Monday, July 05, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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