Sunday, July 06, 2014

Do Not Sell At Any Price- The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 rpm Records by Amanda Petrusich

I  admit it, I'm a bit compulsive, particularly when it comes to vintage blues, early string band, jazz and country recordings. But to be honest, I've spent most of my adult life trying to avoid collecting 78s of those genres, because I know once into it, I'd never find a way out, and collecting would probably overtake my life as it has those of the collectors and anthologists Amanda Petrusich writes about in her excellent and highly readable book. No, I prefer to get the music in whatever form I can- 78s, 45s, LPs, CDs or MP3s. As the subtitle of her books states, Petrusich takes us into that strange world of the 78 collector. Deploying her own brand of populist, even chatty, prose, honed in periodicals like the New York Times, Atlantic and the Oxford American, and in her book It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music, Petrusich tracks down the likes of John Heneghan, Chris King, Joe Bussard, Ian Nagoski, Richard Weize, as well as expounding on legendary collectors like  Harry Smith and James McKune. Not exactly household names, but well-known to those into the music and of interest to those who would like to be.

Amanda Petrusich
On a personal note, I'm glad I didn't read Petrusich's book  before writing  my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, which features a group of 78 blues collectors, one of whom is loosely based on the infamous and highly eccentric McKune. The fact is,  I've long been interested in 78 collectors, going back to a misspent youth hanging around places like the Ash Grove and  Don Brown's Jazz Man records in Los Angeles, where the likes of  John Fahey, Barry Hansen and Bob Hite would congregate to talk and plough through the new arrivals. I knew McKune's name batted around- heard that he was pretty weird, something of a recluse and so on, but didn't know much about him. That is until I read Mary Beth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues, in many ways a precursor to Petrusich's book, though the former concerns those who searched out rural blues singers, made field recordings, as well as those who collected the music. So while Hamilton's book was certainly an influence, had I read Do Not Sell... book before writing my novel, the two books together would have probably pushed my narrative in another direction altogether, albeit with a greater concentration on historical and discographical accuracy.

Of course, Petrusich and her pals are right when they say there's something special when it comes to listening to 78 rpm records. It's not only the time-travel element, but something about the sound itself, both intimate and unfiltered. Though I suspect this has something to do with concentration. That one naturally gives more attention to a single recording than to a string of recordings as when one listens to an LP or CD, where one's attention tends to dissipate over time. But that's technology for you, a factor that's played a part since the advent of the LP. I remember a critic in the 60s magazine Little Sandy Review saying one should listen to no more than three or four tracks of any blues artist on an LP at a time; otherwise it represents a false impression of how they would have presented their music to the public. Be that as it may, these days, as Petrusich points out, one can stick the entire Harry Smith Anthology into an MP3 player, and, with the shuffle mechanism, destroy any semblance of Smith's careful, if strange, sequencing. But, then, that was pretty much the case back when Columbia put out the Robert Johnson box set, which, when it appeared, disrupted the sequencing of earlier releases, which themselves were sequenced artificially. Which only shows that it's all artifice, from the moment a recording is made to the technology by which it reaches the listening public.

For me, Do Not Sell... is most interesting when the author talks to the collectors themselves- whom Petrusich likens to detectives and investigative journalists in their pursuit of their prey- and the music to which they are devoted. Of lesser interest are those moments  speculating about why people collect 78s. Nor is it all that astonishing to hear that collecting is a predominantly male pursuit. But I think Petrusich realises as much. Likewise, she can't quite convince herself that collecting might be a sign of a Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Aspergers, concluding that, in most cases, it's simply an addiction, one that appeals to, or creates, eccentrics.

That such collectors have shaped our musical memory, if not our taste, is beyond doubt. But as Pestrusich points out, many of these collectors are blinkered when it comes to the value of more recently recorded music. As though cocooning themselves in a different time, and putting some distance between themselves and a music that, in many instances, was considered dangerous, will give them a degree of protection or take them back to a simpler, more comprehensible world. Petrusich wonders if in fifty years time the same sorts of people will be gathering to collect and listen to hip-hop, with time having turned it into something less threatening and subversiveness. Which is why it's refreshing when Petrusich comes across someone who can put the ethos of the collector in perspective. Ian Nagoski, responsible for the anthology To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929, puts it this way: "Some people are just really good at listening to records... When you get to a certain level of knowledge, and can pass that along to people, that's really exciting and really beautiful...I see that in 78 collectors over and over again- they're dying to express, to someone..., how beautiful the whole thing is...[These] guys are definitely discontents in a Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents kind of way. They're looking at the world and seeing it as untenable. The world is sick. And yet here is this thing that affirms that there's something about it that's beautiful. But it's forgotten, or lost, or separate from day-to-day reality. But if you could put it back together, then you could reconstruct this gone world, this kind of life that was once worth living, make that into your own life, and then it would be okay or tolerable for you."

Though she searches for some kind of platonic ideal regarding collectors and the process of collecting, Petrusich never really finds it. After all, collecting is anything but objective, it criteria varying with each collector according to their idiosyncrasies. No point searching for such forms when it comes to aesthetics or the value of artifacts. They are what they are. The result is what our culture has made it, not what it could or should be. Petrusich can't be faulted for her search, even if she never quite determines whether those artifacts are the result of aberrant visions, whether they are culturally determined, or simply fixed by the woof and warp of character. This even though most of the anthologists, in contrast to Harry Smith, would seek to remove themselves from the context of their anthologies, as if that were possible. Anthologies are skewed regardless. Moreover, what is collectible (or anthologisable) these days is often be the converse of what was popular when first released. But, once again, so what?  If one likes Skip James- who certainly was an anomaly- one simply likes Skip James. One hopefully doesn't collect his records based on their popularity or lack of, or by their monetary value, not unless you value them simply as commodities.

So Do Not Sell is as much about Petrusich as it is about the records and the music. But her conversational tone and self-deprecating humour are used to great effect when it comes to describing the music and the listening experience, which helps make the book accessible to those who might not be familiar with the music. While I initially found her personal asides slightly annoying, such as the section in which she describes learning how to scuba dive in order to search for some Paramount 78s that might have been dumped in a river outside the company's pressing plant some eighty years ago. But in fact the episode is not only very funny, but exemplifies the extremes to which collectors, or would-be collectors, will go to get their hands on a box of priceless 78s. Moreover, it shows that the days of the neophyte getting in on collecting 78s are over, which means that Petrusich has to content herself with accompanying collectors as they track down records. 

Harry Smith as young hipster
Perhaps the most comprehensive section is the chapter on Harry Smith and his influential but never equalled 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. Petrusich maintains the Anthology, with its esoteric sequencing and hermetic packaging, can be likened to an aural poem whose meaning constantly awaits discovery. She  wonders what it must have been like to have heard the Anthology fifty years ago, before MP3's,  Dylan, the Beatles, and all that followed, including the advent of meaning as such. I can try to answer her question, since I first heard the Anthology a bit over fifty years ago, and can say listening to it was a daunting experience and hard to comprehend  in its entirety, but at least it was free of the cultural baggage it has since acquired. Spurred on by listening to the New Lost City Ramblers, Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, etc., I would diligently trek to the library to listen, one side at a time. When I finished, I went through it again and again. While the music has stayed with me, I never actually owned a copy until its reissue on CD in 1997. And even then, because of the hype that would surround it, I don't think I listened to it all that much. But while reading Petrusich's chapter,  I returned to the Anthology, and, not surprisingly, it sounds better than ever. That in itself is enough reason to read Petrusich's book. It's going to almost anyone hungry not so much for 78s-as-objects but for the music contained on those 78s. Sure, I would have liked the book to have been more hardcore in its pursuit of collectors and their records, but I doubt if  I was the reader it was aimed at. But even a hardened listener like myself couldn't help but be charmed by Petrusich's willingness to get to the music by any means necessary, whether learning to scuba dive or riding shot-gun with an assortment of shellac-junkies.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Another Noir Roundup: John Trinian, James Curtis, Malcolm Mackay, Owen Martell, Robert Wilson

The books have been piling up of late,  so, to assuage both guilt and laziness, this is going to be  another series of quickies. As usual, it's my favourite publisher, Stark House, that has come up with some of the most interesting books: reprints of Nude on Thin Ice/Memory of Passion by the always excellent pulpster Gil Brewer, and Nothing In Her Way/River Girl by the prolific regionalist Charles Williams. Though for me the biggest surprise and most intriguing title is their reissue of two novels by Gold Medal writer John Trinian, North Beach Girl coupled with Scandal of the Sand.

Trinian preferred the name Zekial Marko (though his real name was, in fact, Marvin Leroy Schmoker) and it was under Marko that he wrote for The Rockford Files, Mission Impossible, Kolchak, and Toma, a TV series that he also  helped create. As well as the film Once a Thief, starring Alain Delon, Ann Margaret and Jack Palance, adapted by Ralph Nelson from Trinian's novel  Scratch a Thief. There was even an earlier adaptation of the book made in France by Henri Verneuil, with a script by one of France's best, Michel Audiard (father of Jacques), with Delon and Jean Gabin entitled Melodie sous-sol, translated for English-speakers as Any Number Can Win.

Born in Salinas- Steinbeck was a neighbour- Trinian (1933-2008) spent most of his time in the Bay area, and, during the late 1950s, did a stretch as a bartender at a Sausalito waterhole called The Tin Angel. Just like a  character- the writer-bartender- out of a Don Carpenter novel. Trinian/Marko had quite a reputation at the time, not all of it laudatory. Nevertheless, pulp pundit Rick Ollerman calls him "one of the most realistic of the Gold Medal writers." Indeed, both North Beach Girl (1960) and his final Gold Medal novel Scandal on the Sand (1964) read like minor classics. The latter concerns  a dozen characters brought together by whale stranded on a local beach, while the former revolves around the usual mix of drugs, sex and alcohol, here with a cast that includes Erin, a young female protagonist, an ambitious lesbian and an artist who wants to paint her. After all, it's the hipster world of Bay Area beatnik bohemia: "Who the hell wanted to work. Working got you nowhere. It was just like voting. Your one lousy vote didn't really count. The system wouldn't collapse if you voted against it. So why try? Why work? No matter what job you were performing, the system wouldn't care if you walked out on it. There would always be another sucker to take your place. And Erin had had jobs enough to uphold her way of thinking. Carhop, waitress, usherette, receptionist, cocktail waitress, file clerk, and now artists' model. She had walked out on them  all at one time or another. And no one had missed her. Life had been able to stagger on without her shoulder to the wheel. So, all jobs were the same. She hated them. And now she had had her fill of them and she would do absolutely nothing. And perhaps, while her money lasted, she would be able to figure out a way to be done weigh working for good."

Also included in Trinian volume is an excellent introduction by pulp honcho Ollerman,  an afterward by Trinian's daughter, the artist Belle Marko, and a mid-volume remembrance by the novelist Ki Longfellow who, as a teenager, was Trinian's  soul-mate, who went on to become Vivian "Bonzo Dog" Stanshall's partner. Trinian, and, a second or two earlier, Longfellow, appear in the film's trailer:

The equivalent of Stark House in the UK would probably be London Books Classics. In the past they've published novels by such London working class writers as Robert Westerby, Gerald Kersh, Simon Blumenfield, John Sommerfield and James Curtis. Their most recent is Curtis's There Ain't No Justice. Curtis (1907-1977) has long been one of my favourites with novels like The Gilt Kid, which I've written about before, and, of course, the classic They Drive By Night. There Ain't No Justice is a boxing novel- arguably one of the best- that explores the underworld surrounding that sport in pre-war London, and its effect on a kid from the slums of West London. As usual, Curtis's characters deploy the  language, syntax and slang of the working class. In lesser hands, that might come off as clumsy or cliché-ridden, but here it sounds exactly right. Curtis hung out in  Soho watering holes with the likes of Gerald Kersh and Robert Westerby, as well as various poets and painters.  Like They Drive By Night, There Ain't No Justice was adapted for the screen by Pen Tennyson, though not quite as successfully. Still here's a YouTube clip from the opening scene from Tennyson's 1939 adaptation. If you like bleak settings, boxing, and working class London, you won't be disappointed by this one.

Fast forward to contemporary Glasgow. These days British crime pundits all seem to be talking about Malcolm Mackay, whose A Sudden Arrival of Violence (Pan) is the latest and last novel in his Glasgow trilogy. And one can see why.  All three novels explore the city's criminal underworld, and its various characters, and they do with no small amount of flair and fluidity. What I also find interesting is that Mackay, who hails from Stornoway, purposely ignores the most obvious manifestations of the region he's writing about. In contrast to Curtis, there is, other than the locale, little in these books that could be specifically thought of as Glaswegian. In fact,  there's a universality and matter-of-factness to Mackay writing that makes me think of someone like J.G. Ballard. At the same time, his prose is as crisp and tight as a Black Mask or Gold Medal author. I would say this is definitely a young writer to watch if he hadn't already written two excellent, and dark, novels, How a Gunman Says Goodbye and The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. And he has a fourth novel, The Night the Rich Men Burned, on the way.

If, like me, you have a weakness for jazz novels, you'll want to have a look at Owen Martell's Intermission (Windmill). It opens with the Bill Evans Trio playing those historic dates at the Village Vanguard in New York, in June, 1961. Not long after which Evans' bass player, the great Scott LeFaro is killed in a car accident. Intermission explores the effect of LeFaro's death on Evans. It's the kind of novel that only an outsider could write. From South Wales, Martell is able to create an evocative, if subdued, atmosphere, as he explores Evans' character over the months following LeFaro's death- which constitutes the intermission of the title. Though, for me, there was something about the novel- perhaps it's the over-romanticisation of this particular subject- that made the novel the less than the sum of its parts. But perhaps that's unavoidable. Over-romanticism seems to be an occupational hazard,  particularly for outsiders. Still,  readable jazz novels are hard to come by. From the very start, Martell's book  reminded me  of a novel I read in French some years ago by Christian Gailly entitled Un Soir au Club (Editions Minuit) about the Evans trio playing a small club in a provincial French town, a laudable attempt which fell short of the mark. Martell's book, which could be thought of as picking up where Gailly's book left off,  is, despite its faults,  a more complete and satisfying work.

If you like complex, fast action spy novels based on a fair amount of research, Wilson's latest, The Whitehall Mandarin (Arcadia), will definitely interest you. An American who served in Vietnam as a Special Forces Officer, then moved  to England, after which he renounced his US citizenship, Wilson has written four previous spy novels. His latest moves from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, and, for the most part, centres on Lady Somers, who, in this novel, happens to be the first female to head the Ministry of Defence. It also brings spooks from previous Wilson novels, as it moves through the Cold War, into  the swinging 60s, the Profumo affair, the Bay of Pigs, Malaya, Vietnam, and China's growing importance on the world's stage. I was completely engrossed until the pace picked up to such a degree that I found it hard to keep my disbelief sufficiently suspended. It's just that there are just too many events of earthshaking importance.  Nevertheless, there are some great moments, and Wilson has certainly done his research, throwing in any number of real personalities from the era, to the degree that I found myself  googling various names with some surprising results. Wilson is in the Ambler, Furst, McCarry, Le Carré category, though not as subtle as the latter two, nor as controlled as the former two. More like a espionage-equivalent of James Ellroy, with a scatter-gun approach, though without Ellroy's manic style and mannerisms. Though I'll no doubt dip into his earlier novels, this one, however entertaining, illustrates the adage that less is often best.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron

My interest in the artist, film-maker and self-styled witch Cameron goes back to 1964 when, as a  nineteen year-old, I attended a Movies Round Midnight screening of her films at the Cinema Theatre in Los Angeles. The Cinema was located on Western just above Santa Monica Blvd, next to the O Sole Mio Pizza House.  I began attending those screenings no doubt for all the wrong reasons, when someone said they were showing midnight porn films at some movie theatre in Hollywood. Naturally my friends and I were curious only to discover the "porn" was, in fact, Stan Brakhage's Window Water Baby Moving and Jean-Pierre Melville's Les Enfants Terribles. I'd  never seen anything like either film, and so returned the next week, and every week thereafter. The Cinema was managed by Mike Getz (in fact, a distant relative of mine), but it was poet John Fles who programmed Movies Round Midnight. Fles had been involved with periodicals like Trembling Lamb, Kulchur, the Chicago Review and its off-shoot Big Table. His aesthetics were straight out of the Film Makers Co-op in New York and, to a lesser degree, Canyon Cinema in San Francisco. Over the next year or so I saw all the classic underground films of the 1960s, as well as hard to get and seldom seen films from earlier decades.  Those films made enough of an impression that I would later exhibit similar films in San Francisco.

Parsons and Cameron
John Fles
The most memorable screening at the Cinema was that night Cameron showed her films. Having fallen on hard times, it was meant to be a benefit for her. As the images appeared on the screen, she sat in the projection booth reading her poetry over the p.a. system. I didn't know much about Cameron at the time other than she had a reputation as a witch of some kind. Nor did I  know what to make of the mid-screening commotion in the projection booth, and what sounded like breaking glass followed by a number of tarot cards that descended onto those sitting in the back rows. Aware of Fles's fondness for dada-like moments which he outlined in his essay entitled "Seeing Is Believing," which I wish I still had, I took the commotion to be just another example of his desire to "upset the equilibrium," like the time  he stopped Invasion of the Body Snatchers at the moment when Kevin McCarthy looks into the truck and sees all those pods, disconcerting the audience to such a degree that, for a moment, I thought a riot might ensue.

Cameron and Hopper in Night Tide
Apparently Kenneth Anger, Cameron's sometime friend and rival,  had invaded the projection booth, demanding the print of his film Inauguration of a Pleasure Dome be returned to him. This developed into a full-scale confrontation that spilled out into the lobby. As I left someone brushed me followed by a small gaggle of men dressed like thuggish bankers. The next day my mother asked me why there was blood on the back of my shirt. "Were you in a fight last night?"she asked. "No," I answered, "I was at the movies." When I returned to The Cinema the following week,  Kenneth was picketing the theatre for not respecting the rights of film-makers.

That occasion is told in some detail in Spencer Kansa's well-researched and entertaining Wormwood Star. In this instance as told by Fles, Getz and photographer John Brittan- the only person, according to him, who respected Kenneth's one-person picket-line.  Kansa also mentions that the altercation might also have been about some Aleister Crowley manuscripts that Anger thought were rightfully his. In any case, that's just one anecdote out the many that appear in Kansa's book, a new edition of which has just been published by Mandrake a predominantly occult publishing house in the UK.

Fairy Queen (1962)
Marjorie Cameron (1922-1995), who arrived in Pasadena in 1945 straight out of the military, was for many years an iconic figure in L.A. bohemian culture, which included such disparate personalities as Wallace and Shirley Berman, Curtis Harrington, Kenneth Anger, Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, David Meltzer and Russ Tamblyn. Interestingly, she never had much time for Venice poets like Stuart Perkoff, who apparently were too macho for her temperament. And she appeared in several movies, playing opposite Hopper in Harrington's film low-budget classic Night Tide, then in his film Wormwood Star, as well as in Anger's Inauguration of a Pleasure Dome.

Born in Iowa and a frequenter of jazz joints on L.A.'s Central Avenue, she  met and, in 1946, married  the infamous rocket-man and leading occultist Jack Parsons whose life came to an untimely end in Pasadena, when in 1952 he blew himself up, whether by accident or otherwise, at his Pasadena residence on South Orange Grove. It was a death from which Cameron would never fully recover. Parsons, the subject of at least two biographies, was not only a Crowley devotee and patron of the Agape Lodge, but one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an influential rocket scientist at Cal Tech, this despite the fact he had no formal training in such matters save some experiments to perfect liquid-fuel rockets in the Arroyo Seco and Devil's Gate Dam. He was also a writer, poet and science fiction fan who was referenced in Philip K. Dick's novel Dr Futurity, and could count amongst his friends actors, artists, and writers like Jack Williamson, Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard, who shared Parsons' residence and became something akin to his sorcerer's apprentice. Following Jack's  death, Cameron took it upon herself to take up where her husband had left off. In fact, Wormwood Star, the title of Kansa's book, is also the title of Curtis Harrington's Cameron-inspired film, and the name Cameron gave to Parsons' magical child, the production of which became Cameron's long-term obsession.

Though Cameron would move from Pasadena to Silverlake, as well as Venice, West Hollywood and various spots in the desert, there was something about Pasadena in those days. Perhaps a matter of wealth combined with mysticism. It's a subject Mike Davis addresses in the first chapter of  City of Quartz. As religious leader and mystic Annie Besant once said, "The finest magnetic vibrations in the world are to be found in Pasadena." Though I grew up in east Pasadena- S. Orange Grove was like another world to me- I was never privy to magnetic vibrations, fine or otherwise. However, Farnsworth Crowder's Los Angeles- The Heaven of Bunk Shooters (1931), sheds a bit of light on those "vibrations," and  how the occult and various sects exploited public awe and mystification regarding science, physics and metaphysics:

Cameron in Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of a Pleasure Dome
"Whatever waves, oscillates, vibrates, pulses or surges contributed, by analogy, to the explanations of harmony, absent treatment, telepathy, magnetic healing, vibratory equilibrium, spiritualism or any other cloudy wonder. Surpassing are the powers of these scientific sects. One awed citizen referring to a busy group of vibrators cloistered in the hills, whispered, 'My lord, man!- they wouldn't dare release their secrets. The race isn't ready- not advanced enough. The world would go to pieces. It would be like giving everybody a handful of radium. Ignorant people would have too much power.'"

Got it?  But that's one of those  disconnects that Kansa, who manages to interview most of the relevant parties,  avoids addressing. Clearly, tangents abound, but, in the final analysis, Kansa demonstrates Cameron's importance in the history of L.A. art and bohemian culture of the 1950s and early 60s. Though exhibiting many of the characteristics that would become commonplace a few years later, Cameron would eventually be enveloped by mass culture, not to mention various personal issues and downright bad luck. Too bad Kansa offers little in the way of criticism regarding the historical drift represented by the likes of Cameron. And, disappointingly, there's no reproduction of Cameron's art work. Though, to be fair, Kansa makes it a point to say that he was unable to obtain permission to reproduce it, which he mitigates by adding that much of it is available on-line. Part-visionary and part-naif, Cameron  cuts an admirable if somewhat pathetic figure. But, for me, whenever I hear Cameron's name, I can't help but think about that night at the Cinema Theatre in 1964 and all those tarot cards falling through the air and the look on my mother's face when she realised that going to the movies can sometimes be a bloody affair.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Half World by Scott O'Connor

One wonders why there haven't been more novels about the MKULTRA, the CIA-run mind-control program that ran from the 1950s through the early 1970s, in which unsuspecting subjects in cities like San Francisco and in various prisons and mental institutions were given drugs such as LSD to break down their  personalities and brainwash them.  As the dark side of the era, it certainly makes a good subject on which to base a novel. Covert action, the manipulation of identity, voyeurism, paranoia, brainwashing: what more could you ask for? True, any official documents  concerning the program have long since disappeared, but that lack of  information means a writer can fill in the blanks and create a narrative around a subject that, in one way or another, continues to haunt the culture.

Which is exactly what Scott O'Connor does, extrapolating on how the MKULTRA program affected subjects as well as administrators, and anyone connected to either. In the end, this is a novel about identity, and how, with a bit of work, it can  be manipulated. It opens with Henry March driving cross country, from CIA headquarters to Oakland, with his wife, daughter and autistic son. In San Francisco, March and a  group of fellow agents hire prostitutes to entice men back to the apartments they have rented, where they drug their subjects and work on altering their personalities. It's brutal and time-consuming work. Unable to take the strain, Henry, a good example of Arendt's banality of evil,  eventually finds his own identity unravelling. Consequently, he  disappears from the program and his family, as well as from much of the novel. But even as a ghostly presence, Henry continues to affect others, including his wife, daughter, son, subjects such as a Philip K. Dick-like science fiction writer whose pulp novels contain descriptions of the program, and fellow undercover workers, the most prominent of which is an drug-addled CIA agent who attempts to infiltrate a group of political bank robbers.  All seem to be, on the one hand, struggling to find themselves, and, on the other, wondering about the man known as Henry March, wherever he might be. An interesting and, in its own way, important novel, Half World not only depicts the dark side of the drug culture- a kind of  Manchurian Candidate at street level- but works as a metaphor for the culture as whole, torn apart then as now by war, drugs and an economically divided society. I only wish there were more novels like this, i.e., not only about something, but with something to say.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Beyond the Surf: Chance by Kem Nunn

One of the few writers whose work I want to read as soon as it appears, Kem Nunn, with books like Tapping the Source, Dogs of Winter and Tijuana Straits, is best known as one of the foremost practitioners of what is loosely termed called surf-noir. Unlike his  fellow surf-noirist Don Winslow, Nunn has yet to write an epic novel like the incredible Power of the Dog, nor relies upon minimalist chapters or books that could just as easily be  screenplays. No, Nunn's novels are decidedly more conventional and more consistent affairs. Invariably intelligent, they also make for compulsive reading. But as good as his surf novels are, Nunn's latest, Chance, is, despite a flaw or two, a major step up. It's a truly scary book, beautifully written about obsession, power, and the vagaries of the human mind.

Set in San Francisco, the novel centres on neuropsychiatrist Chance, a high achiever from a wealthy family whose life seems to be collapsing around him.  He's about to be divorced, he's got problems with his daughter, and his practice has hit the skids,  most of his work deriving from his performances as an expert witness in court cases. To make matters worse, he falls for one of his few patients, a woman with multiple personalities, who happens to be married to a violent and corrupt cop. Chance needs help and has it thrust upon him in the form of an  overgrown psychopathic vigilante-type who never sleeps.

Chance is one of those noir anti-heroes, not dissimilar to the sort one might come across in a Jim Thompson novel. In other words, well meaning, helpless, marginal, and caught in a spiral over which he has less and less control. In fact, he's so marginal psychologically one wonders how he could have possibly qualified as a neuropsychiatrist. With dodgy ethics to boot, he definitely needs help, mostly for matters mental. The best one can say is that he is only human. Which means he allows his obsessions to get the better of him. And chooses his friends badly. Though at least he  has friends. And while everyone at one time or another fantasises about seeking retribution on those who deserve it, Chance, a normally mild person with a checkered past, does so by proxy, which only adds to his problems. 

After finishing the book, I couldn't help but wonder how Nunn's recent career as a TV writer for  shows like Sons of Anarchy, John From Cincinnati and Deadwood, might have influenced his writing of this particular novel. If it has influenced him, it's, on the whole, probably for the better.  His writing seems to have become more lyrical, tighter, with an even better sense of pacing and suspense.  But, on the other hand, it might also have had an adverse effect. While the novel builds to a strong, nail-biting climax, it's final few pages, once the dust has settled- here I don't to give anything away- reads like something of an add-on. If I'd been his editor, I would have asked him to cut those final few pages down or take them out altogether.  For me it seemed somewhat confusing, even unnecessary, particularly if one takes into account the fireworks that precede it. Sure, it could be that I read those last  pages late at night, unable to put the book down, wanting to finish it so badly that reading it was practically making my eyes bleed. But that final page could even be interpreted as Nunn pitching for a sequel. That might work for a TV series but not for a novel. I could be wrong, but that's how it  felt to me in what is  otherwise an excellent novel. Of course, the ending could just as easily mean that Chance's obsessions are about to be recycled. In which case, the novel is more subtle than I'm giving it credit for. I wouldn't put it past Nunn. But, then, you can read it and decide for yourself.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier

It's been some thirty years since the French edition of Philippe Garnier's groundbreaking book David Goodis: La Vie en Noir et Blanc first appeared. Finally, thanks to noir supremo Eddie Muller, we have an English edition, translated by Garnier himself. But to say it's a strict translation of the original would be somewhat misleading. Because Garnier has made more than a few alterations, adapting it for an American readership, which means he's added some bits and taken away others. Nevertheless, the essential information remains intact; likewise,  the function and drift of Garnier's narrative.  

Personally, I'm somewhat partial to the original edition, which I came across in the mid-1980s thanks to my late friend Mike Hart, then working at Compendium Books in Camden Town, who told me about the book.  So on my next trip to Paris  I bought a copy, although  at the time I couldn't speak or read a word of French. The woman at the small Left Bank book shop asked me why on earth I was buying the book if I didn't know the language. I simply told her it was for a friend.

In fact, it was Garnier's book and a handful of others- Mesplede and Schleret's Les Auteurs de la Serie Noire- Voyage au bout de la Noire, novels by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Claude Izzo, and magazines like Polar, Folk and Rock, Les Inrockutibles and Cahier du Cinema- that prompted me to learn French. Looking back, reading that original edition was like entering a secret world, known only to the inhabitants of the book.  What I also liked, and still like, about the book is it's refusal to conform to the dictates of what constitutes a biography. Instead, it's as much about the author's investigation, as he tries to locate the cultural remains of a writer who, up to that point, has proved elusive and close to being forgotten. In true noir fashion, Garnier hits the road, digging through archives, traipsing through the streets of Philadelphia, tracking down anyone who knew the man. Typically for Garnier, there's no shortage of information, even if some of it might at first glance seem tangential. Which, for me, makes his subject all the more interesting, though it no doubt infuriates anyone seeking a more conventional biography. It's those tangents that I've always enjoyed in Garnier's writing, here illustrated by an assortment of side trips, be it his short history of Gallimard's Serie Noire imprint or memos written by producer Jerry Wald regarding the film The Unfaithful and the never to be filmed Up Till Now, both of which Goodis worked on, albeit with varying degrees of intensity and commitment.

Writing for an American audience also allows Garnier the opportunity to set the record straight and settle some old scores. For one thing, he does his best to debunk some time-honoured myths regarding his native country's over-the-top adulation of Goodis, as well as other noirists, the more neglected and purportedly dissipated the better. Conversely, Garnier pricks the myth to which some Americans still desperately cling regarding  France as the ultimate arbiter of hardboiled tastes. Of course, only a sometimes cranky Frenchman living in America could get away with it. And well that he does, because it  allows him to give us the lowdown on Serie Noire's eccentric editorial policy- cutting novels to a specific length, insisting on a uniform style and vocabulary, title changes, etc.- and to  make light of the French obsession with pulp fiction in general. But Garnier doesn't there. He also has an understandable a moan about those who, over the years, have purloined his work, often without citing the source. Not quite cricket, but I suppose it goes with the territory. After all, his book has always been one of the only sources on Goodis. And to drive his point home, Garnier has a further dig at armchair Goodis pundits, maintaining that few if any have bothered to follow up on his work or gone to the sources he visited all those years ago.  

As Garnier points out, when the book appeared in France not a single Goodis novel was in print in the U.S.. Still, one can't help wonder what would have been the result had this edition appeared in the early 1990s, around the time Black Lizard and Zomba were reprinting Goodis's novels. As perhaps the first book on a noirist written by someone from a  new generation of readers, publishers at the time were hesitant, apparently unappreciative of not only the book's subject but its approach.  I remember a highly regarded independent publisher who'd been offered Garnier's book telling me some fifteen years ago that he turned the book down because  it was more about Garnier than Goodis. Of course, my estimation of that publisher took an immediate nose-dive. But the book does rely on the author's intervention, but, for me, that only adds to its flavour. In a sense, the book's style bears some relationship to so-called gonzo journalists, not so much by Hunter Thompson as Garnier's late friend  Grover Lewis (see Garnier's 2009 Freelance: Grover Lewis a Rolling Stone, published by Grasset), a writer who, like Garnier, like to place himself on the margins of his stories, and willing to go wherever the story might lead him.

In managing to capture the story behind story, Garnier skilfully provides a context, if not all the details of Goodis's life.  In fact,  most of what informed punters know about Goodis- from his work to  his dilapidated car, his troubled brother, his eccentric personality, or his penchant for large black women- derives from  Garnier's book. After thirty years, A Life in Black and White remains essential reading and, along with Polito on Thompson, Sallis on Himes, Freeman on Chandler, one of the best studies yet of a hardboiled writer.