Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Wednesday Westie


Check-out-the-seat-covers edition.

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Color it hopeless

Since John D. MacDonald used color-coded titles for his Travis McGee mystery series, I’m trying to come up with a suitable shade for my response to the news that Leonardo DiCaprio is set to star in a film version of The Deep Blue Good-by, the 1964 curtain-raiser for the series.

“Black” seems too strong for what bodes to be merely another exercise in mediocrity and non-epic fail. Hmmmm . . . The Merely Mauve Mediocrity? The Weak White Washout? The Deep Blue Direct-to-DVD? I don’t know DeepBlueGoodbyanything about the behind-the-camera talent signed up, but I can tell you the casting of the lead is ridiculously wrong. DiCaprio is a Jimmy Cagney type, while McGee is a tall, gangly ex-football player who doesn’t seem very imposing until you try to tangle with him. DiCaprio is far more talented than the other actors who’ve tried to embody McGee, but this ain’t the role for him.

It wouldn’t be the first time a McGee movie went wrong. The first film adaptation, Darker Than Amber, brightly offered Rod Taylor as the Florida beach bum. Long out of print, the movie is chiefly remembered for its climactic fistfight, in which Taylor and the actor playing one of the villains got so angry at each other that the staged brawl became a real knockdown-dragout. It wasn’t one of the stronger McGee titles to begin with, but Rod Freaking Taylor? Just how open-minded do we have to be in this life? Sam Eliot was better than expected as McGee in a 1983 television adaptation of The Empty Copper Sea, but the Florida setting was switched to California. On the outrage meter, that’s tantamount to putting Philip Marlowe in Trenton, or stranding Sherlock Holmes in Gary, Indiana.

The Marlowe comparison stands because John D. MacDonald was the true successor to Raymond Chandler, another writer whose books resist adaptation. A great many actors have taken a run at Philip Marlowe, and while some have come closer than others — Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum each came pretty damn close to nailing it in their respective versions of The Big Sleep — but the character remains wedded to the printed page, and the inimitable voice crafted by the author.

There’s a lot of Chandler’s mix of romanticism and cynicism in Travis McGee, rodtaylorbut MacDonald went Chandler several steps better. Marlowe’s Los Angeles stalking grounds have already been despoiled by grifters and predators. McGee’s Florida home base is just starting to be overrun (the heyday of the series was in the Sixties and Seventies) by a menagerie of mobsters, developers, backwater creeps, and transplanted operators. MacDonald was usually at his best when he was pissed off about something, and the destruction of south Florida gave him plenty to get pissed off about. I’m not saying that cranky, mournful, sometimes inspired voice can’t be conveyed in a film, but I’m not going to wait around for it to happen.

And casting McGee is only half the battle. You also have to come up with a good choice for Meyer, McGee’s friend and foil. Not even the Sam Eliot film came up with an acceptable actor, so if anything the track record gives even less cause for hope.

Something tells me the odds are good that this film will never even get made. Plenty of projects never make it to the screen, and this has the earmarks of a non-starter.

In which case I have another problem: What color is limbo?

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Blue (Maggot Brain) Monday

No discussion of great guitar solos is complete without “Maggot Brain,” the title track off Funkadelic’s third album, released in 1971. George Clinton is remembered as the mastermind of P-Funk, but those first three Funkadelic records are heavily influenced by guitarist Eddie Hazel, and “Maggot Brain” was the capper to that early burst of creativity. Clinton says the solo — recorded in a single take over a pre-recorded guitar track — was inspired by his instruction to “play like your momma just died.” The lengthy solo became Hazel’s signature piece. When Hazel was jailed in 1974 on drug- and assault-related charges, Clinton replaced him with Michael Hampton, who aced his audition by playing a perfect note-for-note rendition of “Maggot Brain.” When Hazel returned to the fold, he found himself sharing the spotlight with Hampton and guitarist DeWayne “Blackbird” McKnight on the number that had once been his turn in the spotlight.

I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility to suggest that “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” the piercingly lovely guitar showcase that closes Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, owes something to “Maggot Brain.” Whatever else could be said of Zappa, he knew guitar players, and it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t familiar with Eddie Hazel’s work.

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A sense of where you are

I haven’t read anything by Jonathan Maberry, but I do like his blog confab on regional mysteries and the importance of a strong sense of place in storytelling. Since I have a crime novel manuscript currently stuck in publisher layoff limbo, one set in a working-class New Jersey town, I found much of the talk interesting, at the very least. No doubt about it: The setting in which your characters operate should be at least as well developed as the characters themselves.

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Sheep shearing

If idiocy can be considered a natural resource, like oil or geothermal energy, then it’s only natural to expect that somebody will tap it. It’s not as though other entrepreneurs — cough Rupert Murdoch cough — haven’t already used this business model, after all.

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The Fig Newton quest

Sometimes the quest for knowledge is not a straight path, but more like a blindfolded stumble through the woods that involves bonking your head on low-lying tree branches. And this time I have Melvyn Bragg to thank for the bump on my forehead.

It all started with this broadcast about the dispute between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz over who invented calculus. During the course of the talk, one of the experts notes that Newton and Leibniz are the only two mathematicians to have cookies named after them. I instantly thought of inventing a New Math cookie that always comes out of the oven half baked. I put it alongside anti-gravity devices in the file drawer of projects I’ll have to get around to someday, but went out into the world confidently telling people that Fig Newtons are named after Sir Isaac.

Unfortunately, a bit of Googling later on showed that while Leibniz Butterkeks are indeed named after the inventor of the Leibniz Integral Rule, Fig Newtons get their moniker from the Massachusetts town of Newton. The Kennedy Biscuit Company, which invented the fruity cookie in 1891, used regional place names for its products.

This is the first time I’ve been steered wrong by something on Bragg’s show, which is bad enough. Even worse, I now have an insatiable craving for Fig Newtons. The quest for knowledge always has its price, I guess.

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Friday finds


Are you ready for Emoji Dick?

Time-suck alert: The New Yorker has a new blog devoted to churning its vast catalogue of back issues. It’s a simple but valuable idea: Go back into the magazine’s 80-year archive and find articles that reflect some of the writing in the current issue.

Here’s your shot at winning a coffee date with a real live Pulitzer-winning novelist. Having spoken with him myself, I can confirm he’ll be worth the bid.

Medievalists thrill to the tale of the Staffordshire Hoard! But the finder doesn’t have all that much to cheer about.

Want to make bagpipes from PVC tubing? How about trying to build an upright bass with an old washtub? Dennis Havlena has plenty of others.

Who do you like for the next Nobel Prize in Literature? The betting site Ladbrokes has four-to-one odds for Israeli novelist Amos Oz.

Farewell to Jim Carroll, poet, novelist, punk rocker.

F. Scott Fitzgerald thought there are no second acts in American lives. Just try telling that to this guy.

Writing advice from Frederik Pohl.

Krutt, anti-krutt, and the world of Icelandic pop music.

Am I the only one who finds the slang use of “cougar” really unattractive and more than a little insulting to the women it purports to describe? Do we really want to compare Courteney Cox, Demi Moore, and Pamela Anderson to a predatory beast known to leap on people’s backs, crush their spinal cords with a bite to the neck, then eat their faces and internal organs? Last time I saw a photo of Ashton Kutcher, he was looking pretty happy, so what gives with “cougar”? Not that “Milf” is much better. Whatever happened to “Yummy Mummy”? Or “Mrs. Robinson”? They’re dated, obviously, but either is preferable to “cougar.”

“In his Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson does not yet recognize the power of ‘nice’ as the catch-all term for British near-approval, but he Doc Johnsonproduces one of his little gems in defining the word: ‘It is often used to express a culpable delicacy.’ It may be time to observe that Dr. Johnson, neither by his own definition nor by ours, could ever properly have been described as nice. He lacked culpable delicacy to the exact same degree that he lacked good manners, an easy disposition, a sunny outlook, a helpful quality, an open spirit, a selfless gene, a handsome gait, or a general willingness to put his best foot forward in greeting others. If niceness was the only category known to posterity, we would long since have lost Johnson to the scrofulous regions of inky squalor, for he could be alarmingly rude.”

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As a lifelong sucker for deadpan surrealistic British wit, I was happy to spend some of yesterday afternoon in the company of Simon Armitage, who appeared in Princeton with American poet Tony Hoagland.

As has been his wont for some time, Armitage read “The Christening,” a poem that as yet appears in none of his collections. That’s probably as it should be, since the poem gains considerably from the man’s low-key delivery. By the end of the poem, the auditorium was rippling with chuckles. Also on the roster was “The Shout,” from The Universal Home Doctor, a subtle heartbreaker about a classmate, a “boy whose name and face I don’t remember,” yet who cannot be forgotten for reasons that become clear only in the last lines.

Since Daniel Radcliffe name-checked him in a recent interview, Armitage came in for a bit of kidding about being Harry Potter’s favorite poet. “You can’t understand the pressure of being the favorite poet of the boy wizard,” Armitage drawled, and it was doubly funny because with his northern England accent and dry delivery, Armitage sounds like he wouldn’t feel pressured writing verse on the rim of an erupting volcano.

Armitage was followed by Hoagland, who was uncomfortably aware of coming onstage after one of poetry’s international bigfoots, and it unfortunately led him to stumble and come off overly earnest and deferential. But I liked what I heard well enough to buy some of Hoagland’s books sight unread, and I expect I’ll have more things to say about him — good things, too — down the line.

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The Wednesday Westie


Dogs-can-get-comfortable-in-the-oddest-places edition.

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Re: Writing

As a writer whose novel went out to editors just as the wave of publishing layoffs was rolling in, I appreciated this note on the “hurry up and wait” aspect of publishing.

Do you have to “know someone” in order to get published? In a word: No.

“I’ve never been able to use a research assistant. If I don’t do my own reporting, I don’t get a feel for the subject. You miss insights that way. You need the detail. When you write, it takes a lot of mash to make good whiskey, or that’s what they say.”

Created in 1975 by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies is a deck of cards suggesting ways out of creative dilemmas. After the 1975 edition sold out, Schmidt and Eno created a 1978 and a 1979 edition, each slightly different. Following Schmidt’s death in 1980, Eno produced a fourth edition in 1996 commissioned as a Christmas gift by artist Peter Norton and never made available to the public. The first three editions are now rare and expensive collector-bait, but if you’re blocked in your work and in need of a mental shake-up there’s an online edition that lets you draw cards in sequence or elect a random choice.

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