Saturday, December 05, 2015

Favourite Noir Fiction and Non-Fiction, 2015


(in no particular order)

- Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s. Edited by Sarah Weinman, with stories by Very Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar, Dolores Hitchens.

- My Face For the World to See by Alfred Hayes

- Hold the Dark by William Giraldi

- Under Tiberius by Nick Tosches

- The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaire, translated by Frank Wynne

- Nobody Walks by Mick Herron

- It Always Rains on Sunday by Arthur La Bern

- A Very British Ending by Edward Wilson

- Little Sister Death by William Gay

- The Good Physician by Kent Harrington

- Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk

- Speak of the Devil/The Obstinate Murderer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding


-Meanwhile There Are Letters- Ross Macondald/Eudora Welty, edited by Suzanne Marr and Tom Nolan

-The Other Paris- An Illustrated Journey Through a City's Poor and Bohemian Past by Luc Sante

-Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms- The Spy Hunter, the Fashion Designer and the Man From Moscow by Paul Willetts

-Empire of Sin- A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle For New Orleans- by Gary Kirst

-The Devil's Chessboard- Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America's Secret Government by David Talbot

-The Crime of Our Lives by Lawrence Block

-Ghettoside- Investigating a Homicide Epidemic by Jill Levoy

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Power of Delusion: Under Tiberius by Nick Tosches

Nick Tosches has always done his best to stir things up and look at things from a different angle. Whether searching for the last opium den; recounting the lives of Jewish crooks, discredited boxers, old country singers and drunk crooners, he's always on the look-out for incongruities, between what is, what was and what might be.  Under Tiberius, though it was hardly reviewed when it first appeared, might well be Tosches's best novel. It could even be the novel Tosches was born to write. In any case, it's certainly his most transgressive. This from someone who has already investigated organised religion and the artifacts and riches it has in its possession: in In the Hand of Dante, a Dante manuscript, and, in Power on Earth, God's banker  Michele Swindon. Tosches seems to be fighting a one-man war against the hypocrisy, if not the dangers of religion. Under Tiberius once again finds him scouring through the Vatican library. And what he discovers is something far more subversive than anything converted in his previous books, and even darker than his last novel, the blood-lusting, sometimes self-indulgent, Me and the Devil. 

 Darker and more subversive because Tosches's latest focuses on Jesus, here portrayed not as the Son of God, but as a wandering scam artist. It's a life depicted by his spin-doctor, Gaius Fulvius Falconius, the former speech writer for the increasingly unstable Tiberius, and recently cast-out from the latter's inner-circle. Falconius's text, a letter written to his grand-son, is found by someone called Nick Tosches in the bowels of the Vatican library. The letter recounts Falconius finding a shabby Judean street thief named Jesus, whom he turns into a wandering demagogue.  Together they move from place to place convincing anyone who will listen the former-street thief is the messiah, with Falconius teaching his acolyte to say whatever the people want him to say and, in doing so, they collect money to build a new temple, though the dosh is really being collected so that Jesus and Falconiius can start a new life in Rome.

Not only an appropriate book to appear at a time when evangelicals are thrusting their tendrils into the body politic, but appropriate given Tosches's track record, as well as the relatively recent publication of Reza Aslan's Zealot, a historical account of Jesus, and a book that Tosches's seems to echo. I have no idea if Tosches might have read Aslan's book- my bet is that he had- nevertheless it's as though he decided to use Aslan's book as a starting-off point, extrapolating on it as only he is able to to do. As Aslan maintains, we know but two historical facts about Jesus: he was a Jew and he was crucified. But Tosches, the hardboiled fabulator, is saying something more controversial, that Jesus, was a charismatic con-man came to believe in the hype and rhetoric fed to him by his spin-doctor.  Naturally there  are discrepancies between the two books For instance, Aslan claims, in accordance with the historical record, that Pilate was nothing more than a hardline anti-semite, while, for Tosches, he is a reasonable man with little, if any, control over Jesus's fate. Of course, one book is fiction, the other fact, even though it, Aslan's, relies for evidence no the gospels which he had already criticised for being fiction and after the fact. Neither is there a crucifixion scene in Tosches's book, nor hint of resurrection. After all, Jesus is only human. To the point  that Tosches goes to some length to describe his sexual proclivities. Clearly this is not your usual divine Son of Man. Nevertheless, the basic story is here, as are most of the main characters. So we get the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes and Lord's Prayer, as well as cryptic parables, claims about bread and wine being flesh and blood and raising Lazarus.  Meanwhile, most, if not all, of Jesus's miracles are mere scams or conjurer's tricks. The dead man is revived having only slipped into a coma having ingested poison. A lame man is paid off to feign recovery. A drunk is convinced he has demons that must be cast out. At the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus deploys a trick amphora to dupe the guests. Though running against expectations- i.e., if one is a Christian- the book's final pages which cover Jesus's trial for sedition are, nevertheless, quite moving.

As Falconius says, people hear only what they crave to hear, particularly in troubled times. For Tosches, the essential question is whether religion leads to violence, or does violence lead to religion? Did humanity invent God simply to deal with the concept of good and evil? As Tosches put in an NPR interview: 
"A lot of my books have been [about] the question of did man invent the concept, the dichotomy of good and evil before he invented the gods? Or did he invent the gods first and then pronounce good and evil through them? [I] wanted to push people to...look at the fact that the idea of  God has never been a force for good in this world, but only for evil. And it's only been born out of weakness and resulted in bloodshed, mayhem, lies, theft."  He goes on to say, "If there is a God...the greatest gift he instilled in every human being is delusion. And that is what hope is, that we who do not have a cup of coffee today, will have one tomorrow. So it basically drives us forward."

Torches's story has been told many times, from an assortment of angles, on the screen as well as the page. There's Kazantzakis, Burgess, Silverberg, Scorsese, Monty Python, etc.. But I can't recall anyone telling it quite like this.  Perhaps the closest might be J.G. Eccarius's scandalous The Last Days of Christ the Vampire from some thirty years ago.  But Under Tiberius is only about religion in the sense that it is about mob hysteria, delusion and mass psychosis. As Falconius, in the end, say this to his grand-son, "[We] are...nothing more than finite being who seek to understand infinity; and this understanding shall never be ours."  Adding, "All gods are phantoms, figments of the minds of men...Trust no man, and trust no god. For, as all men have their birth in mortal flesh, so all gods have their birth in the minds of mortal men, and that source is never anything else than a marsh of disease and ill. Know that every prophet is a false prophet."

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Sins of the Father: Dan Fante's Fante- a Family's Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving

I must have read Fante's Chump Change around the time it came out in 1998, and remember being impressed by its honesty and directness. Though I admit the only reason I purchased the book was because it was written by the son of one of my favourite writers, John Fante. Still, I was surprised at how much I liked Chump Change. It had a directness about it, by which I mean it was stylistically straightforward and unadorned, not unlike his father's prose. But, at the same time, Dan seemed to be writing mostly about his own life, or a facsimile thereof. It was as though he was digging beneath the surface of his father's fiction.  But even though Dan Fante went on after Chump Change to produce other novels, poetry and plays, I felt I'd probably read enough of his work to get a handle on what he was doing. Which isn't to say I wasn't tempted by his subsequent books. However, when I happened across a copy of Dan Fante's memoir, simply title Fante, published a few years back, about his family- not just his father, but his mother and siblings- and his relationship to them, I grabbed the book and quickly gobbled it up.

Fante might be a memoir, but it is every bit as dark and painful as Chump Change. Not surprisingly, the book pretty much culminates in the publication of the latter, and the beginning of Dan's career as a published writer. And, of course, it's protagonist, like the guy in Chump Change, is just as ill at ease with the world and himself, much of which Dan Fante traces back to his relationship with his writer- father, a cantankerous man at the best of time.  Yet the book also has lighter moments, and, in the end, makes a valiant attempt at being uplifting, which I found problematic but obviously, at least for the author's sake, necessary.

Fante is a book that takes the reader places Stephen Cooper's biography of John Fante, was never able to go. On the other hand, Dan Fante isn't interested in going into the minutiae of John Fante's life. This book is mostly about him, i.e., Dan Fante. And no doubt about it, his father, a man with old school values, was as abrasive as he was demanding. And it would only be in Dan's later years, in the last throes of battling his personal demons, that Dan would come to some understanding about John Fante as a father and an artist, albeit at a time when the latter was  suffering from diabetes, which would lead to amputations, blindness and eventually his death.

From growing up with a difficult father and a somewhat distant mother, to  setting out, however  wounded, on his own, Fante is a narrative in the tradition of street-wise writers like Hubert Selby and Herbert Huncke. In other words, those sinners who eventually become literary saints. Like those two writers, Dan Fante isn't interested in romanticising the life he led, or the self-abasement he endured as he moved from one crap job to another, one woman to another, while, at the same time, consuming copious amounts of alcohol and drugs. Though that might be the view of some readers. Maybe that's inevitable. Because it's only in the final pages when he begins to pull himself together that the book flirts with the bathetic. But, then,  without that light at the end of the tunnel, the book could never have existed, for the simple reason that the author would no longer be with us, having succumbed to his consumerist tendencies. Though he tried on numerous occasions, Dan Fante fortunately did not become just another suicide statistic, but survived  to tell the tale. In doing so, he's given us a first-hand account of both his and his father's life and what it takes to survive with or against the odds. Dan Fante may not be quite the writer his father was, but he's not far off. Conversely, I'm not sure even the great John Fante would have had the courage to descend to such depths, and come up with anything quite like Chump Change or Fante.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Plots and Counterplots: A Very British Ending by Edward Wilson

In the last years of his life, French crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette liked to say that the genre in which he'd made his name had grown overly insular; consequently its future, if it was to retain a political edge, lay in becoming more international in scope, something akin to espionage fiction, but with a difference. I think if Manchette were alive today he might well have pointed towards the novels of Edward Wilson as evidence of what his particular revisionism should look like.  

Well-researched- no easy task when delving into the workings of the deep state- A Very British Ending is Wilson's latest in a series of novels that span the political landscape from the end WW2 to the Thatcher era. Taken together, they comprise a modern history of political events, particularly when it comes to how those events have been influenced and manipulated by the intelligence services in the UK and US. Though the title might remind readers of Chris Mullin's 1980s A Very British Coup, about the CIA's destabilisation of an anti-nuclear, populist Labour government, Wilson's book goes deeper, more expansive in its range and more biting in its politics.

More focused than Wilson's previous  books,  A Very British Ending contains an array of history-making personalities, from former prime minister Harold Wilson and  head of MI5 Roger Hollis, both of whom were, as the novel points out, thought by some in the intelligence community and elsewhere to be Soviet agents, to art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt and the CIA's poetry-loving counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton. Add to that an assortment of secret operations from that era, including the black propaganda psyops in Northern Ireland called Clockwork Orange and the overthrow of the Whitlam government in Australia. However, the book's primary focus is on the plot to overthrow  Harold Wilson's government in the mid-1970s, and the degree to which the CIA influenced that and other matters.

An American who served as a Special Forces officer in Vietnam before settling in Britain in the early 1970s, Edward Wilson brings to his subject an outsider's perspective and some inside knowledge. His protagonist, the working-class William Catesby who rises through the ranks of  a public school dominated MI6,  finds his career inextricably linked to the rise and fall of Yorkshire left-winger and fellow outsider Harold Wilson. In fact, the novel is really about Catesby's growing politicalisation, as the reader follows him from the end of WW2, and the killing of a German agent, to the election of Margaret Thatcher. And the higher Catesby rises, the less he likes what he sees happening to his country.  

The possibility of a coup is brought up early in the novel. Catesby and the head of the MI6, Henry Bone, are in the park opposite the home of a press baron. Bone asks Catesby how a successful coup in the UK might be accomplished.  Catesby points to the home of the press baron: "[I'd] get him and others  like him on the side of the coup plotters. I wouldn't do it through force of threats; I'd do it through flattery and persuasion- and also their self-interest in terms of money and gongs. I'd make the press barons feel that they were medieval barons- real players carving up and controlling Britain."

And that's pretty much how it plays out. Not that Harold Wilson's downfall was, in the real world, itself proof of a coup.  Though that's what some would have us believe. Of course, there were those on the right, whether in politics, UK and US security services, the media and the military who backed and, in some cases, plotted Wilson's demise. But if a coup, that could either mean  Thatcher's rise to power was a sign that such a coup was successful, or that, with the right person in power, a coup was unnecessary. However,  it goes without saying that Thatcher could not have come to power without the help of the press and various Tory high-rollers. Whatever the case, Edward Wilson's episodic journey makes the reader rethink that era, even though it refuses to come down on one side or the other. As it should be, because to this day it remains a matter of smoke and mirrors, if not plots and counterplots, making conclusions next to impossible to draw. A very British ending, indeed.

Not even Catesby knows with any certainty, only that, "Life wasn't a tightly knit detective novel where there are no loose ends." But, then, that's the deep state for you. PM Wilson was, in reality, not much of a threat to the status quo. Still, whether, senility or lack of focus, he was quickly succeeded by Callahan who would go cap in hand to the IMF for a loan (something not mentioned in the novel), setting the country on the road to monetarism. This, in turn, led to the IMF's usual conditions,  the "winter of discontent" and, ultimately, the election of Thatcher whose more authentic monetarism would have a long-lasting effect on the country. On the night Thatcher is elected, Catesby says, "Britain had become a different place. The genteel veneer was gone. Power had been passed on to a coterie of spivs and saloon bar bores." From that point on it would be, as the author says, a case of who pays, wins. An irrefutable charge, given that wealth has, over the years, become increasingly concentrated, banks have gone unregulated, services privatised and assets have been sold off at an alarming rate.

Likewise, when it comes to the deep state. Just look at revelations from Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, not to mention the dodgy dossier leading to war, the Murdoch press "wot won it" on various occasions, and Britain's status as a client-state, its nuclear capability more a job creation scheme than an independent deterrent. For me, A Very British Ending couldn't come at a more timely moment. Reading it, I kept thinking what role the secret service in the UK and US might play should moderate left winger Jeremy Corbyn be elected Labour leader and, who knows, even prime minister. Edward Wilson's writing might not be as wondrously tight and intricate as Le Carré's (very little writing is), or as articulate as Mick Heron's, but it's more than functional. More believable than Heron and even more political than Le Carré,  A Very British Ending is a highly entertaining and important book, accurate about the past, prescient about the near-future, and Wilson's best yet. I can even picture  Manchette turning- the pages, that is- in his grave.  

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Heartbreak On the Margins: A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, edited by Stephen Emerson

I always like to say to those who haven't had the pleasure of reading Lucia Berlin's stories, that doing so will, in all likelihood, break your heart. At the same time, I do sort of envy anyone coming upon her stories for the first time. To discover  a writer of her ilk doesn't happen very often. No matter that she has been neglected, or, at any rate, a well-kept secret for far too long. I guess my discovery of Berlin's work came at some point in the mid-1980s through small press editions of her work by the likes of Turtle Island, Poltroon and Tombouctou Books. Naturally, I immediately fell in love with her writing. Re-reading those stories as well as the few I hadn't previously come across that comprise A Manual for Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson, makes me admire her work all the more. Because what's more than apparent is that these stories come straight from the heart, and can be simultaneously humorous, sad and touching.  "I don't mind telling people awful things if I can make them funny," says one of her narrators. Not to mention her voice, range and subject matter.

Born in Alaska in1936, Berlin, over the years, led a somewhat peripatetic existence, moving from Idaho, Montana, and Texas, to Chile, New Mexico, Berkeley and Denver. Her stories follow a similar path, with protagonists, most of which are thinly-disguised versions of herself, trying to find a place in the world, gravitating, by choice or circumstances, towards the margins and those who inhabit that space. Because it's a place where friendship and community come cheek-to-jowl with isolation and exploitation, these stories and vignettes, revolving around cleaning women, hospital workers, the poor, struggling mothers alcoholics, the physically deformed, take place in landscapes and conditions Berlin knew all too well, having spent years struggling with alcoholism and other maladies. Even in the earliest stories, for which I have to admit I harbour a preference if only because those happen to be my personal point of discovery, Berlin's voice, range and eye for detail is more than apparent. Take Angel's Laundromat: "Traveling people go to Angel's. Dirty mattresses, rusty high chairs tied to the roofs of dented old Buicks. Leaky oil pans, leaky canvas water bags. Leaky washing machines. The men sit in the cars, shirtless, crush Hamm's cans when they're empty." Or Manual For Cleaning Women- "The bus is late. Cars drive by. Rich people in cars never look at people on the street. Poor ones always it sometimes seems they're just driving around, looking at people on the street. I've done that. Poor people wait a lot. Welfare, unemployment lines, laundromats, phone booths, emergency rooms, jails, etc.." Over the years, while her voice remains pretty much the same, her range increases, while her eye becomes increasingly observant and accurate:
We sold chances everywhere. Hotels and the train stations, the USO, Juarez. But even neighbourhoods were magic. You walk down a street, past houses and yards, and sometimes in the evening you can see people eating or sitting around and it's a lovely glimpse of how people live. Hope and I went inside hundreds of houses. Seven years old, both funny-looking in different ways, people liked us and were kind to us. "Come in. Have some lemonade." We saw four Siamese cats who used the real toilet and even flushed it. We saw parrots and one five-hundred pound person who had not been out of the house for twenty years. But even more we liked all the pretty things: paintings and china shepherdesses, mirrors, cuckoo clocks and grandfather clocks, quilts and rugs of many colors. We liked sitting in Mexican kitchens full of canaries, drinking real orange juice and eating pan dulce. Hope was so smart, she learned Spanish from listening around the neighbourhood, so she could talk to the old women. (Silence)

The only reason I have lived so long is that I let go of my past. Shut the door on grief on regret on remorse. If I let them in, just one self-indulgent crack, whap, the door will fling open gales of pain ripping through my heart blinding my eyes with shame breaking cups and bottles knocking down jars shattering windows stumbling bloody on spilled sugar and broken glass terrified gagging until with a final shudder and sob I shut the heavy door. Pick up the 
pieces one more time. (Homing)

Or perhaps it's her uncanny ability to juggle time, place and emotion in a montage that's more literary than cinematic. In a sense, she, like fellow story writer extraordinaire Lydia Davis- who. along with Emerson, contributes a welcome and perceptive introduction to this volume- shares an eye and sensibility with a certain strand of modernist poetry. Not surprising, then, that the poet Ed Dorn was one of her biggest advocates, as was Robert Creeley. Of course, there will be comparisons with widely read writers like Paley and Carver. But Berlin is different from either. Less in her avoidance of chat than her tendency towards the particular, exposing the general only when it becomes, as in the story Good and Bad- so obvious it hardly needs stating:
At first the place seemed to be deserted, miles and miles of dunes. Dunes of stinking, smoldering garbage. After a while, through the dust and smoke, you could see that there were people all over the dunes. But they were the color of the dung, their rags just like the refuse they crawled in. No one stood up, they scurried on all fours like wet rats, tossing things into burlap bags that gave them humped animal backs, circling on, darting, meeting each other, touching noses, slithering away, disappearing like iguanas over the ridges of the dunes. But once the food was set up scores of women and children appeared, sooty and wet, smelling of decay and rotted food. They were glad for the breakfast, squatted, eating with bony elbows like praying mantis on the garbage hills. After they had eaten, the children crowded around me, still crawling or sprawled in the dirt, they patted my shoes, ran their hands up and down my stockings.
And because she has an affinity for those down on their uppers, whether due to illness, lack of money, excessive drinking, soured relationships or fate, her work is even grittier and more determined than Carver's. There's no posturing here, just the elusive reality of everyday life viewed from awkward angles. Perhaps a more apt comparison might be with Fielding Dawson, whose near-perfect stories from the late 1950s through the 1970s were similar in their pursuit of the autobiographical, whether real, invented or simply tweaked by a fertile imagination.  "I exaggerate a lot," says another of Berlin's narrators, "and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don't actually ever lie." Yet, for better or worse, Berlin's stories are not as psychological, intense or stylised. In the end, Berlin's stories live in their own circumscribed world and sphere of influence. Davis is correct to point to Berlin's pacing, her naming and her sensitivity to language. That Lucia Berlin should be widely read is obvious, hopefully this elegant and overdue volume will make that possible.

For more information, including a short biography and plenty of photographs, see the Lucia Berlin website.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Please Mr. Postman: Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, ed by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan

I was just finishing Kevin Avery's excellent biography of  critic Paul Nelson when, appropriately enough, Meanwhile, There Are Letters, covering  the ten-year plus correspondence between Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar), arrived through my letter-box. Appropriate, because Nelson was, like Welty, a long-time advocate of Macdonald's work, having met the writer at his home in Santa Barbara where he arrived in 1976 to conduct one of those interminable interview sessions, this one lasting a week, for which Nelson was so famous.

Appropriate also, because Nelson, writing in the early 1960s, was the first person I'd come across who dared to cite the likes of Chandler, Hammett and, later, Macdonald, as constituting an important strand of American cultural life, tied inextricably to other strands, whether (the Harry Smith Anthology, Woody Guthrie, string band music, jazz, etc.), film (John Ford, Godard, Sturges) or art (Robert Rauschenberg, Pollock).

I don't know if I was actually introduced to Macdonald's work  through Welty's review of The Underground Man that ran in the New York Times back in 1971, a review that also brought Macdonald to the "legitimate" reading  public, and also an event that more or less kick-starts Marrs and Nolan's excellent collection. I think I probably had read  Macdonald before that review appeared, but Welty's piece probably turned what had been a guilty pleasure into what would eventually become a literary pursuit. As mentioned, I'd already been reading Hammett, Chandler and Himes, though perhaps it was simply a case of not being sure I was meant to be quite so obsessed with those writers and their work.  I don't know if Welty's article legitimised that pursuit, but it certainly widened the parameters by which I could appreciate such writing.

The letters that comprise this volume are further evidence to the manner in which those strands of the culture that Nelson had been referring to all those years ago, have played out. Thanks to Tom Nolan's previous ground-breaking biography of Macdonald, I knew of the Millar-Welty correspondence, but, until this volume, had never fully appreciated the depth or scope of it. What begins has a simple exchange of fan letters quickly blossoms into something entirely different. These letters, which of course often crossed paths and took several days to reach their cross-continent destination, addressed a range of literary subjects- both shared a love for Ford Maddox Ford, Elizabeth Bowen and Fitzgerald- and themes, not to mention personal matters, including tragedies like the death of the Millars' daughter, and politics, whether the war in Vietnam, Welty's obsession with Watergate or her White House meeting with Nixon (she hated having to shake his hand).

To intensify matters, Millar and Welty met face-to-face on only a few rare occasions. Not only were they separated by geography- Macdonald in Santa Barbara, Welty in Jackson, Mississippi- but by genre- Welty a recognised "literary" writer, Millar a crime writer by default who, to paraphrase, sought to work in the depths of darkness, to work  his way up to the light- and personal circumstances-  Millar was married, uneasily yet committed, to Margaret, a well-known crime writer in her own right, while Welty was single.

A platonic but passionate love-affair at long distance, the correspondence last over a decade, halted only when Millar contracted Altzheimers- the symptoms  he first encountered while  trying to recall events during Nelson's marathon interview- and even then Welty continued to write in the hope of jogging her friend's memory. In all, it was extraordinary correspondence relationship, as innocent as it was intimate. While it might surprise some that Millar had such wide literary tastes, serious Macdonald readers will be familiar with not only his knockabout youth and subsequent obsession with fathers, but that he possessed a Ph.D. with a dissertation on Coleridge,  humane politics, environmental concerns and a range of interests, much of which surfaced in his fiction. At the same time, Ross Macdonald readers might be surprised  that Welty, as well as being a renown writer of stories and novels, was an excellent photographer, who had worked for the WPA, with at least two volumes of photos to her credit.

"In the deepest sense we could never be out of touch," writes Welty towards the end of Millar's life. While Millar was suffering, his wife, Margaret, was  having health problems of her own. Aware of the depth of her husband's relationship with Welty, Margaret could often be cruel and cutting in her comments, not only to her husband but to Welty, saying at one point, "When Ken is away, of course I open your letters to him, but only to see if there's anything in them he needs to be informed about." Welty adds, " I don't know why she told me that, but- I don't think she'd have ever found anything in any of them to give her pause." The final Welty letters are heartbreaking. Likewise, her  story, Henry, which appears as an Afterword, and alludes to Millar's condition and her feelings towards him. Any serious reader of Ross Macdonald or Eudora Welty can't fail to appreciate this volume, for which we not only have Macdonald and Welty to thank, but Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan who painstakingly put together this illuminating collection.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Post-9/11 Noir: The Good Physician by Kent Harrington

Published in 2008, Kent Harrington's The Good Physician is arguably the best of the post-9/11 crime novels. The author of two contemporary noir classics, Dia de Los Muertos and Red Jungle, Harrington is adept at creating believable characters and ever-tightening plots in which choices are gradually narrowed down to their existential essentials.

That Harrington opted to publish The Good Physician with Dennis McMillan's rather than try his luck with a mainstream publisher, is interesting in itself. I don't know if that was a conscious choice on Harrington's part, though it wouldn't surprise me to learn the book might have been too hot for mainstream publishers. It's not that it's politically radical, though it is radically humane. As Michael Connelly says in his touching afterward, "The book has a painter's soul and a terrorist's conscience...[Don't] we wish we all had the same journey, to a place where one choice could vanquish all the wrong we have done before it."

The Good Physician centres on a young doctor, Collin, who, after 9/11, wants to make a contribution to the war on terrorism, so signs up as a CIA doctor in Mexico City. There he is called to witnesses various acts of torture, which, as a doctor, he can't abide. In fact, all Collin really wants to do is paint. At the hotel where he lives in true artist fashion, he falls in love with a woman who has suffered an immense loss and is ready to pay the ultimate price while, at the same time, inflict the ultimate damage for her loss. At the same time, the doctor is also treating the wife of the head of the CIA office in Mexico. That man, Alex, who also appears in Red Jungle, The American Boys and Harrington latest The Rat Machine, is effectively Collin's boss. Not without a degree of humanity, he has, through the work he does, become hardened to everyone other than his wife.  When reports have come in that a bomb is passing through Mexico into the US, and Alex and his fellow agent have to stop it, and will do just about anything to do so.

One can imagine Hammett, had he lived into the 21st century, perhaps writing a book like this. It's world-weary like Hammett, but not cynical. It's about loss, but not without hope.  And, of course, it's also one of the best noir-oriented novels I've read for a quite a while. I'm only seven years behind the curve on this one,  but it was worth the wait.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

It's a Mean Old World: Nobody Walks by Mick Herron

Nobody Walks, as far as I'm concerned, is Mick Herron's best novel yet.  But it's different than his previous two novels in that it moves  further afield from that band of MI5 losers ensconced in their  headquarters in Slough House, or its more respectable equivalent at Regent's Park. Not that MI5 doesn't play a part in this one. After all, this is a Mick Herron novel, and, even though he has also written a handful  of detective novels, MI5 has been his specialty of late. Written in short, sharp bursts, with nail-biting editing that move from scene to scene, Nobody Walks  follows Tom Bettany who, while working in a meat processing plant in France, receives a voice mail regarding the death of Liam, his estranged son, who, high on some new and potent form of cannabis, has fallen from the balcony of his London flat.  Bettany returns to London for Liam's funeral, after which he sets out to find the person responsible for his son's death. Of course, with his background, it's only a matter of time before his presence in London awakens an assortment of bedfellows, not only MI5, but local gangsters, the Russian mafia and the police. In all, an evocative novel about present-day London.

It's also a novel evokes present-day London. With an eye for the incongruous as well as a sharp turn of phrase, totally British, but not without mid-Atlantic influences:

"So he walked the streets and checked what was on offer. It was early for clubs but pubs were available, and wine bars. Other places, he had no idea what they were. Literally. He passed a window through which white walls shone, art hung at well-lit intervals, and he'd have thought it a gallery if there hadn't been people unfolding menus and laying tables. Every twenty paces, the world changed. Now he was passing a bookie's and a boarded-up salesroom, now a string of takeaways, Bangladeshi, Japanese, Thai. A dentist's surgery next to a sex shop."

"Bad things could happen on the tube, though few entertained the possibility that disaster would happen to them. They feared, instead, small acts of rudeness and aggression, their own as well as others', because in the daily anonymous crush it was easy for a grip on the ordinary to loosen. The underground birthed a creature that might turn on itself. There was little need of outside agency."

There's a very thin line separating crime and spy fiction. With the former these days tending to turn in on itself, it's the latter that seems more than willing to be picking up the slack. Which was something the late French noirist Jean-Patrick Manchette commented upon over twenty years ago. My bet is that Herron would have appealed to Manchette in more ways than one.  

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

It Always Rains On the Working Class

It Always Rains On Sunday is a favourite of mine, both Robert Hamer's 1947 film adaptation, and Arthur La Bern's 1945 novel. Taking place within a single wet Sunday, both film and novel are evocative depictions of London East End life just before the onset of  the war. Romanticised, perhaps, though not by much.  Or at any rate, just enough to be effective. The film, best remembered for Googie Withers' tough and touching performance- even better than her role in Night and the City- accurately captures the claustrophobic ambiance of the novel. Though Rose in La Bern's novel is far more worn down and heavier than Googie in Hamer's film, and a lifetime away from her youthful romance with Tommy who shows up asking her for help after escaping from prisoner. The film also lacks the scope of La Bern's novel, which, despite its set pieces, combines a Kersh-like grittiness with a cinematic eye and interventions  reminiscent of Dos Passos. Particularly observant is La Bern when it comes to all things sartorial, as in "ten-and-elevenpenny imitations of Anthony Eden hats, white silk mufflers, quite smart fifty-shilling suits and patent shoes." Written in a rhetorical mode few would try to emulate these days, La Bern's novel doesn't miss a trick. Told in retrospect, from a post-war perspective which  looks back on the days prior to the war, this is an East End replete with class gradations, populated by wide boys, petty criminals, womanisers, second-rate dance-band musicians, pugilists, street urchins, barrow boys and dreamers. La Bern also has an fondness for expositions, which he probably inherited from his visits to the local picture palaces, as much earlier working class fiction and populist  journalism. This is the East End on the verge of change, first in the form of the war and the blitz, followed by the creation of the welfare state.
Arthur La Bern

Here's the opening paragraph:
"The houses in Coronet Grove were originally constructed in yellow brick, but in the course of half a century the factory fumes and domestic smoke of East London have transformed this bright ochre rash into a grey smudge, which is only relieved by the six white strips in front of each house, the bright colours on the advertisement hoarding at the end of the street and the white lace curtains at the windows, here and there parted to reveal the dark-green plumage of an aspidistra plant."

Just one of a handful of excellent writers from that era who wrote about London's working class with a style forged on Fleet Street, La Bern is best remembered, if at all, for writing Frenzy (original title: Goodbye Piccadilly, Hello Leicester Square) which Hitchcock, much to the author's ire, adapted for the screen. An added feature of this volume is crime writer Cathi Unsworth's introduction, which not only puts La Bern's career in perspective but is informative regarding the criminal underworld of that period (particularly for fans of the BBC's Peaky Blinders). In all, another excellent reprint from London Books.


Saturday, May 09, 2015

Daniel Fuchs: From Proletariat Williamsburg to Criss-Crossing Noir

AT FIRST GLANCE, Daniel Fuchs's screenplays bear little if any relationship to his fiction. While his best and most evocative scripts- The Gangster and Criss Cross- are, to differing degrees, prime examples of hardcore film noir, the novels Fuchs produced prior to those films, based on his formative years during the 1920s amidst Brooklyn's Jewish community, stand firmly in the tradition of first-generation, street-corner proletariat fiction.

Fuchs arrived in Hollywood in 1937 as much on a wing as a prayer, and stuck around for some four decades. Unlike many of his cohorts, he was able, upon permanently shutting the lid on his studio typewriter, to return not only to writing novels, but also nonfiction books covering a range of subjects, from Jewish culture to the poetry of Wallace Stevens. As critic Irving Howe once said, "In the writing of fiction, talent came almost as easily to Daniel Fuchs as to Willie Mays in the hitting of baseballs." Easy it might have been, for, for Fuchs, writing in those early years was a necessity, allowing him to escape a claustrophobic ghetto in much the same way Robert Tasker and Ernest used their writing skills to extricate themselves from prison and a life of crime. But just as Tasker and Booth would come to realize that working in Hollywood constituted just another kind of prison, Fuchs would conclude that, for better or worse, Hollywood was itself in fact just another kind of ghetto...

(To read more go to the L.A. Review of Books website)

Monday, May 04, 2015

Three Types of Loquaciousness, Two Types of Ambiguity, One Type of Southern Soul: Jeremy Prynnne, Tom Raworth, Frank Stanford

Within the space of a few weeks I was fortunate enough to receive books by three poets, each a personal favorite: Jeremy Prynne, Tom Raworth and Frank Stanford. While Prynne and Raworth share certain characteristics- each deploying units of language as either roadblocks or road signs, leading to various by-ways and highways- Stanford is something of an outlier. While the island-specific Prynne and Raworth can be as perplexing as they are intriguing, their words controlled onslaughts signifying something, or something not, Stanford was, in his short time on the planet, able to mine a deep narrative strain derived from a place-specific southern drawl.

To be truthful, I've never quite known what a Prynne poem means; that is, if meaning is even a useful term to deploy.  At best, I can only half-guess what he builds his poems around. Though I suppose any deep research and reading might reveal a great deal more. Consequently, for me, any meaning remains, for the most part, hidden within those perfectly formed structures and syntax. Not that my semi-incomprehension has ever stopped me from enjoying and taking an interest in his work, at least since first picking up  Kitchen Poems, published by Cape Goliard, in a San Francisco bookstore in the late 1960s. As for Raworth, I remember reading Relation Ship on my initial visit to London in 1967 (sorry, but books for me have always been place-specific). I wish I still owned that book, beautifully produced by Goliard Press, though, for some reason, I associate it with Asa Benveniste's Trigram Press. If I'm not mistaken it was also Raworth's first book. Since then he has produced work ranging from the easily comprehensible to the outrageously obscure. But, then, as far as I'm concerned, understanding Raworth's or, for that matter, Prynne's work, is almost beside the point. For me, it's like any other form of music, in that it's mostly about sound and rhythm, with the words moving in and out of earshot. Though with the difference that I associate Prynne with the printed page and Raworth, whose work can be funny, political, thoughtful and every bit as obscure as Prynne, with a voice rampaging through a text at heartbreak speed.

Sanford is another matter. His poetry, like Raworth's, pours forth.  And, in his few short years, he certainly wrote a lot of it. If I wanted to be unkind, I'd make a comparison with David Foster Wallace. But he isn't that. What Stanford was after wasn't meaning as such; rather a certain kind   pseudo biography as detailed as it is romantic, always informed by place and temperament.What did Lorenzo Thomas call him  a "swamp-rat Rimbaud"?  Though Rimbaud was nowhere nearly so prolific; and instead of killing himself as Stanford did in 1978, not quite thirty years-old, having shot himself three times in the chest with a .22 calibre target pistol, simply slipped away to live out a slow death gun-running in a foreign land.

Here's three fragments, one from each of the above poets, picked at random, however much any given fragment could run the risk of being atypical:

"what happens in any
 sovereign body is created
 on the evidence of the last
 head on its last lap
 those of us watching
 then, during the programme,
 see the die, seem to be cast
 to draw the teeth
 of our first question
 affecting essential interests
 they and only they had"


"Trim forward but as it never was or bite fittingly so
 defused album transit for another,  into proof type
 pronoun intercepted. Our sung script frayed to gather
 in one for shifty plenum, tie up, her lung cavity
 dilated before. Riot babble scented, sleepless with anxiety unknowing."


"with a feather I ordered them 
 to salute the adventures 
 of their skin 
 the blue one like a constellation 
 of women prepared to undress 
 the yellow one who yodeled 
 the twig’s tornado 
 the orange one to be done with another poet 
 the final one hanging 
 like the noose of midnight "

What separates Prynne and Raworth, besides formalistic concerns, might be gleaned in that final line of Raworth's-
"we do die seem to be cast/to draw the teeth
of our first question/affecting essential interests"
is hardly something Prynne would likely write, but not that far removed from a unit that Stanford could employ. On the other hand, Stanford might also have written Prynne's Riot babble scented, sleepless with anxiety unknowing." Of course, anyone is capable of writing anything, so I'm referring more to tendencies and probabilities than possibilities. Meanwhile, the third quote, from Stanford,  remains, "in the noose of midnight," the odd one out, but perhaps only because he's more interested in the poem as a vehicle to transport himself and the reader from one place to another, if only from a specific geographical place to the page itself.

Incomprehension, of course, has its own meaning, and can reside within any given statement, word, line, declaration, or poem.  For me Prynne and Raworth have carved out a poetry specific to the British isles. Geographic even in its non-specificity. While Stanford is rooted in the hardcore actuality of the southern US. Stanford has been eulogised by many, not least C.D. Wright and singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams in her song Pineola, while the best overview of his life and work might well be Ben Ehrenreich's The Long Goodbye. For me, Stanford was a kind of one-off, certainly no one's protege, least of all macho pro-Vietnam war James Dickey, with whom he is, for some reason, often compared, but from whom Stanford took some pains to distance himself. I think of Stanford more as a poetic equivalent of various southern wrirters, more gothic, even noir, than literary, more early Cormac McCarthy, Barry Hannah, William Gay, late Daniel Woodrell, and maybe even Jim Thompson, than Dickey, Peter Taylor or Eudora Welty. In other words, Stanford is a regional writer whose work comes out of the Mississippi Delta, by way of his native Arkansas, his childhood having been spent in river camps along the levee, which helped turn his work into cries coming straight from the region's mud, muck and everyday life, to inhabit heaven, hell and places in-between.  A landscaper by trade, his are poems of isolation and marginality, like songs that have yet to be sung- think of Jimmie Rodgers crooning a country blues with birds flying from his skull- but which, nevertheless, reverberate in body and soul long past hearing them. Like the beginning from the poem Death and the Arkansas River:

"Walking from the killing place,
  Walking in mud,
  The bootsoles leave little hexes in the kitchen.

 One summer there was a place
 Where everyone chewed dirt in their supper

 It was a place like an attic
 With a chest of orchids pressed in books.
 Men cleaned their fingernails
 In the moonlight."

Stanford's poems are  rough and ragged and a million miles from Prynne's beautiful crystalline constructions or Raworth's wonderful non-sequitor rapaciousness. Hardly confessional writing, but rather a poetry of place and disposition with a weightiness as light as a feather, and written as if the poet's life depended on it. Does it bother me that I can appreciate, on the one hand, Stanford, and, on the other,  Prynne and Raworth. Not one bit.

I can't recommend these three volumes highly enough. Even if you have previous volumes of Prynne's Poems (published by Bloodaxe)- mine, for instance, is the first printing, published fifteen years ago, which lacks some two hundred pages of subsequent poetry- any Prynneista will want to get this one. While Raworth's As When (published by Carcanet) contains poems not included in his Collected Poems of 2003, nor in his Windmills in Flames of 2010. As for Stanford, finally we get most of his poems collected in one volume, with a good selection of his first book, the mammoth 900-plus page The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You ("a very unusual book," said Ferlenghetti)  interspersed throughout the book, all of it beautifully presented by Copper Canyon Press.

Note: corrections have been made to the original entry thanks largely to John Kearns, who pointed out that I had attributed authorship to the Prynne poem (from Blue Slides at Rest) to Raworth, and the Raworth poem (from The Vein) to Prynne. This, in turn, necessitated a slight change in the paragraph that follows on from the quotes.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

An Absurdist Western: The Drop Edge of Yonder by Rudolph Wurlitzer

Contrary to popular belief, westerns have never gone away. They have always formed a staple of American literature. A short roll-call would include Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Dorothy Johnson, J.P.S. Johnson, Tom Lea, Max Evans, Max Crawford, Dan O'Brien, not to mention Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry and various younger writers.

Rudolph Wurlitzer has always been a writer of the west, though not a writer of westerns. Yet it's hardly surprising that, with The Drop Edge of the World, he should be adding his name to the above. Even if this is a novel that seems to have more in common with Ed Dorn's epic poem Gunslinger or Tom Spanbauer's exquisite novel The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon, than with either Cormac McCarthy or earlier traditionalists.

Having evolved out of a screenplay that made the rounds int he 1980s, the accomplished Wurlitzer has produced a mind-bending western that, like his characters, between worlds. Well-researched, it can hardly be called a straight western. Some have compared it to Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. In fact, of those who have, some have even said that Wurlitzer should sued for plagiarism. However, based on the novel alone, I find it hard to see any similarities other than it's picaresque quality. Funny, surreal, grotesque and profound all at the same time, The Drop Edge... is, in many respects, a million miles from his earlier, semi-minimalist and much loved, at least by me, novels like Nog, Flatland, Quake and Slow Fade. No doubt it's partly the product of spending all that time with Sam Peckinpah on the set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, whose screenplay he wrote, or churning out all those heavy-set words and one-liners in his screenplay for Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop.  

The main character, Zebulon, could be a Native American or just someone who, by circumstances, has, through no choice of his own, gone native, so embedded is he in that semi-rural world circa 1845, so much so that it doesn't matter what he is or is not. Constantly interceded upon by his would-be brother Hatchet Jack, whom Zebulon's father won in a poker game.  The two men are at odds. Hatchet Jack, as a child, came close to killing Zebulon, and, as an adult, would still like to do so. Instead, he is fated to save Zebulon's life on various occasions. Zebulon, like apparently half the world, is on his way to California. En route he encounters Delilah, a woman of uncertain race, and the companion/slave of a Russian prince. Whether Zebulon is in love with her or her with him is another matter. What is certain is that they are fated to be together and can barely escape each other's presence.

An absurdist western, these characters have only a tenuous grasp on reality, all they can do is keep moving, trapped as they are in some kind of Beckettonian universe. Zebulon on a horse ambling through the landscape, is unable to fall asleep because he doesn't want to dream or, worse, end up in someone else's dream.  Meanwhile, they are fated to keep on, to pursue something or other, with, if not goldfield riches, no apparent reason. As  Delilah puts it, "Is that all we need? A map? Is that why we're here? To ride on, and then on some more, and then some more again, after someone who rides after us, or maybe ahead of us, because we don't know how to ride after ourselves?"

Moving from place to place and back again, Zebulon and company encounter ships, jails, cantinas, pool halls, Indian encampments, etc., and in each place they encounter the same violence, the same stupidity, the same wisdom and the same hunger for gold or just plain survival. Over and over again:

"From the moment Delilah slid the cards across the table, Zebulon felt caught inside a repetition that he was unable or unwilling to back away from. He had been trapped here before, over and over, ever since he had first seen Delilah in the Panchito saloon. Once again he was in the same dimly lit cantina with most of the oil lamps smashed or burned out, the same restless piano chords, a mural of an unfinished journey over the bar, a deck of rubbed and bent cards, two whores staring at them from their bar stools, and now, Delilah dealing a hand where winning and losing had already been decided. And there was something else. Something that he felt doomed never to be able to realize or acknowledge."

An unfinished journey, for sure, the meaning of which is left to the reader to realize or acknowledge. Published in 2008 by a relatively small press (Two Dollar Radio), this one slipped by without much fanfare. But, then, I guess that, to one degree or another, was always the case with Wurlitzer, which is why he can keep on keeping on, just like the characters in his novel. As real a western as any traditionalist has written, and proof, if one needs any, that the genre is alive and kicking. Now as it has always been.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime: An Imaginary Soundtrack

Here's a playlist for what could be called the soundtrack for my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime. All the tracks are either referred to in the novel or catch the mood of a particular scene. Should you want to listen to any or all of the tracks, you can find this imaginary album on Spotify under the title Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime (see link at the bottom of the page).

Robert Johnson
1 Robert Johnson- Last Fair Deal Gone Down

2 Ornette Coleman- Ramblin'

3 Charles Brown- Driftin' Blues

4 Willie "the Lion" Smith- Carolina Shout

 5 Charlie Patton- Pony Blues

6  King David's Jug Band- Tear It Down

7 Geeshie Wiley- Pick Poor Robin Clean

8 Hambone Willie Newbern- Rollin' & Tumblin'
Ornette, Cherry, Haden, Blackwell

 9 Tommy Johnson- Alcohol & Jake Blues

 10 Sleepy John Estes- Floating Bridge

11 Sam Collins- Jailhouse Blues

12 Geechie Wiley & Elvie Thomas- Motherless Child Blues

13 Bukka White-  Shake Em On Down

14 Lowell Fulson- Reconsider Baby

Chet Baker
15 Nat Cole- Straighten Up and Fly Right

16 Hadda Brooks- Romance In The Dark

17 Pee Wee Crayton- Central Avenue Blues

18 Hop Wilson- Broke & Hungry

19 Little Julian Herrera- Lonely Lonely Nights

Sleepy John Estes
20 Don Julian & the Meadowlarks- Heaven & Paradise

21 Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie- Night In Tunisia

22 Frank Sinatra- One For My Baby

23 Red Norvo- Move

24 Chet Baker & Gerry Mulligan- Jeru

25 Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie- Salt Peanuts

Hop Wilson
Hadda Brooks

Bird & Diz

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Emory Holmes II on Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime (from the Los Angeles Review of Books)


AMERICAN CRIME FICTION, at least in its so-called "golden era" of the 1940s and '50s, has always given me the creeps. No matter how much I rooted for the doomed hero at the heart of the narrative, whenever his journey brought him face-to-face with anyone who resembled me - that is, a person of color - he seldom viewed them as an ally or a peer, but as an agent of dread malignancies gathering at the urban core; cancers which his own flawed, if indomitable, energies had been honed to sweep clean. Operating under the descriptive rubric "noir" - which is, in a literal translation from the French, "black" crime fiction - noir denotes all things shadowy, duplicitous, corrupted, and Other. Its denizens (including the white hero tasked with sussing out its mysteries and bringing its myriad wrongdoers to heel) inhabit a world from which most decent folk, that is, most "white folk" have rightly fled.

In Woody Haut's new novel, Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, this literary (and moral) paradigm is turned on its head. All the heroes and heroines in Haut's narrative, no matter their race or points or origin, are outsiders. And it is the white folk in the story, as often as not, whose lives can be described as duplicitous, corrupted, Other. Yet, they are not "caricatures" as they would be in many of the works by authors who lived through, and embodied, in real time, the bad old days of the golden era not just of noir but of America's macho exceptionalism (literary masters like Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway; or James Ellroy, the contemporary kingpin of white power poetics and nostalgia). Rather they are "characters," that is, full-blooded participants, complicit in the double-deals, dirty schemes, and foul crimes that make the tale worth telling and its perpetrators worth watching.

In a classic noir fable, the typically faceless outcasts (that Haut chooses as his heroes and heroines) would have been pressed into action to serve as comic relief and scorn. But in Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, this familiar lineup of insignificant "perps" - that is, the blacks, Latinos, Jews, homosexuals, ball-breaking women, et al. - are not bit players or living vessels of the city's corruption and veniality, they are the native sons and daughters of its hellish streets and hangouts, searching for love, illicit or otherwise, for redemption and a stiff drink, for easy money and a place at the "grown-up" table, as earnestly as any other harried and desperate American would do.

The flawed hero at the heart of Cry For a Nickel is Abe Howard, a freelance photographer of prodigious luck and skills, but also of questionable morality and tastes. Abe is also a Jew, although one suspects Abe wouldn't recognize Jehovah even if He exhorted him from a burning bush with free tickets to a Dodger game. Faith, religious or otherwise, is decidedly not the subject of this work. As in all classic crime stories, the engine of this narrative is human frailty, man's struggle to master the demons in his own heart, and his battle, patently doomed, against insuperable forces arrayed against him.

(To read the full review)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Edward Dorn's Derelict Air: From Collected Out, edited by Justin Katko and Kyle Waugh

This is one of those books that should come with both a caveat and a health warning. The latter should probably accompany any book by the contrarian poet of the American west Edward Dorn. Maybe something like  reading this book can seriously endanger your relationship with the world as you know it. But it should also come with a caveat that any potential reader, before dipping into Derelict Air, should first crack open Dorn's Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2012). Not that most of the poems in Derelict Air, painstakingly put together by Justin Katko and Kyle Waugh for Enitharmon Press, aren't strong enough to stand on their own. But to fully appreciate these poems one should, at the very least,  have some knowledge of Dorn's published work, from The Newly Fallen and Hands Up to Geography and North Atlantic Turbine, from Gunslinger to Recollections of Gran Apacheria, and from Abhorrences to Westward Haut, and Chemo Sabe.

The title Derelict Air: From Collected Out, comes from an early poem in this collection, but it also carries overtones of Dorn's narrative poem Idaho Out which appeared in his 1965 book Geography. "Collected Out" also suggests that these poems might be out-takes, though Katko and Waugh prefer to call them "poems of becoming." True, Derelict Air, weighing in at over 500 pages, represents a substantial amount, though not all, of Dorn's mostly unpublished poetry. But what's impressive here isn't just the quantity- apparently there was a good deal more that could have been included- but the quality of the work.  The fact is, most of these poems, in some cases only parts of a whole, read like finished products. While Dorn's Collected Poems contained a good whack of uncollected work, Derelict Air has ventured a step further. Of course, a book of mostly unpublished poems can be tricky. After all, how many poets can you think of whose unpublished work merits reading? But, in this case, it definitely makes for an interesting and important book. Particularly for those Dornistas who, over the years, have poured over the contents of The Collected Poems. Equally important, it makes one realise that Dorn was not only constantly writing, but constantly editing his work,  boiling it down to its essentials.

So one is hardly going to feel short-changed by Derelict Air. After all, these poems comprise, or are part of, over twenty different collections, dating from 1953 to 1999, the year of Dorn's death. While even the most dedicated Dorn reader will be unfamiliar with titles like Looking For a Thing (1957-59), Poems of Washington, Idaho and Mexico (1959), Late in the Revolution (1960-62), Silent Guns (1961-63), A Circle of Songs (1964), In the Face of the Liberal (1964-68), A Convention in a Wallpaper Store (1968), The Grave of Diana (1968-70), The Day and Night Report (1970), Office Equipment (1976-83), The Theater of Money (1971), A Mexico Scrapbook (1972), From the Wrong Side of the Partition- At the Houston MLA (1980-81), and The Connection to Nowhere (1992-99). Likewise, that reader may or may not be surprised by the subjects and formats, from a book of illustrated children's poems to political critiques, such as his poems on the Cuban revolution and missile crisis, and a series of short takes "Intended to be strewn on the floor/ of the 1968 Democratic convention."  

Other poems will be more familiar:  Gunslinger Fragments and Satellites (1970-74)- "Nought was on the set/ when zero placed his bet/ on by whom/ the engine would be BLED and with whom/ the secret train departed/ and, exactly when/ the man had/ started his trip"- Translations with Gordon Brotherston (1971-75, some of which appeared in Dorn and Brotherston's The Sun Unwound), Mellow W/ Teeth (1972-76), Homage to Gran Apacheria (1973),  More Abhorrences (1983-89), Abominations (1991), Denver Skyline (1993-99) and Plus De Languedo Variorum: A Defense of Hersey and Heretics (1992-99). Some of these out-takes could have been included in the appropriate collection.  But even though there are some real nuggets here, I'm not sure their inclusion would have necessarily improved the already published product. However, reading them here, they actually add substance to the finished versions, while, at the same time, demonstrating Dorn's ability, despite his range of subject matter and approach, to perceive the superfluous.

Some of the early poems fall short of what one would come to expect from Dorn, but not by much. Here, for instance, is the first stanza of the title poem,  from sometime around 1953: "A sharp green counter/ was where she sat/  & her color was/velvet it darkened/just right, like love." Not all that far off from lyrical poems that would appear eight years later in Dorn's first collection The Newly Fallen. On the other hand, one tends to forget that Dorn didn't really mature as a poet until he was in his thirties. And while he's often lumped in with various Black Mountain poets, he soon moved beyond the confines of that nebulous, if not meaningless, category. Still, there are those who would   portray him as such, citing Gunslinger as the point at which Dorn broke ranks with his former associates. Disregarding the fact that Dorn's poetry was always shifting in accordance with his interests, one could just as well cite other such points, such as Idaho Out, which mutated into the more radical North Atlantic Turbine. Then shifting once again in poems like The Cosmology of Finding Your Place and The World Box-Score Cup of 1966. That inhalation of the culture would crystallise in Gunslinger, which, following the death of (the) "I," would lead to Recollections of Gran Apacheria, gradually bringing the narrator back into the poem with the writing of Abhorrences and beyond.

These shifts are equally apparent in Derelict Air, moving, as it does, from the lyrical to the political and paradoxical.  The final poems in Plus de Languedoc Variorum: A Defense of Heresy and Heretics demonstrate that, though he was always political and, at least since Abhorrences and Hello, La Jolla, always flirting with the subversive, it's around this time that he really cranks up the volume. For instance, in Unabomber as Heretic, Dorn says, "The real and effective criminal here is not Ted Kaczynski but the legions of industrialists and their hierling scientists who for the past quarter millennium have hewed to the principle that if it can be found out if must be found out- the serpents in the Garden of Eden climbing the tree." While in A Review of Volume 10 of the Olson/Creeley Correspondence, Dorn contemplates suing the Olson estate, with Creeley as co-conspirator: for "the failure to hold up the text of James Thomson's/ City of Dreadful Night was deep intellectual abuse, intentional/ and deceitful- there's no forgiving such selective omission." And in Jesus- He was a Handsome Man, An Essay On the Reconstruction of the Whole Western Myth, Dorn, committing the ultimate Black Mountain heresy, writes, "One of the most powerful crossroads in modern poetry occurs in the West, when ee cummings meets Buffalo Bill, when cummings writes Bill's obit. Buffalo Bill's/defunct is the quintessential 'modern poem, not The Wasteland or The Cantos." After Subtexts, which extends the contrarianisms of Abhorrences while demonstrating that old Gunslinger adage that "only laughter can blow it to rags," one arrives at NAZDAKS, parts of which underscored the version found in The Collected Poems. But it appears here in unadulterated form,  all caps, consisting of warped news flashes, absurd updates and state of the  nation stock exchanges: "TELEFONUS INTERRUPTUS--BREAKFASTUS INTERRUPTUS--MENU MENISCUS--LUNCHCHECK UPCHUCK--DUMP IT--EERIE THEORY UP AN EIGHTH--DREARY THEORY UP A QUARTER--LEERY THEORY UP A HALF--QUERRI THEORY UP ONE AND A QUARTER--DUMP IT QUICK--SPEED OF THOUGHT DOWN A FIFTH...".

Reading Derelict Air, I kept wondering whether Dorn had read many of these poems in public. This, in turn, made me think about Dorn's relationship with publishers. One would have thought that at least some of the collections in Derelict Air would have been published during Dorn's lifetime?  Was it that Dorn held them back, or was it that no one wanted to publish them? Katko and Waugh, writing in the preface, quote a 1963 letter from Dorn to Jeremy Prynne: "I have been screwed of publication in america for verse." But that was quite early on, a year before Hands Up, published by Totem Press, and two years before Geography, published by Stuart Montgomery at Fulcrum.  Katko and Waugh go on to say that most of the early manuscripts and lost books made the rounds of publishers, and were presumably rejected, after which they were turned into other poems, lost or left behind. While this illustrates the task Katko and Waugh, with the help of Dorn's family and friends, had in putting this volume together, it also hints at Dorn's relationship with publishers. Some like Totem, Black Sparrow, Fulcrum, Grey Fox,  Frontier, Wingbow, Turtle Island, Etruscan, and, after Dorn's death, Carcanet, Shearsman and, now, Enitharmon, were more than willing to publish his work. At the same time, he's noticeably absent from the likes of  City Lights and Grove Press, not to mention larger publishers who occasionally dabbled in poetry. Whether Dorn had any desire to publish with such companies is another matter. Though, given his disposition, it's difficult to imagine Dorn publishing with some corporate subsidiary. And what about the unpublished collections from the 1960s onwards? But as Dorn was wont to say,  if a person says what they think and does so in a straight-forward manner, they aren't going to get a lot of grants, nor, one supposes,  are they likely to find many publishers.

Impossible to classify, Dorn wasn't  just a poet of the west, but, to quote the title of his 1993 book, a poet of the way more west. While that might sound like the name of an outlaw country singer, it indicates, as do the poems in Derelict Air, that Dorn's west stretches all the way to the horizon. Beyond boundaries, to a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse, first glimpsed in North Atlantic Turbine. And he would remain committed to that pursuit, whether in quick lyrical shots, narrative journeys, critiques of history, short sharp shocks, screeds of metaphysical humour and paradox, or incendiary tracts and rants. In any case, it's all here in Derelict Air, proving that Dorn, whether published or unpublished, was a force to be reckoned with. Someone who, as Amiri Baraka once said, "wd rather/ Make you his enemy/ Than lie." Though Neophytes, heed the caveat: tackle The Collected Poems first. You won't regret it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Weathering the Storm: William Giraldi's Hold The Dark

This is a dark book in more ways than one.  Not only is the story dark, but so is the landscape in the which the story takes place. After all, there's very little daylight in the small Alaskan village in which Core, a nature writer from the lower forty-eight, finds himself. He's the author of a book about hunting down wolves. Medora, having read the book, writes to him, asking him to come to her village to track down  the wolf that has stolen her six year-old son, and, if possible, bring back his remains.  All this while Medora's husband, Sloane, has been fighting, presumably in Iraq.  Core finds the boy, though not anywhere near where he thought he'd be. Probably best not to say much about the plot, if only because Giraldi has constructed something so taut that every beat and turn seems essential. Suffice it to say, the husband returns, and various murders ensue.

The village where Medora and Sloane live is certainly an eerie place, if only because no one speaks to outsiders and barely to one another.  It's a place of snow, myth, superstition, ancient rites and a history that everyone feels but almost no one seems to know, much less articulate. As the days grow shorter and the weather turns increasingly nasty, one realises there's no way this story can possibly end well. Though, with everyone trudging through the snow, from one destination to another, most of them unknown or rarely visited, who can predict the chances of survival, or how order might be brought to a world that has gone so far out of whack.  

"What kind of man does this?" asks Core, regarding one of the murders.  "The human kind," answers Marium, the chief of police. Because humans are capable of anything. Likewise, animals. Core, "the chosen story-teller," loves wolves, particularly when it comes to their intelligence.  And it's only Core who is capable of noting  the relationship between animals and humans; specifically, where does the animal end and the human begin, as well as what connects and separates them. Why does Core stay in such a hostile environment?  Because, at the core of the story, he can't leave the place until he can get a grip on the village and everything that's happening around him. Besides, he is essential to the story, and, as the wolf chaser, the one able to connect human to animal, protagonist to antagonist, cause to effect. In a book with shifting points of view, Core fights to control the narrative, only to eventually fade away, overtaken by Sloane, definitely part-animal himself.

In Hold the Dark "The dead don't haunt the living. The living haunt themselves." Here everyone, to one degree or another, is out of place and alienated from themselves and those around them. Core might know about wolves, but he doesn't know much about his daughter. Marium knows about policing but hasn't a clue about his wife, or, for that matter, Sloane and the ways of the village. In fact, Marium can't even communicate with these villagers, even though he grew up and works in a small town just a few miles away. Then there's Sloane, who knows about the land and his village, but has no idea about people, including certain secrets held by his wife. While Medura knows very little other than how to survive, and the truth about her child. At least Core feels just  how foreign this part of the world is, even if that realisation comes too late. Still, it's only Core who, because of his connection to the wolves, who has tenuous relationship to the village, which Sloane acknowledges with simply a nod of the head.

A bleak,  brutal and beautifully written book, its sentences carved in such a way as to make you think nothing like this has been written before.  I suppose if authorial comparisons are necessary, one might cite Cormac McCarthy or Daniel Woodrell, but neither, no matter how good such writers are, comes close. Not that Giraldi is better, it's just neither McCarthy or Woodrell could have written Giraldi's novel. In the end, as the sayings go, the map is not the territory, and the plot is not necessarily the story. As the characters in  Hold the Dark tell us, it's the lived thing that matters, even if that lived thing can be fully disclosed or understood.  Hence the beauty of Giraldi's writing: "She'd want to know all he'd witnessed. She'd want to hear the truth of these events. But he would have for her only a story- one that seemed to have happened half in dream, rent from the regular world he knew- and that story would wear the clothes of truth. Propped up in bed, he prepared himself for this tale. He searched for the beginning, and for the will to believe it."