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. 

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Hold That Backstory: Two novels by John Rector

Cold Kiss 

Already Gone

“‘Take it easy, I don’t know anything,’ is a line that never

works in detective novels...”

                                        Dick Gallup, “close your eyes,” from Shiny Pencils...

Recently, while recovering from a bout of sciatica, I found myself  binging on two novels by John Rector, a writer I’d heard about but had never read. Both novels, Already Gone (2011) and Cold Kiss (2010), his first novel,  were as diverting as they were intriguing. It occurred to me while reading them that noir writers have a tendency to withhold the backstories of their main characters until fairly late in their novels. This is what  Rector does to some effect in both novels. But, then, so did the likes of David Goodis, Jim Thompson and Dorothy B. Hughes. It’s a technique that gives all of their  work added tension and their main characters an added amount of ambiguity and mystery. I suppose the technique goes right back to the origins of Black Mask writing, and maybe to others who base their  narratives as much, if not more, on character as on plot. 

I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out, but, sciatica not withstanding, it had never occurred to me before. In Rector’s Cold Kiss, one has little if any idea what  trauma informs Nate’s actions and thoughts. There are hints, revealed in pieces  to his girlfriend Sarah. Something about killing his brother who, as a teenager, he had been in charge of, then something else about  a road accident, and detention. Clearly Sarah knows a bit, though not all  of Nate's backstory. Certainly  she knows  more than the reader does. Likewise, Already Gone, in which the couple, Jake and Diane, seem to know very little, if anything, about each other’s past, Again, one gradually hears about Jake's violent teenage days, his relationship with his father and their relationship to Gabby,  a local crime boss. This even though Jake has written a book that supposedly tells all, though, in fact, it only skirts around the subject of his past. But enough to find Jake gainful employment. At the same time, neither Jake nor the reader, knows  much about Diane's past, a forewarning if nothing else that there is trouble on the horizon. 

The temptation is for an author to reveal any pertinent backstory in a book’s early chapters, and so establish a clear-cut motivation and narrative pathway. However, withholding the backstory means any such motivation will become part of the overall mystery.  Although there is nothing inherently wrong in revealing the backstory early on, it can, when it comes to a character’s psychology, seem overly formulaic. The implication being that a particular event or situation can  explain everything, which should be rarely the case, ir only because such events often explain only part of the story. There are, after all, choices made that are necessarily contingent, as well as choices based on free will, though that difference is often blurred, and can sometimes be mistaken for one another. 

Narratives by the likes of  Rector might appear straightforward when it comes to linearity and forward  momentum, but by withholding the backstory, the reader is made to fill in, or speculate upon, the spaces, intervening as the information gradually becomes apparent. It's, for me, what makes the two novels by Rector interesting. The fact that the  reader doesn’t know exactly what  motivates Nate and Jake works to free up Rector's narrative, giving it the space in which to operate without the baggage that comes with flashbacks and explanations. This as opposed to plot driven novelists. Even James Ellroy, who readily and mostly effectively broadcasts his backstories whenever and wherever possible, sometimes  even expanding on them previous novels.  

Though it might appear simplistic, even basic, when it comes to a novel's momentum, it is often a more subtle and complex technique than it seems. It means that not only are the peripheral characters kept in the dark, but so is the reader, which not only creates tension and movement, but the need for one to continue reading. It also tends to place those inhabiting the novel and those reading it on something approaching equal footing. Not contributing to the creation of an unreliable narrator or protagonist, but establishing the integrity of such characters while building a conflict zone that connects a character's past, present and future.

 I’m not sure this technique is all that unusual. On the other hand, it makes Rector something of an old school writer, the technique a variation on Marcel Duhamel’s advice to Chester HImes when the latter began writing novels for Gallimard’s Serie Noire imprint, which is to say, avoid too much introspection and allow the dialogue to carry the narrative forward. The lesson from reading such writers as Rector, with all its psychological ambiguity, might be a version of that cry heard in countless films about newspapermen. But not “Hold the front page,” but  “Hold the backstory.” Ranking up there with that Mamet rule regarding screenwriting, applicable not only to chapter deliberations and scene shifts, but, as far as I’m concerned, to social gatherings of most varieties, which is arrive late and leave early. But, as usual, I am veering off-piste. Suffice it to say that reading Rector is an effective antidote to modern life, whether suffering from sciatica or not.  

Friday, December 04, 2020

On Dangerous Ground: This Gun For Hire (1942), Touch of Evil (1958)

This Gun For Hire (Frank Tuttle, 1942)

A lone hitman, ever more. Though scarred,
Raven is at least kind to animals. As our
better angels before their wings were
clipped and the tabloids discredited
absence. A crippled remnant of an old-
school country song witnesses one of
his transgressions. Rise up, shorty, you 
have nothing to lose but your fedora. 
Window-licking alien visiting a diseased 
planet. Like the last purveyor of commodity 
fetishism, lost in an abstract chiraroscuro, 
whose oblique angles stain the walls. 
To watch is to be esconsed in an old Etonian
nightmare. Is this what war and modernity
have wrought? Rave on, you catalogue of
fear and looping, offered to the highest
bidder. Naturally, the pettiest of criminals 
will hand over marked bills, then report
them stolen. What a scam! Caught in a
drift of historical artifacts. She asks him,
why not do the decent thing and kill for 
peace? What a guy. What a fool am I. 
Better stick to that song, tweaked by a
Tinseltown leftist. Life imitating art 
or vice versa, like Standard Oil greasing
the gears of I.G. Farben. Wings clipped,
Raven's heart, dry, a leaf droning in the
wind. A wire beyond the last proletarian
chimney, where smoke will obscure
each and every object of desire.

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

Tracking the time it takes to boil an egg, 
as chorography melts into crackerjack 
philosophy. Fortune-telling soon turns 
into a cottage industry wherein only fat 
cops and the shadow know. Deliciously 
spent, alienated labour, surplus capital, 
and a soupcon of false consciousness. 
The sum of which I sleep therefore 
I am. And so say more with less, then
less with less. Because stylisation will
betray the territory as well as the map.
It's the image, stupid! Everyone trying
not to be hookwinked. That he was some 
kind of man. As opposed to what? may
I ask. Ad absurdum made flesh, stored 
in some bumpkin's menagerie. All power 
to the echo chamber! Straddling borders 
superating north and south, here and there, 
law and order, motels and flea pits, Rocky
and Bullwinkle, Santa Monica and Venice. 
Charlton, not yet an NRA shill, mis-cast. 
Unlike,"Shakespearean loony" Weaver. 
Or sleazy Akim, strangled, a lamb's tongue 
stuck in his craw.  Marlene second only to 
Mercedes, ambiguous motorcycle madonna 
gypsy queen, threatening hubby's wife 
with a dubiously accented "mary jane." 
Hey, guapa, how about throwing a little 
smoke my way! Or am I already high? 
Enough to know Orson wanted Tijuana 
but settled for mongoose oil wells, trash-
filled canals and a cliché-trodden boardwalk. 
Boasting he could make shinola from shit. 
Not an uncommon tendency in that line 
of work. At least the rough cut was delivered 
on time, his future not yet used up, that is 
until the assholes demanded he re-edit and 
re-shootReleased as a B-movie, supporting 
Hedy's Female Animal. Poor Orson. Nearly 
300 pounds of topographical genius,
the padding and corruption oozing from
every pore. A sign of the times emblazoned 
on celluloid wings: now and forever, a lean 
on his body and a mortgage on his soul.    

Thursday, October 08, 2020

An Obscure Road to Hollywood: Scoundrels and Spitballers- Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s

From Dorothy B. Hughes's In a Lonely Place (1947) and Alfred Hayes's My Face For the World to See (1958) to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories and the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink (1991), it's become commonplace to portray Hollywood as detrimental to the lives and careers of writers who have worked there. According to Philippe Garnier's well-documented new book Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s (available exclusively from Black Pool Productions), that's a simplistic, overly romanticized representation, at least when it comes to those who toiled for the studios prior to and just after World War II. I tend to agree, though readers of my 2002 book Heartbreak & Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood - itself influenced by the French edition of Garnier's book, published in 1996 - might think otherwise. But, as the former L.A. correspondent for France's Libération and author of Goodis: A Life in Black and White (2013) implies, the experiences of writers in Hollywood are too varied to make any such generalization either accurate or wise. 

Given the economic conditions of the 1930s, it can’t even be said that writers fared all that badly by working there; indeed, in some cases, they saw their careers enhanced. Yes, they were exploited. Taking into account the economy, the culture of the era, and the studios for which they worked (corporate or cottage), it would be surprising if they hadn’t been. But even those working at the rock-bottom rate (around $150 per week) or on short contracts were, during the Depression, relatively well paid, leading lives at variance with most of their fellow citizens. The studios might have had a low opinion of writers, but then they had, as Garnier shows, a low opinion of all their underlings, save perhaps for their most profitable vedettes. So, naturally, they sought to keep their “schmucks with Underwoods” on the shortest leads possible. Clocking in and out might have been degrading for those hacking away in cubbyholes, but a Hollywood studio was, after all, a factory, albeit one where dreams were manufactured, to be eventually consumed by a viewing public in need of circuses as well as bread.

While Garnier concentrates on the years just before and after Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House with the promise of better times to come, some of the writers he discusses had careers that stretched far beyond the 1930s. It’s debatable whether the 1930s were, in fact, the most glittering of Hollywood golden ages; nevertheless, that decade was an opportune time for wheeler-dealers and chancers, storytellers the film establishment needed to script its newly talking movies and turn a profit for the industry. It was also a decade in which Hollywood film would solidify itself as an international art form and a prime export commodity. To emphasize the extent to which Hollywood films had already seeped into the public’s consciousness, Garnier prefaces the book with a quote from Daniel Fuchs, the formidable Williamsburg novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, saying that films are as indigenous as “our cars and skyscrapers or highways, and as irrefutable. Generations to come, looking back over the years, are bound to find that the best, most solid creative effort of our decades was spent in the movies, and it’s time someone came clean and said so.” While the first part of that quote is undeniable, the second part seems more applicable to industry types and film obsessives rather than the public at large. Film was certainly a mass preoccupation, and an effective opiate, but no more so than popular song in its various forms — though, admittedly, popular song, not to mention narrative writing, couldn’t help but reference Hollywood movies in one way or another.

(An Obscure Road to Hollywood appeared in the October 4th edition of the L.A. Review of Books. To read the remainder of the article, click here.)

Saturday, May 09, 2020

On Dangerous Ground: Thieves Highway (1949), They Live By Night (1948)

“Ontology! I’m just
   telling you a story
   about this projector, that’s all.”

                   Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, 
                   Book II

Thieves Highway (director, Jules Dassin, 
screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides, 1949)

Straight outta anywhere but here, the old man 
sharecropping a suburban kitchen, disfigured,
yet crooning now that it's over and everything 
once was might be again. Though not likely.
Yet all things virtuous, a future daughter-in-law 
too waspish to be true. And even a legless prole 
deserves to drink from that cup of trickle down 
drivel, his life sipped from neither wine nor 
oranges, but Big Valley apples juiced by way 
of Santa Rosa. Though suffering from a case 
of immigrant labour amidst vines of a war-
weary victory garden, his son has done his bet, 
so can flex those patriarchal muscles, rough-
riding the old man's battered truck to Frisco, 
where delicious hooker, with a seductive 
accent and dockside wherewithal, awaits him. 
Where lurks the dreaded middle-man, scamming 
neophytes, without just desserts or even brakes, 
compounding a profit margin out of cigar smoke 
and thin air. Clichés ripped to shreds, for patriotic 
naifs, squandered in world where peace is simply 
war by another means, warped by market forces 
and heavy traffic. Where carts upend all things 
criminal, every road is dead end or dangerous 
curve, every apple, perfectly rotten, upended, 
spilling fear onto the highway, in a pre-TV world 
already global in its take-what-you-can intensity.   

They Live By Night (director, Nicholas Ray, 
screenplay, Charles Schnee, 1948)

The inevitable, unlikely to be so black and 
white, or romanticBut at 16 cents gallon, 
you could drive all night, as far as the eye 
could blink, and then some, all the while 
espousing healthy disregard for more than 
you could shake J. Edgar's shrivelled stick at. 
Doing hard time in Hollywood, Anderson's 
soft-sell proletarianism was fair game, purchased 
by Quick Millions at Paramount for $500. Then
Blood Money, hedging the rights and script to 
RKO for ten grand. It was wartime, and the 
odious Breen detested stick-up man T-Dub's 
insistence that bankers, politicians, and police 
are just "thieves like us." A sense of honour 
amongst... they rarely deserve. As they tangoed 
amongst the tombstones, New Deal radio-man 
Nick Ray was said to have alchemy in his blood.  
Pacifying the enemy, retitling it, Little Red 
Wagon, then I’m a Stranger Here Myself, before 
enforcing his democratic instincts. And the 
soundtrack, collage of the era’s music and 
radio dramas, around which the film would 
revolve, reduced to snippets and an atmospheric 
love story, summed up in the caption: "This boy 
and this girl were never properly introduced to 
the world we live in." What world would that be? 
And who amongst us has...Not Anderson. 
Grafting, at $30 per week as Fort Worth 
journalist, requested money should the film be 
successful, was tersely rejected by Hugheswith 
only function and drift his future. Twenty-five 
years later, Altman restored the title, but neither 
the flaws nor the lyricism. Reaching into 
the past, so near the future, too soon, but so 
far away. Even if these days, regardless of the 
world, no one, near enough, would even bother.  

Saturday, March 21, 2020

From: From the Regional to the Universal- On Larry Brown's Tiny Love: The Complete Stories

THE USE OF THE TERM regional writer often has as much to do with class as with geography. Used and abused in equal measures, the term normally applies to those, usually from the American South but sometimes simply from outside metropolitan publishing areas, who, for one reason or another, have been neglected or who don’t fit comfortably in the predominant literary canon. The term has certainly been used to describe Larry Brown, whose stories and novels are set in and around Lafayette County, Mississippi, a terrain Brown shares with an inordinate number of writers past and present, from William Faulkner to Donna Tartt and Barry Hannah. Although such a description barely does Brown justice, it nevertheless remains a relatively anodyne category, along with dirty realist, Southern Gothic, or country or grit noir. After all, geography has little to do with literary quality, and there are only a limited number of categories one can deploy to sell and market books. 
That Brown worked for several years as a fireman in Oxford, Mississippi, while casually laboring at a variety of blue-collar jobs also seems to have played a part in promoting, if not explaining, Brown’s writing career. Needless to say, Brown didn’t suddenly appear as a full-fledged writer, but spent some eight years honing his writerly skills before he was able to sell his first story. All of this suggests that any attempt to categorize Brown simply as a regionalist is not only a kind of geographical ghettoization, but a dubious attitude regarding a working-class writer who subjected himself to the trials and tribulations of learning a skill that relies on one’s brain.
Yet Brown’s writing — honest, direct, and evocative of the region — was a breath of fresh air when his first collection of stories, Facing the Music, appeared in 1988, followed the next year by his first novel, Dirty Work. That he came to writing late, without any institution of higher learning to dictate to him the ideology of good writing, was to his advantage, allowing him to appraise his new vocation with the eyes of someone who knew something of the world and his particular part of it. He therefore ventured into a terra incognita of literary concerns not on a whim, but as an act of faith that would turn into a relentless endeavor, aided by an interest in a small band of outsider practitioners that included Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Bukowski, and Harry Crews. To the last, Brown would devote a chapter of his 2001 book of essays, Billy Ray’s Farm, as well as his novel Fay the following year, calling Crews “my uncle in all ways but blood.” But Brown, whose output would eventually include two volumes of stories, five novels, a memoir, and a book essays, was sui generis, able to dance around any pigeonhole or literary hero. That did not stop the inevitable comparisons to other regionalists, whether the literary (Faulkner, O’Connor, and Eudora Welty) or the low-down (early Jim Thompson, George Milburn, and James Ross, besides more contemporary equivalents, like Crews, Charles Portis, and Daniel Woodrell).
(You can find the remainder of the article at the L.A. Review of Books website.)