Monday, October 04, 2021

Sounding For Harry Smith- Early Pacific Northwest Influences by Bret Lunsford

I’ve always been amazed by the way some individuals can move so quickly from eccentric outsider, even untouchable, to national treasure. Film-maker, painter, collector, anthologiser, and raconteur, Harry Smith no doubt tried his best to resist that sort of  transformation, but his record of accomplishments and his sense of aesthetics, were against him, at least amongst a certain segment of the culture. But thanks to sheer insistence, and a cantankerous nature, he still, to some degree, managed to do so.

I began collecting Smith ephemera-  interviews, recordings, articles- sometime in the late 1960s. Initially there was little to be found, the odd interview with P. Adams in Film Culture (1965) and John Cohen in Sing Out (1969), as well as an article or two by likes of Jonas Mekas in Film Culture or the Village Voice. But my interest in Smith went back  further to first seeing  his  films in 1963 or 64 at John Fles’s ground-breaking  Movies Round Midnight at the Cinema Theater in Los Angeles. A couple years later I would be showing Smith's films, amongst others, at the Straight-Ashbury Viewing Society, and then at San Francisco State’s Experimental College where I was teaching a class called The New American Cinema. Though I  hadn't at first realised  the Harry Smith who so painstakingly put together these complex and beautiful  hand-painted films was the same Harry Smith who collated the Anthology of American Folk Music that I had spent so much time listening to in the basement of the Pasadena Public Library. Music that would influence those modern practitioners  I was listening to such as the New Lost City Ramblers and, to some extent, Dylan, not to mention those I was taking lessons from like Stu Jamieson and David Lindley.

Even though I read all those articles and interviews, I was never less than hungry for information about Harry Smith. Where could this guy have possibly come from?  He seemed to play with interviewers when it came to talking about background, which seemed to only add to his myth.  His movies hinted at a knowledge of be-bop, the Kabbala, the music of Kurt Weil, while his  collecting, from records to objects of various sorts, were clearly the work of someone with a deep knowledge of American music and indigenous life. Not to mention his work as a sound  engineer, recording Native American peyote ceremonies and music  by groups like the Fugs and his interaction with  Kabbalist Lionel Zirpin, and  recordings, for the most part unreleased, of Zirpin's grandfather, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia (according to Raymond Foye, due for release at some point, likewise Smith's Naropa lectures on Native American cosmology).

Gouache on black paper, circa 1975
Gouache on black paper, circa
1975
But in accordance with his elusive answers in interviews, the question  remained: where did Smith come from? I mean, really come from. What corner of the world and culture could have produced someone like Smith. Or was he just a one-off that could have come from anywhere? Albeit on some  level, he  could just as well  have come from another planet, perhaps in the same planetary system that produced  Sun Ra or that ranting genius down the road apiece. A planet populated by outsiders who travelled to earth to live amongst other aliens and alienated. Of course, Smith was a hurricane unto himself-  I won't say an American phenomenon, though I'm tempted to do so-  who grew up in the 1920 and early 1930s in the northwest, Anacortes and Bellingham to be precise, which is as geographically marginal as it gets, unless, of course that is where you come from, and even then. It helps to know that Smith comes from a world steeped in Native American culture, a fishing based community, whose survival depended on its utilitarianism.  

Thanks to Bret Lunsford’s beautifully put together and diligently researched Sounding For Harry Smith (see the trailer for the book below), we can now glimpse the world Smith comes from. Though it’s a world that has passed most of us by, Lunsford has managed to dig into the archives, to find the people who knew Smith, or the people who knew the people who knew Smith, to recreate the culture from which he emerged.  It's a world seemingly lost in time, but here substantiated by photographs and the historical record  Lunsford has uncovered. Of course, that past is not all that far off, which only illustrates how much has changed over the last hundred years. Which makes Sounding… partly a history and partly an  archeological study of sorts, reminiscent of another book I've recently come across, The Sea View Has Me Again by Patrick Wright, about the German novelist Uwe Johnson and his stay on the Isle of Sheppey, in the UK. Both books divide their narrative between person and place, no matter how incongruous that place might seem. Of course, such  books are, to some extent, cannot help but fail  if only because no such study can explain the likes of subjects such as Johnson or Smith.  However, both books come as close as one can get. To the degree that one comes away knowing not only a lot more about their subjects and their world.  A native of the region, Lunsford, regarding his locality, might at times venture a little too far into the weeds,  but that  doesn't matter- one could say the same about Wright's book, or, for that matter, Charles Olson's Maximus Poems- because it's the undercurrents that matter.  In the end Sounding... is a book born out of a love for both a place and a person, with enough photographs, maps, stories and ephemera to satisfy any true Smith obsessive.  

In combining historicity and biography, Lunsford has produced an exemplary piece of investigative writing.  In that way it complements the handful of other books on Smith, such as American Magus edited by Paola Igliori, and Rani Singh's collection of interviews, Think of the Self Speaking, not to mention Daniel Darrin's short but sharp Harry Smith- Fragments of a Northwest Life, which explores the intervening years between growing up in the Northwest and becoming the Harry Smith one knows today. The fact is, Smith for a growing handful of multi-disciplinarians a life sentence.  Anyone serving such a sentence, or even those seeking parole, will want to give this book their close attention.  It is, after all, not only about Smith but about an America, perhaps not so much lost as rarely found, not so much about the weird as about those ghosts who haunt the present.  In an increasingly homogenised world, where everything, even the likes of Harry Smith, can be turned into a commodity, that seems like an honest and important activity to pursue.  

For a concise overview of Harry Smith,  could do worse than check out Raymond Foye's on-line entry which can be found here.

Finally, here's a trailer of sorts for Lunsford's book preceded by what is for me a memorable extract  from John Cohen's 1969  interview, republished in Singh's Think of the Self Speaking, of Smith revealing something of his past, while, at the same time, revealing his puckish sense of humour. 

"John Cohen: Someone once told me that you were thinking for a while that your father might have been some English mystic who was travelling through.

Harry Smith: That was Aleister Crowley, and as a matter of fact, my mother did know Crowley at about that time. She saw him running naked down the beach, perhaps in 1913 or 1915. I wish I had gone more into the chronology of my antecedents.

JC: But he's not your father.

HS: I don't know.

JC: Oh, you mean there's a possibility?

HS: Sure. I suppose there's a possibility that President Coolidge was. Because of my father's and grandfather's interest in mysticism, the basement was full of books on whether Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays, alchemy, and so forth. I had a whole blacksmith shop. I spent a lot of time trying to transmute lead into gold. My father was in the salmon fishing business, and during the war they fished the Fraser and Columbia rivers dry, so the canneries closed, and that was my playground as a child."  

               

Monday, July 05, 2021

The Big Spill-over: Recent books by William Gardner Smith, Lee Durkee, Billy Wilder, John Sanford, Paul Buck, Kirby Doyle, John Wieners, Anna Mendelssohn, Katherine Gogou


The books have been piling up again. So here are some short reviews of a few- fiction, journalism, poetry- that  have recently come my way. 


1) The Stone Face by William Gardner Smith. NYRB.  Simeon, an African-American journalist not similar from the  author, decides, after a confrontation with a group of sailors in his native Philadelphia, to exchange the racism of America for the racial tolerance of early 1960s Paris. This at a time when the city of lights was considered a sanctuary, particularly for many black American writers, painters and musicians. But Simeon discovers that Paris has  its own form of racism, in this case directed at the Algerian population. This at a time when the Algerian war for independence was reaching its final stage. Simeon discovers that, despite his skin colour,  he is considered the enemy, by default implicated in his country's foreign crimes. And that he and his fellow African Americans are only a step away from being thought of as white. Unlike most of his ex-pat friends, Simeon realises the contradiction that he, as an American, is entangled, and chooses to side  with the Algerians. According to Adam Shatz, in his informative introduction, The Stone Face was the first novel anywhere to address the 1961 Paris massacre in which the head of police, Papon, a Nazi collaborator and official in the Vichy government, sent scores  of Algerian demonstrators to their death. When it comes to addressing the politics of racism and America's place in the world, Smith's book compares favourably with the writing of any other ex-pat of that era, including the likes of Baldwin, Himes and Wright. 


2) The Last Taxi Driver by Lee Durkee. No Exit Press/Tin House. As a former midnight shift Yellow Cab driver in San Francisco  in the late 1960s, I can attest to the veracity of Durkee's book, as well as  to the  humorous encounters which every cab driver experiences, not to mention the sideways  perspective that goes with the job.  I used to refer what my cab as my own personal theater of the absurd, but in Durkee's it might have transformed into a theater of cruelty. That's because the competition is greater, the stakes are higher and job protection hardly exists at all. Rather than nestling in the warm but corrupt arms of the Brotherhood of Teamsters which was the case in my day, Durkee portrays a world in which cab drivers, like so  many others, are without a union to protect them, and so easy prey as precariats in our current Uber world. As Durkee shows, no one who drives a cab escapes unscathed. I still have dreams about reporting at the Yellow Cab lot south of Market Street, flashing my Teamsters withdrawal card, only for the dispatcher to yell at me for not showing up for work for the last fifty years, then  reluctantly giving me  a cab the usual faulty brakes. Of course, Durkee's shift comes decades later. It’s the modern world, worse than ever, but every bit  as absurdly humourous.


3) Billy Wilder On Assignment, ed by Noah Isenberg, trans by Shelley Frisch.  Princeton University Press. A real eye opener not only when it comes to Weimar Berlin in the 1920s but to Wilder's uncanny ability as a journalist specialising in vignettes and short-form dispatches. From describing his days as a dancer for hire to his interviews with a variety of famous people, Wilder’s voice shines through, and will be familiar to anyone who loves the wit, sardonic take on the world and humour, of his films. In fact, many of these pieces read as though they could have been yesterday rather than nearly  a century ago. I  remember Andrew Sarris, in a lecture at the NFT in the 1970s, say that Wilder, not long after arriving in America, wrote to his mother in the old country, and told her that  he was doing well but had changed his first name to Thornton. I thought, at the time, that Sarris had been joking, and the story couldn't be true. But after reading Wilder On Assignement, I realise that Sarris was simply stating a biographical fact.        


4) The Old Man's Place by John Sanford. Brash Press. This along with the evocatively titled Make My Bed In Hell, both published recently by Brash, represent two pulp noir novels by a  writer, real name Julian Shapiro, perhaps best known for his proletariat novel, The People From Heaven and several volumes of autobiography.  Sanford, who was also a minor Hollywood screenwriter and friend of Nathaniel West’s, was married to the successful screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, with whom Sanford collaborated on the 1941 film Honky Tonk.  Both Sanford and Roberts were members of the Communist Party and victims of the blacklist. Make My Bed In Hell and The Old Man's Place, the latter loosely adapted for the screen by Edwin. Sherwin in 1971, as well as being evocative of a particular time and place, are good enough to be placed next to novels by such  writers as Jim Thompson, Erskine Caldwell, and James M. Cain. Moreover, they demonstrate the thin line that exists between early pulp noir and proletariat fiction.  One can’t help but wonder how Sanford, who ended up writing over twenty books, would have fared had he continued churning out novels in the vein of these two pulp novels, rather than pursue a Hollywood career or that of a memoirist.


5) Along the River Run by Paul Buck. Prototype Press.  Essential for anyone travelling to Lisbon, or, for that matter, anywhere in the EU. It centres on two Milwallian lads on the run from the authorities in London who have to negotiate the city with only Farage-like wide boy skills. This is a novel that doesn’t have to try too hard to portray the clash of cultures, as Brexit xenophobia rubs up, beer and testosterone fuelled, against European class values. At the same time, it's as evocative of the city  as anything by the likes of Pessoa. While reading Buck's novel, I was reminded of the time I was mugged at gunpoint after leaving a Fado cafe well after midnight in  the Alfama district. The muggers got away with whatever euros I had before scampering off into the night. I reluctantly made an insurance claim, but to do so the police insisted on taking me on a tour of various seedy bars in the criminal quarter to see if I could possibly point out the guilty party. Of course, I couldn't. But being the noirist that I am, I really did appreciate the guided tour. 


6) Happiness Bastard by Kirby Doyle. Another one from Tough Poets Press. This one from my old digger comrade, and arguably the most unread, if not under-appreciated poet to appear in  Don Allen's 1960s anthology New American Poetry. This is Kirby's only published novel that I know of. It's one of those works that borders between the unreadable and the unputdownable. Written in the manner of early Kerouac, which is to say on a single scroll of paper, it comes across as a work of debauched genius, and a must read for anyone interested in  Beat or Digger culture.  It's also unlike anything one is likely to come across. Less  like On the Road  than Dylan's Tarantula. I hadn’t realised that Kirby had taken  culinary classes  at San Francisco State. Maybe he should have teamed up with the poet Frank Lima and film-maker Peter Kubelka and opened an international haute-cuisine restaurant based on Digger principles.


7) Yours Presently, The Selected Letters of John Wieners, ed by Michael Seth Stewart. University of New Mexico Press. A wonderful collection of missives from Wieners to, for the most part, an assortment of mid-to-late 20th century writers, the likes of which include Creeley, Kyger, Olson, Dorn,  Duncan, and Blaser, Whalen, DiPrima, Levertov, Rumaker, Ginsberg, Irving Rosenthal, etc.. These  letters could be read as a cultural history stretching from the mid-1950s to the 1990s. For me, few surpass Wieners when it comes to writing lyrical poetry of such heart-wrenching beauty. And, of course, these letters, so revealing in themselves, whether having to do with poetry, drugs, or gay culture, have to  be read in conjunction with Wieners' work. Even so, they qualify as more than marginalia to that body of work, but illustrate what goes into the making of a poet, as well as the thin line between poet as victim/object and poet as activist, rather than that  dodgy concept of poet as some kind of  “antenna” (a Poundian concept that is, at best, suspect), derangé or as a necessarily damaged soul.


8) I'm Working Here, The Collected Poems of Anna Mendelssohn (Shearsman). There is something to be said for anyone with the courage, or should  that be audacity, to make poetry their life, and to do so without succumbing to bad faith or cynicism or reducing their work to the lowest common denominator. But Mendelssohn succeeded at doing just that.  By now Mendelssohn's  backstory is  familiar: as a member of the 1970s  militant Angry Brigade, she was imprisoned  for some four years for conspiracy to cause explosion. On her release, writing under the name Grace Lake, she began to devote herself exclusively to her poetry and  artwork. Even so, it seemed that during her lifetime she never showed more than a passing interest in seeing her work in print. The title, I'm Working Here, seems fitting, implying, as it does, a circumscribed space and poems unlike anyone else's, that ranged from the lyrical to the  expostulatory, from the  ecstatic to the subtly political and surreal,  from the linguistically dense to the playful and elusive. All with an intensity that sweeps her  lines across the page, less because she could not stop herself than seeking to include everything. Reading her, it’s possible to trace her hermetically sealed world as it migrates from the political to the personal and back again, in a lifetime's loop that becomes its own biography. 

9) Now Let's See What You're Gonna Do, Poems 1978-2002 (The Divers Collection, fmsbw) by Katerina Gogou. These poems are so full of fire, so human, so reckless and vulnerable, that they threaten to burn up in your hands. As personal as they are political, these poems, for the most part, do not make for easy reading, and are not for the faint hearted.  Nevertheless, they remain inspiriing. A well known Greek actor and leftist, Gogou killed herself in 1993, having reached the end of her tether emotionally as well as politically. Only for her writing  to be resurrected by such admirers as poets Sean Bonney, Jack Hirschman and Nanos Valaoritis. One wonders how Gogou would have responded, poetically and politically, had she lived to see recent events in her country, from the rise and fall of Syriza to the resurgence of fascists like those in Golden Dawn.  Hirschman says the Greek Communist Party is evoked in her poems like a lover who has betrayed her. And perhaps that is so. Certainly her  poems, like those of Pasolini,  move beyond the organised left, to the heart and soul of the marginalised, a call to arms to claim a space for the dispossessed and vulnerable that she hoped would emerge from the page. Who knows, perhaps one day her poems might succeed in doing just that. 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

On Dangerous Ground: Try and Get Me (1950), Where Danger Lives (1950)

 














Try and Get Me (Cyril Endfield, 1950)

 

Take away this San Jose, replete counter-factual 

lynchings, deep into the genotypical. And if 

offending the offendable, remove the offence,

or, for that matter, sleazoid jurisprudence.  

Preambled by yet another religious nutter, his 

sign, gulp, muddy water, turkey in all this 

chinoiserie: like, "How much are you guilty 

for the evils in the world?" Swallow, head down. 

Numb post-war suburban man, washed with a yen 

for monopoly capitalism. Lurking in a tostada-

with-all-the-trimmings clink. Ain’t no get outta 

jail free card in this star spangled banana republic. 

And "no law against what's right." But what is right? 

Poor pendejo, coming back to his little chickadee. 

In darkness, a window, his only art, sans tv to 

 distract, sans disposable dosh to schlep his sitcom 

son to a ball game. Still, ducks will slurp for the 

nearest psycho, and rungs on the ladder will break 

with lumpen farce, Elmer Fudding raison robbery. 

Born to shoot shit, his marriage crumbles for lack 

of middle-class moxy. Spilling beans on a barroom 

floor, to a wallflower displaying her magnificent 

ambersons, plumaged to shop the schmuckable, 

revving the reviled to break into jail, their monkeys 

signifying one man's guilt might well be another 

man's gelt. Whether backroom boy or tinselled 

menschseething to insert an immigrant root-canal 

cosmopolitan, eurosplaining vigilantism. Pre-

Murdoched with a by-lined Green Stamp wallop, 

sans hostages to redeem, for this, buy easy bay lurch. 






















Where Danger Lives (John Farrow, 1950)


Who doesn’t “do” anxiety, influence or discontents.  

High rollers, disguised as low hitters. Dodge-ball 

pretenders and four-square curators. Likewise, scionic 

border rats, and their calico partners. Blimey! It’s a 

replicant of Willeford’s Wild Wives, six years later.  

Uncredited, forgotten, unmentioned, or marooned in 

anodyneland. But let’s gloss this lipstick, mire this 

pig in graveyard proverbials. Picture a wealthy young 

wife, her past perturbing her present, secondhand

clocking a handsome young doctor. We wonder, is

the old guy her husband or father? Well, Cassandra 

is nothing if not complex. That Dr Mitch and the old 

man come to blows, is more ontological than generational. 

That Dr Mitch dances like Sluggo, must impair his

gamut of suicidal tendencies. Like travelling to Mexico, 

with warts and all peccadilloes. Nearing the border, her 

psychosis riles, tries to kill Dr Mitch. Hardly una 

mojada, but shot all the same, straight to the core of her 

consequentialism.  Her confession prompting a debate 

on the nature of false consciousness. Is this a  stitch-up, 

or simply a gold digger’s diet? Ubiquitous, granular 

paranoia, so lopsided an autonomy, so why can’t these 

fuckers recycle their trash as they do their movies or  

wives? I had no choice. I fell under her spell. As old as 

Hollywood, clueless though it was and always has been.  



Thursday, June 10, 2021

Prisoners On the Page: Myron Brinig's The Flutter of an Eyelid

 

It must have been over 20 years ago that I first became obsessed with the seldom-spotted existence of Myron Brinig’s Southern California-based 1933 novel Flutter of an Eyelid. The novel had been mentioned in two related but very different books I’d been reading, Mike Daviss Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster and Kevin Starrs Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s. Had I been paying more attention, I would have remembered a similar shout-out in Carey McWilliamss seminal 1946 Southern California: An Island on the Land. It wasnt just the novels evocative title that grabbed me, but the descriptions of its setting and devastating finale, as well as the controversy surrounding it in its own time. Back then I thought I knew a bit about California fiction from the 1930s, but here was a book Id never seen, much less read. And for good reason. In spite of, or maybe because of, its merits, Brinigs novel had then been languishing in obscurity for over half a century. Fortunately, thanks to this elegant edition from Tough Poets Press, with complementary illustrations by the renowned Lynd Ward, Flutter has, after some 90 years, finally risen to captivate anew.

Given their respective agendas, Davis and Starr emphasized different aspects of Brinig’s novel. As a leftist cultural critic, Davis applies, as one might expect, a political lens, referring to Flutter as a “savage satirical novel that ends in mock apocalypse,” a precursor to — and arguably more original than — Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, which was published six years later. Meanwhile Starr, the former state librarian and eminent California historian, presents Brinig’s novel simply as one of the more interesting, eccentric, and scandalous works in a litany of neglected works from that era. In fact, Starr appears to be more impressed by the audacity of the novel than by its literary qualities, much less its prognostications regarding geographical retribution for the populations’ excesses and sins. 


Davis’s special interest lies in Southern California catastrophe literature, a sub-genre that, at the time of Flutter’s publication, had yet to become as fashionable as it would in subsequent years. He claims that from 1931 to 1940 Los Angeles had been decimated in literature on at least seven occasions. With its literal and figurative fault lines, California, and L.A. in particular, seemed destined, even in the 1930s, to meet an untimely end — an end that would , for various retributionists, be its just comeuppance for decadence, economic inequalities, real estate speculation, cults, quackery, and the obsession with celebrity.


Davis make a further claim — namely, that Brinig was one of the first novelists to suggest a destructive correspondence between evangelicalism and not only bohemia, but the various cults of which Californians have always been so fond. That said, Starr, though largely apolitical, had the nous to place Flutter amidst a handful of other relatively unacknowledged 1930s classics, such as You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas (pseudonym of Eric Knight), The Long Haul by A. I. Bezzerides, Count Ten by Hans Otto Storm, or the better known They Shoot Horses, Don’t They by Horace McCoy. Of those novels, it’s You Play the Black to which Flutter might best be compared. In many ways, Flutter reads like a cross between Hallas’s dark novel and an array of other, more diverse works, from Evelyn Waugh’s to James Branch Cabell’s, with perhaps a soupçon of Wyndham Lewis, whose Apes of God is accented by a similar cattiness. At the same time, Brinig’s novel is so original that it is quite capable of holding its own in such company.

Born in Minneapolis in 1896, Brinig grew up in Butte, Montana where his Jewish Romanian father ran a dry goods store catering to local miners and their families. Brinig would attend NYU, followed by a spell working for Daryl Zanuck’s studios in Fort Lee. By the time Flutter appeared, he had already published five novels. This one appears to have been the result of a short, but uncomfortable, stay in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1930s. At the time, Brinig was by all accounts on a fast track to literary notoriety — one that, in the year of Flutter’s publication, took him to New Mexico, where he was feted by that doyenne of Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan. She was so impressed by Brinig, who she thought might become an American D.H. Lawrence, that she suggested he help write her memoirs. Brinig claimed the rough draft of Luhan’s life was “one of the most damning arraignments of modern white society in literature.” After he placed his stamp on her story, the two had a falling-out, echoing what one suspects had taken place in Southern California a couple years earlier. Luhan achieved her revenge in a 1935 short story, “Derision is Easy,” in which she portrayed Brinig as a voyeur seeking to penetrate the inner lives of others to use in his fiction. In turn, Brinig would offer a portrait of Luhan in his 1941 novel All of Their Lives, a no-holds-barred account that included the Luhan-like character’s fictional death by lightning. Brinig clearly had a fondness for such endings, with nature meting out revenge on some deserving person or population; there was also his 1937 novel The Sisters, which ends with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

None of his other novels, however, is as strange as Flutter. His earlier books had mostly been set in Butte. The protagonist of Singerman (1929) was based on Brinig’s immigrant father; Wide Open Town (1931), depicted disputes and disasters in the local mining community, including the lynching of a character based on Wobbly organizer Frank Little (recalling Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, published three years earlier); and This Man Is My Brother (1932), also set in Montana, bravely portrayed the lives of two gay siblings. At the time, some were comparing Brinig to Thomas Wolfe, but anyone familiar with more recent novels of the West might, when reading Wide Open Town, be put in mind of Oakley Hall’s classic Warlock (1958). Yet so different is Flutter from Wide Open Town and the other novels that came before that one might be excused for thinking it belonged to some other author.


(You can read the remainder of this article at the L.A. Review of Books)

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Willy Vlautin’s The Night Always Comes


"This is the saddest story I have ever heard," reads the opening sentence of Ford Maddox Ford's novel The Good Soldier. One could say the same about Willy Vlautin's latest work of fiction, The Night Always Comes.  If not the saddest, then something close to it. But it's also, for me, Vlautin’s best novel yet. On the other hand, I'm prejudiced, since Vlautin has recently become one of my favourites. Though I have to admit it did take me several years to come to that conclusion, or even to fully appreciate his writing. Of course, I'd always liked his deeply rooted band Richmond Fontaine and, more recently, The Delines. But that might have been why I’d always been reluctant to give his work the attention it deserved. In my defence, I can only say, what an idiot I can sometimes be.  

In fact, it was only in the past year, filled as it has been with  hardship and grieving, in both a general and personal sense, that I found myself with more than enough time to finally discover why Vlautin is rated so highly by so many writers I respect. So, over the past  seven or eight months I've read each of his books in the order in which they were written. Despite my culture-lag, I can say in all honesty that there are  few writers capable to conveying such compassion for ordinary, troubled souls as does Vlautin, and to do so in such a non-nonsense, straightforward and readable manner.  

Although the tone of his work, with its cast of  hard-bitten characters, might strike a similar chord, Vlautin draws upon a  range of influences.  Foremost, of course, is his adherence to historically rich tradition of noir fiction and, by extension, film. But he also occasionally calls on elements of science fiction, and, even more so, novels of the west.  And like many hardcore noirists, Vlautin has clearly been influenced by certain  proletariat writers, with their concern  for the plight of people exploited and beaten down by those who the power to do so. But if Vlautin in his latest novel is  reminiscent of anyone, it must surely be David Goodis, whose tragic and haunting tales focus on a range   of troubled souls. In fact, it sometimes seems like Vlautin is channelling Goodis, while throwing in a  touch of Jim Thompson to keep things interesting and unpredictable.        

The novel itself revolves around Lynette, a twenty-something who's been extremely hard done by, some might say  trampled on, by others, who, for the most part, happen to be men. In addition she has a history of personal problems. All of which she is doing her best to overcome, and to do what's right for  those close to her. But that's  made difficult not only by various people standing in her way,  but by the prevailing state of things. All around her, she can't help but note that  her home town of Portland is becoming increasingly gentrified. But Lynette, who, to save money, holds down more than one job while occasionally engaging in some dubious activities, inhabits a world in which trickle-down economics has not trickled down far enough to benefit her in any substantial way. And probably never will. She lives in a rented run down house with  her disabled brother and mother. The latter, in contrast to Lynette, is nothing if not  beaten down by a lifetime of hard work, bad luck and bad decisions, and has no interest in sharing Lynette’s dream of buying their ramshackle house to give them a  leg-up on a slippery ladder that might lead to solvency.   

I mentioned the influence of proletariat fiction in Vlautin’s work. For me that's most apparent in Lynette’s mother’s five page inebriated assessment of the world at the end of the book, which reads like  a  21st century inversion-  filled with despair rather than hope- of  Ma Joad’s “we keep a comin” speech at the end of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. It's a grim assessment regarding the state of things. Even so, Vlautin doesn’t portray Lynette's mother, despite her view of the world, as a bad person but simply someone who has been destroyed by the system, whose future has been used up, but, despite what appears to be cruelty, might see  in Lynette a glimmer of hope. There aren’t many writers able to create such realistic characters and do so with such depth and humanity. In this day and age that’s saying a lot.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

ELADATL- East Los Angeles Dirgible Air Transport Lines by Sesshu Foster and Arturo Romo

 

“It all starts on Bunker HIll. Some people say we emerged from the 22nd Street tunnel to the stairs, ascending Angel’s Flight to the top of the hill, a bunch of us with Elote Girl with cornsilk in her long dusty hair and her sack of corn that she sells steaming with mayonnaise on the street corner. That’s not really true... not in the literal sense (what is?), that’s pure reductionism, but that’s what I’m going with because, because- anyway, yeah- we need a simple gesture at the beginning- especially for things that seem to have no beginning or end.” 

Most who have read his previous novel, Atomik Aztex, would probably agree that its author, Sesshu Foster, an inter-culturalist if there ever was one, must surely rank amongst the more adventurous, some might say outlandish, novelists at work today. As narratively elusive as he is  geographically centered, Foster's writing is hard to pin down, though what one can definitely say he’s as invested in the present as he is in the past and future. His sentences, like pesky promiscuous electrons, jump from  subject to subject, era to era, and, when it comes to montage, scene to scene. At the same time,  he remains focused,  in spirit if not in actuality, on his home turf of East Los Angeles. In ELADATL, published by City Lights, it’s Alhambra accompanied by forays into Lincoln Heights and points beyond.  At the same time,  Foster treats his particular locale pretty much as the center of the universe, like a macrocosmic version of the way S. Dalí thinks about Perpignan train station. Though Foster’s title might stand for East Los Angeles Dirgirble Air Transport Line, the  phonetic implication is that the company  has connections Nahuatl in origin, perhaps to the extent that it even now is creating enough oxygen to enable hot-air lift-off. What emerges is an alternative history dancing from the distant past, to the present, with its images derived from  popular culture, into the future; in other words,  a radical revision of the world, based upon, but no crazier than, the world we presently inhabit. 

Foster's collaborator here is Arturo Romo, an artist whose enfolding imagination is the perfect foil for Foster.  From different generations they join forces here to convert the underlying wasteland that comprises industrial SoCal into a wonderland,  splitting the difference between utopia, dystopia and apocalyptica. Their shared  notion of a lighter-than-air movement, undetectable and insurrectionist,  pits zeppelinist against dirgiblist, embedded in a  narrative rooted in the grassroots of  technological angst and political marginalisation.  Lighter-than-air might also be a metaphor for Foster’s writing and Romo’s art work, not to mention their political perspective,  which, to misquote Lenin, aspires to be as radical as reality (I was about to write sur-reality, but that would land me in the same soup as eurosplainer Dr Barnswallow in ELADATL’s opening chapter). They accomplish this by avoiding any Tinseltown ideology and representations, from which point they can work to undermine what amounts to the historical burden long facing various communities. As with Aztex, ELADATL  is  an act of recovery, an updraft of  lost memories, as humorous as it is serious. Moreover, one can  read the book as an homage to the absent and misrepresented, most predominant of which is the influential writer Oscar Zeta Acosta, around whose ghost dances a cast of strangers and malcontents, whether living or reincarnated, from Elmer Fudd to Lee Harvey Oswald. The result is an artifact that, despite the presence of various malignant forces, can’t help but offer more than a glimmer of hope. That is, if you can “attune your cellular vibrations to the frequency of Star Beings” and “the merciless winds of the human heart,” in which case you’ll be elevated  in more ways than one.