Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On "Summer 1984" by Greg Jackson (5744 words) ***

"Summer 1984" is a story about creating a story, but it's really the story inside it. The story as a whole is typical of the later stories in the Jackson's collection, which in some sense are about the creation process. The story here is about Michaela, a woman whose name may have been changed, and about a set of event that may have been changed as well. Autobiography mixes with fiction to the extent that we have no clue as to what is real and what imagined. Read the story here at Vice.

On "Savage Art" by Robert Pulito *****

This definitive biography of the writer Jim Thompson starts with a short assessment of his work, of what makes it so powerful, so different from other crime fiction--namely, that Thompson subverted the normal means of telling crime stories by taking their cliches to the extreme. He found an audience later probably because his rather nihilistic portraits worked better for readers of the late twentieth century than for the early. We get crooks with no saving graces--and cops who are crooks. And yet, disturbing as the portraits are, we do sometimes feel with them.

Next Pulito delves into Thompson's familial background--some Native American and the rest going back to the early days of the United States, migrating over the generations from east to west. Thompson himself was the son of a sheriff, born atop the city jail. He grew up for much of his youth in Oklahoma, but his father had good times and bad times financially. A big spender, unable to save, he provided a home that was feast or famine. During the famine times, as he traipsed off to find a better life, his wife would often go to live with relatives in Nebraska, and hence, that too became a home for the young Jim.

Finally, Thompson's dad hit it big for a while in the oil trade, and the family moved to Fort Worth. There, however, fortunes eventually sank, and Thompson went to work as a bellhop, where many of his experiences led to events recounted in his novels. Here, he learned the grift; he served as the getter and giver of drugs, hookers, alcohol, and other things bellhops were often looked to for. Meanwhile, he went to high school, all the while working eight hours a night, doping and especially drinking and smoking to stay alert. Eventually, by age nineteen, still in school, it led to a breakdown.

Thompson's relationship with his dad was not a good one. Dad was a mover, a worker. Thompson was quiet and big on books--writing was not real work in Dad's view. Dad had little respect for Jim. And Jim lacked respect for the dad who left the family by turns and spent out the family fortune whenever it come to be. During his time as bellhop, Thompson saved $1100, which he'd planned to use to support the family after he got out of the hospital and was unable to work for a while--his father stole it, investing it in another get rich scheme that went nowhere. The family suffered.

Thompson spent a couple of years after that in the oil fields, working various jobs. These adventures would become part of his writing later. His mom even came down and joined him, helping to set up a restaurant that quickly went nowhere. Eventually, Jim headed to college, in his mid- to late twenties. There, he majored in agricultural journalism, doing well in the writing and English classes and abominably in just about everything else. He met a lot of other writers, however.

During this time, he began to court the sister of his brother-in-law. The father of the girl really liked him, but the mother not so much. Hence, when the father died, the mother did her utmost to break them up. The girl married someone else, and Thomposon went into a spate of depression, broken up eventually by a blind date arranged by that brother-in-law. The woman he eventually married also had a family that didn't much care for him, and in this case, Thompson's family didn't much care for her. The issue seemed to be one of class--these women were from better-off families, and Thompson would not be able to provide the kind of living these women were accustomed to (or, in the case of the first gal, needed, as she was semi-invalid from an accident she'd had as a young girl). Nevertheless, Thompson and his girlfriend eloped, then lived apart thereafter for a few months, eventually being caught, as the wife came to visit Thompson alone at various times. During this time, Thompson worked and went to college, keeping a schedule much like he had in high school (only now his father was in the throes of whatw as probably Alzheimer's and needed lots of care). But as the Depression years came on strong, even the work dried up.

Jim tried his hand at writing--any he could scrounge up. He sold a fair number of pieces to newspapers and crime journals, often under other names. But the work was not consistent. He tried to get jobs editing for newspapers, and finally one of these attempts led to a job with the Oklahoma WPA. After being hired on by a man who would become a good friend, Bill Cunningham, Jim would work on a guide for the state. He'd also become involved with the Communist Party, an involvement that would lead to a schism between different people involved with the WPA. This would eventually oust Cunningham as head of the Oklahoma division, and Thompson would take his place. Among writers Thompson would work with was Louis L'Amour.

Thompson's writing at this time consisted still of various pieces for crime magazines under pseudonyms, folk stories gathered for the WPA, and Depression-era proletarian-type stories. One of the latter would garner enough attention to land Thompson a book deal with Viking, but though he completed the novel (sending it in in installments), it would never be published, in part because it would lack cohesiveness.

Eventually, Thompson's communist leadings (combined with, ironically, a milktoast labor history that others commissioned Thompson's agency to write that Thompson actually didn't want to do) would lead to his dismissal from the WPA. The state guide Thompson has worked so hard on would sit for nine months until another head was appointed and the agency got back to work; that writer would then take the bulk of the credit for editing of the guide. Thompson meanwhile came up with a book idea for which he got sponsorship and off of which he lived for a year. The book was a series of stories/interviews with various laborers; it, too, would lack cohesiveness, straddling a line between nonfiction, which it was supposed to be, and fiction. It would never be published.

After this came a stint in San Diego. The expectation was that Thompson might scrounge up some work in screenwriting, but nothing materialized. After some dead-end jobs and a few Thompson was good at but had little enthusiasm for, Thompson sent his family back to Nebraska and headed off to New York, where many of his labor and writing friends were now residing. The idea was that there was a job there waiting for him, but it was gone by the time he got there. Instead, Thompson tried to sell his work again, visiting various publishers. Eventually, he got a publisher to take him up on his pledge to write a novel in ten days if they'd lend him a typewriter.

The work, completed in about five weeks, was his first published novel, Now and on Earth. It was heavily autobiographical and still focused quite a bit on labor issues. (In fact, in his personal life, Thompson was moving away from the communist leanings he had had, wanting to write something different, something that would both sell and say something, something grittier and less idealized.) Underneath the novel's characterizations were hints of the crime novel protagonists to come. It received decent reviews but didn't sell very well.

Old WPA friends in New York helped Thompson find a home for his next book, Heed the Thunder, which was a kind of epic Okie historical novel, written under a similar deal as the first. Meanwhile, Thompson had written, and rewritten, a masterpiece called The Unholy Grail. Eventually, it (the eighth draft) would be published as Nothing More than Murder, but not before he had to take more newspaper writing gigs in San Diego and Los Angeles. His firing from the latter gig happened as he finally sold said novel--and received, for once, the critical and popular attention he'd needed to become a novelist.

Strangely, the success of the book, however, didn't lead to more opportunities in terms of book publishing. Two subsequent novels, The Recoil and The Golden Gizmo, went unsold. Thompson took day jobs again. And then, his agent came upon Lion Books. It was a magazine publisher looking for paperback originals to sell into newstands. Thompson went to work writing books for them. The relationship would lead to more than half his career output, as he managed to writing something like fourteen books in the next five years. The success also kept him from drinking as prolifically or uncontrollably as he had--what often led to him losing his day jobs.

The first of these books was The Killer Inside Me. Thompson was handed a plot and then told to write it. But the plot was about a New York City cop who kills a woman. Thompson changed the setting to small-town Texas, the cop to a psycho, the woman to women. The publisher didn't care--when the editors saw the first draft of the first half, they knew Thompson knew what he was doing. Other books followed, with such speed that it's impossible really to know what was written when. Some books were still coming out years later. Pulito opts to put the books into categories in summarizing them: first-person psychos, multiple narrators, third-person novels, autobiographies, and cul-de-sacs. The latter are the handful of dead ends, dunces, bad books. Note to self: I need to read Savage Night, Nowhere Man, A Swell-Looking Babe, The Criminal, and The Kill-Off, as well as the later book The Getaway and the earlier Nothing More than Murder.

And then, the editor at Lion Books left and the magazine company was sold, and Lion Books closed. Thompson, essentially, was out of a job. He went back to drinking heavily. Other crime writers got new publishers; somehow, Thompson's agent could not find him a home, despite the fact that Thompson generally got good reviews and sold about 250,000 copies per title. No reason can be determined, but Thompson thought it was because his novels were so violent. He attempted to pull back, writing some clunkers like The Expensive Sky and The Concrete Pasture. But mostly he just drank, sold short pieces, and worked, for short spans, day jobs--one copyediting at a newspaper.

Along came Stanley Kubrick. A fan of Thompson's, Kubrick was a budding filmmaker whose first film lacked a decent script. He hired Thompson to write (the dialogue) for the second screenplay, an adaptation of a crime novel. The film became The Killing and got rave reviews. Thompson was livid, however, about the screenwriting credit, which Kubrick took for himself, dropping Thompson down as merely the dialogue writer.

Thompson insisted, if he was to write for Kubrick again, he be credited fully. And so it was, when he came on to writing Paths of Glory, for five hundred dollars a week. The degree to which the final screenplay reflects anything he wrote, however, is up for debate. The first draft was overhauled twice, and the writer of the rewrites claims nothing was left of Thompson's work, but Pulito's examination of the scripts suggests that maybe half of Thompson's dialogue and many of the scenes stuck. Either way, Thompson's name is on the byline--as the third writer. After this, however, Kubrick moved on--he didn't think Thompson appropriate for adapting Lolita or other non-crime faire.

About this time, Thompson managed to sell another novel--not one of the clunkers written years before but something new: a revisit with Sheriff Ford: Wild Town. Neither a prequel or sequel to The Killer inside Me, the book is sort of an alternate universe with many of the same characters from the previous book. The book sold to NAL. But editors never gave Thompson the kind of freedom he'd had at Lion. They suggested he start up a detective series, with the same characters--for example, Lou Ford. Or they wanted endings that were "moral," wherein the book managed to show that crime didn't pay. With such shackles, Thompson could not flourish.

Thompson took up writing occasionally for television, but there the shackles were even greater. He did not do well writing for committee. In time, screenplay work dried up, since he was not fast and not able, often, to stick to plans. Pulp magazine publishing also dried up, since television largely replaced it.

Meanwhile, he sold a book called The Getaway, which he had to assure the publisher would end in a "moral" way. When it ended not to the publisher's liking, he stuck to his guns, unwilling to change it to something more realistic.

Thompson was also hired to write a novel/screenplay called Cloudburst, but as he often did, he veered way off the plan for the work. The book ended up being another Lou Ford alternate universe (though the protagonist's name would be changed to Tom Lord to avoid rights issues), and there would be no screenplay. In time, he was able to wrest control of the project from the filmmaker and publish the book as The Transgressors.

Also published during this time was The Grifters and Pop. 1280, but these works would be the last to show off Thompson's powers. After this, his work, when he could sell it, would descend into nostalgia and/or needlessly lurid sex and violence, as in Texas by the Tail, South of Heaven, and King Blood, the latter of which would be pulled by the publisher before seeing publication in the United States and would not appear until after his death. His last book, published as Child of Rage would be similarly tainted, as if, as Pulito claims, Thompson was struggling still to shock in a culture that was now more sexually liberated.

Still other work involved writing novelizations of films and televisions shows, which he did a few of for standard fees.

Drinking during this time took its toll also, and Thompson ended up in the hospital and near death several times. Told to stop drinking and smoking, he'd resume both soon after leaving the hospital each time. Poverty, too, was a problem, since hospital bills stacked up and he wasn't selling much work. He resented the fact that he was not better known and that his work was not more fully accepted. Most was out of print, and when he did manage to sell a book, it was for the same sum as he'd made for years, unlike other big pulp writers who seemed to be making more for each publication.

Still, there was interest in his work for film adaptation. Several novels would be optioned at various times. Thompson didn't own copies of most of his books, so he had to scrounge them up from a used book store or send photocopies, when producers asked to see and consider his work. A big break came with the sale of The Getaway. Thompson wrote the first two drafts of the screenplay, but in the end, someone else took over the project and he ended up with no credit--but a nice paycheck (though not as nice as he would have gotten writing the screenplay). The book in the film became merely an action flick with a happy ending--not a tolerably great adaptation, but still well grossing for the year.

Struggling still to write, Thompson would face multiple strokes until he could barely talk. Eventually, tired and knowing he could write no longer, he starved himself to death.

Through it all, his wife Alberta stuck with him and he with her. He complained about her a lot, but when asked why he wouldn't divorce her, he said that he could never do that to her. (Given his drinking, it's a wonder she didn't divorce him.) He was the one to cook each night, but otherwise, it appears she took care of managing their life. When she had a heart attack, he was as devoted at her bedside as she had been with him through his various ailments. It was love.


The ending to this life seems to come quickly when it finally comes--he's a man who should have died years earlier, one gets the feeling. The real joy of the read for me involved Thompson's communist sympathizer days and the ushering in of his midlife success. The dreariness of life thereafter made the book a rather sad slog in its last hundred pages or so, but such, one might say, is life--most especially Thompson's.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

On "SMTWTFS" by Gary Lutz (1318 words) ***

Like the days of the week, this tale rehearses for us the tedious and unsustained life of a man who bounces from one relationship to another, or more often one encounter to another, none of them making much of an impact on him other than the general meaninglessness of it all. Read the story here are Web del Sol.

On "Fireworks: The Lost Writings of Jim Thompson" edited by Robert Polito and Mihael McCauley ***

Often, there are good reasons certain works are lost or left unpublished, but fame has a way of making such miscellany valuable to others. Such is the case with this collection of Thompson's uncollected shorter work.

Arranged in a rough chronological order, the first section from his 1930s and 1940s writing, includes quite a bit of nonfiction written in a fictional vein. In "The Strange Death of Eugene King," Thompson takes on the voice of a transient looking to solve the murder of another transient, a technique popular in thriller magazines of the era apparently. "Oil Field Vignettes" and "Thieves of the Field" both provide first-hand insights into the oil industry that I'd likely never have thought much about otherwise. The first is mostly character sketches of oil workers--one who likes complete silence, one who is scared of drilling, and one who is constantly marrying bad women who take advantage of him and leave him. There's something of a folk tale quality to these bits, as in the stories told in "Thieves," where Thompson ruminates on how pipe can be (and is) stolen and sold. "Snake Magee's Rotary Boiler" is a tall tale about a blown-up boiler that sends a man clear back to bed.

The True Detective pieces show how Thompson became the writer he did. There's a quality of the unknown, as is typical of mystery in each of the true crime pieces, a mystery with a twist usually at the end. "Ditch of Doom" explores the life of an insane man who murders his wife--or is it a planned murder for his former wife? "Oklahoma's Conspiring Lovers" follows the unfortunate story of a man beat up by a horse--who in fact is not beat up by said horse. "Illicit Lovers and the Walking Corpse" tries to figure out how a man's wife survives being accidentally killed by the man--and just how many wives the man has.

"A Penny in the Dust" is an unfinished novel from the period. Seemingly autobiographical in its first passages, it lacks for polish, but the ickiness typical of Thompsom becomes apparent in the final scene provided.

"Character at Iraan" recounts life among oil workers between jobs, as they sleep in a cheap hotel, gamble, and drink. Although published in Prairie Schooner, the piece does not seem to fulfill its literary pretensions.

The second section focuses on Thompson's writings during the 1940s and 1950s, which would have included the time of his most productive output. "Death Missed a Beat" is a straight story about a man who in an effort to get to work on time the next day picks up a hitchhiker to drive him and ends up the object of a murder. "Murder Came on the Mayflower" is a short account of an early colonial murder. "Exactly What Happened" plays to a weird twist in a story in which a man attempts to rob his boss by pretending to be a coworker. "The Threesome in Four-C" is an account of a man who has gone insane because of his conscience. "The Dark Stair" is the basis for Thompson's book No More Than Murder; a true story, the mystery hinges on the contents of a movie. "Forever After" revolves around a woman who, tired of her marriage, plots the murder of her husband via her lover but who, as in "Exactly What Happened," finds the situation reversed on her. "John Stink" is about a Native American whose tribe takes him for dead, so much so that when he finds his way out of the shallow grave they take him for a ghost they must ignore so that he'll go away. "Blood from a Turnip" centers on a watch that hustlers attempt to turn for a profit.

"The Cellini Chalice," one of the longest stories in this section, shows Thompson at his top form, as he is in his better novels. The story centers on a hustler named Mitch. He cons a chalice off a woman who thinks him a vagrant in need, a chalice that is worth much more than she knows. Alas, Mitch isn't an antiques expert, so he thinks he fares well getting a thousand dollars for it but is disappointed when he finds out it's worth at least fifteen times that. Mitch learns that there's another chalice like it and aims to get it with the woman's help. What he doesn't know is that the woman is in on the con--of him. Many pages later, Mitch finds himself in some extenuating circumstances that require him to use all the street smarts he has to extricate himself from.

"The Frightening Frammis" picks up where the previous story left off, once again following Mitch on his efforts to con people out of cash. Having been the victim of a recent swindle, Mitch feels down on his luck, but he soon falls into an opportunity to earn fifty thousand dollars. This story doesn't have the same weight as the previous. The circumstances that lead to Mitch's opportunity seem too haphazard: he's hitchhiking, a couple picks him up, the man dies, and Mitch just happens to look like him, and there just happens to be fifty thousand in the car, and so on. Mitch's wife seems too forgiving, after all that he's put her through in both this story and the last. As such, the plot twists overpower the sense of characterization, and the story loses punch, which is a reason I have tended not to care as much for genre fiction in the past.

The same point could be used to denote why "Pay as You Exit" and "The Flaw in the System" are disappointing. The first involves a hitchhiker who aims to rip off the woman he manages to stop by flattening her tire, only to find out that she might well be just as dangerous as he is. The second involves people at a company who are conned.

"An Alcoholic Looks at Himself" seems a bit disorganized, but it is a sad, autobiographical portrait of Thompson as a drinker, a man who has squandered chunks of his life and talent in an effort to get the next bit of the liquid elixir. I say disorganized, but it is in chronological order. It's just that, being "real life," there doesn't seem much in the way of an arc or growth--it's just random discussion of drinking, stopping, then drinking again.

"The Tomcat That Was Treetop Tall" is a crime story about a man who decides to rip off a couple in a bar and the man who decides to stop him. Here, the story's violence seems as if it is on the page for thrills rather than for a purpose inherent to the story.

We then move to the last two decades of Thompson's life and writing. The middle of the book seems the strongest part; by this era, Thompson's work has become something of a parody of itself. "A Horse in the Baby's Bathtub" revolves around an incest story. A young man who is, in his mind, clever and smart, takes an interest in his father's new bride, his stepmom. He kills off dad and takes up with her, but his interest in her is, in part, one of contempt. In the end, he opts to do some violence to the family next door, who has lost a child--and that's where one learns the meaning of the tale's title.

"The Red Kitten" is the start of a longer work--a promising start. A man marries a woman, but with an understanding that the inheritance the two of them will get requires them to stay married. The will is set up in such a way that it essentially forces the two to despise one another but stay married--or find some way to knock the other off. Alas, the piece ends there.

"The Slave Girl in the Cellar" is a summary of a true crime story, a case of modern slavery. The piece is interesting for the case itself.

"Sunrise at Midnight" is a strange piece, a piece that seems in many ways like male wish fulfillment. The first section focuses on a man married to a stripper who is forced into her profession by a crooked cop. But just as the husband begins to build a plan for taking care of matters, the story backtracks to that same man taking an interest in helping out a much-younger woman in a dead-end job. After he buys her new clothes and sets her up rather well, she insists on going to bed with him against his will and then they get married. The man loses his job as a reporter and thus fall the events that force his wife into stripping--and the man into seeking revenge. Like so many of the pieces in this last section, this one seems unfinished.

I didn't much care for "Hell" from Ironside, the one published piece in the last section, a lyrical exploration of killing and crime.

"This World, Then the Fireworks" closes off the collection and might be the most finished of those works falling in the last section. Full of familiar Thompson tropes, the piece seems a bit over the top. It involves a set of twins who witness their father killing a cop who discovers said father cheating with the cop's wife. The wife commits suicide, the dad goes to jail, and the kids grow up to be troubled. They get into the grift, but their main desire is somehow to avenge or to understand their father's deed. And so goes the tale as the male twin opts to get involved with a female cop.

The book made me feel like Jim Thompson's best material was long form and mostly during the period for which he is most famous, when he wrote so many books in such short order. I wouldn't have bothered with the text were it not one of the few available to me to read on my Jim Thompson list. This is a collection, I'd say, largely for Thompson scholars, who can used it to see how his writing developed.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

On “Sunshine Cleaners” by Daphne Kalotay (5498 words) ***

"Sunshine Cleaners" involves Russian immigrants who work in (but not for) a laundry facility, sewing up old clothes. Sergei wonders when he'll score big, whether he'll meet a woman, whether he'll make some real money. Each day a gal comes in and blames him for not fixing a machine that steals her money--"not my machine," he says. Read the story here at Fifty-Two Stories or listen to it here at the Drum.


On "Pop. 1280" by Jim Thompson ****

What works so well in this novel is Thompson's corn-pone southern folksy voice. One would think that Thompson came from the South, was born there, but he's a Los Angelino, though he bumped around a bit, I'm sure. And he probably got good at mimicking ideas about the South, cliches and such. And this novel plays into that well.

The text revolves around the small-county sheriff of Potts, population 1,280. He's a goof, an idiot, or so it seems at the start of the book. One wonders, How is it that this guy is carrying on not one but two affairs? But then, something becomes clear: He's no goof. He's very clever, and he plays the goof for full benefits. And he's also incredibly sinister and evil and corrupt.

But so is just about everyone in town. In fact, in some scenes, Nick, the sheriff, comes out looking like an advocate for civil rights compared with those around him--but mostly when it benefits himself. Meanwhile, he manipulates those in town by playing to their worst instincts. If someone catches you in a lie, accuse the person of adultery or arson. If that doesn't work, just denote that you won't accuse ever the person, which is sure to get the rumor mill spiraling with questions and innuendos.

One has to wonder how happy the sheriff can be. He's in a constant fix, playing one crime against another to stay ahead of his pursuers. It seems like a stressful life.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On "Contractions" by Gary Lutz (3139 words) ****

"Contractions" starts promising enough, with an account of a kid who decides to reveal all of her parents' secrets from before marriage. In a sense, the story then revolves around marriage and relationships, the various ones this girl grows up to have, all of them full of their own secrets and sadnesses and smells. Read the story here at Web del Sol.

On "After Dark, My Sweet" by Jim Thompson ****

This is the novel that started my interest in Thompson--but mostly because of the movie, or rather, the movie review. Siskel and Ebert loved it; I have yet to see it, some two decades later. But I've wanted to read the book and/or see the movie ever since, and now I have.

Alas, with most things built up so much in one's head for so long, I was a bit disappointed. The characters in this novel seemed half-drawn, and while we might forgive that because the main character is supposedly insane, I still didn't quite understand how the lead was so drawn to the woman who is his potential undoing.

She's sort of pretty, I guess, after the main character thinks on her a while, but she's a drunkard and mostly cruel. She in turn introduces the lead to Bud, a friend, who wants him to take part in a kidnapping and ransom. As in other novels, there is a chance at redemption, in this case via a doctor who tries to help the main character. But he is drawn too much to the woman.

But what exactly is the woman's game? Is she with Bud or against him, with the lead or against him? The main character's paranoia leaves us uncertain until the end whether she is taking advantage of him or truly in love. But then, much isn't as it seems in this book, as the last chapters demonstrate.

Monday, October 16, 2017

On "The Ore Miner's Wife" by Karl Iagnemma (7006 words) ***

"The Ore Miner's Wife" deals with a woman whose miner husband takes an interest in science. This interest leads her to believe that perhaps he is cheating on her. Perhaps because the story is told from two points of view, thus removing much of the mystery of what's happening, I found this piece less compelling than many of Iagnemma's other stories. Still, the two viewpoints fit with an overall theme of Iagnemma's fiction--the cross-section between love and science. Read the the story here at Virginia Quarterly Review.

On "The Grifters" by Jim Thompson *****

I've wanted to read more of Thompson for quite some time, but our local libraries have only one book of his. Going on vacation recently, I figured I needed some light reading that I could take with me, so I purchased a selection of Thompson's work, this one among them.

I was familiar with this book because of the movie, and admittedly, it was a bit hard for me not to see John Cusack, Annette Benning, and Angelica Huston in the characters of this work. But I'd forgotten much of the plot of the movie luckily, so the book remained largely fresh to me--and it was the kind of read I was hoping it would be.

The story follows Roy Dillon, raised by a young mom who doesn't really want to be a mom and who is a small-time hood. Dillon grows up to be a con artist in his own right, and saves up a good deal of money in the process, clearing his way for an early retirement.

An accident brings him back in contact with his estranged mom, who hires a nurse to care for him (or spy on him). He falls for the nurse, but he's also carrying on with another woman, another con artist as it turns out. These two loves, in essence, represent two sides of Dillon--one that wants to go straight (and has the opportunity to do so) and one that remains tied to the underworld. The novel hinges on which path he will choose. Or should--there seems something of an element of fate in the events that befall him.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

On "Street Map of the Continent" by Gary Lutz (753 words) ****

This story about a man's loss of his wife is one whose very deadness of language seems to hint at the deadness within the man's own life. Slowly, he empties the house of the woman's possessions, just going through motions. Read the story here at Web del Sol.

On "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter S. Thompson *****

It has been well-near two decades since I last read this title, so far as I remember. Why I chose to read it in the first place, I am uncertain. There may have been a certain swagger in Thompson's writing that I appreciated as a twentysomething that was enough to pull me in based on a few lines. At the time when I was working in bookstores, one of Thompson's last books hit the best-seller list, so he was a known quantity.

That I liked the work I can understand so far as the writing itself goes, but the subject matter seems a bit odd for/to me. Reading this as a fortysomething, I find the sheer amount of drugs denoted as taken to be unrealistic and frankly almost a mockery of a kind of culture that existed at the time that Thompson was writing. I think back to the drug jokes that were extent in the early years of SNL--this is that time, those late sixties and early seventies (stretching into the late seventies when SNL started). This is pre-1980s, pre-Nancy Reagan, pre-drug czar.

But could Thompson be at all serious in writing this? I think now there's a kind of satire going on, not only of the "gonzo" hubris that Thompson originated but of various ideas about American culture itself. There's the fascistic side of it, declaring the dangers of people like Thompson, and then there's the people like Thompson (or Raoul Duke, as he calls himself in the text) who are so drug addled that whatever danger they pose is more likely a danger to themselves than to greater society (save in the anarchy and disorder they bring and represent). There is no organized rebellion to occur when these are the foes of societal order.

The last time I read this book would have been shortly before or after the movie came out in 1998. The movie was, as I figured it would be, disappointing. This is not a work that is easily adaptable--or perhaps adaptable at all (and Johnny Depp, I felt, played his role too cornpone to allow viewers to take the film with any gravity). But I remember being surprised by some of the things in the movie, some of the criticism of the idea of the American dream, and I remember going back to the book to find it actually there.

It's also a book I lent out to an unlikely reader. During the last few months I lived in California, I had a roommate some years younger than me, a roommate who spent most nights partying and who had a regular bevy of friends over at the apartment. These were party guys themselves, and also guys in the stereotypical sense that guys often are and that I never was: obsessed chiefly with cars and scoring girls (not as much sports, though). One of these heavy-drinking party dudes perused my books and asked if he could borrow the Thompson volume, and I let him. I got the book back, badly mangled, a few weeks later. What he thought of the work, I don't remember now, but that too is part of the intrigue to me, because the book in a sense is about a constant party, and here this guy was, living it. Did he read the work ironically in any way? Did he see societal criticism in it? Or was this the real stuff, the literal, what life should be? Or was it just a fun read?

In his over-the-top satire, Thompson seems to be critiquing the idea of the American dream as well as the idea that drug people are the kind of danger/menace to society that the media and leadership of the country at the time were taking them to be. However, in presenting the work in presenting the work as a kind of nonfiction expose, there's a level at which his supposed drug taking kind of deconstructs his argument. Sure, in the book, he can drive on an airport runway without danger, but were a drug-addled person to do such and actually knock a plane out, the danger would be clearly manifest. But perhaps, also, Thompson is pointing out that the way to the American dream, the substance of the American dream, is something unobtainable. In the final scene, he pumps himself full of drugs and feels a restoration of confidence: the dream, in a sense, is a drug of its own.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

On "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" by Denis Johnson (about 2000 words) *****

The first story in Johnson's collection Jesus' Son, this one features an unlikely set of flash forwards. It's a technique I'd never seen before, and Johnson makes it work--astoundingly. Read the story here.

On "Jesus' Son" by Denis Johnson *****

Having read this collection for the fourth or maybe sixth time but the first time in at least ten years and possibly eighteen, I am still astounded by it. It's writing that inspires--or at least, inspired. At one time, I wanted to write as well as Johnson does here, but I have come to see I never will. The collection is a work of poetry in short story form, full of beauty amid the squalor that is described.

I won't bother with a recitation of the contents, as the collection is best absorbed afresh with each reading, even if I generally remember the stories even ten years after the last reading. The book as a whole is about addiction, and it doesn't pretty up. It's a book about a misfit, a young man, coming apart and slowly getting things back together.

My first reading was while I was in graduate school. The book had come out maybe a year or two earlier. I'd seen it in the bookstores, been told how great it was. I found a remaindered copy, and I bought it. It probably took me a few months to get around to reading it. I was not pulled toward it by others' love for it. But once I started reading, it was one of those reading experiences that changes the way one sees the story. I read it again soon after. I read pieces of it separately in other collections, astounded by the individual stories.

I read it again, I know, right after the movie came out. I suspect I read it sometime since then, but I don't recall at the moment. The movie was, I thought, a good adaptation, not insofar as strictly following a book that could not be easily translated into screen but insofar as changing it smartly as necessary so that it would work on screen. A fine movie. But still a finer book.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

On "Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy" by Greg Jackson (8244 words) ****

"Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy" does an odd trick of showing how one-time fame can corrupt a person's life. The narrator heads with his girlfriend to visit one of her old friends, who happens to be married to a former tennis star. The star, however, appears to be going mad. He no longer plays tennis and forbids the family from it. And yet, one day, he takes the narrator out to film a tennis match--the star player's most-famous tennis match--an act that will transform the narrator's life in ways sad and harrowing. Read the story here at VQR.

On "Rome and Jerusalem" by Martin Goodman *****

This is ostensibly an in-depth look at the context in which (and causes of) the rebellion of the Jews against Rome occurred around 70 A.D., resulting in the destruction of Herod's temple. The opener sets up the circumstances, detailing the rebellion itself. Goodman, however, wonders why the rebellion occurred, when other cultural entities taken over by the Roman Empire did not have similar rebellions and when the Jews, in many ways, were so well integrated into the system.

He begins by describing the two cities in the first century. Rome was a cultural and political hegemon. Jerusalem was a religious one. Both were international cities, taking in people from around the empire, though for their varying purposes.

Next, Goodman turns to what living in the Roman Empire was like. He starts by looking in part at how Herod Agrippa came to power (via in-fighting among the Jews, who essentially invited the Romans to take over to settle disputes). Agrippa was appointed as king eventually, being a Jewish convert/outsider of sorts but also a friend of a certain Roman politician in power. Although criticized in the New Testament, he was known for his piety among the Jewish peoples. Maintaining power was a political game, one that often had to do with who was in favor or in charge in Rome.

Goodman then turns to a discussion of diversity in the empire, and as he does so, he rather loses sight of Jerusalem, focusing on various other parts of the empire, in part to help establish how Rome interacted with its various vassals. Of note in this section is how Rome had a certain love for the exotic. Writings often focused on the strange. Our views of the empire largely come from Roman or Greek writers, however (Greece remained the cultural hegemon throughout the eastern empire and Rome adopted many of its customs as its own). One would get the impression that the subject peoples never wrote, but Goodman shows how such peoples did likely write of their own places. Most such writings did not survive, however; in cases where they did, there was usually some reason or advantage for its presentation, such as that of an early Spanish writer. The Jewish people, in this way, were unique, since so much of their writings were preserved.

Next comes a discussion of citizenship. Being Roman initially meant being of the city, then of Italy. But citizenship came to have more and more expansive meanings. One could buy it or be born into a mixed marriage or even be freed as a slave and then granted it. What it meant to be Roman slowly became watered down, until the third century, when all peoples in the empire would declared citizens. Whether people thought of themselves more as Romans or more as Gauls or whatever subject peoples they were depended on the person. Paul was born Roman, for example, but one would hardly see him as typical--for he was a Jew first. Meanwhile, some Greek writers of the time were thoroughly of the empire, serving in the Senate, though they were not of Roman heritage. To be Jewish carried similar quandaries, since one could convert to Judaism, meaning that ethnicity was only part of the Jewish identity--religion also played its part. If one were of mixed marriage, one was likely a Jew if one's father was Jewish . . . or later, one's mother. The shift from patrilineal to matrineal heritage happened between the third century BCE and the third century CE.

Differing concepts of time and history also come up. Rome had little sense of deep time--it did not know much about its origins and had to make up parts of its early history. But recent history was well documented. For the Jewish people, it was just the opposite. The Bible goes back to the origin of humanity, and the early history of the Jewish people, their judges and kings, was written out in full. But coming into the first century, history fairly well dropped off after Ezra. There was a lot less written about the Jewish people in the intertestamental era. Romans were heavily concerned about preserving parts of themselves for posterity--making some kind of monument to themselves in terms of their deeds and what they left behind. Jewish people were less interested in this, their faith focusing instead on God and on doing well for him. That said, Herod's building of the temple certainly was an attempt by him to maintain his name and reputation into posterity.

Kinship ideas among the two peoples had similarities and differences as well. The father was largely the head of the household for both. The Jewish people historically had maintained extended families, but by this time the focus was more on the nuclear family, as in Roman society. And yet, in Roman society, this focus was complex. The paterfamilia maintained, in many respects, control over the family to multiple generations. You could be a son or grandson, married and out on one's own, but you were still legally under the paterfamilia's jurisdiction. What mitigated this was that fact that lifespans were typically short(er): fortysomething.

Divorce was fairly common in both societies. Roman marriages were essentially "living together" arrangements and rarely lasted a lifetime. Stepfamilies were the norm, both because of divorce and the shorter lifespans. The Jewish peoples had contractual marriage, but a man could fairly easily divorce his wife (not so easily the wife her husband, as under the law she technically could not).

Friendship among Romans was generally a tit-for-tat sort of thing. If one did someone a favor, then one was a friend. One generally did not do favors for nonfriends, and favors were used to cultivate friendship. Among the Jewish people, there was more of a culture of charity (based on religion), which meant that they had a reputation as a people among whom there were many beggars.

Another chapter focuses on common beliefs. Romans celebrated birthdays; Jewish people generally did not. Romans practiced birth control and considered abortion and infanticide as means toward that. Until a baby was formally recognized by its father, it was not considered a real human; often newborn babies were left out (exposed) when not wanted, allowed to die. A common device in Roman plays was that of the abandoned baby taken in by another family and then reunited as an adult with its biological family. While birth control was practiced among the Jewish people, abortion was generally frowned upon, especially once the fetus took on human features, and infanticide was strictly forbidden.

Ideas of the afterlife varied among both peoples. Historically, Romans had focused mostly on the here-and-now, while the Jewish peoples had a notion of a spiritual realm and a possible afterlife (the resurrection being an item of dispute). Both eventually were heavily influenced by the Greeks and took on Greek beliefs about the eternal soul.

Burial practices among the peoples also differed. Romans burned bodies and preserved the ashes in cemetaries. Poor people were buried together, but as Rome grew better off, they too took to the upper-class way of cremation. Jewish peoples buried bodies whole, often in caverns or in holes covered with stone.

The Jewish peoples had the creation story and one God; the Romans had a pantheon of gods who were not necessarily seen as being intimately involved in human affairs (some were, some not). History started with the foundation of Rome or with the gods, not so much with creation. Astrology was common among both peoples, but mostly later on--probably adopted from Greeks, Egyptians, and Babylonians. Jewish teaching, however, discouraged its practice, and some writers claimed that Abraham had once practiced the art but gave it up when he realized that God created all and had control over all.

The relationship of humans to animals differed quite a bit. Jewish people believed in treating animals with kindness, but also looked at them mostly as creatures for work and food. There doesn't seem to be much of a record of them using animals as pets. Romans, by contrast, were much more affectionate to animals but also much more cruel. Records of animals as pets exist, and some buried animals, like dogs, with epitaphs much as some do today. A dog, among Jewish people, would have largely been for tending sheep or guarding a home. However, Romans also engaged in sport with animals much more--hunting or fighting and killing them in front of an audience, as at the sports arena. Herod's love for hunting is placed, by historians, within a Roman context: it was hunting for sport not food, since the creatures killed were not kosher.

Of particular interest to me was a short section on moral philosophies. Goodman summarizes three Roman systems: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Cynicalism. Epicureanism has a reputation of being one in which anything goes so far as the pleasures of this life are concerned, for it taught that pleasure is the be all and end all of living. But what this really meant wasn't so much hedonism as it meant avoiding pain. Because seeking one's own pleasure can result in pain, ascetism could be the means by which Epicureans pursued pleasure--avoid difficult situations by avoiding things that would bring them about, such as a public life or politics. Stoicism, by contrast, taught that virtue was the highest thing to be sought, and it was by virtue that happiness was to be gained. Other "goods" (pleasure, riches, and fame) were counterfeits. If attained via virtue, that was fine, but they were not to be sought for their own sake.

Cynicism taught "that life should be 'lived according to nature'"; they rejected cultural norms, materialism, and strivings after wealth, power, fame, and intellectual high thinking. Concerns about race, sex, and class were all pointless. They were, in a sense, anarchists.

Religion paid little role in these means of deciphering morality. By contrast, for the Jews, religion was, of course, the center of one's moral thinking, and what was right and wrong was laid out in the scriptures. Thinking often focused on gray areas, delineating things the scriptures hadn't outright answered. Ideas of about guilt, sin, and repentence, common in Jewish thinking, had no part in Roman thoughts about morality.

Next comes a discussion of the varying lifestyles of the two peoples, which can be clearly seen in their attitudes toward the body. Romans thought little of nudity, and muscled nude male sculptures, some in actual states of arousal, were common. Genders mixed in the public baths, and lust prevailed. Sex outside of formal marriage, it is implied, was fairly common, even if private (though displays of sex in artwork were not uncommon). Homesexuality was permitted, especially between men of power and weaker men. Jewish peoples, by contrast, had strictures against any sex outside of marriage. Bodies--let alone people or animals--were rarely displayed in art. The emphasis was on purity. When Jewish people engaged in bathing it was in large part often for purification, more so than pleasure or even cleanliness.

For spectator events, the Romans had plays, singing, mime troops, gladiatorial bouts, and chariot races. Jewish life was comparatively staid. Among the spectator (and participatory) events among them was dancing.

Both Jewish and Roman societies had a heavy emphasis on law, with extensive codes. But their attitudes toward war were a bit different. Rome used war as a means of extending power, collecting taxes, and consolidating power (for the emperor). It was heroic. The Jewish nation's attitude toward war was more ambivalent. It could be used for similar things for which Rome used war (extending power over other nations and gaining tributary), but warriors were not typically glamorized in the same sense (and often that glamour went to God, with the warrior himself disparaged for the taking of life). Roman war was vicious, with looting, rape, and other horrors common for the victors, which is one reason it was best to surrender. Romans were also perserverant: a battle might be lost, but Rome would return over and over until it won the war. Jewish credo often emphasized mercy: give the enemy the opportunity to surrender, don't cut down the fruit trees, and so on. Battle rules were written out even in the Bible. Some genocide was mandated (for peoples of Canaan), but rules for other peoples were less total in mandated destruction.

As for who had status and power in each society, Goodman sums it up nicely: "In Rome, political status derived primarily from wealth, noble ancestry, age, and (above all) military glory. In Jerusalem, what mattered was lineage (priestly or royal), learning in the law and (occasionally) a claim to divine inspiration." Romans showed off their power by showing off wealth--paying for people to enjoy the "bread and circus." Emperors often derived from the same family (or adopted family). Wisdom was accorded to age, though they put forth an effort to appease young folk with activities. And of course, success on the battlefield accorded with political power. For the Jewish peoples older generally meant wiser too, but after age fifty, priests were forced to retire. Little was done to "appease" youths, so it seems those in the middle ages were those accorded the most power. More important was being of Levitical heritage and being a scholar. Showing off one's wealth was not generally seen as a necessarily good thing, and one could be a "poor" scholar and have a modicum of respect from among the people.

Jewish people were spread throughout the empire, and their Sabbath and many of their ways came to be known among the Romans. For the most part, the two existed in relative harmony. A large Jewish population lived in Rome itself, and although they were kicked out in 19 and 49, these appear to have been temporary dismissals and perhaps not even in total. In 19, the dismissal may have had to do with various Roman rites and a turn back toward the gods and symbolic purifying of the city in preparing for the change in emperor. In 49, there apparently had been an uprising by one Christus, but it's also possible that it was simply another purifying of the city. This dismissal is the context in which Paul finds Aquilla and Priscilla in Corinth in Acts, them having left Rome (but later to return, as denoted in the letter to the Romans). At this time, gatherings of Jews weren't allowed, but continuing practice of the Jewish religion could be completed discreetly.

The time from 6 to 66 CE in Jerusalem was one mostly of peace. Goodman recounts the various uprisings that occurred during this time but notes that they were likely minor, since they are barely mentioned (if at all) in Roman records. More often, these accounts come from Josephus (sometimes they're mentioned in the Gospels or Acts). Many such conflicts had to do with Jewish issues and power more than with insurrections against the Roman authorities. And even among the Jewish people, the diaspora Jews did not typically side against Rome in putting down Jerusalem, and the royal family actually supported Rome.

The question arises, then, why the Romans put the Jewish rebellion down so hard and destroyed the Temple. Goodman sees this as largely a fluke. In the quest to consolidate power, the aspiring emperor Vespasian needed a military victory, which his son Titus afforded him, through the conquest of the Jerusalem rebels. (Nero had recently died and various men took the spot as emperor in a short span, fighting among each other.) This demanded swift and heavy action. Even then, according to Goodman's interpretation, there was no plan to destroy the Temple (the Romans did not generally mess with local gods), but the military accidentally laid it on fire, and that was that. (Accounts differ as to the motive, with Josephus claiming accident, but Sulpicius Severus claiming intent.) There was also the issue that the priests had recently begun refusing to offer a sacrifice to God in honor of the emperor. With the Temple gone, the best way to pass off its destruction was to pass it off as purposeful.

Jerusalem itself was torn apart, the Jewish people killed in great numbers (over a million, according to Josephus), with the leftover one hundred thousand or so dispersed throughout the empire after enduring torture, selling into slavery, and so forth. Land in Jerusalem was taken from the Jewish people and handed to others (Gentiles); the priestly class itself disappeared.

Another thing that followed was a tax on being Jewish. The tax was equal to the temple tax; now that there was no temple, Rome claimed the same amount of money and used it to pay for a temple to Jupiter. Over the years, anti-Jewish feelings in Rome grew in part because Vespacian, Titus, and Domitian used the victory over Israel as a way to prop up their power, to emphasize their greatness. Domitian had no victories of his own--he was simply related to the other two emperors--so victory over Judaism was particularly important. Trajan, the next emperor, even invaded Parthia, taking over Mesopotamia, to which many Jews had fled.

The tax was done away with under the emperor Nerva, who was more kindly to the Jewish people, but any hope that the Temple would be rebuilt ended after Hadrian came to power. He reinstituted the tax. Although his emphasis was on peace and stability within the empire--thus he built Hadrian's wall on the border with Scotland and ended the Parthian campaign--he saw the Jewish peoples as adding instability. As such, he built a new city atop the ruins of Jerusalem and put a temple to Jupiter near the site of the former Jewish Temple. This, according to Goodman, sparked the Bar Khokhba revolt of 132-35. (Some scholars say that it was the revolt itself that sparked Hadrian to build over Jerusalem, but Goodman comes down on the other side of this debate. What sparked Hadrian to build over Jerusalem, however, was unclear to me in Goodman's text--perhaps, simply memories of the revolt of 115.)

In the third century, emperors finally took an easier hand with the Jewish peoples, removing the tax and allowing them to live by their customs without interference. They did not return to Jerusalem, however, though many still lived in the land of Palestine (Rome had renamed the region). Julian, just after Constantine, even made plans to rebuild the Temple, though not out of sympathy for the Jews but rather because he was against Christianity and thought sacrifices to be more in line with paganism.

The destruction of the temple in 66 also helped to separate the Jewish people from the sect of Christianity, which had initially been a sect of the Jewish religion. Christians were seen as atheists by Rome, since they did not align themselves with any god to whom sacrifices were owed. By going along with Jewish customs, they were subject to the tax on Jews; by not doing so, they were not subject to the tax, but then they were subject to persecution for not participating in Roman religious/civic rites. That said, Goodman sees persecution as coming mostly from local sources rather than from the empire itself, with a few brief exceptions.

By the time that Constantine made Christianity the official religion, it was a good deal different than its Jewish roots. Gone were many of the Jewish practices: dietary restrictions, the Sabbath, circumcision, concerns with purity. However, there was still a reliance on Scripture (if only metaphorically), a much more prudish attitude toward sex, a hate of abortion, a disdain for the worship of other gods, and an emphasis on charity. Constantine tried to settle various theological disputes to help shore up the unity of the church and the empire. He built Christian churches, where before there had been only house churches, often at the supposed site of martyrdoms. In Rome, this involved just two churches within the city walls in relatively quiet spots and a host of new buildings outside. But he was still in charge of the pagan religion of Rome until his death (and many of the Roman customs, with regard to gladiator spectacles and the like, were slow to die), and because the city was so built up, he chose to move his capital to Byzantium, where he could more easily build a new Christian capital for a new Christian empire.

His conversion also changed Jerusalem, where pagan, and Jewish, sites were taken down and Christian churches put up at places of supposed significance. Jews continued to be banned from the city, though the degree to which this ban applied is somewhat uncertain (they couldn't live in the city, but some evidence indicates that they visited it--and the site of the temple). In essence, Jerusalem was renewed as well, this time as a Christian city. But interestingly, Constantine actually made an edict that all peoples could choose their religion. There was, thus, no enforced decree that all people must become Christian, and the Jewish people themselves were more easily able to practice their beliefs.

That said, the non-rebuilding of the temple became a kind of Christian priority, for in the Christian view, it had been superseded. Likewise, Christians to some extent often looked down on Jews as people who had rejected Christ. This, in turn, led to the continuation of antisemitic views that hold in many respects to this day, all because back in 66 A.D. bad local government led a group of Jews in Jerusalem to rebel, and politics in the empire at that time and in the immediate years succeeding demanded that Rome blow up the putting down of the rebellion into a major victory to be celebrated for centuries thereafter.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

On "Devotions" by Gary Lutz (1182 words) ****

What is it that makes for a good marriage? The narrator in this story moves from wife to wife, one a boozer, one young, and so on. In one telling passage, the narrator recounts having an apartment where he realizes the person above him has figured out the arrangement of his furniture and is mimicking his each move. Creepy, I suppose, but I can't help but think the narrator is making some kind of comment about marriage, about being known so intimately that there is no escaping surveillance. Read the story here at Web del Sol.

On "Critical Essays on Evelyn Waugh" edited by James F. Carens ***

This book collects various essays about Waugh's work from over the course of time to about 1980, when it was published. As such, it includes reviews, in addition to actual critical work--mostly the opinions of any critic who was famous and then some, so we're talking people like George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and Malcolm Cowley. As such, it's a good way to read how Waugh has been perceived over the course of his career.

The first section features chiefly reviews that look out of the course of Waugh's career up to the time of the individual book being reviewed. I got the general feeling from the reviews that Waugh's early satirical work was looked upon well but that his work from Brideshead Revisited onward not so much (except in a few cases where he returns to outright satire, such as in The Loved One). Even Scoop here doesn't seem as often pointed out as great as one would expect. What I mean is that on the list of 100 great works, the books that generally make it are Scoop, Brideshead, and Handful of Dust, but it seems that the latter is the only one almost wholly respected.

Certainly, all the critics recognize something different about Brideshead and to an extent the later work. At least one essay acknowledges that this difference actually makes for richer art: the characters are more fully drawn, the texts that much more personal in tone. But many of the critics point out Brideshead's faults: the turn to Catholicism at the end from a narrator who has been anti-Catholic seems false. The former should have colored the latter all the way through. They don't like the moralizing Waugh; they prefer the Waugh who makes fun of things and thus keeps his moralizing toned back in the form of satire.

Surprisingly, his final war trilogy often is seen in a fairly good light, in comparison to the middle work, bringing the satire and the deeper characterizations together. Also of note are some comments about the ways that Waugh revised the trilogy after its initial publication. I read the first printing and so did not know of these changes. The main character's remarriage, for example, in the revised version does not end with children of his own, thus meaning the bastard son of his ex-wife is his heir, suggesting in many ways Guy's total cuckolding and his truly final generous act (any kind of war work or work for others on a bigger level is pointless, as it leads to nothing; it is only in the small, familial act that Guy can manage any sort of value, but even this is a final expunging of himself).

Another common theme in the reviews is Waugh's traditionalism and his snobbery. He likes Catholicism at least in part because it espouses tradition and "rightful class." In a world that is falling apart, in which there is nothing to believe in, there is only tradition to keep us whole. The morality of the upper classes may be questionable (just as it is of the lower classes), but tradition can carry us through, keep us from burying ourselves in the waste. (Never mind if you are one of the lower classes, struggling to get ahead--that's your lot in life, so accept it.) Waugh's writing is seen as being about the fall of England from the world scene, the fall of the landed class, the tragedy of it. (Indeed, I got this feel as I read his works, which probably explains why I didn't care as much for it as I thought I would based on the one book I'd read decades ago.)

The second section of the book deals with specific books. Most appear to justify or show why a particular work is great--and often Waugh's very best. One review looks at Helena, which was generally panned in other essays, showing how Waugh's turn to legend is a model novel. Two reviews look at The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, one mocking Waugh himself and one, by Waugh, defending the work and pointing out how the review was largely personal rather than professional. One review extols the virtues of Put Out More Flags. Richard Wasson's review of A Handful of Dust looks at it as a critique of Victorianism, pointing out again how Waugh essentially knocks down Victorian values and class but notes that there is little to replace them with (they may be empty values and the order imposed may be less-than-ideal, but it's all we have). James F. Carens looks at the final trilogy by Waugh and sees in it the absolute climax of his work, one that balances perfectly satire and sentimentalism, class critiques and class upholding, and so forth. Reading the review, I was almost persuaded that Sword of Honor is a great work of literature; alas, having read it, I'd say it fails on one main point that Henry James once noted as the essence of good literature: it was simply not that interesting of a read to me. So while Sword of Honor shows how war and our desire to change the world on the big scene are actually harmful and how the best way to affect our society for the good is through small, familial roles, the work seemed too scattered to me, the tone inconsistent. Several other essays assess the differences between the final version Waugh created and the earlier, single-published volumes.

A final section of the book looks at Waugh's nonfiction and more generally at Waugh's career, drawing out themes similarly noted in the reviews previously featured. One review of his autobiography claims it to be a stellar work, the other is much less enthusiastic, denoting that Waugh reveals too little about himself. A review of his travel writing denotes that it is great for its genre no matter the author but it is also a great insight into Waugh's fiction, which often covered similar themes and incidents. Waugh, the author notes, was not a person who liked the adventure of travel, which gives his writing a rather peculiar air. One gets the sense he'd rather be at home relaxing. Still, the travel gives him a view of home he would not have otherwise--and that not all good. A final essay looks at Waugh's faith and how it affected even the earliest works, before he became Catholic; there is, in a sense, a theme running through his work, even the early pre-Catholic work, that England holds a certain vacuity of the spiritual, since in adopting Anglicanism it accepted a counterfeit in place of the true Catholic Christianity.

The book overall was a nice reminder to me of how reading criticism can be fun. It was also a reminder of how much aesthetic criticism (this is good and this isn't) is in the eye of the particular reader. Most literary analysis, so far as what I see being published today, has strayed from the idea of simply deciphering whether a work is good or not, but earlier reviewers weren't shy to offer opinions on the matter.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

On "Ask Jesus" by Vanessa Blakeslee (1906 words) ***


A Halloween costume ornament stands in for deeper questions about the life of the narrator and a marriage. Looking for the ornament itself is a means of finding the truth lurking behind a relationship. Read the story here at Atticus Review.

On "The Complete Stories" by Evelyn Waugh ***

Waugh isn't famous for the short story form, and I can see why. The stories are certainly accomplished, but they don't have a lot of zip and zing to them. They aren't the sort that I'll be coming back and rereading or that greatly made me think or feel.

The collection runs in roughly chronological order starting in 1926, and then has two sections in the back, one of juvenilia and one of college stories. The latter are interesting to read in terms of seeing his development. I've sometimes wondered, reading classic stories from decades before my birth, whether I'd be as unimpressed by the unpublished stuff from the era as I often am by most amateur stories now.

Waugh is not known for being experimental, but the first story in the collection is a foray into that. It feels quite modernist in what it tries to do, which is essentially translate silent film into writing, while also focusing on a couple of audience members. I found it difficult to follow--and unfortunately not interesting enough to really want to try to parse it apart.

From there, we move to more traditional faire. "A House of Gentlefolks" focuses on a man who is hired to be a tutor to an idiot and to accompany him abroad, but once we meet the idiot's parents and family, we have reason to question who in the family is the real dolt.

"The Manager of 'The Kremlin'" is backstory about a man who runs a bar that is reminiscent of Russia. We learn how he was in the army and fell into poverty and the lucky break that got him where he is today. The real power of this story, however, comes in its last line. He's lived a good life, but you come to realize that it is still a life of loss.

The next two stories seem to be somewhat veiled explications of Waugh's first marriage. As such, they are both quite accomplished.

"Incident in Azania" draws from the same characters as Waugh's novel Black Mischief. As such, it is in part about colonialism. In this tale, the daughter of a colonial authority comes to live in the colony and is thus the heartswell of most of the other men who have come from overseas. Her presence proves to be very disruptive, until she disappears, as happens in "these kind of places."

"Bella Fleace Gives a Party" is about a ninety-something woman who decides to throw a ball. Not knowing any of her neighbors and rarely leaving her mansion, the venture brings new life to her. There's a certain sadness at the end of the story, with Fleace's seeming lack of success, but Waugh cuts it down by mostly playing it for irony rather than pity. I could see the tale being something truly cry-worthy in the hands of another master.

I must really like dark and twisted stories because one of my favorites in this collection reminds me much of other stories I like so much. "The Man Who Liked Dickens" is in the realm of many of Paul Bowles's stories; it's about a man who goes overseas and finds himself in a situation far beyond what his own cultural understanding will allow him to deal with. It's a kind of kidnapping story, a story about a trap, a story that takes something we usually love and makes it dreary and scary. In a sense, one could read it as a tale about the dangers of illiteracy and about the even greater dangers of cultural illiteracy.

That story also ended up being the ending of Waugh's novel A Handful of Dust. "By Special Request" brings back the characters of Brenda and Tony Last, giving a separate and happier ending to that Waugh's novel. Having just finished the novel a day earlier when I read the story, it was hard for me to read the story as a piece on its own. Rather, I kept putting it into the context of "alternate ending." As an alternate ending, it did not leave the novel with much in the way of gravitas, as Brenda's horrid actions come to be merely a fun and temporal diversion. The story then hints at Tony's conceivable revenge, though one that is hard to fathom given his ultimate loyalty to his wife. Good it is that the other story became the novel's climax.

"Period Piece" is a forgettable tale about woman who in old age has taken up reading novels in zest. When confronted with how they are so "made up" and ridicilous, she goes on a long diatribe about how life was actually "like that" in the old days. It is the diatribe that makes up most of the story.

"Mr. Loveday's Little Outing" is similarly cruel in its ending, with that ending being its seeming main purpose. Years earlier, Loveday was committed to an asylum for a murderous crime. A woman visiting her father notices how seeming sane Mr. Loveday is. In fact, the asylum director says that the man helps out the staff constantly and would greatly miss the man, who has no desire to leave, though he clearly doesn't need to be locked up anymore. So the woman sets about to free the man, who does not wish to leave save to do one little last thing he greatly desires.

"Winner Take All" is another rather cruel story, one that seems to be something of a recurring theme in Waugh's work: of a passive man taken advantage of by others, most especially by women. Here, that man is the second son of a noble family who sees every piece of good fortune that comes his way redirected to his older brother by his ever-dominating and -interfering mom.

Another of the better stories in the collection is "An Englishman's Home." Save for the trick ending, this story is one the riles the emotion and the brain with its discussion of the dynamics of village life and local politics. Mr. Metcalfe owns a small villa that normally includes about sixty-six acres. But he doesn't really need or want the other sixty and so doesn't buy the adjoining farmland. All is fine on his six acres until a developer one day buys the other sixty, putting the entire community at risk of seeing itself changed overnight. Of course, it being land that normally adjoins Metcalfe's property, the community believes Metcalfe should buy the developer out; meanwhile, Metcalfe, who neither needs nor wants the extra sixty acres, thinks the community should bind together to buy the extra land, that he should only pay about one-fifth of the total property. Fights ensue. Selfishness threatens all.

"The Sympathetic Passenger" is a silly short piece about a man who hates radios but whose hate is compromised when he meets yet another man who hates them to a great, insane degree more.

"Work Suspended: Two Chapters from an Unfinished Novel" isn't really a story but rather exactly what it says it is. In another way, it is about the way that war interrupts life, for it is war that essentially draws the novel to its close, suspends it. The novel itself is about a writer of thrillers who is having a hard time writing, having grown tired of formula. This writer also loses his father in an accident, the man who caused the accident becoming something of an acquaintance and a drain. Meanwhile, the writer falls for a married woman named Lucy, the wife of a friend. He builds a new country home. The two spend much time together, but she has a baby and that's where it ends. And also, there is a sycophantic young woman who is in love with the writer and his work who chases him around until she realizes he loves Lucy. It is a rather great start to a book and a shame in some ways to have come to an abrupt end.

Another story that feels more like a work not completed is "Charles Ryder's School Days," perhaps an unpublished excerpt from Brideshead Revisited or a character study for the work. The story recounts the early years of Ryder, during the First World War, when his mother is killed. Off at boarding school, he is granted a certain sympathy. But the real focus of the story is the pecking order among the boys and the faculty's effect on it. Though three kids are ahead of him (including Ryder) in seniority, O'Malley is chosen to monitor the dorm, because, as the headmaster explains, O'Malley needs discipline. He has less character than the other boys. Ryder is asked to support O'Malley numerous times, both by O'Malley himself and by the teacher. As children (really, teens) refuse to go to bed on time "Tacitor to participate in prayer at the chosen moment, O'Malley is faced with choosing between loyalty to his friends and doing his job, the latter generally being his ultimate decision. But the story does not seem to go beyond that; Ryder is the same kid at the start as at the end, and there doesn't seem to have been any moment of decision or chance to change, which is why this piece ultimately feels less like an independent story to me and more like a descriptive background study.

A long but gorgeous story is "Scott-King's Modern Europe." This piece reminded me a bit of Nabokov's writing. It's about a middle-aged man who teaches classics at a public school, a job that is becoming more obsolete with each passing school year, as fewer students sign up to Greek, Latin, and the classics. Scott-King has taken an interest in an eighteenth-century writer named Bellorius and studies him in his spare time. One day, he receives an invitation from the fictional country of Neutralia, Bellorius's nation, which is to hold a grand festival in the writer's honor. As it turns out, most of the invitees know little of the writer, and as the festivities continue, it becomes clear that the country is in the midst of a civil war of sorts. A scholarly trip to nostalgia turns into a nightmare attempt to escape. Ironically, it is just such escape that moves Scott-King to embrace older times rather than the modern ones.

"Tactical Exercise" is another of Evelyn Waugh's exercises in the clever and macabe. Here, Waugh explains how a couple marries later in life (by mid-twentieth-century standards) and grows to hate one another. Finally, tired, they head off to vacation. Here, the husband plots to kill his wife, setting up rumors about her sleep walking and feeding her drugs, only to find that the circumstances are not as they seem.

"Compassion" reads like a magazine puff piece in parts more than as a story. It is about a military officer who sees his job primarily as one involving military missions but who is slowly won over to aiding displaced Jewish persons in the Yugoslavic areas of Europe as World War II draws to a close. In that conversion, he runs into many a military man who thinks as he once did, and he finds that a lack of success, of being unable to stop suffering, is also a means of learning.

"Love among the Ruins" is a sci-fi story that reads like any other number of works about technologically advanced societies verging on totalitarian: Brave New World and The Clockwork Orange being two that come most readily to mind. Here, people get new faces, get sterilized or have abortions to maintain careers, go through prison reformatory systems, and get free euthanizations by the state because they are bored, bored, bored. Among these people is Mile Plastic, an orphan with a penchant for starting fires who has been sent to prison and reformed. The sole graduate of the program, the state has much interest in touting his successes. But much like the people around, he finds very little meaning to his existence and longs for a return to prison, until love provides something that at least seems real.

"Basil Seal Rides Again" returns to the character of Basil, who figures prominently in the very first story of the collection and who also plays a role in many of Waugh's novels (alas not anything more than a mention in any of the novels that I've read). Here, Basil is concerned about a certain young man named Charles Albright, who seems to be up to no good: he borrows shirts, plays guitar, has little wealth, and so on--in other words, he's like Basil was at an earlier age. The most interesting passages have to do with Basil's going away to a resort to lose weight, however, as his daughter covorts with an unknown suitor. The cruel and self-interested ending, I suppose, is standard behavior for Basil.

The book ends with a collection of Waugh's juvenalia and college stories. The juvenalia supposedly is to show what a genius he was for storytelling at a young age (twelve), but I didn't find the stories all that unusual for a child that age with a literary bent: a heavy emphasis on action, unncessary details when provided. However, by the age of twenty, Waugh's stories start to take on a certain panache. The start of a novel, while beginning with the cliché of a character waking up, displays a mastery of language and actually reminded me a bit of Brideshead Revisited--lop off the slow beginning, and the tale had potential. "An Essay" is a great display/description of a character with something of a twist at the end. Such stories got me thinking about when/how writers bloom, and I think there's something to be said for the maturing that begins to take shape in the early twenties; arguably, it's possible one doesn't advance much beyond the skills one builds by age twenty-five, assuming some good instruction.

That said, the stories in the section of Waugh's college years, while displaying a better mastery of language than the early juvenalia, often (too often) display an overwhelming interest in killing and murder: something rather common, I found, among writers who are young adults when I taught college English. In "Portrait of a Young Man with Career" the protagonist fantasizes about killing a man who has come to visit with him. "Edward of Unique Achievement" is a rundown of how a college man kills his tutor and gets away with it. "Conspiracy to Murder" is a Poe-like story about a man who goes insane thinking his neighbor wants to kill him. "Unacademic Exercise" is about some sort of ritualistic cannibalism cult. And while the last story, about cricket, gets away from these macabre themes, it still isn't at the level of Waugh's adult material.