Judge of Character

It’s the commonly used coffee house criteria to define enjoyable fiction: “I identified with the characters.” If we recognize ourselves or others we know in a story, we’re more susceptible to being drawn in. But the characters in The Book Of Other People, an anthology of character sketches/short stories, aren’t exactly people you would want to identify with. There’s one person in the story “The Liar” you might want to be; that is if you have a Messiah complex. Even then, you might not want to identify with this Jesus, seeing that he has doubts about who he really is. Another character you might identify with is a monster. Really.

This gaggle of character sketches, most of them about less than admirable characters, is edited by Zadie Smith, author of Beauty and a couple other novels. Smith brought together 23 (mostly) fellow celebrity writers and instructed them to “make someone up” (the book’s proceeds benefit a children’s writing program in New York). We suspect that some of these characters aren’t made up as much as they are actual sketches of people the writers know. Take Jonatahn Safran Foer’s “Rhoda” who’s the type of smothering, busy-body mother (“Have a cookie,” is the story’s first sentence) of the type we all know.

In style, these sketches are out of The New Yorker school of short stories. Indeed, half a dozen of the stories here, including Smith’s own, were first published in the magazine and many of the book’s contributors are familiar to New Yorker readers. As such, the collection is diverse in class, race and setting. We’re not told so much what the characters look like as we are told what they’re thinking. Sometimes what they’re wearing is important as in Vendela Vida’s “Soliel” in which the lingerie-as-evening-wear look suggests feminine motives. In a sense, the collection defines the current state of the short story. Apparently, one of the characteristics that define today’s short stories is the unlikable personalities of its protagonists.

So we have Heidi Julavits’ “Judge Gladys Parks-Schutlz”, an “insincerely cheery” woman, a judge known “for her imperviousness to human context,” a person who is interested only in outcomes. Then there is A.L. Kennedy’s “Frank,” a man whose obsessive desire for repetition and familiarity is so important it drives his wife away. ZZ Packer’s “Gideon” is a gutless guy who collects crickets and doesn’t have the conviction to out his inter-racial relationship. In George Saunders’ “Puppy,” you won’t like the suburban mom with a van full of kids out to buy the puppy, or the white trash family who has the puppy available. You certainly wouldn’t identify with David Mitchell’s “Judith Castle.” You‘d never throw yourself at anyone like that. You may not end up liking any of these characters. But you’ll certainly enjoy the stories they inhabit.

The likable, innocent characters here are either children or child-like. No, not the selfish children packed into the suburban mom’s van on their way to buy a puppy. The 11-year-old who accompanies Soliel to Lake Tahoe in pursuit of a good time is extremely sympathetic, which makes the model set for her even worse. Chris Ware’s graphic childhood of “Jordan Wellington Lint” (the book has two stories in comic form) follows little Lint from his earliest perceptions on to more impressionable experiences. You won’t like what these experiences make of him. Probably the most loveable character is, well, the most loved, a crazed sex addict named “Magda Mandela” who announces to a group of construction workers, “I have a condom. Line up. I am ready.” But you wouldn’t identify with her (would you?).

The more exotic locations are populated with the best-drawn characters. Edwidge Danticat’s “Lele” is inhabited with seemingly respectable Haitians existing in a world of extreme heat, exploding frogs and a crooked judiciary. Adam Thirwell’s “Nigora”—she’s described as “a minor character”– is sympathetic until you start to question who fathered her unborn child and why she’s decides to carry it to an untimely birth.

The parodies—people you can laugh at—might be the most enjoyable. Cartoonist Daniel Clowes’ comic character “Justin M. Damiano,” chief film critic for justindamiano.com, faces an ethical decision after learning not to like anything. The author blurbs collected in Nick Hornby’s “J. Johnson,” with illustrations by Posy Simmonds, read a lot like the contributors’ bios at the end of this book, complete with those who were “short-listed” for various literary prizes.

Then there’s that monster in Toby’s Litt’s story. He has little sense of himself, no idea of what he looks like, little memory and no clue as to his sexual drive. I don’t know about you, but there’s someone that I can identify with.—Cabbage Rabbit

The Book Of Other People edited by Zadie Smith; Penguin Books, paperback 287 pages, $15

A version of this review was published in The Inland Empire Weekly

Sympathy For the Devils

The 1960s were all about peace and love, right? Forty years later, we know better; hindsight and all, though it was well then apparent. The assassinations, the race riots, the Asian War and the authoritarian crack-down on sometimes violent political and cultural protest all took the shine off the age of Aquarius. The decade’s last years were ripe with apocalyptic events: the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, the gone-wrong Altamont concert, the Manson murders. Let’s face it, Woodstock was an aberration.

For years, the hysterical right has been blaming a host of social ills on the decade’s if-it-feels-good-do-it morality. Demagogues claim that the 1960s gave birth to a kind of cultural debasement, crudity and self-absorbed indulgence that continues to this day. Silly them. They still want to blame the hippies. Those traits, categorized collectively as “human,” have been with us for thousands of years. They’re only pinned on someone when the status quo needs a scapegoat for its repression and institutional violence. Using famous and not-so figures from the ‘60s, Zachary Lazar’s fascinating novel Sway examines the decade’s ugly side, claiming that evil is biological and cultural. It springs from both nature and nurture. It mostly thrives on indifference. And we’re all capable of it.

Tracing the rise of the Rolling Stones, the life of underground film maker Kenneth Anger and the relationship between small-time rock musician Bobby Beausoleil and Charles Manson, the book reasserts an old lesson: violence begets violence, even when it’s separated by continents. Sway exploits actual events to offer a fictional account of the decade’s truly spoiled promise. Lazar takes the colorful, intersecting threads of his characters’ lives and weaves them tightly into dark cloth. As entertaining as it is thoughtful, Sway takes us back to the day even as it touches something timeless.

It’s not as if we don’t see disaster coming. Indeed, knowing ahead that the Manson family will paint walls with blood and that Altamont will end in gang murder has the effect of pushing the preceding events forward. Lazar introduces small acts of cruelty—Beausoleil’s treatment of his girlfriend, the brawls at the Stones’ early gigs, the spankings Anger endures from his father—to foreshadow larger acts of cruelty and violence. Anger reacts to his sadistic upbringing with depictions of devil worship and acts of masochism. Beausoleil acts on ugly subconscious whims while convincing himself he’s resistant to the manipulations of the man haunting his thoughts. Mick, Keith and the others are aloof, even as Brian Jones drowns. Delusion takes on a palpable presence.

There are times that Lazar seems sympathetic to his characters, especially to Anger and Anita Pallenberg, the love interest of first Brian, then Keith. But he largely remains detached from the evil that shadows his tale, exposing it from a distance, not judging his characters but letting their actions speak loudly. The Vietnam war serves as constant background and Lazar uses it to effect. Beausoleil thinks “the war had somehow permeated everything, even things that had no relation to the war itself.” The Stones, as if going to battle, arrive at Altamont in a Huey helicopter just like the ones used in Vietnam. The class struggle in England serves the same purpose. Early on, we see the Stones living in a filthy squat, cuddling with each other at night to fend off the cold. Beausoleil bums his way through life, falling in with Anger whose life is little better. The choice between conformity and rebellion is constant. Jagger chooses between singing or pursuing economics. The decisions seems arbitrary, or worse, ordained. Manson family member Susan Atkins is quoted saying, “You didn’t think about what you were doing, you did it.”

The most innocent and indifferent character is Anger, who accepts his sexuality and finds a way past the moral and cultural confusion by pursuing his art. The Stones seem clueless, surprised by their own success, trading girlfriends like comic books and playing, just barely, at fatherhood. The relationship between Brian, Keith and Pallenberg seems especially dysfunctional.

Would Lazar’s book be as hypnotic if it were based on fictional characters? Hard to say, but my youthful attraction to the Stones certainly made me want to find out what Lazar thought was in their heads. The historical legitimacy makes for uncomfortable reading at times, heightened by actual events: the Stones 1967 bust, the Manson murder of music instructor Gary Hinman, the chaotic, Lucifer-laden content of Anger’s films and the Stones’ participation in them. These bits of reality make Lazar’s words stronger and his premise more authentic. But you can’t help wonder what Lazar might have gained—or lost—if he had just made the whole thing up. And you can’t help but wonder if this really was the ways it was. –Cabbage Rabbit

A version of this review first appeared in the OC Weekly

Not Really Ranching

The answer to why a decade separates Thomas McGuane’s last two novels is as complicated as one of the charming scoundrels who populate his eight previous works. Rumor had it that the writer, rancher and former movie director had grown tired of the publishing business.

“That was part of it,” McGuane says from his ranch in Sweet Water County, Montana. “We have to drive everything we do through this aperture of New York City and I get tired of dealing with all that it requires. And we have such a busy life. I’ve got four children in the area, three grandchildren, a falling down ranch to prop up. It’s not that I’ve been sucking my thumb waiting for a better day. But writing another novel just got de-emphasized. My first book came in the ‘60s and it seemed appropriate to take a break at the quarter-century mark. And it gave me time to write about some things that I love. I didn’t care if they were important to the publishing business or not.”

There is another reason for the gap of ten years between McGuane’s last novels, a reason that reflects the struggle between the old and new West, a re-occurring theme in his own life. Tired of being tied to a desktop computer, he wrote his latest novel The Cadence of Grass (Knopf) out in long hand. “I felt like I couldn’t write unless I was at the computer terminal and I didn’t like that feeling. So I wrote this last one out by hand. But I can’t live with my writing. I just got a thin laptop. I’m hoping it will supplant my bad handwriting.”

Images of old and new Montana sit side-by-side in The Cadence of Grass. An ornate, mechanical cash register stands next to an electronic box used to process credit cards. A woman tries on a sexy black evening dress while wearing manure-stained boots. There’s a dried-out ranch and a bottling plant that produces “ECO FIZZ.”

Much of the novel is set in and around Bozeman, Montana and it’s here that the old-new contrasts are most apparent. New homes gnaw “through old grain fields toward the Bridger Mountains, one after the other like caterpillars.” Cattlemen sit next to “hippies” at a hole-in-the-wall diner that¹s surely The Stockyard Cafe. One of the books central characters picks up a misguided, anti-government malcontent at a music bar that resembles the Filling Station.

The Cadence of Grass revolves around a family patriarch¹s attempt to control his heirs, even after his demise. The death of Sunny Jim Whitelaw brings out the dysfunction in his family. Sunny Jim, in life a strong-willed dapper Dan, leaves the Whitelaw bottling plant to his wife and daughters on the condition that daughter Evelyn and ambitious son-in-law Paul drop their plans for divorce. Everyone who stands to profit scrambles for influence and wrestles with desires. Evelyn is at the center of it all.

Letting a woman take a leading role is a change for McGuane, whose past books focus on doomed bad-boys and ne’er-do-well males. While these sorts play a role in The Cadence of Grass, it’s Evelyn, and to a lesser extent her sister Natalie and their mother, who are the focus of the book’s central themes.

Creating a novel around a woman is something McGuane’s family life helped inspire. “I have three daughters and a wife and I know more now, maybe, about how women are different than men, how they think differently. I think all this made me move [Evelyn] more to the center of the book than I might have before.”

Reviewers familiar with McGuane’s history of troubled male leads have focused on Paul Crusoe, Evelyn’s estranged rattlesnake of a husband, a character straight out of McGuane¹s earlier books. Paul, with prison time for manslaughter under his belt, is having an affair with his parole officer. He wants to see the ranch subdivided.

McGuane agrees Paul is important, but as second fiddle to his estranged wife. “I just read one review out of New York that said Paul was the main character. I think of Paul as the antagonist, if not the anti-Christ. Evelyn is the protagonist. She’s the central consciousness of the novel.”

While the inheritance scenario shapes the story, it’s the side-trips in which McGuane takes his characters out of their element and into the Montana landscape, that are most revealing. These excursions, as when Evelyn drives off lost in a blizzard and is taken in by a strange, isolated farm family, could easily stand alone. In them, McGuane makes his best points about changing cultures standing shoulder­to-shoulder in our part of the country

McGuane has seen a host of generational and cultural shifts during his thirty-three years in Montana and his own life embraces facets of both old and new cultures. “Life in the West is changing. There’s a changing arc of relationship between the generations, a new century with a move into a new society. If there was a generational conflict in my grandparent’s day it wasn’t that they were moving into a new society. They continued to lead the lives their parents led.

“Now [in Montana] we have the famous dichotomy of old and new West. It’s the demographic things that are assailing us, things like the population turnover. We see people growing up on ranches that want to join rock bands. They’re making a bigger leap than the generations before them.”

McGuane’s previous novels dating back some thirty years make good use of old and new West conflicts. In 1992’s Nothing But Blue Skies, old and new Montana values battle to a draw as the book’s anti-hero, Frank Copenhaver, a businessman involved in livestock and real estate, tries to win back his estranged wife and bridge a generation gap with his daughter. Ten years later The Cadence of Grass, sees old and new ways seeking an uneasy truce as its characters pursue Sunny Jim’s legacy.

McGuane often turns notions of Western stereotypes and old-new conflict inside out. In Nothing But Blue Skies, Frank Copehaver’s young daughter runs off with notorious, not-so-young property-rights advocate Lane Lawlor, a crank who stirs audiences with declarations of “Montana is not a zoo” and “Why do these out-of-staters want us to have a system in Montana which has failed in Russia?” Lawlor wants Montana to dam its waterways at the state line. “If you are unlucky enough to run into someone who wants those rivers flowing elsewhere,” spouts Lawlor to a captive audience, “gut-shoot them at the border.”

McGuane doesn’t exactly deny that Lawlor types exist. “There’s this footloose libertarian movement running through the West and running through the administration and I don’t think it bodes well for the natural world,” he says.

McGuane says that the polarization between Montanans is as great as he’s seen it during his time here. The tension surfaces in Cadence when Evelyn, stuck in a blizzard, doesn’t know if she should trust the four men in camouflage who advance on her snow-bound car or flee.

The state’s changing demographics, he says, explain why Montanans are split between native and new-comer, old and new economies, roads and roadless supporters. “There’s lots of ill will between the sectors. More than half the state is losing population. And the other part is not changing numerically so much as qualitatively. The media doesn’t address these issues. What they talk about is celebrities. They don’t talk about tax flight, or the kids who’ve been through our schools. They don’t talk about the new waves of Christian fundamentalists. Instead, they focus on some movie star settling in. It¹s a non-reality for the folks in Montana.”

“Clearly we have to find common ground among the various factions in Montana, though I’ve not found a lot of progress in that direction. Some of the disagreements we face are insurmountable. We have this anti-government feeling in Montana agriculture but without government subsidies, Montana agriculture would not stand on its own. I¹m not sure how an industry like that can control our culture. At the same time, I don’t think the only solution is to leave the farms and ranches and go to work in the tourist industry. There are great mistakes to be made on both sides of the issue.”

That includes the environmental side. “The mistaken idea that farmers have nothing in common with environmentalists can be blamed on environmental elitism. We shouldn’t have to feel guilty when making our intentions clear or when finding common ground with those with whom we disagree.”

Appropriately, McGuane has fueled his environmental activism with opinions that are somewhat pragmatic. He has been on the board of the Craighead Institute and says he¹s currently involved with American Rivers and The Wild Salmon Center, a Portland-based, international organization seeking to save salmon migration routes in North America and Asia.

“I guess I get involved because I take so much from the natural world in terms of happiness that I feel I should do something in return,” he explains.

McGuane’s love for the natural world extends to horses, particularly cutting horses, and fishing. During the years between his last novel, McGuane wrote about both. His 1999 collection of essays, Some Horses (The Lyons Press), is a sort of steeds-I’ve-known that delves as deeply into four-legged behavior as any of his novels delve into human behavior.

This pairing of man and horse, McGuane and Montana, began in 1967 when he arrived from Michigan to work at the ranch of a girlfriend’s father. “But I didn’t get crazed about horses until I was living in Deep Creek in the late ‘60s. I always appreciated athletic skills and I thought roping would be a marvelous sport at the time. I just like the animals. It’s arbitrary really that it’s horses. It could have been cats.”

Another of McGuane¹s essay collections, The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing (Knopf, Vintage Paperback), is a thoughtful consideration of time spent in Montana creeks, the Florida Keys and other locations around the globe. At the heart of the book is its deep respect for the creatures and the waters they inhabit.

But this isn’t heartfelt nature writing. McGuane’s cynical wit and dark sense of comedy colors the new novel just as it did his earlier ones. The book’s most ironic statement comes from Paul who indulges visions of development: “Money brings us closer to nature,” he declares.

“I thought it was one of the most poisonous remarks Paul could make,” McGuane explains. “I absolutely don’t believe that myself. But it is one of the floating fallacies in our world. Lots of people who acquire nature do it for economic reasons and they don’t seem to have much time to go there once the closing’s signed. I know ranchers who spend some fourteen days a year on their place.”

McGuane wants it known he doesn’t consider himself a real rancher. “I make the distinction that what I do is not real ranching. Real ranching is something that doesn’t leave much time for writing novels. It¹s a brutal job. You have to run so many cows in today’s world to make it. I personally can’t imagine how you¹d do with less than 500 cows. You’d be tied up all the time.”

Early in Cadence, Evelyn suggests that veteran rancher Bill Champion kept cattle just so he had an excuse to have horses. McGuane, who runs 200 yearlings and claims to do ranch work every day, says his own interest in ranching is a little deeper than rationalizing a passion for horses. “If you have land in this high desert climate you have to do something to cut-down on fires. Grazing is good for that. I¹ve always known ranchers and been interested in cattle culture. But it’s partly true that I¹m most interested in horses. ”

At one time, McGuane’s interests included movie-making. In the ‘70s, he built a reputation in Hollywood for his offbeat scripts. His screenplay for Rancho Deluxe, a cult favorite, starred Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterson with music by Jimmy Buffett. He directed Peter Fonda, Burgess Meredith and Warren Oates in 92 In the Shade, the story of warring charter boat captains in the Florida Keys based on his novel. He was connected for a time with Rancho Deluxe leading lady Elizabeth Ashley and was married to Margot Kidder. He wrote The Missouri Breaks, the twisted and infamous Western that starred Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Frederic Forrest. The film was badly received at release and considered a box-office flop. But time has seen its stake rise, due in part to the fact that 21st century audiences can better stomach the idea of bounty-hunter Brando wearing a dress than audiences could in 1976.

“I don’t miss those days,” McGuane says of his movie business experience. “But they were good days. In terms of going back to film making world, it’s not there for me to go back to. It’s very different now. In the ‘70s, the business was so abstract. It was the OK Corral. You could persuade people on your knees to do your project. Now it’s done by committee. It¹s like working for Enron.”

McGuane says it’s difficult for writers in the West to be taken seriously by the East Coast publishing establishment. “I think there are a lot of enlightened people in the publishing industry who know what goes on. But in general it stands to reason that people in the Northeast are interested in their own part of the country. It¹s like that Saul Steinberg cartoon the New Yorker ran looking across New York City to California with nothing in between. That’s a very bitter joke. When H.L. Mencken said he didn’t care about Willa Cather because he didn¹t care about Nebraska he referred to a truth. It’s why I think people in the East are less interested in the West. Unfortunately, the whole [publishing] industry is back there.”

Currently, the East Coast publishing industry is waiting for McGuane’s next effort, this one produced on the new laptop. “It will be a very different novel. I’ve been working on it intermittently for the last six months and should finish in two years. I’m such an improvisational writer that I would be trying to fool you if I told you what it’s about.” –Cabbage Rabbit

Photo of Thomas McGuane © Audrey Hall, courtesy of Knopf

A version of this interview was published in Tributary in 2002 and was reprinted in Conversations with Thomas McGuane, University Press of Mississippi, edited by Beef Torrey

Comeuppance

Let’s face it: some guys are jerks. Ben Tanaka, the lead in writer-illustrator Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Shortcomings, is one of them. Cynical, selfish, bitter and indulgent, he’s the kind of fool who covers his sexual insecurities with a façade of righteous self-confidence and a porno collection. By any measure—and that wrap around English/metric ruler under the dust jacket suggests that’s just what we’re to do—he deserves to be miserable. There’s one consolation: guys like Ben get what’s coming to them.

Ben is one of the most realistically drawn characters—pun intended–we’ve encountered in recent fiction. In him, we recognize our buddies, and frighteningly, ourselves; guys who take themselves way too seriously and just don’t get it when it comes to love and respect. Ben’s position is particularly complicated. He’s a Japanese-American, want-to-be intellectual living in San Francisco with a pretty and considerate girlfriend. He also carries a lust for Anglo girls. Most of his frustration is sexual, and self-inflicted. His powerless, relatively low position in life—he manages a movie theater—makes him a case right out of Susan Faludi’s classic study of male frustration Stiffed. All this contributes mightily to his misery. Ben’s the kind of guy who harasses the waitress about the type of oil the diner uses to fry his food. He takes three panels to list his food allergies, another to say he’s not allergic to olives. Still, he occasionally shows bursts of honesty. He recounts his belief that he was discriminated against in his Oregon high school not because he was the only Asian, but because he was “a nerd with a bad personality and no social skills.”

Tomine is a proven master at portraying post-adolescent alienation and self delusion. His previous collection, Summer Blonde, explores the personal and sexual conflicts of teens and young adults with the same ethical questions regarding honesty and compassion that pop up in Shortcomings. But Shortcomings has added complications. It’s characters struggle with their racial, geographic and generational identities as well as sexual ambiguity.

Then there’s the book’s ironic answer to the old Tower of Power question, “What Is Hip?” Ben claims to know. When we first meet him, he’s attending the “Asian-American Digi-Fest” with his girlfriend Miko, who helped organized the festival. Ben can’t help but snicker at the winning film, a document that capsulizes many of Shortcomings themes. When Miko asks him who he is to criticize the low-budget production, Ben blurts, “I know a lot about movies…I’m in the industry.” He’s not so critical when attending one of his conquest’s performances, a multi-media mess entitled “Fallujah” that’s a crescendo of angry guitar feedback, posed nudes and militant gymnastics watched (or not) by indifferent hipsters standing around slurping Red Bull or, maybe, PBR. “That was…amazing,” he tells Autumn, the young artist who has come to work for him at the movie theater. By the look on his face, you can’t help but feel his unease at the lie.

The supporting cast is equally well-drawn. Autumn, eight years Ben’s junior, is fresh-faced and disarmingly innocent. Miko is svelte and alluring. It’s hard to understand how Ben can turn down her invitation to come to bed as she leans provocatively against the wall. Ben’s second conquest is visually cute and confident, traits that don’t necessarily work in Ben’s favor. The most predictable character is the most outrageous, Ben’s confidant Alice Kim, a graduate school student who declares that she wants to “make out with a hundred girls by the time I get my Ph.D.” Alice serves as Ben’s sounding board, drawing him into the new York-San Francisco rivalries while attempting to keep him honest. In an attempt to cover her sexual inclination, Alice takes Ben as her date to a relative’s wedding. But her Korean parents are still unhappy because Ben is obviously Japanese.

Tomine’s storytelling skills are matched by his illustrations. Few graphic artists weave the two together so seamlessly. Drawn with an eye for expressive realism, his subjects appear in uncluttered frames that speak directly to the plot. Arguments and dark moods are shaded in black, facial close-ups reveal emotion and conflict. Six beautiful and touching portraits of Miko delve deeply into her feelings. Turn the page and the portraits become a plot turning device, one that leads to Ben’s downfall. Tomine’s ability to carry the narrative in wordless panels is unsurpassed. His layered and conflicted characters burrow into our brains and give us pause about our own lives. The six silent panels that end the story as Ben flies back to New York make for a meaningful though ambiguous climax. Has he learned anything? Will he overcome his shortcomings? Do men who are big jerks like Ben ever grow up?

Shortcomings, by Adrian Tomine; Drawn & Quarterly, hardback, 108 pages, $19.95

Back To the Future

We have seen the future, thanks to science fiction author Philip K. Dick, and it looks like the present… even when it’s set in the past. No, we don’t fly around it rocket-powered hovercraft, there are no colonies on the moon let alone Mars and we don’t carry around laser tubes for zapping our enemies like they do in Dick’s novels. But the pervasive and shady marketing, corporate warfare, bum but expensive technology, reality-altering drugs, and the pervading sense that somehow all of this can’t be real, well, seems so contemporary. And there’s something else familiar about Dick’s fiction: persistent paranoia and self-doubt.

Never mind that much of Dick’s future is now 15 years in the past. Most of the action in the recent The Library of America collection Four Novels of the 1960s is set in the 1990s. That much of the technology he imagined didn’t materialize in the roughly 25 years since the original publications doesn’t matter. Dick correctly foresaw much of the questionable materialism, the nonchalant pursuit of pleasure and the corporate dominance we see today as well as our enslavement to the technology. To borrow one of his own terms, Dick was decidedly “precog.”

But precognition wasn’t Dick’s greatest talent. What he grasped was the present. Dick understood the drug taking, the advertising and the pay-to play mind set that evolved in the 1960s–not to mention the feeling that someone was always watching–and extrapolated the future from there. In some of these tales, it costs a nickel just to open a door, even if it’s your own. Who gets the nickel? Does the door report activity to the government, or worse, the corporate oligarchy?

Dick was a much honored writer among sci-fi buffs in 1982, the year of his death. That was also the year Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner, loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and it ignited general interest in his work. Forget that Scott’s film took place in a rainy Los Angeles rather than Dick’s dusty San Francisco, that the replicants in the book, unlike the movie, were easily dispatched or that the blade runner himself, bounty hunter Rick Deckard, was married, adding another layer of ethical quandary to his existential problems (Harrison Ford, with a fetish for a certain replicant, played the role single in the movie). Those of us who, once we left our teenage years, gave up on science fiction recognized Dick as a writer who’d made hack a craft (close exceptions in some of his early work from the 1950s). He turned pulp genre into ethically complex, tryingly plotted, multi-layered works of genius. The movie, though brilliant, didn’t come close to the thoughtfulness of Dick’s book.

The four stories here are more William Burroughs than H.G. Wells. They reflect the author’s slow descent into paranoia and hallucinatory mind set that continued until his death. The Man In the High Castle reverses the outcome of World War II with the Germans and Japanese, in an uneasy alliance, splitting the coasts and struggling for control in the center. An illegal work of fiction has captured attention in the former United States. The book is a Dick-like novel that imagines what would have happened if America had won the war.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch follows turf battles on the colonized planets between rival corporate drug suppliers. Hallucinations overlap reality and sinister CEO types literally become gods. Life is cheap in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and not easily identifiable. Parallel realities exist in adjacent buildings and a real live animal, like a spider, is worth a fortune. Time reverses in Ubik, threatening the profit of an all-purpose product (and we mean all purposes) even as precogs gather the mental power to save the future.

What’s fantastic here is not the technology, which is developed not to benefit mankind but to fleece it, but the evolution of a world where nothing can be trusted. Inanimate objects control even the smallest acts. If you don’t have a nickel to open that door, the door speaks insults even as you beg it for credit. Science has found a way to contact the dead but it’s going to cost you plenty and, like cell-phone reception among the mountains, the signal isn’t guaranteed. Corporations employ precogs to predict the success of their products and spy on their competitors. You may think you’ve recovered from a drug-induced hallucination but have really only entered another.

The volume is edited by Jonathan Lethem, whose Fortress Of Solitude carries something of Dick’s absurdist sense of fantasy as well as some of his humor. There’s no forward but Lethem’s chronology of Dick’s life will set fans wondering if the author’s later work was even more twisted and paranoid than these four tales. Reality, as Dick knew, isn’t always what it seems.—Cabbage Rabbit

Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick; The Library of America, hardback, 830 pages, $35.

A version of this story first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly

Diggin’ Deitch

Our choice for the great American novel is not about a boy named Huck, a sailor obsessed with a whale or a jazz-age millionaire. It’s about a cat–an evil, hallucinatory, blue cat–named Waldo. And it’s not a novel at all. It’s a comic.

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Pantheon), Kim Deitch’s tale of delusion, drunkenness and the early days of animation, covers the great American themes of hope and hopelessness. It’s about promise and perversion, invention and exploitation, technology and entertainment, love and obsession. Though fictional, it’s based on actual historical figures: the animation pioneer Winsor McCay, early cartoon mogul Max Fleischer (Betty Boop, Popeye) and Deitch’s own father. Layered and literate, it brought deserved acclaim to the veteran underground comic hero when it was released in 2002.

Deitch, a self-proclaimed “cartoon brat,” is the son of animator Gene Deitch who worked for a number of animation studios before taking over in 1956 then-popular Terrytoon studios (Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Deitch’s own Tom Terrific). Kim and his brother Simon Deitch, who collaborated on The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, were the inspiration for dad Deitch’s acclaimed strip Terr’ble Thompson! which ran briefly in the mid-1950s (recently collected by comic house Fantagraphics). Kim established his career in the East Village Other back in the ‘60s and went on to publish in Robert Crumb’s Weirdo and Art Spiegelman’s Raw among many others. But it wasn’t until Deitch’s Waldo strips were collected in Broken Dreams that his genius, both as writer and illustrator, became generally recognized.

If Deitch’s follow-up in the Waldo saga, Alias The Cat!, doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor, it’s only because The Boulevard of Broken Dreams was such a triumph. The drawing in the latest volume is every bit as detailed and expressive, each panel carrying more meaning than a picture’s fabled thousand words. The usual Deitch devices are in play: leaps through time and space, stories within stories (even a cartoon within a cartoon), disparate characters whose lives cross at the most unusual times. Holding it all together is Deitch’s personal narrative as he chases the mystery from the present, turning up relics and the occasional character that spin the story back into the past.

The book’s beginning seems contrived with the stock ship wreck and the resulting idyllic life among natives on an island paradise. Paradise goes sour when bad cat Waldo swims ashore. The story takes a grand turn in its second section with a mysterious figure in a cat costume who battles munitions profiteers just before America’s entry into World War I. This is Deitch at his best, mixing faux and actual history, recreating bygone America and hitching it to contemporary times. The closing section, “No Midgets In Midgetville,” attempts to tie it all together but doesn’t quite achieve the same tight knot of the earlier volume. If we hadn’t read The Boulevard of Broken Dreams we’d think Alias The Cat! the most intricate and weirdly fantastic graphic novel we’d seen in the last 20 years.

Except, that is, for Deitch’s Shadowland, written over 15 years ago and collected in a beautiful, big-format volume. Shadowland follows the struggles of the Ledickers, a carnival family whose patriarch resembles Buffalo Bill Cody, as their profession evolves in the first half of the 20th century. Coincidence, corruption and the fantastic take center stage. The story opens with a flying pig—like those horses that jumped from carnival towers—and ends with an elephant being hit by a subway train. In between, there’s a side show’s worth of strange characters: a painted-face son—think Crusty–modeled on the clown guise mass murderer John Wayne Gacy assumed when he entertained children; a pickled midget; ill-fated movie star Molly Dare (who also appears in Alias The Cat!) and shadowy aliens known as “The Grey Ones” who are obsessed with pop culture.

What Deitch makes of all this is a damning statement of commercialization and what sells in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Just as The Boulevard of Broken Dreams condemns the Disneyfication of cartooning, Shadowland is a fatal shot at the business of entertainment. It most resembles a Thomas Pynchon novel with its multiple narratives, fantasy elements, leaps through time and ribald humor. Deitch’s drawings are dense and cartoonish in an ironic way. The full-page panels of Toby the Flying Pig are framed in psychedelic jags and squiggles, with appropriate images hanging like a proscenium over the theatrics. Larger scenes hold the madness of Hieronymus Bosch. The great American novel is still waiting to be written but the great American graphic novelist? It’s Kim Deitch. –Cabbage Rabbit

ALIAS THE CAT! by Kim Deitch; Pantheon Books, hardback, 140 pages, $23

SHADOWLAND by Kim Deitch; Fantagraphics Books paperback, 182 pages, $18.95

A version of this story first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly

Freedom Train

The last conversation I had with my grandfather was about train hopping. By then, he’d decided I was a shiftless, long-haired hippie of dubious political beliefs and used silence to show disapproval. But driving back down from Lake Arrowhead to Riverside after a family outing in search of snow we began—I don’t remember how—talking about his experience riding the rails.

“Becoming a hobo goes far beyond dropping out. That something is part strength, part weakness, both pure freedom and an absolute prison.”

Dale Maharidge, The Last Great American Hobo quoted by William T. Vollmann

The last conversation I had with my grandfather was about train hopping. By then, he’d decided I was a shiftless, long-haired hippie of dubious political beliefs and used silence to show disapproval. But driving back down from Lake Arrowhead to Riverside after a family outing in search of snow we began—I don’t remember how—talking about his experience riding the rails. He told stories I’d heard a few times before, how he hopped freights between New Orleans and south Texas and how some Depression-era boxcar carried him to St. Louis and eventually to the Midwestern town where he met my grandmother and took a job, not ironically, with the railroad. Most of the talk was about practical matters: where to catch trains, when and how to jump off, the dangers of riding up top or between cars, spiking boxcar doors open, how to avoid the bulls guarding the rail yards.

While I did my share of haunting rail yards and climbing around boxcars, I never overcame my fear of catching on or jumping off moving trains. I had one exhilarating and frightening experience mounted on impulse—where was I going?—that ended some 20 miles outside of town when the train slowed to a crawl and, panicked, I leapt to a bruised and knee-scrapped landing.

You wouldn’t think William T. Vollmann shares those fears. The prodigious writer, a National Book Award winner for his novel Europe Central and author of a 3,000 page study of violence, traveled through Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and once walked to the North Pole. But he does. “I am not a brave man at all, but a cautious, even timid soul who makes himself pull off one stunt after another for his own good,” he writes his account of contemporary freight hopping Riding Toward Everywhere. The book holds enough tales of broken bones and severed limbs, even death, to justify his fears. But Vollmann pursues them and the uncertain freedoms of “catching out,” conducting a risky romance with a disappearing lifestyle.

Facing his fears is only one of the attractions that brings Vollmann to the rails. He sees America—its beauty and its ugliness—best from the picture window of an open box car. He loves the uncertainty of not knowing where a freight is headed. It puts him in touch with a mostly invisible underclass of Americans who live beneath bridges and in thickets next to the tracks (his last non-fiction book, Poor People, explored impoverished lifestyles). It allows him to connect with “back then,” an earlier generation, much like I did with my grandfather.

Best, and most American, it allows him the chance to challenge our “security man” society. “Every time I break an unnecessary law, doing so for my own joy and to the detriment of no other human being,” he declares, “so I regain myself and become strong in parts of me that the security man can never see.” Vollmann views train hopping not as a crime but as “an unauthorized borrowing property of others” the chance to become “a microbe on the trunk of a [corporate] elephant.” That Vollmann does this voluntarily—“Hey, you guys hop trains for fun!,” one yard bird marvels—tells much about the man.

Indeed, Vollmann and his traveling companions enjoy advantages not available to real hobos, whispering to each other on cell phones while hiding from bulls, dining in restaurants, buying Amtrak tickets when they can’t find out-bound freights. Somehow, this heightens Vollmann’s narrative, holding him separate from the experience, an observer as well as participant. Mostly, this book is a meditation on what it means to be restless, to know that basic human desire–“I have to get out of here”– a statement he repeats endlessly. His goal is to go everywhere and no where at once in pursuit of “Cold Mountain,” a Zen-like state of contentment that sometimes blurs with the all-American notion of Big Rock Candy Mountain, the sweet place just beyond imagination. Threading themes from Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Mark Twain, Jack London and other American writers Vollmann seems to settle on Kerouac’s simple declaration for guidance: “Everybody wants to GO!”

Vollmann’s musings sometimes stretch too far, tending to trivialize his obsession with rootlessness. “Isn’t running away from everything the same as running toward everything?” he wonders to no meaningful conclusion. But this “shadow play” also serves him well. Weaving hobo encounters, the disapproval of “citizens” including his father, tramp graffiti, tales of rail-riding women and violent encounters with the notorious Freight Train Riders of America with his own bright experiences and literary bent, Vollmann has discovered an America lost behind its current conformity. We’d all be wise to catch on. Cabbage Rabbit

Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann, Ecco, hardback, 270 pages, $26.95

A version of this review first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly