A weblog dedicated to noir fiction and film, music, poetry and politics.
Friday, December 25, 2009
One more to be added to my favorites for 2009: Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper. Hilarious, weirdly informative, deliciously perverse, but not for the squeamish.
I don't know how I missed this one when it came out a while back. But I finally got around to reading it a couple months ago, and intended to write about it along with McDonald's forthcoming Print the Legend. But since it doesn't look like I'm going to get to the latter until after the new year, I thought I'd address this, McDonald's second novel, sooner rather than later. Toros & Torsos, published by Bleak House in 2008, is a book that, in its scope and politics, I've come to greatly admire. At a time when, aside from the likes of Ellroy, most crime fiction has become increasingly localized, Toros & Torsos moves from Florida to Cuba to Spain to the US, and, spanning three decades, from the 1930s to the 1950s, depicts such personages as Hemingway, Dos Passos, John Huston, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, etc.. In doing this, Toros & Torsos is able to take into account many of the social forces that inform mid century America, from modernism to surrealism, anti-fascism to anti-communism. I had my doubts about McDonald being able to carry this off, but he does and it was only a matter of a few pages before I had fallen under the novel's spell.
McDonald has definitely done his research when it comes to surrealism, the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway and his circle, as well as the group surrounding Man Ray and John Huston that Steven Hodel writes about in Black Dahlia Avenger. I've always been dubious about Hodel's book, though enough of it is probably true for it to be disturbing and effective fodder for a novel. Likewise, McDonald's account of rumors about surrealist torture chambers during the Spanish Civil War, were based on reports- the one I read appeared in the Guardian- whose source has since turned out to be somewhat dubious. Nevertheless, it makes for interesting speculation and fits nicely into the confines of McDonald's novel. It also helps of course that McDonald's protagonist, Hector Lassiter, a pulp crime novelist "who writes what he lives and lives what he lives," is a fairly complex person, whose outlook, partly noble and partly distorted, fit nicely into the eras described. Meanwhile, McDonald's depiction of Hemingway- here suitably egocentric, overblown, brilliant, childish, obsessive, irrepressible- is sufficiently ambivalent and complex to be interesting, the implication being that in some way he personifies America during that period and beyond. By portraying Hemingway and Hector Lassiter, warts and all, Toros & Torsos, from the novel's opening scene to its denouement, critiques the effect of masculine values on the culture, and examines the relationship between reality and ficiton. And by looking at the sexual politics of surrealism, McDonald addresses the nature of metaphor. And don't think surrealist murders are simply the stuff of urban legend. In the part of the world where I'm currently living, near Perpignan, there were a handful of such murders a few years back, the corpses of which supposedly replicated paintings by Dali. Toros & Torsos illustrates that McDonald can handle complex material and on the basis of this one book, has become, along with Megan Abbott, one of the more interesting crime writers to have emerged over the past couple years.
More about McDonald's Print the Legend in the new year.
I'm currently engrossed in Jonathan Lethem's hilarious, perceptive and beautifully written paean to contemporary New York culture, Chronic City. I've long been an avid reader of Lethem's work and always look forward to his next book. For me, Chronic City is a return to form after the somewhat disappointing You Don't Love Me. But I was interested in hearing on WNYC's Soundcheck with Lethem and Kevin Avery that the protagonist of Chronic City was loosely based on the late, but sorely missed critic Paul Nelson. Not physically, but intellectually. That is, as someone that is, above all else, engaged with the culture. As I've written before, my interest in Nelson goes back to the Little Sandy Review in the early 1960s, when he, along with fellow editor, Jon Pancake, became one of my favorite music writers. Once Nelson moved to New York, I more or less lost contact with many of his activities, while I was more into the likes of Grover Lewis. Still, whenever I came across liner notes or articles by Nelson, I read them with interest. Nevertheless, I could easily identify with Nelson's obsession with film noir, Orson Welles, Philip K. Dick and Ross Macdonald. So I'm looking forward to Avery's forthcoming biography of Nelson, Everything is an Afterthought. For anyone interested in Nelson, and the world around him, and you read French, you could do worse than have a look at Philippe Garnier's Freelance: Grover Lewis a Rolling Stone. If you don't read French, try the University of Texas's Splendor in the Short Grass. Lewis was every bit Nelson's equal, with some of the same interests, and, of course, like Nelson, and a major influence on any number of subsequent rock and film critics.
The great Googie Withers in Night and the City, directed by Jules Dassin in 1950. With Richard Widmark, Herbert Lom, Gene Tierney, etc.. An underrated film, but which still does not do justice to Gerald Kersh's great novel. Now if only someone would adapt Fowler's End or Prelude to an Uncertain Midnight.
But there is still time to read this extraordinary writer:
Enduring (2009) Farther Along (2008) The Pitcher Shower (2005) With (2003) Thirteen Albatrosses (or, Falling off the Mountain) (2002) When Angels Rest (1998) Butterfly Weed (1996) Ekaterina (1993) The Choiring of the Trees (1991) The Cockroaches of Stay More (1989) The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (1975) Some other Place. The Right Place. (1972) Lightning Bug (1970) The Cherry Pit (1965)
Let Us Build Us a City: Eleven Lost Towns (1986)
For an excellent overview of Harrington's work, have a look at this Boston Globe article by James Sallis published a few years ago.
Black Water Rising sounds like it could be the name of a blues number sung by Bessie Smith or Memphis Minnie. And, in its own way, Locke's book is a kind of blues for the generation that came of age, as Locke's parents did, during the days of the civil rights and black power movements, and had to contend with its aftermath. Set in Houston during the Reagan era, it's about the onset of free market economics, the fracturing of unions through divide and rule resulting in their loss of power, the rise of oil as a dominating force, and the creation of a new, more mature politics. Locke's protagonist is Jay, a disillusioned, former activist, now a two-bit lawyer with a wife, a minister's daughter, about to have a baby. Consequently, the demands of family life and the church mitigate Jay's attempts to go his own way, which he does until he can no longer stay on the outside and must join the fight which means coming to terms with his past. These might be old tropes, but they work well here, as former friends from the movement and the community, including his former girlfriend who is now mayor, want him to intercede on their behalf. Just one small point of contention in what is one of the best crime novels of the year: the plot point on which the novel turns is a scene in which the college chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, led by his former girlfriend, hijacks a rally held by black activists, led by Jay. Now maybe things like that happened in Houston, but at San Francisco State and Berkeley where I happened to be during that time, it would have been unimaginable for SDS or any other predominantly white political organization to hijack a rally held by the Panthers, the Black Students Union, or the Black Power movement. Groups like SDS were too much in awe of black groups, and even intimidated by African-American groups to pull a stunt like that. But, okay, after a brief spell saying "this just wouldn't have happened," I suspended any disbelief and allowed the narrative to take me where it was going. Needless to say, I enjoyed the ride. This is an interesting and important novel, and I'm already looking forward to Locke's next book.
History is made by the vanquishers, while the vanquished are left to struggle for their stories to be told. Manituana by the Wu Ming collective concerns Native Americans, specifically the Six Nations of the Iroquois before and during the American war of independence. Celebrating their tragic role during that period, Manituana depicts a people thrown into a cauldron of violence of a kind that might make Cormac McCarthy gasp. Concerning real personages, their story and struggle, it also says a lot about the roots of American colonialism. Wu Ming relates the Iroqois' belief that they were better off serving the King than the colonists- better one King two thousand miles away than 2000 kings a mile away- so certain were they that the latter would steal their land. But this is no heroic tale in reverse. Manituana contains no real heroes, but a situation in which everyone is compromised, and ultimately broken. This is an extraordinary novel, well-researched and heartbreaking, that has clear parallels with the war in Iraq, and the pitting of "good" Muslims against "bad" Muslims, just as Native Americans were used during the revolutionary period, only for the colonists to exploit and devastate both groups. Told in short chapters, it covers a lot of ground, but spans a mere ten years. As the hardest working collective in literature, Wu Ming, have produced a book that, for me, is better, if not more interesting, than Q, and, though not humorous, every bit, if not more, important than their lasting outing, 54. Though Manituana reads seamlessly, it does suffer somewhat from it being written collectively. Despite its intensity, good intentions and historical accuracy, its Brechtian picaresquesness means that it is difficult for the reader to identify with particular characters. But that's a minor criticism, because this book that isn't be missed.
Barbara Stanwyck was more versatile than she is often given credit for. Of course, there's Double Indemnity, and an assortment of noir outings, but I also like her pre-production code work. Not as vulnerable a presence as Gloria Grahame, but there is always the impression that below her tough exterior lurks someone more fragile, whose circumstances have coerced her to adopt one of her many masks.
Night Nurse, directed by William Wellman in 1931 Forbidden, directed by Frank Capra in 1932 Ladies of Leisure, directed by Frank Capra in 1930 Baby Face (trailer), directed by Alfred E. Green in 1933 The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (with Liz Scott), directed by Lewis Milestone in 1946 Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder in 1944
For those, like me, who missed last week's film festival in Lyon, here are clips from some of the rarely seen films that Eddie Muller and Philippe Garnier presented there. As often the case with clips like these, the picture quality is often less than desired.
The Prowler, directed by Joseph Losey, 1951
Woman on the Run, direcgted by Norman Foster, 1950
711 Ocean Drive, directed by Joe M. Newman, 1950
The Sniper, directed by Edward Dmytryk, 1952
If you haven't seen Thom Andersen's superb LA Plays Itself, you should make an effort to do so. At times it comes close to being the cinematic equivalent of Mike Davis's City of Quartz. Here are a couple of interesting scenes from the film that center on LA architecture in Hollywood movies.
Thieves Highway, or Thieves Market, is one of Bezzerides' finest novels. Here is the trailer for the film, directed by Dassin in 1949 with a script by Bezzerides.
Next: Elisha Cook Jr., the greatest and most recognizable of all film noir character actors. This is the weird and famous jazz band scene from Siodmak's 1944 Phantom Lady, adapted from Cornell Woolrich's novel.
Lee Horsley's The Noir Thriller (Palgrave, Macmillan) should be perused by all readers of noir fiction. It starts at the very beginning of the genre and manages to bring it all up to date with discussion of the likes of Megan Abbott, Sara Gran, Jason Starr, Charlie Stella, Jess Walters, etc.. Moreover, it does so in a stylish fashion. Particularly impressive are his delineations and ability to historicise into large but comprehensible categories. His chapter headings alone are indicative of this: Fatal Men; Fatal Women; Strangers and Outcasts; Players, Voyeurs and Consumers; Pasts and Futures, etc. Concentrating on the poetics and politics of noir fiction, The Noir Thriller might be a bit academic for some, but no one is going to go away from this book empty handed. There are very few omissions that I could find, as well as a handful of writers I've yet to read. So far one of the best books on the subject. Highly recommended.
Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter is about to be published with an introduction by George Pelecanos. See my September 8th, 2008 comments regarding this American classic.
3 Billie Holliday and Lester Young, The Man I Love
4 Lightnin' Hopkins, Don't Think Because You're Pretty
5 Lennie Tristano, Line Up
6 Little Walter, Mercy Baby
7 Bob Dylan, Cry a While
8 Rainer Ptacek, Time Slips Away
9 Mose Allison, That's All Right
10 Serge Chaloff, I've Got the World On a String
Also, anyone care to offer their opinion on a piece of music that best personifies noir. My vote goes to Frank Honeyboy Patt's Bloodstains on the Wall: "Sheets and pillows torn to pieces, bloodstains all over the wall/I know when I went out this morning, I didn't leave the phone out in the hall." Then, "Better come clean baby, I soon will find out/the detectives will be hanging around my door, they want to know what it's all about/Tell me baby what's those bloodstains on the wall/I know there weren't any there this morning/Didn't leave the phone out in the hall..." Though those latter lyrics come from Lazy Lester's version, slightly more comprehensible than Honeyboy's (who, I think, sings "I wasn't injured this morning" rather than "when I went out this morning"), though not nearly so intense.
Tennessee Ernie Ford with Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant.
My dad had a radio program every Sunday on KXLA in Pasadena, just after Tennesse Ernie's program. I used to go to the station with him and Tennessee Ernie would spend a minute or two joking with me. I couldn't have been more than four or five at the time. We always got there to catch the last couple numbers by the band which I guess must have included Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. What I would to give to go back to that time. I know Buddy Charlton and Leon Rhodes were great, as were Leon McAuliffe and Eldon Shamblin/Junior Barnard for Bob Wills, or Vance Terry and Jimmy Rivers, but I've always had a soft spot for the frenetic playing of Speedy and Jimmy.
Okay, here's another great duo- Buddy Emmons and Danny Gratton- though clearly they never officially played together in a group.
I've been an avid reader of Massimo Carlotto ever since The Columbian Mule, followed by The Master of Knots and The Goodbye Kiss. His work epitomises noir fiction and gives an interesting and accurate picture of the dark side of contemporary Italian culture. In Poisonville he has teamed up with script writer Marco Videta (Il secreto del successo, Sotto il sole nero). This is a more expansive and political novel from Carlotta's previous outings. Of course title derives from Hammett's Red Harvest. And like the latter novel, Poisonville is a book about how endemic corruption has become, and not just in northeast Italy where the book is set. In the new world order, everyone must share the guilt. And though localised, the crimes spread far and wide (timely considering that, as I read the novel, the Guardian reported the dumping of waste in the Ivory Coast by British oil trader Trafigura). Given Carlotta sparse style, it's difficult to tell which sections he wrote and which sections are Videtta's. I would suspect that the more discursive, political sections are Videtta's, but that is only a guess. Perhaps it was a genuine collaboration. Though it hardly matters, given the fina result. Nor does it matter that it was easy to figure out who the culprit was before I was halfway through the book, causing me to practically scream at the characters to realize what was going on. But family ties can hide the obvious. But then Poisonville isn't really a whodunnit as such, but something much more interesting. Moreover, it's a good thing the city in which Poisonville takes place is never named, otherwise Carlotta and Videtta would not be all that welcome there. Once again, Europa has proved itself to be in the front line of European crime fiction.
Tom Jobim and Joao Gilberto playing Desafinado. They were influenced by and went on to influence cool jazz and more. So it's appropriate to follow with Lee Morgan with the normally anything but cool Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (vintage 1958, with Bobby Timmons on piano, Benny Golson on tenor, Jymie Merritt on bass and, of course, Art Blakey on drums) playing I Remember Clifford.
Ever since hearing him all those years ago on Sam Charters' RBF Country Blues anthology, Estes has been one of my favorite blues singers. Here he is playing alongside his customary partner, Yanks Rachell, who, for me, is the best blues mandolin player ever.
"He walked down endless flights, turning at last into the hotel entrance to the bar. Juke music funneled out through the entrance in a roaring bass, beating out 'Blues in the Night' in a vocal that rang hoarsely, like a manacled madman's voice full of hoarse glee at his own pain. Beneath it, standing in the doorway, Katz heard the fast and slippered shuffle of the same shoes he had heard whispering so lonesomely away, down an uncarpeted hall and out into the lonesome street. A soft-shoe shuffle! Would there be applause to greet him? And many friends? He brushed down his coat and hurried in. As the juke died out on a troubled whine.
The dancers all had gone. The singers all were still. There was no one but a sweatered fellow placing chairs along the bar.
Katz stood shifting restlessly from one foot to another, trying to down his disappointment at forever, all his life, arriving just a moment too late for everything.
'Closing up?' he asked diffidently.
The fellow moved on toward the back without answering, drawing chairs soundlessly across the floor, tossing them slowly, without effort, along the bar, so that no matter how carelessly he moved, they fell, softly, into neat rows, and stayed so strangely motionless, all along the bar.
Above the bar mirror a neon kitten flashed two suggestions off and on, in bright and blood-red steel:
GET UP A PARTY FEED THE KITTY GET UP A PARTY FEED THE KITTY"
Why doesn't anyone write like this anymore?
Maybe there are those who do, but, if so, they are most likely on the margins of the literary world. Because most writers, including crime writers, haven't the nerve to put themselves out there like Algren did, while, at the same time, doing so with all their heart and soul. Not, at any rate, if they intend to sell books or, for that matter, get published. Of course, there are examples of extreme literature, but it's usually pretty sterile stuff in comparison, too ironic or pretending to be tough and in your face. Few are willing to be as overtly political, literary and as cantankerous as Algren. Always concerned about those at the bottom end of society. This even though Algren believed that his work had no effect on the culture. Nevertheless, Algren won the National Book Award for Man With a Golden Arm and was, for a while, a best selling writer.
Algren, based on the stories, essays, poems, prose poems and fragments of a novel in Entrapment, and much of his other work, could be arrested for incitement to intelligence, much less riot. In fact, it's almost impossible to comprehend that Algren could have been so popular during the 1950s and early 1960s. We have Otto, Sinatra, Kim to partially thank for that, though Algren's popularity started before that. Yet Man With a Golden Arm was such a mess of a movie, at least compared to the book, that it ruined the novel for many subsequent readers. Nor was Walk on the Wildside, with a script by John Fante (aided by Ben Hecht), much better. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine how anyone might be able to capture Algren on film, that is without sacraficing so much of the literary quality of his novels. Maybe it's just that Algren, with all his ruminations and characters who move from the comedy to tragedy, sweet wise yet so innocent, can't be filmed.
Algren was part of a generation of writers that included James T. Farrell (in fact, there is a short piece in Entrapment which constitutes Algren's apology for dissing Farrell on ideological grounds and recognising that, though Farrell was not a great stylist, Studs Lonigan affected a generation of people), John Dos Passos, Richard Wright whose last remaining personage was probably Studs Terkel. They were all political radicals with a sense of the street and literary enough to hold their own with more established types. Algren has been compared favorably to Faulkner, and one can see why. Okay, so maybe he's more erratic, but at his best he is every bit Faulkner's equal.
I might be alone in thinking his early writing, particularly his short stories, constitutes his best work. Not that I didn't enjoy his later novels, but they are just a bit too contrived for me. I like him best when he is in Whitman/Farrell mode, railing against the rich and the stupid and the reactionary, and doing it with his heart and soul.
Entrapment- the title comes from Algren's unpublished final novel, a semi-autobiographical work about the love-sick- is already one of my favorite books of the year. One wishes Algren, capable of breaking your heart with a single phrase or sentence, had been able to finish the book. But, as the editors, who have done an exemplary job in putting this collection together, say, it was far too close to the bone. Likewise, I wish he were around today to comment on what was going on in the world.
-Though Pynchon's latest novel is about the past, it is not one of Pynchon's book that tells us much about the future. Nor should it be viewed as such. Rather, IV is one of Pynchon's entertainments, like Vineland or Crying of Lot 49 (though more lightweight than the latter) that the author has been known to favor and produce from time to time.
-I had my doubts about it working, but it does. After all, the era of the noir parody seems to have long passed. Likewise, crime/noir novels set in, and about, the 1960s. But Pynchon, through language, observation, humor, wit and political insight, characature and critique, carries it off.
-Granted, it might not be everyone's thing, particularly if you're expecting something along the lines of Gravity's Rainbox or Mason Dixon. And you're certainly not going to like it all that much if you're into straight-ahead narratives, minimalism and verisimilitude. But I wonder whether crime readers who've criticised IV for its use of the genre's various tropes actually believe fiction writing is, or should be, a replication of reality, if that were even possible. If so, they are either suffering from bad faith or are selling fiction writing short.
-In terms of language and narrative convolution, Pynchon could, by a quite stretch of the imagination, be compared with Chandler. After all, Chandler, though a total original, was writing a parody of the Hammett/Black Mask school. One would have to put oneself back in the late 1940s or 1950s to experience the impact Chandler's language must have had at the time of publication. So in that sense, IV might even be more faithful to Chandler than some of the more obvious parodies of the latter.
-What keeps IV interesting is it's historical context, set in the past with an eye on the present, even if it studiously avoids telling us anything about the future. But the sixties were, as Tom Hayden has maintained in a recent book, a decade that has so far refused to die. Likewise, IV, appearing some forty years after the era in which it is set, speaks of estate and credit scams,and the beginning of the computer culture. Had the novel been published in the 1970s it would necessitate a radically different reading. Yet by trying to be be part of the historical moment, its disillusionment and displacement shows, portrayed, as it is, through wilted rose-colored humor, incongruity and a studied stupidity.
-IV is better and more picaresque than Vineland but comes out of the same mould. Though Vineland was for me a disappointment, because it was Pynchon's first novel to make me aware that the author had multiple guises- there was the Pynchon who immersed himself in popular culture, as well as a Pynchon who was obsessed by the contours of history- and that not every book was going to be like V or Gravity's Rainbow.
-IV might not be up there with Crying of Lot 49, but it's not far off. However, Lot 49 was about the present, whose resonances lasted for at least a decade. Here the theme isn't Waste or Paranoia, but drugs consumed during a particular time and place, and the signifier is a boat adrift at sea that turns out to be a tax dodge set up by a group of dentists. While the protagonist's dope smoking might occasionally give him an edge, mostly it warps his sensibility and contributes to an endearing fin de epoch stupidity, which, at the same time, allows for some off-the-wall observations- he thinks Sherlock Holmes is a real person, after all, he's got a real address, though he's probably not still living. If nothing else, having a moron as a p.i. makes a pleasant change.
-So IV is confirmation that there are two Pynchons- one who writes Vineland, Crying and IV and another who writes more substantial work like V, Gravity's Rainbow, Mason and Dixon and Against the Day. But that's no longer much of a surprise. After all, we know there's the Pynchon of the Simpsons, the Pynchon who loves garage and surf bands, the Pynchon who appreciates Warlock- the novel and the film- and thinks Jim Dodge's Stone Junction a great novel. And I have always sort of gone along, and mostly agreed with him on all that. But even his entertainments, like moments in IV when you wonder where this is going and where and when it will end, can wear thin. Yet you can be sure there's always something going on here, though it's often the way it's said more than what is said. But that's a vice that is definitely inherent.
I am a real sucker for WPA guide books. They give a glimpse of a time in the not so distant, one in which my parents came of age, when federal programs took people off the dole onto the government payroll. Moreover, some excellent writers helped put the guides together, writers like Algren, Ellison, Cheever, Rexroth, Steinbeck, Meridel Le Seur, Zora Neal Hurston, Weldon Keyes, Louis L'Amour, Richard Wright, Benjamin Appel, Jim Thompson, as well as an assortment of hoboes and eccentrics, including the great composer Harry Partch. If one looked into I bet any number of future crime/noir writers besides Thompson, Appel and Algren could be found amongst them. David Taylor's Soul of a People is an excellent history of that period and I now discover that he has a blog devoted to the WPA's writer's project, which I highly recommend.
Kenneth Fearing Dorothy B. Hughes Jack Spicer Richard Hugo R.V. Cassill D.K Markham C. Day Lewis David Markson
Without a doubt, Fearing and Hughes were adept at both poetry and crime fiction. Spicer and Hugo's detective novels weren't bad, but more like pastiche, and hardly up to the quality of their poety. On the other hand, Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler also wrote poetry, but not up to the standard of their fiction. Then, of course, there's Poe and I suppose one could even add Robert Bolano. Are there other poets/crime writers that I'm forgetting? I was put in mind of the above while reading Kevin Killian presents Jack Spicer on Dennis Cooper's blogsite, an excellent overview of Spicer by his biographer.
If there was one person who would have a lasting influence on me, it would have to be Mike Seeger. From the very first time I heard David Lindley talk about him during a banjo lesson in 1962, I knew I had to hear this guy. And when I did hear the New Lost City Ramblers, it was like I was taken into another world from which I would never emerge. I not only loved his music- which was a virtual history of twentieth century rural America- but I would even copy the way he dressed as well as the jokes he told. And even though he was fairly conservative in his approach, you could see him spreading his wings in his later years, for instance his part in the great record he made with John Hartford and David Grisman, in which he played Dylan, Otis Redding and Chuck Berry as if he were channelling Charlie Poole, or appearing on Ry Cooder's recent work. As a musician and collector, Mike Seeger was unequalled. In fact, the first time I heard Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers was at the Ash Grove, the same night Mother Maybelle Carter called in to say she wasn't going to make and sent Johnny Cash in her place. I remember telling Mike Seeger that I had been prepared for Jimi Hendrix in 1967, but not Johnny Cash in 1962. It took me years to digest hearing Cash and the NLCR on the same night. I've yet to recover.
In the early 1960s, The Little Sandy Review, edited by Jon Pancake and Paul Nelson, out of Dinkeytown in Minneapolis, was the most intelligent, hippest music magazine going. There couldn't have been more than a few hundred readers of the magazine that Pancake and Nelson clearly produced on a shoestring budget. I saw copies at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles in 1963 and quickly became an early subscriber- probably one of a couple hundred. The magazine's politics- though they would have probably denied they had any- and tastes (the New Lost City Ramblers, traditional music, bits of early Dylan, the Ginger Man, the films of Bergman, etc.) would rub off on me, and serve me well in the years to come. Here is an excellent history of the magazine by David Lightbourne. And there's more to come.
Professor Irwin Corey Impersonating Thomas Pynchon
In noting the publication of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, a novel in the tradition of Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland, here is the great Professor Irwin Corey- one of my all-time favorite comedians- accepting the National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow on behalf of the author.
I'm finally settled here in France and ready to blog again. Since arriving the book that’s most impressed me is George Pelecanos’s The Way Home. For me, Pelecanos’ last two novels have helped put crime fiction on another, more socially responsible, level. These novels-The Turnaround and, most recently, The Way Home- are about boys growing up into men, as well as how men respond to one another and the world around them. His latest also addresses issues surrounding the penal system for young offenders and illustates how good things can sometimes come out of bad situations (prison, however brutal, can also be a place where, if lucky, one can discover oneself and find friendship), and how bad things can often come out of apparently good situations (middle class famlies producing wayward sons and daughters). Call it part of the post-Bush era, but Pelecanos work shows that crime writers are responsible for what put on paper. As Pelecanos has pointed out, what one writes cannot help but create ripples in the culture that affects others. Gratuitous violence, no matter how much it occurs in the world, is never all that interesting except in regards to its backstory. Likewise, most killers and people of violence are pathetic individuals that hardly need celebrating. The idea that depicting such violence is acceptable so long as the crimes are eventually punished is addressed in The Way Home, when a writer and former inmate returns to the juvenile prison where he was once incarcerated to give an inspirational talk to the young men imprisoned there. One of the older guards offers the view that for seventeen chapters the author gives the reader one violent scene after another, then comes to a moral position in the final chapter, which, he says few will read or even care about. While his last two novels are carefully written treatises on issues of family, class and race, these subjects have, in fact, been Pelecanos’s as far back as A Firing Offense, Shoedog and The Big Blowdown, though in such an obvious and intense manner. Maybe working alongside the likes of David Simon, Ed Burns, Richard Price, etc., on The Wire has focused his writing, framing the moral content around a rapid-fire plotline. In many ways, I’ve always thought crime fiction by Pelecanos and perhaps Walter Mosley would be ideal reading for adolescent males, to give them an idea of how to conduct themselves and what the world is like. In any case, Pelecanos’s last two novels are, for me, amongst the most interesting and important crime fiction being written at the moment, and proof that these are the work of a mature novelist who seeking to contribute to a dialogue that has become more pressing than ever to engage in.
I'm moving to France- between Narbonne and Perpignan- on Wednesday, so until I find a suitable internet provider, which might take two or three weeks, I won't be posting much, if anything at all. Though I'll try to make the occasional trip to the library to abuse their computer. However, once connected, things will gradually return to normal.
I remember first coming across Ted Berrigan's Sonnets in the 1960s and was soon trying- no doubt unsuccessfully- to write like him. Though he had many imitators, he was really one of a kind. He died on July 4th, 1983. Check out Tom Clark's entry on Berrigan in Vanitas.
Politically, Berrigan was certainly no mug. This despite his anarchic humour and the contour of his work. Though, of course, some would have you think otherwise. So well you're at it, have a look at Tariq Ali's talk on Obama, Pakistan and the US Empire, delivered the other day in London. I can't help but think that Berrigan would have agreed with him.
I've long regarded Larry Brown one of the finest writers around. An opinion shared, I recently discovered, by Bob Dylan. Having just ordered his last, unfinished, novel, A Miracle of Catfish, I happened upon the following clip from a documentary, The Rough South of Larry Brown (wasn't there also a Rough South of Harry Crews a few years back?), directed by Gary Hawkins:
Despite my ambivalence regarding much of Slavoj Zizek's work, his article in support of the Iranian people, entitled Will the Cat Above the Precipice Fall Down?, makes some interesting and valid points. Also, on the same website, is Zizek's June 18 talk at Birkbeck College which covers some of the same points, but delivered in Zizek's inimitable lecturing style.
I picked up this one based on enticing jacket comments by Pelecanos, Connelly, Offutt and Woodrell, read the first few stories, which I thought were good, but derivative. I put it aside for close to a year, picked it up again a few weeks ago and was blown away by it. How could I have thought it derivative, when Lange's is such an individual voice? It just goes to show that you have to be in the right frame of mind when reading a particular book. But Lange has definitely put his own stamp on the low- life, urban-grit short story as few others have been able to do. It put me in mind of Dennis Johnson's Jesus's Son, but it's more compact and consistent than the latter and its imagery is more precise. Lange could be thought of as the grandchild of Selby and Bukowski, and the cousin of Donald Ray Pollock, whose Knock Em Stiff bears certain similarities. In any case, Lange's low-life characters, as comic as they are tragic, invariably ring true, always pushing at what's possible, accompanied by some magnificent bits of linguistic juxtaposition. I was particularly amused by the following, from his story "Loss Prevention":
"Every junkie I've ever known has had a thing for Neil Young. Be he a punk, a metalhead, or just your garden-variety handlebar-mustachioed dirtbag, if he hauls around a monkey, he's going to have Decade in his collection, and he's bound to ruin more than a few parties by insisting that you play at least some of it, no matter that the prettiest girl in the room is begging for something she can dance to. Even if he gets off dope, he sticks with Neil, because by then Neil's become the soundtracks to his outlaw past. Let him hear 'Old Man' or 'Sugar Mountain' years after the fact, and everything in him will hum like a just-struck tuning fork as mind and body and blood harmonize in mutual longing for a time when desire was an easy itch to scratch."
Just as I was finishing Dead Boys, I came across an interview with him in the LA Weekly, and discovered that he's just produced a novel entitled This Wicked World. That's one I've got to get my hands on.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.