Franz Kafka Bobblehead Night: A Review of Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron

December 15, 2011

I understand suffering. I understand it on every level of my being, especially on the most trivial level of my being: the sports fan. This poor sap has lived and died with so many teams—many of them awful—that I assume defeat is the inevitable outcome of every contest, every season. The victories feel great, I guess, but somehow they never feel as real as the losses. Terrible attitude, I know, but that’s my existential lot.

That’s the “philosophy” I bring to Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron, part scorched-earth wounded Cleveland fan diatribe against Lebron James, part gonzo memoir. Raab is a three hundred fifty pound Jewish, recovering substance abuser, loving family man, Esquire writer, Cleveland native, and always, always, always passionate. To quote Raab, “Being Jewish and being a Cleveland sports fan have always felt to me like the same thing.”

The apex of Raab’s Cleveland sports fan life happened in 1964 when as a ten-year-old he watched the Browns beat the Baltimore Colts to win the NFL championship. After that glorious, icy December day, the temple falls, never to be rebuilt.  Raab, overweight, with a horrible family life, and prone to bad habits, threw his passion into rooting for the various Cleveland teams—the NFL Browns, the MLB Indians, and when they came along in 1970, the NBA’s Cavaliers.

He spent a lot of seasons rooting for bad, boring teams, and even when they were good, there was something—an icy wind; a World Series fielding error;  Michael Jordan—that served as an impediment to Indians, Browns, Cavs bringing blighted Cleveland another championship banner. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, bringing Scott Raab another championship banner. For Cleveland, as portrayed here, is not just Raab’s home town it’s his psyche, if not his soul.

The center of Raab’s sports fan philosophy is what he calls, “The Dayenu Principle”—Dayenu, the Hebrew word that means, “It would have been enough for us,” also a traditional Passover song giving humble thanks to God for the deliverance from their slavery in Egypt. Raab’s “Dayenu Principle” as applied to the Cleveland sports fan (aka, Jewish and suffering Scott Raab: “I see little material difference between “Wait ’till next year” and “Next year in Jerusalem” and also,”(S)uffering is inescapable. To lose and lose and lose again is never loss enough. Time after time, with each Cleveland team, I have whispered ‘Dayenu’ to myself, bitterly, and felt that mystery of God trembling in the air, foul as rotted flesh.”

I hope such passages are meant to make the reader laugh, because I certainly did, but then, I’m a Jewish sports fan. As an aside, I know a sixty-something Jewish lifelong fan of the New York Yankees, who has seen many a World Series championship in his lifetime, and he still grouses about the team. What chance do the rest of us have?

The locus point of Raab’s suffering and ire in The Whore of Akron is Lebron James’s  leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. We read of Raab’s misery as the Cavs make disappointingly early playoff exits  to Orlando in  2009 and  Boston 2010 when many (Raab included) thought they might win the whole thing. When Lebron peeled off his Cavs jersey for that final time after the playoff loss to Boston and hurled it, it’s as if that sweaty wad of laundry was hurled into Raab’s suffering Jewish Cleveland sports fan soul. And when Lebron made The Decision to take his talents to South Beach, the Temple fell, and Scott Raab was sent into exile…

Much of the book focuses on Raab’s year of wandering, following the Miami Heat as they go on their over-hyped tour through the NBA season. In due course, after Raab dubs Lebron James, “The Whore of Akron,” among other things, he is informed that he is not welcome at the Heat’s arena as a favored journalist. He pays his way in just like a regular schmo. A regular schmo with a slipped disc in his back, a recovering addict who resorts to prescribed Vicodin and Valium to get through his tour of Lebron stalking.

The Vicodin/Valium combo leads to the most absurd section of the book when after viewing a tweet in which Lebron attaches a picture of his personal chef’s peach cobbler, Raab imagines/hallucinates a three-way conversation between his dog, Lebron and himself. In truth it’s Raab interrogating himself about his past, and in the midst of this, imaginary Lebron states his case: I spit on nobody. I played my ass off for seven years. Those kids never once heard of me with drugs or guns or any of that stuff. Not once. Those were the best years that team ever had, and you judge me for leaving like it’s the worst crime ever committed.

I get a chuckle over the fact that imaginary Lebron makes the most reasonable point in this whole book, something Raab knows all along. Lebron’s worst “crime” was his tacky TV special to announce his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami— that he could have done that more professionally. Ah, the follies of youth—which Raab knows all too well. The fact that Raab understands this intellectually but refuses to accept it emotionally is what makes this book both entertaining and annoying. As a soul-baring, sports fan rant The Whore of Akron is an amusing, well-written book, but it’s also exhausting and frustrating. I had a pretty good time reading it, I’m just not certain who else I could recommend it to.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers look to be awful for the foreseeable future…


My Little Postage Stamp of Native Soil: What The Faulkner?! Part Three

October 18, 2011

In the autumn or winter of 1926, when William Faulkner was twenty-nine, he began work on his third novel and also what would become his first novel about Yoknapatawpha County. The title of this book? Well, it depends upon which version you read.

The massive manuscript, entitled Flags in the Dust, that Faulkner sent to his publisher, Horace Liveright, was rejected. They told him it was too unfocused and lacked plot and structure (this information courtesy of Douglas Day, the editor of the re-reconstructed version of Flags, and also the author of its introduction). Hurt by this criticism, Faulkner showed the manuscript to a couple of friends. They also agreed with Liveright. Indomitable in his belief, Faulkner sent the manuscript on to his agent, Ben Wasson, and begged him to find a publisher for it. “I can’t afford all the postage it’s costing me,” Faulkner told Wasson. After eleven rejections, Harcourt, Brace & Company accepted it provided that someone else besides Faulkner would do the “extensive cutting job” that they felt was necessary. Faulkner paid Wasson (who believed this was six novels crammed into one) fifty bucks to do the job. Faulkner even went to New York to oversee the revisions, but when he saw the editorial scalpel being wielded, he fled, unable to bear watching his baby being sliced up. Interesting fun fact: while Wasson was having his way with Flags, Faulkner sat nearby writing The Sound and the Fury.

Ultimately, a slimmed down version (one quarter was excised) of Flags in the Dust entitled, Sartoris, was published by Harcourt. Not that Faulkner was happy about this. He felt that Flags in the Dust, despite its multiple character story lines, was the template for his “little postage stamp of native soil,” the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. He held on to all of his typescripts and hand written manuscripts which, in the course of time, found their way to the Alderman Library of the University. And there they sat for years until Faulkner’s daughter, Jill Faulkner Summers remembered that that her pappy had often talked about a restoration of Flags. Cue Mr. Douglas Day from the University of Virginia and Mr. Albert Erskine, an editor from Random House. Day and Erskine cobbled together the manuscripts and produced what is now known as Flags in the Dust, William Faulkner’s official third novel. Sartoris has been out of print since then.

I summarized the history of this novel’s publication because it got to the heart of my dilemma as I approached the third part of this Faulkner reading project: which book to read? Sartoris or Flags in the Dust? I opted for Flags. It’s a hefty slab of literature, clocking in at 432 pages in my 1973 Vintage pocket size version. Whereas Sartoris focuses on the stupidly romantic and doomed Sartoris clan, Flags tells their tale as well as those of the Benbows, the Snopeses, the McCallums, and various black servants and their families.

Does Flags succeed? It depends upon your perspective. As a first view Faulkner’s “postage stamp,” it’s an intriguing glimpse of what’s to come in his Yoknapatawpha sagas, but as a narrative, it pulls us away from the central focus of the novel: the stupidly proud tragicomedy of the Sartorises.

In the present time of the novel, young Bayard Sartoris is back from World War I, having successfully survived air combat in Europe. His twin brother John was not so lucky—he was shot down and killed behind enemy lines during the war.  As we learn in the course of the book certain Sartorises are historically notorious for their dumb daredeviltry. Bayard, in fact, is the namesake of a Civil War-era Bayard who was “(N)ot so much a black sheep as a nuisance all of whose qualities were positive and unpredictable.” When he got involved in the war, “the Sartorises were privately a little glad, for now Bayard would have something to do.”

We’re mean to understand that these Sartorises are ultimately oblivious to history, duty to land and country and so forth. Wars are only bigger stages for their mad acts. Bayard returns from the war, blaming himself for John’s death, and feeling that Lost Generation ennui (if not combat-induced PTSD) that Faulkner explored in his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay. Everyone—including his relatively tame grandfather, also named Bayard, and his long Sartoris-suffering great-great aunt, Miss Jenny— crosses their fingers and hopes for the best as Bayard races around the country roads in his car just looking for trouble. It finds him.

In the meantime, the above mentioned characters—the Snopes, the McCallums, etc.—who represent different levels and directions  of Southern social strata, make their first of many appearances in Faulkner’s fiction. Also of note are the black characters such as Simon and Caspey Strother, father and son, who work in the Sartoris household. While Simon is devoted to the memory of Sartorises past, Caspey has returned from the war in Europe with radical (for this Mississippi environment) ideas about racial equality: “I don’t take nothin’ f’um no white folks no mo’…War done changed all dat. If us colored folks is good enough to save France f’um de Germans, den us is good enough to have de same rights de Germans has.”

Faulkner doesn’t push this potential conflict very far. In time, Caspey bows to the reality of his world and reluctantly goes back to work. Still, it’s an intriguing observation about the domestic ironies of the War to End all Wars.

I’ll leave off there. Flags in the Dust may not be the successful work of art Faulkner hoped it would be, but it’s a fascinating read, a must for Faulkner superfans  and an impressive work from a novelist who still hadn’t hit thirty.

Okay, batten down the hatches for Pt. IV of What the Faulkner?! We’ll be stepping into the world of the crazy Composons and The Sound and the Fury.

Logging Noir: Richmond Fontaine’s High Country

October 12, 2011

In the small Oregon logging town of Clatskanie a girl goes missing. The story is on the news for a while. The cops suspect the girl’s husband, a former logger whose leg was crushed in a logging accident, is responsible, but they can’t pin anything on him. Not that they can find him anyway. Neither one of them is heard from again.

Richmond Fontaine’s High Country, a film noir in the form of a concept album (composed by the band’s leader, Willy Vlautin) tells the real story of the girl’s disappearance, and in its unfolding we learn that it’s actually two stories. The Girl (we never learn her name) is trapped in a loveless marriage with the disabled former logger. She works in town at an auto parts store and all the men come in and try to hit on her. After work, she wanders the logging roads in the trees and the rain and dreams of better things.  The girl’s songs are sung by Deborah Kelly from the Texas band The Damnations. Her tunes are, depending upon the narrative circumstances, sad (“Let Me Dream of the High Country”) or wistful (“I Can See a Room”), and for the most part succeed in getting the listener emotionally involved in her dilemma. Especially when she meets and falls in love “The Mechanic,” a young man who moves into town to take care of his ailing father (“The Mechanic’s Life”). His character, as with all the other male characters, is voiced by Vlautin, whose melodic rasp is perfectly suited  for his downtrodden Western antiheroes.

Unbeknownst to the two young lovers stealing kisses in the shadows in town, someone else has fallen in love with the girl while spying her wandering around on the logging roads. His name is Claude Murray. As detailed in one of the stand out songs on the record,”The Chainsaw Sea,” he subsists on Rainer beer and speed and stays, along with his wife Melanie,  in the back room of a bar called The Chainsaw Sea. You do not want to get Claude mad at you. Buried beneath the concrete of the bar are a fat man from Mississippi and a hooker from town. Their sin? Laughing at him.

Another speed freak named Angus King owns the land that houses The Chainsaw Sea. Vlautin (the author three novels, by the way) succinctly sketches out the details: King hasn’t left his house since 2003, he opened the bar in the seventies, he left the army addicted to speed and they pulled all his teeth in ’93. As we learn in the course of the album, Angus might be speed-addled and paranoid but he’s only a danger to himself.

The excellence of “The Chainsaw Sea” overwhelms many of the other songs (several of them wordless crooning that I picture as montages in the film version of this story) on the record, which is a pretty typical problem one encounters with even the greatest concept albums. The songs may serve the story, but they may not stand alone as fully realized songs.

A successful example of an unconventional song serving the story is “Angus King Tries to Leave the House,” in which Vlautin repeatedly wails “I’m gonna leave, I’m gonna leave, I’m gonna leave the house” with increasing desperation over a Metalish musical background.  It’s not easy to listen to, but it works. We get a sense of the man’s tormented inner state, trapped in his head as much as he is in his house. Ultimately, Angus admits defeat, and says, “Maybe tomorrow,” as the song concludes.

Less successful is “Claude Murray’s Breakdown,” which features spoken dialogue between Claude and Angus. Claude has spotted The Girl and The Mechanic together. He’s freaking out and needs to talk to someone; Angus just wants him to go away. What should be a powerful, intense exchange (especially when Claude tells Angus that he’d burn his wife with a blowtorch to get shut of her) comes off less so because the lines are performed somewhat amateurishly. Vlautin is a powerful actor when he sings, but not when he tries to “act.”

Meanwhile, the tension of the story builds. While Claude is freaking out, the two oblivious young lovers meet behind The Eagles Lodge, a bar in town planning their escape (“The Eagles Lodge”). The Mechanic is eager to leave, knowing that time is running out, although he has no idea where the real threat resides.

Back in hell, the breaking point comes in the hard-driving song, “Lost in the Trees.” Angus has been apparently coaxed out of the house for a speed party out in the woods with some girls, some dudes, and the narrator of the song, who I think is Claude, but maybe isn’t (it’s not entirely clear to me). Everything goes wrong, everyone freaks out amongst the trees. They are clearly lost in more ways than one. The narrator hollers out the bewildering details: girls wander off naked; it gets dark; they try to start a fire but can’t; one of the girls starts yelling how they’re all going to die; the narrator bellows, “I screamed her name until my voice broke.” And then he softly, as if exhausted by all the drama, adds, “Angus really fell apart then.”

From there, the narrative hurtles to its inevitable (but not necessarily predictable) tragic conclusion. I won’t reveal any spoilers other than to say “On a Spree” and “The Escape” are two excellent murder ballads that round out the album. They are shocking, violent, and even a little funny.

On the whole, High Country, is a flawed but compelling concept album that has been in heavy rotation on my iPod for the past week or so. It’s not the first Richmond Fontaine record I’d recommend to the uninitiated (try Post to Wire or Thirteen Cities), but it’s an impressive show of ambition from the tireless creative mind of Willy Vlautin.

What the Faulkner?! Pt. 2 “Mosquitoes”

October 3, 2011

It’s difficult to imagine William Faulkner as a young novelist. One pictures him as the silver haired, mustached “Dixie Flyer” (as Flannery O’ Connor called him) crafting his epics in the Mississippi heat and then knocking back a bottle of whiskey. Or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, he was young Bill before he was venerable old Bill, and he was still working on finding his literary voice.

As we saw in What the Faulkner?!, Part 1, Bill wore his influences in his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay. Evoking the voices of Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos and I’m guessing other moderns, Faulkner attempted a little bit of everything in his take on World War I and the southern American Lost Generation.

In Faulkner’s second novel, Mosquitoes, he returns to the Lost Generation subject by placing a group of New Orleans-based artists, bohemians, and other folks on a rich lady’s boat and floats them around on a lake for a few days. A comedy of flirtation and hot air philosophizing ensues.

It’s late summer: “August was on the wing, and September—a month of languorous days regretful as woodsmoke.” But this regretful time doesn’t  bother one of the main protagonists, Mr. Talliafero, a widower and a woman’s clothing salesman, for “Mr. Talliaferro’s youth, or lack of it, troubled him no longer. Thank God.”

In the prologue Mr. T. boasts to a sculptor, “…frankness compels me to admit that the sex instinct is perhaps my most dominating compulsion.” Yet every time he attempts to speak to one of the vivacious young women on the boat, he bungles the situation, only managing to bewilder and creep them out.

His artist buddies on the boat, notably the other main protagonist, Dawson Fairchild, a novelist, mock Talliaferro’s vain pursuit of the flappers in dismissive, misogynist fashion: “Where…are the soft bulging rabbitlike things women used to have inside their clothes? Gone, with the poor Indian and ten cent beer and cambric drawers. But still, they’re kind of nice, these young girls: kind of like a thin monotonous flute music or something.”

Interesting that a novelist in his late twenties devotes much of this novel speaking in the voices of two middle-aged men. But after all, Faulkner was interested in the big boy theme of time: time wasted, time passing, time eternal. Sez Mr. Fairchild, “Art reminds us of our youth, of that age when life don’t need to have her face lifted every so often for you to consider her beautiful. That’s about all the virtue there is in art: it’s a kind of Battle Creek, Michigan, for the spirit. And when it reminds us of youth, we remember grief and forget time. That’s something.”

But of course, as we will see in The Sound and the Fury (two novels hence) you forget time at your own peril. More assured than his first novel, a comic pleasure to read, and a test run for images (the memory of a girl’s muddy drawers, an idiot mournfully clutching a girl’s slipper) and themes that we’ll see again in later novels, Mosquitoes is well worth investigating.

Amphetamine Twitch: A Review of Crimes in Southern Indiana

September 26, 2011

“Pitchfork and Darnel burst through the scuffed motel door like two barrels of buckshot.” That’s the opening sentence to “Hill Clan Cross,” the first story in Frank Bill’s debut collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana. These pedal to the metal paced stories feature hard luck men and women doing nasty things to each other or getting revenge for nasty things done to them, which is what one hopes for in a good noir tale. Bill gives a fresh take on the hard boiled formula by setting these stories, as the title of the book indicates, in rural southern Indiana, where the old ways of farming, factory work, hunting, fishing and drinking have been disrupted by economic failure and the scourge of meth addiction (one of the stories is aptly named, “Amphetamine Twitch”). And as always in a noir scenario, fate takes its inevitable toll.

Many of Bill’s characters have been cast adrift by the closed factories and failed farms of that region and have moved into other money making ventures such as cooking meth or dog fighting.  Some of the protagonists are Vietnam or Afghan war vets with the battles still raging in their heads, hopped up and on the hunt. One of the most memorable characters is a conservation officer with a failing marriage, a drinking problem, and a very bad day at work (I’d love to see a full novel featuring Conservation Officer Moon).  Another fascinating fellow is a member of the violent Los Angeles-based Mara Salvatrucha gang setting up an outpost in the rotting heartland while seeking to siphon off enough money to get out of the thug life.

While each of these stories are self contained, many of them are interlinked and function like cinematic mini novels with not a wasted word (“Everything exploded like flashbulbs across the top of an old Polaroid camera in Everett’s mind as he stood scrubbing the red from within the cracks of his hand’s life line”; “Loss lubricated the sixteen-by-sixteen pit where four canine legs twitched muscle beneath soiled fur”). Most of them clock in at under twenty pages and hurtle along way over the speed limit to their violent (although not always unhappy) conclusions.

Readers of Daniel Woodrell, Elmore Leonard and James M. Cain are advised to pick up Crimes in Southern Indiana and discover a new voice.

I’m a Frank Bill fan. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Oh, and by the way, Pitchfork and Darnel are in for some big trouble.

The Last Hipster—a review of Jerry Wexler’s Rhythm and the Blues

September 17, 2011

A month or so ago I was going through the jazz vinyl in the music annex of Green Apple as a stereotypical modern era hipster—skinny (check), bearded (check), tight-fitting garb (check)—was holding forth in windbag fashion to his cute girlfriend/date about how In Rainbows is his favorite Radiohead album (to each his own, man). Meanwhile the patient young woman was studying the gatefold of Aretha Franklin’s Live at the Fillmore West album. I wanted to interrupt at that moment and say, “Will you shut up for a second, and behold the coolness before you?” But he just kept flapping his gums.

I know one thing for sure, Jerry Wexler, the producer of that Aretha album, and so many others by her and Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Donny Hathaway, Dr. John, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, etc , would have gotten in that fella’s mug for his squaresville taste, complimented the girl on HER taste and then would have walked them over to the Fiction section and bought them some Faulkner. I believe this scenario to be possible after reading Rhythm and the Blues, Wexler’s 1993 memoir (co-written with the master of the R&B biographies, David Ritz).

I assume that Ritz assisted with the shaping and focusing of Wexler’s narrative, but Wex, a former wordsmith and world class yakker, must have laid down the stories without much (if any) prompting.  The voices of family, friends, colleagues, ex-friends,  ex-wives chime in to fill in the gaps and the less sterling examples of Wexler’s behavior (not the most faithful of husbands; not above screwing over his artists; a stubborn hothead) which makes this feel like a real biography and not just a hagiography.

So who was Jerry Wexler? Raised in Washington Heights, the son of a beaten down window washer father and an ambitious, spirited mother,  Elsa, who pushed, pushed, pushed her recalcitrant young son to succeed (“Decades later, when someone joked about the oedipal implications of our relationship, Elsa smiled and said, ‘Freud, shmeud, I loved Gerald, but I never wanted to fuck him'”). Wexler came from a Jewish family, but was an avowed atheist for whom disbelief was a source of strength (“Yet I see myself as deeply spiritual. My feelings for literature, art, movies, food, and wine are all invested with spirit. Above all, it’s in my feeling for music. Music has brought me joy; it has given me a beat and a groove, sent me down righteous roads”).

Wexler’s “righteous road” takes the teenage wiseass into the record shops, where with a group of like-minded fiends, he searches the bins for old jazz discs. Next, he goes to college in Kansas where he realizes he has a flair for journalism and discovers the works of William Faulkner and a love for country music.

After a stint in the Army (“The Army set me straight and made something of my capricious Jewish ass”),  a now-married Wexler finishes up school, hangs out at jazz clubs and eventually gets into the music biz. In time he ends up at Billboard magazine where he coins the term “Rhythm and Blues” to describe the Billboard chart for black records (replacing the term, “Race Records”). Rhythm and blues is where Wexler makes his mark when he teams up with the debonair, jazz-loving Ahmet Ertegun (to whom the book is dedicated) at Atlantic Records.

Wexler’s portrait of the upstart independent label is riveting reading. The creative excitement of those days (1950’s) is palpable as Wexler has a run of hits with Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner (Wexler and Ertegun sing background vocals on “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”), The Drifters, and most notably, Ray Charles (Wexler steps back and lets the Genius go to work). Perhaps Wexler’s most vivid anecdote from these days considers a lesser known figure, the New Orleans bluesman, Guitar Slim. A recording date is set up for Slim in New Orleans. Wexler and the backing musicians wait hours for him to show up. Finally, a three  red Cadillacs arrive, “and here’s the man himself, emerging in a bower of red-robed beauties, dressed to match the Caddies, plus a retinue of courtiers, janissaries, mountebanks, and tumblers. ‘Need to change into my singing pants, gents,’ says Slim.”

And that’s not even getting into the colorful gang of record execs, producers, engineers and hustlers that Wexler encounters along the way.

After the initial R&B days come to an end (although not Wexler’s pop adventures: he finds “Tennessee Waltz” for Patti Page; he’s on the scene when Bobby Darin has his big hits with “Splish, Splash” and “Mack the Knife), Wexler is an instrumental (pun intended) figure in the 1960’s Soul era. Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, to name a few, pass through Wexler’s life. He hooks Atlantic Records up with Stax in Memphis (and then is stunned to learn some years later that Atlantic owned the Stax masters; he feels bad about this) and when this scene dries up, forms an alliance with the funky crackers from Mussel Shoals aka “The Dixie Flyers” (named after, I was amused to learn, Flannery O’Connor’s description of William Faulkner). Wexler has a fraught but fruitful run with the complex Aretha, sometimes making musical magic, sometimes butting heads with her, and at least once rushing her to the hospital when she has a medical crisis.

Aretha isn’t the only musician that Wexler creatively wrangles with. He honestly describes his intense relationship with Dr. John that is  inspired and warm, as well as cold, paranoid and exploitative.

And that’s not even getting into Wexler’s honest admission that he was hardly the world’s greatest father; he ignored his children in favor of his musical children. Only when a couple of them got into the music business did he significantly bond with them. Unfortunately, one of his daughters develops a heroin addiction that he enables for far too many years. Her subsequent death from AIDS is honestly and movingly told.

Despite that downer and the warts and all descriptions of Wex’s failed marriages and feuds with Ertegun (and others), Rhythm and the Blues is a well-told, engaging account of one of the most interesting and passionate figures in 20th century popular music. At the moment, it’s out of print, but if you’re like me and believe that Atlantic recorded some of the deepest music ever, you’d do well to hunt down this outta sight memoir.

What the Faulkner?! Part One: Soldiers’ Pay

September 13, 2011

Here is the opening entry in my twenty-something part series in my William Faulkner reading project, “What the Faulkner?!” Let’s begin with his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay.

When you’re like me and have read and re-read the major, mature novels by a literary titan like William Faulkner, you might hesitate to read the early stuff. Why do I want to waste my time with the noble failures, the juvenilia? Who has the time? I have fallen prey to such a prejudice at times, but it’s been to my detriment. A great writer’s first book, flawed though it may be, is at the very least fascinating. Are the seeds of greatness evident? Are they close to discovering their mature voice? Is it flat out terrible?

Soldiers’ Pay, published in 1926 when Bill was 29 years old, is the tale of Donald Mahon, a young World War One fighter pilot who is seriously wounded and returns to his home town in the South. The back cover copy of my paperback edition (New American Library, 1968) dramatically states that “Mahon seeks his place in a world that has remained unchanged while his life was shattered.” And furthermore, he makes an “attempt to win back his faithless former love.”

Neither of which is at all true. Did the jacket copy writer read the book or even the editorial notes? Poor young Donald Mahon is basically a canvas for all the other characters to paint their desires and fears. He barely utters a word, he is blind and essentially out to lunch while some recognize how doomed he is and others hope against hope that he’ll recover to become good ol’ Donald again.

When we first meet Mahon (described as having a “quiet inverted stare”) he’s being escorted on a train by a couple of his inebriated buddies who are driving the rest of the passengers crazy with their obnoxious hilarity. They’re soldiers returned home, drunk as fuck, horny as hell, angry as shit, and not giving a whit what anyone else thinks. It’s a dizzying scene of gabble, groping and vomiting, giving a reader the sense of the disorientation and alienation these combat traumatized soldiers feel back in the good ol’ U.S.A. It’s Hemingway and Dos Passos territory, if not yet at their literary level (as a side note, Faulkner served in the Canadian RAF during the war but never saw combat). It’s written with humor and youthful vigor, two qualities not always associated with Faulkner (although humor is almost always evident in his work).

In the midst of their drunken ramble, Joe Gilligan and Julian Lowe, Mahon’s minders encounter a young war widow, Mrs. Powers. After Lowe peels off for home back in San Francisco (but not before falling in love with Mrs. P), Gilligan (who’s also in love with her) and Mrs. Powers bring Mahon back home to his small southern town of Charlestown.

And that’s when things get even more complex. The group of family, friends and others that orbit the going blind and dying Donald Mahon are coming unglued in their own particular ways. Mahon’s father, a church rector, deludes himself into believing his son will recover; Mahon’s intended, a vain, flighty girl perfectly named Cecily passes out when she sees his scar; Emmy, Mahon’s lifetime friend and the woman who lost her virginity to him, quietly suffers while she takes care of him; and what’s more, two useless young men of the local “Lost Generation” (one of them entertainingly named “Januarius Jones”) spend much of the book attempting to woo Cecily, or failing that Emmy. It’s sort of like P.G. Wodehouse meets Sherwood Anderson.

Does it all hang together? No. But it’s a fascinating regional southern take on the Lost Generation novel. This is a young writer’s novel, both derivative and ambitious.

One of the more impressive features of this book for me is the way Faulkner depicts Mrs. Powers, who is experienced beyond her years, but also empathetic to both the yearning Emmy, the delusional Dr. Mahon, and the lonely and honorable Gilligan. Her recounting of her brief marriage to the killed in the war Mr. Powers is honestly described as the lonely mistake that it was. And there she goes repeating the same mistake by falling for the doomed Donald.

The stream of consciousness style that Faulkner uses so memorably in his mature novels is dabbled with here and there throughout the novel, in its most effective form serving as a kind of town consciousness (not unlike Dos Passos, I reckon). However, the relentless biblical cadences that he will unleash in some of his greatest works are not really evident in this book.

Race, the subject that Faulkner will wrangle with so intensely in his later novels, is not seriously addressed in Soldiers’ Pay. The African American characters serve mainly as comic figures or noble enduring stock characters. Their dialogue is almost painfully minstrelesque. He will certainly improve in that area as he develops as a writer. One of the most poignant but also stereotypical scenes is when Caroline or “Callie,” Mahon’s childhood nurse, visits the dying man. While perhaps overdramatized, Callie’s anguish over her former charge feels genuine, and at least hints at some of the complexity of black and white relations in the south (and yes, I know that’s understating the case).

Finally, I found one of the most impressive sections of the novel to be the one point where we see the world through Mahon’s point of view. It’s a flashback scene in which he relives the moments when he received his (ultimately) mortal wound. It’s vividly written and over before you know it—”Then he felt his hand, saw his glove burst, saw his bared bones.”

As it so happens, this memory is one of Mahon’s last. Good stuff indeed, but not a patch on the death scenes Faulkner will write in his later novels (paging Joe Christmas! We’ll get there…).

I’ve gone on longer than I intended in my impressionistic take on Soldiers’ Pay. This first novel hints at the greatness to come in Faulkner’s later work, but it’s comforting to know that even the “greats” didn’t just roll out of bed writing masterpieces. At least not in this instance. But I read it. Thanks for stopping by.

Coming next in this series: we’ll follow Faulkner to New Orleans for his second novel, Mosquitoes.

“Righteous violence ensues”: a review of The Cut by George Pelecanos

September 10, 2011

“Engaged”: that’s the word that comes to mind when I read the crime novels of George Pelecanos. His protagonists are no-nonsense men dedicated to the job at hand whether it’s solving a crime, getting revenge or saving someone else’s neck. They have blue collar work ethics, they sometimes make mistakes, and the results of their actions are not always what they intend.

All of these qualities are evident in Spero Lucas, the hero of Pelecanos’s latest, The Cut. Lucas is a  Washington D.C.-based 29 year-old veteran of the war in Iraq, a former high school wrestler, who works as an investigator for a lawyer who defends murder and drug suspects. After doing some work for his employer who is defending a big time pot dealer, Lucas is contacted by the dealer and asked to track the disappearance of some of his dope shipments. Lucas takes the job, and to quote from the book, “the truck began to roll downhill.”

And roll downhill it does. Lucas, a man who digs women, the Drive-By Truckers, Roots Reggae, eating, and long mountain bike rides, finds himself scrambling to save a kid from the collateral damage this dodgy job involves. Or, as Pelecanos himself said at a reading I recently attended, “righteous violence ensues.”

In the meantime, we learn that Lucas was adopted with two other children of different racial backgrounds into a Greek family. The father has passed away, so Lucas and his brother Leo, a high school English teacher, have become the partriarchs of the family

Into this unique milieu Pelecanos drops his cleanly written crime narrative that will have you turning the pages late into the evening.

I should also add that as with any good crime novel, the villains are memorable but believable characters who work just as hard at their jobs as the “good” guys do theirs. And, as always with a George Pelecanos novel, the city of Washington D.C.–its neighborhoods, its eateries, its varied people–is a character as well.

A well told crime narrative that keeps you interested in the major and minor characters and has a social conscience is a rare thing indeed. I’m excited that Spero Lucas will be back for at least one more novel, although as veteran Pelecanos readers know, don’t expect an endless series of books featuring this character. G.P. likes to keep it fresh.

Check out The Cut.

Cab Ride to Murder—A Review of Jack Clark’s “Nobody’s Angel”

September 7, 2011

Like many city dwellers I’ve taken some interesting cab rides. There was the low-blood sugar rage-aholic on New Year’s Eve who was so furious at the drunken maniacs on the sidewalk that he floored it across the city hollering how all people should just die, die, die! And then there was the driver who was watching “Baby Boy” on a TV mounted to his dash while weaving through traffic on Geary Street. So yeah, I’ve taken some cab rides, but whether terrifying or humdrum I’ve always wondered about the driver (usually, but not always, a guy) and what his/her shift is like. Who is that person behind the wheel?

Jack Clark is a longtime Chicago cab driver who after many years of hacking it sat down and wrote Nobody’s Angel, a tale about a cabbie named Eddie Miles who happens upon a prostitute who has been violently attacked and nearly killed, and then, if that weren’t enough, loses one of his fellow driving friends to a murder. While these horrifying incidents and Miles’s subsequent investigations of them puts this novel in the “crime” genre, the book is more about the daily grind of Eddie Miles, Chicago cab driver.

What’s it like to chauffer drunks, couples getting it on in the back seat, people who try to rob you, or just rude jerks? Clark takes you along for the ride (as it were) with engaging vignettes of the nightly sojourn across Chicago (avoiding certain areas). Clark doesn’t shy away from one of the touchy subjects of cabs in an urban environment: race, although it might more accurately be termed race + class. Miles will not drive into the projects of Cabrini Green, but he will drive an elderly African American lady back to her bad neighborhood (she insists that he not get out of the cab when he lets her off), and he will be chewed out by a younger African American woman because he’s the first driver to stop for her (“Lady, why are you giving me a hard time? I’m the guy who stopped,” he points out).

Meanwhile Miles nurses some big wounds: he’s estranged from his ex-wife, who left him because of his drinking when he had more of a “respectable” 9-5 job, and their daughter. He sleeps with the woman who lives next door, he meets up with his fellow cabbies, he tries to investigate his friend’s murder, he visits the wounded prostitute in the hospital. Eddie Miles is a regular guy with a sad past and a big heart and a hard boiled city attitude. He’s like you and me, the sort of protagonist I most like reading about in so-called crime fiction.

Jack Clark first self-published “Nobody’s Angel” and sold it out of his cab. Eventually the excellent crime fiction publishers, Hard Case Crime, republished the book under their imprint—an inspiring story for everyday Joes and Josephines who write in their spare time. Do yourself a favor and flag it down.

Elizabeth Taylor, Ken Samuels: Two Degrees of Separation

March 23, 2011

I was still awake at three a.m. this morning, surfing the internet, when I decided to look up some pictures of my old man on the web site of the fifties pop singer, Peggy King. The early morning hours are a good time to think of my dad because it’s likely that his Canadian Club soaked musician’s soul is still haunting a piano bar somewhere in Hollywood (if they still exist).

At any rate, I posted a picture of my father sitting at the ivories, young, good-looking, giving a sort of “yeah, this is what I do” expression to the camera, as Perky Pretty Peggy King beams at the camera. From the sketchy professional timeline of Eddy Samuels’s life, I know that from working with Peggy King he moved to backing Debbie Reynolds, then into a musical/friendship/substance abuse enabling relationship with Eddie Fisher, and  thus eventually being on the scene when the whole Fisher/Elizabeth Taylor drama unfolded. My father died back in the eighties, but if he were around today one of the many questions I would have had for him would have been, “How crazy was that whole Eddie/Liz/Debbie drama?” Knowing my old man, he would have been a gent and told no tales out of school. I do remember that he used to do a fantastic impersonation of Richard Burton. I’ve always wondered if there was something besides fun behind my father’s comedy bit—maybe Eddys and Eddies have to stick together…

I suppose all those thoughts and associations whiz through my head whenever I see a pic of my dad at the 88’s, and no doubt did when I posted one of those pics on the good ol’ Facebook So, imagine the odd little twinge I felt  when five hours later I learned that Elizabeth Taylor died.

Of course it’s sad that Liz has passed. I don’t mean to make light of her death when I say that it seems like I’ve been reading about her being at death’s door since the late seventies when the National Enquirer blared such headlines at least once a year. But she’s really gone this time, and interestingly, only six months after that old rascal, husband #4, my godfather, Eddie Fisher (according to Wikipedia, their divorce became final four days before I was born) died.

Since the time I was a little kid, my mother had told me the story of going to see Butterfield 8 at a drive-in during my parents’ honeymoon. This trashy but entertaining flick stars Liz as a call girl and features Eddie Fisher delivering a wooden performance as her earnest lovelorn friend. Supposedly, my father had a small part in the film. I never saw the movie as a kid, but I always built up my dad’s role as something akin to Dooley Wilson’s in Casablanca. I pictured beautiful, voluptuous Elizabeth Taylor pouring out her heart to my father as he played a tune on the piano.

About fifteen years ago, I finally rented the movie and sat through it anticipating my father’s big scene. I watched the whole thing and didn’t see it. I scanned the credits: nope, nothing. I raked my memory. Was there a place where my father could have popped up and I might have glanced away? I recalled a scene where a distraught Liz is talking to her lover, played by Laurence Harvey, at a hotel bar. Seemed like a likely spot for my dad to make an appearance. I rewound to the spot and played and replayed the scene in slow motion like Kevin Costner with the Zapruder film in JFK. And sure enough, there he was, briefly coming into focus as he passes behind Liz and Larry: the ghost of my young father, looking directly at the camera with what appears to be a self conscious smirk on his face.

Well I guess now the whole crew can be reunited in that ghostly lounge of my imagination…