Friday, 11 April 2014

SURROUNDS (Montreal 1976): A Poem

I wrote this in Wiesbaden, Germany in April 1982, thinking about the lost but recent past . It was published in 1986 in Gil Ott's great magazine Paper Air (Philadelphia) and in 1993 in Tidepool (Hamilton, Ontario). I lived in Montreal from the summer of 1975 through December 1976, and oddly, from the first moment, whenever someone asked me where I was 'from' I would immediately reply 'Montreal'. 


                        (Montreal, 1976)

Outside, the whole mountain rises in silence.
Aimed at the East End, the cross shines on,
Sequined and secure. Below, only a few faces
Will remember to look up. I am climbing
The wooden stairs to the overlook while
The city glows, but does not burn.
Small pieces of the sky fall all around me.
A long time after I've reached the panorama,
I stare at heaven being patched with clouds.


I wrote a brief remembrance back in March of the boxing promoter Mickey Duff for the Guardian, where it ran two days ago. You can link to it here,  but here it is as written:

In the 1980s I dealt with many European boxing promoters on behalf of America's ABC Sports, and while Mickey Duff might not have been the easiest with whom to deal, he was the most entertaining. Virtually every negotiation went down to wire; I got Mickey to sign the contract for the McGuigan-Pedroza fight at Loftus Road while we sat at ringside during the preliminary bouts. Unlike many, once the deal was signed, Mickey was good to his word. He was also the only person who has ever accused me of telling the truth.

One summer I rang Mickey to see if a certain fighter might be able to fill an opening we had for a July programme. Mickey said his guy needed more time to prepare, but could I do August? I told him we had a date in August, but it was tentative and likely to be cancelled. When the August show was definitely off I rang Mickey out to courtesy to tell him. 'OK,' he told me. 'We'll take the July date'. 'We've already booked another fight,' I told him, and he exploded, asking how I could do that when I'd already offered it to him. 'Mickey,' I reminded him, 'you said your guy couldn't be ready.' 'Yes,' he replied, 'but I didn't know you were telling the truth'. I do miss the boxing world sometimes, and the boxing world will miss Mickey.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014


My discussion of Peter Matthiessen, following my obit of him for the Guardian (see the preceding post and follow the link to catch up) have generated quite a bit of comment (sadly, not on the blog itself). Most of it had two strands. One came from a few people who felt Matthiessen was not a great fiction writer, that travel and the natural world in non-fiction was his strength. I'm inclined to agree with them--I've always found his fiction a bit studied, perhaps too much influenced by the kind of awareness of American literary roots espoused by his second cousin (once removed) F.O. Matthiessen. It's tempting to see the Shadow Country
trilogy as marking a change in that.

The other point, made by many on the Guardian's comments page, as well as in email to me, was about the CIA link, and they ranged from the paranoid to an excellent comparison by my friend Michael Goldfarb to Norman Mailer's much underrated Harlot's Ghost. But Mailer's novel is less about the politics of the CIA as the old boy network, centered on Yale, that formed the early CIA. I have no doubt the CIA funded the Paris Review, as I implied in the obit, and I don't know what kind of spying Matthiessen did for the agency Keeping an eye on lefties in Paris seems innocuous enough, but of course that's the way Matthiessen would have wanted it to seem.

Robin Ramsey, the editor of Lobster, for whom I have written a number of pieces, forwarded me an article from Lobster 50, 'The Fiction Of The State' (you can find it at Lobster, here) which I either missed or don't recall. It's by Richard Cummings, who was a part of that circle in some ways, and is best known for a controversial biography of Allard Lowenstein, Pied Piper, which alleged that the anti-war Democratic congressman, head of Americans for Democratic Action, and an early critic of the official verdict in the Robert Kennedy assassination, had been a CIA agent (and a closeted gay). He was murdered in 1980 by a student he had befriended in the 60s. He was accused of using guilt by association to make his case--but has apparently confirmed his thesis with CIA files--and you'll seeassociation makes up a part of the basis of 'The Fiction Of The State' as well. Which is to be expected, because the whole business is about associations.

It's a fascinating, if  impressionistic, article (and a lot of the names would mean nothing to most of you reading it, but encapsulate the New York literary world of the 50s and 60s). It's interesting because anyone involved in that world remains captivated by it yet able to see themselves apart from it...which applies to Cummings every bit as much as to Matthiessen. The influence of this group resembles that of the British upper classes via Oxbridge. For example, Cummings' editor at Brazilier was Ned Chase. Ned's son is Chevy (like Wallace Shawn or Carly Simon, the entertainment world is littered with the children of  New York editors!). More importantly, people in big New York law firms, often Yalies themselves, were the core of the CIA.

But if Cummings is correct, and the CIA was seriously fighting communism by trying to control what writers wrote, or ensure that certain ideas got spread through magazines like The Paris Review or Encounter, it makes you wonder what they were thinking. Of course James Jesus Angleton edited a poetry magazine at Yale, and it's tempting to think he and the agency thought they could save the world from communism by simply improving on their undergraduate publications.

Cummings is believeable on the way Matthiessen forced out Harold Humes, (pictured right) and quotes two of Matthiessen's wives as confirming the wider extent of Matthiessen's CIA work--Cummings believes his book about the CIA's covert war against Ethiopa, and his Lowenstein book, were both victims of CIA plots initiated by Matthiesen. Yet in reinforces the idea that all this energy might have been better directed elsewhere, and it speaks to the essential banality of the authoritarian mindset which is behind intelligence, working as an arm protective of corporate interest.

There's so much gossip, who married whom or had affairs with whom or got their money from whom that Cummings becomes very hard to follow. But what I find most interesting isn't Matthiessen or Plimpton as much as the idea the CIA thought Clement Greenberg was in the front line against communism, which basically validates the thesis of Serge Guibault's book How New York Stole The Idea Of Modern Art. I'd always thought Guibault over stated his case, and certainly fails to give enough credit to the art where it's do, but if Cummings is right, Guibault if anything understates his case.

Basically, though, the CIA seems to have wasted a lot of money in terms of political gain. On the other hand, their artistic judgement seems better than, say, the National Endowment for the Arts, or the Arts Council. So maybe their mission statement and budget ought to be adjusted?

Sunday, 6 April 2014


My obituary of the writer Peter Matthiessen is up at the Guardian's website now. You can link to it here, and it should be in the paper paper soon. I wrote it quickly, to a flexible word length. A few things were cut out, and some explanations added it, but mostly it is as I wrote it.

The most extensive loss was my second graf:
No less than his work, Matthiessen's life embodied the nature of opposites beloved in the Zen Buddhist philosophy he practised. Beyond the dichotomy of fiction and fiction, Matthiessen was able to found the pre-eminent literary journal, The Paris Review, while working for the CIA. And his journey to radical politics and alternative life-style never saw him abandon the elite New York society from which he came, right down to living in the smart east end of Long Island.
I felt the point about the Zen nature of his life was an important one to make, particularly because his final novel seemed so strongly to encompass opposites. And though some of the specifics are covered later in the obit (hence the cut) I actually would have liked to take a little more time to explore the contradictions in his atrician New York life style and his earthy proto-hippie explorer quality. It was something that is very American upper-class--another small item cut was my mention that while at Hotchkiss he withdrew his name from the family's listing in the Social Register; yet proceeded on to Yale, and continued to live the life-style of the elite. I also mentioned that he'd been at school with George Plimpton, a fellow founder of the Paris Review, and a close copy of Matthiessen, right down to writing for Sports Illustrated--Plimpton explored professional sports the way Matthiessen explored the natural world. They were both elegant in that strong patrician way, the kind of men who wear seersucker that never wrinkles. Perhaps my interest reflects all the time I have spent in this country!You can seen the connection when people compare those Americans to the same sort of English, more prevalent in the pre-Thatcher years than now, a sort of transcontinental Oxbridge centered on America's prep (ie: British 'public') schools and our Oxbridge of Yale and Harvard. Of course, if America were Britain, Matthiessen would have probably been presenting wildlife programmes, a la David Attenborough.

These were the men recruited for the CIA in its early days, and although the taint of having spied on his fellow expats never seemed to stick to Matthiessen, it was interesting the way he always moved to distance his magazine from his own work. Yet anyone following the funding dispersed by the CIA in that period could hardly doubt that some of it must have made its way to the Paris Review. The question inflames some people, like Elia Kazan informing on fellow-travelers, yet here it doesn't quite makes its way into Philby territory, perhaps another difference between the American faux-aristocracy and the British.

That life style is interesting too because Matthiessen's house on Long Island was a meeting place for New York's literary world, which was a potent mixture of WASPy upper crust and urban immigrant-types, mostly Jews. Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, if you please. From this mix emerged the bright world of post-war American fiction. I seem to recall reading an Esquire piece about a highly competitive softball game organised out there, but I couldn't dig up the reference.

Mathiessen was quite funny about the way Timothy Leary ruined the world of LSD for everyone, by making such a fuss the government was almost forced to make it illegal. I wanted to include Matthiessen's take on Leary, but didn't; in the end, the single mention of him went too. His trip to New Guinea in 1961, which became Under The Mountain Wall, was made with Michael Rockefeller, who later would disappear, and appears to have been killed and eaten by cannibals.

I found it interesting too that his father was awarded an OBE for his camouflage designs for merchant convoys during the war (that was cut) and that his father's cousin was F.O. Matthiessen, the legendary professor of American Studies at Harvard, whose book, American Renaissance, was one of the first and still one of the classic looks at the great writers who seem to have in part inspired Matthiessen's fiction (I didn't have space for that rumination!). The Watson trilogy might be compared to Melville or Twain, you could also mention Faulkner, Harry Crews, Cormac McCarthy, or James Carlos Blake.

But the important thing was Matthiessen's writing, and trying to explain the nature of its appeal, both to the most intense literary types and to casual readers of travel, exploration, and nature. A few British comparisons occur to me now, but although many are elegant, they are more concerned with the phenomenology of travel, not the dissection of the spirit of the natural world. In this, Peter Matthiessen was one of a kind.

Saturday, 5 April 2014


The human voice has the power to make your spine tingle, and mine tingled a couple of times watching 20 Feet From Stardom. It wasn't just the singing itself, though that was fantastic, but also the switch flipped by memory, as the emotional impact of some of the wonderful, miraculous songs of my youth brought back with them the sense of freedom and promise they offered. As Darlene Love's voice sang Da Doo Ron Ron, the magic of her voice transported me, and the impact was all the more moving when you realise their music was affecting, and does affect, those incredible back-up singers in the same way.

The feeling was very much the same as when I saw Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (link here to what I wrote in 2009) a very similar story of the overlooked musicians behind so many hits. That movie was fuelled by the same transformative nostalgia, and by the sort of deliverance that seeing these talents recognised formally, on the larger stage, brought. But the impact of voice transcends even the Funk Brothers; Joan Osborne, talented as she is, could not match Martha Reeves' vocals in that film; and few could match the talents of Love, Merry Clayton, or Lisa Fischer in this one.

Fischer, for me, was the revelation. Most of us know Darlene Love, knew that she sang the Crystals' hits without credit, knew the details. Many of us were aware of Merry Clayton's vocals on Gimme Shelter, but it was Claudia Lennear, from the Ikettes, who then toured with the Stones. I suspect there is a sense that, first, her vocals were diminished in the public eye by her looks, by her obvious attraction to Mick Jagger. Indeed, it's hard not to grin along as you see the dissolute Mick grin as he recalls those days. Until you listen again, and hear, isolated, Merry singing 'rape,'s just a shot away', and you remember Altamont, and the way things changed, and how untouched their Satanic majesties seemed to be.

And I sense that the amazing things Lisa Fischer has done on tour with the Stones for the past twenty years of their Satanic dotage may be overlooked as well, because the place of the woman back-up singer in that band is the epitome of the problem of, not the solution to, anonymity, and because many of us pay little attention to the endless rivival tours. Lennear is fascinating because she is now a teacher (the only one of the singers interviewed who is not still in the business) and seems unique in her lack of desire for a solo caree. Because otherwise, that inability to make the jump to stardom, the jump across that twenty feet to the solo mike, is the theme of the film.

Looks are part of the equation, of course (Lennear actually blushes when reminded that, at her peak,

she posed for Playboy), and Tata Vega is blunt in pointing out her 'shortcomings'. Footage of Tina Turner and the Ikettes (with Ike in his Beatle wig pimp-playing behind) reminded me of watching them perform Proud Mary on TV, and looking up to see my father in the doorway, his head bobbing in rhythm with the Ikettes steam-wheel bouncing. 'They sing good,' was his verdict.

But it goes beyond that. Love, who had the looks, had her career stalled perversely by Phil Spector, both at the start, when he kept her anonymous (though why the Blossoms, who stunned us on Shindig every week, never made it bigger is a huge wonder) and later, when he bought her contract back from Gamble & Huff and buried her a second time for reasons that are never even hinted at.  Love gave up music, cleaned houses, until the sheer pain of the emptiness that came from not using her God-given gifts brought her back/

Bruce Springsteen, whose interviews are passionate and thoughtful, makes a key point. Solo singers, he explains, need a lot of help to get things right: producers, A&R people to choose material, arrangers, publicity. Think of the whole Mike Appel/Jon Landau business in his career. Everything needs to be in sync and the singer has to be willing to make the efforts and sacrifices required.

The obvious corollary to this isn't explored by the film but it's a simple point: the backup singers of that era, who came up through soul and R&B music, and then were brought into rock primarily by British acts who wanted that sound, were in a position to make solo breakthroughs precisely at the time when rock music moved to the singer-songwriter formula, or singer-player if you were someone like Bonnie Raitt. The film reinforces this dilemma, unconsciously, when Merry Clayton sings 'Southern Man', giving Neil Young's angry song a hugely intensified power and force. But I found myself thinking,as thrilling as it is, it might be a hard sell to the wider audience, and it's difficult to be able to reinterpret whole albums full of material so impressively.

Along the way the point is made that today's talent contest 'reality' TV shows encourage singers who can belt out the notes but don't have the feel, and they are transformed into stars. This, I assume, is why Judith Hill appears—the only member of a 'younger' generation, Hill had already sung with Michael Jackson and launched a solo career when she took part in a 'reality' show called The Voice. We see Hill at the piano, working on her own songs, but I couldn't help but wonder if she was there to draw in a younger audience that watches their singers in Simon Cowell World.

Not that it makes a difference. The music, as it should triumphs in the end, and along with it the undiminished spirit of these singers. Watching the Waters sitting around a table, and Oren's unbridled enthusiasm as he speaks, just like when they sing, simply compels you to match his smile. For those of us of a certain age, the breakthrough of music in the 1960s was not just a cultural rebellion, it was an expression of freedom and change. The idea that such freedom could often run aground on the rocks of cultural (and business) reality, is sad. The beauty of this music appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show was the way it tore the programme itself apart. And now we are back in a world of Ted Mack Amateur Hour, only it feeds directly into the musical mainstream. Which is why watching Darlene Love and Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer sent chills up my spine. And hearing them sing reminds me of what being human is all about. Da Doo Ron Ron.

Monday, 31 March 2014


There's a phenomenon that affects the way you look at media, which I call Lesson of Individual Knowledge. Specifically, LIK applies when someone writes about something about which you have first-hand, detailed, in-depth knowledge. I learned to apply it when I worked at UPITN, and we became the subject of news reports about the influence of South Africa's Bureau of State Security (BOSS) on our own bosses. Then I read an analysis of it in The Nation, which got so much so wrong I resolved to question as much as possible everything else I read.

I've never warmed to Dave Eggers. Every photo I've seen, or interview I've watched, strikes me as being imbued with a heartbreaking smugness of staggering intensity. This was the case with the photo that accompanied his long-form essay in Saturday's Guardian Review section, in which he travels from New York City to the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut to see a Jefferson Starship rivival band. It's a wandering  piece in which Eggers demonstrates a remarkably inclusive sense of ambiguity. For example, at one point he says 'you should know that I love casinos and have loved them since first seeing Reno in 1993'. Which is innocuous enough except that he began the previous paragraph by saying 'I did not know then, and still don't know, much about casinos'. Except that he loves them!

He also doesn't seem to know much about geography, at least Connecticut's geography. This is where LIK comes in, because I happen to come from the great Nutmeg state. Eggers opens the piece describing how he is driving from New York to Mohegan Sun in 'central Connecticut', and in the next graf describes it as being 'in the middle of one of the oldest states in the union'.

Connecticut is the fifth oldest, to be precise, but I wonder how Eggers defines 'central' or 'middle'? Because Mohegan Sun is located in Uncasville, Connecticut. As it happens Uncas was a 17th century Mohegan sachem whose name was borrowed by James Fenimore Cooper for the son of Chingachgook, who was his fictional Last of the Mohicans. Given the amount of space Eggers dedicates to tracing the history of the Mohegans and their relation to the colonists and US government, it's odd Uncasville never even gets a mention. Beyond that, however, LIK was sending up warning flares to me, because if Eggers can't even get the location where he is right, how can you trust him with anything else?

Now, if YOU can't find Uncasville on a map, that's because it's actually part of the town of Montville, so I found a map for you that marks it on its own. Found it? If you looked in the center, or the middle, of the state you didn't. Uncasville is located on the west bank of the Thames River, about 15 miles from the shoreline that marks the state's southern boundary, and maybe 20 from the border with Rhode Island, Connecticut's eastern boundary. In other words, it is in the southeastern corner of the state--nowhere near either the center or the middle.

Indeed, later Eggers talks about his drive from New York 'up I-95 to Central Connecticut.' I can see why a New Yorker would say 'up' I (for Interstate) 95, but if he'd been looking out the window he might have noticed that, in fact, I-95 runs west-east through Connecticut, parallel to the southern coast, and for much of the time the waters of Long Island Sound are easily visible from the road. In other words, it runs along the state's southern border, not heading anywhere near either central Connecticut or the middle of the state. For that you need to turn left onto I-91 in New Haven, and head for, uh, Middletown?

So if Eggers has been staring too long at Saul Steinberg's cartoon of the world beyond Manhattan, or if perhaps he thinks the middle of Connecticut is redolent of middle America, more power to him. After all he is a self-proclaimed genius. He should realise, however, how lucky he is that literary types don't give writers the kind of nicknames sports people get bestowed. Cause his nickname would surely be Ham-and Eggers. If not Hammond, as in the atlas.

Sunday, 30 March 2014


If you want (you surely don't need!) an example of what made Elmore Leonard such a great writer, turn now to his 2009 novel Road Dogs. Leonard, who by this time was in his mid-80s, brought back bank robber Jack Foley, star of Out Of Sight (1996), and teamed him up in prison with marielito Cundo Rey, last seen getting shot by Joe LaBrava in 1983's La Brava (which won an Edgar for best novel). Foley and Rey are prison 'road dogs', looking out for each other, and after Rey's lawyer gets Foley's 30 year stretch reduced, he sends Foley out to LA, where he's got two houses in Venice, a Cuban silent partner looking after them, and a psychic girl friend named Dawn Navarro, whom we last saw in Riding The Rap (1995).That last was a sequel to Pronto, and you can read here what I wrote about that, in tribute soon after Leonard died.

You'd look at the set-up of Road Dogs and you might accuse many others writers of being lazy, and trying to take advantage of established characters—in this case especially Foley, about whom it is admittedly difficult to read without seeing George Clooney step out from the excellent film version of Out Of Sight. But I wonder if, given he produced Riding The Rap and Out Of Sight back to back, if something hadn't clicked in the back of Leonard's mind, thinking Jack and Dawn ought to encounter each other at some point. After all, there's more than a little Raylan Givens in Foley's adherence to a strong, if flexible, moral code.

But there is nothing lazy about this novel, and that's because of the way Leonard works. 'Character is action,' as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, and what Leonard does is establish characters and then let them interact, and where his phenomenal story-telling ability lies is in his understanding of his characters and his willingness to let the story go where they lead. Which means this tale of double-cross and potential double-cross moves quickly and smoothly through a pretzel configuration of possibility. It's made more interesting by Leonard's omnipresent internal narration—he gets inside each character and lets you know what they're thinking. People concentrate on dialogue, and Leonard owed a lot, for example, to George V Higgins. But where Higgins would clue you in by making you follow what the characters were saying, Leonard is willing to let you follow what they are thinking, and see how that's reflected (or not) by what they're saying.

The freedom he gives his characters means there are one or two surprises along the way, and the confrontations that materialise are not necessarily the ones you are expecting, but that's what makes the novel work so well. Like the best of Leonard's writing, it's compulsive, and you feel that in writing it, Leonard wanted to know what was going to happen just as much as you do reading it. An object lesson....

Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard
Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2009, £18.99, ISBN 9780297856702

Friday, 28 March 2014


I write a weekly column for during the American football season, called Friday Morning Tight End, a play on Peter King's Sports Illustrated Monday Morning Quarterback and Gregg Easterbrook's ESPN Tuesday Morning Quarterback cols. In the offseason, it becomes Friday Monthly Tight End, and this month's column takes off from one I wrote for the online magazine Gridiron, about the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks' and their defense. If you're interested, you can link here to my pick of the top 10 defenses of all time.

Thursday, 27 March 2014


My obituary of Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel who headed the Iran-Contra investigation, is up at the Guardian online (link to it here) and should be in the paper paper tomorrow. It was difficult to write in the sense that the details and scope of Iran-Contra needed to be explained, and that required much of the space allotted to him. So there are a few points to make here.

It's important to remember that Walsh was about to turn 75 when he accepted the post of independent counsel, and led the investigation for six years; he then spent another three writing his book, Firewall. His energy and persistence belied his age, but he also was the victim of his own respect for the law, and his unwillingness to play political games. He understood that his best chance of success came if he could avoid the pratfalls of the Congressional committees, whose blanket granting of immunity hamstrung his own investigation from the start.

George Bush avoided Iran Contra becoming a campaign issue in 1992--you can easily find Bill Clinton expressing his amazement that his own draft status or trip to Moscow were burning issues, while Bush's participation in Iran-Contra was a non-starters. And when Bush's Christmas Eve pardons finally threw the monkey wrench into Walsh's efforts, his denouncing of a cover-up was long overdue. He also showed remarkable restrain in the face of massive criticism from a press corp uninterested in pursuing the Reagan administration's criminality, not just on Iran-Contra, but more members of Reagan's government were convicted of crimes that in any admistration's since Warren Hardings. And now, of course, we have to endure the retrospective sticking of Reagan's mug on a metaphoric Mount Rushmore.

Firewall is a powerful book, if so prodigiously detailed it riks losing the reader. It pulls no punches on the participation of everyone from Reagan on downward in illegal activites, and then in multiple perjuries and obstructions of justice. Walsh is scathing about the phony patriotism and bragadoccio of the Oliver Norths, and of the self-enrichment programme of many of those involved, from Albert Hakim to North himself.

It surprised me that he never delves into the Reagan October Surprise, the deal made with Iran to hold the Tehran hostages until after the 1980 Presidential elections, because many of the same people, including Reagan, Bush, and CIA director William Casey, were key players in both, and since the Surprise so clearly established the pattern followed in Iran-Contra.

And in one very interesting irony--the federal panel of judges who overturned Walsh's original convictions and hammered home another plank of the coverup, included David Sentelle, the Jesse Helms protege who would later be instrumental in manipulating the change in independent counsel that brought Kenneth Starr in to investigate Clinton. That caricature of the process finally saw the independent counsel post abolished.

Both the New York Times and Washington Post compared Walsh to one of the elite New York lawyers in Louis Auchincloss's novels, which would mean  little to audiences here, and with his lean patrician frame, classic suits, and swept back gray hair he certainly looked the part. But he was just enough of an outsider not to bend the game to the hidden rules of the club--perhaps the Dewey years had taught him that. Walsh joked that he was one of a number of Dewey's Boy Scouts who, despite their names, turned out not to be the ruthless Irish-Catholic lawyers he was expecting.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014


The English relationship with Raymond Chandler differs from the American. Their perception of Chandler as the English schoolboy he was gives him a certain claim to literary cache that is open to few Yanks. At the same time, it consigns him to the borders of a ghetto from which very few writers escape. Philip Marlowe is, in these terms, a borderline figure himself: not quite as 'intellectual' as, say, a Morse (despite Marlowe's name there's no poetry, no opera in his life, only chess) and his cases are not cleverly constructed crossword puzzles (see my essay on the Guardian's Telegraph Crossword Theory of Crime Fiction here). It was nearly 70 years ago Chandler himself debunked such ideas in a famous essay in the Atlantic Monthly, and now here we are with a Chandler sequel written by the estimable John Banville, using his slightly less estimable Benjamin Black persona. It is as if Chandler is still being lifted to the heights of a serious novelist, but at the same time being held back from them; a very clever way of having your cake crime beating it too.

Because of the first-person narration it is always difficult to separate Marlowe and Chandler, but Banville is if anything better on the former. His tone is very close to Chandler's, his use of metaphor and simile much more restrained than some of the neo-Marlowe's who came along in Seventies, often wafting in on clouds of purple metaphor. In some ways, the tone seems closer to Ross MacDonald's than Chandler's, a little less showy, less self-conscious but more reflective. It flows well, and it should hook even the most discerning Chandler fan very quickly.

It's also a very knowing pastiche, recalling key moments or settings from a number of Marlowe novels (and films), including the detective taking a Mickey Finn, and the inevitable scenes at the private club which hides many secrets. Clare Cavendish, the black-eyed blonde of the title, is a quintessential Chandlerian femme fatale, and as he delves deeper into the mystery he's been hired to solve, and the bigger real mystery that sits behind it, Marlowe finds himself in that classic noirish dilemma, of wanting what you know will be wrong for you, and overcoming your resistance to self harm.

But this is where Banville's Marlowe seems a little bit off. It starts with the situation; this story takes place after Marlowe and Linda Loring have, what? established a relationship, but Marlowe falls for Clare like a bozo out of a noir movie. He lacks the intrinsic suspicion and distrust of women that Chandler's Marlowe has, and seems more in schoolboy awe of them, as Chandler's English schoolboy probably was. It's not just that he's closer to the Bogart of the early stages of The Big Sleep than to Marlowe; he's actually closer to Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon. At one point he worries, 'before I'd ruined everything', which sounds more like a high school boy's worries than a lonely private dick's.

A couple of moments jarred me. One was when Clare mentions a 'Pascalian wager' and Marlowe asks 'who's Pascal'. Perhaps I missed some irony there, because I'd assume Marlowe would know of Pascal, and his asking 'who' suggests he does. Maybe it's a British thing. So is describing a poured drink as a 'generous measure', something I've only ever heard Brits use. Yanks tend not to measure their booze, especially in detective novels. 

Banville's finale is another thing that will probably be more fun to those who know their Marlowe well. It brings back one of the key Marlowe characters, but if anything the final scenes are underwritten and anti-climactic; Terry Lennox is here and gone too quickly, the gathering is like one of those drawing room scenes in a cozy mystery where everything will be made clear, and comes complete with a little theatrical humour. And then there's the famous Chandlerian guy with a gun his hand walking into the room. I don't wish to add more spoiler than I have, because I liked the book enough to recommend, and enough to think it could have been better. In an odd way, he gets the feel of Chandler's prose better than, say Robert B

Parker's Marlowe, but Parker got the feel for the story better. Banville's produced the better novel, but it doesn't stand with Chandler's best, whether you judge by the crossword puzzle rules, the literary ones, or indeed Chandler's own.

The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black
Macmillan/Mantle, £16.99 ISBN 9781447236689

note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (

Friday, 14 March 2014


Google inform me that this is the 700th post I have made to Irresistible Targets since I posted the first in July 2008. I reckon that's three-quarters of a million words, and since I have just passed my birthday (as you will have noticed if you're paying attention) I am inevitably contemplating the efficacy of sharing so much writing when I have a living to earn, and when the marketplace in which to earn it is contracting remarkably quickly.

Google also tell me IT has had 270,000 visitors, which works out to just under 400 per post. On the one hand, it is nice to reach that many people, if I am indeed reaching them/you consistently. On the other, given that I have just shy of 300 facebook friends and 15,800 twitter followers, 400 is not all that impressive.

Of course, what's happened with this blog is that I have been writing fewer entries, but more of them have been longer-form essays rather than brief reviews or thoughts in passing--the kinds of things I would have been offering and usually selling five years ago. I look at the blog and wonder about cause and effect.

So tell me whether you would feel a sense of loss were IT to go into the kind of limbo my art blog Untitled Perspectives seems to have done, or my original general blog idea, ...And Over Here, did very quickly. Or if you want to publish me, you let me know that too!

Thursday, 13 March 2014


Yesterday was Jack Kerouac's birthday, and mine, which makes his easy to remember. He would have been 92, had he not drunk himself to death at the age of 47. Last week I went on BBC Radio 4's Front Row, to discuss with host John Wilson Kerouac's newly-published novella The Haunted Life, written in 1944 and long thought lost in a taxicab, which was published that day by Penguin. Personally, I would have set the 12th for the publication date, but maybe that's why I'm not in marketing. You can access the discussion via IPlayer here; we begin about 23 minutes into the programme, just after Johnny Cash. The discussion is good, but time was limited, so I thought I'd add a few things here.

First some background to the book. The MS was sold at auction in 2002. Reading between the lines in the introduction by Todd Tietchen, a professor at Umass-Lowell, one can assume that the MS was left behind by Kerouac in Allen Ginsberg's Columbia dorm room, and put up for sale after Ginsberg's death by his partner Peter Orlovsky or his heirs, after the On The Road scroll sold to Jim Irsay for nearly $2.5 million. It's not the first 'lost' MS to be published recently; in 2011 another, slightly earlier novella, The Sea Is My Brother, was issued as an e-book.

1944 was the year he met Ginsberg, the year of the killing of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr (see the film Kill Your Darlings, which I also discussed with John on Front Row), and Kerouac's jailing as an accessory; he married his first wife, in essence, to make bail. The run-up to those events is interesting. Kerouac was already a year older than many freshmen when he entered Columbia; he had done a post-graduate year of high school at Horace Mann to get his grades up. He broke his leg playing freshman football, and when he came back his sophomore year, he couldn't get along with coach Lou Little. In 1942 he left Columbia to join the Merchant Marine; completing only one voyage to Greenland before quitting. A few months later, his ship was sunk by the Germans, with many of his shipmates lost. In 1943 he joined the Navy, but lasted less than two weeks before being discharged on psychiatric grounds. He was described as 'restless, apathetic, seclusive', and the shrinks described his 'auditory hallucinations, ideas of reference and suicide, and a rambling grandiose philosophical manner'.

Which is a pretty good description of The Haunted Life. It's very much a piece of juvenilia, which seems surprising when you consider Kerouac was already 22 when he wrote it, and had at least second-hand experience of war. You can see loss in the shadows behind this book; he is already writing about friends dead in the war. But both of these lost novellas may be seen as rehearsals for Kerouac's first published novel, which became The Town And The City—a working out of the characters and situations, and, as the introduction shows, of Kerouac's plan to use those people to reflect the changing of the times. It was all modelled on The Brothers Karamazov.

He never is able to hang such grand plans on his story, instead his main character, Peter Martin, is mostly there to show his and Kerouac's influences, very much a Stephen Daedalus figure. He is both a would-be writer, with a hugely romantic idea of being a writer. Mostly this is expressed through lists and descriptions of those he admires, like William Saroyan or the now-forgotten Albert Halper. Martin, like Kerouac he is also an athlete—not a football player but a runner (although he smokes incessantly, obviously not in training). He is a dreamer, and it is his brother who has already left Galloway (the stand in for Lowell) and gone to see; it is a friend who has the dreams of enlisting and/or traveling.

This is something that indicates the conflict between the tough persona of Kerouac the French-Canadian jock from Lowell, with the reactionary and hard father, and Kerouac the sensitive poet with the adoring mother. You can see it in his naval enlistment photo, and it's always been something that's made Kerouac hard for actors to get. You don't need to look like Allen Ginsberg to play him, but with Kerouac you need that physicality along with the brooding. Jack Huston absolutely misses this in Kill Your Darlings (and he can't even throw a football); Sam Riley's far too fragile in On The Road, and John Heard gets the insecurity but not the bruised toughness, and pales before Nick Nolte's Neal Cassady in Heart Beat, which is kind of where they went in life too.

The force behind The Haunted Life, and The Town And The City, is clearly Thomas Wolfe, and you can see in moments of Wolfe's breathlessness the beginnings of the stream of consciousness that would become On The Road. For all the importance of the meeting of minds between Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Carr at Columbia, none of them ever really adhered to the principals of 'The New Vision', their early manifesto. Indeed both Ginsberg and Kerouac worked their way through older models (Whitman and Wolfe) quite plainly, and driven primarily by the mix of personalities.

As you read the Peter Martin of The Haunted Life, you cannot help but recall the Peter Martin of The Town And The City, and remember that that novel ends with Martin putting on a leather jacket and going On The Road. He's like a working-class Holden Caufield, almost as passive to life's struggles, except he can actually take the decision to hit the road. You see a bit of Caulfield in Peter Martin, but Sal Paradise has transcended that. There's an unintentionally hilarious line in the introduction, where Tietchen comments that On The Road was the 'perfect accompaniment' to the Federal Highway Act of 1956, through which Eisenhower built the Intertstate Highway system. But of course, beyond the unlikely vision of Ike reading On The Road, nothing could be further from the Kerouac experience than the hitch on the free-flowing emptiness of I-whatever. I once considered that point while hitching from Montreal to Cape Cod, just as I-93 was crossing into Massachusetts.

Kerouac's personal problem was the first, apprentice novel would not be published finally until 1950, and On The Road would take seven more years to see print, by which time Kerouac was 35 years old, no longer a young rebel, and ill-prepared to be shot to mainstream stardom. And in reaction, where Cassady moved on into the hippie and acid era with the Grateful Dead and Tom (not Thomas) Wolfe, Kerouac retreated, as it were, into the personality of his father.

Which is why the last three pages of this novella, beautifully written, are so touching. Peter and his father have hit their point of political agreement, on the value of the working man, la pauvre peuple, the French-Canadian father's good if narrow side. Peter goes to his room, and lights his pipe (a teenaged track star) and looks out his window as 'a tender shroud was being lowered on this life'. I read 'this life' as being the comfort of the world he knows and the world to which he aspires, which stretches well beyond that comfortable cocoon. 'With the darkness, and with the smell and feel of it, would come the old sounds of the suburban American summer's night...a boy's special nighttime cry and the cool swishing song of the trees: a music sweeter than anything else in the world, a music that can be seen—profusely green, leaf on leaf atremble—and a music that can be smelled, clover fresh, somehow sharp, and supremely rich.'

That is the foretaste of Kerouac at his best. Happy Birthday.