. Published in 1986 but set in the '70s, back when Scudder was still a heavy drinker, it portrays the run-down, nigh-lawless New York of that period--the city, like Scudder, still mostly functional but clearly heading downhill fast. At one of the many drinking sessions in the book, a guy is prompted to tell a story of one of the strangest things he's ever seen in New York: leaving his girlfriend's house on West End Avenue in the 80s early one morning, he sees three black men standing in the street, "wearing fatigue jackets, like, and one's got a cap. They look like soldiers." He continues:
"Well, it's hard to believe I really saw this," he said. He took off his glasses, massaged the bridge of his nose. "They took a look around, and if they saw me they decided I was nothing to worry about--"

"Shrewd judges of character," Skip put in.

"--and they set up this mortar, like they've done this drill a thousand times before, and one of them drops a shell in, and they lob a round into the Hudson, nice easy shot, they're on the corner and they can see clear to the river, and we all like check it out, and they still don't pay any attention to me, and they nod to each other and strip the mortar down and pack it up and walk off together."

"Jesus," I said.

"It happened so fast," he said, "and with so little fanfare, I wondered if I imagined it. But it happened."

"Did the round make a lot of noise?"

"No, not a whole lot. There was the sort of whump! sound a mortar makes on firing, and if there was an explosion when the round hit the water, I didn't hear it." "Probably a blank," Skip said. "They were probably, you know, testing the firing mechanism, checking out the trajectory."

"Yeah, but for what?"

"Well, shit," he said. "You never know when you're gonna need a mortar in this town."
If Lawrence Block didn't at some point see some dudes firing a mortar into the Hudson--or, at minimum, hear about it from someone else he knew, I'll buy him a steak dinner. Or maybe some beef tongue. (You'll see why in a minute.) The Scudder stories portrat a New York that's always believable, even in--or especially in--its seediest aspects. But that moment? Whump! Just too real.

All of which leads, with my usual obliqueness, to the book that brought these instances to mind: Kate Atkinson's Life after Life. I've got a lot more tolerance for historical fiction than Jessa Crispin, who recently gave up on the book because she "got about three pages in . . . and suddenly Hitler is there," but as I near the halfway point I'm not yet wholly sure of the book either--despite finding it engaging. That said, leaving Hitler aside Atkinson does wear her research well--the fundamental requirement for a historical novel that's not dreck. Her descriptions of daily life and its accoutrements feel like typical novelistic description rather than gawping at the past or detail delivered for its own sake.

There was, however, one moment that did feel like the fruit of research, a discovery so entertaining that Atkinson surely couldn't help but include it. In that regard, it's like the mirror image of the moments in Block and Conrad, shining more brightly than its surroundings not because it's crafted from lived experience but because it's the sort of thing that only the haphazardly diligent magpie's research of a novelist would likely turn up. See what you think:
Mrs. Glover was more than fully occupied with pressing a calf's tongue, removing the gristle and bone and rolling it up before squeezing it into the tongue press.
If I may take a moment to play the squeamish vegetarian: There is such a thing as a tongue press! Good god, I hope it has gone the way of sock garters and collar stays, beef tea and pink shape.

Finally, I won't blame you if you begin to suspect that I wrote this whole post for the sole purpose of sharing the following line--which a friend credits to me but I have to believe I stole from someone more clever:
Tongue--the meat that tastes you back.
Good night, folks.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

An announcement and a call for help--Or, When the man sat down at the typewriter . . .

{Donald E. Westlake loses to Brian Garfield at the storied Mysterious Bookshop floating poetry game sometime in the early 1970s. Photographer unknown. For more about that game, see my interview with Garfield on the University of Chicago Press blog.}

Donald E. Westlake opened most of his Parker novels with a sentence that began with the word "when." You can read them all at  the Miskatonic University Press site, but the best of them definitely comes from Firebreak: "When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man."

In other words, the man didn't mess around. You can't mess around if you're going to make your living with your words for more than half a century. You can't mess around if you're going to write more than 100 books, and end up with dozens of them firmly ensconced in the canon of crime fiction. Like Parker, Westlake was a pro--a working writer who simply went about the work of writing, day after day.

For a lot of writers, that means taking up any job that comes along: book reviews, features, essays, forewords--any old thing that will help an editor fill a hole and bring in a check. Westlake, however, always kept his focus relentlessly on his fiction, so when he did turn to nonfiction, you can be confident he was taking on a subject he cared about.

Which leads me to today's bit of good news: I've just signed a contract with the University of Chicago Press (my employer when I'm wearing my publicist's hat) to edit a volume of Donald Westlake's nonfiction--a celebratory miscellany, sort of like the wonderful Charles Portis volume that was published last year.

The plans are still at a very early stage, but what we're envisioning is a volume that would bring together the best of Westlake's nonfiction, including reviews, essays on favorite writers, magazine pieces, occasional writings, and more. In addition, it would likely include a couple of the most interesting interviews he sat for over the years; a piece or two by prominent fans, friends, and critics about Westlake and his work; and possibly even letters and e-mails. The goal is to give Westlake's large and ever-growing fanbase insight into how his inquisitive, inventive, alert mind worked over questions of genre, form, talent, and more--helping us to see the man behind the books we've all loved for so many years.

I'm already making great use of a small cadre of Parker-fan advisers who have helped me through the years as Chicago has republished that series, but I also could use help from the fan community at large: if you know of any Westlake nonfiction pieces that you even suspect I may not have heard of--anything that's all obscure, or old, or forgotten--I'd love it if you'd drop me a note or leave a comment below. I'll be doing some digging in libraries and archives, so I hope I'll be able to find plenty of good material in addition to what I already have, but I also am well aware that the crime fiction community is incredibly knowledgeable, and I would be grateful for any tips or thoughts folks are willing to share.

I'm sure you'll be hearing more about this from me in the months to come--and I hope you're as excited as I am!

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Twenty-five thoughts about Spider-Man for his fiftieth birthday

1 The first Spider-Man comic I ever read was issue #275 of The Amazing Spider-Man.

2 I was eleven and a half, an age when that extra half-year retained some vestigial importance. Spider-Man the character was twenty-three. Peter Parker was somewhere in his vague late twenties.

It was the first issue of a subscription I'd signed up for using an ad in a G.I. Joe comic. I don't know why I chose Spider-Man over G.I. Joe, but I do remember that it cost $7.50 for sixteen issues. The cover price at the time was $.65, though within months it would rise to $.75.

4 The issue arrived the day of the Challenger explosion, January 28, 1986. I remember lying on my stomach on the floor of the living room reading and re-reading the comic rather than watch the video being replayed and solemnly discussed. I won't pretend I took refuge in thoughts of "If only Spider-Man were real"--I was eleven, and smart enough to know better--but I did appreciate being able to bury myself in this fantasy story rather than watch the reality.

5 That issue was a good place to start: not only did it feature a full-fledged battle with the Hobgoblin, but it also included a reprint of Spidey's origin story from Amazing Fantasy #15, the comic in which Spider-man had made his first appearance.

6 Twenty-seven years later, two aspects of that comic, and the experience of reading it, stand out strongly: the sense that there was something real and important at stake in Spider-man's battles and his life--that Peter Parker was an adult facing adult problems--and that by starting to read this comic I was entering into (and possibly, if I was lucky, would become part of) something bigger and longer-lasting than me, a piece of a story that stretched far back into the past.

7 This was issue #275, after all. And the cover proudly proclaimed that 1986 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Marvel Universe. Twenty-five years! Add in the annuals (18 at that point for Amazing Spider-Man)--to say nothing of the other two active Spider-Man titles--and you're talking about 6,000 pages of Spider-Man adventures, all happening to the same hero with the same friends in the same city.

8 For an American kid, especially an American boy, it seems like there's never a time when you didn't already know Spider-Man, and Superman, and Batman. You knew he was Peter Parker, and that he was a good guy. But that was about it before the mailman brought the comic that day.

9 Reading that 275th issue, the 6,000th or so page of an ongoing story, felt like being thrown into a deep, fast-moving river--but one that was surprisingly buoyant, so that I quickly realized that I didn't really need to worry about swimming, but could just let it carry me along.

10 What I mean is that many things were instantly clear. The Hobgoblin was Spider-Man's arch-enemy. Peter Parker was grown up now. His old girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, had been killed by the Hobgoblin's predecessor, the Green Goblin. His girlfriend now was Mary Jane Watson--and, surprisingly, she knew he was Spider-Man. He had a sleek new black costume. Peter was working for the Daily Bugle, and he had a number of friends who themselves had problems, but none as big as Peter's: the responsibility of being Spider-Man was wearing him down.

11 All of that came through in just 22 pages. And in addition, there were flashbacks--and editorial notes, too, alerting readers to the earlier issues in which they could find the stories the characters were referring to.

12 The result was a feeling of being invited into an incredibly populous, complicated story that stretched farther back into the past than my eleven-year-old brain could comprehend--and being invited in comfortably. By the time I got to the end of the issue, I was hooked.

13 And there at the end was the letters page, which sank the hook. Letter after letter from fans who clearly lived and breathed this stuf, full of praise, criticism, ideas, and--most important right then--speculation about the identity of the Hobgoblin.

14 When you're that age, some combination of brain plasticity, near-pathological focus, and endless free time combine to make it possible for you to utterly absorb new information in a  way that, looking back, seems almost unfathomable. I read and re-read that issue, did the same for each one that came over the next year, and with the help of cross-references, letters pages, and digging for cheap back issues, it didn't take long before I knew Spider-Man and his world. (I would do the same for baseball history a few years later.)

15 I thought then, and I still think now, that I got lucky and entered at a high point. The mid-1980s were a good time to be a fan of superhero comics, especially on the Marvel side. The Marvel universe was riding high, with a huge number of titles that were each selling ten times what issues today sell. They were still widely available in spinner racks in drugstores, groceries, and chain bookstores. And they were cheap, relative to their competition for the youth dollar--just a bit more than a candy bar.

16 Oh, the seeds of the fall had already been sewn, and were even beginning to sprout. The age of the crossover had begun just a few years before, and the collector-frenzy bubble was clearly starting to inflate. But at the time it all felt like a big, cohesive universe just bursting at the seams with stories.

17 I gave up on comics after high school and stayed away for a good while after that, but I've been back for several years, and for the most part it's been enjoyable. It's still fun to open the mailbox and find a comic book there.

18 When I made my first trip to New York as an adult, it was hard not to see it simply as the embodiment of the city I'd seen in Marvel comics for years. Even now, I find myself look at the tops of buildings and imagining what it would be like to see Spider-Man up there.

19 Reading superhero comics as an adult requires accepting some frustrations. The characters, still resonant from childhood, draw you in, but the stories often disappoint. Frequently they're simply not very good, or are too juvenile even to serve as simple entertainment. But more often the problem is the ways the characters and stories are being deformed by external forces.

20 Comics, I think, suffer more than any other form from the demands of money and marketing: characters are regularly being re-conceived, storylines thrown up in the air, whole histories shuffled, in order to meet the needs of a current crossover plan, or align a story with a forthcoming movie, or simply match up to a new marketing strategy.

21 Movies, of course, also suffer from the demands of money. But a movie, even an installment in a series, is wrapped up in one sitting--mistakes and bad decisions, however maddening, are contained in that one unit. With comics, however, what you're buying is a serial narrative, a story that implicitly promises to keep going, month after month, continually adding to the skein that's been being woven for decades. When marketing or sales needs force changes that essentially abrogate that promise, the damage isn't so easily contained.

22 And then there's the different--and almost opposite--problem presented by a serial narrative that now stretches back fifty years: it's impossible. With reasonable suspension of disbelief--such that we're willing to accept that many, many things can happen yet Peter Parker could still be in his late twenties--it seems just possible to have twenty-five years of such a narrative hold together as essentially one story, but much more than that seems completely unworkable. (Try to follow the thread in the Wikipedia entries for, say, Jean Grey, or the Green Goblin, if you need convincing.)

23 But the serial nature of the narrative is what I love about it. Like with baseball, I love the sense that this is a soap opera of sorts that goes on and on and on. If that story becomes too complicated to sustain, and thus has to be repudiated and re-thought at regular intervals, the attraction diminishes. When I was eleven, a fight between Spider-Man and the Hobgoblin was inherently fascinating; now it's only of interest if it's embedded in a creative story that promises to go on and on, drawing on and refracting and building on stories I've already read and a history I already know.

24 Guilty pleasures aren't part of my way of thinking about culture. Pleasure is pleasure, and I'm grateful to any creator who delivers it. There's no question that comics are less important to me than novels--they're essentially a disposable distraction, something I enjoy and then move on from. But once in a while there are series and storylines that achieve something beyond that--Jonathan Hickman's recent multi-year run on the Fantastic Four, for example, or Darwyn Cooke's amazing The New Frontier--and they make me glad the medium still exists, and that I've stuck with it. I still like Spider-Man, and even with all the frustrations I'm still glad to know month after month what he's up to.

25 And behind it all is that comic that arrived in the mail twenty-seven years ago. I wrote this post before I looked at the issue, but I just brought it up from the basement--and page after page, image after image, whole words and phrases, are exactly as I remembered them, crystal clear. They're called formative years for a reason, and you could have far worse figures doing the forming than Spider-Man. Thanks, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, for what you gave us. Happy birthday, Spidey.