Monthly Archives: January 2007

Hey! I wrote a book!

Last Three Miles

Coming in June from The New Press — my first book.

It’s called The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. It’s a nonfiction book, but it has all the thrills and chills of a novel. Corruption! Political deals! Technological transformation! Political bosses! And, last but not least, traffic engineering!

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Listen to these guys:

“The Last Three Miles is an adroit blend of the historical lore surrounding one of the first great road building projects in modern America, intertwined with the legendary exploits of the corrupt machine politician through whose turf the Pulaski Skyway marched. Hart’s narrative is as authoritative as it is enjoyable and illuminating.”

Les Standiford

Author of Meet You in Hell and Last Train to Paradise.

* * *

“Steven Hart’s The Last Three Miles provides a revealing look into how local politics can affect the design and construction of our national infrastructure, sometimes with disastrous results. Hart uses his considerable narrative talent to tell an engaging human story about what might seem otherwise to be but an enormous black steel structure looming over the New Jersey Meadowlands.”

Henry Petroski

Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History, Duke University; author of Engineers of Dreams and Success through Failure.

* * *

“For anyone who’s ever wondered about the magical highway that floats above the swamps of Jersey, The Last Three Miles offers a page-turning, backroom account of what is now the backdoor to Hoboken and Manhattan beyond. Steven Hart’s meticulously researched book pushes a reader along as swiftly as a sedan crossing the Pulaski at midnight, and exposes all those dark shadows that our headlights hint at but never reveal. In other words, Steve: great fucking book.”

Christian Bauman

Author of The Ice Beneath You and Voodoo Lounge.

* * *

“A richly detailed picture of the Pulaski Skyway, one of the enduring features of the New Jersey landscape. This elevated viaduct crossing both the Hackensack and Passaic rivers can be considered America’s first cosmic highway. Steven Hart’s enthusiastic account is full of insiders’ details. Anecdotal and witty, the book is wonderfully informative for all those who hope to understand this important physical structure.”

Angus Kress Gillespie

Author, Twin Towers

* * *

So, you ask: Where can I pre-order this thing? You know what to do. Just click here.

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Snark after death

It appears that Geoff’s resident ghost is a bit of a prankster. Even a little, shall we say, edgy in his humor. Even in the afterlife, there is snark.

Another Dash at Flash

Via a friend comes word that George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman series has been taken up by the same producers who turned Bernard Cornwell’s historical novels about Richard Sharpe into a series of successful made-for-TV films.

That’s fine by me, even if the book they’re starting with — Flashman at the Charge — isn’t one of my favorites, though it’s still head and shoulders above the last couple of Fraser titles. It’s been more than thirty years since the last attempt to bring Sir Harry to the screen, Royal Flash, tanked so resoundingly, and the series is definitely worth another try.

The announcement makes no mention of casting, and casting will be everything. Royal Flash should have been a blast: Fraser and director Richard Lester had just done a wonderful job with The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, and some of the same actors (notably Oliver Reed) had come over as well. The fatal error was casting Malcolm McDowell as Flashman. McDowell is certainly a good actor, but he is small, skinny and rather ferrety looking, whereas the joke underlying the glorious career of Sir Harry Flashman is that he’s a big, hearty Brit who outwardly embodies manly Victorian virtue, while inwardly he’s a sniveling cad and womanizer. He’s a fake hero redeemed (partially) by his blunt honesty about his own failings and his readiness to recognize real heroism when he sees it. Maybe it’s the hangover from A Clockwork Orange, but even when he’s playing a nice guy McDowell always seems on the verge of planting a knife in somebody’s back, and casting him as Flashman neutered the character’s impact.

Oddly enough, I think Sean Bean, the hero of the Sharpe films, would make a pretty good Flashman. Bean has made a speciality of playing hearty men of action who have something a little bit . . . off about them: think of Alec in GoldenEye, Spence in Ronin and, of course, Boromir in the three Lord of the Rings films. Playing a cringing poltroon in the middle of the warlike Victorian Age should be no problem for him.

Passages: Fritz Leiber

From “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” a short story by Fritz Leiber, collected in Swords Against Death:

“The Devourers are the most accomplished merchants in all the many universes — so accomplished, indeed, that they sell only trash. There is a deep necessity in this, for the Devourers must occupy all their cunning in perfecting their methods of selling and so have not an instant to spare in considering the worth of what they sell. Indeed, they dare not concern themselves with such matters for a moment, for fear of losing their golden touch — and yet such are their skills that their wares are utterly irresistible, indeed the finest wares in all the many universes — if you follow me?”

Fafhrd looked hopefully toward Sheelba, but since the latter did not this time interrupt with some pithy summation, he nodded to Ningauble.

Ningauble continued, his seven eyes beginning to weave a bit, judging from the movements of the seven green glows. “As you might readily deduce, the Devourers possess all the mightiest magics garnered from the many universes, whilst their assault groups are led by the most aggressive wizards imaginable, supremely skilled in all methods of battling, whether it be by the wits, with the feelings, or with the beweaponed body.

“The method of the Devourers is to set up shop in a new world and first entice the bravest and the most adventuresome and the supplest- minded of its people — who have so much imagination that with just a touch of suggestion they themselves do most of the work of selling themselves.

“When these are safely ensnared, the Devourers proceed to deal with the remainder of the population: meaning simply that they sell and sell and sell! — sell trash and take good money and even finer things in exchange.”

Ningauble sighed windily and a shade piously. “All this is very bad, My Gentle Son,” he continued, his eye-glows weaving hypnotically in his cowl, “but naturally enough in universes administered by such gods as we have — natural enough and perhaps endurable. However” — he paused — “there is worse to come! The Devourers want not only the patronage of all beings in all universes, but — doubtless because they are afraid someone will someday raise the ever-unpleasant question, of the true worth of things — they want all their customers reduced to a state of slavish and submissive suggestibility, so that they are fit for nothing whatever but to gawk and buy the trash the Devourers offer for sale. This means of course that eventually the Devourers’ customers will have nothing wherewith to pay the Devourers for their trash, but the Devourers do not seem to be concerned with this eventuality. Perhaps they feel that there is always a new universe to exploit. And perhaps there is!”

“Monstrous!” Fafhrd commented. “But what do the Devourers gain from these furious commercial sorties, all this mad merchandising? What do they really want?”

Ningauble replied, “The Devourers want only to amass cash and to raise little ones like themselves to amass more cash and they want to compete with each other at cash-amassing. (Is that coincidentally a city, do you think, Fafhrd? Cashamass?) And the Devourers want to brood about their great service to the many universes — it is their claim that servile customers make the most obedient servants for the gods — and to complain about how the work of amassing cash tortures their minds and upsets their digestions. Beyond this, each of the Devourers also secretly collects and hides away forever, to delight no eyes but his own, all the finest objects and thoughts created by true men and women (and true wizards and true demons) and bought by the Devourers at bankruptcy prices and paid for with trash or — this is their ultimate preference — with nothing at all.”

Early in his career, Fritz Leiber received the benediction of no less a luminary than H.P. Lovecraft, in an unsent letter found after his death:

Young Fritz (twenty-five, a University of Chicago graduate, and entering his father’s profession) has one of the keenest minds I have ever encountered . . . His understanding of the profound emotions behind the groping for cosmic concepts surpasses that of almost anyone else with whom I’ve discussed the matter; and his own tales and poems, while not without marks of the beginner, shew infinite insight and promise.

Not a bad start for a writer of imaginative literature! Too bad the acquaintance was cut short, for Lovecraft would have benefitted immensely from prolonged contact with Leiber’s prose, which right from the start was several cuts above his peers and kept developing right up to Leiber’s last works.

One of my favorite opening passages in any story is this sixty-word rule breaker from “Gonna Roll the Bones,” a 1968 novella about dicing with Death that should be the basis for Tim Burton’s next animation project:

Suddenly Joe Slattermill knew for sure he’d have to get out quick or else blow his top and knock out with the shrapnel of his skull the props and patches holding up his decaying home, that was like a house of big wooden and plaster and wallpaper cards except for the huge fireplace and ovens and chimney across the kitchen from him.

As a bonus, the story also has one of my favorite closing lines:

Then he turned and headed straight for home, but he took the long way, around the world.

Leiber’s straight science fiction work, such as The Wanderer, has dated pretty badly. His metier was pure fantasy in all its modes, and his best work of all was in heroic fantasy, for which Leiber himself coined the term “sword and sorcery.”

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, when it seemed the bulk of fantasy writing was either a Conan knockoff or a slavish Tolkien imitation, the stories of Fritz Leiber were in a class by themselves. Urbane and witty where so much heroic fantasy is broad and clunky — only Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories come close to matching it — Leiber’s work remains a lodestar for writers like Neil Gaiman, who owe him a debt of thanks for showing how even a cootie-laden genre like sword and sorcery can stretch to encompass the humor and alertness of the best writing.

As the above passage shows, Leiber also had a taste for amusingly barbed satire — something not often seen in such a humorless genre.

Though he worked in a genre that sprang more or less complete from the forehead of Robert E. Howard, Leiber’s heroes were conceived as a human-scaled alternative to Conan and the platoon of brawny supermen who followed in his train. Fafhrd, a strapping northern barbarian, and the Gray Mouser, his diminutive comrade-in-arms, were instantly more believable and engaging than the standard run of fantasy heroes. Leiber took care to show their personalities forming and developing over the course of the seven Nehwon books, and one of the pleasures of Swords Against Death (the second in the series) is Leiber’s readiness to pause for interesting character touches. Late in “The Jewels in the Forest,” after a particularly vicious battle with a band of competing treasure-hunters, Fafhrd comes down from his berserker rage by laughing, then weeping over the blood he has shed; the Mouser, meanwhile, feels “worried, ironic, and slightly sick,” aware that his own emotional reaction will not come for some time. Imagine Conan experiencing such complex feelings after a bout of violence.

Their travels across the alternate universe of Nehwon always took them back to the fetid city of Lankhmar, a superb creation in its own right. Though the darkened streets and alleys read as an overlay of all the great, dangerous metropolises of history — think Rome at its most decadent, or Constantinople during the reign of Justinian — Lankhmar was at bottom a lovingly detailed cousin of Manhattan, squatting next to a great salt marsh passable only by an elevated road, choked by smogs and smokes, with streets and place-names that amusingly echoed and inverted their equivalents in the Big Apple. Read a couple of the Nehwon volumes (all but one of them were short story collections, which best suited Leiber’s muse) and you could quickly locate Cheap Street, the Plaza of Dark Delights (derived from Times Square in its viciously seedy, pre-tourist days) and Thieves House, with its front door always left ajar to taunt anyone foolish enough to attempt unauthorized entry.

Most . . . well, pretty much all heroic fantasy reads like the work of teenagers and boy-men whose experience of the world runs the gamut from ogling at the shopping mall to copping a few feels at the high school dance. Leiber, son of a Shakespearean actor who led his own touring company, had clearly been around and it showed in his fiction — particularly his characterization of the Gray Mouser, whose dealings with women ventured into pretty louche territory for a genre where the apex of sexuality was Conan yelling for more mead as he swatted the backsides of barmaids. Leiber was also an accomplished swordsman, which knowledge he put to good use in the fight scenes.

Leiber’s Nehwon stories are also unique in the range of moods they encompass. The adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser cover everything from straightforward swashbuckling action to horror to slapstick comedy. Swords in the Mist, the third Nehwon collection, opens with a straight-up chiller called “The Cloud of Hate,” then takes a left turn into “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” a cross-breed of Robert E. Howard and Bertolt Brecht, in which the heroes part ways for separate careers when their money runs out. The Mouser becomes a hired thug for a local crime boss, while Fafhrd cuts his hair, forswears wordly goods and becomes a servant to the priest of a lower-tier god called Issek of the Jug. Though Issek has previously been pretty much a laughingstock deity, Fafhrd’s charismatic devotion (and the fighting skills he uses against shakedown artists) raise Issek’s stock in the public eye, bringing more donations and making it inevitable that the crime boss will demand his own cut — thereby bringing the two companions into conflict.

“Bazaar of the Bizarre,” the concluding story in Swords Against Death, was Leiber’s personal favorite and it’s easy to see why: within the space of a single short story, Leiber packs in social satire, weird fantasy, swordplay and comedy. As it happens, I agree with him, and while I would recommend the story to anyone wanting to venture into Lankhmar for the first time, I certainly wouldn’t recommend stopping there. If there’s one American writer badly overdue for rediscovery, it’s Fritz Leiber.

Neon entropy

If you’ve driven on the Pulaski Skyway, you know that it passes over some of the most hellishly blighted real estate on the eastern seaboard. The Skyway itself is all right: it’s a truss bridge, and truss bridges are simply not as graceful as suspension bridges, but seen as a whole it takes on its own curious blend of beauty and brutality.

Up close, however, the Skyway is as ugly as a monkey’s butt: all rivets, black steel and crumbling concrete decks. It is particularly awful during the evening drive home, when you have to join the flow of cars hurtling out of the Holland Tunnel and jockey for position as you reach the covered roadway that was blasted through the traprock of Bergen Hill. Emerging from the roadway, there’s about a quarter-mile of elevated road before you reach the Skyway proper. That’s where I noticed the sign.

Southbound commuters will know what I’m talking about. It’s actually a series of neon-lit words mounted in the windows of the old American Can factory building that looms over the road as you emerge from the Bergen Hill cut. I only noticed it a few months ago: red letters spelling out IT IS GREEN THINKS NATURE EVEN.

For a few months I thought the message was supposed to be “Even nature thinks it is green,” with the words rearranged to converge in the middle. A Zen fortune cookie message? A postmodern Burma Shave sign? An art project commenting on the complete absence of nature along this particular stretch of road?

As it turns out, the art project guess was the correct one. A conceptual artist, Mary Ellen Carroll, placed the message there at the behest of a conservation group called The Precipice Alliance. The line of letters wraps around the corner of the building: “It is green thinks nature even in the dark.”

The sign will be taken down after April, but even now a couple of the letters in “thinks” have gone dark. The result is that as I start the Meadowlands leg of my drive home, my thoughts are not so much on conservation as the second law of thermodynamics. But to be thinking at all during that stretch of a singularly mind-numbing commute is remarkable enough, so I’ll be sorry when the red letters get taken down.

Strange wine

Pan’s Labyrinth, the new film from the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, lives up to all its hype and then some. This is dark, dark fantasy served straight up and without even a slight chaser of whimsy. And while its storyline involves fairies, a faun and a spectral maze hidden in the deep woods, it is absolutely not a movie for young children. In fact, the film trafficks in so many raw, adult emotions that I can imagine even older children getting in over their heads as well. But if you want to know what it must have felt like to see Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast unheralded in a movie theater, and if you can handle a story in which wonder and tragedy bleed into each other, then you ought to see this in a good theater while you still have the chance.

What comes next is going to be loaded with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth yet, stop reading and come back when you’re ready.

After making his debut in 1993 with Cronos, a stylish and original take on vampirism, Del Toro seemed on his way to becoming a mildly interesting hack with jobwork like Mimic and Blade 2. He adroitly righted himself in 2001 with The Devil’s Backbone, a tragic ghost story set in the waning months of the Spanish Civil War.

Pan’s Labyrinth is something of a companion piece to the earlier film. It is 1944: The Fascists have won the war and are conducting mop-up operations against the Republicans, who have taken to the mountains to conduct hit-and-run attacks against Franco’s forces. Most of the story is told from the point of view of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a bookish eleven-year-old whose mother has married Vidal (Sergei Lopez), a Fascist officer ordered to wipe out resistance fighters hiding out in a stretch of forest.

The garrison is headquartered in an old mill; off in the woods is a stone maze that exerts a powerful hold on Ofelia’s already fanciful imagination. There she finds a faun (Doug Jones) who informs her that she is actually a long-lost princess of the underworld who was raised among humans without knowledge of her heritage. To demonstrate that her spirit is still pure, Ofelia must perform three tasks involving some of the most memorable monsters ever seen on film. There is nothing arbitrary about the tasks, either: each one brings Ofelia further along the path to mature responsiblity, thereby adding to the sense of loss in the film’s uncompromisingly harsh conclusion.

Del Toro has already secured his place as a master of breathtaking and grotesque imagery, and with Pan’s Labyrinth he and his design team manage to top themselves. But the most impressive thing about this film is the discipline and ingenuity of del Toro’s storytelling. The film is always working on several levels at once. The pagan spirits inhabiting the old woods, holding out against the prosaic adult world, echo the partisans holding out against the cruelties of Franco. Ofelia’s secret journeys to the underworld are paralleled by Carmen (Ariadna Gil), the head housekeeper, who smuggles supplies to the resistance fighters; Ofelia’s journey to her “true” imaginary life parallels the difficult course of her mother’s pregnancy, made all the more frightening by the knowledge that Vidal is more interesting in seeing a son born than in ensuring that his sickly wife survives the delivery. And for all the terror inspired by the film’s monsters — particularly a child-eating ogre with eyes in the palms of its hands — the real-life monstrousness going on around Ofelia is more terrifying still. Even the three tasks given to Ofelia get a sinister echo in the cruel offer of freedom Vidal makes to a prisoner he is about to torture.

In a way, Pan’s Labyrinth plays as a distant cousin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Both films advance the power of imagination as the individual’s last line of defense against (or shelter from) totalitarianism. But where Brazil made the hero’s daily life as grotesque as his imaginary one, Pan’s Labyrinth uses carefully detailed realism to heighten the fantasy and draw out the parallels to everyday reality.

Del Toro’s next film will be a Hellboy sequel, not something I’m lathered up to see. Why should a man waste his time with grenadine concoctions when he has demonstrated such mastery at bottling strange wine? But del Toro can make as much fanboy dreck as he likes, so long as every few years he delivers a jolt of the real stuff.

A thousand points of light

It’s lulling and, ultimately, beautiful enough to work as one of Brian Eno’s installations, but it’s also a great bit of science video. Just give it time to unfold — you won’t be sorry you waited.

Please don’t eat the Uruks

As noted earlier, Dances With Mermaids and I spent part of my Christmas vacation watching the entire Lord of the Rings series on DVD. (That’s right, the extended versions, you lightweights.) But this is taking things to a whole different level.

Among the missing

Ambrose Bierce making it to the Library of America? About time.

Bitter Bierce is one of seven authors mentioned in the current LoA newsletter as being the focus of a book either planned or currently in production. The others are Thomas Wolfe, Sherwood Anderson, William Styron, John Adams, Jack Kerouac and H.L. Mencken.

Cool. The LoA also unveiled the titles chosen for its inaugural Philip K. Dick edition, and I’m happy to see I guessed correctly: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Ubik, The Man in the High Castle and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Jonathan Lethem chose well. PKD wrote too much and too quickly to be consistently good, much less great, but if someone were to approach me and ask for a book that captured the essence of the man’s work, I’d name one of these.

The pending volume’s subtitle — Four Novels of the 1960s — suggests we’ll see a 1970s volume somewhere down the line. In that case, I expect to see VALISA Scanner Darkly, The Divine Invasion and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Mark my words. 

Printer’s Devils

Ambrose Bierce builded better than he knew when he put together The Devil’s Dictionary. Now two writers have each taken a crack at updating the master’s work for the publishing industry. Read ’em and laugh — or weep.