Sons and Brothers

Michael Chabon’s new novel is all about nostalgia and the consequences that come of change, both threatened and realized. It’s also centered on that other favorite Chabon theme: friendship.

Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe run Brokeland Records, a vinyl mecca of jazz, funk and soul lps located at the far end of the namesake avenue that connects Berkeley with Oakland. By now, 2004, much of that famous avenue has been co-opted by coffee franchises and corporate retail. Archy is black, Nat is white. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, are dedicated midwives working together as the Berekley Birth Partners. Both Brokeland and Birth Partners struggle to survive in the 21st century. Those struggles strain the relationship between each set of business partners as well as the couples themselves.

Other couples complicate the story. There’s Luther Stallings, Archy’s father, the once John Shaft-like blaxplotation film hero, and his leggy, but aging co-star Valetta Moore. Luther exists largely in hiding –there’s something unseemly in his past — and his future is hooked on producing and starring in a new film. Then there’s Archy’s son Titus, who Archy has just recently admitting to have fathered. Titus is having a relationship with Nat and Aviva’s son Julie, a brother despite his name.

Into this mix come former NFL quarterback Gibson “G Bad” Goode, now an entrepreneur who want to build a Berkeley edition of his Los Angeles Dogpile Megastore, an extravagant cultural mall that will include, in addition to a multiplex theater, a giant vinyl record store. Goode, a man whose past holds more than football, has the support of councilman Chan Flowers, once Stallings’ friend. Flowers is anxious to find out where Stallings is keeping himself these days, something to do with the never-solved, Black Panther-linked shooting  of Popcorn Hughes at the Bit O’ Honey Lounge in 1973. Add to this Pynchonesque cast, venerable jazz organist Cochise Jones and his musical parrot, a memorabilia dealer named Mr. Nostalgia, a feckless attorney and a couple toughs, and you’ve got more characters than you can follow in a plot that’s not as complicated as it sounds: if the megastore is built, it will spell the end of Brokeland.

That Chabon makes us comfortable in this tangle is a testament to his abilities. The book turns as smoothly as an old Issac Hayes lp, complete with pops and clicks. Chabon’s expert at making music meaningful to his story, as he does when describing the effect John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme has on Archy. His dialogue is both smart and street-wise at once. He makes the most absurd circumstances work, as when Goode tries to sway Archy by taking him up on his private zeppelin.

Like Chabon’s 2000 Pulitzer prize winning novel The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, this unlikely buddy novel makes retro a religion. Archy, the most troubled of the characters—caught cheating on his pregnant wife and failing all those years to mention that he had a son—finds salvation in a decades-old bakery’s signature pastry “Dream of Cream,” still good after all these years. The post-racial relationship difficulties seem uncomfortable in that race is never mentioned as part of the problem. The only ones who seem above all this color-blind nonsense, Titus and Julie, are from the next generation. When the story finally does wind down like a record to its last groove, it’s a disappointment; not because of the way it ends but because, like the last sweet sounds on your favorite album, it does.

Shoving Off

Will those of us who wandered America with a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in our knapsacks find anything to like about Kerouac’s first novel written when he was 20? Probably. Many of the themes Kerouac explored in that book and those that followed, especially Doctor Sax, the Subterraneans and The Dharma Bums, are tried on for size. There’re discussions of class, labor, the writer’s role in a changing society, and the worth of experience and friendship. In what now seems obvious foreshadowing, there’s plenty of drunkenness. Bill Everhart and Wesley Martin become friends during a single night of drinking and Martin convinces the impressionable Everhart to hitchhike to Boston and join the Merchant Marine. This set-up frames conversation, introspection, and sentimentality. Mention is made of an important Kerouac influence, Thomas Wolfe. Similarities between a Kerouac contemporary, James Jones (From Here To Eternity) can be detected here long before each man had his first novel published. The Sea Is My Brother is out of the American fiction school that fell between the Depression and the end of World War II, a time of great social and artistic change. Jones, a decade later, clung to that era. Kerouac transcended it. Would those of us who love Kerouac now have loved this book in our knapsack days? Probably not; it’s overwritten and occasionally laughable in its youthful seriousness. Would any of today’s readers unfamiliar with Kerouac like it? No.–Cabbage Rabbit

The Messenger

When Gil Scott-Heron died last May at the age of 62 nearly all the obituaries saluted him as “the Godfather of Rap.” It was a title he modestly denied when I interviewed him in 1995, shortly after his recording Spirits had come out. Poet, novelist, R&B musician and social activist, Scott-Heron had influenced the rhyme and rhythms of what would become the rap movement. But the content of his message, contained in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Save the Children,” and dozens of other socially-conscious songs and politically-contrary lyrics, seemed largely ignored by the commercially-intent rap movement he supposedly had inspired.

The interview was a difficult endeavor that saw him cancel an arranged face-to-face, postpone a handful of phone appointments and eventually make contact as he drove around New York’s west side. At key moments in the conversation, the connection would break up and I was left wondering what exactly he had said. I suspected the man was occupied with a mission I could only guess at. By the time he died, it was well known that the suspicions I harbored were well founded.

 

That someone of such achievement, someone of such compassion and determination would succumb to the very evils he had sung about in “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust” is the unspoken heart of The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron’s recently released memoir. By the time he passed, Scott-Heron had spent a fair portion of his last years in jail for cocaine possession, had confessed to battles with addiction and had revealed he was HIV positive. As a young man, he was talented, ambitious (despite “a complete dedication to marijuana”) and fearless in pursuing his goals. What happened?

The omission of any hint of Scott-Heron’s lifestyle struggles puts a huge hole in the memoir, especially considering that the book was written during those last years and that drug use may have even influenced its writing. It’s especially disappointing considering the honesty and excellence of the book’s first half.

The stand-out tune from Spirits was “Message To the Messengers,” a plea for that generation’s rap stars to show some respect for their elders and what had gone down before. ““[Rappers] have to know they’re not going through anything new” he told me, “it’s the same stuff I went through back then. They’ve got to remember it’s not about them. It’s about community and the people.”

That’s exactly what the book’s first several fascinating chapters are about, community and people. It addresses the years between his childhood in small-town Tennessee to his signing with Clive Davis’ Arista Records. This journey makes for a compelling, even inspiring story. Scott-Heron acknowledges the help he had along the way, including that from a young white English teacher named Nettie Leaf who challenged him to read John Knowles A Separate Peace, a book he thought was “white noise about white people.”  Leaf recognized his promise as a writer and helped him get into a private school that would challenge both his intellect and his social skills. He credits his mother with helping him develop his style and reveals that it was she who, “provided the punch line” for his classic complaint against misplaced priorities,  “Whitey On the Moon.” She also suggested mimicking Langston Hughes by repeating the opening line of the poem—” a rat done bit my sister Nell…”

And he worked hard. Presidential candidates who have suggested there’s no work ethic in America’s underclass should read Scott-Heron’s description of employment at age 14 as a dishwasher in a steaming restaurant kitchen and how he sometimes held down multiple jobs to keep himself in school books. It’s thrilling to read how success –not always the case–follows his hard work.

The early sections devoted to his upbringing by his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee, his eventual move to New York to join his mother, his hot-bloodied pursuit of an education and his eventual recording success even as he coveted a career as a novelist are strong stuff, written with the kind of rhythm and word play expected of someone whose seen as a spiritual inspiration of the rap movement. But then the book changes purpose as its focus shifts to Stevie Wonder and the effort to establish a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s as if Scott-Heron has gone into denial and lost his abilities for self-examination. While the sections on Wonder are worthy in that they establish his important role in securing the King holiday –remember Wonder’s joyful 1981 song “Happy Birthday”?—we didn’t come this far with Scott-Heron to see him disappear.

Not only is the focus lost, the writing deteriorates and the book’s construction suddenly seems haphazard.  An excerpt from a long-held Scott-Heron project called “The Artist” seem to fall in as if from the moon. Chapters lurch from story to story without connection. Sprinkled throughout the text are poems, written in rhyming couplets, some deserving a backbeat and a melody line to carry their worthy message forward, clumsy others just waiting to be forgotten. When one of these poems expressing  the hope that morning coffee, “Will hit the right spot and somehow make it clear/What the hell’s going on? What am I doing here?”  we can’t help wonder right along with him.

The unevenness of the text is probably due to the start-and-stop way it was written over his last decade or so.  The book seems to be of two minds and of the two the first is better. Even as the narrative starts to skip like a damaged recording, there are some great moments as Scott-Heron jumps ahead and out of his life to consider the election of Ronald Reagan, and his feelings on joining the Wonderlove tour. We feel the innocent excitement of the book’s first half when Scott-Heron stands on stage next to a child-like Michael Jackson and when he recalls Jesse Jackson giving an election speech at the San Diego Convention Center in 1984. But largely in the book’s second half, the narrative flow, the thing that made so many of his musical verses strong, is missing.

It’s strange to realize once finishing the book that despite all the talk of “spirits” who helped him along the way he completely avoids addressing the devils that did him in. What a disappointment it is – and telling– to know that someone who wrote so honestly about his early life, who penned lyrics that touched a generation with their biting commentary and hopeful resolution, would ignore the struggle that consumed the last years of his life. The Last Holiday seems to stray from its intended themes and leave us with one that’s unintended: the messenger losing sight of the message. It’s as if he wants to tell us, as he does about his early years, but as during that long ago interview, the connection is always breaking up.–Cabbage Rabbit

 

Michigan Murder Mystery

Writer Jim Harrison is to letters what Woody Allen is to film. If that seems a stretch, consider: both are prolific, releasing a new work (or more) yearly. Both were born during the Depression, two years apart, both in December. Both mix drama and comedy into something that’s entertaining as well as thought provoking. Both are fixed on the complications resulting from relationships and sex. Both are obsessed with mortality. Both have tried their hand at writing from a woman’s point-of-view. Both are connected to specific locations, Harrison to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Allen to Manhattan’s Upper Westside (and more recently, Barcelona and Paris). Both are revered in France.

Okay, it’s still a stretch. The grizzled, one-eyed novelist and poet who wrote Legends of the Fall and some 30 other volumes of prose and poetry is more at home in the outdoors than the bespectacled urbanite who wrote and directed Interiors (no matter how much  of A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy takes place outdoors) . And while Harrison’s characters, like Allen’s, often dwell on the fact that their days, as everyone’s, are numbered, they don’t all take it personally. They’re more stoical about it.

Take 65-year-old Detective Sunderson from Harrison latest novel The Great Leader. “He thought just because you’re older doesn’t mean that death is imminent every day. There’s generally a tip-off when it’s coming.” Tips, being the detective’s stock-and-trade, need to be acted on. And Sunderson’s been given more than a few.

If your hunch is that detective fiction is out of character for someone as literate as Harrison, you’d be half right.  Detective Sunderson doesn’t break from the manly Harrison mold. He’s burly, fond of brook trout, dogs and deer livers.  He has a frustration-inducing appreciation for female posteriors and is prone to use whiskey as a cure. Three years ago, his troubled lifestyle cost him “the world’s finest woman,” according to his niggling 85-year-old mother. It’s his down-home style of introspection, in light of his vices, that stands him apart from the usual sleuth.

Recently retired after a career policing familial abuse, small-time drug dealing, and bear poaching, our detective is hardboiled country-style. When asked why he continues to follow The Great Leader out of the hummocks of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Arizona and the Sand Hills of Nebraska, he claims he’s investigating the evil connection between religion, money, and sex. A more accurate answer: he’s pursuing himself.

If this doesn’t exactly sound like Manhattan Murder Mystery that’s because it isn’t.  There are plenty of dark moments and intimations of mortality in The Great Leader, though balanced by comic action and witty asides. Plot? Only the barest, vulture-picked bones. Along the way, Sunderson is threatened with a sodomy charge, has a run-in with a Mexican drug kingpin, eats prodigiously and suffers gout. It’s not a thriller and there’s not a lot of suspense. But if you’re fond of existential puzzles, then The Great Leader is your rib steak.

In this age-of-anxiety sense, The Great Leader is reminiscent of Paul Auster’s1985 mystery City of Glass, an existential detective yarn in which the unraveling thread of the central charter’s psyche is more knotty than the mystery he’s trying to solve. While Auster’s tale is surreal, Harrison’s is well-grounded. Auster says, “nothing is real, except chance.” Harrison counters, “there is no truth, only stories. “ As a detective, Sunderson‘s heard plenty.

The real mystery here is Sunderson himself. Even as he plots the downfall of the cult leader for his taste in 12-year-olds, he ogles his 16-year-old neighbor girl, an exhibitionist whose bedroom window is just 30 feet from his. That and the excitement he feels almost every time a woman bends over cause him to curse “the distracting nuisance” of the biological imperative, like “carrying around a backpack full of cow manure.”

Harrison is skilled at straight-talking life’s big issues and the book is full of homily. “Crime did pay but usually very little,” Sunderson observes. Or, when marveling at the rejuvenating powers of time spent in the wild, “A creek is more powerful than despair.”

Not all such insight seems worthy: “Men would say they were as horny as a toad but who among them knew if a toad was horny?” Sometimes, Harrison’s dialog seems unnaturally smart, as when a tough plainclothes cop, describing religion as a drug, says, “you know, the Marxian opiate of the people.”

But by and large, Sunderland’s social and political one-liners give a jolt on almost every page. He’s outspoken on religion, Republicans, the FBI, American history (especially when it came to Native Americans), 9-11 and justice (“When a guy with four DUIs runs over a kid and receives less time than a college kid with a half-pound of pot…”); all tempered by his unruly self-doubt: “…what were his conclusions worth? Hadn’t he been put out to pasture?”

Sunderson eventually chases down a sort of religion of his own, one anchored in extended family and the natural world. Like Alvy Singer in Allen’s Annie Hall, he finds solace in his surroundings, a beauty and buzz of life that’s present no matter which landscape he’s in. It’s this revelation that helps him get his man. I won’t tell you which one.–Cabbage Rabbit

 

 


 

Independents Or…

The story today in The New York Times about the birth –rather than the death– of an independent bookstore is cause for celebration. Novelist Ann Patchett, joining with much of Nashville’s reading community, has spurred the opening of Parnassus Books after the closing of the city’s  Davis-Kidd bookstore last December. It was Nashville’s last, truly independent, non-university affiliated bookstore. The city’s Outloud Bookstore that focused on progressive and GLBT issues  preceded Davis-Kidd in closure last year.

The Times article paints the dilemma in predictable terms: “…it’s sort of everybody against Amazon,” says Daniel Goldwin, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. Of course, that’s only part of the problem. The Outloud store’s webpage cites the high cost of borrowing (those evil banks, again), unfair price advantages enjoyed by large retailers like Wal-Mart, the sales-tax advantage of out-of-state corporations and “the inability of congress to pass meaningful legislation that would support small businesses” among reasons for  its demise.

What makes  the closing of an independent book store a tragedy, not just for its owners but for its customers and readers (and authors) everywhere? The opportunity to browse, of course. Thumbing through books, seeing unknown books, hearing about books that might otherwise be missed not only encourages sales but expands the number of titles faithful readers would otherwise miss if they only followed what (little) was reviewed in the general press and recommended for them by Amazon. New and lesser-known, but equally worthy, writers go by the wayside as do the small, independent presses that publish them. Independent books stores provide for a more diverse, if smaller, selection; giving potential readers a chance to focus on books that might have otherwise been invisible. This is a good thing, not only for readers, but for writers, publishers and communities at large. To its credit, the Times also points out ways independents have sought to stay alive: negotiating new leases with sympathetic landlords, operating as co-ops, seeking partnerships with libraries and other institutions as well as raising money from its patrons.

I fondly recall a few visits to Shakespeare and Co. Booksellers in the unlikely location of Missoula, MT this summer. Hosting a modestly-sized but eclectic collection, it enticed me into buying a credit-limit busting (yes, I know I should have used cash) handful of titles I otherwise might not have seen: Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen from Red Lemonade , Francis Levy’s Seven Day in Rio  from Two Dollar Radio,  G. A. Bradshaw’s Elephants On the Edge from Yale University Press (independent books stores are a great resource for university presses) and others. There was poetry, local and international, that I could sample and graphic novels that hadn’t made the usual lists. Browsing Shakespeare was an education. Now I have Collected Works Bookstore & Coffee House in my new home of Santa Fe, providing the same sort of experience with a more regional slant, just as Small World Books, with it literary and mystery emphasis, did for us when we lived in Venice, CA. What great part of our lives would be missing if not for independent book sellers? Sadly, we occasionally find out. That’s why the opening of Parnassus, even if it’s nowhere near, is welcome news.–Cabbage Rabbit 

 

Mosley’s Memory

Walter Mosely’s meditation on his first memories in The New York Times is a detailed account of awakening consciousness. Mosely, at the age of three — the year most likely is 1955  —  opens his eyes in front of the television in his parents’ home. He is suddenly flooded with images and sensations. He says, “in some essential way,” it was the beginning of his life.

“There was a sense of excitement tingling in my shoulders and thrumming at the back of my head; an electricity that made me want to laugh out loud, but I didn’t laugh…There was dark blue carpeting beneath my knees and the room I was in, the living room, was bright because of daylight that came through the windows and also from the front door of the adjacent dining room. This door was open but the screen was closed.”

What might have been stolen from this memory had the television been on?

That Mosley’s visual memory of  specific events some 55 years past are so acute and detailed isn’t so surprising in light of his fiction, which is also acutely visual and focused. His 2010 novel, The Last Days of Ptolmey Grey,  centers on a nonagenarian who suffers the consequences of reviving lost memory. But it’s safe to ask:  Does Mosely really remember all this detail? Does he really remember the floral pattern of his mother’s dress, the “spiky” feel of the grass beneath his bare feet, the paleness of the violet dahlias his father was digging with a hand trowel?

I’ve often been credited with unbelievable recall of my early years. I astonished my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles with details of an overnight stay in Children’s Hospital, a horse sticking its head through unshuttered windows one humid night on  distant cousins’ south Texas farm, the events surrounding my sisters birth; all occuring just before and when I was three. As I picture these things well over a half century later, I remember the times I remembered them and wonder if my memory is just recall of the memories, something akin to imagination, and not the memories themselves.

Mosley’s account, clearly remembered as he states, recalls the same kind of awakening Chris Ware illustrates in his last couple graphic novels as the pixels of toddler consciousness gather into image.  But Mosley goes on to express doubt at the depth of his formative memories. Nor does he attribute recollection to the mind:

The boundaries have become smaller as I have aged. The passions have receded and the sun shines less brightly. But none of that matters because the primitive heart that remembers is, in a way, eternal.

In the way a poet might, Mosley ties imagination, a creative function, to a symbol of the human spirit. It’s a brilliant piece, poignant and meaningful to our experience as well as his. —Cabbage Rabbit

Spalding Gray Naked, Unseen

Spalding Gray struck me as the perfect balance of author and performer, someone who wrote well and revealingly of himself and then brought that self to the stage. As a long time Gray fan, I was anticipating the release of The Journals of Spalding Gray this month until I read the excerpts printed in today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine. Yes, Gray is introspective and thoughtful, curious as to who he is and why, just as he was in his monologues (if not as deeply as in his published work). But something seemed lacking, something prevented my usual embrace of his story. And I realized that I was getting only half of Gray, the writer without the performer. And I was disappointed in myself for needing the visual, the audible, the theatrical factor that made Gray unique.

One excerpt caught my attention.

Problems with father tempted by the idea that all I do may be a reaction against my father — I look at his life and do all I can to live my life in opposition to this makes my life inflexible and rigid.

This idea of the reactionary life, particularly in light of my own father, has long been a source of discomfort and discussion. Was the protest movement of the 1960s motivated by politics or psychology?  That we might be seeing it in generational terms — my 60s-’70s rebellious and politically radical generation was a reaction to the organizational and blue-collar patriarchs of the post-War generation, wasn’t it? The current Occupy Wall Street movement resulting from reactionary tendencies directed towards the greed-is-good generation of the ’80s and now the ’00s —  it’s powered by the same motivations isn’t it?  It’s a troubling question.  I believe the current movement is ideologically motivated, a reaction to the conditions and the protestors’ perceived future. But ours, a generation that embraced ideals and sold out a decade and more later? I’m not so sure–Cabbage Rabbit