Sunday, November 28, 2010

Some notes on Steve Hamilton's The Lock Artist

There are three things about Hamilton's novel- for me, quite likely the year's best crime novel- that are worth mentioning: 1) The subject matter- lock picking. One learns a lot about the skill of picking locks, though I'm not sure I understood it all. Still,  it seemed convincing, which is what counts. But then I'm partial to crime novels in which you actually learn something, though here it could be that you learn  less about the craft of lock picking than the psyche of a particular person who picks locks. Nevertheless, Hamilton doesn't skimp on details, while making the subject matter every bit as interesting as the protagonist.  2)  The protagonist himself. Michael, who, in the novel, goes from child to adolescent to young adult, though not necessarily in that order, has been unable to speak- diagnosed as more psychological than physical-  since suffering a violent trauma when he was some eight years old, and this has led to an existential dread that has affected him ever since. In this way The Lock Artist recalls, but is different from, Charles Willeford's Cockfighter. The latter, with its silent protagonist, was more a critique of the culture's obsession with competition, winning at any cost- even if it means a self-imposed silence until one's goal is achieved- as well as the ramifications of dealing with that condition.  But Hamilton's protagonist has actually been scarred into silence, and can only communicate on paper, either by writing or by drawing. Just as Michael's art becomes his sole  means of communication, his lock picking becomes a means of revenge and holds, if circuitously, the possibility that one day someone will be able to locate the key that will unlock his silence. Though he could have easily done so, Hamilton refuses to sentimentalize  his character, even if, at the end, there exists a small ray of light enters his noirish existence. 3) The organization of the novel.  Hamilton has taken the narrative and chopped it up into set pieces seemingly without regard to chronology, but with an eye to narrative tension and dramatic effect.  I'm probably wrong,  but off the top of my head I can't think of many other crime novels organized in this way, or, at any rate, deploys it so effectively. Yet the various narrative strands in Hamilton's make perfect sense, as well as serving to intensify the relationship between organization,  protagonist and subject matter. Which makes unlocking Hamilton's novel an interesting procedure.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Good Son by Michael Gruber

I didn't expect to like Gruber's novel as much as I did. It had the appearance of  an airport thriller, like something out of the Robert Ludlum school of fiction. Nor was I all that impressed with a pedestrian first chapter mostly comprised of  back-story. However, the subject, the politics, and the  energy of the novel quickly won me over, as did the various characters. The plot, which takes place in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Langley, Virginia,  is prescient enough to read like something that might be taking place at this very moment, and perhaps something like it is. Theo, a Pakistani with a background in jihad and explosives comes to the United States, learns English,  studies American customs and becomes a soldier in his adopted country, trained to kill, and pass for a native in tribal regions overseas. Meanwhile, Sonia his mother (traveling in Pakistan despite a fatwa against her) is kidnapped. Theo attempts to get her out. Sonia, a Muslim as well as a Catholic,  is an  author, psychologist, traveler- and, oh yes,  former circus performer. She and  her colleagues are about to be executed, but, through Jungian analysis and her knoweldge of the Qur'an, she is able to manipulate her captors,  interpreting their dreams, and subverting the system from within. Preposterous?  Perhaps, but Gruber makes it work, mainly because of the research he puts into the book, and the way everyone's viewpoint is treated seriously. Moreover, Gruber's depiction of life in  Pakistan and Afghanistan feels like  it comes from a first-hand knowledge of that region of the world.  I found the arguments regarding religion fascinating, though others might find they slow down the pace of the plot.  Nevertheless, Sonia's moral ambiguities, combined with Theo's  understanding of tribal culture and American greed, make for an unpredictable climax, one in which  it's difficult to say who is right and who is wrong. As with the war itself, no one wins, while the only losers are the people themselves.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

It's the scope of spy novels that I admire, as well as the political questions they  often raise. What's more, these days I seem to read more and more of them: Charles McCarry; Le Carré; though the spy novel I've enjoyed the most over the past few months has been Mick Herron's Slow Horses. Herron doesn't shy away from contemporary politics or the state of the intelligence service. A Brit whose previous work has mostly been more oriented towards detective fiction, Herron's novel is reminiscent of the Brit TV series Spooks. Like the TV series, Slow Horses concerns a factional element within MI5. But, if anything, it's darker,  better written, and even more cynical and entertaining than Spooks. The title, Slow Horses, refers to agents exiled through misdeed, error or mishap, destined to spend their time carrying out meaningless tasks in an anonymous building miles away from MI5 headquarters. Here the plot revolves around the kidnapping of a young Muslim and the Slow Horses' gradual involvement and problematical, not to mention competitive, relationship to the more mainstream members of the intelligence service.  Tightly written in a stripped down,  hardboiled format, Slow Horses portrays contemporary Britain in an unflinching manner. It also has numerous plot twists,  even switching protagonists at various points in the narrartive. Though one would be correct in thinking Herron's attitude to the intelligence community is cynical, the novel is the perfect companion to the events surrounding the 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at the Stockwell tube station by the Metropolitan police, weeks after the 7/7 bombings. Moreover Slow Horses ends with the suggestion that Herron might  have a sequel in mind, and, if he does, I'll  definitely be reading it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey

 "There is a valley in the west where phantoms come to brood and mourn, pale phantoms dying of nostalgia and bitterness."

Ed Dorn used to say that Abbey's The Brave Cowboy, published in 1956,  was the last cowboy novel. It's true. Most subsequent novels seem more like trips down memory lane. Of course, some would counter with Cormac McCarthy. But the latter's Border Trilogy is more nostalgic for a past that no longer exists, while No Country For Old Men, which is  similar to Abbey's book, in contrasting the old and new, takes a more conservative view of things. In McCarthy's novel,  the hunter represents older, more humane values and the hunted the corruption of the modern world. In Abbey's novel, the cowboy is hunted, and his ethos on the verge of being destroyed, and what hunts him is the law and letter of  present day America, with its restrictions, its highways, fast food restaurants, strip malls,  free market capitalism, etc..  It's definitely the politics, as much as the prose, of The Brave Cowboy that grabs one's attention. Forget the movie adaptation with Kirk Douglas. Even though the screenplay was written by blacklisted writer  Dalton Trumbo and  features Walter Matthau and a young Gena Rowlands (directed by David Miller, a Hollywood veteran with a limited pedigree, best known for directing Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear and, years later,  Executive Action based on the Mark Lane book on JFK's assassination, with another script by Trumbo), the film only hints at the novel's spirit and politics. Perhaps that's understandable given that the film hit the screens  in 1962. Put Miller could have done better by Abbey, whose contention was that the cowboy is destined to be destroyed by the culture he helped created, but not before being turned into a mythologized creature of the past. That image- nicely captured in the film- of Jack on his horse trying to cross a modern highway pretty much says it all. Abbey contrasts the theoretical with the real.  There's Paul, a bookish anarchist, in jail for refusing to register for the draft (the novel takes place around 1950), his politics making it impossible for him to register as a conscientious objector; after all,  he's not objecting to war as such but to slavery, and who believes that nothing- neither law nor country- supersedes friendship. Then there's  Jack the cowboy, the authentic anarchist, who comes to town to break Paul out of jail.  Jack  has no home, can't stand the thought of spending  a night in jail, and doesn't understand why everyone else doesn't feel the same. When he finds that Paul cannot ethically justify escaping,  Jack breaks out with two Mexican prisoners. Striking out on his own, Jack is chased by a weary sheriff, blatantly uncomfortable in his own skin, and his gung-ho deputies.  Abbey may have later developed some idiosyncratic beliefs, some of which (immigration, AIDS) might not have been out of place in the current Arizona political climate, even if some of those Arizonians would have strung him up for his environmental extremism. But Abbey's politics in The Brave Cowboy are never less than perceptive, and his descriptions of the desert and the New Mexico mountains never less than exquisite. Totally unlike The Monkey Wrench, in which he is understandably out to find the lowest common denominator, and more like Desert Solitaire, which remains of the most beautiful deliberations on the American southwest, The Brave Cowboy, which could equally be called "the last cowboy," should be required reading for anyone interested in the west, where we've been and where we're going.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Killer Inside Me

I finally got around to seeing Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me (living in the sticks as I do at the moment makes cinema going difficult). For me, it was even more violent and unsettling than I'd expected. At the same time, it is, as far as I'm concerned,  the most faithful, adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel yet, coming closer than any other adaptation to replicating the feel and intensity of a Thompson novel. No other adaptation comes close, which isn't  to say that the likes of Frears' Grifters or Foley's After Dark, My Sweet are bad films, but they only successfully caught the essence of Thompson in isolated moments. Winterbottom's is obviously not an easy film to watch, nor should it be. Like reading Thompson, watching the movie should be an unsettling experience-  not without traces of extremely dark, sometimes surreal, humor. But if one comes away from a Thompson novel not feeling squeamish then you have either not been reading  it very closely or you've desensitized yourself to a worrying degree. How dishonest it would be for a director, in adapting Thompson,  to sanitise him, to make him more acceptable to a wider audience. Winterbottom's  film, beautifully shot by Marcel Zyskind, and excellently-cast, did have occasional lapses if compared to the novel. But that's understandable, given the need to condense the narrative- for example, Lou's talk with Johnny Papas was much longer in the novel, and made the latter's death more understandable. And of course there were moments when the film did take  liberties that weren't always necessary. But for the most part the film stayed fairly faithful to Thompson's dialogue and inner hell, while capturing the  small-town sleaziness of the novel. Unlike past adaptations which have been a little too  glossy for my liking. But I think it's healthy that the film has been attacked for its violence. It should be, because a discussion of violence in movies is necessary, and  should be ongoing. Misogynistic violence shouldn't be fun to watch; it should unendurable. And last but not least, Winterbottom's film has a killer soundtrack, reminiscent, like another less violent but equally elegiac portrayal of 1950s Texas,  The Last Picture Show, though the two films couldn't be more different.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Greeks, Freaks & Rubes

It seems that William Lindsay Gresham is finally getting the recognition he deserves. What follows is my essay, Greeks, Freaks & Rubes, which accompanied the British DVD of the film Nightmare Alley adapted from Gresham's novel.

Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley hit U.S. screens on October 9th, 1947, just two months after shooting had finished. Made at Twentieth Century–Fox, the project was spearheaded by the film’s star and national heart-throb, Tyrone Power, who, after returning from the war, purchased the rights to William Lindsay Gresham’s best-selling 1946 dime-store novel for $60,000, a sumptuous sum at the time. Coming from a family of actors, Power hoped the film would alter his image, turning him from the smooth romantic lead of pre-war films like The Mark of Zorro and Marie Antoinette into a post-war actor of substance. This at a time when an array of otherwise wholesome American stars were suddenly intent on exploring the dark side of life. For 1947 also saw Lawrence Tierney, already a Hollywood bad boy, in Born to Kill, Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun, and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past.

Despite the expense entailed in Twentieth Century constructing some ninety sets and renting the Patterson-Yankee carnival, reassembling it over ten acres of studio backlot, production chief Darryl Zanuck, whose only previous venture into film noir was Humberstone’s 1942 I Wake Up Screaming, never showed much interest in the project. Likewise, it would be the only film noir made by Nightmare Alley’s producer, Georgie Jessel, better known as a popular comedian-toastmaster. Jessel was interested in adapting Gresham’s novel despite never having read the book. It was on the basis of a newspaper review that Jessel suggested the book to Zanuck. At least Zanuck got through the novel, though when he did, he pronounced it unfilmable, telling Jessel it contained too much censorable material. Jessel said he was less interested in the censorable material than the plot, which he crudely characterised as a story about “a carnival barker who found he could hypnotize a few hicks, decided to become a fake spiritualist, mocked the Deity, and got punished for his impudence.” It was only because Power and Jessel were pushing so hard for the project that Zanuck reluctantly gave it the green light.

With such backing, the movie was able to attract some major Hollywood players. It was Power who urged Zanuck to hire Goulding, with whom Power had worked the previous year on the slushily mystic Razor’s Edge. A Hollywood veteran whose career stretched back to the silent era, Goulding was known for films like Grand Hotel, Dawn Patrol, Dark Victory, Of Human Bondage and a silent version of Anna Karenina starring Greta Garbo, but he’d never directed anything so grim or aesthetically interesting as Nightmare Alley. Also hired were cinematographer Lee Garmes (Shanghai Express, Zoo in Budapest, Duel in the Sun, Morocco, Scarface, Gone With the Wind) and the formidable scriptwriter Jules Furthman (Underworld, Morocco, Shanghai Express, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep). Able to handle complex material, Furthman’s brief was to put together a screenplay that would appease the Production Code office while, at the same time, do justice to the novel, not an easy task when one considers the book’s language, its explicitness and its backstories, including the neglect, if not abuse, suffered by Molly as a child, and the death of Grindle’s young sweetheart after a backstreet abortion.

Other than Power as the ambitious Stanton, and former Ziegfeld girl and studio workhorse Joan Blondell (Cry Havoc) as the maternal Zeena, most of the actors were hardly household names. Yet Coleen Gray (Kiss of Death), Helen Walker (Murder He Says) and old-timers like Julia Dean (Curse of the Cat People), Taylor Holmes (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and former Shakespearean actor, Ian Keith, are uniformly excellent. While it wasn’t unusual for an A-movie to masquerade as a B-film noir – one could point to The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity or Out of the Past – Goulding’s movie is darker than most such films. Dark not only in its view of the world, but dark, thanks to Garmes’s use of primary source lighting, in appearance, with many shots truncated by shadows and only a handful of scenes taking place in daylight.

Goulding (1891-1959) is not exactly the first director who comes to mind when thinking about film noir. Like Jessel, this would be his only venture into the genre. And like Zanuck, Goulding initially thought the book unfilmable, yet he too was entranced by its subject matter. What’s remarkable is that Goulding, a jack-of-all-trades director, whom the Los Angeles Times described as “a husky, genial extrovert who sports screaming color combinations and cracks wise in stentorian tones touched with British,” could make such a downbeat movie. Few, Power included, expected Goulding to go to such extremes. On the other hand, there was a dark side to Goulding, which included a fondness for drugs, alcohol, bisexual orgies – directed with the same care he gave to his films – voyeurism, casting-couch liaisons and gay one-night stands. Screenwriter Frederica Sagor would even say that, despite being a Christian Scientist and reading his Bible each morning, the director was nothing short of a deviant. Certainly, Nightmare Alley conveys a particular side of the director’s personality, and is doubtlessly the most personal of all his films.

Born in London, Goulding had been known as an actor’s director, having obtained career-establishing performances from Garbo, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Mary Astor and Bette Davis. It’s difficult to know if the aesthetic success of Nightmare Alley can be attributed to Goulding’s hitherto- unrealised ability to negotiate the tricky waters of film noir, or if the result had more to do with the chemistry resulting from various professionals working together on the project. Whichever, Goulding appears conversant with the genre’s vocabulary, enough to make Nightmare Alley’s apparent quirks seem premeditated or the result of Production Code compromises. Even before its release, letters of protest were arriving at the studio regarding the film’s view of religion. This prompted Code Executive Joseph Breen to dash off a series of memos to Fox, reminding the studio that breasts must be covered at all times; that there must not be any open-mouthed or lustful kissing; and that there shouldn’t be any suggestion that Stan and Molly have premarital sex, “since it would be a story of illicit sex without proper compensating moral values.” This accounts for the film’s out-of-kilter quality and gaps, which, for the most part, have to do with Stanton’s liaisons. However, Stanton’s affairs of the skin cannot account for the second and third act moving at a swifter pace than the film’s leisurely first act. Could this be because Goulding envisioned a longer and more ambitious movie, and had to cut it down to size within a relatively short post-production period? Nevertheless, in a genre in which plot is rarely paramount, such shortcomings only serve to give the film an even more noirish quality.

One wonders if Goulding and Garmes, working in the technological, if not aesthetic, shadow of Citizen Kane, might have been playing with various noir trademarks, not unlike Welles in Lady From Shanghai. Yet, according to the cinematographer, Goulding “had no idea of camera; he concentrated on the actors. He had the camera follow the actors all the time.” Still, Goulding’s staging did lead to the composition of certain shots. As Garmes said, “[Goulding] was the only director I’ve known whose actors never came in and out of a sideline of a frame. They either came in a door or down a flight of stairs or from behind a piece of furniture.” Whatever Goulding’s input, Garmes must be credited for the look of the film, particularly when it comes to his stunning and brilliantly eccentric lighting. Not just his deployment of shadows but the dark delineation of space, cramming carnival life into walkways, tents, platforms and trailers, while characters reveal themselves and their proximity to each other in a series of intimate close-ups.

What makes Nightmare Alley different from other films in the genre is not merely its bleak perspective, but its cinematic and narrative symmetry. But then this is a film adapted from what is probably the only pulp novel to be influenced by T.S. Eliot and the tarot deck. Consequently, shots and lines are repeated throughout the movie. One notes this in scenes in which the camera focuses on the back of Stan’s head, as though to convey his opacity and his vulnerability. Then there’s Pete’s speech, in which his beloved bottle becomes a crystal ball, reiterated by Stan in the film’s finale. Or Stan saying to Zeena, regarding the carnival geek, “I can’t understand how a man can get that low,” not knowing the same will be said of him. This concern with symmetry is also apparent when Zeena reads the cards, the meaning of which the hubristic but good-natured Stan can neither see nor accept. Then, after Stan and Molly’s heart-to-heart about God, which becomes the point on which the plot takes a final turn, leading to Stan’s downfall and redemption, Stan and Molly’s relationship becomes the mirror image of Pete and Zeena’s in the first act.

The ending, insisted upon by Zanuck, might offer a glimmer of hope, but it can’t dampen the sense of despair that permeates the film. Consequently, Stan’s descent into geekdom differs from the novel, in which Molly, the agent of redemption, is absent. The original ending of the film, rejected by Zanuck, was equally dark, and entailed the carnival manager asking Stan if he was up to working as a geek, after which Stan licks his lips and says, “I was born to it.” Yet no 1940s studio would have allowed a box-office star like Power to appear in a film in which there’s no possibility of redemption. Interestingly, Furthman had written an earlier draft in which Molly divorces Stan and marries strongman Bruno, but this version was rejected by the Production Code office. Presumably divorce was another taboo. Also missing is Gresham’s proletariat touch. In the novel Stan, riding the rails, meets an African-American travelling north to do some union organising. Stan gives this son of a preacher his hardboiled view of the world, saying, “What sort of God would put us here … in this stinking slaughterhouse of a world? Some guy who likes to tear the wings off flies? What use is there in living and starving and fighting the next guy for a full belly? It’s a nut house. And the biggest loonies are at the top.” Not lines that would be well-received in post-war Hollywood. Taking a safer route, Goulding simply puts a different spin on the novel’s hobo camp scene. In Gresham’s book, Stan repeats Pete’s spiel, then attacks one of the uncomprehending hoboes for kicking a dog that suddenly appears, but Goulding simplifies matters: the hoboes react to Stan’s speech and cynicism by cruelly finishing the last of his rot-gut whiskey.

Goulding’s ending might differ from the novel, but the relationship between Stan and the femme fatale, Dr Lilith Ritter, a psychologist who caters to Chicago’s troubled wealthy, remains, in spirit, roughly the same. Yet their relationship, given the genre, is somewhat unusual. Normally a film noir protagonist is driven and eventually destroyed by a carnal desire for the femme fatale, but Stan views Lilith more as a partner in crime than sexual conquest, his pursuit based on the belief that her profession is only another scam, and the realisation that she possesses information he can exploit. “Have you ever been psychoanalysed?” Lilith asks when she first meets him. “No,” Stan says, “but I saw it once in a movie mystery. A good mentalist could have straightened it all out in five minutes.” Eventually Stan supposes she might be on the level and allows Lilith to give her assessment: “I think you’re a perfectly normal human being, selfish and ruthless when you want something; generous and kindly when you’ve got it.” It’s what Stan wants to hear, never mind that her words aren’t meant to appraise him but to ensnare him in Lilith’s own well-constructed narrative.

Though they apparently have off-screen sex, Lilith remains aloof with a penchant for appearing in masculine attire, first in her office, where she wears a Sackville-West-type suit, then, later, in a trench coat and fedora, looking like a poor imitation of Alan Ladd. Reflecting her sartorial sense, she assumes the role of sexual aggressor, lighting Stan’s cigarette and inviting him for a midnight tryst. Suggesting bisexuality, and recalling Goulding’s own proclivities, Walker’s icy demeanour is reminiscent of Jean Gilley’s anti-heroine in Bernhardt’s Decoy, made a year earlier, while her clothes revive images of Marlene Dietrich in earlier von Sternberg films, not surprising since a handful of them were written by Furthman and photographed by Garmes.

In terms of perspective, Goulding’s film, though diluting Gresham’s politics, goes further than other movies released in 1947 (some thirty classic examples of film noir, including Dark Passage, The Gangster, Ride a Pink Horse, Crossfire, Lady in the Lake and Body and Soul) not only because Nightmare Alley ridicules authority – law enforcers, psychologists, industrialists – but because it refutes any notion of get-up-and-go capitalism. Consequently, Nightmare Alley can best be compared to Polonsky’s 1948 Force of Evil, for both films depict the predatory forces in the modern success story. While Polonsky uses the number’s racket as his primary metaphor, Nightmare Alley plays upon the idea that the culture is based on scams meant to exploit people’s needs. In Goulding’s film, everyone is cheating someone, whether carnies, mind-readers, psychotherapists, or wealthy businessmen. While in the communal world of the carny there exists a code of ethics largely absent in the outside world. Carnies might regard outsiders with contempt, but their trickery is small-time and for purposes of entertainment. Problems only arise for Stanton when he attempts to use such trickery to move up the economic ladder. But Stan’s take on the world is warped from the beginning. “See those yokels,” he says to Zeena,“it gives you a superior feeling. As if you were on the know, and they’re on the outside looking in.” Yet it’s ambiguous whether Nightmare Alley is saying it’s human nature to con others, or if conning someone is evidence of a corrupt culture in which, to get ahead, one must prey on the weakness of others.

Made after the war, Nightmare Alley, like Nick Ray’s They Live By Night, also released in the following year, refers to the Depression, though not without a sense of nostalgia and lost innocence. For this was an era when carnivals, fairs and proletariat outlaws were at their peak. While Nightmare Alley is harsher and less romantic than Ray’s film, both treat the Depression less as an economic event than a social condition circumscribing those within it. Unlike Ray’s characters, who find little in the way of social mobility, Stan’s rise from carny mind-reader to cult leader, only accentuates his corruptibility and the distance he has to fall.

Added to the mixture of attenuated Marxism and Freudianism is the film’s discussion of spirituality and spiritualism, both of which run counter to the genre’s economic determinism and materialist perspective. Yet Nightmare Alley’s relationship to spiritualism is also ambiguous. Despite moments when Stan and Zeena’s clairvoyance seems authentic, Carlisle insists it’s just a trick, based on a code and an understanding of human nature. If he’s right, the relevant question becomes who is tricking whom. For, in the first nightclub scene, Stan, responding to Lilith’s question, asked in the apparent hope that she will be able to expose him, seems to know the truth about Lilith’s mother. Yet the purpose of her question might not be to expose Stan, but, like her later assessment, a way of enticing him into her world.

Moreover, it’s uncertain if Lilith really pulls the “gypsy switch” on Stan, substituting $150 for $150,000. Perhaps Stan, whose crime, as someone in the final scene says, is to have “reached too high,” only thinks she has done so. Is Stan paranoid, or is Lilith messing with his mind, when she tells him he’s delusional, denies their partnership and urges him to seek hospital attention? And what about the police siren? Lilith insists that she can’t hear it, causing the already agitated Stan to flee her apartment, seek refuge in a run-down hotel, and numb himself with alcohol, his dreams of tabernacles turning into a nightmare that has no end.

Unfortunately, Nightmare Alley, upon release, would receive little in the way of marketing and distribution. The studio wasn’t prepared for such an unrelentingly dark movie. Consequently, Zanuck decided to put Fox’s marketing efforts behind another Power film, the adventure epic, Captain from Castile. Yet reviews of Nightmare Alley were generally favourable. Critic-novelist James Agee said, “Nightmare Alley would be unbearably brutal for general audiences if it were played for all the humor, cynicism and malign social observation that are implicit in it.” The New Yorker considered Goulding’s direction inadequate to the material, but Variety called the film “a harsh, brutal story told with the sharp clarity of an etching. There isn’t a sympathetic or inspiring character in the show, but the acting, direction, and production values lift the piece to the plane of gripping drama. In spots it approaches the dignity of an authentic tragedy.” Time reported that Goulding and Furthman “have seldom forgotten that the original novel they were adapting is essentially intelligent trash and they have never forgotten that on the screen pretty exciting things can be made of trash.” However one looks at it, Nightmare Alley, with its range of characters, intelligent script and unusual visual style, was prepared to be daring, and remains one of the few examples of a classic film noir still capable of shocking viewers. Once seen, Goulding’s film is not easily forgotten.

When it comes to his meteoric rise and fall, Nightmare Alley author William Lindsay Gresham (1909-1962) bears a resemblance to his fictional creation, Stanton Carlisle. Born in Baltimore, Gresham joined the communist party in 1936, travelling to Spain where he fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. There he met Doc Faraday, a medic and ex-carny. It was from Faraday that Gresham got his first inkling of carnival geeks. Addled by drink or drugs, a geek, according to Faraday, is the lowest form of carnival life, someone who is placed in a cage, where he bites the heads off chickens and snakes. But, said Faraday, geeks are not found but made, enticed by the promise of a regular supply of drugs or alcohol, and a warm place to sleep. Upon hearing Faraday talk aboutf geeks, Gresham immediately conceived the story that would become Nightmare Alley, even though it would be some five years before he would begin writing it.

Returning to New York, Gresham contracted TB, and spent two years recovering, during which time his marriage collapsed. At a low ebb, he hit the bottle and tried to hang himself, only for the rope to break, which spilled an unconscious Gresham onto the floor. He went into psychoanalysis, took a series of jobs, including magician, copywriter and editor for True Crime magazine, and began contributing stories to pulp magazines. In 1942 he married writer Joy Davidman. Still fascinated by carnivals, he began working on his novel, researching it at the Dixie Hotel near Coney Island where carnies did their drinking.

A best-seller for most of 1946, Nightmare Alley is even more unrelenting than Goulding’s movie. With overtones of Depression writers like Nathaniel West and Horace McCoy, it tapped into America’s fascination with carnivals, which, in their depiction of a strange world outside the confines of ordinary society, has formed the subject matter of novels like Charles Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao and Robert Alter’s Carny Kill, as well as films like Tod Browning’s Freaks, Lachman’s Dante’s Inferno and, recently, the HBO series Carnivale. Having sold his novel to Hollywood, Gresham purchased a large estate north of New York City where he wrote his second novel, Limbo Tower (1949). Set in a hospital, it focuses on a Marxist, a mystic, an ex-boxer, an ex-con, a judge-industrialist, an evangelist and the nurse and doctor who care for them. Like a post-war pulp version of The Magic Mountain, Limbo Tower was as bleak as Nightmare Alley, but not nearly so successful.

Gresham’s funds began to dry up, putting a strain on his marriage, aggravated by an unshared belief that he should sleep with more than one woman. Gresham was again drinking heavily and flying into rages for little or no reason. He broke a bottle over his wife’s head and regularly smashed chairs against the pillars on the front of his house. He sought refuge in Zen, the tarot, Yoga, I Ching and Dianetics, but to no avail. Influenced by the writings of C.S. Lewis, Gresham and his wife joined the Presbyterian Church, announcing their joint conversion in articles published in a 1951 anthology. The following year, Joy, now ill, was advised to take an extended vacation. She sailed for England, leaving Gresham with her first cousin, Renée. Four months later Gresham wrote saying he and Renée had become lovers. Joy returned, divorced Gresham and returned to England where she lived with, and eventually married, her mentor, C.S. Lewis (this and her death from cancer formed the basis of the 1993 film Shadowlands). In 1953, Gresham’s Midway Monsters, an Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny was published, followed, two years later, by Houdini, The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Gresham and Renée were married in 1954, after which he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. There would be a final book, The Book of Strength: Body Building the Safe, Correct Way, published in 1962. It seemed a long way from Nightmare Alley. Discovering he had cancer, Gresham returned to the run-down Dixie Hotel where he had researched and written Nightmare Alley, registered under the name Asa Kimball and, on September 14, 1962, took his own life. The only tribute paid to him in the New York Times came from the bridge columnist.

There were others connected to the film who would be similarly marked. Edmund Goulding never recovered from the financial failure of Nightmare Alley. It was just too dark, too explicit, and too disrespectful of authority, to be a box office success. Meanwhile, the director’s private life would continue to affect him. He even believed his hedonistic pursuits had made him a target for the increasingly powerful McCarthyite witch-hunters. Meanwhile, Zanuck, who’d always disapproved of the director’s life-style, ran Goulding’s career into the ground by offering him a series of demeaning projects. Directing only six more films, none of them better than mediocre, Goulding’s decline would correspond with the rise of McCarthyism, the growing popularity of TV and the break-up of the studio system. Goulding died on Christmas Eve, 1959, while undergoing unsuccessful heart surgery.

While Ian Keith’s fall from Shakespearean actor and romantic lead to Hollywood bit player mirrored his fall in the film from mind reader to carnival drunk, Helen Walker, who plays Lilith, would face many years of misfortune. On New Year’s Eve, 1946, after picking up three hitchhiking soldiers in Palm Springs, her car hit a dividing island and turned over several times. One of the soldiers was killed, while the others were seriously injured. Walker herself suffered a broken pelvis. Though charges, based on claims that she was drunk and driving over ninety miles an hour, were brought against her, the actress was exonerated. Despite her injuries, she managed to make Nightmare Alley, as well as a handful of other noir-inspired films, including Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 and Lewis’s The Big Combo. To compound her misfortune, not long after retiring from the screen in 1955, her house burned to the ground. Diagnosed with cancer, she died in 1968, at the age of 47.

Tyrone Power would also be marked by Goulding’s film. His hope of becoming an actor of substance never materialised, though he did star in The Sun Also Rises and appeared in Witness for the Prosecution. But, for Power, it was mostly a return to film geekdom, ending in 1958 when he died of a heart attack while making Solomon and Sheba. Of all his films, he claimed Nightmare Alley was his favourite. As for the film itself, it too would be fated, becoming for many years one more lost movie, the victim of a dispute between the Gresham estate and the Jessel estate over exhibition rights. Fortunately, with the dispute finally settled, Nightmare Alley is back in circulation, enabling viewers to view and review one of the darkest films of an already dark genre.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz

I've been listening to Dylan since he first began recording in the early 1960s. So far, not counting  Dylan's Chronicles, there have only been two Dylan books that have ever really caught my interest: A Darker Shade of Pale by the renown Cambridge musicologist Wilfred Mellers (1984) and Clinton Heylin's Recording Sessions, 1960-1994 (1995). The former, though little known and seldom cited, was, despite its flaws, the first book to really delve into Dylan's influences on a strictly musicological level, while the latter I appreciated because it was straight-forward information, with  a minimum amount of commentary, speculation and criticism. Though I appreciated Mystery Train, I've never been overly fond of Greil Marcus's books on Dylan; they seem overblown, too knowing,  and, for me, bordering on the  pretentious. And he's probably the best of the lot. Likewise, I have little time for the political browbeating of other books on the subject.

Sean Wilentz is at least a reputable historian (The Age of Reagan, The Rise of American Democracy), and he turns in what is arguably the best book yet on Dylan's music, charting the singer's career and evolution with particular emphasis on his recent work, stretching back to World Gone Wrong, and, before that, the Rolling Thunder Review, the making of Blonde on Blonde, and influence of the Beats, particularly Ginsberg, the aesthetics and politics of the Popular Front embodied for the most part in the music of Aaron Copland. In that chapter on Copland and the Popular Front, he also cites Charles Seeger, father of Pete. It's interesting, but  I would have preferred hearing  more about the likes of Ruth Crawford Seeger, mother of Mike and Peggy and step-mother to Pete, a far more important composer than her husband (nor does Wilentz mention that Charles' major contribution wasn't his music so much as his machine for notating non-western music). Nevertheless, Wilentz isn't afraid to enter troubled waters, picking over the more contentious parts of Dylan's long career.

Ironically, the parts of the book I found least interesting were the sections that entailed historical research of the kind more usually associated with someone in Wilnentz's profession- the story of Delia. But if I might add a few comments on that particular section: 1) Delia  might be roughly the same melody as White House but there are major harmonic differences between the  songs; 2)  White House Blues, closer to the Carter Family's Cannonball Blues than Delia,  was never recorded as far as I know at the same tempo as the latter, though there is no reason why it could  not be done that way; 3) though he claims earlier examples, I can't think of any recordings that predate  Charlie Poole's in 1927 version, though Ernest Stoneman and Riley Pluckett might have done so.  I had the same problem with  his sections on Frankie and Albert and Blind Willie McTell. It's not that these sections are poorly done, uninteresting or lack merit; it's just that I'd read much of it before from bona fide blues scholars like Paul Oliver. At least Wilentz avoids doing too much cultural analysis. Though I haven't cared for Dylan books that have emphasised that approach, I actually could have done with more of it from Wilentz, particularly the section on Dylan's conversion to Christianity, and why it became a cultural phenomenon during the period in question and how Dylan fit into that cultural climate.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the section of Love and Theft, and Dylan as a modern day minstrel, picking up on that record's many influences. While some of Wilentz analyses fall short , such as his all too brief section on Masked and Anonymous, a movie which I thoroughly enjoyed, and one of the best soundtracks ever, but at least he went to the trouble of covering  Dylan's Theme Time Radio and the much misunderstood Christmas In the Heart recording. Other parts were a bit long-winded, like addressing charges that Dylan has plagiarized some of his work. I mean, does anyone other than a few bloggers really care?

In the end, anyone who is interested in Dylan will doubtlessly  want to read this book. And well they should. After Wilentz, I'm not sure what more can be usefully said on the subject. That Dylan is a veritable history of American music, as well as American history, has been known for some time. Though I'm sure historians will comb Dylan's back and future catalogue for new ways to address the subject. I just wish more musicologists would  have a shot as well. At least Wilentz recognizes that fact; it's just that on that score he sometimes falls short of the mark.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Tony & Susan by Austin Wright

Blurbed by writers as diverse as Saul Bellow and Ruth Rendell, Tony and Susan might well be an anomaly in crime fiction. Not only is it an example of literary fiction, containing a novel within a novel, but it is, in itself, a perceptive critique of crime fiction and perhaps even fiction in general, particularly when it comes to the power a writer holds over his or her reader. But this isn't one of those pretentious and often inaccessible exercises in post-modernism. Instead, it's a down to earth book about the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, reverie and thought, fiction and reality. It centers on Susan, who, fifteen years earlier, left her would-be writer husband Edward for the security of a life with Andrew, a surgeon. She and Andrew have two children and a nice, if at times problematical, life. A parcel arrives for Susan containing Edward's novel. In a note he mentions that she was, and remains, his best critic and would she please read the novel and let her know what she thinks. While pondering the real reason Edward might want her to read the book, she turns over the pages of the manuscript and becomes engrossed in it. She discovers the protagonist is someone called Tony, whose quiet life is suddenly and violently turned upside down. Moreover, she can't help but find clues in it to Edward's life and their earlier relationship. As she delves further, she, through Tony, relives her past, including her life with Edward and her marriage to Andrew. It's a dark tale- both the novel within the novel and Susan's account of her life- about fear, regret, revenge, the power of the past to inflict itself on the present and future. For me the novel contains one minor flaw that has to do with the contradiction between Susan's well-defined sexual politics and her real life attitude regarding male sexuality, which probably isn't all that unusual and, for all I know, might have been intentional on the part of the author. In any case, in questioning the nature of writing and the relationship between writer and reader, this remains an exceptional and unusual crime novel, well observed, and, with both narratives moving at a fast pace, well worth reading. Austin Wright died in 2003 at the age of eighty. After reading this, it makes me wonder what his other books might be like.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, edited by Silver, Ward, Ursini, Porfirio

Of course, I have, in the past, ruthlessly exploited earlier editions of this book. Want a plot for a film you’ve never seen or dimly remember? Look it up in Film Noir: The Encyclopedia. Want a critique of a film that you can't quite articulate or recall? To jog your memory and critical faculties just check out what one of the critics in the Encyclopedia has to say on the subject. On the other hand, I have rarely used the Encyclopedia to look up post-1960s films. The reason is simple: I’m one of those purists who think that, other than the rare exception (e.g., Friends of Eddie Coyle, Chinatown) film noir does not really exist after the 1960s other than in a bastardized form, whether as pastiche or nostalgia. Part of the weakness of the present edition recently published by Overlook Press (Duckworth) is its concentration on “neo-noir” films. Though I can see the reasoning for this. After all, it increases the book's appeal, accessibility and saleability. I also have issues with the printing job which, to me, isn't quite up to the standard set by previous editions. On the other hand, there are more visuals here- posters, stills, etc., even if they are not as well presented as before. But what the hell, we’re living through the sequel to the Great Depression, so I guess one shouldn't be too choosy. But on closer examination, where are those great indexes the previous volumes contained, to which I referred to so often. In the present volume, there is just a general index, a chronology and another based on studios. But what about the ones in the previous editions based on writers, directors, producers, actors and cinematographers that proved so useful to a historian-manque like myself? Though there are definitely more films covered. And more contributors. Unfortunately, as good as some of them might be, that tends to make this fifth edition more dispersed, and turns Silver, Ward, Ursini and Porfirio into editors of an anthology than authors of an encyclopedia. Previous volumes also had other writers than the editors, but it also seemed to contain the personal stamp of the editors when it came to the various critiques. And though I can't prove it- my older, tattered copy is presently some five hundred miles away- it seems that some of the films that appeared in previous edition have been re-reviewed by other critics. Though why, it’s impossible to say. Still, these are minor and perhaps subjective gripes. One does get value for money here, and there are also some interesting insertions- though again I’m not sure why- on subjects like the Fatal Man and significant shots in Where Danger Live. Whatever it’s faults, this remains, as one would expect, an extremely useful book, yet to be equalled. And I for one will undoubtedly be dipping into it time and time again.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

More From Overlook Press

Along with Jim Nisbet's two books, Overlook also were kind enough to send, amongst others, the following:

The Better Angels by Charles McCarry
One of the best spy writers around, whose work goes back at least some forty years. This one was first published in 1979 and has turned out to be very prophetic. It prefigures nine-eleven with Islamic terrorists led by an Arab prince made rich through oil, using airplanes and America. The novel takes place in an election year matching a liberal against a hard right businessman with ties to the energy industry. I have never been disappointed by a McCarry novel, and this one is no exception.

Double Negative by David Carkeet
Hadn't read anything by Carkeet before. A pleasant surprise and very funny. Jeremy Cook is a genius who works at a linguistics think tank connected to a daycare center. When someone is found bludgeoned to death, Cook is the prime suspect. Consequently he is forced to investigate the case himself. Perhaps the first crime novel which relies on linguistics to unravel the investigation. I'll be reading more of Carkeet sometime soon.

Noir by Robert Coover
The great Robert Coover turns in another cutting-edge novel. Though this one differs considerably from his past work. Existing somewhere between surrealism and Oulipo fiction, Noir examines the formal limits of the genre. With its genre-bending flashbacks, sleazy bars and jazz clubs, protagonist Philip M. Noir is hired by a woman to find the killer of her husband- though we aren't even sure if he was actually killed. Soon the woman is murdered and her body disappears. Noir is a hall of mirrors in which the reader becomes the investigator gathering the shards of a time-honored genre. Though some noir fans might see this as too much of a pastiche for their tastes, any new Coover novel is an occasion to celebrate.

The Man Who Never Returned by Peter Quinn
A novel about the disappearance of Judge Crater in 1930. That was enough to hook me right there. I had never thought about the politics of Crater's life before.The protagonist Fintan Dunne is called out of retirement to return to New York to solve the crime for a wealthy newspaper magnate. Fascinating stuff.

The Caretaker of Lorne Field by Dave Zeltserman
Part noir and part Stephen Cain, with a dash of James M. Cain thrown in for good measure. Zeltserman is one of the more cogent of the neo-noirists, and this might be his best yet. About Jack Durkin, whose family has been weeding Lorne Field for over 300 years. If the field is left untended, a horrific monster will appear. Book by book, Zeltserman is proving himself to be one of the best around.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Jim Nisbet, author of The Damned Don't Die, Lethal Injection, Prelude to a Scream, Death Puppet and Price of the Ticket has long been one of my favorite noirists. In Windward Passage, his tenth book, he pulls out all the stops, combining his long-standing noir sensibilities with an off-the-wall post-modern disposition and cultural critique. Pacey, but filled with enough tropes to keep the most hardcore Jim Thompsonite happy- at least those partial to the final section of The Getaway or the surrealism of Savage Night- Windward Passage centers on a ship that sinks in the Caribbean, its captain chained to the mast. A logbook, a partially written novel, a brick of cocaine and the DNA of a President are all that remain. The appropriately named dead sailor's sister, Tipsy lives in San Francisco, where she hangs out at bars with her gay friend Quentin. That is until she runs into Red, Tipsy's brother's old employer.

Scrambling genres and voices, Windward Passage flits around geographically as well as linguistically, high-tailing it from San Francisco to the Caribbean and back again, dove-tailing from fast-talking, never-less-than-witty dialogue to tangential asides, reportage, paradoxical quips and a novel within a novel. With his ear to the ground, Nisbet not only updates the traditional noir narrative, combining it with a sea adventure story, conundrums, a dash of cyberpunk, and a sprinkling of literary concerns (including the likes of Tom Raworth, Paustovsky and Leonard Clark's The Rivers Ran East). From a prologue that will leave you scratching your head for at least a hundred pages, Windward Passage sometimes reads like a hardboiled Saragossa Manuscript, and bound to appeal to anyone looking beyond the confines of the genre. Still, I remember thinking while reading the novel that this is the sort of book we're told doesn't get published these days. So hat's off not only to Nisbet, but to Overlook Press. Because this is Nisbet at his wildest and weirdest. I'm still not sure what it all adds up to, other than an entertaining, insightful and highly recommended adventure.

If you haven't read Nisbet's Lethal Injection, Overlook has just reprinted it, to be followed by The Damned Don't Die in October and apparently the rest of Nisbet's back catalogue. Lethal Injection is arguably the best of Nisbet's early novels about a prison doctor who oversees the execution of a young black inmate indifferent to his fate, and sets out to discover the man's backstory. Not to be missed.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias

Though I'm no longer quite sure what the term "literary fiction" actually means- one person's literature is someone else's mass entertainment- Javier Marias's trilogy Your Face Tomorrow would no doubt have to be placed in that category. If for no other reason than it makes allusions to classic texts, is contemplative, has historical depth and includes long, elaborate sentences that sometimes span an entire page. At the same time, the trilogy, unlike much literary fiction, depicts a recognisable world, is gripping, horrifying and even funny. For this is a spy novel in the most complete sense of the term, in that the protagonist, Deza, a Spaniard separated from his wife and living in London, works for the intelligence service, interpreting what he sees and hears. It's also a spy novel in the sense that the narrator spies on the world, which makes the reader realize that he or she is also a spy who must disentangle fact from fiction. Or perhaps this is literary fiction simply because it tackles such themes as memory, time, the manipulation of history, literature, exile, betrayal, terror, the state, man's inhumanity, language and translation (in fact, it's also a remarkable feat of translation that Margaret Jull Costa manages).

Each volume begins with a statement which, as the novel progresses, is expanded upon, scrutinized, tested and even compromised as they move through the currents and undercurrents of history. In Marias's world, time collapses, then expands, while single events can take scores of pages to describe, much less resolve. Events that happen in the early part of a novel might not be spoken about until the final pages, or not spoken about at all; they might only be referred to, implied or, like a musical theme, referred to time and again. Meanwhile, historical events, like the Spanish Civil War or World War Two, are rearticulated from one perspective or another.

Because the narrative moves linearly, it's important to read these novels in the order in which they appeared. The first volume, "Fever and Spear," centers on a party in Oxford, where Deza is told by his old friend, a don at the university, that someone attending the party, because of Deza's skills at language and perceptual abilities, might be interested in employing him. So Deza goes to work in a building without a name for job that has no name as a translator and interpreter ("a translator of people, or an interpreter of lives"). That volume's opening sentence, or part of it, sets the scene and reverberates throughout the book: "One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion."

The second volume, "Dance and Dream," takes place mainly in a disco, where Deza witnesses a terrifying and violent event perpetrated by his boss, but it's an event in which Deza colludes for which he bears some responsibility. This volume's first sentence- "Let us hope that no one ever asks for anything, or even enquires, no advice or favor or loan, not even the loan of our attention, let us hope that others do not ask us to listen to them, to their wretched problems and their painful predicaments, so like our own..."- will soon be tested. The book ends with a request by a woman who works at the building with no name, but what that request is and how it will be acted upon is not revealed until the next volume.

The final volume, "Poison, Shadow and Farewell," begins with "While it isn't ever something we would wish for, we would all nonetheless always prefer it to be the person beside us who dies..." Again, it's a sentence that will reverberate throughout the book, as Deza moves between London to Madrid. In this volume one discovers what that request was. More importantly, Deza finds himself infected by the poison conveyed in images of the despicable things things people can do to one another, which forces him to question the morality of his job, but not before he too must perform a violent act.

Although the three volumes constitute more than 1200 pages, I gobbled them up one after the other. Perhaps I'd been starving for this kind of fiction, the sort that makes you stop and think about things, and, above all, consider the morality of what is taking place on the page or in the world. At the same time, Your Face Tomorrow contains some of the most shocking and horrific writing I've come across. Perhaps that's because Marias slows things down to let the events and thoughts sink in. In an age of minimalism, anything filled with nuance and emotion is going to be, by definition, frightening and moving.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Don Winslow's The Gentlemen's Hour

What I like about the novels of Don Winslow is what learns from them. He never fails to throws in information about various subjects, which, for me, can't fail but to make the novels interesting. Whether the drug trade or the fire insurance business, Winslow's subjects and the information that derives from them invariably supersedes his plots, which usually turn every which way but loose. Then there are his characters, ranging from Lebowski types to hardcore psychos, all fully human, flawed and all too believable. Yet what I remember is the information. For instance, I can only vaguely recall the protagonist and plot in California Fire and Light, but I still retain bits and pieces of the information regarding indications of how fire spreads and the way insurance companies work. In The Gentlemen's Hour one learns, naturally, about surfing, which here is pretty much a metaphor for everything, but also the politics of real estate. I would even go so far as to say that Winslow is one of the most subversive writers around, seducing the reader through character and plot, while sneaking in a killer political punch. Plus his prose sometimes, particularly as a way of kicking-off his novels, can sometimes read like poetry. Though I like him best when he scales down his work rather than embraces larger subjects as in Power of the Dog, I'm looking forward to his next major work, Savages, out in the UK at the end of the summer.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

May Day by John Summerfield

"Men make history, but not as they please."

"Art and literature were a racket without the saving grace of gunmen."

Reading London Books' reprint of John Summerfield's May Day is a welcome antidote to the doldrums of post-election Britain. First published in 1936, Summerfield's novel, his second in a career interrupted by serving in the International Brigade in Spain, portrays a country in which the ruling class is squeezing workers more than ever, making them work more hours for less pay. The novel takes place over a three day period, leading up to the May march in London. Lacking a single protagonist, May Day moves through an assortment of characters and classes affected by the turmoil and the coming march, focusing on, amongst others, a seaman, a carpenter and young female works in the East End and factory owners. Portraying an era when class consciousness was rife and the proletariat was ready to take to the streets, the novel utilizes a montage technique delineated by circumstance, speech, observation, rumination, time and place. Born and raised off the Portebello Road, Summerfield was a member of the Communist Party and wrote for the Daily Worker and Left Review. In his Afterward, written for the 1980s edition of the book, Summerfield says, "When I wrote it I'd have probably said May Day was socialist realism. Now I'd call it early 30s Communist romanticism. I'm not in any way apologizing for the book's enthusiastic, simple-minded political idealism. Because it was a genuine idealism." Perhaps that's selling his book short, because May Day even today is a moving and poetic novel, sometimes satirical, but always lyrical and even pastoral, reminiscent of the film Naked City, John Dos Passos's USA, Wyndham Lewis's Apes of God, and Mass Observation's Humphrey Jennings. Like Simon Blumenfield's Jew Boy, Robert Westerby's Wide Boys Don't Work and Alexander Baron's Low Life, it's part of a genre that's no longer with us- working class London fiction. This at a time when such writing is needed more than ever.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Heaven Before I Die

I've been reading Michael Oliver-Goodwin off and on since the 1970s. He's written for a variety of periodicals, and has a handful of books to his credit, including a biography of Francis Ford Coppola. His most recent work is an excellent and perceptive book on New Orleans, entitled Heaven Before I Die- A Journey to the Heart of New Orleans. Weighing in at nearly five hundred pages, it's arguably the most evocative book to be written about music in the Crescent City since John Broven's Walkin to New Orleans. In many ways, it's better than Broven's influential and ground-breaking book, because Goodwin here has a much larger remit, which is to explore not only the city's live music scene, but to investigate the roots and branches of the culture itself. In describing what it was like to live in the city from the 1970s to the post-Katrina years, one gets a good idea of Goodwin's relationship to the city and the music, as well as the connection between New Orleans and Trinidad, the intricacies and joys of second line dancing and rhythms, and portraits of local personalities and musicians, many of whom, like Danny Barker, Tuts Washinton, Jon Cleary, Tom McDermott, Willie Tee, Davell Crawford, etc., are often relatively unknown outside the city. Heaven Before I Die is available at and on Amazon (Kindle edition), and essential reading for anyone interested in what has always been the lifeblood of the city. But a word of warning: it'll make you fork out some hard earned cash on cds, not to mention wanting to purchase a ticket on the next plane to the Crescent City.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dark Matter by Juli Zeh

When it comes to crime fiction, it's not often that you come across something totally different from anything you've read in the past. Juli Zeh's Dark Matter (US title: In Free Fall) is a philosophical thriller that isn't afraid to be both intelligent, poetic and playful. The novel revolves around the lives of four characters: two physicists and two detectives. The two physicists, Sebastian and Oskar, have been friends since university, where they were considered so brilliant that it would be only a matter of time until they both would win the Nobel Prize. Still deeply attached to one another, they have gone, regarding their work and their private lives, their separate ways. Nevertheless, they see each other on a regular basis. After a heated TV discussion featuring the two of them, Sebastian, who lives in the Black Forest, takes his son to a Scouts camp. On his way he stops at a service station, leaving his sleeping son in the car. When he returns he discovers someone has taken his son and the car. While searching the rest area, he gets a phone call telling him, if he wants his son back, he must kill a man. Sebastian has no choice but to ask for Oskar's assistance. Two detectives eventually become involved. The physically and intellectually impressive Rita, whose entire life revolves around police work, and her over-sensitive and empathetic mentor, Schilf. Now dying from a brain tumour, Schilf had been Rita's teacher, and, considering her naive view of the world, had advised her to always go against her instincts and judgement. Having heeded this advice- not quite the usual mode of operation for fictional cops- Rita is now the most successful detective on the force.

Here, as one can surmise, the focus is not so much on the crime as on character. I suppose this is a particularly European type of thriller, unafraid to tackle large issues and clashing views of the world, such as the ideal versus the materialistic, debates about multiple worlds as opposed to a unifying theory, the bending of reality, the nature of time, and the difference between detection and investigation. At the same time, Zeh's approach is such that the novel, though intellectual, never becomes too weighty or obscure. In the end it reminded me of cross between Jerome Charyn and Philp K. Dick, maybe with a bit of Jack O'Connell thrown in for good measure, but, on the other hand, unlike any of them. One thing for sure, you won't have ever come across anything quite like it before.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Election Fever

Was Gordon Brown, in the final debate, acknowledging Cameron's victory or Con-Lib-Dem coalition, or was he simply trying to frighten and, therefore, energize his base? Probably the former, but really this is getting ridiculous. After all, the election has looked more like a reality TV show or a poor facsimile of an American style campaign. Still, for better or worse, Britain remains a parliamentary democracy. If Brown wins more seats and finishes third in the popular vote, he deserves, however unfairly it might seem, to be given the opportunity to form a government, and would be PM until another government is formed. Whether that's a minority government or a coalition with the Lib-Dems is another matter. If not, we might as well switch to the French system where there's a PM and a President, or, for that matter, the America system and do away with parliamentary democracy altogether. Though that's a decision to be made further down the line. I'm no great fan of Gordon Brown, but when you think about, he is, ironically and, of course, arguably, the best PM Britain has had for the last thirty years! Think about it, who would you prefer: warmonger Blair? clueless Major? tyrant Thatcher? proto monetarist Callahan? Well, in retrospect maybe Callahan, but then again maybe not. But we're already talking about thirty years ago. It's says something about the sad state of the UK political system. No, Labour doesn't deserve another term in office, but nor does Britain deserve to have a Cameron-led Tory government, whether on its own or in a coalition with right wing Lib-Dems privatisers like Clegg and Cable.

Then there's the media's role in bringing Brown down, which has been an on-going process ever since Brown refused to call an election (thus costing the media, who had put their people and machinery in place, millions). And what about the the role of pollster and political consultant to the Tories and Republicans, Frank Luntz in all this. As well as appearing frequently on Newsnight with his focus group, bringing forth critiques of Brown and, before that, Blair, he also advised the Consevatives to react to anything Brown said or did, just he advised US Republicans to attack the Democrats regarding financial reform (see Sam Stein, Huffingfton Post, Feb 1st, 2010) and, before that, health care reform, by simply being against whatever was proposed, turning US GOPers into NOPers.

Considering all this, unless Labour gets a last minute surge in support, my bet is on a Cameron minority government or a Lib-Con coalition, as they have in various councils. Sure, Lib-Dem rank and file would be against it, but, hey, this is a new era and just as Blair ignored party members when it came to such matters as the war in Iraq, so Clegg and Cable will ignore their members when it comes jumping in bed with the Tories. After all, what the Tories and the Lib Dems want, more than anything, is a taste of power, just as Labour did in the run up to Blair becoming PM. Of course, I might have more time for the Lib-Dems if they took a left of center position and came out against the war in Afghanistan and promised to soak the rich. But that doesn't seem to be on the agenda.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Pete Dexter's Spooner

You can always count on Pete Dexter, but, though this one is about another outsider-oddball, Spooner is unlike any previous Dexter novel. For one thing it is very funny, but, as it moves from slapstick to tragedy, it is also going to break your heart. Read it, and anything else by Dexter,including his journalism.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tom Piazza's Blues and Trouble

I've long been an admirer of Tom Piazza's music writing. After seeing him on the trailer for Treme, I thought his fiction might also be interesting. So far he's published three works of fiction: a collection of short stories entitled Blues and Trouble, and two novels, My Cold War and the New Orleans-set, City of Refuge. I just finished Blues and Trouble and it doesn't disappoint. In fact, it's one of the best books of short stories I've read for some time. But, then, I guess it was pretty much written for the likes of myself- someone who's into such things as blues, jazz, rock and roll, and the effects of geographical displacement.

A quote at random: "I picture Brownsville as a place under a merciless sun, where one-eyed dogs stand in the middle of dusty, empty streets staring at you and hot breeze blows inside your shirt and there's nowhere to go. It's always noon, and there are no explanations required. I'm going to Brownsville exactly because I've got no reason to go there. Anybody asks me why Brownsville- there's no fucking answer. That's why I'm going there."

It puts me in mind of that great mid-Dylan song Brownsville Girl, but more in your face. Blues and Trouble is also about race and class, and not onlycontains that sense of estrangement present in the best blues music, but its written with a perceptive eye and an ability to turn a phrase with the best of them. The collection ends with a evocation of the music and recordings of Charlie Patton, which is as evocative as it is poetic and odd, like a series of Walker Evans photographs: "The unseen wraps itself in the visible facts, the curbs that crumble in the midday sun, the street you follow out of town, the dirt road, the tin awning, the fireplace empty in the empty house, the fields almost brown in the haze, the scraps of old wallpaper, brown with the years, the woodsmoke in the tree branches, and your grandfather invisible in the darkening blue evening, searching for fireflies..." I'm looking forward to the two novels, and will report on them at a later date.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Millard Kaufman's Misadventure

Millard Kaufman is best known for writing screenplays for Bad Day at Black Rock and Take the High Ground, as well as co-creating Mr Magoo. Disliking the political climate of red-baiters during the era of the blacklist, Kaufman also fronted for Dalton Trumbo on the 1950 film Gun Crazy. In his sixties and fed up with Hollywood, he turned to writing novels, but didn't publish his first novel, Bowl of Cherries, until he was past 90 years of age. Now, a little more than a year after his death, comes his second offering, Misadventure. It's a novel that Kaufman began almost three decades ago, and revised at the end of Kaufman's life, then, after his death, by his son.

Misadventure is fast paced, with as many twists and turns as the Southern California roads on which Gulf War vet turned real estate agent Jack Hopkins so often himself driving. It's also very funny. The novel's protagonist Jack Hopkins is a literate, working class Gulf war vet, now a Los Angeles real estate agent. He lives with his plaster-eating, slightly ditzy, girlfriend and hates the world in which he works, but doesn't know the depths of its corruption until a wealthy, charismatic client asks Jack to kill his wife, followed by the wife asking Jack to kill her husband. And that's only the beginning of the novel.

Written with the linguistic exuberance of a much younger man, Misadventure is a slice of literate noir tempered by maturity and, thanks to Hollywood, the ability to construct a good story. Here Kaufman successfully combines Cain's grand gesture, Fante's soulfulness and Condon's humor and political acumen. What's more, his portrayal of the real estate business as just about the sleaziest game in town makes Misadventure a timely reminder of what the world has so recently become. Interestingly, before he died Kaufman had written a script for The Big Blow, based on Joe Lansdale's novel. I wonder what happened to that one?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Two of my current favorites:

Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton.

And his pal and playing partner Frank Fairfield:

And the two of them together, along with Dom Flemons from the Carolina Chocolate Drops:

Monday, March 29, 2010

Godard's tribute to Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer (Maurice Scherer) was never my favorite film-maker, but I found this tribute to him by Jean-Luc Godard (brought to my attention via Ron Silliman's blog) rather touching.It's Godard's usual mixture, used to such great effect, of word, text, music and voice. And it's good know that even here, Godard is pretty much as incomprehensible as ever. Maybe that's one reason I like even his later work. Also, I only just realized- I don't know why it never to me before- that his first film, Breathless, is most clearly based on Joseph Lewis's Gun Crazy.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets

The publicist I spoke to was adamant, Walter's latest was not a crime novel. I had to say that I thought, in a round about way, it might be, this even though I had yet to read the novel, and knew little about it other than the title, which attracted me in the first place. After all Citizen Vince from a few years back was a classic. And I was right. After reading The Financial Lives of the Poets, I can say if this isn't a crime novel, I don't know what is. Okay, it's not hardboiled and there are no corpses lying around, but it is a book, pretty noir at that, about the financial and economic crimes committed in our name which force people to commit minor crimes to survive. Family guy Matt Prior, an ex-journalist and writer of financial poetry, is about to lose everything- his wife, his house, his livelihood- thanks to the credit crunch. Going out for milk at the local 7/11, he meets two young drug dealers who change his life and things go from bad to worse. It's a tale that runs from the suites to the streets- the true trickle down economy. Like Citizen Vince, it's also very funny, and reminiscent of Donald Westlake's social satire/crime novels such as The Ax and The Hook.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ace Atkins

What is it with me when it comes to reading Ace Atkins novels? One moment I think his books are some of the best around, and the next I find them difficult to plough through? Obviously this says more about me than about Atkins as a writer. Though maybe not. But it does bring up the question of how one's state of mind affects the reading of particular books- one day you love 'em, the next day you're indifferent towards them. Literature is not value-free, either in a political or psychological sense. Robert Duncan used to talk about being in a state of readiness in order to write, or, for him, receive a poem, and the same goes for reading. In fact, has anyone ever written about the psychology of reading, just how one gets transported through a text to the place where the writing is taking place, and the mechanics which asks the reader to suspend disbelief? If so, I've yet to come across it. But back to Atkins. While I'm still of the opinion that White Shadow was one of the best crime novels of recent years, Devil's Garden left me cold. Moreover, a few years back I thought I'd have a look at Atkins's early work, after all he writes about blues and soul music, subjects that are right up my alley. But I was ambivalent about those novels, believing them to be derivative and shallow. Then other day I finished re-reading his 1997 Crossroad Blues, recently republished by Busted Flush and loved it. What does that say about me? Who knows? Maybe I just wasn't in a suitable state of readiness. Or maybe it has something to do with Atkins's work which treads a thin line between pulp fiction and a more engaged type of investigative, if not literary, writing. In fact, what's interesting I think about Atkins is that he exploits the tension between pulp fiction and investigative fiction, which demands more of the reader. Though sometimes one simply wants to be entertained, and at other times one wants something more, both of which Atkins can hint at even in a novel like Crossroad Blues, and certainly in a book like White Shadow and, apparently, though I missed it, in Devil's Garden.

Along with David Fulmer and, of course, James Sallis, Atkins is amongst the best when it comes to writing crime fiction with a music theme. Personally, I found Crossroad more satisfying than Walter Mosley's RL's Dream, which also centers on Robert Johnson, if only because it had taken its research seriously, and because the push of the narrative, incfluenced as it is by John D. MacDonald. On the other hand, I tend to agree with Elijah Wald when it comes to over-romanticizing Robert Johnson and his music at the expense of other equally good, if not better, blues musicians, i.e., Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Son House, etc.. That romanticization does a dis-service to the music. And Atkins's book does play on that romanticization. Well, it makes a good story. Plus the novel paints a vivid picture of the Delta region. Though, back in New Orleans, I think associating Professor Longhair with the disneyfication of blues is not only dubious but unfair. Granted, Longhair, at the end of his career, was over-exposed, as are many great musicians, from Monk to BB King, but Longhair was also one of the greatest of the New Orleans piano players. Small points, perhaps. All the same, I would highly recommended Crossroad Blues to anyone interested in crime fiction and the blues, and the relationship between the two. Unissued Johnson recordings. A cop called Willie Brown. A punk kid obsessed with Elvis. A devilish white blues promoter. And Nick Travers, a harmonica playing protagonist writing a thesis Guitar Slim. As well as the ambiance of the Delta and pre-Katrina New Orleans. Plus an Atkins short-story thrown in for good measure. Apparently, Busted Flush will be reprinting the three remaining Nick Travers novels, and I'm looking forward to re-reading all of them. Because, like Robert Johnson's song and his music in general, those book exist at the crossroads, between pulp and investigative fiction and, no matter how subjective the reading experience, can't help but be fascinating.

But let's give Ace the final word:

"For me making the connection between classic blues and hardboiled detective fiction wasn't hard. As a young writer, I found inspiration equally in Son House and Dashiell Hammett, and later in Chandler and Muddy Waters. The writing styles, the mood and tone, the subject matter and the atmosphere were very much the same. Those artists wrote about hard-luck bars and jilted lovers, betrayal and revenge. People had real problems, their worlds held real dangers, and they wrote about those problems and dangers in a spare, refined poetry that knocked you right in the gut. I think Nick Travers was born when I read John D. MacDonald while listening to some old Chess records. Somewhere along the line, Travis McGee and Muddy and Chicago and New Orleans became fused into one."

Friday, March 19, 2010

Charlie Gillett

Without him so much have gone unheard.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

It's Ornette Coleman's 80th birthday.

Here he is playing with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, recording in Barcelona in 1987:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

From Victor Serge's Unforgiving Years:

"A curious document, this journal, whose carefully chosen words sketched out only the outer shape of people, events, and ideas: a poem constructed of gaps cut from the lived material, because- since it could be seized- it could not contain a single name, a single recognizable face, a single unmistakable strand of the past, a single allusion to assignments accomplished (about which it is forbidden to write without prior permission). No expression of torment or sorrow (this for the sake of pride), no expression of doubt or calculation (for the sake of prudence), and nothing ideological, naturally, for ideology is the sludge at the bottom of the pitfall... [The] construction of this featureless record, similar to a thought puzzle in three dimensions turned entirely toward some undefinable and secret fourth dimension, had furnished her with an exhilarating occupation..."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"San Francisco seems to have always had a peculiarly salubrious climate for personal journalism, the occasional essay, the intimate column, from Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce to Fremont Older and John D. Barry, it’s a great tradition. Today the papers are full of them, excellent, good, bad and indifferent. They are not now and never have been, these columnists, all of them sensationalists. Even the gossipiest ones have never been as invidiously gossipy as some elsewhere in the country. A lot of them have purveyed, between the lines, a lot of wisdom and light."

So wrote Kenneth Rexroth in his very first column for the San Francisco Examiner. The excellent Bureau of Public Secrets website, to celebrate fifty years since their original appearance, is running every column written by Kenneth Rexroth for the San Francisco Examiner from 1960-67. As one would expect from Rexroth, they cover a range of topics. Though at the time I remember wondering why Rexroth, given his politics, would write for a Hearst publication. But then there have been stranger journalistic marriages, such as Beaverbrook and Michael Foot in the UK. I'm looking forward to going back over Rexroth's columns, some of which I read when they were published, even though I steadfastly refused to ever buy a copy of the paper. Maybe one day we can also look forward to someone reprinting the columns of Ralph J. Gleason from the San Francisco Chronicle. Less literary and with no reputation other than in the jazz and Rolling Stone world, Gleason's columns would be a more accurate picture of the era. I remember someone asking at a Left Coast Crime conference in Monterrey, which San Francisco journalist best typified the hardboiled tradition. The panel agreed that it had to be Herb Caen, who also wrote for the Chronicle. I thought, Herb Caen? You've got to be joking. What about Gleason? He shared a column with the renown jazz historian Phil Elwood, not only modelled himself on Hammett, but was the consummate outsider, on the periphery of any number of San Francisco concerts, literary events, film showings, etc., during the era.

I remember nearly running Ralph down in my Yellow Cab just outside Winterland on my very first night on the job. Herb Caen? Until I looked him up just a few minutes ago, I never even knew what the guy looked like.

Though I suppose that's pretty hardboiled in itself. On the other hand, I crossed paths with Rexroth on numerous times, whether on one of my various trips to Jack's Record Store on Scott Street, just below Rexroth's apartment, or the class he taught at SF State. My father had known Rexroth back in Chicago and would listen to him read from his autobiography on Pacifica Radio, and for the rest of the day would talk about the friends they had in common.