Monthly Archives: May 2008

The literary exchange rate

In an item about a new “Big Read” exchange program in which Egyptian and American reading groups swap books by their respective countries’ notable authors, litblogger Jenna Krajeski notes the unequal balance of trade: one Egyptian book (The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz) versus Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Noting that a similar exchange program with Russia traded Harper Lee for a single Tolstoy novel, Krajeski asks: “Are our classic authors depreciating along with the dollar?” Possibly, though I think it may have more to do with the fact that there are way fewer Egyptian authors available in English, leading the program to overcompensate: I’d certainly say that Palace Walk is the equal of To Kill a Mockingbird, if not The Grapes of Wrath. And I never much liked Fahrenheit 451; I’d trade it for The Martian Chronicles, and I’d trade them both for one of the better short story collections.

Lather, rinse, repeat

Yep, another goofy dog video. You get those here, from time to time.

Litbloggy goodness

New on the lit blog horizon: Wyatt Mason’s Sentences at the Harper’s site; Granta’s revamped site; and the New Yorker’s Book Bench. Got to keep an eye on these.

What the clown knew

Jazz great Charles Mingus was always looking for ways to combine words and music, usually in the form of settings for poetry, as with “The Chill of Death” from Let My Children Hear Music, or “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes. Late in life, he approached Joni Mitchell about adapting some of T.S. Eliot’s poems — an encounter that led to Mitchell’s album Mingus.

For my money, Mingus’ most perfectly realized fusion of words and jazz was the title track of The Clown, the 1957 album I like to spring on people who’ve never tried Mingus before. (Pithecanthropus Erectus and Mingus Ah Um are also good introductions to this superb American composer.)

Man, there was this clown. And he was a real happy guy, a real happy guy.

He had all these greens and all these yellows and all these oranges bubbling around inside of him, and he had just one thing he wanted in this world. He just wanted to make people laugh – that’s all he wanted out of this world. He was a real happy guy.

Let me tell you about this clown. He used to raise a sweat every night out on that stage, he just wouldn’t stop. That’s how hard he worked. He was tryin’ to make people laugh. He used to have this cute little gimmick where he had a seal follow him up and down a step ladder, blowin’ “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” on a B-flat Sears Roebuck model 1322-A plastic bugle – a real cute act. But they didn’t laugh.

Oh you know, a few little . . . things . . . here and there, but not really. And he was booking out on all these tank towns, playing the Rotary Club and the Kiwanis Club and the American Legion hall, and he just wasn’t making it. And he had all these wonderful things going on inside of him, all these greens and yellows, and all these oranges. He was a real happy guy, and all he wanted to do was make people laugh. That’s all he wanted out of this world, was to make people laugh.

And then something began to grow, something that just wasn’t good began to grow inside of this guy . . .

The music is a bouncy waltz tempo, with a jolly sliding trombone part and overdubbed laughter. The narrator is Jean Shepherd, who in the days before he became the amiable nostalgia-merchant of A Christmas Story was a late-night radio jock whose free-form monologues addressed those he called “night people” — nonconformists and ne’er-do-wells capable of passing among the day people but always longing to break free of the conformist straitjacket. Anyone unfamiliar with Shepherd’s earlier work is in for a shock with this piece.

“Tank town” is a bit of obsolete showbiz slang, from the days when railroad engines would stop to draw water for their boilers from an overhead tank. Small clusters of stores grew up around these stops, simply to cater to people getting off the train and stretching their legs. In other words, a “tank town” was synonymous with Nowheresville — a flyspeck community hardly worth stopping at. An entertainer who played lots of tank towns would have a pretty bleak career.

Mingus had conceived a loose storyline about a clown who only becomes successful after he pulls out a gun and commits suicide in front of an audience. Shepherd, who loved jazz and prided himself on improvising with words the way musicians did with notes, gradually transformed the story during rehearsals into something that was, in a subtle way, even grimmer. Mingus pronounced himself delighted with the result.

You know it’s a funny thing. Something began to trouble this clown . . . you know, little things . . . little things once in a while would happen that would make that crowd begin to move. But they were never the right things.

Like for example that time the seal got sick on the stage, all over the stage, the crowd just . . . just broke up. Little things like that, and they weren’t supposed to be in the act, and they weren’t supposed to be funny. This began to trouble him and this began to bother him, this little thing began to grow inside. All those greens and all those oranges and all those yellows . . . they just weren’t as bright as they used to be. And all he wanted to do was to make that crowd laugh. That’s all he wanted to do.

There was this one night in Dubuque when he was playing this Rotary Club. All these dentists and all these druggists, all these postmen sitting around, and they were a real cold bunch – nothing was happening. He was leaving the stage when he stumbled over his ladder and fell flat on his face, just flat on his face, and he stands up and he’s got this bloody nose and he looks out at the crowd and that crowd is just rollin’ on the floor – he’s knocked ‘em flat out. This begins to trouble him even more. And he sees something – he begins to see something . . . hmmm?

Clowns crop up often enough in Mingus’s work — e.g., “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid, Too” — to suggest they had a very personal meaning to him. One of the curious things about “The Clown” is that the protagonist is feeling alienated because the audience expects him to do what clowns do — take pratfalls, slip on banana peels, get a blast of seltzer in the face, whatever. But if this clown is a stand-in for any artist, then doing the expected thing is not enough. Despite what he may think, this clown wants to do more than make people laugh. They have to laugh when they’re supposed to, at the things the clown wants them to laugh at.

Even in his nightclub days, Mingus was famously insistent on having the audience’s full attention: he thought nothing of chastising people for talking too loudly during his sets, and on one occasion, when two women kept chattering through the group’s performance, he grabbed a microphone and slammed it on the table in front of them. One of his best albums, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, is recorded as a dream-gig, with Mingus thanking an imaginary nightclub audience for shutting up, not ordering drinks, and staying in their seats. He was also angry, not without justification, at what he saw as second-class treatment — not only for himself as a black man, but also for jazz musicians in general as the popular audience headed in another direction.

And right about here things began to change, but really change. Not the least of which, our clown changed his act. Bought himself a set of football pads, a yellow helmet with red stripes, hired a girl who dropped a five-pound sack of flour on his head every night from maybe twenty feet up. Oh man, what a bit! That just broke them up every night – but not like Dubuque!

And all those colors? All those yellows, all those reds, all those oranges? A lot of gray in there now, a lot of blue. And all he wanted to do was to make this crowd laugh, that’s all he wanted out of this world. They were laughing all right. Not like Dubuque, but . . . they were laughing.

And the dough started to come in, and he was playing the big towns, Chicago, Detroit. . . . And then it was Pittsburgh one night – real fine town, Pittsburgh, you know. About three quarters of the way through his act, a rope broke. Down came the backdrop, right on the back of the neck, and he went flat. And something broke. This was it. It hurt way down deep inside.

He tried to get up. He looked out at the audience and man you should . . . man you should have seen that crowd – they was rollin’ in the aisles! This was bigger than Dubuque!

This was bigger than Dubuque! He really had ‘em going . . .

This was it. This was the last one. This was the last one. This was the last one. He knew now. Man he really knew now. But it was too late. And all he wanted to do was make this crowd laugh – well, they were laughing. But now he knew.

That was the end of the clown. And you should have seen the bookings coming. Man, his agent was on the phone for twenty-four hours. The Palladium . . . MCA . . . William Morris. But it was too late.

He really knew now, He really knew.

He really knew now . . .

William Morris sends regrets.

What did the clown realize in his last moments on earth? What was it that he knew . . . he really knew? That audiences are basically sadistic? That all his artistic striving was meaningless? That success always comes too late? That an artist has to kill himself on stage, every night, and it’s all the same to the audience?

I don’t think Mingus (or Shepherd) believed any of that, though I’m sure the thought crossed their minds more than once. I don’t know if either man ever addressed “The Clown” in an interview. If so, please send e the link. What the clown knew. That’s what I’d like to know.

The varmint vac

Remember the Bun-Vac 6000 from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit? Only now do I learn that somebody’s been doing the same thing with prairie dogs for over a decade.

Summer movie deathwatch

A little while ago I mentioned my utter lack of enthusiasm for the boatload of big deal popcorn movies lined up for this summer, and it appears I have more company than I realized. Iron Man is still doing very well, but Speed Racer opened in third place behind Iron Man in its second week and a chick flick in its first. That means the likelihood of seeing Speed Racer 2: Electric Boogaloo three years hence has become very slight indeed. 

The advance word on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Centrum Silver gets worse and worse, the absence of advance word on the next Chronicles of Ninnya flick seems pretty ominous, and now here’s an advance review of M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie, The Happening, that leaves one with the impression that any theater showing the film should be cordoned off by the National Guard until the reels of film can be airlifted out and buried inside lead-lined cannisters. It really does sound that bad.

And because the mean little man who lives inside my head forced me to read all the spoilers, including the big revelation cloaked in IvisoText, all I can say is: if you always wanted to know what it felt like to have invested your life savings in Enron corporate bonds, just wait until you walk out of the theater knowing you invested two irreplaceable hours of your life in the latest wank-off from the man who brought you Lady in the Water. I mean that most sincerely. Really, folks, if you go see this thing, don’t come crying to me later on.

Sounds like a great summer to catch up on your reading, doesn’t it?   

Getting a grip on politics

Jeffrey Goldberg recently interviewed Barack Obama, and one of Obama’s more interesting asides was that the novels of Philip Roth “helped shape my sensibility.”

So how could Goldberg keep from asking his readers to describe what the first 100 days of Obama’s Roth-influenced presidency would look like? He’ll post the best responses, with a piece of liver going to the commenter with the best entry.

Personally, I don’t know what the first 100 days would look like, but I’d be very interested in seeing who was willing to shake his hand. (Ba-dum, bish!)

Driving while Bond

A writer for the Guardian gets the Aston Martin firm to lend him a Vantage for a few days so he can retrace James Bond’s drive across Europe in Goldfinger.

I telephone Aston Martin. They enthusiastically offer me an Aston Martin Vantage for three days. They love the Bond association.

“How much would the car normally cost?” I ask Matthew, Aston Martin’s press officer. “£82,000,” he replies. “Plus I’ve put in about £9,000 of extras.”

“Like an ejector seat?” I say.

“Extra soft leather,” he replies. “And a connection to plug in your iPod.”

There’s an unexpected amount of class hostility along the way.

I was expecting the hostile glares from passersby to continue into France, but once we reach Calais everything changes. I’m still getting constant looks, but now they are looks of adoration. For the first time in my life, I am interesting to Frenchmen. They’re finding me mysterious and fascinating. Frenchwomen, however, don’t seem attracted by me. I’d have assumed from the books that they’d all want to have sex with me the minute they saw the car, but they don’t seem to notice me. It’s the men and the adolescent boys who are smitten.

It also turns out that trying to match Bond’s consumption of food is even more difficult than matching his consumption of women.

I check into the Hôtel Terminus, on the edge of the railway station. Le Cosy is the nearest restaurant. It is 11pm. Usually I don’t eat after 7pm, but tonight I make a rare exception. I order everything Bond ordered – two oeufs en cocotte à la crème, a large sole meunière, an “adequate” camembert, a pint of rosé d’Angou, a Hennessy 3 Star and coffee. It is all incredibly delicious. I get drunk.

I am a happy drunk. The car is parked outside. I watch contentedly as a stream of adolescent boys stare adoringly and take pictures on their phones. Then my happy drunkenness turns to maudlin drunkenness. I’m sick of being the centre of attention. Having an Aston Martin is, I reflect, like having a face made of solid gold with diamonds for eyes. Some people are awed, others hate you and want to hurt you. And there’s nothing you can do to get rid of it. I can’t help thinking that an Aston Martin would be a liability for a spy.

The coffee and the camembert and the wine and the brandy swirl toxically inside my now churning stomach. I stumble back to the hotel and to bed. At 3.56am I awake with a confused shriek, grab my notepad and scrawl, “3.56 am. Hair triangle horse chest”, and then fall asleep again. I do not know what “hair triangle horse chest” means.

Bond awoke the next morning, fresh as a daisy, had breakfast and a double coffee at the railway station, and then jumped in his car to continue his pursuit of Goldfinger, motoring “comfortably along the Loire in the early summer sunshine. This was one of his favourite corners of the world.”

I awake the next morning feeling unbelievably nauseous and constipated, and stumble blearily across the road for breakfast at the railway station. If there ever was a restaurant here, there isn’t now, just a vending machine selling crisps and Twixes.

“Had this been the case in Bond’s day, would he have eaten a Twix for breakfast?” I wonder. “Probably, judging by his constant desire to fuck up his body.” I eat a Twix and begin to hate James Bond.

In the end, the writer doesn’t finish his journey the way Bond did — by being captured and tortured. Come to think of it, after all those opulent meals, he does experience a kind of torture, but . . . you know . . . not the same thing at all.

The squirrelslayer

Last year I paid out some large coin to evict a nest of squirrels from the soffit along the front of my house, so when Andrew Sullivan frets about his beagle going postal on a tree rat, all I can say is: You go, doggie. Give it one for me.

You know how Woody Allen was about pigeons? That’s how I am about squirrels. It was a fine day in my house when Dances With Mermaids and The Divine Miss T aged past Beatrix Potter — The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is a bigger menace to children than any video game. We have three West Highland White Terriers: a nine-year-old male I’ll call Chunky Laddie, a slightly younger female who has aged her way from Tragic Princess Von Yippenstein to Dowager Empress of Sofaland, and a one-year-old female I’ll call the Highland Fling, because her arrival has turned Chunky Laddie into the canine equivalent of a middle-aged executive with a young hottie secretary. They’ll tussle and play-fight half the evening, but when Chunky Laddie finally loses steam, Highland Fling is just putting on her boogie shoes. Is there a Vitamin A pill for Westies?

What Chunky Laddie really needs is to bag him another squirrel. He caught one in the backyard only a few months after we got him, then brought it into the house for a victory lap through the dining room, living room, family room and kitchen. Unfortunately, the family room was full of young girls there for a birthday party, and a couple of them had only just learned to stop being afraid of Chunky Laddie and the Tragic Princess. You ever hear a roomful of six-year-old girls screech all at once? It was at about the same pitch as that shrieking violin cue Bernard Herrmann came up with for the shower scene in Psycho

To make matters worse, Chunky Laddie didn’t wanrt to relinquish his trophy. When it had finally been snatched up with a Hefty-bag gloved hand and consigned to a garbage can — one outside the fence. Chunky Laddie perred at it through the slats, then came over to collect some pats.

“Ah sherr givved that squell what for, did’nae?” (I sure kicked some squirrel butt today, didn’t I?)         

“That you did, O great white hunter,” I told him. I didn’t want to discourage his natural hunting instincts, so I scratched his belly, called him a good boy and filled his water dish with Laphroiag.

Yesterday I heard scratching noises from the soffit along the back of the house, and all I want to know is: Can Westies be taught how to fly? Because the squirrels in the trees are getting waaay too cocky. 

The highest praise

Just the other day, I heard Dances With Mermaids, talking to her other 10-year-old friends, praise something by calling it rockin’ — as in “How rockin’ was that?”

When I was 10, the best thing you could say about something was “Tough!” Like I said when, in You Only Live Twice, the helicopter with the big magnet hoists the car loaded with bad guys off the road and drops it into Tokyo Bay. “TOUGH!” Some pop culture savant should prepare a timeline for terms of pre-teen praise: when tough became cool, when awesome became radical, etc.

But the highest points for expressiveness go to the nameless kid who sat next to me in the now defunct Amboy Multiplex — aka, Amboy Pithecanthroplex, in honor of the lameass Staten Island teen gangs that once congregated there — during a packed-house showing of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It came during the scene when the T-1000, impersonating young John Connor’s Foster Mom, gets annoyed by Foster Dad’s overactive mouth and does something offscreen to silence him. When the camera pulls back, we see that Foster Mom has turned her arm into a long blade and shoved it into Foster Dad’s brain via the roof of his mouth. Pretty wicked stuff.

Or, as the kid next to me said: “Total Ginsu!” I don’t know how I kept from cracking up during the rest of the movie.