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

Taking the Long View

For many of us, the 1960s never ended. Tom Hayden takes that belief a step further. The ’60s continue…for everyone.

Hayden’s book, The Long Sixties, takes the political history of the ’60s and finds its legacy alive today in the social movement that brought Barack Obama to the presidency. He sees Obama as a reflection of the movement politics of that decade. Movement politics –the actions of groups sharing similar visions or issue positions– can be found  in the emerging progressive- populist, anti-finance and anti-corporate movements and in the ignored but tangible anti-war movement. These movements, anchored in their correctness, grow in reaction to the resistance they meet. Without the ’60s, Hayden suggests, hope would go missing from our politics.

Despite the tired joke that memory of that special decade implies absence, Hayden was there. He was a founding member of the Students For a Democratic Society and led the drafting of the student manifesto The Port Huron Statement. He was indicted as a co-conspirator of the Chicago 8, charged with inciting riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 (his conviction was overturned in 1972).  He traveled to North Vietnam during the war with Jane Fonda (in 1973), an act that still inspires outrage from his adversaries, before going on to spend time in California politics in the 1980s and ’90s. He has not only been controversial among his enemies on the right, but with radical progressives who, at times, saw him compromising to join the political system.

Hayden describes his political and social beliefs with “the M/M model,” progressive movements in opposition to the Machiavellians “power technicians” who represent the various power institutions of government, business and the military. He places the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the anti-corporate movements of the ’60s in this model. The movements  grow, as he says, “when sufficient rage and frustration lead to a perception that all peaceful, legal means have been exhausted.”

The majority of the book frames many of the seminal radical events of the decade inside the model. In the process, Hayden paints a history of the times that counters attempts at whitewash and demonization.  His “Promoting Amnesia” section warns, “The general approach is to reduce the whole sixties to a blurred story of violence, sex drugs, and rock-and-roll signifying nothing. This requires a difficult removal of civil rights, feminist and farmworker movements…” The most visible example of rewriting history from the era, he says,  is the effort to “wrap Vietnam in triumphalism…”

Hayden declares that while the political successes of the era were compromised in the following decades, the ’60s counterculture revolution succeeded in taking over the culture at large. “Sixties music and artists still retain a dominant influence. The general public is supportive of the decriminalization of marijuana and a treatment-centered approach to drugs. Things organic, foods and medicines, hold vast sway. Above all, environmental programs  such as renewable energy and conservation derive from approaches that were considered part of the extreme fringe thirty years ago.”

Hayden is quick to point out that the sixties did not hold onto its political victories. War, repression, racisim and exploitation of workers continues and, indeed expands. The movement was absorbed and co-opted, he states, and parts of it were separated from the whole. “Green politics still remain white politics,” he says, echoing Van Jones. The Machiavellians, ascendant during the first several years of the new century firmly control the agenda.

It’s when Hayden ties the movement lessons of the ’60s to more recent events that his book speaks the loudest. And nowhere is this most apparent than on sections devoted to Obama. Hayden, along with Barbara Ehrenreich and others, famously endorsed Obama in a March, 2007 piece for The Huffington Post (published in the book). Yet Hayden has not relented any of his positions to support the president, taking him to task for his extension  of the war in Afghanistan and calling out the media as well as the White House for ignoring its casualties.  “…one hard lesson has become clear to me from experience:” he writes with added emphasis, Domestic progress has been continually derailed by dubious wars.” Though he has not addressed class struggle and the financial crisis as thoroughly, he has, in true Hayden style, linked the two to the actions and philosophies of the Obama administration.

“Obama is trying to navigate between Machivavellians he has either inherited or appointed–the generals, military contractors, national security elites, Wall Street bankers, and hedge fund speculators–and a public opinion of high hopes and growing anger…” he writes in the book, which was published in 2009. “To permanently shift the American balance of power in a progressive direction, the Obama administration needs to encourage both structural shifts and cultural ones, not policy change alone…” But even some of Obama’s recent policy, despite its achievements, must unsettle Hayden.

The book’s last sentence addresses both the president and ourselves. “What he needs, then, and what we need is a New Left.” In other words, what’s needed is a return to the movement politics of the sixties, founded on unclouded understanding of the issues, cast in current terms and propelled by contemporary technology. We’ll be looking to see if Hayden’s take on Obama and the current state of America has changed in the last two years when the paperback edition of The Long Sixties, hopefully updated, is published in April.–Cabbage Rabbit

Crumb’s Creation

In the beginning, Robert Crumb’s work was all parody and cartoonish variation. Over the decades, he has breathed form into his illustration, bringing detail and something, at times, approaching realism while maintaining his characteristic style prickly-male legs and ponderous female thighs. The Book of Genesis Illustrated is his longest, most ambitious creation and, despite the subject matter, his most real, though realism is relative to his style (see “A Short History of America“). As the cover declares, it contains “ALL 50 CHAPTERS” and “NOTHING LEFT OUT!” Indeed, not only does Crumb include, as he declares in his introduction “every word of the original text” (derived from “several sources”, mostly Robert Alter’s 2004 translation The Five Books of Moses and the King James Version) but something of his own interpretation, no matter how innocent, via his drawing.

Something of Crumb’s approach to the project can be found in Todd Hignite’s interview from his 2006 publication In the Studio: Visits With Contemporary Cartoonists. At the time of the interview, Crumb had finished all of  four pages but much of his thinking on how he would approach it was complete. Commenting on an old 1946 EC comic Picture Stories From the Bible, with its blond Eve and red-headed Adam, he complains about its sloppy drawing and the fact that, “they just make shit up to gloss over and fill in whole passages. They have Eve  saying, ‘Mmm, this apple tastes really good.’ If I’m going to be doing this and don’t want some fucking Christian fanatics to kill me, I’ve got to say, ‘Look, it’s all there, I didn’t change a single word, I just illustrated it as it’s told.'”

No doubt, some fanatical Christians will want to kill him anyway simply because he does illustrate what’s told. We’re shown Onan spilling his seed on the ground when “he would come to bed with his brother’s wife” as well as the cruel consequence of the act. We see a drunken Lot having sex with his daughters, the older in missionary position, the younger girl-on-top. Crumb does not shy away from the murder, incest, adultery, lies and God-driven war that make the Old Testament the more human of the two scriptures. Nor does he exaggerate or parody the acts as he might have in the days of Zap. That’s Genesis‘ greatest accomplishment: bringing humanity and reality to the cruelties and taboos that are so often glossed over.

This may also be the text’s one weakness (though we Crumb fans will see it as a plus). In humanizing the events, Crumb draws in his own interpretation of his subjects’ reactions and feelings. Did Issac actually sit by dejectedly when Esau took Hittite wives? We can imagine that Noah’s reaction to hearing of the Lord’s plan to kill every living thing on earth is as bug-eyed as portrayed but would his eyes bulge again when there’s a hint of the end? There’s a touch of homo-eroticism when Jacob wrestles “until the break of dawn” with a nameless divine being. Would the handmaid look so sleepily satisfied after sex with the elderly Abram? Occasionally, character expression adds comedic touches as when Abraham takes all the males among his household to be circumcised. The looks on their faces shows they know what awaits!

Most interpretively expressive is God himself. The look of  satisfaction when He smells the aroma of Noah’s burnt offering of cattle and fowl after the flood is divinely human. But mostly He’s shown in various stages of anger (Crumb modeled the Lord after his father), allowing only his messengers to appear relaxed and serene.  Crumb’s is an angry God indeed.

One of the greatest achievements here are the dozens of thumb-sized portraits of all the begotten and begatters, the minor sons and daughters, all meticulously drawn. No Aryan looking Middle-Eastern ancients for Crumb! We can  see the different tribal characteristics as the sons of Abraham spread out to fill the known corners of the world. Where Crumb found all these faces can only be guessed. Scholars may take exception with Crumb’s models for the architecture and costumes of the time, many derived from Hollywood. But there’s no arguing against the fact that Crumb has made one of the world’s greatest archetypal and symbolic sagas, from Adam to Joseph, enjoyable in its humanly purest form.–Cabbage Rabbit

Guitar Portraits

Disfarmer is Bill Frisell’s Pictures At An Exhibition, a series of 26 short, impressionistic pieces inspired by the photos of Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959), an Arkansas photographer who captured both place and time in his starkly-lit portraits.  Disfarmer’s revealing black-and-white portraits of country and small-town folk, posed without background, are perfectly reflected in the Frisell quartet’s fuzz and twang. Much like the timeless statements made by Disfarmer’s  70-some-year-old photos, Frisell’s music sounds both period and contemporary.

The Rabbit has previously compared Frisell’s brand of plugged-in Americana to the rolling impressionism of  Grant Wood’s paintings and that sound is played to maximum effect here.  The sound is reminiscent of Frisell’s Music For the Films of Buster Keaton done some 15 years ago, with horse-and-buggy rhythms sharing space with country waltzes and laments. Not only does Frisell’s own compositions mirror the moods and faces in the portraits, he’s chosen a handful of classics that fit the bill: Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love with You)” and a giddy-up version of Arthur Crudup‘s “That’s Alright, Mama.” Greg Leisz ‘ steel guitars and mandolin color the music with backwoods sweetness,  and the omnipresent Jenny Scheinman makes both melancholy and whoopie with her violin. Who know what it was like to live in rural Arkansas in the 1930 and ’40s? Disfarmers photos–and Frisell’s music–gives us a dusty sense of hardscrabble life and small joys. —Cabbage Rabbit

You’re an Insect, Charlie Brown

There’s a comic quality and grounds for parody in even the most classic literature. In Masterpiece Comics, R. Sikoryak proves himself  adept at discovering and exploiting these  cartoonish characteristics. But while the laughs in his collection are literate, what he parodies are the comics, everything from  Peanuts to Superman.

Masterpiece Comics would be a one-joke wonder if it weren’t so clever. Sikoryak has taken works from Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Oscar Wilde, Franz Kafka and a host of others and fitted them with familiar comic characters (or in the case of Bronte, familiar comic formats). Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne becomes Little Lulu’s mother. Batman becomes Crime and Punishment‘s  Raskolnikov.  Ziggy is Candide. This, of course, is something different than the Classics Illustrated comics we all suffered when young.

Sikoryak’s method isn’t so much about presenting literary classics in comic form. Instead, he takes comic characters and inserts them into classic literature. So instead of illustrating the Genesis creation as a cartoon (as has Robert Crumb), he’s plopped Dagwood and Blondie into Eden as Mr. Dithers takes on the role of God. There’s no (or little) attempt at quoting or being absolutely true to the original. Dialogue and character traits are drawn with the emphasis on comic content rather than any literary consistency. Past and present high school students who’ve used the Illustrated Classics series as an easy way to bone up on MacBeth or Wuthering Heights would flunk the pop quiz after reading the condensations here.

The casting of  comic characters as literary characters (Mary Worth as Lady MacBeth?) is a big part of Masterpiece‘s genius. Little Nemo is a brilliant Dorian Gray and who better to visit Dante’s hell than Bazooka Joe? Sikoryak mixes up his approach, using the Bazooka Bubble Gum, three panel comic for “Inferno Joe,” complete with special offer (“Ice scraper…ideal for when hell freezes over…”) and fortune (“A winged beast will take you for a ride.”) Garfield stands in for Mephistopheles with Jon as Faustus in three-panel comic strip construction. A series of “Action Camus” covers portray Superman in various stages of Camus’ The Stranger (“So much for the harmony of the day!”).The Bronte chapter is told, cover and all, in the style of Tales From the Crypt. Throughout, Sikoryak is true to style and format of the original comics, whether it be Bob Kane’s early Batman orJerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman circa 1942. He adds familiar comic book touches like letters pages and parodies of special offers …”Lit” as “Grit.” Reading these parodies is as much an education in comic history as it is in literature. And the final installment featuring Beavis and Butthead as Estragon and Vladimir from Beckett’s  Waiting For Godot, well, we just had to laugh…heh.–Cabbage Rabbit

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Death Groove From Medeski, Martin & Wood

Radiolarians III is out and I haven’t even finished with II? These guys are killing me.

No, really. They always have, ever since Boston’s Accurate Records sent me a copy of Notes From the Underground back in the early ‘90s. The coming together of groove and free improvisational directions—with the emphasis on the latter—gave me hope that jazz had found new, contemporary life. Even as the emphasis changed to the former (thanks, Phish heads) the Rabbit still got his thumper on with MMW. After all, it was never one thing or another but all things together. Weird. And they always mixed it up. For every Shack-mack they put out there was a Tonic.

That seems to be the thing with MMW fans. They tend to classify their recordings as groove or not so groove. Like I said before, I always favored the not-so-groove. And also like I said before, it was never really one thing or another. Everything was strong. In all ways. The beat, the bop, the moody grooves.

Radiolarians II is the smartest blend of all of the above. You’ll recognize the feel of some of these numbers from MMW’s previous work. But it’s not been done quite this well. Grooves, sonic diversity, free-thinking improvs, smart, multi-tiered percussion and mood, plenty of mood, swap places faster than comics on open-mic night. Just when you get hooked on a riff, it deconstructs, turns a thematic corner,  flips like a coin and lands on edge. Sure, it’s still money but it’s done something amazing.

Billy Martin gets a lot of credit for being tight and driving—in the old parlance, “deep in the groove” (don’t let us use that word again)—but the Rabbit thinks his attractiveness comes from a certain slap-dash feel to his rhythms, his ability to push and pull and sound devil-may-care sloppy even as he promulgates detailed poly-rhythms. A sound-wise drummer with a sense of color, Martin brings it all together here on the unpredictable “ijiji.” Nice! Then there’s “Chasen vs. Suribachi” in which rhythms downshift or hit overdrive backed by a plethora of noise including radio static. Sound, indeed.

Same thing with bassist Chris Wood. He can give you greasy, deep-fat-fried electric or astute acoustic, as called for. He plucks, he bows, he strums. He’s as clean as a white shirt one moment, down-and-dirty the next. When playing upright, with Medeski on piano (“Padrecito”), they come up with a tango-like dexterity that even jazz purists will dig.

Medeski’s ability to apply just the right sound from his keyboards adds to the attraction. Dig the bluesy lounge feel he puts to “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”—the title seems a ready-made lead line to a lyric—and how he pulls the history of balladeer lament from the acoustic piano before getting all whiney on wah-wah synthesizer. The echoing clavinet of “Junkyard” gives the tune mystic airs.

And yes, they rock. ”Amber Gris” (check out the black-and-white video that Martin put together for the tune) shows their propensity to break off a piece of riff and beat us silly with it. And just when you’re crying for more, the tune takes a turn, like a pirouette, dancing on Wood’s delicate bass and acoustic piano tinkle before rising up to beat us some more.

The Radiolarians reverse method of creation—taking and making tunes on the road before recording them in the studio—seems to bring out the best in these guys. Which means we have to go out and get III even before the promised check-in-the-mail arrives. —Cabbage Rabbit

Generation Gap

Said of the 1960s, it’s also true of the 1980s: If you remember them you weren’t there. Reasons to forget? You worked and partied too long and hard and did too many drugs to maintain the rigorous schedule. You’ve repressed the embarrassing struggle to appear above your socio-economic status. And let’s not forget your failed attempts to date a model. Yeah, the drug of choice may have been different in the 80s. But the amnesia of indulgence was not.

Jay McInerney’s work has perfect recall of that decade of social climbing, cocaine and sexual conquest, a time when our base instincts won out over our naive hopes for ourselves. The stories in his new collection How It Ended may not all date to the 1980s. But that decade’s influence—much like Ronald Reagan’s sour influence on contemporary politics—is readily apparent even as time marches on. It’s a decade when we should have grown up, but didn’t. As one of McInerney’s more memorable characters, Collin McNab, laments at the unhappy age of 32, “Still waiting for my adult life to begin.”

McInerney’s perfect capture of a particular American economic and social generation rivals John Cheever and F. Scott Fitzgerald in its sharp eye and ironic commentary. While those two giants of American literature deal mostly with post-success disillusionment, McInerney’s characters are still striving to have-it-all; wealth, fame and the perfect relationship with a fling or two on the side. That enough is never enough is not his lesson. You can’t have everything, even one more toot of Bolivian Marching Powder, seems more like it.

It’s easy to like most of these stories just on the cheap thrills they deliver. Drug use and drinking, the pursuit of sex with a woman or man more strange than stranger, the promising of arriving or, at minimum, being accepted into a higher station, cheating and getting away with it; all solidly tabloid-grade stuff of the kind displayed at grocery store checkout lines. On the other hand, the suffering strikes home: overindulgence of drugs and alcohol, the failed promise of sex, being cheated on and not being elevated to higher status. McInerney knows false promise when he sees it and is expert at exploiting its consequences.

Some of these stories will be familiar. Seven of them were tagged on to his 1998 novel Model Behavior. Others feature characters from previous novels and are short exercises for those longer works. “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?” is the seed for his first and probably best known novel Bright Lights, Big City (inspiration for the disappointing Michael J. Fox film of the same name). Russell and Corrine Calloway, the heroes of his 2006 novel The Good Life, are introduced in the 1985 story “Smoke.” They appear again in the post-9/11 piece “The March.” There’s a story titled, just like the novel, “Story of My Life.” It should be noted that McInerney’s former girl friend, suggested by gossips greater than I to be the model for Story of My Life‘s central figure, was the mistress of a major politician (we wouldn’t mention John Edwards’ name). There’s a story here– “Penelope on the Pond”–about a similar affair.

It’s no secret that McInerney, a former fact checker like the hero of Bright Lights, Big City, a guy who’s had relationships with models and known to party a bit himself, writes what he knows. This knowledge somehow makes his writing more attractive. In “I Love You Honey,” a serial adulterer with a pregnant wife finds religion after 9/11. We can’t help wonder, if pointlessly, that the Catholic-born celebrity author has done the same.

Indeed, the world changes for McInerney’s characters after 9/11. Maybe they’ve grown up. Or maybe it just took time for the dust to settle. In “The March,” Corrine Calloway sees a policeman she had a flirtatious relationship with while working a soup line after the destruction of the World Trade Center. This time the officer is wielding a baton from horseback against Iraq war demonstrators. Corrine and her friends wonder how the same cops, the heroes to whom they served hot coffee in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, could turn on them. “What were we doing down there anyway?” she cries. All that coming together, all that possibility, splintered and lost. At end, Corrine wants to forget family and responsibility and be “fucked senseless” by a lover she took right after the tragedy.

While the newer stories deal with familiar McInerney themes—status-seeking, family alienation, betrayal—they seem almost parodies of McInerney’s best early work. The author seems aware of this; it’s as if he‘s set he’s satisfied with less. In the most recent story, he tells of a writer whose women “weren’t terribly complex. There was a recurring neurotic, mendacious, narcissist type that represented his old girlfriend. And then there was the nice girl…who the angst-ridden protagonist struggles to be worthy of.” This might be McInerney not just writing what he knows, but finding irony in what he hopes for. Not surprisingly, compared to his (apparently) bygone ‘80s self, he comes up short.–Cabbage Rabbit