Monthly Archives: December 2011

A moment of memory

Saw the word “cuttlefish” this morning and for no reason at all suddenly remembered that when I was very young, I misheard “cuttlefish” as “cuddlefish” and assumed it had that name because of all those arms. Not exactly a Proustian moment, I realize, but I’ve always found that deliberately mishearing words and names can be a spur to creativity. Maybe that’s how I started — with cuddlefish.

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A moment of geekery

Is it too uncool to acknowledge how much I’m looking forward to seeing The Hobbit? So be it. I was never the biggest fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, so I went to see Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring with no particular expectations and ended up falling hard for the entire series. Funny to think that was a decade ago. What I particularly like about this trailer is the emphasis on character and the details of performance: the way Gandalf says “No” when Bilbo asks if he can guarantee a safe return, or the seriousness that fills the room when Thorin sings. (I’m reminded of that gorgeous scene in The Two Towers when Theoden recites “Where is the horse, where is the rider?” as a wordless chorus fills the soundtrack.) So, yes, I’m dying to see both installments of The Hobbit in the cineplexes, listen to Howard Shore’s soundtrack music, watch the extended editions (can there be any doubt of those?), and finally get a look at Smaug. Jackson has said he wants to outdo Vermithrax Pejorative. It’s high time somebody tried.

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The not-so-real thing

When I heard about the recent death of Christopher Hitchens, my first thought was that one of the last of the public intellectuals was gone. Now I think I had it wrong. Partly it’s because I had a chance to look over his body of work and found that, unlike his idol George Orwell, Hitchens produced little of lasting value. But mainly it’s because I had a chance to meet and talk with the real thing, and Hitch came off looking pretty weak in contrast.

So, why so hard on Hitchens? After all, the man had range: books about Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, literary criticism, atheist polemics. But the history books added nothing that was new to the thinking on their subjects. The literary criticism was smooth and chatty, but once again did little to stir things up. The advocacy for atheism was a welcome blast of fresh air in an environment dominated by crap piety, but God Is Not Great is really just a more stylish dance along a path already paved by Sam Harris.

The biggest problem with Hitchens is that for all his impiety and wit, the man was a preening fool on the Iraq war. Too may intellectuals reacted to 9/11 by deciding to heave good sense and caution over the side, but Hitchens — by virtue of his access to big media and his lucrative perch at Vanity Fair — did more damage than any of them in the realm of public opinion. His bufoonery was made all the more grotesque by his almost demented hatred for the Clintons; having excoriated the 42nd president as a lying sleaze, Hitchens then signed on with his successor, a man whose character and morals a tapeworm would consider beneath contempt. Launched with lies and planned by corrupt dolts, the Iraq war was a new low for American foreign policy, and yet its moral squalor and strategic idiocy barely stirred a whisper of a doubt for the scourge of the Clintons.

The Iraq war was a disaster for his adopted country, but his support of it made Hitchens a regular presence on Fox News, where his podium smarts and ability to speak in complete sentences made him look like an eagle in an aviary full of deranged parrots. But while it was amusing to see him deck squawk-show palookas like Sean Hannity, it was hardly fitting work for man of his education. I’m afraid I have to side with the naysayers who appeared in the wake of the eulogies filed by the man’s many drinking buddies. For all their flash and attention-getting polemics, the works of Christopher Hitchens will not have much of a shelf life. Much has been made of his ability to crank out reams of  articles and shelves of books while staying more or less continuously drunk, but from here that seems to make him nothing more than the thinking man’s Hunter S. Thompson.

A few days after Hitchens died, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with John Sayles during an event sponsored by The Raconteur, the soon-to-be-closed bookstore in Metuchen. The evening was a two-fer, with a reception at the bookstore (during which he signed copies of his new novel, A Moment in the Sun) followed by a Q&A session and a screening of his latest film, Amigo, at the local Forum Theatre.

Sayles received a MacArthur foundation “Genius” grant, and it would be hard to imagine a more appropriate winner. After debuting in the Seventies with a highly praised novel and story collection, Sayles became a pioneering independent filmmaker with Return of the Secaucus Seven, and he has comfortably kept a foot in both the literary and film worlds ever since. Part of his charm is that he trained up for his independent work by writing B-movie scripts for schlock impresario Roger Corman, and it’s hard to convey the pleasurable shock of going to the local twin theater or drive-in with low expectations to see something like Piranha or The Howling, only to be greeted by smart dialogue, clever storytelling and plenty of hip in-jokes. Sayles has also filmed videos for Bruce Springsteen, and he continues to do script-doctoring (credited and otherwise) on films like The Spiderwick Chronicles.

Sayles is the most personable and chatty writer you would ever want to meet, with a down-to-earth manner and a bottomless supply of amusing anecdotes about Hollywood and the trials of being an independent filmmaker. Like any working screenwriter, Sayles has a boatload of unproduced screenplays, including an early run at Jurassic Park IV that sounded pretty neat (the story, which involved velociraptors genetically modified to serve as soldiers) but was scotched when a draft leaked on the Internet; and Night Skies, an SF horror film that split into ET and Poltergeist.

But it is for  his own work that Sayles will be remembered, and rightly so. Matewan remains one of the most inspiring depictions of realistic physical courage I’ve ever seen, and Lone Star uses the discovery of a long-buried corpse to dig up layers of history and personal guilt in the disputed territory of Mexico’s border with America. Few children’s films are as charming as The Secret of Roan Inish, and few dramas are as deceptively scary as Limbo.

Amigo isn’t a top-tier Sayles epic like Matewan, but its subject — a village leader caught between guerrillas and American soldiers during the Philippine-American war in 1900 — is of a piece with his career-long penchant for telling the untold and little-known stories from American history. His low-key methods and disdain for stylistic flash lead many critics to dismiss him as a writer with a camera, but give me Sayles’ concern for integrity over, say, Martin Scorsese’s brain-dead showmanship in the historical travesty Gangs of New York.

For all the wingnut whining about liberals in Hollywood, there’s no question that Sayles’ firmly left-of-center political stance makes him an outsider. Mainstream directors like Steven Spielberg are happy to employ him for smart dialogue and ingenious genre storytelling, but Sayles was on his own when he wanted to tell the story of a violent coal-miner strike in West Virginia, or show political bloodshed in Latin America.

That commitment to integrity, and the surprising art that grows from it, makes John Sayles a true public intellectual as well as a novelist and filmmaker. He never lost his bearings, even when the likes of Paul Berman were joining the 9/11 bedwetters brigade, and he figured out how to do exactly what he wanted to do (more or less) as an artist. He will probably never get invited to as many dinner parties as Christopher Hitchens, and he has better things to do with his time than swat aside inanities tossed by Fox News stooges, but he probably isn’t going to lose any sleep over that. He’s the real thing, and as such reserves his time for things that are real. He’s already done more work of lasting value than Christopher Hitchens, and I get the feeling he’s got a lot more good work up his sleeve.

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Friday finds

In which the pioneering rapper talks up a Los Angeles architectural landmark. Learn more about the Eames House here. Some of Ice Cube’s best raps here, here, here, and here. NSFW, unless you work at Death Row Records.

You know you want to hear Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” So what are you waiting for?

Ace thriller writer J.D. Rhoades talks about why he decided to go indie and start publishing new books (and out-of-print backlist titles) as e-books.  His new one, Gallows Pole, will scare the snot out of you.

Madam Mayo, author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, interviews Solveig Eggerz, author of Seal Woman.

When you’re introduced to a fencer, don’t do the squiggly arm thing. Just don’t.

In which Frederik Pohl reminisces about the Battle of the Douchebag, the Battle of the 4-Color Border, and the night spent with Harlan Ellison on Long John Nebel’s talk show.

From Psycho to Casino, from The Man with the Golden Arm to Anatomy of a Murder, it’s a tribute to the title sequences directed by Saul Bass.

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Humbling history

It appears some New Jersey lawmakers are upset at the idea that Thomas Nast (1840-1902), the godfather of political cartoonists, has been nominated for a spot in the N.J. Hall of Fame. Assemblymen Wayne DeAngelo and David Rible have asked that Nast’s name be removed from consideration because many of his cartoons depict Irish-Catholics in a demeaning light. Though Nast is celebrated for his crusade to expose Boss Tweed and his ring of thieving Tammany Hall cronies in the early 1870s, the legislators are more concerned with his penchant for ethnic stereotypes, particularly one infamous cartoon depicting a brutish Irish drunkard touching off a powder keg.

As it turns out, DeAngelo and Rible have this much right: Nast was a German Protestant who despised the Catholic church, and he saw parochial schools as dens of indoctrination and spiritual corruption. (One of his most famous cartoons, “The American River Ganges,” depicts Catholic bishops as crocodiles preying on American children.) Nast was not alone in this suspicion: anti-Catholic sentiment lingered well into the twentieth century. When Al Smith became the first Irish-Catholic presidential candidate in 1928, postcards of the Holland Tunnel construction were distributed in the Midwest, with notes warning that the Pope was having a tunnel built that would connect the White House to the Vatican. Nast wasn’t the only cartoonist to depict Irish immigrants with simian features, but the quality and detail of his draftsmanship made the slur all the more wounding.

Nast’s bigotry went hand-in-hand with that of many political reformers of the era. While Boss Tweed was as crooked as they came, there’s also no question that many of his critics were more offended by his background than his venality. Urban political machines were seen as bringing the unwashed immigrant rabble into the halls of power, where the reigning Protestant establishment had plenty of dirty laundry of its own to hide.

On the other hand, Nast was also an opponent of slavery and racial segregation whose work earned the praise of President Lincoln, and during Reconstruction he attacked the Ku Klux Klan as fiercely as he’d opposed the Tweed Ring. Nast was also a man of action. At an age when most men would be enjoying retirement, Nast sought an appointment from President Theodore Roosevelt, who made him Consul General to Ecuador. Nast’s work during an epidemic of yellow fever saved many lives, but cut short his own at age 62.

Even without his good works, Nast is simply not to be denied as a landmark figure in American culture. He invented the donkey and elephant symbols that remain the badges of the Democratic and Republican parties to this day, and those  images he did not invent outright — e.g., the classic depictions of Uncle Sam and Santa Claus — he perfected to such a degree that no one since has seriously attempted to change them.

It is the easiest thing in the world to indict our predecessors for not having attained the apex of virtue and wisdom that we represent in the present. If you want to beat up on Thomas Nast for ethnic prejudice, then have at it — his body of work supplies all the ammo you need. But if Thomas Nast was a bigot, he was a lot else besides, and our lawmakers judge him at their peril.

It’s easy to use history to certify our own virtue, but it’s far more revealing — far more interesting — to use it to see if we are as virtuous as we like to think. If even as towering a figure as Thomas Nast could be tripped up by the grimy prejudices of his time, that’s a warning for us all. For the claims that were being made about the Irish in Nast’s day — they will never assimilate, they will degrade society, they flout our laws, they’re born lawbreakers who will always be a burden on society — are now being laid at the feet of Latino immigrants, with allowances for contemporary obsessions. America was a much less populous country in the 1870s, but we seem to have assimilated the Irish just fine — in fact, each year we devote a portion of spring to pretending we’re all chips off the Auld Sod. I look forward to something similar happening with Mexican and Latin American transplants. If Cinco de Mayo ends up becoming a bigger deal than Columbus Day, so much the better.

Thomas Nast’s place in history is unassailable. Leaving him out of the N.J. Hall of Fame — the what? — will do nothing to diminish his stature, but it will certify the organizers as very small people indeed.

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Attention, Lit-Mart shoppers!

I know how it feels: holidays just around the corner, no gift ideas seem appropriate. What’s a caring person to do? And yet, the solution to your gift-giving problems is literally at your fingertips.

Oh shucks, enough with playing coy. Please buy my books. There’s something here for just about everybody.

You like nonfiction? Maybe you’ve been watching Boardwalk Empire and you find the whole political boss thing pretty intriguing? Then The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway is the book for you. One of the key players, Hudson County political boss Frank Hague, recently made an appearance on Boardwalk Empire, and now you can get the real deal on this most misunderstood and influential figure of 20th century politics. You also get a labor war, a murder trial, and a lesson in how the plans of the smartest and most gifted people of an era can go wrong. This link will give you options on how to buy a copy.

That sounds too heavy? You just want a good, fast-paced story to keep you guessing? I got you covered: We All Fall Down, my first novel, has well-known thriller writers like J.D. Rhoades singing its praises, calling it things like “fast-moving and twisty” and the like. It has, if I do say so myself, a pretty original and surprising heroine, and a small-town New Jersey that may very well remind you of your own town. In which case, you might want to consider moving. Just kidding! But I’m not kidding when I say this link will set out buying options.

I can say with all honesty that these are books I wouldn’t hesitate to buy — if I hadn’t already written them.

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(Scary) Blue Monday

“The only strings that hold me here/Are tangled up around the pier/And so a secret kiss/Brings madness with the bliss/And I will think of this/When I’m dead and in my grave/Set me adrift/I’m lost over there/But I must be insane/To go on skating on your name/And by tracing it twice I fell through the ice/Of Alice/There’s only Alice.”

Tom Waits wrote the Alice songs for a 1992 stage play directed by Robert Wilson, and for the next decade they were available only as bootlegs in various configurations.  I haven’t seen the play, but I was delighted with the 2002 release of the songs. As much as I love Tom Waits’ music and growling, sardonic stage persona (I speak as someone who’s been buying every new Waits album since the Nighthawks at the Diner era), I sometimes get tired of the whole carny barker routine. The Alice songs have none of that posturing. This is the great overlooked Waits album — tender, spooky, full of longing and a sense of loss — and “Alice” is the great overlooked Waits song.

Shortly after the CD came out, I was playing it in the living room and Dances With Mermaids (then about eight) came in to listen with me. After a while, she said, “Daddy, this music is scaring me.” Smart kid. It scares me, too, when it isn’t doing a lot of other things besides.

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Small world, happy ending

Sisters in Crime, a lively group of women devoted to reading (and writing) crime fiction, invited me to their December meeting last weekend to talk about my novel We All Fall Down. I was asked to touch on the idea of using real-life events as a springboard to fiction, which was just fine by me. The heroine of We All Fall Down is a woman cop, a rookie, modeled on the kind of police women I saw while covering cop shops during my newspaper days, and one particular East Brunswick officer who got so much shit from the male cops on the force that she filed a discrimination suit against the township and walked off with a settlement just a little below a half-million dollars. The township paid it gladly: Had the case gone to trial, she would have cleaned their clocks for them.

The plight of that woman, whose looks were ragged so mercilessly that she actually underwent plastic surgery in a vain attempt to stop the abuse, came up during the discussion. Since the meeting was held in Jamesburg, a tiny community just south of the township, I shouldn’t have been surprised that one of the women in attendance knew the case. But what really surprised me was that she was also a friend of the woman who had filed the lawsuit.

It was a brief chat, no more. The woman left police work behind, had some more cosmetic surgery, then used her money to get a degree in psychology. Apparently she now works as a counselor somewhere.

A happy ending to a nasty story.

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John Scalzi is a mensch

I mean, seriously. What other successful writer-blogger would do something like this? I ask you.

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That Seventies show

In her memoir And So It Goes, Linda Ellerbee described her first exalted view of New York City, alighting at Kennedy Airport and cabbing it across the Triborough Bridge at sunset, ready to get out and high-kick her way across the East River while belting out “New York, New York.”

As for me, my first solo journey in the Big Apple started in the spring of 1978 with a long bus ride out of East Brunswick, after which I emerged from the Port Authority building, shaking off mild nausea and a headache from exhaust fumes, to see a barefoot derelict sipping delicately from a tall can of Budweiser and, just as delicately, puking each sip at his feet. The sidewalk behind him brought to mind the work of an incontinent Jackson Pollock, and I skipped past the splashes of color as fast as my suburban-bred white guy feet would carry me. When I think of a perfect New York song, it isn’t by Kander and Ebb — it’s by Tom Waits on Franks Wild Years, cawing “I’m gonna take you, New York!” over a skating-rink organ like one of the waterlogged specters in Carnival of Souls.

There were plenty more trips, of course. For one thing, my first Rutgers University art teacher, distressed that his students only seemed to know only the names of the dead, had decreed that we would make regular trips to the city and prowl galleries in search of works by living, breathing practitioners. New York is New York, but no matter how many times I came through (and I even came to appreciate the grindhouses of Times Square) I never thought of New York as a place I’d want to live. It was an  attitude forged in the late Seventies, when the whole city seemed about to collapse into itself, and I’ve never quite shaken it.

Of course, I never arrived in the city with a note of introduction from Norman Mailer, which was the happy fate of James Wolcott, a writer whose work I’ve followed eagerly since those college days, when each new copy of the Village Voice was like a field report from a mystical land where books, music, and movies mattered more than anything else. Every week meant another trip through Riffs in search of new bands, every month another scan of Christgau’s Consumer Guide, to be followed by a visit to Cheap Thrills on George Street, with its immense import-album bin and clerks who’d been reading the exact same articles and had already anticipated the demand. Ramones! Pere Ubu! The Clash! The punks and New Wavers were all hitting the stands with their first and second albums, and fresh vinyl was more important than food.

Wolcott had a full-page perch from which to write about television, and while that may not have seemed like much of a beat back then — the networks ruled, cable TV was barely getting started, and HBO was just toddling into original programming with a National Lampoon special called Disco Beaver from Outer Space — Wolcott made it work with parodic descriptions and fizzy turns of phrase, and because his frame of reference was unbounded by the tube he was happy to comment on other matters as well. When the elephantine adaptation of Brideshead Revisited hit PBS, Wolcott closed each column with a “Brideshead Update” that red like Wodehouse on acid. Need I say that those two column inches were far more readable than Brideshead was watchable?

Wolcott was meant for bigger things, and his climb to reach them is recounted in his new book Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, which shows that even with a note from Mailer and a spot at the table with Pauline Kael, some things about the city couldn’t be avoided:

The IRT stop closest to my Ninety-second Street apartment was a convenient four blocks north, but those four blocks often required nimble footwork and ninja awareness of impending action. So much of New York did. Most of the parks were safer walking around than through. (I was warned about venturing into Riverside Park, where, I got the impression, dead bodies were always being discovered after having rolled downhill the night before.) Entire neighborhoods were considered no-go areas where you never knew what the hell might fall from the fire escapes, and even sections of town that didn’t resemble standing rubble had stretches that you avoided, had you been properly briefed. Otherwise, you’d be walking down some leafy block, moderately carefree, turn the wrong corner, and find yourself staring down the barrel of a hostile street, forced to either retrace your steps or run for your freaky life like Cornel Wilde in The Naked Prey. It wasn’t just the criminality that kept you radar-alert, the muggings and subway-car shakedowns, it was the crazy paroxysms that punctuated the city, the sense that much of the social contract had suffered a psychotic break. That strip of upper Broadway was the open-air stage for acting-out episodes from unstable patients dumped from mental health facilities, as I discovered when I had to dodge a fully loaded garbage can flung in my direction by a middle-aged man who still had a hospital bracelet on one of his throwing arms. Then, as now, the Ninety-sixth Street crosstown nexus was an irredeemable eyesore that served as a magnet for unmanned shopping carts abandoned on their sides or commandeered as a homeless moving van. It was at the newsstand at the southwest corner of Ninety-sixth that I picked up the copy of the Daily News with the arresting headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD, and it was the perfect spot to receive notice of impending collapse.

Or, as the Rolling Stones said back then, sha-doo-bay, shattered.

Though Wolcott’s descriptions of the punk rock scene encrusted around CBGB make the book for me, I find that a far better soundtrack for Lucking Out is the newly reissued Rolling Stones album Some Girls, which still carries the invigorating stench of urban decay from its 1978 incarnation. As with the recent super-deluxe-wowie-zowie-bop-bam-boom edition of Exile on Main Street, there’s a whole disc’s worth of songs that didn’t make the final cut; unlike the Exile extras, which added nothing to the canon, the Some Girls discards are all keepers, and a couple of them — “Don’t Be a Stranger,” “When You’re Gone” — would have improved the original release. In fact, the entire bonus disc serves as an exemplary late-Seventies Stones album in its own right. Had it been released as the followup instead of the vapid Emotional Rescue,  we all could have gone on a bit longer pretending that Some Girls was a second wind rather than the last gasp.

Anyway, back to Wolcott. His abrupt disappearance from the Voice was not entirely a surprise: he was one of those Voice writers who (like Stanley Crouch and Adolph Reed) were a little too elbows-out and independent-minded in their politics. (Imagine a Weekly Standard writer who says, openly, that Baby Bush lied us into the war and you’ll get an idea of the uncomfortable fit.) And the television column had run its course. When Wolcott devoted several weeks to diagnosing the reasons Saturday Night Live had done a nosedive, it was clear the man needed bigger pastures to frisk in. Which turned out to be The New Republic, Harper’s, The New Yorker (briefly), and Vanity Fair, where he can still be found between the celeb spreads and the perfume ads. Not the worst place to be, these days.

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