Small Town Doc

Tom McGuane came to our small town’s independent bookstore when his latest novel, Driving On the Rim, was released. Reading and answering questions in a place about 20 miles from where (presumably) Rim takes place, McGuane proved himself considered, thoughtful, insightful and modest. A handsome man with an easy way about him, McGuane has long been a resident of Montana, and his knowledge of the state and observant familiarity with its various characters makes the book a standout for its slice of American life not often served up, a la mode or no. If only small town life were really this cruel and engaging. Oh, wait….

Like its author, Driving On the Rim is thoughtful, considerate and prone to quiet insight. Dr. Berl Pickett realizes on the first page the “borrowed nature of his life.” Cursed, or as he’s told near the end of the book, blessed with a religious crackpot mother and a more practical father, Pickett is more compassionate than most of the doctors he works with and certainly more divided. He revels in the relationships he has with patients and his medical decisions often reflect their lives and personalities in the Rx.  Like the time he tells one young abusive spouse that he should go ahead and shoot himself.

If Pickett, a bachelor and self-described nincompoop who likes to sleep around, hadn’t had a fling with the man’s wife when she was single, his conscience may not have bothered him so much. But it does. And even before the event stands him up with trouble, mostly with the hospital board’s chairman whose wife Pickett has also slept with, the doctor knows he must heal himself.

That requires a lot of healing. Pickett, thanks to his mother, has identity problems from the start. A nymphomaniac aunt who uses the adolescent Pickett didn’t help. Nor does his proclivity to drink and otherwise over-indulge.  The only thing that does help, he realizes after it’s taken away, his work. He’s not entirely a bad person. He selflessly rescues a beautiful crop dusting pilot from her about-to-explode wreck of a plane, an act that causes him more grief.

All these shenanigans are delivered at the pace of a small-town parade; considered and thoughtful like the author himself.  The common wisdom that Pickett pulls from his experiences seems uncommon to the folks around him who seem just as egotistical and deluded as any city slick. Pickett is different in that he see himself as “an odd combination of competence and imbecility. That’s he’s more self-realized than most doesn’t really help. He keeps making the same mistakes.

McGuane’s tone reflects all this.  The slowness gives him time to reflect. In a reference to Don Quixote, that ties to his decripit but mostly faithful Olds 88, he thinks:

“I did feel a truth in the idea that just beneath our follies and day-to-day distractions a terrible grinding mechanism was at work and had a full tank of gas. This was not necessarily a bad thing and gave gravity to our madness and ignorance, our persiflage, our deviousness and clamor for reknown.”

McGuane, now an old hand, doesn’t waste words, especially tied to symbol.  At one point, he tries on his dead, religiously-crazed mother’s reading glasses and finds that they don’t fit and he can barely see through them. A sprinkler, like Pickett himself, is “in a bad fight with the west wind.” But he’s most astute when giving bits of wisdom uncommon to small town life. After one rough patch, he observes, “It seemed that believing we were surrounded by people who enjoyed being fooled is what united all Americans.”

This book, as the epigram that fronts it suggests, is about quiet acceptance of the double life we all live. It’s also about work as a source of our identities, false as that may be; the role of religion, not all of it good, in our moral development, and the danger of casually resisting its influence. It’s overriding theme is the problem of how to live with the hand dealt, what to do with one’s time. “Only animals really knew how to live,” Pickett observes. That he comes out at the end alive with a new sense of how to occupy his time is not so much a triumph but a sort of resignation, all the eye-opening that precedes it  included.-Cabbage Rabbit


The Postman Rings Once

Albert Snyder’s murder in 1927 at the hands of his wife and her lover gave James M. Cain — and others —  ideas. As Literary Legend has it, the killing inspired Cain twice, once in Double Indemnity and again with The Postman Always Rings Twice . The actual incident was the perfect combination of sex and murder, and its telling in the papers overshadowed what was waiting on the economic horizon.

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion –the title pulled from a newspaper article of the time;  the chapters have equally Old Testament titles–is something of a tease. Hansen’s fictional period piece is big on “surge” and short on “guilt.” It’s as if the postman rang only once.

What we get instead is long on before and short on after. When the two finally dumb themselves into doing the deed (they’d already done dirty in many dirty ways), things move fast.

Hansen had benefit of memoirs from both of the condemned and is reported to have studied the incident throoughly.  While the juries, the attorneys and the public might have supplied endless material for  Hansen’s biopic, he instead concentrates on the accused’s lack of genuine guilt. The characters in both Postman and Identity, and their subsequent films, share the same base characteristics, all in different circumstances. Here, the not-so-star crossed lovers are oblivious in completely different ways.

The faux-steamy first section is where Hansen takes advantage of creative license. What he made up is damn good, presented flatly, judgmental in that it’s not.  And if the closing section, by comparison, seems to get bored with itself,  we should appreciate Hansen’s circling in quickly. It seemed like knowing how it was going to end suddenly made it less interesting even though we knew how it was going to end from the beginning. If this is the well from which much noir springs, it doesn’t give whatever cliche it’s attached to much support. And, as well,  it does. Are we all this self-absorbed? Hansen, with example, says in so many words that we like to think we’re not. Verdict? I couldn’t put it down.–Cabbage Rabbit

Noir, Noire, Noirish

Noir is like porno: You know it when you see it.  You can see it everywhere. Films — its most referenced birthplace– and literature (yes, literature, pulp included) and, don’t forget, comics. Its most recognized characteristic defines it as urban set piece dating from the 1940s; though, in its way, timeless.

Attempts to define the black genre narrowly — as to media, tone and content — always run into road blocks, the latest being the video game L.A. Noire (the “e” apparently added to avoid skirmishes with James Ellroy’s  attorneys even if his collection L.A. Noir takes place in much later times). The Xbox  and PlayStation3 notion of  noir contains every cliche and convention of pulp, hard-boiled and doomed-to-fail action (with a not so heroic hero).  Revivals of noir come about every few years –think L.A. Confidential or the recent publication of Black Lizard‘s big, burly collections — and noir rebirths and revivals  are perennial.

Ellroy himself takes a stab (huh) defining the genre in his introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century which he edited with crime-fiction scholar and bookstore owner Otto Penzler.  Ellroy’s interest here is literature, not film (despite his connections). He separates it from  the hardboiled detective school  calling it an “offshoot.”  Then he gets to the meat: “the wrong man and the wrong woman in perfect misalliance…flawed souls with big dreams… the precise how and why of the all-time sure thing that goes bad.”

It’s the “big dream” that makes noir, a film movement mistakenly thought French, all American.  The American dream’s delusion is one of possibility, climbing above one’s class, coming by the money, hook or crook, to reach a lifestyle that we (and them) will never attend. It’s not winning the lottery. It’s getting away with someone else’s prize.

Noir “canonizes the inherent human urges toward self-destruction,” says Ellroy.  We see the American dream in the slow dissolution of the middle class, princely financiers exploiting tragedy of their own making, the imperative and unwinding of American Imperialism. The only difference between the individual and national delusion is that the country, even as it squanders lives and treasure in foreign wars and investments, never sees its unwinding. The squandering comes to noir’s protagonists so predictably, so quickly and, occasionally, furiously that everyone can see it coming. Except them.

Penzler underscores these characteristics in his introduction to the noir collection. “Noir works…are existential, pessimistic tales about people…who are seriously flawed and morally questionable…greed, lust, jealousy and alienation lead them into downward spirals as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry.”

While arguments for an inclusive theory of noir — including the video game which is, after all, more of a hard-boiled detective scenario –are commercially prevalent (everything from colognes to iPad apps), Penzler seeks the specific. He says detective fiction and noir are “diametrically opposed with mutually exclusive philosophical premises.”  The hard boiled school, of course, is equally existential, pessimistic and stocked with characters with moral flaws. But its central character, so often compared to knights of old or troubled western gunslingers just looking for a little peace (the pulp connection) is there to solve , resolve and rescue, even if he — and its always a he —  doesn’t succeed (think Chinatown).

Surprisingly, it’s the women, even as they play to type, who often control destiny in noir fiction. In the movies, there’s Barbara Stanwyck manipulating the hapless Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity. In her introduction to the section entitiled “Dames” in Penzler’s collection The Black Lizard Big Book Of Pulps, Laura Lippman suggests that the scheming  woman of noir, who take charge of their circumstances if not their fate (and are often beyond rescue) were better feminist role models than the ’60s figures she grew up with: Julie Andrews, the June Taylor Dancer and Betty and Veronica. “Even if women take the lead in these stories,” she writes, “there is just enough kink in these archetypes of girlfriend/hussy/sociopath to hint at broader possibilities for the female of the species.”

The main point in the Ellroy/Penzler noir collection seems to be that the genre isn’t period specific. Good noir is still being written, and by the usual suspects. The book ranges over the classic noir years of the 1940s and ’50s. But most of the selections were written past those days. Nor are they specific to urban environments. Tom Franklin’s wonderful 1998 piece “Poachers”  is Faulkner-like in its regional , rural setting and dialogue. It’s lower-class, backwoods characters possess the same clueless, psychological flaws and the classic noir sense of inevitability as any urban back-alley, flophouse hotel confession.  Ellroy’s own 1988 piece “Since I Don’t Have You” is  one of the collection’s best, involving Howard Hughes, the gangster Mickey Cohen and a voluptuous beauty named Gretchen. Confusing genres, it also involves a detective, Turner “Blood” Meeks, a reoccuring Ellroy character who has a dead-end role in the film L.A. Confidential.

Noir is particularly timely today. Anything that takes place in America and focuses on misguided greed deserves our attention.  The consequences of Narcissism,  image delusion and out-and-out lack of brains assures bad outcomes. Or sometimes they’re too clever . Sometimes they get away.  Often there’s  animal-like behavior as if humans can’t resist the demands of our own evolution. What except the exteriors is different today than it was in the late ’40s?

Film noir’s harsh lighting and harsher story lines born of German expressionism are perfect for self (and national) reflection. Noir has always had a rural component. So much of America was still rural in noir’s heyday. It was easy to jump into your car and escape L.A. for the God-forsaken desert or mountains. One of noir’s best, Out of the Past , is a 1947 thriller staring Robert Mitchum that takes place entirely in and around the high Sierra near  Bridgeport, CA.

Noir can’t be defined by place, time or urban-rural contrasts. But I think Penzler and Ellroy have it right with their “downward spiral” of “seriously flawed and morally questionable” characters who are led by “greed, lust, jealousy and alienation.”  That’s the timeless scenario. It’s the psychology of it, our own proximity, the view of the not-so-faraway edge these unfortunates fall over.  A flirtation with our dark side, the reality; better than reality TV. And no detectives allowed.-Cabbage Rabbit

God’s Almighty Roth

Just what the nemesis is in Philip Roth’s latest novel,  if there’s to be only one, isn’t clear. Polio? Certainly. But maybe it’s God. Or even our superstition and ignorance. Or life, as in mortal,  itself.

Or maybe it’s just playground instructor Bucky Cantor’s proclivity to take things too seriously, particularly when it comes to what his grandfather preached: “to stand up for himself as a man and to stand for himself as a Jew.” All this standing, complicates Bucky’s life. He cannot, like his friends, serve in the big European war because of his poor vision, a fact used later as metaphor for what Bucky can and can’t see. Standing up like a man means knowing better than those who love you, and doing things they would not have you do. Failing this once is a hard lesson. Failing it twice isn’t allowed, even when it precludes a better decision.

Nemesis is Roth’s The Plague. The inexplicable existentialism of the disease’s spread challenges the easy notion of standing up no matter the circumstances. Like Camus, Roth keeps his narrator hidden for a good part of the book, giving the story an omniscient depth that seems to sink and surface as the story progresses. Like Camus, Roth has Bucky pose questions, not to, but about God.  As in Camus, God comes up terribly cruel or missing altogether.

Bucky’s sense of duty is a source of guilt. But it is also the source of his pride. When Italian teenagers invade the playground from their neighborhood where the disease has taken up residence, Bucky stands up to their threats and washes away their spit. His need to pass on his Grandfather’s advice to the boys on the playground makes him a hero to the boys and a champion in the neighborhood. When his love seeks to draw him away to the safety of the country he first refuses.

But not for long. His fear gets the better of him and he takes a job at an upstate summer camp away from the “equatorial” heat and disease of Newark.  The experience give him both a false sense of security and new reason for fear.  He’s bothered that his  girlfriend’s younger sisters cling to him and kiss him on the mouth.  When he and his beloved take a canoe and go to an island where they can be alone, storm clouds rumble in the distance. Despite this overplay, the moments of foreshadowing are chilling against the supposed blue-skies future.

Ethnic issues  — the Italian neighborhood that the disease first over runs while the Jewish neighborhood seems, as if by God, protected — are underplayed, serving as little more than setting to the action. Placed in a time when the Holocaust was reaching its horrific zenith in Europe, the  story seems designed to contrast human and natural suffering. But despite grandpa’s urging for Bucky to stand like a Jew, the comparisons are, like God, missing.

This is some of the genius of Roth’s story and keys to a short novel. He doesn’t need to connect the dots. The reader is entirely capable. Suggestion is more than enough to make the horrors of spreading death part of the tone, part of the setting.

In other ways, Roth seems to telegraph what’s coming. Bucky’s two buddies serving bravely in Europe? Don’t ask. His frequent declarations of happiness — that memory of eating a peach with his fiance’s father  —  suggest unhappiness looms. And don’t forget those thunder clouds advancing as the two make love.

Because of these clues, when the end comes Roth is largely able to skip over it and get right to the denouement. Now Grandpa’s advice works against Bucky. He can no longer stand like a man. His own strength and beauty gone, he relies on pride to carry him forward into a future he didn’t imagine. His narrator, during a chance encounter, hears the whole story. And he, like us, can’t quite figure it out.

Roth’s tale is at once a reminder of how our fears and superstitions color our most immediate reactions and important decisions. There’s hints that an ignorance of science,  in this case, how polio is transmitted, leads to misguided anger and judgment. The ethnic and racial prejudice of the time (not so unlike the prejudice of current time) clouds understanding. There are so many of these intervening factors in the book that it’s easy to believe its title should be plural if the series didn’t already carry that name.

Despite the obvious clues where all of it is leading, Nemesis is absorbing and propulsive reading, the kind of book you want to consume in a sitting (but it will take two). Much of this is due to Roth’s craft, the smoothly consumed rhythms and phrasing as natural as a jump-rope rhyme. It’s lesson isn’t so much not to get comfortable because life has something else in store for us but, instead,  not to be so forthright and resolute because, again, life has something else in store for us.–Cabbage Rabbit

Mosley’s Old Man

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a ghetto variation of the Faust myth. An aged man makes a deal with the devil so that he may settle with the past. Ptolemy Grey is 91 and living in an unkempt  South-Central Los Angeles apartment. He sleeps under the kitchen table, his toilet won’t flush and there’s a room populated by mice and roaches he won’t even enter. Being 91, Ptolemy has a lot to forget and his memory gives him trouble. He often can’t remember things. Often, he remembers at inopportune times.

Ptolemy is stoic about his condition. A nephew calls every few weeks to take him out to cash his pension check and buy groceries. Otherwise he’s alone, except for occasional visits from a drug-addicted woman who doesn’t mind beating up on him to get some money. When his nephew is killed in a drive-by, another less-compassionate relative stands in.

His life changes before his mind. At his nephew’s funeral, he meets Robyn, a 17-year old orphan who’s been taken in by Ptolemy’s extended family. Robyn cleans up the mess in his life and Ptolemy falls in love. “If you were twenty years older and I fifty less…” is a common refrain.

Ptolemy, forgetful as he is, is haunted by the past. Memories — often arriving as metaphor– flare up at odd moments. His life is consumed by incidents of regret; a fire in which he was helpless to save a friend, a down-home mentor, still whispering in his ear, who was hung, a beloved wife that died in his arms. The past is also treasure, the spoils of a “righteous crime” against racial injustice, hidden under his own floorboards.

With the best intentions, Robyn brings Ptolemy to a doctor who has an extreme treatment for dementia. “The Devil,” Ptolemy calls him. The Devil’s medicine ignites Ptolemy’s memory and brings fire to his veins. Without much life left, Ptolemy makes it his mission to do what he can do about those regrets as well as discover the reason for his nephew’s death.

The Rabbit’s often broken down Mosley’s novels into “detective”  (Easy Rawlins series) and “serious” genres (The Man In My Basement, The Right Mistake).  This book is a bit of both and something entirely different as well. The care that Mosley takes to create the fragile, vulnerable Ptolemy Grey is an insightful look into our own aging (and the miserable conditions we condemn them to as social programs are withdrawn). Mosley  grants glances into Ptolemy’s crippled consciousness and the distinct change it makes under the doctor’s medication. The mysteries resolved here are done with soul-searching and a little sleuthing. That Ptolemy unravels the cloth of his nephew’s “random” killing give the book a taste of Mosely’s mystery skills. The Last Days is equally touching and engaging, balanced with humor and full of personal revelation. It’s framing lessons, as Mosley so often states them, are centered on the black experience but universal in their message. The question here is not so much who can refuse the devil when he comes calling, but who can refuse love?–Cabbage Rabbit

Auster Envy

Can a book be about so many things that it leaves readers wondering what the book is really about? That’s what novelist Malena Watrous suggests in her New York Times review of Paul Auster’s Sunset Park. Auster’s book frames classic themes — brother-against-brother, father-and-son alienation, Lolita-like attraction, fading beauty and failing endeavor — inside contemporary circumstances and a rich collection of characters.

The story is framed by the foreclosure crisis. Miles Heller, 28, works in “home preservation.” He is part of a crew that goes into abandoned South Florida real estate and clean it up so that the owners–the banks–can resell it as quickly as possible. Miles brings his camera and documents the wreckage left behind by the displaced families. The images he takes read like a litany: “…sofas, silk lingerie, caulking guns, thumbtacks, plastic action figures, tubes of lipstick, rifles, discolored mattresses , knives and forks, poker chips, a stamp collection, and a dead canary lying at the bottom of its cage.”

Miles also has a girlfriend, a bookish, 17-year-old orphan who leaves her older sisters to live with him. She does not want children, not yet, and denies his member (but nothing else) “the mommy hole.” The alternative? “The funny hole.” (Watrous, without mentioning the “funny hole,” suggests that the couple’s sexual limitations make their relationship not “fully real.” Does prudishness affect her judgment?)

In a somewhat ironic touch, Pilar, the girlfriend, suggests that The Great Gatsby was better for its narration from Nick Carraway rather than if Fitzgerald had used an omniscient narrator. Sunset Park‘s omniscient narrator looks into Miles’ mind and finds him wondering what made this young woman so different than the rest of her family. When circumstances involving Pilar’s older sisters force Miles to flee Florida, he accepts an old friend’s offer to move in to an abandoned Brooklyn house with a clan of squatters.

There, we meet Alice Bergstrom who is writing a thesis on the relationships between American men and women as mirrored in books and movies from 1945 to 1947. Another housemate, Ellen Brice, is living out the guilt of sex she had with a sixteen-year-old boy she was nanny for eight years back. Bing, the group’s rabble-roused leader, despises America’s throwaway culture and runs The Hospital for Broken Things, a mechanical metaphor for the broken lives that surround him. Then there is Miles’ father Morris, a publisher on the brink of losing his business and his current wife, and desperately seeking to reunite with his lost son.  Miles’ step-mother, an aging actress, is looking to re-establish her career, this time on Broadway.

Watrous finds  such wealth a distraction while concentrating on the book’s Lolita aspect and a certain contrary optimism that defines each of the skeins that Auster knits together. She argues with the way Auster tells his story; revolving third-person omniscience that includes little dialogue. She suggests Auster’s goal was “to write a conventionally satisfying novel while bucking many of the conventions of how to write fiction.”

May we respectfully disagree? Auster isn’t avoiding convention. He’s writing around it, his talk-deficient narrative with its psychological omniscience moves quickly across emotional territory but covers little time. It’s involving because it’s involved. Emotional because of its optimistic contrariness.

As for Watrous, you might  suspect she was writing under the influence of envy, if writers ever did such a thing. But let’s just say she doesn’t find Auster’s style to her liking.  The Rabbit likes Auster’s approach because it accelerates the narrative. The present musing speeds back and forth through time. Past events and thinking are revealed, future events anticipated. Allowing various persons to be the focus broadens the story and serves as a sort of fact-check on personal belief.

When dialogue does appear, always without quotation marks, it underscores character. When the notice eventually comes that the squatters will have to vacate, Bing’s radicalism ignites. But it isn’t hot enough to burn away his delusions. “They’ve given us notice, and now they’ll forget about us for a while. In a month or so, they’ll be back with another piece of paper, which we’ll tear up and throw on the floor again. And another time, and another time after that, and maybe even another time after that. The city marshals won’t do anything to us.”  The statement defines Bing’s entire life.

Sunset Park is a book about healing wounds and repairing lives (much attention is paid to William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of  Our Lives which follows the troubles of three men returning to their women after World War II). It’s also a book about living in the moment, something Miles and Morris decide to do along the way, something Bing has always been committed to. Set against the backdrop of lost and abandoned homes, it’s a complicated piece of genius that frames timeless themes among contemporary situations. Too optimistic, as Watrous claims? Maybe she didn’t read to the end.–Cabbage Rabbit

Krazy Love

Now here’s something: a collection of poetry inspired by a comic strip. Monica Youn’s Ignatz is surprisingly like George Herriman’s classic cartoon: suggestive, surreal, catty. It’s focus, despite its comic derivation, is the caginess of love,  it’s impact on psychology and our perceptions. There are two voices speaking here, Krazy Kat and Youn; and when in “Ignatz Pursuer”  it’s wished she could spit out her heart into her palm, we hear both.

If we’re to truly understand the Kat whose love prompts her (his?) beloved to fire bricks at her head, we must see the relationship, like Youn, as symbol, as a panoply of images and sounds.  In Krazy Kat’s world, love is both blind and a vision. Like the shifting scenes  in Herriman’s strip, Youn’s poems present us with ever-changing backgrounds holding unmoving characters. Krazy Kat’s love will never change. Ignatz mouse’s disgust with the same won’t either.

With doses of wit (“Weight/is the end//of wanting”), Youn makes Kat’s obsession serious, deep and unfathomable. She avoids Herriman’s phonetic spellings but not the phonetics: “O my dear devoir/O my dour devour”//Your name:/an arrow/with a rope attached/could pull/this raft/across this river.” The comic’s focus on unrequited love is made substantially dark, its humor dependent on the hope seen in hopelessness.

Yet somehow, hope persists. Each of the book’s four sections begins with an love poem (Krazy’s Song) in verse. “O Ignatz won’t you meet me/by the blue bean bush?” Each of the four sections ends with a  poem entitled “Death of Ignatz,” and it’s here that the weight of love squeezes perception. “The mesas/sink to their knees//and let the snickering dunes /crawl over them.”  Could the absence of an unloved mouse change the landscape like this?

Indeed, background is permutational. In “Landscape With Ignatz,” six views of the same place — “The sunburnt mouth of the canyon biting the swollen blue tongue of the sky… The blistered thumbs of the canyon tracing the blue-veined throat of the sky.” — all frame “your soft, your cerulean eye.” Youn’s ability to create and link images distinguish her poems. “The clockwork saguaros sprout extra faces like planaria stoked by/a razor,” she says in “Ersatz Ignatz.” The connection of time and regeneration in the desert setting is held in a man’s shaving. Sound and vision share symbol: “Chug chug say the piston-powered/ground squirrels.”  And always the hand of Ignatz and his creator:

The yuccas pulse softly under grow-light sconces.

Here is the door he will paint on the rock

Here is the glass floor of the cliff.

He’ll enter from the west, backlit in orange isinglass, pyrite pendants glinting from the fringes of his voice.

These poems are so smartly worded (“isinglass” is a collagen obtained from sturgeon bladders used to clarify wine), so true and smoothly constructed that it’s apparent Youn could make something meaningful out of any subject. That she chose Krazy Kat’s voice to represent her own gives her collection natural entry into a variety of comic and tragic themes: the foolish and obsessive qualities of love, the errors of action and the delicacy of perception.

Like heart-on-its-sleeve Krazy Kat, Youn also invites us to examine her heart, there, in her poems, in the palm of our hand.–Cabbage Rabbit