Sunday, March 04, 2018

Through a Lens Darkly: Gene Smith's Sink- A Wide-Angle View by Sam Stephenson

Most people have no doubt seen Eugene Smith's incredible photographs. If only because, from the 1950s onwards, his work has made the rounds and then some. More than that, Smith, over the years, has become something of a legendary figure, perhaps even something of an urban legend, known as much for his private recordings, specifically jazz jam sessions held at his Sixth Avenue New York loft as for his photographs. Recordings  that many know about but not all that many have heard. However, by the time Smith had established residence in his  loft and on his way to becoming that eccentric New York figure, he had already secured his reputation as one of Life magazine's preeminent photographers, arguably the creator of the photo-essay, and Magnum member.

I was attracted by Sam Stephenson's  Gene Smith Sink- A Wide-Angle View (Farrar Strauss & Giroux) because I wanted to see what it had to say about those who frequented Smith's Sixth Avenue  loft during fourteen year tenure, from 1957 to 1971. It was during that time that Smith turned the place into something of an open house to musicians, junkies, pimps, prostitutes, fellow photographers,  assistants, and an array of interesting characters, from street people to the likes of Norman Mailer, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. Musicians like Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk, Sonny Clark, Chick Corea, Lee Konitz, Freddie Redd, Paul Bley, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans and even Steve Reich used the loft to  practice, jam and hang-out. For some it was a place of refuge, while for others it functioned as little more than a shooting gallery. Perhaps something akin to the set for Jack Gelber's The Connection, but on a grand and more cluttered scale. Most famously, Monk, along with loft resident Hall Overton used the space to rehearse Monk's  famous Town Hall concert. As the various interviews in Stephenson's book aptly illustrate,  Smith,  his tape machines running day and night, was a compulsive, even possessed, collector of stuff, from photographs and photographic equipment to music of all kinds, as well as pre-recorded historical texts, poetry and plays, not to mention ambient sounds consisting of pretty much anything that caught Smith's fancy.

Sonny Clark
Stephenson, with two previous books on Smith under his belt-  Dream Street- W Eugene Smith and the Pittsburgh Project and The Jazz Loft Project- Photographs and Tapes from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965- here  extends his wide-angle view to those who knew  the  often amphetamine-fuelled Smith, or, if not, those who knew someone who knew Smith.  In fact, Stephenson claims to have spoken to some one thousand individuals over a twenty year period. Of course, a good many of those who hung out at the loft are no longer with us, such as the great jazz pianist Sonny Clark, who spent much of his heroin-filled time  in New York in and around Smith's seedy and cluttered Sixth Avenue residence. For me, the Clark chapter  is particularly welcome since  there's very little  biographical information out there on the pianist (which begs the question regarding why no one has yet written a biography of Clark?). Stephenson, also clearly a Clark fan,  paints a vivid portrait of the musician. Though many others people pop up in the book, for me the chapter on Clark as well as the interview with drummer Ronnie Free, best known for his work with Mose Allison, and the artist Mary Frank, alone make the book worth reading.

Add caption
Perhaps the most surprising discovery in the book was Smith's early friendship with film-maker Stan Brakhage, the two having met one another in  Geneva in 1958. A seemingly incongruous friendship given the dispositions and pursuits of both men. But, given their dedication to their respective art forms, one can see why they might be friends. After all, both had a particular attitude regarding  their art, and fought to exert control over their work. Which meant working against the prevailing system. In in Brakhage's case,  the perils and pressure facing independent film-makers, and, for the photo-journalist Smith, fighting  Life magazine's hegemony, even though he had given that publication some of its most memorable work. There is also, of course, a Pittsburgh connection: Brakhage went there to film his Pittsburgh Trilogy (Eyes, Deux Ex, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes), which could be interpreted as something of an homage to Smith, who a decade earlier had travelled to that city to shoot his famous Pittsburgh Project.

Hardly your usual biography, Gene Smith's Sink...surrounds and expands on its subject.   Though Stephenson sometimes lets his interviewees go slightly off-piste, he makes sure they eventually return to the subject at hand.  For me, there was a surprise in every chapter, with  the common denominator being that Smith, no matter how demanding, seems to have affected the life of just about everyone with whom he came in contact.

Smith died in 1978, not yet 60 years old, shortly after the contents of his loft had been transferred to the University of Arizona, where photographs, recorded material, assorted papers, etc., spilled forth from the school's  gymnasium. Not only is Gene Smith's Sink... a biographical testimony to one of the great photographers of the twentieth century, but, painstakingly put together, it stands as a cultural artifact for  anyone interested in photography, music, recorded sound, or New York during a time of great cultural activity.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

I remember therefore I am: Memory by Donald Westlake

I can't believe there are still some readers out there who have never had the pleasure of reading a Donald Westlake novel. A man of multiple pseudonyms- at least seventeen by my count-  Westlake (1933-2008) had a writing career that lasted some fifty years. It's hard to say exactly how many novels he wrote. Most likely over a hundred, while some twenty-five of his novels have been adapted for the screen. Then there are his screenplays, not least of which is his adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Grifters, directed by Stephen Frears in 1990 (not to mention his screenplay for Dick Spottswood's 2005 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Ground).

Most hardcore crime readers would no doubt favour Westlake's novels written under the name Richard Stark. For no other reason than those books mark the  essence of modern stripped-down, fast-moving tough-guy crime fiction in the tradition of  Paul Cain and Hammett. I suppose if Westlake is known for one book it would probably be The Hunter, if only  because that's the novel on which John Boorman based his 1967 film Point Blank. As excellent as Boorman's film is, it differs  considerably from the novel.

Then there are all those  Westlake comic crime novels featuring  John Archibald Dortmunder ("My own worst fears when I get up in the morning," said Westlake regarding his creation. "He's everything that can go wrong."). An unlucky criminal genius, Dortmunder first appeared in the 1970 Hot Rock, which began as a Richard Stark novel, but Westlake realised the novel, concerning someone who commits the same crime over and over again,  was moving away from the hardboiled style of the Parker novels. With his eccentric concept of criminality, Dortmunder would go on to feature in more than a dozen novels.

Other than the Stark novels, my personal favourite Westlake books are what I call his "social" novels, like  The Ax, The Hook and his final novel Memory, published posthumously by Hard Case Crime in 2010. Not that other Westlake novels lack a social dimension;  in fact, they are all subtly political regarding the way they expose society's fissures and failures. For instance,  the Stark novels, in which Parker, ever the individualist, battles against organized crime, in other words corporate capitalism.  But, for me, Westlake's "social" novels are more explicit in their critique and commentary, whether concerning, as in The Ax,  someone who finds himself unemployed, and so, to maintain his life style, sets out to murder anyone competing for the job he's after. Or, as in The Hook,  about a successful novelist who has come down with a case of writer's block, so, to once again keep up his life style and help pay off his divorce, hires a hack writer,  to write his next novel, which turns out to be a success. Which means even though the two writers will split the money, the hack writer, as part of the deal, and in what could be viewed as an updating of Highsmith's Strangers On a Train, has to the other man's divorce-seeking wife.

Likewise,  Westlake's final and posthumously published  (Hard Case Crime) novel, Memory, which I only came across recently. It's a novel full of surprises in which Westlake moves from  the social to the margins of philosophical speculation, as he examines the relationship between memory and identity. Writer Luc Sante has called this novel "hardboiled Kafka," and he's not far off the mark. Not without humour and never stretching credulity beyond breaking point, Memory recalls one of Westlake's earliest (technically his second novel, if one discounts earlier soft-core porn efforts), Killy, about a couple union organizers called into  a company town, only to be implicated in murder, although Memory is a more mature and well-rounded novel.  And, as usual, Westlake rarely wastes a word.

It's a novel centered on Paul Cole, a New York actor in a traveling  theater group working in a middle-American small town. There he has a one-night stand with a woman whose husband discovers them together and hits Paul on the head with a chair- "What a cliché," acknowledges Paul-  rendering him unconscious. He awakes in a hospital with amnesia. The doctors assure that his condition is temporary. However, the authorities make it clear that someone with such loose morals is not welcome in their town, so accompany him to the bus station where Paul gets a ticket as far as  his money will take him. Not to New York but to another small town where he finds work in a tannery. He more or less settles into life there, has friends, including  a girlfriend, but, though he doesn't realize why, he knows he must return to New York. It's only when he finally arrives there that his real troubles begin.

I can't think of many novels that examine so closely  the relationship between identity and memory, as well as its various implications. After all, if  one's memory is wiped out, where does that leave the entire nature vs nurture debate?  And what remains of the person? What is the person other than his memories? And if one's circumstances dictate, to some extent,  one's personality,  can one, should amnesia strike (that Paul has partial amnesia only complicates matters), simply start over?  Longer than the usual Westlake/Stark novel, Memory might also be Westlake's most literary effort. "Literary" in the sense of mainstream fiction. Which isn't to say other Westlake novels are not literary; in fact, they are deceptively so, even if they are left to define  their own particular literariness. Moreover, Memory might also be Westlake's most personal novel, as it delves into a subject befitting someone moving into the last years of his life.

I admit that  I'm no expert when it comes to Westlake's fiction, but I can  say that  I've appreciated everything  I've ever read by him. And, if nothing else, Memory seems to be a fitting end to a long and perhaps under-appreciated career.  If you haven't read Westlake, Memory is as good a place as any to start. And if you have read him, you won't want to miss this novel. Certainly, if you are interested in Westlake, you might want to check out Scott Bradfield's recent article in the LA Review of Books.  Then there's a comprehensive look at Westlake's writing career by the excellent pianist and noir aficionado Ethan Iverson. And for ephemera, there's Westlake's essential Getaway Car, not to mention the official Donald Westlake website, complete with bibliography, interviews, multimedia, etc..

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Noir Graphic Novel: Alison Gaylin and Megan Abbott's Normandy Gold

A not-so-guilty pleasure over the past year or so has been my discovery- I know, some will say what took you so long- of noir graphic novels. Easy to read, engaging, and an ideal medium for those interested in seeking out that intersection where noir fiction and film meet.  And these days there's no shortage of them out there. Of course,  I have my favourites. At the top of the list is still  the four  Parker books by Darwyn Cooke- Slayground, The Outfit, The Hunter, The Score (IDW Publications). Though that's not surprising since those Westlake/Stark novels on which they're based happen to be amongst my favourites as well. Then there's Graham Chafee's To Have and To Hold (Fantagraphics), as well as the series by Brubaker and Phillips's Fade Out (Image), and The Graphic Canon of Crime & Mystery (Seven Stories), a comprehensive anthology put together by Russ Kick, featuring an assortment of artists.

I can add to that list the recent Normandy Gold (Hard Case Crime/Titan), a  collaborative effort by novelists, Allison Gaylin and Megan Abbott, with artwork by Steve Scott, Lovern Kindzierski and Rodney Ramos. Out in April- until then you can read most of it in instalments- Normandy Gold might not be as visually arresting and innovative as some of the above, at least when  it comes to framing and editing, but whatever it might lack  in that department, it makes up for in  narrative drive, made all the more effective by the use of what amounts to a voice-over that works contrapuntally to the story-line.

Normandy Gold (is she Jewish or is her surname simply  a reference to her obvious bling?) is an independent, long-legged eye-stopper of a woman. Not only tough as nails, she does little if anything to make herself likeable. Her sole  concern is to find her sister's killer, and to mete out whatever rough justice might be necessary. At the same time, her permanent rage and self-destructive streak leads her to some dark and dangerous situations. It's no coincidence that Normandy reminds the reader as someone like Westlake/Stark's Parker. With a series of 1970s films in mind, not just Point Blank but the Parallax View and the Conversation in mind, one isn't surprised to find lines ranging from "Nobody's innocent here" to "What if we're not real? What if well just characters on a TV show?"

Moreover, Normandy Gold is a throwback to an era in which porn- hard-core, soft-core and anything in-between- seemed to be  entering mainstream, pre-AIDS, culture.  In that sense, one could view Normandy Gold as an off-shoot of David Simon's HBO series The Deuce, to which Abbott was a major contributor. But since I haven't seen The Deuce, I'm unable to say how deep that connection runs or even if it really exists. One obvious difference is that Normandy Gold is clearly aimed at young women in search of a raunchy, kick-ass female protagonist. Not much precedent for that other than in various various underground comics, with a nod of course to their predecessors in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the sort that came under attack by those obsessed with commies using the medium to corrupt  the youth of America (Anyone interested in what might be the origins of the genre might seek out the opening chapter on Dick Tracy in critic Donald Phelps's excellent Reading the Funnies).

Of course, Normandy Gold isn't  the only noir bande desinee in Hard Case Crime/Titan's locker. They've also recently published Peepland by hard- boilers Christa Faust and Gary Phillips, an incongruous but effective pairing, with excellent artwork by Andrea Camerini. Then there's the even more visually arresting Matz/Walter Hill collaboration Triggerman and The Assignment with art work by Jef, as well as Max Allan Collins and Szymon Kudranski's Quarry's War. All of them subversive in their own right.

And all illustrative of just effective the graphic novel can be when it comes to visualising a genre already reliant on a sharp camera-eye, minimal exposition and sparse dialogue. Add to that concerns about texture, imagery, editing and story-line, and the result if perhaps the ultimate visualisation, not to mention democratisation, of the genre. All of which allows the reader to  glide through its pages, moving from image to dialogue to image in a roller coaster ride down an assortment of thoroughfares formerly the province of pure text or the screen.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Favourite Books of 2017: Noir, Music and Poetry

Favourite Noir (or Noir-related) Fiction of 2017

-Dance of the Infidels by Wesley Brown (Concord ePress). Excellent  and evocative collection of stories about jazz, set mostly in the 1940s, and those who love it. See my review.

-Never Say No to a Killer by Clifton Adams (Stark House Press). Fatal attraction in a roadside filling station/motel. In the tradition of Cain and Thompson. Did crime and western pulpster Adams ever pen a bad novel?

-Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith (No Exit). More southern noir from another great Mississippi writer.  Reminiscent of Larry Brown at his best.

-Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson (Blue Rider Press). An  antidote to our current nightmare, as Erickson's protagonists ride America's back roads, findf the Twin Towers in the middle of nowhere, while listening to old-school playlists. See my review.

-Winter Warning by Jerome Charyn (Pegasus). All I can says is he who tires of Isaac Sidel tires of noir fiction.

-Crimes of Winter by Philippe Georget (Europa). For me, anything set in Perpignan- with its cultural mix- has to be interesting, and Georget, with local cop Inspector Sebag,  is equal to the task. Makes me pine for one of my favourite cities.

-The Long Drop by Denise Mina (Harvill). As dark as any of Mina's books. Based on an actual crime. Read it and immerse yourself in 1950s Glasgow.

-Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine (Open Letter, Jeffrey Zuckerman trans). Recalls Tarkovsky's films in a post-Soviet Union/post-nuclear, Beckett-like landscape. Part sci-fi, part magic realism, part futurist noir...

-The Evenings: A Winter's Tale by Gerard Reve (Pushkin Press, Sam Garrett trans). This odd, darkly humorous  Dutch classic- early slacker-lit- is a half century old but as interesting as ever. See my review.

-A Legacy of Spies by John LeCarré (Viking). Back on form with an addendum to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.

-Suburra by Carlo Bonini, Giancarlo De Cataldo (Europa, Antony Shugaar trans). Haven't seen TV adaptation, but this is a novel that presents contemporary Italy in all its corrupt glory.

-Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel byThomas H. Cook (Quercus). Cook visits an assortment of dark sites of genocide, murder, massacre and mayhem. Not as depressing as the title indicates. For anyone loves Cook's fiction.

-Chester Himes: a Biography by Lawrence P. Jackson (Norton). For Himes obsessives, meticulously researched and well-written, depicting Himes as he has never before. Particularly interesting when it comes to his politics.

-Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals by Rick Ollerman (Stark House), a collection of his excellent and informative introductions, essays, reviews, etc..

-Getting Carter, Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir by Nick Triplow (No Exit). One might argue the subtitle's claim, but there's no denying Lewis's importance. Particularly enlightening is the early section on life in and around Hull.

-Krazy: George Herriman- a Life in Black and White by Michael Tisserand (Harper). For anyone who loves Krazy Kat. Well-researched and constantly revealing.

-To Laugh That We May Not Weep: The Life and Times of Art Young  by Glen Bray, Frank Young (Fantagraphics). Not really noir, but not far off.  Masses cartoonist Art Young is a legend and a genuine American radical. Informative, instructive and beautifully presented.

-To Have and To Hold by Graham Chaffee (Fantagraphics). A noir graphic novel up there with Darwyn Cooke's extraordinary adaptations of Westlake's Parker novels. See my review.

-Going Down Slow by John Harvey (Five Leaves). Excellent jazz-tinged stories from the creator of Resnick and Jack Kiley. Read them and then go back to Harvey's novels.

-My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics). No doubt everyone's graphic novel of the year. And for me, Ferris sets a new standard. Graphic fiction at its best. Beautifully drawn, scary and soulful.

Favourite two books on Film Noir, neither published in 2017:

-Jean Pierre Melville An American in Paris by Ginette Vincendeau (BFI). Published in 2003. Pretty much everything you wanted to know about Melville, plus an analysis of his films.

-In Lonely Place- Film Noir Beyond the City by Imogen Sara Smith  (McFarland). With her Criterion and Noir City essays, Smith is fast becoming one of my favourite writers on film noir. Published in 2011, but reads like it could have been written yesterday.

Favourite music books of 2017:

-The Art of the Blues by Bill Dahl (University of Chicago). The ultimate blues coffee table book. Lovingly done. Though should have been titled The Art of the Blues and Early Jazz. See my review.

-Blues Unlimited by Bill Greensmith, Mark Cararigg, Mike Rowe (University of Illinois). For fans of the British magazine, and for those who missed it. See same review as above.

-Free Jazz, Harmolodics and Ornette Coleman by Stephen Rush (Routledge). If you love Ornette's music but want to know what his harmolodics was about, then read this fascinating book to find out. Or, at any rate, that's the idea.

-Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music by Ben Ratliff (Penguin). A proactive book that spans numerous genres by critic and author of excellent books on jazz, including one on John Coltrane.

-Ed Pavlic, Who Can Afford to Improvise- James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners. Baldwin and music: about time someone wrote about the connection.

Ten Favourite Poetry (and Poetry-related) Books of 2017

Ghosts by Sean Bonney (Materials). My poetry book of the year. Politically radical. Poetically dangerous. Bonney rips apart any notion of poetry as a middle-class pursuit.

 In Darkest Capital by Drew Milne (Carcanet). Marxist lichenite. Full of Raworthian possibility.

Clark Coolidge, Selected Poems, 1962-1985 (Station Hill). Coolidge,  a jazzman, has an inscrutable ear. I'd read anything by him. Likewise, his compadre Michael Gizzi whose book came out a couple years ago, but which, like basement tapes Dylan crossed with Coolidge, show no sign of becoming any less relevant.

Calligraphy Typewriters by Larry Eigner  (University of Alabama). A large dose of selected poetry from someone who was not only incredibly prolific but rich in his vision of the world.

Gravity as a Consequence of Fate by Allan Fisher (Reality Street). Fisher continues his Olsonian investigation of the local as it moves from substructure outwards.

Barry McSweeney and the Politics of Post-War British Poetry by Luke Roberts (Palgrave). McSweeney, for me a major British poet, certainly merits a book that delves into his work. And Luke Roberts is up to the task.

Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angulo and Pacific Coast Culture by Andrew Schelling (Counterpoint). A poet's take on the poet/ethnographer and mythic Bay area personality of the 1940s and 50s Jaime de Angulo.

Late Modernism and The English Intelligencer by Alex Latter  (Bloomsbury Academic). Documents one of the most important periods of British poetry, the very short-lived English Intelligencer, and a essential companion to Pattison, Pattison and Roberts's Certain Prose of a few years aback.

Love, H. by Hettie Jones, Helene Dorn (Duke University). Two women connected to two formidable poets- LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn exchange letters over the years which demonstrate the richness of their lives with and without their ex-husbands.

Letters- Prynne/Olson by J.H. Prynne and Charles Olson  (University of New Mexico). Not easy reading but essential for anyone interested in cross-Atlantic poetry currents of the 20th century.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Behind the Writing Days of Smoke

Days of Smoke, my latest novel from Concord ePress, takes place in Los Angeles and San Francisco in that  notorious year 1968.  Though it's a half-century in the past, 1968 remains a year in which, for a brief moment, political change seemed almost possible. But it was also a year in which the media and other commercial and corporate concerns, sensing that cultural drift and the market it could create, began in earnest to co-opt the so-called counter culture, to profit from it and so neutralise any radical edge it might have once possessed.

While young people were protesting against the Vietnam war,  living communally and experimenting with drugs, their ersatz lookalikes were suddenly popping  up on billboards and TV, advertising products ranging form Levi jeans to Volkswagens. It wasn't uncommon for record company executives, now sporting sideburns and hair below their collars,  to throw relatively large sums of money at any rock band with a catchy name. Even politicians, to pursue votes by appearing  in step with the era, were deploying words and phrases previously the exclusive province of  students, dope smokers, acid heads and civil rights activists.  As for the opposition, it was a year in which post-Goldwater Republicans, fearing their ability to regain power might be slipping away in this  apparent cultural shift, realised the empire needed to strike back, so began to put together a long-term strategy, perhaps best articulated in the Powell Memo of 1973, a strategy that would bear fruit a decade later.        

No doubt about it, 1968 witnessed some earth-shaking events. Not only was the war  intensifying, but, at home, assassinations were becoming all too common. In April,  Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, leading to disturbances in a number of American cities. In June,  Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. Both deaths would affect the political landscape at the time and for years to come. Add to that the rise of the Black Panthers and student uprisings not only in America but around the world, not to mention the police riots that summer  at the Democratic convention in Chicago, which set helped the stage for the election of Richard Nixon that November. 

Even though the Summer of Love had come and gone, young people still flocked to Haight Street in San Francisco and the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, seeking that previously forbidden elixir of drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll. Yet the pollyannaish optimism of the previous year  was already draining away, replaced by hardened, street-level attitudes and confrontations. There was, to quote Dylan, music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air, but with the Panthers, Yippies and Diggers pushing for political change, slogans like Make love, not war, and Turn on, Tune in and Drop out, were discarded in favour of in-your-face declarations like Off the Pig, Free Huey, Bring the War Home and Eldridge For President. As for those polymorphously perverse streets, they were now populated by drug casualties, dealers, homeless teenagers, disgruntled black youths, vets bearing the mental scars of the war,  sexual predators, charlatans, bikers and lumpen weekenders.

It’s this side of 1968 that Days of Smoke attempts to recapture. In a sense, the year itself  could even be said to be the protagonist of the novel. At least in so far as how the forces at work in that year impinge on the novel’s two main characters, Mike Howard and Connie Myles as they make their way through the wreckage, moving from Pasadena to San Francisco, on the run from the law while, at the same time, negotiating what has become an increasingly paranoid existence. 

Anyone familiar with my previous novel, Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, might remember a ten year old Mike Howard. In Days of Smoke, he’s nineteen and a reticent but accomplished musician who washes dishes and sometimes plays music at The Copper Kettle, a Los Angeles coffee house and music venue, based on L.A.’s one-time home of traditional music and political meeting place, the Ash Grove. To avoid the draft and ending up in Vietnam, Mike has declared himself a conscientious objector. As the novel opens, he is hoping to convince his draft board that he's  a pacifist, even though he's not sure the  term is really applicable in his case. It’s at the draft board office that he comes across Connie, employed there as a secretary despite hating the war, not to mention her co-workers. Mike has no way of knowing that on the evening of his appearance at the draft board, Connie will take his file home and burn it. Meanwhile Mike, seeking to forget what went on earlier in the day, spends the evening consuming a cocktail of vodka and marijuana, before passing out, waking up to find his beloved Kettle has been set alight.

Though Days of Smoke seems to revolve around Mike, it’s Connie’s novel. And it’s the real Connie to whom the book is dedicated. If for no other reason than the Connie-of-the-novel is how I imagined the young secretary I happened to encounter at the Pasadena draft board where I appeared in that same year to argue my case to become a conscientious objector. Some months later, awaiting the draft board’s decision- one I would never receive- I came across a news item in the local paper to the effect that a young woman working at the draft board had been arrested for destroying draft files. 

It happened so long ago I sometimes wonder if I just imagined it all.Which wouldn't have been surprising considering that particular time and place. After all, back then a very thin line separated the imaginary from the real.  Which was the case on a personal as well as political- "all power to the imagination"- level. Of course, that meant, on the one hand, anything might be possible, while, on the other hand, it led to a certain naivete regarding society's ability to subsume anything that might threaten its stability.  

Days of Smoke attempts to depict some of that year's events, not least of which  the assassination of Robert Kennedy, as well as issues that were discussed at the time, such as what kind of change might be possible, how best to achieve it in a consumer-driven culture. Fortunately, the novel’s misguided militant group Hard Rain is entirely fictitious, though at the time there was no shortage of similar political groups and communes, invariably led by some charismatic charlatan, Charles Manson being just one of many, prepared to take their acolytes to the brink. All, of course, to a soundtrack of the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Otis and Sly, their words parsed within a haze of marijuana smoke resulting in an array of political possibilities, some good, some bad, and some extremely ugly.  

As the title implies, there seemed to be  smoke everywhere, in the form of a pre-revolutionary joint, post-coital cigarette, the fog and smog, as well as that which accompanied arson, incendiary devices and police tear gas. Not to mention all the smoke America created in Vietnam by bombs, napalm or defoliants. To see through all that  smoke could partly be what Days of Smoke is about. And it could even be said the book itself exists in its own kind of haze: part fin d’epoch novel, part noir coming-of-age novel. Though Days of Smoke depicts the dark side and paranoia of 1968, it hopefully  also recalls the passion, idealism, politics and naivete of that particular time.  The cliché is if you remember the sixties you weren’t there. Although it was fifty years ago, I was there, and remember what went on all too well. Which is not to say that it doesn't at times seem like a dream. But a dream that, despite its nightmarish side, and for the sake of the courageous few, who, like the real Connie, put themselves on the line, should not be forgotten.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Adapting Elmore Leonard