Tuesday, June 20, 2006
[HEY, GUESS WHAT? YOU DON'T HAVE TO REGISTER WITH BLOGGER TO COMMENT, ANY MORE!!]
So, since I'm deadlining my butt off and at a loss for words (other than the ones that will get me on toward that helicopter-explosion epilogue) I'm taking the liberty of posting some old thoughts about a few of the books that have meant the most to me over the years.
[BUT FIRST--WE INTERRUPT THIS BLOG POST TO SEND YOU OVER TO READ SANDRA RUTTAN ON THE LATEST AND GREATEST GROUP AUTHOR BLOG: KILLER YEAR, WHICH IS THIS REALLY COOL IDEA FROM A BUNCH OF GREAT PEOPLE WHOSE DEBUT NOVELS COME OUT IN 2007...]
Ahem. Where was I? Oh yes... what follows are reviews of three books (okay, two books and a multi-volume set thing) that I've mused about in the past quite a bit.
And Alice... Remember Alice? This is a Song About Alice...
A whole lot more spunk than Pippi Longstocking.
Pippi didn't OD
Okay, so this isn't the coziest, most charming book in the history of the world. In fact, Go Ask Alice would more truly be classified as a Young Adult work, and a lot of people would think that's a stretch, too. Purportedly the diary of a fifteen-year-old girl who died of a drug overdose in the late Sixties, Go Ask Alice is possibly my very favorite childhood read.
I count it as a children's book because that was, in fact, what I was when I first encountered it. I raced through it when I was about eight years old, and would have to say that I've reread it an average of once a year since. That would make 29 readings [35, now], all told, and even if as I've heard in the last couple of years it was actually written by some editor in New York, it remains an amazing historical document.
Within the pages of this slender volume you'll find relatively frank (if obviously fictional to me at age 37 [or 43, as the case may be]) discussions of rape, heroin addiction, prostitution, runaways, speed, acid, mental hospitals, suicide, group sex, panhandling, homelessness, venereal disease, homosexuality, infidelity, and a plethora of other subjects in the same vein.
One line in particular that has stuck with me through the years is of a young boy saying to his mother "Mama, Daddy can't come now. He's humping Carla." That would, of course, be the part where Alice and her friend Chris are living in the commune in Haight-Ashbury, but I digress.
This is a moving and thought-provoking look into the mind of a young girl who is gleeful to lose three pounds and angst-ridden when she eats french fries, and, in a perfect period touch, who confides her plans for a yearbook autograph party:
I'm going to wear my new white pants suit, and I have to go now and wash my hair and put it up. It's really getting long, long, long, but if I put it up on orange juice cans I can make it have just the right amount of body and a nice large curl on the bottom. I hope we have enough cans--we've got to! We've simply got to!
Much later in the book, of course, you'll get passages like the following, written when "Alice" was supposedly in a mental hospital:
I can't close my eyes because the worms are still crawling on me. They are eating me. They are crawling in my nose and gnawing in my mouth and oh God... I've got to get you back in your case because the maggots are crawling off my bleeding writhing hands into your pages. I will lock you in. You will be safe.
I read on-line this afternoon that the book quite recently had been withdrawn from an eighth-grade class in Rhode Island who had read half of it and were mid-discussion, because the school principal, who'd never read it, caught wind of the subject matter. Obviously, it has lost none of its provocative flavor or shock value.
And yet, despite all its sensationalism, this was an important book for me. When I was eight years old, the cool grownups all got stoned, only narcs wore ties, and Republicans were the people who drove down the freeway in their Cadillacs throwing just-emptied bourbon bottles out the window while they told jokes about poor people.
The soundtrack of my home life was a lot of Hendrix and Neil Young and Joan Baez and Janis Joplin fronting for Big Brother and the Holding Company,
with Puccini in the mornings when Mom wrote letters. In second grade, my favorite t-shirt was one Dad allowed me to pick out, when I was back East on a summer custody visit. This portrayed an R. Crumb sketch of a baby chick climbing wide-eyed out of a broken egg and was captioned, "Just Like Being Born Stoned." It looked excellent with my sky blue tie-dyed jeans and my suede moccasin boots that laced up the side and had fringe at the knee.
My teacher, Mrs. Boys, taught us Russian folksongs, so we'd "know what to sing when the Revolution comes." We planted willow trees on the river bank to prevent erosion, learned to write haiku and play the recorder, made tapes of our dreams, and were given blue glass marbles for Earth Day.
She was quite pleased with my first essay, on the injustice of jailing Angela Davis and the hypocrisy of the Christmas carpet bombing in Vietnam. I remember the act of writing it, carving out the words in dull pencil in my execrable handwriting, because it was the first time I used paper that was taller than it was wide--not the horizontal pulp stuff with the big empty space at the top for a picture and the four or five inch-high ruled lines at the bottom--but real honest-to-God binder paper.
That was the year that I made the mistake of saying to my stepfather Michael that I found Bewitched a compelling sitcom because even though they didn't get stoned and stuff, they were still cool because they had witchcraft and so they had, like, a secret that made them hip. I received an extended lecture over that dinner, beginning with the phrase, "Cornelia, some of my best friends don't get stoned."
It was that sense of a double life that hooked me on Alice, as hers was the only piece of writing available to me that understood it, delved into it, and, if it did not fully illuminate the schism, at least trumpeted its existence in no uncertain terms.
This was someone who would have gotten the joke of my grandparents in Oyster Bay buying me a pair of Bass Weejuns with tassels, to go with my newly-purchased kilt, for "school clothes." Or of my asking my other grandfather, the CIA admiral then on the board of Air America, what he thought of the Pentagon Papers over a luncheon of jellied consomme followed by peas and lamb chops.
He did not choose to comment on my choice of topic, but I ate in the kitchen with the cook for the remainder of the visit.
God knows there weren't a lot of kids my age who could have enjoyed musing with me about it all. For the rest of my classmates, singing a rousing verse of
Scienti-ists make it
Tea-ea-ea-chers take it
Why can't we? Why can't we?
was pretty much the acme of political consciousness.
"Goddamned stupid people," Alice would say, "I'd like to shove life down all their throats and then maybe they'd understand what it's all about."
And that's what I read her for, because you weren't going to get that clarity from Caddie Woodlawn or Ramona-the-Pest or even, God help her, Anne Frank--though I knew and loved them all.
Of course she was flawed, my Alice. She died, first off, and was stupid enough to mess around with too much acid, not to mention heroin. And then she could utter such patent idiocy as the following, about the guy for whom she's dealing at the high school and junior high:
Richie is so good, good, good to me and sex with him is like lightning and rainbows and springtime.... He's going into medicine, and I have to help him any way I can. It's going to be a long hard pull but we'll make it.... I think I won't go on to college. Dad will just curl up and die, but it's more important to me to work and help Rich. As soon as I'm out of high school I'll get a full time job and we'll settle down....
Even at eight I knew better than that, but of course Alice didn't grow up in a community of single mothers and boyfriends and stepdads and the child support checks that never came. I could have sat her down with my mom and some pals for a cup of coffee and knocked that lunacy right out of her head in about fifteen minutes, but poor Alice had "straight" parents, so she didn't know better and I had to cut her some slack.
Still today, she's the big sister I never had, though she was probably the pastiche of a snarky Williams guy at Prentice-Hall in real life, patched together from a few issues of Seventeen and some chick he sat next to at a Jefferson Airplane concert. I don't care. Alice is family--even if she doesn't live here anymore.
[DUDE, SERIOUSLY, GO CHECK OUT KILLER YEAR]
A Black Belt in Noir: Jim Thompson's Now and On Earth
I once had the pleasure of working for the author and editor Geoffrey O'Brien.
O'Brien's writings, including a seminal article on Jim Thompson which appeared in The Village Voice and his brilliant book Hardboiled America: Lurid Years of the Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir,
have a great deal to do with the resurgence of interest in Thompson, now widely considered the Grand Master of the pulp crime genre--the man with a black belt in noir.
I had been introduced to Thompson's work by my husband in the early days of our courtship. He was astonished I hadn't read such sublime books as The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280. Next to William Blake, Thompson is the author my Intrepid Spouse most reveres, and he immediately handed me his copy of The Criminal, saying "this guy is 'The Dimestore Dostoevsky'... you gotta check him out...."
It was some years and many Thompson books later that I was working as Geoffrey's assistant at The Reader's Catalog in New York. One day, as we were waiting for the elevator together and chatting about books, I mentioned Thompson. Geoffrey got that wonderful gleam in his eye which always accompanied his discovery that someone shared with him a literary passion, and he immediately began singing the praises of his favorites among Thompson's titles. When I interjected the "Dimestore Dostoevsky" phrase, though, he looked pleasantly shocked.
"Hey!" he said, "I wrote that!" and he began to tell me how his obsession with Thompson and the genre had grown to the point where he had very seriously considered writing the man's biography, which had not yet been done.
By this point, the elevator had arrived, and we were well on our way to lunch at the Broadway Diner. Over our tuna clubs, Geoffrey related to me how fascinating he found Thompson's life and work, especially such things as the fact that he'd written travelogues on the state of Oklahoma under the auspices of the Federal Writer's Project during the Depression. Ultimately, though, as he did more research, Geoffrey decided that a Thompson biography was not a project he wanted to take on.
"The more I found out about him, the less I could imagine spending two years or so concentrating on this guy's life," he said. "It was all so damn dark and depressing that I really couldn't take it. Just one tragedy after another... it was exhausting."
That night, I picked up our old copy of The Criminal, to find that the edition's afterword was written by Geoffrey, and titled, of course, "Jim Thompson, Dimestore Dostoevsky."
After reading Thompson's first novel, Now and on Earth, I returned to that essay of Geoffrey's, and find that I am all the more moved by his observations on Thompson's oevre.
"Jim Thompson," he begins,
breaks most of the rules of crime fiction, or indeed any kind of genre fiction. When we pick up a thriller--whether by Dorothy Sayers or Dashiell Hammett or Ian Fleming--we rely on an understated contract between writer and reader. We will enter a world parallel to our own but sealed off from it, and there undergo a vicarious experience which will terminate neatly in the last paragraph, sending us back through the revolving door of fiction as intact as we came in.
In Thompson's world, Geoffrey points out, you can't find that door.
By identifying with him--and Thompson's special gift is for making you do just that--you inherit his curse: a psychic hell which goes around and around without ever arriving anywhere.
And in none of Thompson's books is this more true than his first. Now and on Earth doesn't even give you the escape hatch of a kidnapping or a murder for psychic distance. You won't find, herein, a single jaded grifter or sullied oilman, swell-looking babe or twisted sheriff.
This is just some guy's life: the inexorable and excruciating petty hell of the everyday, the long dark dry heaves of the soul. As Anthony Quinn said so memorably in Zorba the Greek, "wife, house, children--everything--the full catastrophe."
Reading this book is like walking ten miles in shoes that not only don't fit, but are filled with wet sand. Oh yeah, and you're on your way to get a root canal.
Read the first line and you're immediately sucked into the head of Jim Dillon, depressed overworked tubercular alcoholic obsessive-compulsive aircraft factory worker and Okie, in Southern California's wartime boom economy.
For the next several hundred pages, through the endless travails of his pointless job and the agony that is his overcrowded family life, you join him in vomiting blood, drinking too much, not writing enough, vomiting coffee, washing your hands several dozen times a day, and agonizing over finding the money to pay for a sister's abortion, a daughter's doctor, a father's old age home, and dinner for the twelve jovial Portuguese tuna fishermen who suddenly show up on your doorstep, and to whom you owe a meal.
By the end of the book, nothing much has happened, but you're spat out on the edge of some distant shore, gasping and twitching like a poisoned fish. Naked Lunch is Dejeuner sur L'Herbe by comparison,
and Crime and Punishment a Disney musical.
Every moment is such agony for Dillon, you know it wouldn't matter whether he was describing a walk to the liquor store or what it felt like to be hit by a car:
Three months after Mack was born a doctor acquaintance of mine performed a vasectomy on me. It was around Christmas, and the only payment he exacted was ten fingers out of a quart of rye; in advance, yes. I think he must have served an apprenticeship at cutting out baseball covers, because I was going around in a sling for weeks afterward. But what I started to say was--to strike a parallel with my job--it drove me nuts without actually hurting at all. I was so shot full of local that he could have trimmed out my appendix without hurting me. But that snipping and slicing finally got me so bad that I raised up and whanged hell out of him, and he had to sit on my chest to finish.
Okay, so a vasectomy isn't anything to look forward to, but here's Dillon's take on seeing his beautiful wife naked in their tiny room:
I had seen her that way five thousand times, and now I saw her again. Saw her for the first time. And I felt the insane unaccountable hunger for her that I always had. Always, and always will.
And then I was in heaven and in hell at the same time. There was a time when I could drown myself in this ecstasy, and blot out what was to follow. But now the epigamic urgings travel beyond their periphery, kneading painfully around my heart and lungs and brain. A cloud surrounds me, a black mist, and I am smothered. And the horrors that are to come crowd close, observing, and I feel lewd and ashamed.
There is no beauty in it. It is ugly, despicable. For days I will be tortured, haunted, feeble, inarticulate.
Thompson sees everything through not rose-colored but faeces-smeared glasses, and the more you learn about him--from his pimping and coke-running as a thirteen-year-old bellboy to his first alcoholic breakdown and DTs at the tender age of 18--the more you're there on the ground with him, clenching your body against the next kidney punch. Such pain shouldn't happen. Thompson makes sure you know in your belly that it does, everywhere and all the time.
This is a man who once wrote 12 novels, including some of his best, in an 18-month period--or was that 18 in a year? Doesn't matter--it was undoubtedly gut-wrenching either way. This because of course Thompson himself was a depressed overworked tubercular alcoholic obsessive-compulsive sometime aircraft factory worker and full-time Okie, from the moment of his birth above a jail in Anadarko, Oklahoma, in 1906 to the moment he succeeded in starving himself to death in Los Angeles in 1977.
He just stopped eating, to save his family from medical bills. He'd been rendered mute by a series of strokes from which he never quite recovered, blind by cataracts, and was too painfully arthritic to hold a pen. That, of course, is not to mention the bleeding ulcers. At the time of his death, in an eerily Thompsonian touch, not a one of his books was in print in the United States.
Thompson once said "I was going to catch hell whatever I did. I might as well try to enjoy myself." Somehow, I doubt he succeeded in the enjoyment part, but there's no question at all about the hell.
[KILLER YEAR, TASTES GREAT, LESS FILLING...]
Jeeves Goes Global
Just plain wacky
I was probably a P.G. Wodehouse fanatic in utero--I can't remember when I didn't thrill to the call of the Woosters, and grin goofily over such passages as "In a world of beautiful things, it seems a pity that one has got to talk about Mr. Frisby's gastric juices, but it is the duty of the historian to see life steadily and see it whole," or "'O Christ!' exclaimed the profane Vicar, spattering an Orphrey with ill-considered ink."
The world of the Wodehouseophile, however, has depths of fanaticism seldom realized in even the most bizarre of Star Trek conventions, and has led to the publication of what is by far the strangest and most eccentric series of books I have ever tried to read.
Let me explain that my acquaintance with publishing oddities is both deep and wide. I own, for instance, Sean Connery's copy of The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk, by one L. Trotsky (Socialist Labor Press, Glasgow, first published 1919--and Connery lent it to my first stepfather's second wife). I am a proud collector of idiotic Sixties paperbacks, including A Child's Garden of Grass,
Go Ask Alice,
and Living on the Earth.
This last, a pre-Y2K DIY hippie handbook, by Alicia Bay Laurel, features hand-written instructions in brown ink on beige paper for everything from making your own kayaks, soap, Mexican peasant blouses, root cellar, and rat poison to how-tos on butchering deer, tuning an autoharp, baking bread in a coffee can, and home cremation ("make a pyre of wood, lay the body on top, pour on kerosene and lots of incense. Burning bodies don't smell so good).
Our mantelpiece even proudly sports seven volumes of the hideously jingoistic Boy Allies series, a sort of Hardy Boys of the Great War ("East and west, the German lines held, while in the Balkans the enemy was even now advancing against the heroic little Serbian Army, which, before many days, was to be forced to relinquish its country to the iron heel of the invader...").
None of these, however, is fit to lick the wildly eccentric boots of the multi-volume collection of the P.G. Wodehouse short story "The Great Sermon Handicap," if you ask me. But how, you may well wonder, does one publish a single short story (and certainly not one of Wodehouse's best) in multiple volumes? Simple. You foist it upon the world in several dozen languages, not least among them Esperanto, long Pidgen, Afrikaans, Schwyzerdeutsch, and Icelandic.
This wacky venture was the brainchild of James P. Heineman, one-man Wodehouse-fest and New York publisher. Heineman called me one day in New York years ago, to congratulate me on having included a recently re-released Wodehouse paperback in the quarterly bulletin of a book catalog I was then editing. He invited me to lunch at the Russian Tea Room, and brought along samples of his Wodehousian list, prominently featuring "The Great Sermon Handicap."
Heineman also publishes What's in Wodehouse, a compendium of word games, quizzes, and quotations culled from everything "Plum" ever penned, and Lord Emsworth's Pig, which attempts to reproduce the porciculture handbook of the Empress's owner. Yes, these are both weird enough in and of themselves to merit my ancient lunch partner's introduction to some of the bright young things down at Bellevue, kind and generous though he was, but it is "Great Sermon" which takes the fruitcake.
As I savored my red-caviar omelet, I perused the introduction to these works, in which Heineman writes:
Wodehouse is able to leap lightly over the social, economic, and political prejudices of his readers and to paint, wonderfully, the same picture for disparate people. Had he been a composer, his greatest gift might have been for variations on single themes. In book after book and short story after short story he uses the same venues, plots and cast of characters. Classical and popular music are rich with a fluidity of variations and improvisations on set themes. Reading Wodehouse is something like following a jam session of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations.
Whatever. I think the guy's just completely whacked. Still, these books continue to fascinate me, and many an evening I've pulled one or more down from the shelf just to savor the oddity of seeing the same phrase rendered in so many tongues. For instance:
"Jeeves," I said, wiping the brow and gasping like a stranded goldfish, "it's beastly hot."
becomes in French:
--Jeeves, dis-je, en m'epongeant le front et haletant comme un poisson rouge hors de son bocal, il fait affreusement chaud.
'Jevis,' I cryde, as I wipede my forhede and gapede lyk to a fissh that hath yleyn to longe in the shoppe, 'swich hete is verraily comen out of helle!'
"Dzhivs" zog ikh, zikh oysvishnik dem shtern un dekhnkdik, vi a goldfish af der yaboshe, "s'iz shreklech heys."
"Jeeves," mi diris frotante la vrovohn kaj oscedante kiel orfiso sur lat sablo, "estas terure varme."
and, of course, Pidgin:
"Jeeves" Mi toktok na klinim tuhat wantaim olsem hap pis wara i wasim na silip long nambis istap. "Ples i hat narakain tru ia."
Outside the pages of the Heineman series, it is true, Wodehouse has appeared in 19 languages, including 32 titles in Finnish, 70 in Swedish, 41 in German, and 54 in Spanish (including 11 in 1944 alone), plus one title each in Hindi, Japanese, Ukrainian, and Esperanto. And if you have read everything else there is on the subjects of Bertie Wooster and his gentleman's gentleman, or Aunt Agatha's cook, or Lord Emsworth's pig--the Empress of Blandings--you might want to give "The Great Sermon Handicap" a whirl.
As Heineman himself writes of his fellow Wodehousians,
Those favored people who have been bitten by the Wodehouse bug soon become incorrigible and incurable Wodehouse enthusiasts. If anyone so lacking in wisdom and sensitivity were to seek and publicly find a remedy to this addiction, he would, without doubt, be cashiered from the human race, and taken to await his fate before the Beak at the Bosher Street police station.
Heineman is correct, when he says that you can get a sense of the variety of languages represented here, by sheer contrast, and thus grasp some of the nuances of culture they convey.
To this end, he quotes Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who supposedly claimed that he spoke "French to my ministers, Italian to my lovers, Spanish to God, and to my horse I speak German." Mainly, though, this is a collection to be dipped into warily, on those long winter evenings when you want to contemplate the profound weirdness of the human condition.
Ultimately, however, if Heineman did not exist, Wodehouse would have been forced to invent him. And I love the man for wanting to reprint my Connery-Trotsky book, though I'm pretty sure he didn't get the joke.
[HAVE YOU CLICKED THROUGH TO KILLER YEAR YET? HOW DO YOU EXPECT TO HAVE YOUR PUDDING IF YOU DON'T READ YOUR KILLER YEAR?]