Monthly Archives: August 2011

Taking the Rap

The Rap Sheet, a really fun and useful site devoted to crime fiction, has me telling The Story Behind the Story of my crime novel, We All Fall Down.

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A meme is born

If you ever wondered what a real shit-eating grin looks like, click thee to this video of a TV news twinkie getting covered in raw sewage while delivering a “news report” from Ocean City, Md. This guy is so breathtakingly stupid that he deserves to become a meme. Photoshoppers! Time to get cracking! I think Poop Covered Fox Newsie should be at least as famous as Spock Is Not Impressed.

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Gambits

I’m a pretty avid online chess player. When I signed on with an Internet playing group a few years ago, I had to come up with an online handle for my games. On the spur of the moment, I used a nickname for a college-era girlfriend who was in my thoughts, since she had just died a terribly untimely death from lung cancer. Most of the time, the gender of an online player isn’t an issue, but every once in a while I get an opponent who assumes he’s playing a woman. This produces some comments that are . . . interesting.

Usually they want to know my age and where I live, right off the bat. (I never thought of using a chess game as a pickup opportunity, but where there’s a Ruy Lopez there’s a way.) Just now I had a guy (I feel safe in assuming) who promised to make me cry with the whuppin’ he was about to deliver. When I put him in check with a move that also revealed an attack on his queen, he disconnected without another word. Not very masculine of him, wouldn’t you say?

I realize I’m far from the first to make this observation, but it must take an awful lot of patience to be a woman.

The revolution has not been televised

Not in this country, at any rate. Let the record show that the pushback against the shock doctrine started in the land of Egil Skallagrimsson and Grettir the Strong.

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Spenser again

Formulas are funny things. Some stay fresh for decades, while others . . . not so much. Robert B. Parker, who died last year after cranking out something like 50 (mostly) crime novels, was my hands-down favorite crime writer for about four years in the early Eighties, after which I lost all taste for his writing.

In the early Eighties an acquaintance tipped me off to Parker’s Spenser series, after I’d gone into withdrawal from a summer-long John D. MacDonald binge, and I eagerly snapped up the first 10 entries. Great stuff — fast, often very funny, and tough-minded in some surprisingly smart ways.  Last week I revisited my three favorites from the series —  God Save the Child (1974), Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980), and Early Autumn (1980) — and they’re still the place for newbies to start.

The funny thing about the books is that Spenser, a detective, doesn’t really do much detective work. He mostly gets results through muscle, finding somebody skeevy in the Boston underworld and beating him until he talks. On the occasions that method doesn’t work, Spenser calls in Hawk, a towering African-American contract killer who shares Spenser’s taste in quips but is ready to take the violence a few steps further than Spenser tends to go. Early on, this functioned as an interesting thematic touch: Hawk as the kind of stone killer Spenser might have turned into under the right (or wrong) set of circumstances. After too short a time, it became a convenience: if Spenser needed to perform a deed too dirty for his knight errant image, Hawk would be on hand. This, along with the fact that Spenser would never face a credible physical threat, helped drain my interest in the books.

Another interesting quirk of the early novels was the way Spenser’s invincible confidence led him to take a hand in setting people’s lives straight — as straight as he could make them, anyway. The mystery element in Early Autumn is quickly dispatched: the core of the novel is Spenser’s bid to serve as father figure to Paul Giacomin, a formless boy who has spent most of his young life watching television while his divorced parents fight over custody rights.

“Why don’t you just let me alone?”

I sat back down beside him. “Because everybody has left you alone all your life and you are, now, as a result, in a mess. I’m going to get you out of it.”

“Whaddya mean?

“I mean you don’t have anything to care about. You don’t have anything to be proud of. You don’t have anything to know. You are almost completely neutral because nobody took the time to teach you or show you and because what you saw of the people who brought you up didn’t offer anything you wanted to copy.”

“It’s not my fault.”

“No, not yet. But if you lay back and let oblivion roll over you, it will be your fault. You’re old enough now to start becoming a person. And you’re old enough now that you’ll have to start taking some kind of responsibility for your life. And I’m going to help you.”

“What’s lifting weights got to do with that stuff?”

“What you’re good at is less important than being good at something. You got nothing. You care about nothing. So I’m going to have you be strong, be in shape, be able to run ten miles, and be able to lift more than you weigh and be able to box. I’m going to have you know how to build and cook and to work hard and to push yourself and control yourself. Maybe we can get to reading and looking at art and listening to something besides situation comedies later on. But right now I’m working on your body because it’s easier to start there.”

“So what,” Paul said. “In a little while I’m going back. What difference does it make?”

I looked at him, white and narrow and cramped, almost birdlike, with his shoulders hunched and his head down. He needed a haircut. He had hangnails. What an unlovely little bastard.

“That’s probably so,” I said. “And that’s why, kid, before you go back, you are going to have to get autonomous.”

“Huh?”

“Autonomous. Dependent on yourself. Not influenced unduly by things outside yourself. You’re not old enough. It’s too early to ask a kid like you to be autonomous. But you got no choice. Your parents are no help to you. If anything, they hurt. You can’t depend on them. They got you to where you are. They won’t get better. You have to.”

His shoulders started to shake.

“You have to, kid,” I said.

He was crying.

“We can do that. You can get some pride, some things you like about yourself. I can help you. We can.”

For sheer hardboiled lyricism, that passage ranks among the best scenes in the Spenser can0n. Unfortunately, when Spenser took a similar hand in a young girl’s life in Ceremony, the results were rather less palatable. Faced with a girl who kept falling back into street life and prostitution after numerous rescues, Spenser decided that since hooking was her destiny, she might as well do it in a nice brothel with clean sheets. One might have expected an enlightened roughneck like Spenser to be a little less inclined to abandon a teenager to such a fate.

Parker’s style is Chandler-Lite, and Spenser is Philip Marlowe with the melancholy dialed down and the wisecracks amped up. Later on, the quips exchanged by Spenser and Susan became as rote and tiresome as sitcom writing. But the repartee was still fizzy round about the sixth novel, Looking for Rachel Wallace, in which Spenser is hired as bodyguard to a combative lesbian-feminist writer in the Andrea Dworkin mode. Parker spends the first chapters getting plenty of mileage out of the comedic potential from pitting articulate machismo against a sensibility repelled by all of its manifestations

Rachel said, “Tell me about Spenser. Have you known him long?”

“I met him in 1973,” Susan said, “but I’ve known him forever.”

“It only seems like forever,” I said, “when I’m talking.”

Rachel ignored me. “And what is he like?”

“He’s like he seems,” Susan said. The waitress came and took our cocktail order.

“No, I mean in detail, what is he like? I am perhaps dependent on him to protect my life. I need to know about him.”

“I don’t like to say this in front of him, but for that you could have no one better.”

“Or as good,” I said.

“You’ve got to overcome this compulsion to understate your virtues,” Susan said. “You’re too self-effacing.”

“Can he suspend his distaste for radical feminism long enough to protect me properly?

Susan looked at me and widened her eyes. “Hadn’t you better answer that, snookie?” she said.

“You’re begging the question, I think. We haven’t established my distaste for radical feminism. We haven’t even established that you are in fact a radical feminist.”

“I have learned,” Rachel Wallace said, “to assume a distaste for radical feminism. I rarely err in that.”

“Probably right,” I said.

“He’s quite a pain in the ass, sometimes,” Susan said. “He knows you want him to reassure you and he won’t. But I will. He doesn’t much care about radical feminism one way or the other. But if he says he’ll protect you, he will.”

“I’m not being a pain in the ass,” I said. “Saying I have no distaste for her won’t reassure her. Or it shouldn’t. There’s no way to prove anything to her until something happens. Words don’t do it.”

“Words can,” Susan said. “And tone of voice. You’re just so goddamned autonomous that you won’t explain yourself to anybody.”

The waitress came back with wine for Susan and Beck’s beer for me, and another martini for Rachel Wallace. The five she’d had this afternoon seemed to have had no effect on her.

“Maybe I shouldn’t cart her around everyplace,” I said to Rachel.

“Machismo,” Rachel said. “The machismo code. He’s locked into it, and he can’t explain himself, or apologize, or cry probably, or show emotion.”

“I throw up good, though. And I will in a minute.”

For sheer unpredictability, God Save the Child is not only the best of the series, but one of the best detective novels of the Seventies. Along with the core story — a boy’s disappearance that becomes a kidnapping that becomes extortion that becomes a search for a father figure — the novel shows Spenser meeting and courting Susan Silverman, the love of his life. A lot of the Freudian analysis of the boy’s budding sexual identity has curdled into creepy nonsense — in some ways, Rachel Wallace reads like an apology for the villain, Vic Harroway — but Parker comes through with a superbly written fistfight and a final twist that fills out a nice picture of suburban evil.

As long as Parker stayed within this Boston milieu, the early novels were fine. The first sign of trouble was The Judas Goat, in which Spenser and Hawk took off for London and a round of terrorist-hunting that wouldn’t have passed muster as a James Bond plot. John D. MacDonald committed a similar misstep when he pitted Travis McGee against a terrorist training camp in The Green Ripper, but he learned his lesson and returned McGee to his familiar condo-ized swamp of bikers, hustlers and real-estate hucksters. Parker not only failed to learn the lesson, he doubled down on absurdity with A Catskill Eagle, in which Spenser plays Orpheus to Susan’s Eurydice in a bunker below the Colorado mountains.

Spenser’s subsequent adventures became exercises in by-the-numbers commercial writing, and I lost interest. It didn’t hurt Parker’s career any — I don’t think any of his later novels failed to climb the bestseller lists — but there’s a difference between formula and pablum, and Parker too often came down on the wrong side of the divide.

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Today’s quote

“I turned and walked to the aft end of my sun deck and looked down at the dock. A tall, frail, sallow-looking fellow in a wrinkled tan suit too large for him stared up at me with an anxious little smile that came and went — a mendicant smile, like dogs wear in the countries where they kick dogs.”

All this useless beauty

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life opens with a rapturous flow of images and music. Disembodied voices ask questions of  God while galaxies burn on the edge of the cosmos and babies are born to joyful parents. Volcanoes erupt, the Earth cools, dinosaurs frolic in the woods, and waterfalls cascade every which way. It’s gorgeous to look at and hear, but one quickly starts to lose patience with (to borrow a phrase from Elvis Costello) all this useless beauty. For while Malick sets out to address the certified Big Philosophical Questions — Why are we here? Why is there evil in the world? What happens next? — his answers are secondhand and trite. As a longtime admirer of Malick’s films, it pains me to say that The Tree of Life turns out to be a rather vapid and mush-headed piece of work.

Too bad, because within Malick’s immense crystal cathedral there’s a tense, observant family drama struggling to get out. Set in Waco, Texas, during the Fifties, the story shows a gruff patriarch (Brad Pitt), disappointed in his hopes for a music career, subjecting his young sons to a borderline abusive regime of homegrown discipline. He’s not the Great Santini, but there are times when his strictures are closer to arbitrary cruelty than parenting, seemingly designed to generate seething resentment in his family. He is counterbalanced somewhat by a mother (Jessica Chastain) whose glowing skin would send Vermeer running for his painting gear, and whose supply of forgiveness seems inexhaustible. Only once does she get angry enough to slap at her husband, but this upswell of raw emotion quickly disperses and she resumes her radiance duties.

The Tree of Life is obviously a personal film: the setting matches Malick’s own background, and the flow of images and memories add up to a long reverie sparked by the death of one of the brothers later in life. (The now-adult survivor, played by Sean Penn, spends a lot of time looking depressed in a landscape of corporate towers — Penn’s formidable acting chops, sad to say, are never put to use.) But it’s personal in the sense of being insular and uncommunicative: Malick is using certain images in a very systematic way, but the plan remains locked in the director’s head, and the film’s lassitude doesn’t offer much incentive to puzzle it out.

Stray scenes remind us that Malick’s visual sense was once wedded to artistic toughness. There’s a moment in which the father, sitting at his piano, starts playing counterpoint to the younger brother’s guitar practice, while the excluded older boy stews with resentment in the backyard, too angry to let himself enjoy the music in the air. Late in the film, the same boy flirts with bad seed behavior, slipping into a neighbor’s house and pawing through her lingerie. Nascent lust quickly turns to guilt, however, and the boy’s trophy — one of the woman’s nightgowns — is surrendered to the river for yet another Hallmark greeting-card shot. In The Tree of Life, even the nastiness looks pretty.

Part of the problem is that Malick’s intent is clearly theological, and The Tree of Life will only work well for viewers who share his religious views. If you are sympathetic to the story of Job (referenced throughout the film) as a metaphor for facing life’s trials while never losing sight of the beauties of creation, then you may well find The Tree of Life an exalted experience.  As for me, I find it an illustration of a primitive deity’s arbitrary cruelty — God and Satan get into a pissing match, and lucky Job gets to catch the shower — and Malick’s grand summing up is banality on a galactic scale. Life is full of pain and struggle, he says, but check out these cosmic gas clouds — don’t they put it all in perspective?

No, actually, they don’t. And after two-plus hours of a film stuffed with visual splendors but starved of intellectual and emotional content, I found Malick’s vision of the afterlife — an immense tidal flat populated with family members at all stages of their lives — pretty goofy. Do they have to spend eternity without even a dry place to sit down? My first thought was that Malick was making his own version of 8 1/2, but The Tree of Life doesn’t add up to that much. At best it’s a fraction of Fellini, and from the director of Badlands and Days of Heaven, I was hoping for a lot more.

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Across the reader and onto the screens

Is there another Certified Big Time Author who’s had worse luck with movies than Ernest Hemingway?

At the bookstore I have DVDs catalogued in various ways, including some categorized by author. There were plenty of good movies to work with from John Steinbeck’s oeuvre: Of Mice and Men has two solid adaptations; Elia Kazan’s East of Eden as well as the not-too-shabby TV adaptation with Jane Seymour as Catherine; John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (begging to be remade); David Ward’s nice-try take on Cannery Row (actually Sweet Thursday with a few incidents from its much better predecessor); as well as movies like The Pearl, The Red Pony, The Wayward Bus, Tortilla Flat, and an obscure made for TV version of “The Harness” best remembered by trivia buffs who need to answer: “What’s the worst thing Lorne Greene acted in besides Battlestar Galactica?”

Or how about Graham Greene? Our Man in Havana, The Comedians, The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, The Human Factor, two excellent takes on The Quiet American, and The End of the Affair. (I’m still waiting for Criterion to bring Brighton Rock out of mothballs.) Somerset Maugham’s had a pretty good run, too.

But Hemingway? Aside from the Spencer Tracy version of The Old Man and the Sea, I can’t think of a single Hemingway-based film I’d want to have in the store, much less watch again. I’m predisposed to like anything with Ava Gardner, but The Snows of Kilimanjaro put me to sleep. Islands in the Stream is up there with A Moveable Feast among the best posthumous books, but the film version with George C. Scott is a snoozer. That strong-silently-suffering grace under pressure business has a way of turning mawkish once it leaves the page and the inimitable Hemingway prose style. Can anybody give me a few decent Hemingway movies?

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Credit where due

I’m no great fan of Chris Christie, but I have to applaud the New Jersey governor’s impatience and barely contained disgust with whackaloons criticizing his appointment of Sohail Mohammed, a Muslim lawyer, to the state bench in Passaic County. With all the uglies to be laid at Christie’s door, I found this display bracing to watch.

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