Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Handbook of American Prayer by Lucius Shepard

This is yet another excellent Concord Press free book (in exchange for a donation to your favorite charity). A perceptive writer and original stylist, Shepard, over the years, has ventured into various genres, describing the lives of those on the margins of the culture.  Considering the role religion still plays in American politics and public life, A Handbook of American Prayer is as relevant a novel as one is going to read this year.  It's a dark tale that  revolves around Stuart Wardlin, a violent brawler yet strangely innocent, who, while serving a prison sentence for murder, writes a best-selling, self-help book about something called prayerstyle- a DIY style of prayer that combines poetry and wish-fulfillment. While inside he corresponds with a woman whom he eventually marries, and the two of them move to nowhere, Arizona. Having mellowed, Wardlin becomes, in no time at all, a cult hero, but one who can't  escape  the product and celebrity status he's created. Of course, in rejecting God and organized religion,  prayerstyle falls foul of the representatives of God Inc.. Wardlin, who, as Shepard has said, cons himself in order to con others, is eventually visited by a character from his own prayerstyle, the Lord of Loneliness who functions as a 21st century Grand Inquisitor. The plot, though sounding far-fetched, is, as Russell Banks says in his introduction, all too plausible. My favorite passage might be when Wardlin is visited by his own metaphorical creation, who explains to Wardlin his entropic theory:

"Neolithic culture, they didn't have time or the wherewithal to produce anything except what they needed to survive...Maybe they carved toys for the kids. Toy mammoths and shit. That's about it. But as societies grew more sophisticated, more technologically competent, the more trivial, whimsical objects they produced. Now we're in the Golden Age of the trivial and the whimsical. Eventually society will produce nothing but trinkets. Everything will have been trivialized. Every resource trashed, every idea reduced to a slogan, every boulderlike edifice crumbled into rubble. We'll inhabit a landscape of lizard-shaped ashtrays and digital crickets and Harry Potter oven mittens. Art will be manufactured, not ripped from the soul. Greatness defined by merchandisers. Love that once inspired poetry, novels, symphonies, and inspires pop songs...it'll inspire some even more vapid form of insignificance. Hell, we're almost there. Your book's perfect example. You've taken that whole burning-bush, heavenly-glory thing and marketed it as your basic build-a-Jehovah kit. That's why I admire it so much. It's cutting-edge."

Shepard not only savages the role of religion, celebrity culture and the need for easy answers, if not  instant gratification, but addresses issues of masculinity, and the mis-use of language, as well as the relationship between between prayer and poetry. Whether we're in the final stage of the age of me or not,  Lucius Shepard has  again written another provocative, entertaining and important novel.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Los Angeles Stories by Ry Cooder

Ry Cooder the writer might not be as incisive and exact as Ry Cooder the musician, but, for me, the near-amateurish quality of Los Angeles Stories constitutes part of its charm. Not that it's badly written, it's just that those who've covered other aspects of this terrain-  Cain, Chandler, Ellroy, Fante, Mike Davis, Joan Didion, DJ Waldie- have set the bar extraordinarily high. Still, Los Angeles  Stories is more than admirable, coming across as the work of someone trying not only to resurrect the past, but to make sense of it, while, at the same time, looking for a way to tell a story,  trying things out on the page. That Ry has long been able to mix musical styles with tasteful flourishes only adds to the mix, generating its own demand and interest.

For me, these stories, whatever their surface deficiencies, function like a memory theater, conjuring up  an LA of fifty to sixty years ago, with its anti-Communist witch-hunts, Red Cars, City Directory, Bunker Hill rooming houses, downtown burlesque houses, bowling alleys and, of course, music, whether country, jazz or Mexican.  It was a time when Town Hall Party was on TV every Saturday night, Jazz Man record store was still situated on W. Pico, Pershing Square rang out with gospel singers, preachers and Oakie wannabes, radio stations like KGFJ and KXLA blasted across the airwaves, Chavez Ravine was little more than a dusty neighborhood and Angel Annie's voice could be heard behind third base at Wrigley Field. Ry writes about that time, centering on ordinary and forgotten, people, whether jobbing musicians, dental technicians, petty criminals and scam artists. Then there are those who make peripheral appearances, like d.j. Hunter Hancock, legendary guitar honchos Merle Travis and Joe Maphis, and the infamous cross-gender pianist and band-leader Billy Tipton.  I found myself wishing Cooder had written more about Tipton, who undoubtedly deserves a novel all her own. 

Like Ry, I grew up in the twilight years of that period and rarely a day passes when I don't travel back there in my mind. So even though Los Angeles Stories might be something of a one-trick pony, it has charm and no small amount of historical value. Likewise, it doesn't surprise me that Cooder should have branched off into story writing. Because this book also works as an addendum to Cooder's recent albums Chavez Ravine, I, Flathead and Pull Up Some Dust, which exists as texts in their own right. Los Angeles Stories reflects the fact that Cooder's music has become increasingly narrative and political. But then Ry's a product of the Ash Grove, where the civil rights movement and the Peace and Freedom Party rubbed shoulders with Lightnin Hopkins, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Stu Jamieson and Sleepy John Estes. As anyone who was there can attest, it was a time and place from which no one escaped unscathed.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Give + Take by Stona Fitch

Judging by what's out there, writing a decent crime/noir novel about music must be difficult. In fact, you can probably count the good ones on one hand and still have a couple fingers leftover to pluck out Blue Monk on the piano. Which is strange since crime/noir fiction and music, or, at any rate, jazz, have always been inextricably linked. In his latest novel Give +Take (published by Two Ravens Press), Stona Fitch manages to carry it off and then some. This isn't just an excellent novel about a working jazz musician- in this instance, Ross Clifton, a lounge piano player schooled in the likes of Monk, James P. Johnson and the Great American Songbook- it's also about a working thief who, when not improvising on melodies, steals BMW's from rich motorists and diamonds from wealthy women. A talented but, in the end, pedestrian musician with gifted hands, Clifton is anything but an ordinary thief. After all, this is someone  goes out of his way to give away what he makes from his one man blitz on conspicuous consumption, stuffing any profits into anonymous mailboxes, dumping it in trashcans or throwing it on side of the road.  Meanwhile, Ross'  brother, who makes his living as a counterfeiter, sends his sixteen year old son, Cray, to his uncle mostly to put some of those ersatz bills  into circulation. The idea being if we live by a fiat currency, then counterfeiting becomes something close to a legitimate business. Though reckless, immature, and forever driving his uncle up the wall, Cray is no fool, but intelligent enough to comment to his uncle that, although his financial contributions might be making people happy in the short-term, eventually the money will run out that they will have to return to their miserable lives.

As well as being a fast-moving, dark and often humorous novel that focuses on the politics of crime in our present economic climate, Give+Take is also something of a road novel. So Ross moves from town to town, playing various types of establishments, always with an eye out as to how to play the crowd, milking them for all their worth, extracting from them whatever he wants, whether applause, or getting them to part with their money.  His never-ending itinerary, arranged by his agent provocateur, Malcolm, invariably overlaps with  jazz torch singer Marianne London. When the two finally meet they immediately fall for one another, only for Ross to discover that Marianne has her own line in scams, preying on elderly rich men just as he preys on rich women. But together, giving as well as taking, they discover that everything comes at a cost, and even the best laid scams can sometimes go astray. 

This is no simplistic anti-capitalist screed, but a novel that examines what it takes to get by in a world under economic siege,  while questioning the ethics of the black economy, and considering where work ends and crime begins. Certainly, anyone who enjoyed the knife-edge quality of Fitch's earlier fiction, in particular the nerve-jangling Senseless, will want to read Give+Take.  If you haven''t read Senseless, with its anti-globalist theme, you'll want to once you've finished this book. Both are  intelligent crime novels with incisive social commentaries written by one of the best practitioners of the genre around.  But there is even more to Fitch than his critique of the culture. Because this former jobbing musician has recently put his money where his pen often strays, with the establishment of Concord Press (stonafitch.com) which gives away its high quality books by formidable writers like Scott Phillips and Lucious Sheppard, in exchange for a charity donation (a concept that fits perfectly with the title Give+Take) and the promise the book on to someone else.  In this day of corporate publishing, celebrity-oriented lists, and the pursuit of profit margins over literary quality, we need more publishers like Concord Press and more books like Give+Take.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jew Boy by Simon Blumenfield

"The rich Jews would soon find a compromise with Fascism. So long as their profits were safe, they didn't mind who was in the saddle, but when their fat bellies were hurt, they squeaked, they marched, they shouted; in a year, two years, they'd raise some other red herring. Last time, the Arabs were the villains, now the Germans. But this contingent wasn't being fooled. Their quarrel was not with the German workers or the Arab workers. Their enemies were the bosses, whatever their religion, whatever their language."

The provocatively titled Jew Boy was first published in the UK in 1935 and, a year later,  in the US under the more acceptable title The Iron Garden. I first came across it in the late 1980s, when it was reprinted by Lawrence & Wishart. At the time, thanks to Compendium bibliophiles like Nick Kimberly, Mike Hart, and historian Ken Worpole, whose Dockers and Detectives was an illuminating and groundbreaking work, I was obsessed by the "London novel" both in the past and the present. I think I also must have heard about the novel through  the timely exhibition,  20,000 Streets Under the Sky- the London Novel, sponsored by the GLC at the Royal Festival Hall, which featured  London writers I'd read,  like Patrick Hamilton and Norman Collins, as well as those that, at the time, I'd never heard of, like Emmanuel Litminov, Ashley Smith, James Curtis, Alexander Baron and Mark Benney. At the time I tried to get hold of various books mentioned in the exhibition, and Worpole's book, particularly those set in London's East End. At the time one of the most interesting titles was Jew Boy by Simon Blumenfeld.

When I got around to reading Jew Boy, it definitely did not disappoint.  Blumenfeld's first novel (he would write three other novels: Phineas Kahn in 1937, Doctor of the Lost in 1938 and They Won't Let You Live in 1939) is  a political as well as coming of age narrative. Blumenfeld obviously draws upon upon his early days in the East End. The book's  protagonist, Alec, though drawn to the Communist party, is looking for a way out of his claustrophobic East End community, and moves to Hackney to live with a "shiksa." Yet he  returns to join the Communist Party and the book end with a note of revolutionary triumphalism, all the more poignant for its failure. I not only liked the narrative, but the way Blumenfeld, born in 1907, sought to turn a derogatory term  into a badge of honor, not dissimilar from the way Tottenham Hotspurs would call themselves the yids as a way to identify with the same anti-fascist movement that Blumenfeld was part of. Jew Boy, if nothing else, is a wonderful portrait of pre-war East End Jewish life, populated by recent arrivals from Russia and Poland, with its tenements, sweat shops, boxers, anarchists, Yiddish theatre and discussion groups, so well depicted by in William Fishman's The Streets of East London. It was a culture that produced writers and intellectuals politically well to the left, who preferred Marx to Theodore Herzl, a socialist Britain to a future Israel.

As customary with London Books, Jew Boy comes with an excellent introduction, this one from the aforementioned Ken Worpole. From it we learn that Blumenfeld was the son of a cap-maker. Before becoming a writer, he worked as a chicken-slaughterer, cap-maker, presser, and street-market trader. In the evenings he liked to box and talk  politics with his friends. During his early days he wrote a play in Yiddish, performed at the Grand Palais on Commercial Road, of the last performances of its kind in Europe.  Though he wouldn't publish any more fiction after 1939, he did write a drama about the Aldgate boxer Danny Mendoza and another, The Battle of Cable Street, which was performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1987.  A lifelong Marxist, he worked for the New Left Review and was one of the founders of what would become the Unity Theatre in King's Cross for which he wrote two plays, as well as the Workers Theatre Movement.  Until shortly before his death in 2005, Blumenfeld was still contributing a weekly column in Stage magazine.  But it's Jew Boy for which Blumenfeld will no doubt be best remembered. A companion novel to John Summerfield's excellent May Day, also published by London Books, Blumenfeld's novel, even though it depicts a past that's gone forever, still packs a powerful personal and political punch that has present day reverberations. No wonder the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers helped support the publication of the book. Jew Boy is yet another true London classic.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell

There are only a handful of writers whose work I've read more or less in its entirety. Daniel Woodrell is one of them. The Outlaw Album is his long-awaited book of short-stories.  Long awaited by me and  all those who over the years have become hopelessly addicted to Woodrell's fiction. Published in various periodicals, the stories  more or less  take up where novels like Winter's Bone and The Death of Sweet Mister and Tomato Red  leave off, and are set, as one might expect, in and around the Ozarks. Mostly they are about the people- mostly men- who scratch out a living in the region, many of whom, whether by circumstance or desire, do their best to stay on the cultural margins. One gets the impression that it's in the short story format that Woodrell is best able to experiment with words, perspective and narrative voices. Therefore these stories cover a range of topics and depict people in various states of dissolution:  a man kills a neighbor not just once but whenever the spirit moves him;  a woman who teaches writing in prison tries to convince a disbelieving father that their son is a talented poet rather than simply a good for nothing thief; a young woman finds herself caring for her rapist uncle;  a man is threatened with death because in his youth he saw and rejected a beautiful girl; a man attempts to come to terms with his daughter's disappearance;  a man kills a disturbed intruder who happens to be the son of his oldest friend; another man drives his disturbed girlfriend off a cliff. Then there is the seemingly autobiographical story about a horse, a jockey and the father of Daniel-the-narrator, which reads like a personal investigation of the region's recent past. And another story, Woe to Live On, is quite likely the original story on which Woodrell based his novel of the same name. In all, the stories might be geographically similar, but they vary greatly  in subject and style. As disturbing as some are, these stories are multi-layered and lyrical,  invariably rendered with dignity and  a touch of humor.  I've never before taken seriously comparisons between Woodrell and Faulkner, mainly because I find it difficult to compare anyone with Faulkner.  But, for the first time, I have to admit the notion has some merit. If you like Woodrell's novels, you'll love this book. And if you don't know his work, then you've been missing something  special, so you might as well start here.  

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Angel and The Cuckoo

Gerald Kersh has long been one of my favorite British writers. Night and the City, later made into a classic film noir by Jules Dassin, Fowler's End, about a cinema in north London, are two of my particular favorites.  Kersh is capable of transporting  the reader back to an era that London barely exists any more, but is instantly recognizable, before exploring it  as  few others have done. In fact, one of the pleasures of reading Kersh is to follow not only his intertwining narratives but where those narratives take often the reader geographically. Like Patrick Hamilton, Norman Collins, the late Emmanuel Litminov and Alexander Baron, Kersh's  books are  hymns to London, not  the obvious places but its seedy cafes, cinemas and suburbs.
The Angel and the Cuckoo is probably Kersh's most dense book, yet it is arguably his funniest- its humor invariably dark- taking place as it does in a pre-WW2 demi-monde with  artists, criminals, conmen, singers, film people and writers rubbing shoulders. It's comprised of three love stories, linked by Steve Zobrany, the proprietor  of The Angel and the Cuckoo, a cafe at the end of Carnaby Street which is frequented by the characters degrees of loucheness, including Zobrany’s compatriot Gèza Cseh, who starts a busboy in Vienna, but mutates into  Baron Cseh, then goes to Hollywood; Tom Henceforth (“Henceforth henceforth,” he announces proudly), "an artist without an art" who has an affection for various  illegal activities;  Perp, the godfather of the Brighton underworld; and a variety of crooks, tarts, con-men, and a hack writing an in-depth article entitled “Would I Live My Life Over Again?” While geographically the novel takes the reader from Poland Street in Soho through to Oxford Street, south to Blackfriars,  to the Farringdon Road, then back to Carnaby Street.

This is another fine publication from London Books which comes with an informative introduction by Kersh biographer Paul Duncan, which alone is almost worth the price of the book. From it we learn that Kersh, who originally called the novel Poor Tom Henceforth, hoped the book, which he started writing  in 1963, would be a success in America. In fact, he  hadn't published a novel in the States  since Fowler's End in 1957. This novel, his nineteenth, would be finished three years later, in 1966, and Kersh sent finished copies to the likes of Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Ellery Queen, JB Priestly, John Steinbeck and, strangely enough, Jane Fonda. However, even though Night and the City had sold over a million copies,  The Angel and the Cuckoo would sell something like two-thousand. Yet it did receive a modicum of critical acclaim.  Less than two years later Kersh would die from the cancer that had been eating away at him for some time. Long out of print, The Angel and the Cuckoo,   though evoking a bygone era, has stood the test of time and, with its anarchic drift, so much more.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Killer is Dying by James Sallis

It's a good time for James Sallis. Drive, adapted from his novel, has hit the screens, and his new book, The Killer Is Dying has arrived in bookshops.  I haven't seen Drive (I'll wait until the hype turns into a pleasant  buzz), but The Killer... is exactly what one would expect but more so from this always excellent novelist.  Tersely hard-boiled, literary, soulful and filled with surprises. it's, for me, a step up from his last couple outings in which Sallis was, I thought, marking time, no matter that the time he was marking was still as original as it was interesting.

Invariably a man who likes his narratives to retain more than a small amount of internal mystery, Sallis, as usual, makes no excuses for that mystery, by which I really mean narrative complexity. Here, without revealing his hand too soon, Sallis intertwines three world-weary narratives, allowing them to compete with one another before becoming almost indistinguishable. Likewise, dream and reality, and everything becomes dependent on everything else: an ageing detective whose wife is dying, a young boy struggling to survive on his own, and a hit man looking for the person who beat him to his target. The boy is left with the hit-man's dreams, while the hit-man leaves messages for the cop who is tracking him down. They all have their own story, fragments of lost lives that reveal their vulnerability, their sense of mortality, and their latent desire to connect.  

The Killer... is also a novel about the southwest, that crazy place where politicians are shot, immigrants are suspect, and the sun, which eats into the skin, puts everyone on edge, and makes skin cancer merely a chapeau away. But that makes the place only fractionally more crazy or dangerous than anywhere else. It helps, though barely explains Sallis's fondness for approaching things at an odd angle, or for someone who searches for their nemesis only to find it's their spiritual double. As one cop says to an older cop, "It would help if we had some idea what we're looking for." The older cops answers, "And how often does that happen, that we know what we're looking for?" Not often, is all one can say, because The Killer is about coming to terms with things, whether disillusionment, compromise or the mysteries of life:  "Maybe we have to [lose the dream], to go on. Or maybe we only displace it, as we do so much else. Is that why we are all so sad? Are we? Sad? How can we be with life so full around us, with so very much of the world to engage in? But always the bad ending. Is the ending what matters?" To which one can only add, no,  it's not at all, it's not the ending that matters, but how one arrives at it; it's  the process that counts, and that's something Sallis and the characters in the The Killer... know all too well.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fever: Little Willie John- A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul by Susan Whitall

Any musically conscious person who grew up during the 1950s and early 1960s will no doubt have Little Willie John embedded in their personal soundtrack of the era.  From the often-heard Fever and Grits Ain't Groceries to blues-soaked ballads like My Love Is and his ill-fated Capitol session, LWJ, with a remarkable range and soulful voice- Bobby Bland crossed Jackie Wilson, with some Jimmy Scott thrown in for good measure- was not only one of the best soul singers, but was the equal of, if not better than, most jazz singers, then or now. Moreover, John, who stood at 5'3", and looked younger than his years, produced some of his most memorable recordings while still a teenager.

In Fever, Veteran Detroit rock journalist (Creem magazine, Women of Motown) Susan Whitall, with  help from LWJ's son, Kevin, follows John from his early days on the streets of Detroit, through the ups and downs of his career, to the nightmare of those final days, including the controversial incident which led to his incarceration and, ultimately, to his death. In fact, stories of his drinking, drugs, bravado, confrontations and intermittent bouts of violence, only make John, who did his best  to stylize himself on Sinatra, even more complex and human. Though he sought a party wherever he went, John was also a family man. Yet in an era of unscrupulous promoters and racist attitudes, John wasn't about to be intimidated or ripped-off by anyone. Having interviewed family, friends and fellow artists, Whitall is perceptive not only about the music, but about the culture that created it, whether the migration of African Americans to find work in the north, which led to a vibrant Detroit club and music scene, or the stormy politics of the 1960s.

Of course it's LWJ's music that matters. And anyone reading this well-researched book will inevitably want to dig out  those old records and cds. Too bad in this age of YouTube there isn't any footage around of LWJ singing. But those recordings sounds as fresh and entrancing as they did when they first appeared. For me, Fever might well be the most interesting music biography I've read this year, and maybe longer.

Monday, July 04, 2011

The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

These days there are so many varities of noir that it can be mind-boggling. Way back whenever, it was easy; the genre was pretty much  divided between urban and rural noir, while, with the exception of writers like Andrew Coburn, suburban noir hardly entered into it. Similarly, other than stories written specifically for the teenage market, not much noir fiction has centered specifically on children. What makes Megan Abbott's The End of Everything unique is that it's  set in suburbia and it's about childhood. Moreover, it affirms that both can be extremely dark places. After all, who knows what evil lurks behind those curtains. Likewise, who really knows what goes on in the mind of a child, particularly during what's commonly called the latency period, between childhood and adolescence, with its high-drama, longing, obsessions and confusion.       

The plot of The End of Everything revolves around the disappearance of Evie, a thirteen year old, and is narrated by Evie's best friend,  Lizzie, herself on the  cusp of puberty, though not quite as precocious as her friend. Both are in awe of Evie's older sister, Dusty, a beautiful but hard-edged  seventeen year old. But Lizzie is also infatuated by Evie and Dusty's father. Distorted through Lizzie's view of things, the novel is, as the title suggests, about the end of childhood and the final days of that heightened and circumscribed state of awareness that accompanies it, terrifingly perfect,  to which one can never return.   

Abbott has already been responsible for a handful of excellent novels- influenced by Hollywood film noir and set mostly during the mid-20th century- but I think this could be her best. At any rate, it's her most daring.  Reading it, I was reminded of the Swedish horror film, Let the Right One In as well as Rian Johnson's strangely evocative Brick. They, like Abbott's novel,  portray young people as existing in a world of their own, separate from adults, trapped in an in-between existence.  The only possible disconnect here is that the reader has to suspend disbelief when it comes to Lizzie, who, at thirteen, is able to articulate what isn't often articulated. Wearing her emotions as well as her misperceptions on her sleeve, Lizzie is particularly adept at describing  the physical, including her own body, which she regards with with fascination as well as dread. Fortunately, Abbott's prose is as seamless as it is fevered,  resulting in something that reads like a nightmare in which reality is flimsy yet hyper-real.  Accordingly, Lizzie's uncertainties are transferred to the reader.  Is the neighbor's father a perv? Is her mother's boyfriend the voyeur?  Is her friend's sister involved in an incestuous relationship with her dad? These are just a few of the mysteries that may or may not be revealed.

Actually, I'm not sure Picador, the book's British publisher, has the right line when it comes to marketing such an evocative and intelligent novel. Comparisons to The Virgin Suicides and The Lovely Bones are, for me, slightly wide of the mark. In fact, it sells The End of Everything short.  Because Abbott's novel is not only more believable, but  closer to the edge, while the other two are literary products, more concerned with presentation and style than substance. But even if I'm wrong, it still points to the fact that Abbott has entered a genre that still barely exists, no matter that young adults have been reading a version (Lois Duncan, Robert Cormier, S.E. Hinton, VC Andrews) for some time. Abbott's book might be set in suburbia and about childhood, but, by investigating obsession, sex and everything else associated with the unexamined life, it goes straight to the heart of what noir fiction is about, while, at the same time, helping to reset its parameters.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson

Watson's impressive first novel is  about creating narratives, and the relationship between narrative and memory.  In the tradition of Borges and Philip K. Dick, but on a suburban level, with a touch of Groundhog Day and Memento thrown in for good measure, Watson's novel centers on Chrissie, a woman in her forties who believes her amnesia is the result of a car accident. Her amnesia means that each day she has to re-remember her life. On the advice of a psychiatrist, she begins to keep a journal. This allows her to gradually piece together her past, and realizes that her husband, Ben, is withholding various things from her. It makes her wonder if he really is a compassionate carer or someone out to manipulate her in some way.  It's the structure of this novel, and its concentration on the trivial, that make it so nerve-jangling. No grand gesture or demonic prose here, just the daily grind of trying to piece together a personality, a past and a history.

Friday, May 20, 2011

An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War by J. Hoberman

These days J. Hoberman is one of the few film critics  I read with any interest. It's not only that he's perceptive and political without being doctrinaire, but he can write about a range of genres, and able to put them all within a historical context. This is apparent in his journalism and in the books he's written, withsubjects like early Yiddish cinema, Film Culture experimenters like Jack Smith,  film noir, independent film-makers, and the media. Since I've always found myself in a minority when it comes to bridging genres, particularly when it comes to justifying an interest in 1960s New American Cinema film-makers and film noir, I've always though there's at least one critic to back me up. 

His latest work, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, is Hoberman  at his best, putting his finger on the pulse of history,  matching events with the films- westerns, apocolyptic sci-fi, biblical spectaculars or film noir- they represent or, at any rate, with which they coincide. The prequel to Hoberman's previous book, the impressive The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties, Array of Phantoms starts at the beginning of the war, works its way through the McCarthy era, and ends with Ike's second term and the release of Kazan's Face In the Crowd ("a political horror film").

Because it covers such a range of sub-headings- exemplified by such chapter titles as Aliens Among Us, Fighting For Truth, Justice and the American Way, Redskin Menace From Outer Space, America On the Road- Hoberman's prose can be both dazzling and sometimes a bit daunting. There are  moments when An Army of Phantoms feels more like a roller coaster ride through history, with various bits of baggage thrown in for good measure, be they film reviews from the era, including those David Platt's in the Daily Worker, or newspaper reports of significant events. At other times, the reader might sometimes feel they are getting more than they bargained for, though, with a book like this, that probably comes with the territory. Still the deluge does produce the occasional lapse, for the most part insignificant, like calling the site of a 1948 Henry Wallace Hollywood rally, Gilmore Stadium, home of professional football and midget car racing, rather than Gilmore Field, the home of the Pacific Coast League team the Hollywood Stars (as well as midget car racing), and where the 1949 Stratton Story, starring James Steward and June Allyson would be filmed. Niggling, of course, but nagging all the same, if only because it makes one wonder  what other minutiae he might have got wrong.

As Hoberman points out, most of the films produced during this period reflect the dominant narrative,  there are  examples (Kiss Me Deadly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) of work that, consciously or not,  subvert the prevailing political line and media machine. Or films that create a new narrative, such as  John Ford's The Searchers. Army of Phantoms, like Dream Life, might bear the mark of  Richard Slotkin's monumental work, Gunfighter Nation, but Hoberman's film-as-political history books are more readable and not as dense. In fact, Army of Phantom's introduction alone, with its notes and commentary on Wellman's The Next Voice You Hear ("a study in terror"), is alone probably worth the price of the book.  In the end, Array of Phantoms might well be the most comprehensive book yet on the post-war era and the relationship between film and the culture surrounding it. Though I don't think many would argue against the notion that it's  impossible to understand the texts and subtexts of American films without understanding American policies at home and abroad. However, it's easier to state the case than to demonstrate it, much less as ably as Hoberman does here. For me, Army of Phantoms, along with Dream Life, deserve a place alongside politically-tinged film books like Gerald Horne's Class Struggle In Hollywood and Thomas Douherty's Pre-Code Hollywood. Apparently, Hoberman is  at work on a third volume, Found Illusions: The Romance of the Remake and the Triumph of Reaganocracy. I, for one, eagerly await its arrival.  

Friday, May 06, 2011

One Last Mad Embrace by Jack Trevor Story

I first came across Jack Trevor Story's writing in the Guardian during the 1970s. Those columns, in which the narrator seemed perpetually trying to win back his wayward girlfriend Maggie, would later be collected in Letters to an Intimate Stranger. When I first read them, I enjoyed, and was happily  perplexed by, the way those articles blurred the line between autobiography and fiction. I would later learn it was more the former than the latter. Michael Moorcock, who calls Story "a working class Proust," insists that the wilder bits in Story's writing are invariably autobiographical, while the more mundane parts are those he's made up. Though referencing Proust might be accurate regarding the manner in which Story documents Britain during the last half of the 20th century, it hardly describes his writing style, which is invariably straight-forward, filled nevertheless with playful asides and narrative interjections. 

When I first read Story I was also unaware that he had not only written the novel and script for Hitchcock's Trouble With Harry (for which Hitch paid him all of £150), but had authored under his own name as well as under various pseudonyms, a number of other books, including some Sexton Blake novels and a handful of westerns. Influenced by Saroyan, as well as Orwell and Arnold Bennett, Story was  a cross between an American pulp writer and a modernist.  Yet for many years his work was most often found in the bargain bins of UK charity shops and secondhand bookstores. Surely it was only a matter of time before he would be read again. After all, he has championed by the likes of Moorcock and  Iain Sinclair. And Story definitely deserves to appreciated, though I doubt if the Guardian would publish his work today as it did in the 1970s, so politically incorrect and irreverent is Story's humour and perspective.  

But there is also a dark edge to Story's fiction, as seen not only in One Last Mad Embrace, but going back to The Trouble With Harry. Always anti-authoritarian, Story moves from portraying the police as bumbling idiots, PC Plods, less malicious than incompetent. According to Moorcock, this changes in the late 1960s due to a personal encounter with the authorities. Story's world is also filled with malign and sometimes inexplicable forces engendered by  the state, or those who side with the state in letter or spirit of the state, or the corrupt. 

Like much of his other work, One Last Made Embrace starts as an absurdist comedy, but gradually drifts into surreal farce. Along the way we meet a  cast of characters some of whom have populated previous Fenton novels. Set in the early 1970s, Fenton, thrice married, drives a white Capri, occupies a Hampstead flat  with four nurses and is involved Ariadne, the foul-mouthed daughter of a fading star, who might be 12, 14 or 17, and who might even be someone else altogether, depending on which way the narrative is moving at any particular moment. The story involves a search for £5m, a back-from-the-dead film producer, the staging of a new BBC drama series about an unmarried mother, anonymous postcards and phone-calls, wronged husbands out for revenge, a vigilante student group, a crucifixion, a threesome, an abortion, a car chase to Scotland, a dead sheep, a novel written on a toilet roll by a lunatic, and a clairvoyant landlady who sleeps on a coffin.  One Last Mad Embrace is just the most recent Story novel to be republished. Hopefully others will follow. Certainly, Story has gone unread, or read by only a dedicated few, for too long. And if you can find them, all his books, the Argyle novels-   Live Now, Pay Later, Something for Nothing and The Urban District Lover)-  as well as the Horace Spurgeon Fenton books- One Last Made Embrace, but I Sit in Hanger Lane and Hitler Needs You- are all worth checking out.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Baby Godiva by Mar(t)y Holland

Mary Hauenstein, aka Marty Holland, aka Mary Holland, is best known for writing the novel and the story on which two classic examples of film noir are based: Otto Preminger's 1946 Fallen Angel, and Robert Siodmak's 1950 The File On Thelma Jordan. Both films feature two memorable noir femmes fatales: Linda Darnell in the former film and Barbara Stanwyck in the latter. Other than Fallen Angel (also published as Blonde Baggage, which French critics Mesplede and Schleret describe as Jim Thompson crossed with Barbara Cartland), Holland, from Beaverdam, Ohio,  who began her Hollywood career as a studio script typist, is credited with writing two other novels: The Glass Heart (also published as Private Passions) and Night Must Fall. In October, 1946, Kay Kirby announced in her Hollywood gossip column, Chatterbox, that Robert Montgomery was intending to adapt The Glass Heart,  but, instead, he chose to make Lady in the Lake, followed by Ride the Pink Horse.  Holland was no Chandler, nor prolific, like her friend Steve Fisher, but, with narratives that invariably feature a strong, sexy and and precocious female, she at the very least ranks with the likes of Dorothy B. Hughes as an important writer who, for one reason or another, inhabited the margins of Hollywood culture. Even though Holland changed her first name to make it sound more masculine, and therefore more acceptable to publishers, that certainly did not affect the sexual politics of her fiction, which, in many ways, was ahead of her time. In fact, it's likely that she changed her name because of the sexual politics of her fiction.

Baby Godiva was found in manuscript form by relatives following Holland's death from cancer in 1971. Here the femme fatale, if one can call her that, is Godie a sexually mature but emotionally-challenged fourteen year old, the daughter of an encrazed and abusive preacher. In this claustrophobic, 1950s southern town, Godie befriends Carly, an uneducated eighteen year old farm worker who works unceasingly for his drunken step-father. Accused of assaulting and raping Godiva, Carly is arrested. The extenuating circumstances soon become clear as the novel  moves from the young couple's strange friendship to the courtroom and beyond, focusing not only on Godie and Carly, but those connected to the crime. Holland's novel- "Kill a Mockingbird meets Lolita"- is about race and class as it manifests itself through the legal system, prison and capital punishment, and the prevailing attitudes of the era. Delving into the lives of not only Godie but the wife and mistress of the judge trying the case, it's also about the sexual politics of the time, the curse of beauty and how society can so easily manipulate the emotionally immature and uneducated. Though Baby Godiva might not be as tightly constructed as Fallen Angel and Glass Heart, it's a  more ambitious effort. This is a novel not only for those interested in forgotten Hollywood writers, but for those who like  fiction from an era when noir was  for real. Reading Baby Godiva I couldn't help but wonder  what Mary Holland might have gone on to write had she lived through the next wave of feminism that would arrive in the years following her death.   

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Joseph Losey's The Prowler

James Ellroy, in the documentary included with this DVD, calls Joseph Losey's1951 The Prowler "perv-noir." And he might well be right. From the opening shot of his long unavailable film-  Evelyn Keyes pulling down a blind after she notices a prowler looking at her through her bathroom window- the viewer is implicated in the film's voyeurism as well as its politics. Not only do we look at Keyes from the outside, just as any prowler would, but we are also meant to take a long hard look at America's materialistic post-WW2  culture. In that sense The Prowler is akin to, though more blatantly political than, that other paean to voyeurism, Powell and Pressburger's Peeping Tom.

The film was originally titled  The Cost of Living, and that pretty much sums up what the movie is about. As the Keyes' husband and radio d.j. voice ( the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who ghosted the script) says, "Good news. The cost of living is going down." Though ultimately it's not such good news for Webb, a rookie cop who hates his job and yearns for something better, played by Van Heflin, nor for Susan, played by Evelyn Keyes. Responding to Susan's call about the prowler, Webb takes one look at Susan and, sensing her loneliness, vulnerability and relative wealth, realizes the good life that he yearns for might be within touching distance. He figures all he has to do is ensnare her. This is a world of surface values and material objects.  On the other hand, Susan, trapped in a house filled with those objects, and a husband who is both impotent and domineering,  longs for something more and so falls easily and hard for Webb. This is a pre-Mad Men world where appearances are  everything, women are  kept in their place, everyone wants a piece of the post-war middle-class pie and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

The Prowler might also be as close as film noir gets to a perfect film, however minor its parameters. Made for Horizon  an independent studio, and produced by Spiegel and John Huston, it was released just prior to  the blacklist when noir could afford to be political and  sexually suggestive, just so it didn't contravene the Production Code.  It would also  be Losey's final American film before the blacklist brought him to Britain where, with the  exception of The Criminal, he would never return to the genre, nor make films  equalling the likes of The Boy With Green Hair, M, and The Lawless.

Losey, here assisted by the future director of Kiss Me Deadly Robert Aldrich, gets an outstanding, if unsettling, performance from Van Heflin, who plays a truly repulsive and amoral individual. His body language and gaze- sitting down in Keyes' living room without being asked, hitching his trousers, scratching himself, lustily checking out a woman checking into his hotel- convey menace, acquisitiveness and envy, his shallowness and boorish behavior betrayed in his every move. Keyes gives an equally remarkable performance, one of those actors able to alter her demeanor within seconds, going from homely to beautiful, from passionate to cold and clueless. Susan is multi-dimensional, not very intelligent, but at sea in her enclosed world. Mostly relying on studio interiors, Arthur Miller's photography is as claustrophobic as it is dark, pinning the two protagonists against a backdrop of socio-economic signifiers, or, according to critic Manny Farber, "hitherto untouched items like motels, athletic nostalgia, the impact of nouveau riche furnishings." But after various proscenium scenes of domestic upheaval, Miller opens every angle, making the desert too light and difficult to negotiate. All this helps Losey as he seeks to meld Ibsen and Camus with Brecht and James M. Cain, reaching a finale in Webb's escape attempt in which he takes an eternity to climb a towering sand pile. It's  two handful forwards, one handful backwards, in a nightmare that can only end in failure.

Yet every jewel has to have flaws, and here they come dressed as inconsistencies. Of course, Susan could have had an abortion when she discovers she's pregnant, though that would have been a no-go area as far as the  Production Code was concerned. However, why does Webb still have his badge after he has quite the police force? Or has he not heard the movie cliche about handing-in badge and gun. And, other than for its metaphorical and thematic value does Webb climb that huge sand pile instead of simply going around it? Or is that a kind of lateral thinking that poor Webb is incapable of implementing.

But these are minor points which only add to the film's Brechtian qualities. Finally, it should also be mentioned that the DVD comes with a documentary on the making of The Prowler that, amongst others, includes Ellroy, Denise Hamilton, Eddie Muller and Alan Rode, on the making of the movie, as well as a short film on the Film Noir Foundations work restoring film noir, and an interview with the always interesting Bertrand Tavernier who extols the virtues of the film and Van Heflin as an actor. In all this is a movie, and DVD package, that anyone interested in film noir, or for that matter  "perv-noir," will definitely want to see.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

So far I think I've read everything Tom Franklin has published. To me he's one of the shining lights of contemporary fiction.  Though I have to admit that I didn't care much for his previous novel Smonk, though, of course, it could be a case that I just didn't get it. For me, it was readable and entertaining, but it was also mindlessly violent, which, of course, might have been the point; but, if so, so what? However, I'm glad to say that Franklin is definitely back to his best in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.  It's a literary crime novel that dares to venture outside the usual parameters of the genre. It is also, as the title suggests, a novel that deals with recent Mississippi history- the crooked latter referring to the spelling of the name of the state- in all its glory and degradation. As Dr Cornel West likes to point out Mississippi has given America some of its greatest artists- Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Jimmie Rodgers, Elvis, Charlie Patton, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, etc.. Today there are a surfeit of novelists from the state, not only Franklin, but late and lamented writers like Larry Brown and Barry Hannah. What they have in common is a deep knowledge of the landscape and its people,  the literary equivalent of  the Deep Blues that Robert Palmer describes in his book of that name. Accordingly, Broken Letter, Broken Letter not only portrays the relationship between the races, but, in doing so, investigates the way in which the past haunts the present and predicts the future. In a sense this these are concerns that other southern writers have examined, but not all that often within the context of a crime novel.

The story is set in rural Mississippi where two boys- Silas,  sports-minded and black, and Larry,  bookish, introverted and white- become friends. The former is brought up by his mother, while the latter belongs to an only child in a lower middle class family.  When, as teenagers, a white girl disappears, suspicion falls on Larry which, though he isn't charged with the crime, turns him into the town outcast. Meanwhile Silas moves away and comes back as the town's only law-enforcement officer. Then another girl disappears and, though years later, suspicion once again falls on Larry.

What some readers might not be so sure about here is the portrayal, now something of a cliche, that another bookish introvert is tagged as a potential killer. But Franklin plays with that cliche to great effect, while, at the same time, making sure  no one is one-dimensional, much less completely innocent. 

Not only does the narrative, shifting from present to past and back again, never veer from its goal, but there are any number of poetic passages, like the following: 

"When he left, Larry amid his machines, thinking of Silas, how time packs new years over the old    but those old years are still in there, like the earliest, tightest rings centering a tree, the most hidden, enclosed in darkness and shielded from weather. But then a saw screams in and the tree topples and the circles are stricken by the sun and the sap glistens and the stump is laid open for the world to see."

 I don't know what it is about southern writers, but I seem to be reading more of them than ever: not just the likes of Franklin and Brown but William Gay and Tim Gautreaux, not to mention my recent foray into the world of Peter Taylor. But read Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Winter's Bone

I've read and liked just about everything Daniel Woodrell has  written. Winter's Bone might be his finest book; but, then again, maybe not. Because they're all very good.  But, then, I'm a sucker for regional writers, especially those from the south or anything about the southern mountains. However, it's not Daniel Woodrell that I want to write about.  It's Debra Granik's adaptation, which I finally got around to seeing (better late than never), and was so impressed by.  Jennifer Lawrence as seventeen year old Ree is magnificent, as is John Hawkes who plays her uncle Teardrop. There are few if any films that portray Ozark culture, much less portray it so well. There are many touching moments in the film, not least a birthday party that Ree crashes to get information about the whereabouts of her father.  A group musicians play a mountain tune, while the camera fixes for a very brief moment on the mantel piece. Amongst other  photograph there's one of a son or nephew, in military gear, no doubt serving in Iraq, Afghanistan or maybe even the first Gulf war. And, of course, these people portrayed in Woodrell's book(s) and Granik's film are the very people who fight our wars and die for our country, these people who don't  know how to back down, who are so private and clannish, who are forced through circumstances to manufacture and sell drugs culture, and can only get a job or an education by joining the military.  They are also the same people who take the blame when anything goes wrong in the military, because they are the ones who are in the foreground, who put themselves in harm's way, who carry the can. Not the Rumsfelds or the Bushes or the Patraeus's  But Ree can't even join the military because she has to fight a battle to keep her family together. If you haven't seen this film yet, by all means do. And don't forget Daniel Woodrell's novels, because they are all right up there with Winter's Bone.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Better Angels by Charles McCarry

I've written before, if briefly, about Charles McCarry's Better Angels (Overlook Press), but at the time I didn't give it the attention it deserves. McCarry is one of the best writers of spy fiction around. He's also the king of the backstory.  In fact, I'd say 50% of Better Angels is backstory, but he manages it so seamlessly that you barely notice. It's also a novel that when published in 1979 must have been classified at the time as speculative fiction; but reading it thirty-two years later, it's not so far fetched at all, and hardly speculative. A liberal president has been elected, having deposed a incumbent right-wing, charismatic Republican who created a prison-industrial complex and something close to a police state. The latter is trying to get back into the White House. Meanwhile, the Arab world, through its oil, has a stranglehold on the west. The liberal president issues the order to assassinate  an Arab leader when he learns that the latter is about to hand over a nuclear weapon to a radical Islamic group. To protest the assassination, suicide bombers become an ever present threat. 

So far, so interesting. But McCarry is above all an excellent novelist, with an eye for detail and character. In fact, his characters never fail to be complex and interesting. This is the third novel I've read by him and, though I've been impressed with the other two, I would say so far this is his best. A former undercover Cold War intelligence officer operating in Europe, Africa and Asia, McCarrry knows what he's talking about. This might account for his early knowledge of computers, environmental politics and urban problems. Plus there's the matter of a rigged election.  McCarry even portrays- thankfully, still in the real of speculation- the imprisonment of children whose DNA might indicate future anti-social behavior and prison camps for dissenters in Alaska. On the other hand, he can't be faulted for not foreseeing  the collapse of the Soviet Union. McCarry is every bit as good as Le Carre (I think there's an Gaelic-French pun there somewhere).  Now I've got to get hold of the McCarry titles I've yet to read.